The Cooper conundrum

Dead manager walking: Cecil Cooper

It’s been a rough year for NL managers. With the Astros’ firing of Cecil Cooper on Monday, one quarter of the league’s teams have dismissed their skippers midseason.

The Astros joined the ranks of the Diamondbacks, Rockies and Nationals, who had fired their managers earlier in the season. This firing was rather expected. Houston was on the skids, having dropped 33 of their last 53 and seven in a row prior to Cooper’s departure. Even before that death spiral began, Cooper was a marked man. For example, in our preseason predictions at THT, Cooper was the most popular choice for first manager fired.

I get my view of the national landscape from Baseball Think Factory, and Houston fans (most notably the THT-affiliated Lisa Gray) over there considered Cooper almost inhumanly inept. Fans are generally pretty critical of their teams’ managers, but the loathing for Cooper was notable by any standards.

So yeah, Cooper was a poorly thought of manager who got canned. As storylines go, that one is rather unoriginal. Yet, despite all that, I find Cooper to be a bit of a managerial enigma.

My background

I’ve just finished a two-years-plus process of studying managers. As frequent readers here hopefully know (or at least those who read the “about the author” blurb at the bottom of every article) I wrote a book titled Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, 1876-2008, scheduled for release by McFarland publishers later this year.

In the process of studying the game’s skippers, I came to a series of basic conclusions about the nature of the profession. They are, in no particular order:

1) Managers are like icebergs; what we see of them represents only a small fraction of their job. They are primarily managers of men, and only secondarily of the game. But the game is the only part we can see.

2) Due to the above, fans typically underrate their skippers. If the manager makes a move a fan agrees with that works, it seems like simple common sense; if that move doesn’t work, it’s bad luck. If he makes a move a fan disagrees with that works, then the skipper got lucky. All the above can quickly be forgotten. People remember it best when a manager makes a move they disagree with that doesn’t work out. Then the manager is an idiot.

3) The highest compliment you can pay a manager is not that he does a good job filling out the batting order or that he monitors pitch counts effectively—it’s that you can’t imagine his teams doing better than they actually did year after year. One year can be a fluke, but the longer the stretch, the harder to believe it’s just one of those things.

I don’t claim these thoughts to be original. Just the opposite, as these thoughts were largely inspired by comments made by others. (For example, a Rob Neyer column once focused on what general managers ask managerial candidates during job interviews. They focus on communication, not strategy. Similarly, at last year’s SABR convention, Cleveland general manager Mark Shaprio said the most important qualities in a manager were the ability to communicate, self-knowledge, and prioritization.)

Still, these items serve as the basis for my thoughts on managers. Looking at them, they form a clear basis of defense for Cooper as manager. However, they can also form a line of attack on Cooper.

The case for Cooper

This is really pretty straightforward: the team consistently did better than it should have under him. A team that was rather poorly regarded posted a winning record during his tenure, 171-170. Sure, it’s over .500 by the slightest of margins, but this is a rather underwhelming roster.

In late August 2007, Cooper took over a floundering club one game out of last place that was on pace for 90 losses. Under Cooper, the Astros went 15-16. Well, any team can have a slight uptick, so the modest end-of-season revival could just be one of those things.

The Astros began 2008 widely expected to be terrible. In THT’s annual preseason predictions, half of us expected them to come in fourth place, and no one pegged them to finish third or better. And it ain’t like we were cutting against the conventional wisdom with our Astros thoughts. However, the Astros finished with a surprisingly strong 86-75 record, good for third place in the NL Central. Sure, it was only a half-game ahead of the fourth-place team, but that was because the entire division was much stronger than expected. Had we known the Cards were going to finish 86-76, no one would’ve picked Houston to finish better than fifth.

This year it initially looked like more of the same for Houston. Entering the season, the Astros were our consensus fifth-place pick. A few optimistic THTers picked them fourth, but even more pegged them for last place. Again, we were hardly unique in our dire predictions for the NL’s Texas team.

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Instead, they did a bit better than expected. Though in fourth place at the time Cooper was fired, they were in third place 48 hours earlier. Heck, near the end of July they were in second place, just 1.5 games out of first.

If one thinks a manager has anything to do with a team’s performance, it’s hard not to ponder if Cooper was a bit better than he appeared.

Astros fans apparently think he’s terrible, but again I think fans tend to underrate managers. Call it the Ron Gardenhire Rule. Looking at it from the broad perspective, Cooper’s tenure featured surprising success.

The case against Cooper

The long view may support Cooper, but the devil lies in the details. OK, so the team played better. Question: How could a manager help cause that? Answer: He is fundamentally a manager of men rather than of the game. This is why both the old Neyer column and Shapiro answer prioritized communication as the most prized managerial attribute of all. Getting in the proper frame of mind and minimizing distractions really matters. It’s not just a matter of effort on the part of players either, as people rarely choose which emotions they’re feeling at a moment in time.

This is the really interesting part about Cooper. From what I can tell, he’s really bad dealing with players. He’s alienated his players. According to Lisa Gray, he lost the team last year during his first full season in the position. He was one of the oldest rookie managers in baseball history when he was first hired (just a few months shy of his 58th birthday), and he seems to have had an especially hard time overcoming the generation gap.

