How Much Impact Does a Manager Have?

Following my work on a previous article I wrote on which teams need new managers in 2015, it got me thinking about what really makes a good manager and when it is necessary to make that change. With all the work that has been done in advanced sabermetrics, there has yet to be any quantifiable way to measure a manager’s impact on a team’s performance in an individual game or a team’s performance in a season as a whole. While a statistic for measurement of a manager’s impact is still not there yet, we can reach some starting point as to what would be measured in a manager’s performance and how these things would be measured.

A good case for discussion on the impact a manager has on a team is Joe Maddon. Throughout his many years in Tampa Bay, Maddon was credited as being a big part of the reason the Rays could be so consistently good despite maintaining such a low payroll. With his move to the Cubs this offseason, many anticipated this success would follow him to Chicago and, up to this point, it has. However, this just raises the question: how much of the success can be attributed to the manager and how much of the success of a team can be attributed to things such as player talent, chemistry, and team philosophy?

Maddon is a good case for this kind of study of not only the success of the team he went to but the unexpected success of the team he left as well. While the Cubs have exceeded expectations this season, they were expected to be good and the influx of high-caliber talent from the minor leagues has seemingly made Maddon’s job easier than it would be otherwise. Let’s not take anything away from Maddon, but how much of the Cubs’ success is on Maddon and how much of it is on these players performing at a high level (although their performance may be attributed to Maddon’s coaching philosophy).

With regards to Maddon’s coaching style, and how much impact he has actually had on the Cubs in 2015, questions arise when one looks at the performance of Maddon’s former team since his absence. Despite Maddon leaving in the offseason, the Rays have still played a similar style of baseball under new manager Kevin Cash and have still continued to exceed expectations with a low payroll and a roster devoid of many real stars. If Cash has taken over for Maddon and done such a good job, was the success of the Rays really on the shoulders of Maddon or more on the organizational philosophy of the Rays front office and the performance of players who buy into that philosophy on the field?

Throughout the Twitter world and the blogosphere, casual fans and diehard fans alike have attempted to come up with, and have throughly used, both their own judgments and measurements as to what decisions are made by a good manager and what decisions or judgments warrant criticism and critique. From benching a hot player, to taking a starting pitcher out with 80 pitches in the sixth, to choosing bullpen arm A over bullpen arm B, many decisions a manager makes are scrutinized. Quantifying these decisions, both in terms of how much impact a manager has on these decisions and how much these decisions affect a team’s chances to win or lose a given game, is where real problems arise. At this point, the only tangible way to calculate a manager’s impact on a game is measuring the win probability added (WPA) for each individual decision a manager makes and hoping to establish some baseline as to what decisions negatively impact a team’s WPA and which decisions have a positive impact.

What this little thought experiment does is provide some starting point to measure a manager’s performance and impact on a team’s success or failure. It seems fairly obvious that it takes a real professional and not just any person off the street to coach a big league team, but with that in mind there still seems to be less tangible differences on the surface between each of the thirty managers who currently hold jobs in Major League Baseball. Joe Maddon may very well be the best manager in all of baseball, but even if that is the case, his impact on the Cubs’ performance in an individual game or even the team’s performance over a 162-game season may just be negligible. Taking nothing away from Joe Maddon and his relationship with, and impact on, his players, there is yet to be any tangible calculation to quantify an either positive or negative impact of a manager on a team’s performance in a singular game or a team’s performance over a whole 162-game season.

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