The very nature of baseball is the absence of frenzy. It is our only major sport without a game clock. So it should be no surprise that the game takes its sweet time doing things. Since the introduction of a second tier of playoffs in 1969 the traditional approaches to managing a team have been largely untouched…until now. Change is never easy. But, making change in the Byzantine business of baseball is akin to using oarsmen to move an ocean liner. Eventually any organism with a pulse, however slow, responds to continual stimulus.
Baseball has well over a century of collective experience for how to deal with the regular season. There are variations on a basic theme. But, the successful practitioners have fallen within a narrow range of possibilities. The core functions are development of the individual players while establishing a solid structure for daily operations. Integral to the structure is development of crystalline roles and responsibilities. From this comes rhythm. When a lineup gets set, regulars know the next day’s assignments, and mutual trust forms between the layers of the organization as a flow develops. Few things are more important in a long-term athletic pursuit than rhythm. The game is good at providing disruptions in the forms of injuries, weather delays/ rain-outs, and scrambled travel plans. Teams with great rhythm overcome these perturbations. Then the playoffs arrive. Suddenly the carefully constructed structure and rhythm don’t mean a blessed thing.
Playoff baseball is a set of staccato riffs where walks are suddenly a self-contained rally and a single run becomes a mountain range to cross. There’s no time for rhythm. There’s no place for loyalty. It’s about winning. The entire process starts with the roster construction. A team needs the speed-demon rookie to pinch run, the guy just up from the minors with the vacuum outfield glove for a defensive replacement, and a so-called “Loogy.” (Left-handed one-out guy) There are other needs as well. But, this small set drives team management to distraction. If there are fissures between the General Manager and the field manager these is where they will appear. Some teams lose the post-season right here in roster construction. The manager with the fierce loyalty to players often win the battle only to lose the war on two fronts; the post-season and a soured relationship with the GM.
When field managers are fired after a failed post-season the first place to look for understanding is at his relationship with the GM. The second place is at his post-season record. If the record is poor and the relationship is scalded the walking papers are coming. This is one outfall from an arguably flawed organizational design: Baseball has almost always acquiesced to the authority of the field manager. Few organizations afford such autonomy to a single person. This creates a unique set of circumstances. For one thing the business of baseball is about the regular season. The real money comes from the media contracts and the gate. The money from the post-season is tiny by comparison. The successful regular-season manager is a bit of a cash cow to the franchise. To understand why Bobby Cox remained employed despite his post-season failings you need look no farther than the balance sheet. He made the Braves’ business a whole lot of money. He would stitch together whatever players were sent his way into rock solid regular season teams that kept winning division titles and filling the seats. But, Cox got progressively worse at the post-season as he went along. At the end of the day it is obvious the regular season attendance was more important in the Atlanta Executive Suite than winning World Championships. George Steinbrenner had a different and extreme approach. He penned a letter of apology to the fan base when his team lost the World Series in six games. Baseball is no different from any other business in at least one respect: The goals and priorities of the organization dictate the behaviors. Hiring and firing are two of the sport’s most visible organizational behaviors.
The other unique element of baseball’s empowerment of managers is their eventual un-trainability. “This guy is never going to figure out the playoffs.” Both hands go out wide in disbelief. Then a decision for retention has to be reached. Few businesses would sever their investment without first attempting to re-train and re-calibrate. Failing that, help would be introduced usually in the form of a consultant. Baseball either rides the wave hoping the guy figures it out or “Runs into one” or they get another guy. From a business standpoint it is a baffling approach.
What if you managed all year like it were the playoffs? That experiment is being conducted in Philadelphia right now. The results are mixed, but not unpredictable. Gabe Kapler manages the game in the frenetic style expected for a post-season game. He has pulled Starters out of games in the 4th inning, with a lead and pitching well, for a juicy pinch-hitter situation. That counter relationship move alone tells much. Kapler pinch-hit for his starting Shortstop in the 2nd inning. And, he has changed pitchers five times in the fifth inning. These aren’t isolated instances. What one would expect is over-achievement early, fatigue late, and a team without rhythm. All of that has come to pass. His starting pitchers average barely 5 innings per game. The team averages 3.6 relief pitchers per game. There are 7 relievers that will exceed 50 appearances. The bullpen is now exhausted despite the September supplemental help. Rhythm has a lot to do with defense. The Phillies have some of the worst defensive numbers in baseball. Through Monday they have had 109 errors. An advanced metric, “Outs above Average” has them one rung up from the worst. Part of this is personnel being out of position. Rhys Hoskins in Left Field is hard on the eyes. But, much of it is attributable to Kapler’s water-bugged approach to moving and substituting people, deploying extreme shifts, and the resulting absence of rhythm. The jury is still out on whether this approach to a full season is viable. Some modification appears prudent based on the initial data.
There are alternatives. Sailing figured out a similar problem many years ago. It was too much for the Skipper to steer the boat, trim the sails, scan the course for favorable wind, and keep tabs on the opposition. The Tactician position developed into the eyes outside the boat so the Skip could keep his or hers inside. When both function well together as an effective team the boat can sail to its full capabilities. Baseball has Bench Coaches. But, they aren’t empowered to the same degree as their sailing counterparts. The more tenured the manager the less likely he is to power-share. Computers are now in the dugouts, however. In time their presence will change things.
One thing is for certain: The “Old School” paradigm of the field manager has been under pressure to change since 1969. In its molasses-slow way baseball is finally waking up that fact. How long will it be before we see them in headphones to the booth upstairs during the post-season like the football coaches? We will have to wait and see.