The most celebrated incident during his tenure affirms the notion that he’s not good at the softer skills of managing. Last June, veteran pitcher Shawn Chacon had a clubhouse meltdown for the ages, when he grabbed general manager Ed Wade and threw him to the ground.

First, there is no excusing Chacon’s action. As a grown man he has to be held accountable for initiating any violent actions.

That said, this incident didn’t speak very well of Cooper’s handling of the team. On the face of it, he was a bystander. However, as the man in charge of the clubhouse Cooper bears some responsibility. Cooper had nothing to do with the incident once it happened but shouldered much of the burden for creating the situation in which it occurred.

The incident itself did not exist in a vacuum. The starting point was Chacon’s anger at losing a spot in the starting rotation, and things snowballed from there. The incident itself came later, as a result of Chacon’s refusal to meet with first Cooper then Wade in the manager’s office.

This is where Shapiro’s three managerial traits come into play: communication, self-awareness and prioritization. The fact that virtually no other players assault their general managers tells us something about Chacon, but it also enlightens us about how Cooper handled his player’s growing alienation. Whatever Cooper did, it clearly did not lessen Chacon’s anger and apparently only inflamed it. Either Cooper’s actions did not have the impact he wanted, revealing a limitation on his self-awareness, or he didn’t address it at all, showing his inability to prioritize clubhouse concerns.

I don’t really blame Cooper much for what happened the day of the incident, but I do think he’s accountable for letting the situation degenerate in the first place.

Again, Chacon deserves the lion’s share of the blame for what happened, but look at it from another angle: with a situation so ugly as to be virtually without precedent (a fringe player assaulting his boss’s boss? Ouch!), it’s hard to imagine it would happen unless numerous things leading up to it had gone differently.

It was a clubhouse Chernobyl. So much had to go wrong, it’s hard for anyone to come out looking good. It’s worth noting Chacon was an eight-year veteran playing on his fourth team and never had a reputation as a headcase. Meanwhile, Cooper’s overall reputation for handling players is bad even aside from that incident.

Simply put, if Cooper is a below-average in-game manager, I don’t think that matters much. However, he’s apparently a terrible manager of men.

The conundrum

Cooper’s teams have done as well as anyone could have possibly hoped—a fact I normally consider the highest compliment you can pay a manager. Yet every specific thing I know about Cooper—whether it is his in-game abilities or more damningly his handling of players—indicates he’s pretty bad.

So how do I explain this? Could it just be luck? Did Cooper’s teams do better than expected simply because of the oddities of sample size combined with the luck of the draw? Personally, I shy away from such an explanation, in part because I think luck is often used as a lazy answer. Luck is to a sabermetrician what chemistry is to a typical sportswriter: it’s a phrase you use to explain an unexpected result. It’s what Bill James once referred to as a bull**** dump.

That said, just because a phrase is overused doesn’t mean it should be reflexively abandoned. Chemistry, for example, can be of vital importance. The same goes for luck. Besides, the smaller the sample size, the greater the potential influence luck can have, and Cooper’s managerial career was barely two seasons, rather small by standards of the job.

Looking it up, one clear luck-based explanation exists: pythag projections. Based on runs scored and allowed, Houston won five more games than the team should have this year under Cooper. Last year, the team exceeded its pythag prediction by nine games. Based on run differential, Cooper should’ve posted a career 157-184 record, which is equal to a 75-87 single-season mark. That’s much closer to what you’d have expected from his teams.

Now, I actually have some trouble ascribing all deviation from pythag to luck, and I think a manager can play some role in it, but there is no need to take any sabermetric contrarianism too far on this matter. Even though other factors can influence this area, luck is still easily the largest factor. What’s more, the smaller the sample size, the more important luck becomes in trying to figure out what’s going on.

Here’s the most pro-Cooper scenario I can imagine. He alienated his players, but in doing so motivated them. Back in the day Dick Williams was a master of angering his players to make them try harder. “I’ll show him” they would think while going on the field. Maybe Cooper had a similar something going for him.

If so, that’s a dangerous style to have. It works when players are angry, but not if they’re alienated. Williams wore out his welcome every few years, and it looks like the same happened to Cooper. The Astros played like a 100-loss team in their final 53 games with him. If so, even by this more generous interpretation, he still should’ve been fired.

Frankly, I’m not sure I buy that interpretation. Williams was long hailed as one of the smartest managers in the game, and his mental manipulation of his players reflected his in-game abilities. Cooper, like most mortals, has never had Williams’ reputation for brilliance.

At best, the Williams-esque motivate-by-anger technique was something into which Cooper stumbled. If so, Cooper was lucky not only with his pythag deviations, but also in his handling of the clubhouse.

References & Resources
Some of the statements made over the last year or two by Lisa Gray in various threads at BTF (most notably this one) came in handy. She’s much more negative toward Cooper than I am in this column, but her critiques and comments make a lot of sense.

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Steve Treder
Steve Treder

Terrific analysis, Chris.