What Do We Really Want (In A Manager)?

Buy tickets for AN Day VI now, so I can make the first deposit! Details here.

It’s nothing short of patently ironic that the manager no one wanted in Oakland is now managing a first-place National League team. Or that the "second choice" of the A’s and his Texas Rangers are fighting for the top spot in the AL West. Of course, we all know where Bob Geren's 2009 Oakland Athletics are in the standings, and it’s nowhere good.

This would be an interesting point if managers could make up the difference between a last-place team and a first-place one. They can’t. Not even the best manager in the world could take players like Cabrera/Giambi/Cust and somehow make them Kinsler/Young/Hamilton/Cruz or even Braun/Fielder. A manager can be set up to succeed or fail; is it coincidental that Joe Torre became a winning manager in his career only when he was given the Yankees?

But while it’s true that a manager is limited in his role; I believe that he absolutely can make the different between a first and second place team, or the difference between a win and a loss in a single strategic game. I still believe that Ken Macha’s bullpen management cost us games when it mattered in the mid-2000’s, and I certainly believe Bob Geren’s management has the potential to cost the A’s games in a variety of ways, but due to the team’s general suckitude, it’s hard to pin down.

However, while AN is largely down on Geren (and has been since Day 1); I am curiously surprised that AN remains so high on Ron Washington. Wash was an absolutely amazing fielding coach, who meant so much to the players of the A’s organization, but I think the losing season and the backlash against Geren has given Washington credentials that I don’t think he has earned.

Washington and the Rangers came in dead last in 2007, a game behind Geren and the A’s, and he barely made it through his first month of the 2008 season with the team, with sources all but reporting his firing. And then things turned around for the Rangers, who finished the season at 79 and 83 and started 2009 with an impressive 48-39 record, just off the pace of the first-place Angels. And as always, the manager that was in the doghouse during a losing streak is now in conversations for Manager of the Year after the turnaround. But again, how much can be attributed to the manager, and how much is the result of Texas pitching finally giving up fewer runs than their offense was driving in? Texas’ ERA dropped from 5.37 in 2008 to 4.34 in 2009, and that has nothing to do with the person who fills out the lineup card. If anything, the focus should be on the Rangers' pitching coach, Mike Maddux, and his work with the Texas hurlers.

One of the things that strikes me as petty in baseball is playing-time retaliation for possible off-field activity. Have we seen it twice this year from Geren and/or Billy Beane? Take Sean Gallagher, a young pitcher who looked like he would fill in as the number 2 starter behind Duchscherer, who was mysteriously sidelined for half of the season, supposedly injury-ridden before being traded. And who knows where to begin with Travis Buck, who must have done something unforgivable to justify what has happened to him this season.

But Ron Washington’s own recent player management reads like a Joe Morgan playbook. It’s one thing to bench Travis Buck for nebulous reasons. It’s entirely another to bench Nelson Cruz, who played in the All Star game last night.

Cruz, tied for fourth in the American League with 20 homers [he has 22 at the break], has sat out the last three nights as manager Ron Washington tries to find a way to rotate five players into four spots.

Washington said. "It's not that vicious, where I'm sitting Nelson Cruz. It's just that those guys out there did such a great job, how can you pull them off the field?"


Yet, even after Cruz had been benched for three straight games, and was named to the All Star game the next day, Washington finally played Cruz, but not because he wanted to:


Manager Ron Washington said he had planned on playing Murphy for Cruz, even though Cruz had been named to the All-Star team earlier in the day as an injury replacement for Torii Hunter. It has nothing to do with Cruz, Washington said, but with riding the hot hand.

 

The reason given, far and wide, is not because of anything Cruz did, but rather because Washington believes in riding the "hot hand". But sitting an All-Star homerun hitter for three or four consecutive games is ridiculous, even more so when you look at his competition. Blalock, .854 OPS, Murphy, .804 OPS, Byrd, .801 OPS. Cruz? .865 OPS! Even more amazingly, Cruz leads the ENTIRE Rangers team in OPS versus right-handed pitchers, which were all three games he sat and was going to sit the fourth! How was Washington allowed this? I can't even imagine how I would feel if he was managing the A's and we had a hitter like Cruz. The mysterious non-use of Travis Buck was bad enough; I would be losing my mind if he was an established good player. I don’t know which is worse, honestly. Do I want to think of Washington as a manager who just doesn’t realize Cruz’ value in his lineup, or do I want to think of him as a manager who benches one of his best players for his own reasons to the detriment of his team?

MLB on the All-Star game:


Cruz certainly has the numbers to be here. He finished the first half hitting .263 with 22 home runs and 53 RBIs. His .539 slugging percentage is also the 12th-highest mark in the league.


It is still odd though that Cruz learned of his All-Star selection that day after being out of the lineup for three straight days. He wasn't hurt.


What are you looking for in your ideal manager? Someone who rides the hot hand when filling out the lineup card? Someone who is not afraid to bench their best player if they think it will prove a point? Someone who is independent of the general manager? Do you prefer the old school style of 'baseball by touch' or do you prefer a more modern interpretation of the game? Has your perception of Washington and/or Macha changed as you have watched them manage the last couple of years? Who do you think is the best manager in MLB?

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