Does It Matter If a Manager Was a Major Leaguer?

Of the 30 managers in the major leagues today, eight of them never made the major leagues as players (Manny Acta, Terry Collins, Fredi Gonzalez, Jim Leyland, Joe Maddon, Jack McKeon, Mike Quade, and Buck Showalter). That’s a far higher percentage than was the case a decade ago, in 2000, when it was just three of 30 (McKeon, Showalter, and John Boles), or in 1990, when it was five of 26 (Leyland, McKeon, Nick Leyva, John McNamara, and Tom Trebelhorn). Of all of the things that have been affected by the sabermetric revolution — and by the very existence of the book Moneyball — our understanding of managers and the role they play has been shaken but not particularly enhanced. Still, the tide appears to be slowly changing toward greater acceptance of managers who never played in the majors.

When I wrote about Jim Riggleman three weeks ago, some readers disputed my characterization of him as “a mediocre manager” based on his losing record and the fact that most of his teams finished near the bottom of the division. Wins and team place are the two traditional stats used to describe managers, but as many readers pointed out, much like pitcher wins, they aren’t particularly reliable indicators of a manager’s true talent or effect. In the comment thread I supplemented the analysis with stats from Chris Jaffe’s 2010 book Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, in which Jaffe developed a complicated method of trying to evaluate a manager’s effect on his team by measuring how the team and players did in proximate years without him. Jaffe’s metrics upheld the earlier characterization that Riggleman was mediocre. But it’s hard to know exactly how to quantify what a manager does — even as we instinctively understand that what a manager does is important. (Incidentally, Riggleman never played in the majors either.)

Memorably, in Moneyball, Michael Lewis details how Billy Beane viewed a manager as little more than a technocrat, a button-pusher who was on the field to implement specific policies that the front office had outlined, such as not using intentional walks or bunts. When Art Howe chafed against this notion, Beane hired Ken Macha, whom he viewed as more pliant, for the 2004 season. Theo Epstein’s front office in Boston apparently had something of the same idea that year when they hired Terry Francona to replace Grady Little, though Francona’s closeness to Curt Schilling was another point in his favor. But neither Macha nor Francona was expected to push back against a front office that wanted to direct the team’s usage of in-game tactics. (Howe, Macha, and Francona all played in the majors; Little topped out at Double-A.)

However, the view of a manager as an automatic relay doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. The traditional reason that most managers were former major league players — and that nearly all had either played or at least coached in the majors — is the assumption that a manager would not be able to earn his players’ respect if he had no experience in their shoes. A recent exception seemed to prove the rule, when Trey Hillman lost his job in Kansas City. Hillman had never been employed in a major league clubhouse in any capacity, and Joe Posnanski reported that he seemed impossibly tin-eared to the demands of the job and the personalities of the players. All the unwritten rules of the culture of the majors, which I’ve written about before, were essentially foreign to him. So he lost his job after a little over two seasons.

Nearly the same thing happened to Vern Rapp, a career minor league player and coach who was hired by the Cardinals in 1977 but who was canned after a little over a year because he utterly lost his players, most famously ordering Ted Simmons to cut his hair and “Mad Hungarian” Al Hrabosky to cut his mustache. The experiences of Rapp and Hillman led Rany Jazayerli to conclude:

I think it should be a hard-and-fast rule in baseball: NEVER hire a manager who hasn’t spent time IN SOME CAPACITY with a major league baseball team. I don’t care if he’s managed, played, coached, served as a trainer, batboy, whatever. The culture of a major league clubhouse is unique, and no amount of managing in the minors or in Japan can substitute for it.

That wasn’t the case at the dawn of time, of course. Several managers managed to have success at the end of the 19th century despite having never played in the major leagues, most notably Frank Selee, who won five pennants in the 1890s with the Boston Beaneaters and assembled the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance combination on the Chicago Cubs, and who never played professionally. But he began managing Boston in 1890, when he was just 30 years old, before most of major league culture as we know it today had had a chance to develop. It would probably be impossible for Selee to duplicate his success today.

It seems fairly clear that a manager should should not be hired without having first either played or coached in the majors. But it isn’t clear that it particularly matters which. The greatest manager of all time, Joe McCarthy, never made it out of Double-A. Earl Weaver never made it past four games in Triple-A. (Walter Alston’s major league career comprised a single pinch-hitting appearance in which he struck out, but for my purposes he’s a major leaguer.) They are the exceptions in the historical record. Of the 157 managers who have won at least 400 games in the majors — a measure of both success and longevity — all but 16 played in the majors.

