Nothing so blatantly illustrates where the power in modern baseball resides as the carousel of managerial firings that climaxed Thursday with the New York Yankees’ dismissal of Joe Girardi. General managers wield more control than ever, and they use it as a cudgel to install ideological analogs. When Girardi lost Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ GM, he lost his job.
The manager used to be the fulcrum of an organization, the decision maker whose compass guided the GM. The slow shift to a top-down management structure accelerated as front offices sodden with information saw managers more as conduits through whom they could deliver the knowledge gleaned from the quantitative analysis that serves as a backbone for modern baseball dogma.
And though Girardi was by no means averse to this, brandishing the most infamous binders outside of Mitt Romney’s, there is a truth to the GM-manager relationship: If any animus exists, it’s obvious who’s gone. Managers, in 2017, are as fungible as paper towels.
Dusty Baker, coming off 95- and 97-win seasons with Washington? Gone. John Farrell, winner of the American League East the last two years in Boston? Peace. Terry Collins, who managed in the World Series two years ago and a playoff appearance last season? Canned.
Girardi, Baker and Collins have spent at least a decade managing baseball teams, and the Boston Rule – every year spent managing the Red Sox should count for two – would put Farrell there, too. The notion that experience buys them a pass or counts for much holds little water. The swath of managers hired with no prior experience elucidates the evolution of the position and how front offices view managers today.
The ideal manager is trilingual: English, Players and Quants. He manages up and down. He relays the temperature of the clubhouse to upper management while selling the front office’s information and direction to players. He knows how to convince those in uniform that what those in shirts and ties want is paramount, and he knows how to convince those on the upper floors that the nature of a 25-man roster means some will resist those entreaties. He has intellectual heft and social charm. He is a unicorn.
And while the baseball world will point to Cleveland’s Terry Francona and say “He exists! He exists!”, the paucity of such polymaths throughout the game speaks to the difficulty of what front offices expect. It’s why Baker’s dismissal so rankled people in baseball. Yes, he made baffling bullpen decisions. Yes, his lineup construction left something to be desired. Yes, he did not tickle those who see in-game decision-making as the essence of managing.
Never has this perspective made much sense. The candidates baseball chooses to manage teams come from a pool of men who study the game, not game theory. Nor, it should be noted, was he asked to learn up on it, which he almost certainly would’ve, because Dusty Baker is a lot of things, but ignorant damn sure isn’t one of them. He’s not nearly as intransigent as the public might believe, either, and his opinions, actually, dovetailed rather well with the Nationals, lower on sabermetric inclination than most teams around the game.
The Yankees find themselves near the top of that list, and it has helped them build a frightening roster. The Yankees are Cashman’s custom car, put together piece by piece. He wanted to choose the driver. And though Girardi had been dutiful and won a World Series in 2009 and guided a number of teams, including this season’s, to better-than-expected finishes, his gravitas allowed him to stand up to Cashman. The new manager may not be a puppet, per se, but his viewpoint will respect that of management, and he’ll need to put in long, hard hours to earn the players’ respect, because the players understand the dynamics at play.
It’s why the Red Sox went with Alex Cora and the Mets with Mickey Callaway to fill their managerial vacancies: Each comes with extraordinary interpersonal skill and a clean slate upon which past experiences and biases haven’t fully imprinted themselves. Cora is Houston’s bench coach through the end of the World Series. Callaway was Cleveland’s pitching coach. They’re far from lacking ideas. But each knows that the duty of the manager today is to fulfill the wishes of those watching the game from the suite.
This is not changing. If anything, it’s going to become even more apparent, as the cult of the GM grows. It already scares those on the field, one of whom this season said, resignedly: “I’m just here to get my strings pulled.” He makes seven figures and is one of 30, though, so dance he did.
What front offices need ask themselves is just how valuable a dissenting voice in a position of power might be. It takes a secure GM to hire someone who will challenge him, someone from a different background, someone who could serve as the legislative to his executive. Analytically rooted organizations seeking out analytically savvy candidates reinforces the feedback loop that is high-profile baseball jobs.
When the sport needs to create a Diversity Fellowship Program because its front offices are so laden with the same stock character that it turns the sport into a swamp of similar thinking, that says something. And when the same problem exists among managerial candidates, well, Howard Bryant said it best.
Five black or brown baseball guys who are known as "analytics guys" that teams view as solid managerial candidates. OK, go!
— Full Dissident (@hbryant42) October 26, 2017
Baseball finds itself at an odd place with managers, trying to bend them just so, and perhaps that becomes the new normal. The game tends to balance itself out, though, and over time perhaps managers do win back some of the power they lost. The job has changed, no doubt, and the marginalization doesn’t sit well with a number of managers. It’s just the reality in 2017, where the hottest seat in baseball is actually the top step of the dugout.