The St. Louis Cardinals are expected to introduce Mike Matheny as their new field manager at a Monday news conference. In so doing, they are going from a man with three decades of managing experience, the now-retired Tony La Russa, to someone whose post-career baseball experience consists of a little bit of "spring training instructor".
He's not the first man to be hired this winter with little or no experience; the White Sox hired Robin Ventura to be their manager, and his post-playing career coaching experience involves something at the local high school where he lives in Southern California.
Does this matter? Jeff Passan at Yahoo says no:
No team ever truly can know how a manager is going to react to a group of players, a city, a job. Joe Torre went to the New York Yankees a loser and left a four-time champion. Jim Leyland spent a year in Colorado before burning out. Hinch failed as a manager only to return to the front office, where he is hailed as one of the top young minds in the game. Matheny is about to take over the World Series champions, and …
And even if this doesn’t work, if he doesn’t win the Cardinals’ 12th title, that doesn’t make it a bad hire. The logic is sound, the duties well-filled, the risk manageable. Would experience help? Maybe for the first month.
Passan has a point, and the Cardinals are likely to surround Matheny with an experienced coaching staff. Longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan is returning, and even though third base coach Jose Oquendo was passed over for this job, he's likely to come back as well, and it's probable that the other Cardinals coaches will also return. Many of them were coaches when Matheny was the Cardinals' starting catcher from 2000 through 2004, so it's not as if he's unfamiliar with them. Three of those five teams made the playoffs with Matheny behind the plate.
The hiring of men like Ventura -- who is going to have a far less-experienced coaching staff with the White Sox -- and Matheny is very rare. Over the last 40 years, only six men have been hired as managers with less actual coaching or managing experience than these two. Three of them -- Dallas Green, Jim Fanning and A.J. Hinch -- had front office experience before donning the field manager's uniform. Passan says the Hinch comparison isn't valid:
Matheny is not Hinch for any number of reasons, the most important of which has nothing to do with either as a person. What matters for a manager who has never managed is the situation he inherits. The Cardinals are good. The Diamondbacks weren’t. Matheny commands great respect among a number of Cardinals veterans. Hinch came from a front office, whose relationship with players often is adversarial.
Perhaps true. But the fact that the Cardinals are good puts pressure on Matheny to win, especially coming off a World Series victory. That will be more difficult if Albert Pujols departs, though he and Matheny were teammates for four seasons, and perhaps that will help in retaining Pujols in St. Louis.
The other three hires made of men with no previous managing or coaching experience were all of men who became player-managers: Frank Robinson, Don Kessinger and Pete Rose. Robinson never managed a playoff team, but he did have a long (16 year) managing career; Rose's managing career ended for reasons you all know.
The best comp could be Kessinger. Like Matheny, he was viewed as a leader when he was a player and at age 36 in 1979, the White Sox thought they might be getting someone who could have a long managerial career when he finished playing; it was expected he would retire as a player after that year. Instead, Kessinger didn't even finish his first managerial season, fired after 106 games. He never managed nor coached in the major leagues again.
And he was replaced by an even younger man, Tony La Russa. In 1979, few gave La Russa a chance to succeed, yet 32 years later he is being celebrated in retirement as one of the greatest managers in baseball history.
Perhaps John Mozeliak and Kenny Williams are ahead of the curve. Could "young manager with no experience" be the next Moneyball, the next market inefficiency to exploit? Mozeliak and Williams are taking a pretty big risk. They could be wrong; there's really no history of hires like this to say whether it will succeed or fail (Hinch notwithstanding).
But if they're right, watch for the next wave of managerial hires to be men very much like this.