Most of those 16 are listed above. The complete list is: Collins, Leyland, Maddon, McCarthy, McKeon, McNamara, Riggleman, Showalter, Trebelhorn, Weaver, Danny Ozark, Dave Bristol, and four managers from the pre-modern era: Selee, Al Buckenberger, James Mutrie, and Gus Schmelz. Buckenberger, Mutrie, Schmelz, and Selee did most of their managing before 1900, which means that with the exception of Weaver and McCarthy, nearly all of the successful managers with no major league experience are actually active right now: Leyland, Maddon, McKeon, Showalter, and, until recently, Riggleman, not to mention Acta, Gonzalez, Quade, and Collins.

While most men who have ever been named field manager have played at the major league level, including 22 of the 30 active managers as well as 141 of the 157 managers who have won 400 games, the balance is shifting. It seems that having major league playing experience is no longer viewed as quite as essential to the job, even if it is viewed as preferable. And even if we haven’t developed many publicly available statistics on managerial effectiveness, that seems like a positive shift. Hillman aside, many of the teams that have hired a manager with no major league experience have seen the gamble pay off, and at least three of them — Acta, Gonzalez, and Leyland — are in playoff contention this year.

You won’t see someone with no major league experience whatsoever — a Wall Street analyst, an MIT-trained engineer, a woman who played college ball — hired as field manager any time soon, though qualified candidates with those backgrounds may still be considered for GM roles, like Andrew Friedman and Kim Ng. But baseball clubs have been opening their minds on all fronts in the past decade. The managerial hiring process is just one more example. Baseball’s mind is opening. That’s a good thing.




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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.


54 Responses to “Does It Matter If a Manager Was a Major Leaguer?”

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  1. Josh says:

    am i wrong in thinking that Kevin Millar + a computer providing optimal strategies would make the ideal manager?

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  2. DBA says:

    It’s not exactly the same question, but here is a little analysis of a similar question in the NFL:

    https://harvardsportsanalysis.wordpress.com/2009/11/23/listening-to-larry-johnson-how-good-was-your-head-coach-as-a-player/

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  3. Templeton1979 says:

    Off topic, but why is there still a DH rule in baseball? 12 million a year for Adam Dunn are you kidding me??!!

    The avg DH salary is about 9 or 10 million a year. Hafner 13 mil, Abreu 9mil , Ortiz 12.5 mil, Posada 13.1, Dunn 12 mil, VMart(catches sometimes) 12mil, Michael Young 16 mil?! A player only spends about 1/9 of the game at the plate compared to time spent on defense. How would they ever earn that paycheck if they don’t play the field and can barely run the bases??

    Why not spend that money elsewhere?? The rule doesn’t make the game more popular. In the past ten years, of the top ten best selling jerseys, there are 5 AL and 5 NL. It doesn’t make the AL more popular, it only broadens the gap in the market further by creating one more high-priced hole to fill.

    There are pitchers who can hit(like Daniel Hudson: .359 avg) and those who can’t. Then there are those who can bunt, which won’t show up in their batting average. If not, they’re a quick out! Why complicate things by spending several million dollars on a player who makes very little difference on average in the outcome of the game?? Upgrade the bullpen! Starting pitching!! No wonder the AL Central and West are so weak, they can’t afford to keep up! Billy Butler is the second highest paid Royal for a position they shouldn’t even have to fill. They could have traded him before bringing up Hosmer instead of giving him an extension.

    Championships and franchise players in a good market make the ballclub popular, not another insignificant and hugely overpayed “full-time player”.

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  4. Gary says:

    I recently noticed that the Dbacks coaching staff is extraordinarily accomplished as players: Kirk Gibson (manager): 39.5 WAR, Eric Young (1st base coach): 23.5 WAR, Matt Williams (3rd base coach): 47.3 WAR, Charles Nagy (pitching coach): 34.4 WAR, Don Baylor (hitting coach): 34.9 WAR, Alan Trammel (bench coach): 69.5 WAR.

    That’s 249 wins above replacement during their playing careers. I know there’s no current coaching staff that amassed more WAR in their playing careers. My question is, has there ever been a more accomplished coaching staff? It would have to be fairly recent, since teams didn’t used to have so many coaching positions.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      As compared to their previous administration of Byrnes and Hinch.

      Maybe they knee-jerked to the other direction a bit.

      Two things that former MLB playing experience affords a manager is [1] an amount of respect, and [2] credibility … from the players.

      If the players won’t listen to the manager, then it severely limits his ability to positively influence outcomes.

      The other things that have changed during baseball … the number of teams/opportunities, the number of minor league teams, etc.

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  5. Windu says:

    Random Question: How many of the managers today actually have an education above high school? Now obviously college does not teach you how to manage a MLB team and experience is still king but they do help you manage people and perhaps it would help managers accept statistical analysis. Just seems weird to me for such a high level position.

