Wakamatsu and Others Fired

In a move more inevitable than surprising, Jack Zduriencik fired Manager Don Wakamatsu, Bench Coach Ty Van Burkleo, Pitching Coach Rick Adair and Mental Coach Steve Hecht from the Mariners yesterday afternoon. Several coaches received promotions to fill the vacant roles, including Triple-A Manager Daren Brown becoming the Mariners’ interim manager.

It seems that whenever a manager is fired, the question of whether he deserved it will arise and usually the first point brought up will be the team’s record to date — usually a poor one — followed by someone countering that a manager rarely has much of an effect over a team’s record. For instance, the Mariners were 42-70 at the time of Wakamatsu’s firing. Was he responsible for that? He wasn’t at fault for all 70 losses. He was probably to blame for more than zero. He was also probably to credit for more than zero of their wins. Where does the scale balance out? I don’t know, but I do find it odd that this sort of back-and-forth is almost exclusively applied to coaches only.

Sticking with the Mariners, earlier this season Eric Byrnes earned his release after a brutal stretch of play. There was some discussion about whether he deserved that release given the roster make up and what his future projections looked like, but I do not recall anyone stating that the Mariners were 11-14 at the time and thus he deserved to be let go.

We don’t apply the same expectations for managers as we do for players, and we shouldn’t. Players are paid to produce on the field and we’ve gotten pretty good at isolating one player’s contributions to a team’s wins so we generally disregard the team’s overall record when talking about a single player. We do not have a good way to evaluate the impact of a manager, though, and so a team’s overall record becomes sort of the default metric.

On its own, using a team’s record as justification for firing the manager implies that he had direct control over said record. I would contend that no matter who helmed the Mariners this season, they were unlikely to post a meaningfully different record. I think most people agree with that. I think most people agree that the brunt of the blame falls on a combination of random variation, the players themselves for not producing up to expectations and on the front office for assembling said players. To those that disagree, however, to those that believe that a manager has — or can have — a major impact on a team’s wins and losses, I have a question. Why are managers paid so little?

We assume that all teams seek to maximize their number of wins for their expenditures. If managers could routinely positively or negatively affect their teams by more than a few wins, then it would stand to reason that they deserve exorbitant salaries.

We do not have good up-to-date data on manager salaries, but as recently as 2007 the average manager made $1.4 million and the median salary was just $850,000 due to Joe Torre’s $7.5 million really busting the curve. Torre no longer makes that much and I doubt there’s been any major inflation in the salaries paid to managers during the past three years. If we apply the same dollar-to-win conversion that we use for players, then front offices are valuing a manager’s contributions to the team’s won-loss record at around a quarter of a single win on average and even the highest-paid managers clock in around a single win worth of salary.

Front offices should have the best insight into how much chemistry and leadership in the clubhouse matters. If it’s too unpredictable to judge, then why use that to justify hiring and firing of managers? If it matters and is predictable, then my question is, why aren’t they paying for it?

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Matthew Carruth is a software engineer who has been fascinated with baseball statistics since age five. When not dissecting baseball, he is watching hockey or playing soccer.