Price is Right

Manager Above Replacement

Well, we’ve finally shuffled off this mortal coil called Spring Training. George Harrison, who just happens to be one of manager Bryan Price’s favorite musicians, once said, “…it seems as if winter in England goes on forever. By the time spring comes, you really deserve it. ” The late Beatle’s winter lament prompted him to ensconce himself in Eric Clapton’s house and create the lyrics to a certain song that lives in the pantheon of Fab Four discography.

Now, the undiscovered country of a new season awaits as we begin another journey down Route 162 and hopefully, beyond. This winter of our discontent has led to CSI-worthy forensics performed by interested onlookers of all stripes—from the moment the season ended at PNC Park in a fan black out that presaged our fade-to-black 2013 season—to today. We’ve scrutinized the reports that “somebody” wanted Brandon Phillips gone, waited on tenterhooks for Brett Gardner or Grady Sizemore to deliver us from a dystopian off-season of minor moves. We’ve played doctor with the shoulders of Ryan Ludwick and Sean Marshall, then played accountant with the long-term contract given to Homer Bailey. What we haven’t done is take a critical look at what might just be the most important move of the off-season: the ascendency of Bryan Price to the throne.

There are no advanced metrics for evaluating managers. Nevertheless, articles have been written. Front offices have been polled. And depending upon who you believe, a manager—if he does everything right: summons the right relievers in high-leverage situations, constructs the right lineups, calls for the sac bunt at only the optimal moments, sends the runners precisely when the stars align—that manager is worth anything from 2 to 10 wins.

Ten wins. Imagine having a manager worth Mike Trout? Ten wins may be a bit much, so let’s take the middle of the road here and buy into a value of six wins. That’s 2013 Joey Votto-type value. As a Reds fan, I want some of that.

And yet this only scratches the surface of the managerial value debate in major league baseball in 2014. No matter how smart your manager is, it’s getting harder and harder to outsmart the opposition. Once upon a time, it was the Oakland A’s alone on an island, leading the charge, to the chagrin of other GMs, finding inefficiencies and exploiting them. Then, a few teams began matching their big wallets with big data, as well. Theo Epstein and the Red Sox. The Yankees. Teams with small payrolls have gotten in on the action, too. Nobody is going to outthink the Batman and Robin of advanced metrics today—Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon. Even teams known for their old school, luddite ways have reversed course and ceded to the inevitable. The Astros hired Jeff Luhnow. The Cubs have a guy named Epstein at the helm. And even traditionalist old dog Clint Hurdle has shown he has learned some new tricks.

So, given all that, let’s take that middle of the road guess that a manager is worth six wins and cut it once more in half and come to the conclusion that a manager with all the right moves is worth three wins over the course of the Big 162.

Are we there yet?

Not quite.

What about the decisions a manager gets wrong? The sub-optimal moves that aren’t a product of the bigger brain or the hipster glasses worn in the other duguout, but are the result of skippers who never left the 1970s?

Which brings me to guy named Phil Birnbaum and his smart and savvy analysis of the value of simply not getting it wrong:

“If it’s true that sabermetrics helps teams win, I’d bet that at most of the benefit comes from the “negative” side: having a framework that flags bad decisions before they get made.”

Which brings me back to Bryan Price. It was easy to miss amid all the noise surrounding the injuries, the trades not made and the mountain of ink given to projecting the pluses of Billy Hamilton’s game vs. the minuses of everything lost when Shin-Soo Choo chose to take his talents to Texas.

Price first calmed our fears that he would listen to Marty and Walt and demand that Joey go against his better nature:

“My feeling about Joey is that I think it’s been mentioned, yeah, he needs to extend the plate to drive in runs.  And I don’t believe that.”

Despite Marty Brennaman’s opinion that we would see Joey swinging at more pitches in the strike zone, Votto explicitly told Lance McAlister that at the risk of “popping” a few people’s heads, he would likely be more selective than he was last year. It’s also not a stretch to believe that contrary to last year, Joey’s teammates might just have the tacit approval of Price to watch and learn from Votto’s example.

More defensive shifts are in the offing. That’s smart.

More taking of the extra base is coming to a third base coach near you. That’s smart.

Most importantly, I don’t see foolish decisions made over and over this season.

“I said that in pitching, and it’s the same with setting the lineup and defensive shifts.  We have an awful lot of data.”

I don’t see Bryan Price leaving games to hang in the balance by saving his best reliever for an inning that never comes.

I don’t see Bryan Price handling J.J. Hoover the way he was handled last year, overworking him out of the gate.

I don’t see Bryan Price throwing Sean Marshall out there immediately in a high-leverage situation with men on base his first day off the DL, the way another manager handled Bill Bray a couple of years ago.

