Baseball is changing faster than ever – and in all areas of the game.
We’ve seen the evolution of defense and also offense. Front offices have expanded.
And all of it due to the emergence of analytics.
Let’s face it, analytics has touched every area of the game, changing it significantly.
But the one area that hasn’t been discussed widely is the place that sits between the clubhouse and executive offices.
The dugout. It’s not immune to the changes analytics have wrought.
Managers have changed, as have their coaches.
That is, unless we’re talking about the Tigers, one of baseball’s last true throwback teams.
But even with the Tigers, they have a couple new positions with titles that are so long and obscure that we can’t remember them.
Let’s start with managers for the moment.
It used to be that the skipper was older and had gotten his promotion after working his way up through the minors via coaching. After establishing a solid record with an MLB team, the best of them got long-term contracts worth millions per year.
Increasingly, managers are becoming much younger and often skipping the minor league training ground. Today, we’ve got a handful who have come into the position straight from their days as a player or a year or two removed.
And the trend now is also hiring college or independent coaches who never worked in MLB.
Salaries and contracts are also on the decline with 2-years/1 option year or 3-year contracts now the norm.
Other than a few grizzled veterans like Joe Maddon, most managers today are not making millions per year. They’re making around $1 mill or slightly less, depending upon their experience.
So why is this happening?
It’s because the power of decision-making in-game has changed. Dramatically.
Most of the shots now are being called by established analytics departments. They are generating the reports and strategies and then passing them onto their manager, if he is analytics-friendly, or to their point man in the dugout. He is often referred to as a “quality control manager.”
The skipper, as a result, now wields less power and less control. Thus, he’s being paid less and is no longer considered to be as crucial to the team’s performance as he once was. That is why we’ve been seeing more often teams shedding managers who took their teams to first place and not blinking when they do it.
(On an interesting footnote, a top MLB executive revealed that most front offices have a “spy” planted in the clubhouse who reports back to them on what is going on with the team so they can keep tabs on how well information is being passed and whether there are any problems.)
The money once spent on managers is now being used to build and expand analytics departments. New equipment, super computers, the latest technology and guys with degrees in analytics, sports performance and statistics from top colleges which offer these specialized majors.
And this department is now the one that is controlling the message, controlling the goals and giving the orders. The manager is now the messenger.
Today, it’s most important for the skipper to be well-versed in analytics, understand them and be able to pass them along to the coaches and the players.
He also must be media-friendly. No more interviews where he spits food while trying to simultaneously eat and answer reporters’ questions.
He has to be camera-ready and give 2 interviews per day. He has to come across as user-friendly. There’s no excuse anymore for someone in the public eye not to be able to successfully navigate the media.
It’s one reason why so many of the newer managers have come from doing tv and radio work recently.
The skipper’s main role today is to manage his players. To keep the clubhouse calm. And to be an excellent communicator with everyone inside and outside of the organization.
He must also be able to nurture the rookies and keep the stars in check. Which is why you’ll rarely see a top manager with playoff experience overseeing a rebuilding team in the early stages. Or a rookie manager overseeing a team loaded with stars.
Er, cough, most teams that is……
It’s why you saw Alan Trammell fail with a team of burgeoning stars and replaced with no-nonsense Jim Leyland.
It’s also why you saw A.J. Hinch, who was unwilling or unable to stop the Astros’ cheating, subbed out for Dusty Baker. A man capable of calming the Houston seas, correcting the clubhouse culture and garnering player respect.
It’s also why Ron Gardenhire came to Detroit. Never mind that he is one of Jim Leyland’s best friends. An old-school manager in the twilight of his career hired to oversee a clubhouse with a constantly-revolving door of players and zero expectations. A friendly guy – affable and with a sense of humor. A kinder, gentler manager who will not attract criticism of any kind.
It will be interesting if Gardy makes good on his comments about retiring after 2020. Who would replace him?
Not an in-demand successful manager.
But we are now officially taking bets on either Don Kelly or (gulp) Lloyd McClendon.
Need more proof about the changing role of managers? Consider that only 3 out of 30 managers have lasted 5 years.
And since 2017 – less than 3 years – two-thirds (20 teams!) of all MLB organizations have changed their managers.
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