DETROIT, MI - JANUARY 26: Manager Jim Leyland of the Detroit Tigers speaks during a press conference to announce Prince Fielder's 9 year contract with the Tigers at Comerica Park on January 26, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Jorge Lemus/Getty Images)
(Note: This is less about Leyland, more about inefficiencies So I do hope you'll read it and not skip to the comments.)
Anyone familiar with Moneyball knows about market inefficiencies. Playing "Moneyball" didn't mean that Billy Beane and the Oakland A's were targeting on-base percentage specifically. It meant that he A's were trying to find good players that the free agent or trade markets just didn't value nearly as much as their on-field contribution should have been worth.
So first there was the search for on-base percentage. That made sense because not making outs extends the inning and leads to more runs. More recently, defense has been a market inefficiency. (The Tigers were ahead of the curve on this one when they went into 2009 after signing the maligned Adam Everett. They also quickly jumped off of that curve soon after.)
So what market inefficiencies exist today? Smart baseball front offices are trying to figure the answer to that question out right now. They're hiring people to gather databases of stats and create new ones. They're combing through data looking for any advantages they can find. But what happens when all of that is said and done, and the team takes the field?
Thus, a thought put forth this week by Baseball Prospectus' Ben Lindbergh is that the way teams are managed and coached might be an area where teams can find additional gains. After all, managers and coaches are typically paid a handful of coins compared to most players on the team -- Tampa Bay Rays excluded. But they can play an important role in the players' developments and how games are played on the field.
It's easy to overstate how many games a manager and staff wins or loses, and in the heat of the moment fans go bonkers doing so. Lindbergh surveyed some general managers and found the consensus to be that a great manager who does everything perfect tactically might win 3 more games than if he was average. I guess you could take it the other way and find a below-average manager might lose a couple extra. Of course in many division races, this could be the difference between making the playoffs or watching from home. (Detroit, 2009. Boston, 2011. etc.)
The real interesting part is when you think about how much a team would be expected to pay a player to add those three (or four or five) wins. The typical statement people make is that a "win" -- measured by WAR or your choice similar stat -- is worth about $5 million. I think that's more of a floor than a ceiling and agree with people who say that it's probably worth more and that it's more of a sliding scale than a set figure. But for argument's sake, let's say a win is worth $5 million. A manager whose decisions are worth three more wins than average should be worth $15 million to his team, right? Yet the available figures -- some a few years old -- suggest most managers are paid $3 million or less for a season. In 2007, many were paid less than $1 million. It appears there's a glaring market inefficiency there.
Any managers out there should like that point.
Lindbergh goes further than that and posits that coaching staffs as a whole should be overhauled and that teams might be wise to hire a strategist who is familiar with the "best practices" of lineup construction and run expectancy, as it were. That way a manager like Jim Leyland, known for being superb behind the scenes and generally questionable between the lines, doesn't have to be a jack-of-all-trades. After all, he has a hitting coach, he doesn't do that himself. (Yeah yeah, I know what some of you are going to say here.) He has a pitching coach, he doesn't do that himself. Why not hire a strategy coach so Leyland can concentrate on what he does best: managing people.
Just as it once might have seemed unthinkable that a manager would outsource most of his hands-on coaching to a group of subordinates, it seems far-fetched now that one might not make all of his team's tactical moves. But in a business as competitive as baseball, potential advantages don't stay unexploited for long. Teams are spending more and more money to acquire both data and the teams of executives qualified to distill it into actionable information.
Often in sports, it is easier to stick to incorrect group-think than to take a risk and have it go against you. Football coaches that should go on fourth-and-short punt because turning the ball over could result in turning their job over -- even if it's more likely they'll get that extra foot they need than that they won't. Yet even in football, coordinators are making a lot of the small tactical (read: play-calling) decisions while the head coach sees the big picture.
If teams are aiming to make "decisions based on the best and most timely pieces of information that you can have at your fingertips," how much longer will they entrust that information to someone liable to go with his gut?
Teams will have to make a concerted effort to groom and hire managers who are comfortable with statistical analysis and with having a seconds-in-command who might not approach the game the same way as it was a few decade ago. They'll also have to find the right people to analyse situations in their head at the thick of the moment and make the right choice. But before all that, they'll need their front-office people to create the tools necessary to gauge the impact of decisions. With computing power, time, brains and historical run expectancy, that step shouldn't be too difficult.
I don't think teams will trust manager's guts forever. But it will probably take another baseball generation before changes like Lindbergh suggests are closer to being accepted on a larger scale.