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    • micah says:

      Based solely on their Wikipedia articles, it looks like:

      Francona (U of Arizona)
      Showalter (Mississippi State)
      Gardenhire (UT Austin)
      Girardi (Northwestern)
      Maddon (Lafayette College)
      Gibson (Michigan State)
      Quade (U of New Orleans)
      Tracy (Marietta College)
      Roenicke (Mt. San Antonio College)
      Collins (Eastern Michigan)
      La Russa (no clue about undergrad, but he has a JD from Florida State)
      Black (San Diego State)
      Bochy (Florida State)
      Johnson (Texas A&M)

      So 14/30 (though not all of them graduated, and there may be some missing, especially if they weren’t athletes in college — say, because they went back after retiring from play and before becoming a manager or something).

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      • My echo and bunnymen (Dodgers Fan) says:

        That’s horrifically sad.

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      • My echo and bunnymen (Dodgers Fan) says:

        And one of those colleges is not known for a great educational presence.

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      • DavidCEisen says:

        Why in the world is that horrifically sad? Not everyone needs to go to college to be successful or intelligent. What’s sad is 25,000 more people graduating from law school each year then there are openings for lawyers.

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      • Juancho says:

        None of those is a bad school, though none but Northwestern and Lafayette are competitive private universities. It ain’t the Ivy League, but let’s not be snobs here. And don’t diss Mississippi State; my brother-in-law went there, and he’s an archaeologist and smarter than you are.

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      • Bill says:

        The managers not on this list were all very talented baseball players. Why is it sad that they pursued a career in baseball? Clearly their current employers value the skills their managers pursued more than they value a degree in Psychology. It seems like the other managers made a good choice.

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      • WilsonC says:

        I really don’t know if a formal education would give a baseball manager much of an advantage. The purpose of higher education, at least in a professional sense, isn’t to earn a degree, it’s to gain the skills and knowledge in order to be qualified for a field. The degree is nothing more than a measure of proof certifying that someone completed the necessary training to achieve those skills and knowledge.

        What relevant skills can a college teach a potential candidate than cannot be learned in twenty years working in the field?

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  6. Carlmart says:

    I say it’s an absolute must for a manager to have had major league experience. It is vital for a manager to have seen and experienced every situation for years before they can make an informed call on the field or in the clubhouse.

    Knowing the chemistry of teams and the psychology of today’s athletes is imperative to being a good manager in the major leagues. I mean there is no way you could just take someone from the front office that is well versed in statistics and whatnot. No, it takes the firsthand experience of being in the game itself to be a success as an MLB manager.

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  7. Hurtlocker says:

    Major league experience by the manager seems prudent, but has there been a HOF player that was truly a great manager?? I’m thinking Frank Robinson, Honus Wagner, Rogers Hornsby and a few others were never great baseball managers??

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    • hunterfan says:

      Hughie Jennings was a very good player and manager.

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    • joshcohen says:

      the “conventional wisdom” i’ve heard on baseball telecasts tends to be that the best managers are former players who were able to maximize ability from limited skill (presumably because they made up for their lesser talent with hard work and smarts). i’ve always wondered how true that was.

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    • John McGraw is the obvious answer — and Hughie replaced him as the Giants’ manager in 1924. But Lou Boudreau and Frankie Frisch had good success as player-managers.

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    • Drew says:

      Robinson’s managed some horribly bad teams and gotten ok results. He’s always deserved more of a chance, both by fans and his GM’s.

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    • williams .482 says:

      Ted Williams was at least an excellent hitting coach when he was managing.

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    • The Only Nolan says:

      I’d say Joe Torre. Obviously he’s not going to be a HOF player but he certainly has a case and was probably overlooked by the voters. At some point he’ll get in as a manager.

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  8. Dave's Not Here says:

    I don’t agree that you need major league experience (nor did I realize does the article, after reading it again – nobody would suggest someone with no experience in baseball at all should be given a job). In any sport, being a good manager/coach is a totally different skillset than being a player. It doesn’t make any sense to exclude a huge pool of people who are naturally gifted simply because they weren’t good players. Football has a lot of coaches who never came close to playing pro, which makes sense given how it is so coach-dominated.

    Now in baseball, since the manager is not that relevant anyway – sure having a popular face standing there in the dugout is good PR. Does a manager have any effect on players’ performance, or on the ability of team to sign FAs (not likely, no)? Making the clubhouse uncomfortable is no good, but I’m sure you can find a ton of ex-MLB players who can and have accomplished that.

    I don’t believe that baseball’s clubhouse customs are so byzantine that someone can’t learn them as they move through the field, nor do I believe that baseball players are so different that general good personal management skills don’t apply.

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  9. Chair says:

    Perhaps there could be managerial scores compromised of stats that rated how optimized their lineups are, how well they managed their bullpen, and how they improved their team’s chances of winning by pinch hitting?

