On the Present-Day Value of Managerial Experience

The newest manager in Major League Baseball is also not baseball’s newest manager, in that the Mariners have officially hired Lloyd McClendon to replace Eric Wedge, and McClendon has managed before, for about five years with the Pirates at the start of the millennium. The Mariners are still a young team, and on the face of it, it’s hardly surprising that they went with an experienced leader, since theirs is a team in need of leadership and since we’re all used to coaches getting recycled. But then, McClendon was the only one of the Mariners’ known candidates with prior experience managing in the bigs. Clearly, they didn’t make a track record mandatory. And by hiring the experienced guy, the Mariners actually bucked what seems to be a growing league-wide trend.

The Tigers just hired Brad Ausmus as manager, and he’s hardly ever been a manager, never having managed in the majors. In hiring Ausmus, the Tigers didn’t hire McClendon, who was an in-house candidate. The Nationals just hired Matt Williams to manage, and he’s only been a coach. The Reds promoted Bryan Price to replace Dusty Baker. Going into the recent past, the Rockies settled on the inexperienced but familiar Walt Weiss, the White Sox settled on the inexperienced but familiar Robin Ventura, and the Cardinals settled on the inexperienced but familiar Mike Matheny. In all of our heads, major-league teams value a managerial track record. The times, however, appear to be changing. Perhaps they’ve changed already.

It used to be stunning, and already it isn’t so much anymore. There exist, at any one time, 30 major-league managerial positions. It’s the highest possible level, and for any high-level job, employers always highlight the importance of years upon years of experience. The best way to train for something is by doing something, and you’d think a guy who hasn’t managed might be ill-equipped to manage a prominent ballclub. Managers, after all, have countless responsibilities, and they can be under unthinkable stress. How can you know how someone will fare, if he’s never before fared? The answer, of course, is, you can’t, but teams aren’t afraid of this anymore. Any manager can flop. Generally speaking, experienced managers are only available in the first place because they’ve lost jobs.

There’s something important we have to touch on right now: we can identify a current league-wide trend. We can’t say whether or not it’s successful. We don’t know if baseball is better for teams hiring inexperienced managers, because we don’t have the foggiest idea of how to evaluate managerial performance. Matheny’s Cardinals just made the World Series, but is he a good manager, actually? Would the team have been better off with someone with a longer track record? There’s nothing at all we can say about wins and losses. We can only talk about the trend as it is, and try to make sense of it, and then see if it continues.

Why are teams more open-minded about a lack of experience? It might follow their own increasing open-mindedness about a lack of big-league experience for players. I suppose I should acknowledge that an inexperienced manager might probably come with a lower price tag. But managerial salaries are seldom much of a factor, and if you think about managers the way you think about prospects, you can see teams developing confidence in profiles and skillsets, rather than just established performance.

A big-league manager has a lot of responsibilities, but first and foremost, he needs to be an effective communicator and leader of men. When Ventura was hired, the White Sox praised his leadership skills. Same with Price and the Reds. Same with Matheny and the Cardinals. Same with Williams and the Nationals. Same with Ausmus and the Tigers. Same with Weiss and the Rockies. All of these people demonstrated their capacities to communicate clearly and lead, and those are general skills, not specific ones; they’re skills that can carry over into a managerial position. The leadership ability is already in place. What’s left is to build around that.

Ventura, Matheny, Williams, Ausmus, Weiss — these are guys who command instant respect from players because of their long big-league careers. Price is a bit different in that regard, but he’s been in the bigs a long time as a coach, so he’s hardly a fresh face. There’s no reason to think these managers won’t be given a chance by their own rosters, and there are additional considerations as well.

For one thing, managers don’t exist in isolation — they’re surrounded by a coaching staff, consisting of guys who tend to be pretty experienced. They can help show a new manager the ropes, and early on they can help reduce any anxiety from feeling overwhelmed. They can help run a practice, while a new manager figures out his own way on the fly. And more important than that: all of these guys have learned from a number of different managers over their lives in professional baseball. In a sense, they’ve all been trained, generally by a handful of different instructors, and so they know what techniques work and what techniques don’t. They know what goes over well with players, and they’ve seen clubhouses more and less divided. Being named a manager for the first time is basically a test, but all these candidates have been studying for years, or decades. While they haven’t run the ship themselves, they have a good sense of how it’s done.

And they’ve seen things from the players’ perspective, meaning they’ll have a sense for how different ideas might go over. At some point I feel like I’m just going to be repeating myself. The feeling is that hiring an inexperienced manager could be a real risk. When you really dig into it, though, it’s hard to figure out where the risk might be, or at least why the risk might be greater than with an experienced skipper instead. Maybe a manager’s prior experience was negative. Maybe certain guys are just better fits with certain teams, and experience matters for hardly anything.

In looking for a manager, you can prioritize experience, or you can prioritize leadership skills. If you hire a guy with experience, he might not develop very good leadership skills. If you hire a guy with good leadership skills, he’ll gain his own experiences. The job description isn’t to be experienced. The job description is to lead and communicate and deal with the media, and so those are the skills to seek out, experience be damned. Safer to start with a good leader than to start with a guy who has a long history. That history could be one of mediocrity, or failure.

Said Dave Dombrowski:

Dombrowski described what he feels is a change in the manager’s job over the last couple decades: Communicating with players is increasingly important, and so is dealing with the media.

Leyland received high marks in those areas, but Ausmus’ playing experience – he appeared in 1,971 games from 1993-2010 – may have prepared him better than any managing stint at a lower level would have.

“If you, let’s say, manage one year at the Double-A or Triple-A level nowadays, it doesn’t prepare you for managing at the big league level like it did years ago,” Dombrowski said. “The game is so different.”

An inexperienced manager is, essentially, a prospect, with various strengths, various weaknesses, and no history of success in the majors. It can be scary to leave an important role to someone untested, but then those strengths and weaknesses matter, and are projectable, such that it’s possible to have a good idea of the performance to come. A year ago, Jose Fernandez was a prospect with various strengths and weaknesses. He didn’t just pitch like one of the best rookie pitchers; he pitched like one of the best pitchers, overall. Talent is the thing. Identify the talent, and everything else will follow in time.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.