1. Tony La Russa
He put to rest the notion his players tighten up come October with one of the great managing jobs of our time last year. It's no easy thing to make an 83-win team believe it can win. Now he's made me believe. He's an original thinker who's unsurpassed strategically. "I have tried to guess along with him on what moves he'll make next,'' David Eckstein told me in spring training, "and it just can't be done.''
If you haven't already, I invite you to read Buzz Bissinger's book 3 Nights in August, about La Russa. The purported aim of the book is to show how brilliant La Russa is as a strategist. The actual accomplishment is to make one feel like one wouldn't trust La Russa to take care of one's cats, much less one's baseball team. It starts with an anecdote about how Albert Pujols has a severe arm injury -- one that allows him to swing a bat but not throw. La Russa wants to play him anyway, to like intimidate the other team (which doesn't know about the injury), so he puts him in left field and tells him to casually underhand the ball to the SS if it gets hit to him. A doctor has told La Russa that Pujols, the most important player on the team by a factor of fifty, is risking severe like career-threatening shit if he throws a baseball. This is a not-super-important game. I mean, what the hell?Avid readers of this blog might remember many months ago when I wrote that I was going to do a lengthy review of this book. I started reading and making notes. By page 80 I had filled ten notebook pages with scribbles and exclamation points and frowny faces, and decided the task was just too big.
2. Jim Leyland
Perhaps he isn't the master strategist that La Russa is, but as a salesman and motivator, no one's better. His only blemish is his short time in Colorado, when his heart wasn't in it.
I fail to see why it's okay that his heart wasn't in it when he had a tough job. As opposed to when he managed the '97 Marlins, the best team money could buy, or the ultimately disappointing 90's Bucs. I think he's a fun guy, and a good manager, but shouldn't a big part of a manager's evaluation be how he does when he gets handed a pile of crap? (And please don't tell me the '06 Tigers were a pile of crap. They were well-positioned to be a solid team with that pitching.)
3. Mike Scioscia
Smart and solid, he's extremely even-keeled, and his players have bought into his aggressive, NL style.
Whatever. He's fine.
4. Joe Torre
Fourth place for the four World Series rings. But can he please take it easy on his favorite relievers? He especially needs to be careful with Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera.
I don't really know what to make of Torre. I happen to think that the most important job a manager does is handle the clubhouse and the owner. He has a tough clubhouse and a terribly whimsical/crazy owner, and is always even-keeled, so, to quote that weird guy who writes a weekly column about Starbucks and The Sopranos for SI.com, I think I think he's good. He also has a $200m payroll every year and occasionally makes some really odd decisions.
5. Lou Piniella
He didn't do his best work in Tampa, and baseball people noticed. Plus, he's been cited by some for mishandling pitchers. He certainly can lose his cool, as well, but that's part of his charm. Wouldn't want to have to match wits against him in the postseason, though that might not be anyone's worry this year.
I believe Sweet Lou is insanely overrated. Tampa never seemed one ounce better off with him than with anyone else. But what really irritates me is that he's sitting here at #5, and is followed by
6. Bobby Cox
I'm sure most would rank him higher. But since the goal is to win titles, that has to be seen as a failing.
I mean, you've got to be kidding me.
Figuring out what effect, if any, a manager has on a team is very difficult. Moneyball famously talks about how Billy Beane loved Art Howe because Howe sat stoically in the dugout and stared straight ahead and had the appearance of a leader, while essentially just following orders. He presided over those overachieving computer-generated teams that everyone loves to call underachieving because they got terribly unlucky in October, and then he went to the Mets and stunk up the place.
As I said, most anecdotal evidence (because empirical evidence with managers seems misleading) says that managers' most important job is that of a sheep dog -- herding the players in the same direction, keeping them from going astray over the course of a long season, focusing them on the task at hand, that kind of thing.
If that is at all true...who is better than Bobby Cox? He didn't win titles? He won every division title from 1844 to 2005. He throws some of the best player-protecting temper tantrums in the game. His guys love him. He handles veterans and rookies and retreads and rich guys and does gutsy things like make John Smoltz a closer. If I were GMing a team, I might get Bobby Cox to run it. Assuming he secretly agreed to run it Moneyball-style.
7. Grady Little
He was knocked hard for sticking with Pedro Martinez in the 2003 ALCS, when his critics apparently would have rather seen him turn the game over to a very iffy bullpen. He's a low-key guy who doesn't get the plaudits he deserves.
Grady Little is a bad manager. He is a very nice man who says pleasant things in a pleasant drawl. He has no business being anywhere near a dugout. And this is not sour grapes. This is common sense.
10. Terry Francona
The Red Sox skipper keeps his cool in a tough environment. He manages both the clubhouse and game well.
If these are your criteria: put Torre first, Terry 2nd, Cox 3rd, and everyone else 4th.
11. Ron Gardenhire
Always has the Twins hustling, just like in the Tom Kelly years.
He also thought Luis Castillo was worth 15 extra wins for his team. He seems decent, I guess, though he does some funky things with his line-up.
Managers are a mystery. Uneven payrolls and the large element of luck in short series make conclusions about their abilities very difficult. In general they should probably be judged on their overall team management skills, on and off the field -- controlling their players well and also letting them have fun without letting things get out of control...all that jazz.
However, I believe -- and this is from memory, so correct me if I am wrong -- that it was Rick Pitino who once said that the only time a basketball coach really has any tangible influence over that fluid game was coming out of a timeout, when (s)he could set up a specific play. If there is any corresponding truth in baseball, then people who famously make bonehead moves at crucial situations should never be on the list of best managers in baseball.
I'm looking at you, Grady.
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