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McCosky: A big-league manager's role is as vital as ever

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire, left, talks with Nicholas Castellanos last season.

Detroit — God help us if we get to the point in baseball where people think the manager doesn’t matter.

God help us if it gets to the point where a big-league manager is merely a rubber stamp for the whims of the general manager and analytics department — just checking the color-coded charts and playing exactly what the data calls for, like he’s playing Strat-O-Matic Baseball.

God help us if baseball gets dehumanized to the point where it becomes essentially a computer simulation game, sponsored by EA Sports.

You think I am kidding? That I am just throwing out some crazy dystopian theory? Maybe. But think about it.

Video replay already has taken some human fallibility out of the game, for better or worse. The concept of a robotic strike zone continues to be discussed. The unceasing flow of data now so accurately detects tendencies and projects outcomes, players coming up don’t develop a true feel for the game.

The data tells fielders where to stand on the field. It tells hitters what pitch will likely be thrown in what count. It tells pitchers where a hitter’s blind spots are. On and on, to the point where some might question the role or the necessity of a manager — other than as the conduit between the data and player.  

Seventeen of the current 30 major-league managers were hired without having previous managerial experience, which further highlights the point. There was even debate in some media circles during the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas this week about whether we should stop presenting an annual manager of the year award, because the role of the manager has been so diluted.

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God help us.

The role of the manager has changed. It has evolved. Absolutely. But a manager’s importance, the significance of his role, may be greater today than ever. Can anybody deny the impact Alex Cora, one of the first-year, no-experience managers, had on the Red Sox? Can anybody deny the impact Craig Counsell had on the Brewers?

On the other side of the spectrum, can anybody deny the impact Ron Gardenhire had on a young, rebuilding Tigers team?

“I can’t speak for all of them, but if you talk to most general managers, we all know the value of a strong leader in the clubhouse and on the field,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said. “Our analytics people give him a lineup all the time; it doesn’t mean he has to use it. It’s all just information.”

Avila thought it was a disservice to label new managers in the game as analytics guys.

Cleveland's Corey Kluber, left, is congratulated by manager Terry Francona last season.

“They are baseball guys,” he said. “They are still hired to lead men on the field and you need that strong communication. If you don’t have that, if you just have a strong analytical guy taking the lineups and arranging the shifts, that doesn’t work.

“You need a guy in that clubhouse and on that field who the players trust, who can communicate with them and get the message across. They aren’t going to listen to the GM upstairs. They are going to listen to the manager on the field. That leadership role is as important as it’s ever been to the success of a team.”

Think about all the work that goes on in spring training to prepare a team for 162 games. Think about managing all the various personalities and egos through the tumultuous ups and downs of a season. Think about having a pulse on the mental and physical health of 25 players every day for eight months.

There’s no algorithm for that.

And that’s on top of the experience and instincts and non-analytical feel a good manager brings into a game. I asked Gardenhire on Wednesday how often he weighed analytics versus his gut instincts during a game.

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“That's a constant,” he said. “Because you grow up one way in the game, and you always have a feel for how a guy's going that day. Analytically it's just straight numbers. But during the course of the game, you can see if a guy's really struggling, a hitter, not seeing the ball that day — even though the numbers say this guy should kill this pitcher.

“Sometimes you have to use your brain and say, ‘Right now, he sucks. He's swinging like I used to.’

"And so you always have to use your brain, and you always have to make adjustments.”

I asked Indians manager Terry Francona the same thing.

“I'm not real comfortable talking about gut decisions,” he said. “And the only reason I say that is because I know there's times where the numbers don't add up. But you also need to know your people. And that's where I think maybe that's what guys are referring to when they say their gut.

“You're betting on your people. And it's a long season. So in a game in April, yeah, it might not be a good matchup, but you need this guy in October. So you let them maybe fail a few times and maybe they start to figure it out. You feel obligated to know the numbers, but you also feel obliged to never forget that you're dealing with people.”

Alex Cora won the World Series in his first year as manager of the Red Sox.

That’s what should never be lost in this soul-crushing avalanche of data. Baseball is an extremely difficult game played by fallible human beings. No algorithm can fully quantify the variances in a player’s mood, energy and confidence level from day to day, or inning to inning. A good manager has the best shot at it.

“I hope people don’t think the role of a manager is diminished,” Francona said. “You don't want to toot your own horn, because I don't think that makes sense. But I think people that maybe say that don't quite understand the game very much.

“I think sometimes for guys that haven't been in a game, if you're in the dugout, it can go kind of fast. It can go kind of quick. The baseball part's easy. There's a lot. Keeping 25 guys that live together for about eight months going in one direction, that's probably the biggest thing.”

The Mets' Mickey Calloway, in his first year as a manager last season, messed up his lineup card and cost his team an out. Former Tiger Gabe Kapler, early in his first season with the Phillies last year, made his second trip to the mound, even though he didn’t have another pitcher warming up in the bullpen.

The game can go kind of quick.

Gardenhire last season expertly managed the strong egos of Victor Martinez and Jose Iglesias and got them both through with better-than-expected results. He kept the pitching staff together despite the club having to fire pitching coach Chris Bosio in the middle of the year.

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There is so much more to the job than reading a spreadsheet and positioning players on a field.

 “Guys that don't have any experience, didn't manage in the minor leagues even, those are the types of things they're going to have to adjust to,” Gardenhire said. “There's a lot that goes on that people don't understand about managing in the major leagues. Managing 25 guys with all types of personalities, young guys that have been given a ton of dough and trying to make them all understand how you're going to make them work together as a group.

“People that have never managed in the minor leagues getting jobs like this, it's not easy. They are going to figure out that there’s a lot they have to do and learn.

"That's not saying they won't be successful. Because most of those guys are pretty intelligent baseball people.”

In classic Gardenhire style, he chafed at the notion of a manager’s role being devalued.

“All I know is, if we suck, I’m going to get fired,” he said. “That’s the importance of the manager. Somebody has to get fired when the (stuff) doesn’t go right. Jay (Sartori, senior director of analytics) can screw up every day, not giving me the right lineups, he’s not getting fired.

“I’m getting fired.”

Managers, good managers, matter in baseball. And, God willing, they always will.


Twitter: @cmccosky