The State of MLB Managers

It has become a trend over the course of the last few NBA seasons for teams with head coaching vacancies to hire players just wrapping up their playing careers regardless of the fact that they lack any coaching experience, let alone head coaching experience. It would seem that this reinforces the idea that NBA coaches are not as important as the casual fan would think, but rather the players on the court are responsible for the majority of success or failure of a franchise.

This thought process seems to have been seeping through Major League Baseball with much less fanfare for a few years, and it tells us a lot about how managers are viewed by the chief decisions makers in MLB organizations.

A quick glance at the managers of the 2014 playoffs showcases Mike Matheny and Brad Ausmus, two former players (and former catchers, a theme amongst MLB managerial hires) that were elevated as the leaders of championship contenders without any prior work as a coach or manager at any level. Obviously, the Cardinals and Tigers, respectively, didn’t fret about a novice taking over the reins and learning on the job as they had great, championship caliber teams. A few setbacks might be expected, but nothing catastrophic, and each man has proven to be a steady leader for their teams thus far.

Don Mattingly, manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, had a few years as a bench/hitting coach for the venerable Joe Torre in both New York and Los Angeles, and he was named as Torre’s successor during the 2010 season. A few fill-in appearances as manager in 2010 featured Mattingly botching routine managerial tasks such as mound visits and blundering a line-up card. Four years later and Mattingly is still under immense pressure managing the Dodgers, but their patience seems to be paying off as Mattingly’s win totals have improved each year. The only knock has been the Dodger’s failures in the postseason, yet that cannot be so much attributed to Mattingly as the implosion of the players on the field.

And what of Ned Yost? The manager of the Kansas City Royals has helmed this perennial doormat to the World Series, yet he only took over the job when his predecessor, Trey Hillman, was fired during the 2010 season. Yost notched a few sound years guiding the Milwaukee Brewers from mediocrity to credibility, but was by no means considered the second coming of Walter Alston. He was promoted due to the firing of Hillman and he utilized the experience he had accrued at his previous stop to help mold the young players of the Royals into the American League champions that they are today. Was it planned that way by the Kansas City organization, to have this also-ran with little name recognition lead a young team to baseball’s promised land or did it just work out this way because Yost was given the opportunity and ran with it? Almost undoubtedly, the latter.

There are hard numbers that one can peruse and draw much the same conclusion: MLB managers are viewed as relics of a past age that has been pulverized to dust by the sabermetric revolution and that it’s last vestiges of old school dinosaurs like Torre, Tony LaRussa, and Bobby Cox have been put out to pasture. One look at the average salaries of head coaches/managers shows quite a disparity between coaches of the three major sports with MLB managers at the bottom in comparison to their NBA and NFL counterparts. They are not nearly as valued for their acumen or talents, and thus receive a lower compensation. Of course this does not apply to all managers because World Series winners will inevitably prove their worth and earn more, but the majority of managers are paid vast amounts less.

Are baseball managers becoming obsolete in the current age of baseball? Do general managers hire them in the hopes that their posts will become ceremonial and that they will make all decisions based upon communications with employee pouring over statistics and algorithms? (If you think that sounds dramatic and like a baseball dystopia then you haven’t seen Joe Girardi run to his little black book of matchups.) The way in which they have been selected recently, as well as their comparatively meager compensation leads one to believe that managers are not viewed as essential anymore, that they have a job just not to bungle the teams assembled by the executives of the organizations. However, it’s always great to watch a guy like Ned Yost burst on to the scene and add a human element to the game of baseball, one that sometimes is sorely missing.

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