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Mike Matheny, Robin Ventura, and Managing Statistics

Mayhaps this is the season of hiring the un-experienced?

Last October, the White Sox announced a surprise decision to hire Robin Ventura — a once-great third baseman who had been hired four months prior as a special assistant. Ventura, who played some high quality baseball in some three decades, has managed nary a single MLB or MiLB game in his life.

Then, weeks later and a few dozen hours ago, the St. Louis Cardinals hired Mike Matheny — a once-illustrious catcher and he of the ne’er .300 wOBA — to replace likely first ballot Hall o’ Famer Tony La Russa. Like Ventura, Matheny has not yet scribed a professional-league lineup card or even tossed a base in anger. He enters the 2012 MLB season a complete unknown to fans and writers and presumably of good number of his own players.

But then again, what do fans and writers really know about even Tony La Russa? He made some strange decisions, he made some smart decisions, and he made some bad decisions. He gave a good interview, and he presided over a few championship teams.

But what does that really tell us? Where does that leave the ledger? For years we have debated the veracity of certain managers, but what measures and records can we go to?

One thing is for sure: The world of managing needs more statistics.

A quick grammar note to get the nerdy reader feeling frisky: The title of this piece — “Mike Matheny, Robin Ventura, and Managing Statistics” — is not using the word managing as a verb, but rather a gerund, which is an -ing verb that functions as a noun (then I’m using that noun in an adjectival function on the word statistics — GRAMMAR!).

In other, far less geeky terms, I want to investigate the statistics of managers, not the statistics that managers use. We have much of the latter — Tango’s The Book is essentially dedicated to that purpose — but little of the former to my knowledge. (Or at least it’s too hard to find.)

Well, to say we have no MLB manager statistics is incorrect. We do have one: Wins.

So we have practically none. Because, frankly, wins tell us nothing. Yet tragically, wins are the go-to statistic for fans and the media. How many games has he won? How many pennants? How many championships?

Yes, managers do help teams win, but probably less so than general managers and certainly the players. If Tony La Russa gets credit for his world championship teams, does he also get debit for the 73-89 Cardinals season in 1997? Does his 68-94 Oakland A’s team in 1993 hurt his reputation, or do we wash it away in the majesty of the sum of his career?

I don’t know. How do we know? Wins capture information from so many sources, that we cannot begin to parse the guilty characters. I’ve heard some give La Russa credit for out-managing Ron Washington in the 2011 World Series, but without David Freese hulking out, La Russa probably does not get that same credit.

Essentially, it comes down to this: We need statistics for managers. Some sort of record that will help us better evaluate managers and managerial decisions. The moment we do, we start on a path towards better analyzing individual managers and then better understanding the impact managers have on a game and a season. WAR for managers could some day be real, but first we need our OBP, our most basic tool — something to get us started.

To that end, I want your participation! Yes, I just pointed my finger through your computer monitor / mobile device. Consider this…

An Open Call for Statistical Ideas!
You dear reader, thinker, and stats-lover: Tell me, how would you build a record of a manager’s performance? What events would you record? Is there some long-forgotten research on the matter?

Obviously, some things will be harder to observe than others, such as ego-management and conflict negotiation, but with what we can, is there some way can record and catalog it? If we were the GMs of the Chicago White Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals — and we wanted some statistical aid in evaluating Matheny and Ventura — how would we do it? Where would we start?

Put your best thinking stockings on and let us know in the comments. I have a few ideas of my own, but I would prefer to refine them with your suggestions first. Let’s talk, and then take it to the next level. Of awesome.