Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A manager's role?

The recent success of the Florida Marlins is ironic in the sense that the manager of the club almost got fired a few weeks back. Many people are looking at the simmering feud between Manager Joe Girardi and owner Jeffrey Loria as another example of a bush league owner not "getting it." It is entirely possible that Joe Girardi will be the manager of the year and be promptly fired at season's end.

This begs the question: how much influence does a manager have over a team's performance on the field?

My answer is not much. Let's face it, of all the major sports baseball is the one where coaching makes the least amount of difference. Football is the sport where it's most important. In football, all the plays are called in from the sidelines. In basketball and hockey, two transition games, the coach can influence the game not so much through play-calling but through substitution patterns.

In the American League the manager's gameday responsibility amounts to filling out the line-up card and taking it out to the umpire. I'm kidding of course. The most important decision a manager usually has to make in baseball is when to take a pitcher out of the game.

But if you really look at it closely, baseball is a repetitive activity, it's basically an individual sport in a team setting. No words Girardi can say will make Dan Uggla hit a home run. Likewise Josh Johnson's tiny ERA cannot be attributed to pearls of wisdom spoken by the manager on gameday.

Of course having a good coaching staff can improve a player's performance over the long haul. An example that comes to mind is how the aforementioned Dan Uggla has improved his defense over the course of the year, with the help of infield instructor Perry Hill. And Perry Hill is known as probably the best in his field. But what's the difference between the best coach and the worst coach (there's only 30 of them in the Major Leagues so presumably they are all elite)? How many wins over the course of a 162 game season can we attribute to coaching/managing? My guess is that it's maybe a handful, much less than most people think.

If Joe Girardi is so great a manager now that the Marlins are in the wildcard hunt why wasn't he a terrible manager when they were 20 games under .500?

Could it be possible that the Marlins are winning in spite of Girardi and his ideas and not because of them, that the front office really deserves the credit for assembling a team of players that other teams undervalued and therefore are much better than their $15 million payroll would seem to indicate? Some evidence that this is the case came in this Dave Hyde column a couple of weeks ago. In it, he says that:
For instance, back in spring training, according to two Marlins sources, here's some changes Girardi pushed for: Miguel Cabrera from third to first base; Dan Uggla not at second base but in left field; Josh Willingham at catcher, not Miguel Olivo; Alfredo Amezaga might not have made the team; and young pitchers like Ricky Nolasco and Josh Johnson would have started in the minor leagues.
If you aren't familiar with the Marlins the above allegations won't mean much to you but the changes that Girardi wanted look comical today in light of the team's success and the contributions that each of those players have made to it.

My point is that we can't fall into the trap of thinking that Joe Girardi is the only manager that could have done what's been done this season.

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