I am a recovering manager believer. It's a cult that one runs away from the way John Lennon fled from Rishikesh when he thought the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was getting too familiar with the female disciples. As a young baseball fan I imbibed the legend of John McGraw's flinty genius, internalized the siren song of Casey Stengel's platooning, and Bobby Cox's platooning too. I marveled at Billy Martin's inexplicable ability to goad men who hated him into playing their best baseball, Bill McKechnie's mastery of pitching and defense, Earl Weaver's prescient understanding of on-base percentage, Leo Durocher's cutthroat ethos.
Then I grew up.
When you look at all the stratagems that managers employ, all of those bunts and hit and runs and squeeze plays and intentional walks, not to mention the constant schlepping of pitchers like Randy Choate and Donnie Veal in and out games, it turns out that they have a minimal effect, usually to the negative. The same goes for lineup construction -- the difference between the most optimal lineup and the least-optimal lineup that any manager actually uses (because no manager leads off the pitcher and bats Brendan Ryan cleanup) is small.
That leaves a couple of areas around the margins where the manager can make an impact. One is distribution of playing time, which is important, though one in which he acts as a handmaiden to the general manager (the manager can't play bad players if you don't give him bad players -- which is to say that every Yuniesky Betancourt season has two daddies). Even then, both are at the mercy of contingency. That is to say that when the traditional managerial-genius story, the one in which the enlightened coach switches out miserable old Bobby Jones for young and vital Mike Tuna and the team goes on a winning streak, is investigated, you will find quite that quite often the manager's hand was forced by an injury or some other outside force. Then there is the unquantifiable area of clubhouse management, making sure his players are focused on winning and get dressed with their jockstraps on the inside.
Tony La Russa and Ron Washington.
Regardless of how you value these things, and you may put a great deal more weight on them than I do, here is as close to a truism as anything in the history of baseball: No manager has ever taken a team with the true talent level of the 1939 St. Louis Browns or the 2003 Detroit Tigers and won a pennant with it. Nor has any manager been given a team with a roster like that of the 1954 Indians or 1998 Yankees and finished last with it. There are a few examples of extreme incompetence that probably should be ruled out of bounds, and the weird outlier that was Billy Martin, but mostly they tinker around the margins. Thus manager Fred Haney lost 111 games with the aforementioned Browns outfit but won two pennants and a World Series with the Braves, Casey Stengel struggled with the Braves, Dodgers, and Mets, but won with the Yankees, and Connie Mack veered between 107 wins and 117 losses with the A's.
To be clear, I am not saying that managers have no impact, or that a smart manager might not win you an extra game here and there (and a bad one toss a few away). In select cases, say that of Casey Stengel with the 1949 Yankees, they can even make the difference in a close race. But those instances are few and far between. In general, it is clear that managers change a lot less than the personnel around them do. Whatever the positives that Matt Williams, Bryan Price, and Brad Ausmus bring to their new jobs with the Nationals, Reds, and Tigers (respectively), barring some truly stupid trades over the next few weeks or a catastrophic series of injuries, their teams will be very good regardless of what they do. Similarly, unless Rick Renteria comes equipped with a magic wand and a slew of IOUs from Jeff Loria that he can cash in for Mike Stanton and Jared Fernandez, the Cubs are still going to be somewhere on the long, meandering road back.
The closest we might come to an example of the impact a manager has in the soft areas of clubhouse culture would be the Yankees' switching from Billy Martin to Bob Lemon in 1978, and then back to Martin when the team got off to a weak start in 1979. A more recent example of the same, but in reverse and played out in slow motion, was the switches the Red Sox made over the last three seasons, going from Terry Francona to Bobby Valentine to John Farrell. These facts seem uncontroversial: That the clubhouse had become somewhat complacent under Francona, that Bobby Valentine confronted a mix of personalities that was inclined to rebel against playing in Boston in general and him in particular and was ill-suited to overcome that opposition (if any manager could have), and that Farrell no doubt benefitted from the legitimacy his role as pitching coach for the Sox' 2007 champions, but he also was dealt a very different set of personalities from that which Francona and Valentine confronted -- sulky Carl Crawford out, gung-ho Jonny Gomes in, and so forth.
You might enjoy the more conventional narrative, that there was just something about Farrell's personality, strategies, and tactics that transformed a 93-game loser into a champion, but we know there was far more involved in it than that, starting with ownership, the general manager, and the lucrative support of the Boston market. If you can accept that the traditional narrative is too simplistic when it comes to Farrell in 2013, then it is very easy to apply that same logic backwards through time to every other instance of managerial brilliance you've been told about.
That's not to say that these new hirings aren't exciting. Over the last few years we've seen a dramatic changing of the guard when it comes to big-league skippers. Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, are so far gone that they're up for Hall of Fame election. Jim Leyland and Davey Johnson have seemingly retired, and no one knows if Charley Manuel or Dusty Baker will manage again. The two managers in the World Series this year had managed all of five seasons between them. In the previous World Series, Bruce Bochy and Leyland combined for 39 years, over 6200 games, and two championships.
With the addition of Price, Williams, Ausmus, Renteria, and Ryne Sandberg (Phillies) to the managerial fold, as well as the Mariners' Lloyd McClendon revival (and perhaps he too should be counted as new given that it's unfair to judge anyone by the record of the 2001-2005 Pirates), half of big-league managers now have five years or fewer of experience. The 13 championships from 2000 through 2012 were won by 10 different managers. Only four of them -- Mike Scioscia, Terry Francona, Bruce Bochy, and Joe Girardi -- are currently active. Add in Farrell and only five of 30 managers have ever won a World Series. In 2010, 11 active managers had won, 12 if you count Bochy, who scored his first winning ring that fall.
Chances are, most of these changes will signify as little as I've suggested they are worth, and most of these managers will go pursue whatever activities (just to name a few short-lived managers at random) Terry Bevington, Cecil Cooper, Jerry Manuel, and Brad Mills use to fill their time. They really do come and go fairly quickly, generally leaving no mark. Once, on a long train ride, a well-known baseball writer and I tried to name all the Phillies managers of the 1980s. It took us half an hour to come up with John Felske, and rightly so.
Maybe if I had unchecked the "exclude nudity" box...
Nevertheless, these new faces bring hope that one among them will prove to be the one manager in a generation who can do more than react to hamstring pulls and redundantly call reliever after reliever out of the pen. Any of them could be the next Stengel or Earl Weaver, or even Tony La Russa, someone who, in ways large or small, reinvents an aspect of the way the game is played.
In baseball, greatness of any kind is all too rare. A fresh example in the managerial ranks would be wonderful to see... But I'm not counting on it.