Hosting managers with vastly different reputations, last year’s ALCS brought about an interesting debate in the game of baseball: how much of an impact do managers really make? Buck Showalter is considered by many to be one of the most well prepared managers in all of baseball. Previously known for being so detail-oriented that it drove players on the Rangers and Yankees crazy (despite being funny enough to appear on Seinfeld), Showalter has struck a good balance of preparation and player relationships in Baltimore. Ned Yost on the other hand is considered by his own fan base to be a bad manager that the Royals managed to win in spite of.
So how much of an impact does a manager really make? Let’s look through recent MLB history to find out.
In the past 30 World Series (see chart at end of the article), 18 franchises led by 20 different managers have won rings. Of those 20 managers, six won multiple times as Joe Torre collected four, Bruce Bochy and Tony La Russa grabbed three a piece, While Cito Gaston, Tom Kelley and Terry Francona won two each. It is also worth noting that two others, Sparky Anderson and Tommy LaSorda, won rings both in this sample AND prior to this sample, as Anderson won managing the reds to titles in 1975 and 1976, and Tommy Lasorda won the 1981 World Series managing the Dodgers. Managers dominating the game has become even more prevalent recently: in the 19 World Series since 1996, 11 have been won by just four managers: Torre (4), Bochy(3), La Russa(2) and Francona(2). Perhaps even more staggering is that in the 24 since 1987, 16 have been won by just 6 managers: Torre (4), Bochy (3), La Russa (3), Kelly (2), Gaston (2) and Francona (2).
So what does this tell us about Managers? If “winning cures everything” in sports, we would assume that all of these managers must have been good managers. But good enough that four managers (or 13% of the league’s managers) should be able to win over 50% of the last 19 titles? Or that six managers (a little over 20% since there were not 30 teams in the MLB until 1995) can win 66% of the last 24? Let’s look deeper into some of these managers’ accomplishments to evaluate their impact.
Bruce Bochy is widely considered one of the best managers in baseball and a likely hall of famer after guiding three very young (and surprisingly different) rosters to World Series wins and a staggering 34-14 record in the playoffs in just five years. His ability to get the most out of a young nucleus is nothing short of incredible, especially considering he has seen aces turn into sub-par pitchers and written down an at times patchwork offense on the lineup card. But if you don’t believe the Giants’ confidence in the playoffs that led to an MLB record 10 game playoff win streak stemmed from the manager’s ability to control a club, then I would argue you’re mistaken.
However, the argument can certainly be made that Bochy found himself in the right place at the right time. Bochy’s overall record in San Diego from 1995 to 2006 was under .500 in an almost 2,000 game sample size. For most of 12 years, Bochy led the Padres to be extremely mediocre, never eclipsing 90 wins again after leading the 1998 Padres to the World Series. Those who believe that talent wins regardless of their manager can point to the luck involved when you’re the manager of a team that drafts the likes of Lincecum, Posey and Bumgarner in a three year span. Baseball history buffs will also point out that if this past season had been played under 2011 rules, Bochy’s championship team would not have even made the playoffs. So is Bochy making an impact, or is he just the lucky guy sitting in the dugout?
Let’s examine another great: Joe Torre. Torre led a dynasty in New York, as in his 12 total seasons the Yankees made the playoffs every year, including six World Series appearances (including 4 wins) in an 8 year span. He almost won a 5th when, with a lead in bottom of the 9th in game 7 of the 2001 World Series, he handed the ball to the best closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, who blew a rare save, and the series. It’s hard to blame this loss on Torre, as it is safe to say every manager in the history of baseball would have made the same call. His teams were led by hall of famers and all-stars, but Torre seemed to have a pulse for how to handle the pressures of New York and build a team that despite its star power was built on a team first mentality.
However, Torre’s stay did seem to burn out towards the end of his run in New York with a few ugly playoff losses (see 2005, 2006). And if you take out his time in New York, Torre’s career winning percentage drops below .500 in over 2,300 games. While he did lead the Dodgers to consecutive NLCS appearances in 2008 and 2009, a case can still be made that Torre was just a guy who picked a good time to interview for the New York job in 1996.
Tony La Russa is another manager considered to be the standard of greatness, as he saw sustained success with two organizations. La Russa led the A’s to 3 straight trips to the World Series from 1988-1990, winning one, and took the Cardinals to three from 2004-2011, winning two. La Russa certainly benefited from being surrounded with great talent. Both rosters included some of the best players of the day, as he had the Bash Brothers of Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco in the start-of-the-steroid-era-late-80’s and guys like Albert Pujols, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright in their primes in St Louis. But rumblings surrounding La Russa during non-World Series champion years were that he was so blindingly competitive that he would over-manage.
So if these three great, Hall of Fame (or Hall of Fame to be) managers had flaws, what about managers who have only won one World Series?
Ozzie Guillen led a Chicago White Sox team to a 99 win season and World Series sweep of the Houston Astros in 2005. That team had a loaded middle of the order with Paul Konerko in his prime, and aging but still impactful players protecting him in Jermaine Dye and Frank Thomas. The team stormed through a strong AL Central and won the World Series without much competition from Houston. But in the 9 seasons following that World Series run, the White Sox made the playoffs just once, when they lost three out of four games to Tampa Bay in 2008. Guillen managed the team until 2011, when he was forced out after both management and players had grown sick of both his on and off the field antics. He then went onto Miami to manage a largely Hispanic team and fan base that was supposed to embrace him, but he promptly made headlines for shenanigans, and after one year of controversy and fewer than 70 wins, he was fired. So while he happened to manage one team that seemed destined for greatness, was he really leading the ship? Or was he just along for the ride?
