Starting with Francona, but branching out.
Let’s break it down into component parts. What is a manager actually supposed to do? Bill James broke it into three parts years ago, but I am only partly convinced. I’m seeing four parts.
A. Sorting out who can play and who can’t. For position players, this was a Terry Francona strength. If he was convinced you could play, he stuck with you, and he seems to have proved right – see Dustin Pedroia; David Ortiz at the beginning of 2009 and 2010. This is often disguised, because the manager does not choose who gets brought in, and may have little say over it at all. For JD Drew money or Carl Crawford money, you may just have to play them, whatever your evaluation is. With the recent Red Sox, this was even more obvious with pitchers. I don’t think Tito had much input into who was there, and once you have people with contracts that dictate they will be on the roster, you have to play them. You can really only evaluate Francona on who came up from AAA or was otherwise on the margin and how much they played. Who got the spot starts, the long relief, the close games? This segues into the next category, but I’m not seeing TF as being so strong there.
James mentioned that this was a strength for Dick Williams, long-ago manager of the Red Sox. This may be the most important managerial skill for a young team that is just beginning to contend. Nothing else will matter if someone in the organization doesn’t get this right.
B. Managing the games. The lineup and the batting order, day-to-day and long-term. Bunt, steal, who plays what position, who is DH. Francona was minimalist in this. He stuck with a lineup and batting order. He let people run but didn’t make them run. He seldom ran squeezes, sacrifices, hit-and-runs. When you place this under Part D, this minimalism may be wise. But Francona never displayed much skill at this. In particular, his bullpen management doesn’t show much skill. He has had the extremely versatile Tim Wakefield, who was also willing to put up with shifting roles. Even with Wake, Tito has not looked that good – without Wake, I think we can call what’s left actually a poor record.
C. Getting the most out of a player/ seeing where a player could improve. Does this player need to run more or run less? Does this pitcher need to add a pitch or drop one? Does this batter need to be more aggressive or more patient? Bill James identified Billy Martin as exceptionally good at this. I would add Ted Williams. Though he was maligned as a manager, always with the same cliché that great players can’t manage players who aren’t as good as they are because they don’t understand them, many of Williams’s players had their best years while playing for him. Sometimes that is mostly a matter of getting good coaches to work for you, but a manager deserves credit for that. Does Joe Torre fit this description? I don’t know enough to answer, but I suspect that. I think this is a Doc Rivers mixed strength and weakness. He doesn’t improve players, but he is very good at slotting them where they will do best at the moment. Note, for example a few players who left the Celtics and improved, contrasted with a few players with aging skills that Doc got the best last juice out of.
Have we seen any players with surprising development on the Red Sox once they came up? Maybe, especially with the position players. But it’s not a hallmark of the organization.
D. Managing the egos. This comes up in other sports as well. People criticised KC Jones for basically doing nothing, just rolling out the balls and letting ‘em play. I think the great ones make it look easy on that score. I suspect Jones may not have been a good coach of a poor team. But for all the ink spilled about the Celtics team ethos, there were some difficult personalities there. Ainge and McHale were notorious for pissing people off. Dennis Johnson was brought in as rather a risk because of his irritability in Seattle. With Bird’s intensity, one could see that going bad in a contentious situation. Often, the very light hand is the best strategy when one gets to the very top. You have a lot of guys making big money who need to be smoothed, and the people around them need to be smoothed. They think they are bigger than the team, and at moments, they are. But a manager has to keep those moments short and infrequent.
So, think Manny Ramirez here. Manny shooting his way out of town was a harbinger of how Francona was going to handle other people being jerks. His minimalist approach got the best out of Ramirez, and kept the others from breaking ranks. But ultimately, if a person is determined to be a jerk, that approach stops working. This year, too many people being jerks. Too many balls in the air. You can see some signs of that in retrospect – always much easier. But the current position no longer played to Tito’s strengths. With the money spent, your lineup was determined, so there was very little sorting. With the egos too big, minimalism no longer works (see also, Phil Jackson).
Additional baseball thoughts. Red Sox fans complain about being saddled with the Lackey and Crawford contracts. But the Yankees have A-Rod until 2017 at $25M/year. He hit 16 HR this year. They also have Jeter for another 3 years. This gives Sox Nation some hope.