MLB Team Building: What Should Teams Be Looking For When Hiring a Manager?

The MLB offseason is filled with a lot of player movement, but something that always tends to fly under the radar is the hiring of new coaches.

There is a reason why manager hires aren’t extremely exciting; the perception is that they aren’t important in today’s MLB. With front offices more involved in-game decision making, as well as baseball being more of a “three true outcomes” game, there would appear to be less strategy. and thus less need for a manager. However, as I will argue in this article, managers still hold value in today’s game, which means that choosing the right man to lead the roster put in place is still imperative.

With that in mind, what types of traits should be looking for in managers? Do younger or older managers and to fare better? Is previous experience needed? What benefits are there from bringing in a new manager? We will answer all of those questions today.

What Is The Value of a Manager?

Although managers may not longer hold the autonomy to run a team that they want to, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important parts of their respective organizations. At the end of the day, a front office can assemble a team of talented players, yet if the manager fails to put them in a position to succeed, then it won’t matter in the end. Think Billy Beane vs Art Howell in Moneyball.

The tension that was created Beane and Howell’s opposing viewpoints is not healthy when it comes to maintaining organizational stability. Thus, when an executive is hiring a manager, they need to make sure that the new manager and he/she can collaborate. They do not need to share the exact same mindset, as proper debate is always healthy, but, ideally, there would be no tension present between two pillar aspects of an organization.

Additionally, managers need to hire their own coaching staff, which has great affects on player development. The Dodgers, for instance, have multiple hitting coaches, including one of the fathers of the “Launch Angle revolution” in Robert Van Scoyoc; they have consistently been excellent at developing hitters. The Giants, meanwhile, built a 13-man coaching staff filled with aspiring young coaches; their hitters progressed tremendously with their approach, while they certainly overachieved based on expectations. To top it off the Reds, Rays, Twins, and Indians have all also had success with deeper, unique coaching staffs; this is a product of managers committed to building a culture centered around helping players.

Speaking of cultures, managers also have to maintain team chemistry, and although it isn’t something that is quantifiable or as important as talent, certainly is better to have than not. Creating a positive culture also helps tremendously when it comes to increasing the buy-in on various strategies the front office may want to put in place, such as four-man/two-man outfields, consistent platoons, creative pitcher usage, and so on.

Simply looking at the 2019 standings can help one understand how managers can help be a finishing piece for a contending team; the Astros, Dodgers, Yankees, Twins, Braves, A’s, Rays, Indians, Diamondbacks, and Brewers are all regarded as organizations that are managed well. The Pirates, on the other hand, went 30-50 over the final three months of the season while they had multiple locker room fights, which may explain why the organization decided to cut ties with not only manager Clint Hurdle, but also general manager Neil Huntington. The Padres, additionally, shared a similar collpase in the second half of the season, were publicly called out by their owner, had multiple controversies regarding their feelings about manager Andy Green, and were able to create a much better culture in 2020 with a new manager (Jayce Tingler).

The point is that smart front offices need smart managers to run the show. As much as Andrew Friedman and Erik Neander are the engines behind the Dodgers and Rays, they have certainly benefitted from having arguably the top managers in the MLB in Dave Roberts and Kevin Cash, respectively. The idea that a team wouldn’t be affected by an unqualified manager being in place, consequently, is completely false in my eyes.

What Are The Effects of Hiring a New Manager?

Now that we have established the importance of managers in today’s MLB, it is time to analyze the effects of hiring a new one.

Generally, a manager is fired because they proved to be unfit to handle the job, while the person being hired has been deemed to be the best candidate available. Thus, my hypothesis is that we still a positive effect between bringing in a new manager and the team’s performance the next season.

To test this theory, let us look at all the new managers hired since 2015. I picked 2015 as a cut-off point on purpose, as this is around the time where the game of baseball started to shift away from managers having autonomy over their decisions.

In the cases of the past 29 managers to be hired the previous offseason, teams won an average of 3.06 more games, while they improved their pythagorean record by 2.82 wins. To adjust for outliers, the median of those two numbers was 2.82 and 2, respectively. While that may not be the greatest difference, that could move the needle when it comes to barely missing the playoffs and getting in. Any small edge to improve your team’s chances of winning should be exercised. Thus, if one believes that they can upgrade at the manager spot, they should not hesitate to do so; the grass may actually be greener on the other side!

