Yesterday, Ken Davidoff of Newsday, one of the more level-headed and enlightened mainstream writers covering the Mets, suggested that the Mets might begin to address their flaws by canning their manager. Davidoff enumerates Jerry Manuel's failings, to wit:
1. The Mets have lost 41 of their last 59 games, a woeful .305 percentage. That can't be attributed solely to a talent disadvantage. That screams, "White flag." As do Manuel's numerous public comments and team meetings urging his players not to give up, which never seemed to take.
2. The X's and O's. Manuel told Lennon earlier this season that he looks at statistics only in passing when making in-game choices. Unless your name is Joe Torre, you can't be getting away with such a laissez-faire approach toward statistical analysis.
That goes double when your selections prove uninspiring. Why so much love for Fernando Tatis and so little love for Nick Evans, especially as the season progressed and they could've learned more about Evans? Remember when Manuel worked Bobby Parnell into exhaustion at the start of the season?
3. The apparent lack of an "edit" button in the passage from Manuel's brain to his mouth stirred up some trouble. Worst of all were his seemingly unprovoked criticisms of Ryan Church, both while Church was still a Met and after Church left for the Braves.
These criticisms are all fair and certainly don't paint a pretty picture of Manuel's managerial acumen. But what exactly do managers bring to the table in general, in what ways can they help (or hurt) their team, and how to we evaluate those things? While we've seen player evaluation grow exponentially in the past five years, determining a manager's worth to his team is still a dicey proposition, steeped in pseudo-scientific claims of one man's pedigree (of winning or losing) and the content of another's bloodstream (where baseball resides, of course).
In most cases, a manager's performance is simply a proxy to the team's performance, which isn't to say that a team is only as good as its manager, but rather that a manager is only as good as his team. Team win totals routinely fluctuate by ten games or more from one season to another (six National League teams had ten-plus game swings between 2007 and 2008; three more had seven-plus game swings), and a manager's perceived ability to manage is invariably and inextricably linked to those fluctuations, as little as they may actually have to do with anything the manager did or didn't do.
How, then, do we evaluate a manager if not by the performance of his team? First, it's important to identify the areas in which a manager can have a real impact on his team -- positively or negatively. While a manager does a lot of things, there are really three main performance-related facets of managing.
1. Game Strategy
This is the least subjective of the three managerial components, and it's still incredibly difficult to come up with a number that represents one manager's value versus another's. However, we are at least at a point where we generally know what to do in almost any baseball situation in order to maximize the chance of a positive outcome. There's a lot of random variation for any single event -- one game, one at-bat, one pitch -- but over a large enough set of these events, making the mathematically correct call will almost always work out in your favor.
Statistically speaking, there is little point in debating the merit of certain baseball decisions that many managers still consistently get wrong. Thanks to run expectancy and win expectancy matrices we know that bunting with a good hitter is a bad decision in almost every possible scenario. We know that using your best reliever with a three run lead with the bases empty against the bottom of the other team's order makes far less sense than using him in a tied game with the bases loaded in the seventh inning against the heart of the other team's order. We know which batting orders make sense and which ones do not. You can believe something is the right call, and sometimes it might even work out (even that one time in that big spot), but science tells us the probability that one call or another is the right call, whether or not your gut agrees.
Jerry Manuel, like Willie Randoloh before him, is not really a stats guy and therefore, almost by definition, he is not a good tactical maanger. You may argue that there are nuances to in-game managing, or that a manager has to have been "through the wars" or "fought in the trenches" to have a true feel for managing a ballgame, but I can practically guarantee you that over a statistically significant number of games (or seasons), a Commodore 64 will win more often than any manager in baseball. From game-to-game, sure, our C64 might lose out, but given the same players and the same situations, going by The Book instead of by "the book" will undoubtedly lead to greater and more frequent success.
2. Personnel Management
Some managers are people persons, some aren't. This trait can be subjectively scrutinized, and most evidence supporting (or opposing) one's ability to get the most out of his players comes from his players themselves (or it doesn't come from anyone, in which case he probably isn't much of a people person after all). Clubhouse anecdotes about how a manager steers his ship and its crew are really all we have to go on, though something can be said (Davidoff's Point #2 above) about whether a team's apparent motivation (or lack thereof) is clear enough to judge a manager by. It's hard to tell whether the 2009 Mets have given up or whether they're just collectively a very bad group baseball players (a few talented individual players notwithstanding). Losing 70% of the time over a period of 60 games doesn't necessarily mean a team is "mailing it in"; bad teams play like awful teams with surprising regularity (just as good teams play like great ones, average ones play like good ones, and so on).