I don’t see Bryan Price playing for one run often in the first three innings of the game.

Price has talked about valuing not only every game, but every inning, every at bat, every moment where decisions get made. It reminds me of Nick Saban’s championship approach. He instructs his players to never look at the scoreboard. To concentrate only on the next play, the next chore, the responsibility of the moment. Pro golfers call it “grinding.” Bryan Price calls it “accountability.”

It’s why I think Bryan Price is a difference maker this year. He will not just make better decisions from the pilot’s seat, he will make every player on the 25 man roster better. It will pay big, big dividends by the time October arrives. If Bryan Price is worth 3 wins on the plus side of the ledger based on defensive shifts and game management, how many wins will be added by simply not giving games away? Three? Four? More?

It’s why I think that despite the injuries and the lack of depth, the Reds win 93 games this year and finish as division champions for the third time in five years.

It’s why I think when Bryan Price walks out to home plate tomorrow to deliver the lineup on what the weatherman says will be a 73 degree, partly cloudy day, he’s likely to be humming a familiar George Harrison tune:

Here Comes the Sun.

9 thoughts on “Manager Above Replacement

  1. Really, the best thing about Price is he is not Dusty. That alone should be worth a couple of W’s this season.

  2. Well said Richard. The Reds are moving from the negative side of the ledger to the positive side of the ledger. The players will no longer be handicapped in their efforts to win games. Bryan may not add value directly (although I think he will to a small degree), but he will not subtract value. I lament that Bryan is not leading the team into the 2013 season with Choo, but water over the dam. Now it’s Cueto v. Wainright rather than Baker v. Matheny (advantage Birds) with the players poised to win or lose on their own merits. Let’s play ball!

    • One of the few times I almost disagree with the Cossack and Richard: I’m not here to defend Dusty (has a ring of Shakespeare, eh), because I really don’t know how good or bad he was, and really don’t believe that a manager, any manager, makes very much difference. That said, you guys who do believe that the manager is a significant factor need to reconcile your criticism of Dusty with the Reds’ success during his tenure. And this with a lineup rife with weaknesses. I know that they didn’t win the WS, but neither have the A’s during their entire time as the standard-bearers for Sabrmetrics. I certainly disagreed with some of his moves, as I expect I will with some of Price’s, such as not batting Joey 2nd. That’s okay: I have no illusions that I would be a good manager. There’s too much stuff that we, as outsiders, simply can’t know.

  3. Interesting timing on this piece. Today, Nate Silver’s new website FiveThirtyEight released an article by Neil Paine titled “Most Managers Are Headed to the Hall of Mediocrity”. It’s pretty clear he doesn’t agree with the 2-10 wins figure.

    “95 percent of all managers are worth somewhere between -2 and +2 wins per 162 games. Last year alone, 21 batters and seven pitchers were worth more to their teams than nearly every manager of the last 112 years.”

    “[Bobby] Cox is one of only six managers since 1986 — Russ Nixon, Tony LaRussa, Davey Johnson, Billy Martin and Earl Weaver — who we can say with confidence actually affected the performance of the players he was managing more than the average manager.”

  4. I live in Atlanta and I must admit that I’m not the biggest Bobby Cox fan, so undoubtedly I’m biased. But what is the basis for saying that we can state “with confidence” that Cox had a greater positive influence on his players than the average manager? I would argue that when you can pencil in three hall of fame starters every five days that you should win the division year after year, and that a truly exceptional manager would have guided his team to more than one World Series victory in 14(?) playoff appearances. I don’t dispute that Cox was not a bad manager in the sense of costing his team games. But it’s not obvious to me that he was solely responsible for winning lots of games that an average manager would not have won.

    • The author’s lays out how he did the study, basically taking expectations and comparing them to results (he lays out exactly how he did it, it’s more complicated than this, but I don’t want to keep copying and pasting his article…just go to fivethirtyeight and it’s the cover story)

      “It turns out that Cox is one of the few managers of all time who could lead his players to unexpected performances year after year. Over the course of his career, Cox’s teams outperformed expectations by 3.1 wins per 162 games on average, sometimes exceeding their projected talent level by as much as 10 wins.

      Nearly every other manager of the last 30 years — 172 overall — was, statistically speaking, indistinguishable from average.”

      Richard, I missed the “as much as 10 wins” where the author agrees with Phil Birnbaum (he basically replicated his study). It’s just Paine then took the average.

      • Thanks for clarifying the methodology. I’ll admit I haven’t yet read the article but will do so. Is it possible that the “expectations” just consistently undervalue slightly the expected worth of starting pitching, and that teams loaded with stud starters will therefore consistently make their managers look good?

  5. Not one game played and people are convinced that Bryan Price is going to be better than Dusty? Sounds extremely biased to me.

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