How Should Age Factor Into The Hiring Process?

You are running a front office, and have now decided that it is time to hire a new manager, as you believe you can find an upgrade and want to leverage that advantage.

Now, the next step is to come up with certain qualities you’re looking for in a manager. For that reason, it is important to see if age should factor into the process. Is there a distinct advantage between hiring a younger or older manager? Does age matter at all when you’re hiring a manager? These are important questions that we must answer.

Let us go back to our same sample size of the 29 new managers hired since 2015 (not including interim managers that were later hired). Upon further review, age appears to have some sort of effect between the quality of a new manager:

In the two scatterplots, the team’s difference in xWins and wins from the previous season, respectively, were plotted against the new manager’s age. As you can see, it definitely looks like younger managers have some sort of advantage over their older counterparts. A correlation of coefficient of around .33 isn’t extreme, but it is just enough to indicate some sort of moderate relationship, which I believes makes more sense when we look at some of the younger managers hired recently compared to older managers.

Of the “young” managers hires, Rocco Baldelli (Twins), Jayce Tingler (Padres), Chris Woodward (Rangers), Gabe Kapler (Phillies and Giants), Alex Cora (Red Sox), and Mickey Callaway (Mets) have all led their teams to major improvements. In fact, the only “young” manager who led a worse team overall was Luis Rojas of the Mets, and that came in a 60-game season in which they were historically unlucky, per my models; they ranked last in “clutch” rating from Fangraphs and several other unstable metrics.

Of the “older” managers, the main success stories were Dusty Baker (Nationals) and Bud Black (Rockies). Outside of that, Joe Maddon (Angels), Ron Gardenhire (Tigers), and Baker (Astros) have been examples of older managers that have failed to elevate their new team. The oldest major “success story” , in fact, was 52-year-old Torry Lovullo, who helped lead the Diamondbacks to a 24-win improvement. Overall, only two managers age 48 or older saw their team decline in terms of xWins and wins, while only 33% age 60 or higher have helped improve their teams.

Why would this be the case? Is there anything to be said as to why younger managers are performing better than their older counterparts. In my opinion, this actually makes a lot of sense.

Younger managers are more likely to hire more progressive, unique coaching staffs, which we already highlighted as something that is key for player development. Additionally, they are also less likely to be “ingrained” in general conventional wisdom regarding what a manger’s role should be, so they should theoretically be more open to feedback from the front office. Meanwhile, as baseball players become younger on average and more outspoken, having a young, energetic manager that can relate to them and creative a positive culture is a major plus. Most of all, though, I believe younger managers are more prepared than ever before. They are being challenged to do more, and it is clear that there is a focus on establishing a pipeline of future managers; Jayce Tingler at age 39, for instance, had already been an assistant general manager, player development field coordinator, and a manager in the Dominican Winter League, in addition to playing in the minor leagues. Having that type of resume when age was seen as a requirement would have been nearly impossible.

Overall, the “tip of the ice burg” when it comes to manager age, per my findings is around age 59. I would be looking to hire a younger manager than that age, although there are several different variables that ought to go into the hiring process. Nevertheless, the fact that being older isn’t an advantage certainly combats traditional wisdom, and I think that most teams have already realized this, based on recent hiring decisions.

Is Past Managerial Experience Important?

A lot of times, fans and analysts push teams to try to hire an experienced manager, as they are seen as superior to those without experience- they would appear to come with less risk. However, is this actually the case. Let us go back to our trusty 29 recent hirings.

Overall, the median difference in wins for a manager with or without experience goes as follows:

  • Previous Experience: -0.5 wins
  • No Experience: 4 wins

Wait, what? If this holds true, previous managerial experience is actually a disadvantage! I do not believe that is actually true, but it certainly is telling that managers without previous experience have performed so well.

Notably, some of the more successful “retread” hires have been younger managers, such as Kapler, while older “retreads” have generally been less successful. Overall, though, the saying that managers that have experience are available for a reason probably holds some sort of validity- they were deemed unfit at some point to maintain their current job. Meanwhile, younger candidates who haven’t managed before just need the opportunity to showcase their abilities.