Perhaps the best example of a manager who may have done more harm than help was Bobby Cox, a first ballot hall of fame manager. Under Cox, the Braves were one of the most successful teams in major league baseball, going to 5 World Series in the 1990’s, and winning 11 straight NL East championships from 1995-2005. Cox was considered a great manager by the media and his peers, winning four Manager of the Year awards, including back to back in 2004 and 2005. So how could I argue that a manager with those accolades wasn’t a great manager?
To me, it’s about his team’s inability to finish. Statistically speaking, winning just one World Series in 5 tries could seem like bad luck, especially when one loss came in what was considered the greatest World Series of all time, and two others came against a Yankees dynasty. While luck can play into losing a championship especially in the NFL where it is a one game do-or-die scenario, over a series of seven games the better team should, and typically will, find a way to win. Also, while he lost to some very good teams in the World Series, his roster was also loaded with talent for an extended period of time. In today’s game, a rotation with two great pitchers is considered formidable, and this Braves team featured Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz for 7 straight years, and some combination of the two of them for 15 straight years. The lineup was also formidable with HOFer to be Chipper Jones, and multiple all-stars such as Jermaine Dye, Andruw Jones, and Andres Galarraga just to name a few. This team was too good to only come away with one World Series, and in my opinion, the manager is certainly a cause for blame.
Obviously, the players on the field ultimately decide games. As someone who played baseball at the Division III level, I can promise you no player is ever thinking about his manager when the ball comes out of the pitcher’s hand. And if only one manager can win the World Series each year, the other 29 managers should not be crucified for their inability to win. But that does not mean the manager cannot be the difference maker, or the person who takes a team from talented to a champion. It may take years of losing for a coach like Bochy or Torre or La Russa to finally put the pieces of the managerial puzzle together, but one thing seems clear: a dynamic leader in the dugout can instill confidence in his players both individually and as a unit.
Re-enter Buck Showalter. Losing can be hard on a young franchise. Guys like Adam Jones in Baltimore can easily buy into an ideology that losing is the norm, and hold out until free agency to ditch the losing team. But in 2010, Buck Showalter walked into Camden Yards with a franchise-altering attitude. Pointing to the rich history of winning and Hall of Fame players of Orioles lore, Showalter challenged his players to be the team that brought a winner back to Baltimore. This same type of mentality convinced Jon Lester to sign in Chicago this off-season.
It wasn’t an instant turn around in Baltimore; the 2010 and 2011 seasons resulted in many more losses than wins. But before the 2012 season even started Adam Jones signed a four-year contract extension. He could see Showalter’s vision falling into place; the culture was changing and big things were on the horizons. That season Jones set several career highs, including a .287 average and 32 HRs, and led a team of “over-achievers” to a Wild Card spot. The Orioles have not managed to win a World Series in this span, but averaging more than 90 wins for the past three seasons speaks volumes about a roster that hasn’t changed much since 2012 and one that the metrics have predicted to finish 4th or 5th all three seasons.
The difference we can’t see on paper is coming from somewhere. And my bet is with Buck.
World Series Winning Managers from 1984-2014
|Manager||Regular Season W-L||With WS Winner||With Other Teams||World Series Wins||World Series Losses||Manager of the Yr*||Playoff W-L|
|Bruce Bochy||1618-1604||667-629||951-975||’10, ’12, ‘14||‘98||1||42-30|
|Tony La Russa||2728-2365||1408-1102||1320-1263||’89, ’06, ‘11||’88, ’90, ‘04||4||70-58|
|Terry Francona||1206-1062||744-552||177-147||’04, ‘07||–||1||28-18|
|Joe Torre||2326-1997||1173-767||1153-1230||’96, ’98, ’99, ‘00||’01, ‘03||2||84-58|
|Jim Leyland||1769-1728||146-178||700-597||‘97||’06, ‘12||3||44-40|
|Bobby Cox||2504-2001||2149-1709||355-292||‘95||’91, ’92, ’96, ‘99||4||67-69|
|Cito Gaston||894-837||894-837||0-0||’92, ‘93||–||0||18-16|
|Tom Kelly||1140-1244||1140-1244||0-0||’87, ‘91||–||1||16-8#|
|Tommy LaSorda||1599-1439||1599-1439||0-0||’81, ‘88||’77, ‘78||2||31-30|
|Sparky Anderson||2194-1834||1331-1248||863-586||’75, ’76, ‘84||’70, ‘72||0*||34-21|
- There was no World Series in 1994 due to a player strike
- Tony La Russa and Sparky Anderson both won World Series with multiple teams. The “record with WS winner” indicates the most recent team they coached.
- *Manager of the year award was not introduced until 1983
- Bolded name indicates elected to Hall of Fame
- Italics indicates active coach and record with current team
- °Girardi became the only manager to win the MOY award with a losing record in his one season at the helm in Florida
- #Kelly won two World Series in just two playoff appearances in 16 seasons managing the Twins
Written by Aaron Gillette