If we consider the on-field motivation a wash (I'm not sure it is, but it very well may be), it isn't even clear that the Mets' players like Manuel. Davidoff's point about Manuel's digs at Ryan Church is just one example. Nevertheless, I don't know if there's enough here to either acquit or indict Manuel. There's little evidence to suggest that he's great at dealing with his players, and there's some evidence to suggest that he's subpar, but nothing irrefutable as far as I've seen. The truth is probably somewhere between "nothing" and "bad", neither of which is "good".
3. Player Development
Sure, organizations have whole departments dedicated to scouting and player development, but young players rarely arrive in the majors as fully-formed big league specimens. There's still plenty of teaching, grooming, and development left to go, and that falls on the manager and his coaching staff (and to a lesser degree on the Proven Veterans™ on the team). Some managers are notoriously good with young players, educating them constantly and setting them up for success. Other managers are perhaps less inclined to spend their time developing their youngsters.
Gauging a manager's ability to work with young ballplayers often comes down to reputation. Bobby Valentine had a reputation for working really well with rookies and less experienced players. Willie Randolph seemed to feel that younger ballplayers had to "earn their stripes", which may or may not have been a reflection of his attitude towards them.
As for Manuel, I haven't heard much, but I've seen him ignore Nick Evans all month and give up on Daniel Murphy the outfielder after a few goofy defensive plays. It's not clear that Manuel is either good or bad at helping players develop, but at this point not being "good" is probably the same as being "not good", especially when you're presumably being paid to be actually good at something.
Among the three ways in which a manager can have a real influence on the performance of a team (to varying degrees), Jerry Manuel is verifiably good at none of them and is clearly bad at one of them. There are plenty of mediocre managers in baseball, but that doesn't mean the Mets have to likewise strive for mediocrity. Further, given their resources and the immutably high expectations of their fanbase, the Mets absolutely can not settle for merely "not awful". They need a manager who is demonstrably good at at least one of the three managerial models.
Apart from this admittedly rudimentary analysis, there is something to be said for having -- or at least hiring -- a manager that can energize people, fans and players alike. In the short term, change for the sake of change can have a positive impact. Long term, actually being good at things (or at least managing teams comprised of good players) will outlast that initial surge of enthusiasm, but sometimes that burst is necessary to pull the focus away from the politics, infighting, and general malaise that can drag down from within even the best of teams. It's smoke and mirrors, but sometimes people need to be distracted just long enough to forget what was bothering them in the first place. As much as any time in recent memory, Mets fans need that distraction right now.
Given reasonable health, the 2010 Mets should be competitive even without any significant overhaul to their roster. But even while recognizing the injuries that devoured the 2009 team, many fans and media types will demand sweeping changes this offseason to make up for this year's disaster. It's the scalpel versus the hatchet metaphor all over again, but in order to get away with using the scalpel (i.e. making a few meaningful changes) instead of the hatchet (i.e. trading Jose Reyes), Omar Minaya might have to wave a shiny bauble in one hand to divert attention away from the scalpel in his other.
The solution is obvious: the Mets need to fire Jerry Manuel and hire Bobby Valentine. Mets fans love Valentine; in a recent fake poll that nobody actually conducted and I in fact just made up, 94% of Mets fans surveyed would happily punch a baby in the face if it meant Valentine would return to their team. Not only will Valentine divert many eyes away from the minor body work being done to the Mets this offseason, he's probably even a good manager to boot. His in-game decision making is far more congruent with the right way than the old-fashioned way, and his passion for coaching young players can only help the big league transitions of Fernando Martinez, Jon Niese, and Josh Thole, among others.
Let's face it: the only marginally compelling reason not to replace Manuel with Valentine this offseason is money; Manuel is due around $750,000 in 2010, and Valentine would likely command a salary of $4 million or more. That's a solid $5 million for the 2010 replacement, plus however many years beyond that Valentine would require in a deal. Considering the money the Mets willfully flush down the toilet on the Alex Coras and Tim Reddings of the world, diverting some funds to bring in a competent manager would seem a reasonable investment. More than just that, many of us remember the clashes between Valentine and then-GM Steve Phillips that ultimately led to Valentine's ouster, and we all thought Valentine deserved better after his run of success in the late nineties and early aughts.
In a column on manager salaries a couple of years ago, Nate Silver suggested that "[m]anager salaries are, in many ways, just offerings made to the karma gods, by GMs and owners who are overly eager to attribute cause to what essentially amount to random events." To the Mets' ownership group and their front office: spend the extra few million dollars and make this right. Valentine isn't a miracle worker and he isn't going to solve all of the Mets' problems, but he will solve some of them, and he will buy some time for Minaya (or someone else?) to attempt to fix the rest.