It is time that we stop worrying about past experience for a manager. In certain cases, having the ability to learn from past failures holds value, especially if they may have been overwhelmed in a big market, like Kapler may have been in Philadelphia (though he actually helped improve the Phillies and had the team overachieved their xWins in consecutive seasons). I am not here to say that past manager experience is a bad thing. However, it certainly shouldn’t be something that teams covet when they are plenty of other hungry candidates looking for the chance to shine.

What Can We Learn From Most/Least Successful Hires?

Since 2015, the most successful hires in terms of improvement have been:

  • Torey Lovullo- Diamondbacks 2017
  • Rocco Baldelli- Twins 2019
  • Alex Cora- Red Sox 2018
  • Jayce Tingler- Padres 2020

Meanwhile, the least successful hires in terms of immediate results have been:

  • Dave Martinez- Nationals 2019
  • Dusty Baker- Astros 2020
  • Rick Renteria- White Sox 2017
  • Brad Ausmus- Red Sox 2019

It’s a good thing Dave Martinez was given another year in Washington! The Nationals manager appears to be a great example of why managers should be given more than one year to prove themselves. There certainly is a learning curve to adjusting to a new role, and Martinez certainly proved to be a quality manager in his second season. Mostly, though, the successful hires have been progressive managers who built a support system in place. In fact, Cora, Tingler, and Baldelli all made sure to hire experienced bench coaches, who likely helped them adjust to being a manager. Meanwhile, many of the less-successful hires have consisted of older managers who were likely hired in part because of their past experience.

In fact, it is likely that managers without past experience need to be overqualified, as they aren’t as easy of sells to a fanbase as someone who has a track record of managing. Thus, their ability to overcome said adversity in the interview process may be the advantage they hold, and that would be backed up by our findings.

Overview

Let us go back to our beginning questions:

  • Are managers still important?
  • What should front offices be looking for when hiring a manager?

Based on their role in putting the roster a front office creates in a position to succeed, the need for a coaching staff adept with player development, and the requirement for organizational stability, managers are still a key part of an organization.

Hiring a new manager can be the spark that can help move the needle, even if it is just by a couple wins. That is obviously assuming the manager you hire is an upgrade over the previous manager, but if you cannot do that, then you messed up the hiring process anyways.

To make a proper decision, one must start with tossing aside preconceived notions. Having past managerial experience and being more seasoned does not make one a better candidate. In fact, age of the new manager and team improvement have had a moderately negative relationship since 2015. Given how much qualified younger candidates are with the training/experience they are being given, their ability to relate to players and front offices better, and their ability to be open to hiring a uniquely deep and diverse coaching staff, this is logical. Age 59 seems to be the tipping point, and although older managers with past experience can still succeed, the main point is that they aren’t a superior option.

This offseason, the three manager hires made were:

  • Tony LaRussa, age 76, to the White Sox
  • AJ Hinch, age 46, to the Tigers
  • Alex Cora, age 46, to the Red Sox

Cora is returning to Boston, and I expect the team to be much better naturally and welcome him with open arms. Hinch, meanwhile, replaces an older manager in Gardenhire, and based on his recent coaching hires, he is already creating an organizational culture that is going to help the Tigers progress throughout the final stages of their rebuild tremendously. La Russa, on the other hand, certainly is much older than the traditional, and comes with many of the red flags you would expect. Will he communicate well with his players? How much tension will there be in the White Sox organization? These are questions that could have been avoided by an alternative hire, especially with several younger, qualified candidates available that simply need an opportunity to prove themselves. All managers need to start somewhere, and although no manager this offseason was hired that didn’t have past experience due to unique circumstances, I am hoping that we continue to witness the a pipeline of managers created. It should be only a matter of time before 38-year-old Sam Fuld, 37-year-old Will Venable, and other overqualified candidates will get that opportunity. If I was running a front office right now, I certainly know that I would not look down on them for not having “paid their dues” enough and rather would recognize how impressive it is that they have moved up the pipeline so quickly!

There seems to be an ongoing debate between those who believe a manager is useless and those who believe they should have full autonomy. In the end, the answer lies in the middle; managers and front offices need to collaborate in order to put players in the best position to succeed. Understanding what to look for in a manager, as well as understanding their proper role in today’s game, can go a long way towards guiding an organization to accomplishing its main objective: winning a World Series championship.

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