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    • The problem is, Chair, that a well-optimized lineup and bullpen are really only worth a maximum of a couple of wins a year, and the same can be said for in-game tactical decisions. The most important thing that a manager does, of course, is manage people — get the most out of his players, make sure that his hitters and pitchers play as well as they can under him. It’s obvious, even if it’s hard to measure, that a player who trusts and respects his manager and the role that he has been given will play better than one who doesn’t. Bobby Cox (and his pitching coach, Leo Mazzone) earned a justifiably famous reputation for getting the most out of the pitchers they were given — and Chris Jaffe’s book lists Bobby as one of the most effective managers of all time at getting the most out of his pitchers. J.C. Bradbury has conducted a similar study showing similar results for Mazzone.

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      • RC says:

        “, that a well-optimized lineup and bullpen are really only worth a maximum of a couple of wins a year,”

        A couple wins a year is all an all-star caliber player is worth. To blow that of as inconsequential is strange. If you believe in FanGraphs Win values, if a manager could get 2 games from a maximized lineup, and 2 games from bullpen optimization, that would be worth $20M. More if its the difference between making the playoffs and not (which 4 wins certainly could be).

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      • Oh, of course. But that’s at the absolute margins: the difference between the best tactical manager of all time and the worst tactical manager of all time. Most managers are really only separated by a few runs here or there. And I don’t mean to say that’s meaningless — just that managers almost certainly account for more wins through their ability to manage people, rather than through their ability to manage specific tactical situations.

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      • Cliff says:

        Bizarre

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      • WilsonC says:

        UZR tells us something about a player’s value. It’s significant, and worth measuring, but if it was the only stat we had to measure a player, which would be more meaningful in trying to figure out who the best players are: a ranking of UZR numbers, or the observations of people who watch a lot of baseball?

        I look at this type of “manager score” in much the same way. We could certainly filter out the tactical performance of a manager, and it could be worth doing, but it would be a mistake to rank managers only by the more easily measured aspects of the job. I’m not sure if an in-depth tactical evaluation of a manager would be as good a measure as even fan intuition in judging a manager’s overall contributions right now.

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      • GiantHusker says:

        Both of you are right. Chair points out some of the criteria that could be measured and managers could be evaluated by. Alex points our qualities that may be more important, but can’t be measured (at least, not that I can see).
        A listing of managers by criteria such as Chair’s would be interesting, and it may be that those couple of wins a year are all the difference a manager makes.

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  10. Paul Revere says:

    A chick would make a good manager but only if she was really really hot

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  11. Jason says:

    This question is not isolated to sports. In fields with leadership progression (e.g., sales) one often comes across debates about whether or not great “players” make great “coaches”.

    To look at this further, I once studied 54 MLB managers with >1,900 games managed (selection bias, I know). I split these managers based upon their playing careers, with some designated “great” — Frank Robinson, Frisch, Anson, Cronin,…; some were “good” — Davey Johnson, Jimmy Dykes, Lou Pinella…; and some were “bad” — Tom Kelley, Gene Mauch, Frank Selee, etc.

    Long story short, I saw no difference in performace across the groups — they each won roughly 52.5% of their games. I’d love to dig deeper, but I don’t have time for it. My general conclusion was the same that I see when working with businesses — the quality of the “player” has little to say about the capability to coach.

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    • Jason B says:

      Just out of curiosity, how did you pick 1900 games and not 2000? When you have a big round number close by, its odd that you didn’t just go with that. Were there some big names you were wanting to capture in the 1900-2000 games area?

      (Not intended to be snarky, just legitimately curious. I think that’s a great idea for deeper study and think it was a nice first step on your part.)

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    • Jason says:

      I actually have no idea why I chose that cutoff! I did this four years ago and just dusted off the Excel book. Looks like there were only 5 managers between 1,900 and 2,000, and their average win % is similar to the group above them.

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  12. ngrimson says:

    Perhaps the only purpose managers serve is to get thrown out of games in lieu of far more valuable players. I think the next logical step in in manger evolution is attempting to goad the opposing teams players into confrontation in the hopes they get ejected.

    Ex. Joe Madden, down 3-2 in a close game vs the Red Sox, starts blowing kisses at Kevin Youkilis. Maybe he mouths that Kevin, “only like goats.”

    Possibly Kevin attempts update the style of Madden’s glasses with his bat, possibly not, but isn’t it worth that extra 2% effort to find out?

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  13. Brian says:

    I wonder if there is a good way to evaluate managers statistically. What managers outperform their theoretical value? What about decision-making, and how many managers do a better job pulling their pitchers in time? What about pinch hitters? Is there something else that could be attributed just to the manager’s decision making ability?

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  14. evo34 says:

    So…you have to have major league experience (“It seems fairly clear that a manager should should not be hired without having first either played or coached in the majors. “) to be a manager? Um, why? Because you picked two examples of guys without it who happened to fail? This “proves” the rule? It’s hard for me to find any point whatsoever to this article.

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