There’s no shortage of tools for evaluating players, especially with the help of advanced analytics. Evaluating managers, on the other hand, is more complicated because so much of what they do is hard—if not impossible—to quantify. As Mickey Callaway enters his first year as Mets manager, here are 10 things to keep an eye on as we try to get a sense of how the skipper handles his new role.
1. Bullpen management
In today’s game, this is probably a manager’s most important job. With starters throwing fewer innings and relievers taking on more specialized roles, managers are making more pitching changes throughout games. It will be interesting to see how long of a leash Callaway gives his starters, and how aggressively he mixes and matches his relievers—especially lefties—with opposing hitters. Another interesting question is whether, over the next few years, Callaway moves away from having a designated closer, which is something he seems quite open to doing.
2. Shifts/defensive positioning
Like they are with pitchers, managers are using their defensive players in more specialized roles based on game situations. Specifically, managers have been more aggressive in using shifts and positioning their defensive players based on opposing hitters’ spray charts. This evolution in defensive strategy puts managers front and center in that process, and an important question about Callaway will be his willingness to move both infielders and outfielders away from their traditional spots on the field when the situation calls for it.
Another example of specialization in baseball is the more widespread use of platoons. Just as teams mix and match their relievers, they’re increasingly doing the same with position players, starting certain players based on their platoon splits against opposing pitchers. Callaway has a prime platoon candidate in Wilmer Flores, who crushes left-handed pitching and looks set to share first base with Adrian Gonzalez. In the outfield, Callaway has Juan Lagares, who’s hit lefties pretty well and could spell one of the team’s starting outfielders at least a couple times a week.
4. Lineup construction
While not as important as any of the last three categories, lineup construction can make a difference at the margins over the course of a season. So far, Callaway’s signaled an openness to hitting his pitcher eighth, putting his best hitter in the two hole, and using slow runners with good on-base skills, like Todd Frazier, in the leadoff spot. Those somewhat unconventional ideas reflect the sabermetric approach to lineup construction, but it remains to be seen whether Callaway actually follows through on them.
Deciding when to use instant replay is a responsibility unique to the modern-day manager. It’s hard to compare managers based on their success rates at challenging calls because they obviously confront different plays in different situations. That said, managers have direct control over the process of challenging calls, and you can track Callaway’s and other managers’ success rates using Baseball Savant’s instant replay database.
Modern analytics generally discourage the use of bunting, especially by non-pitchers. It seems unlikely, then, to see a whole lot of bunting on the 2018 Mets given Callaway’s openness to analytics and the team’s general lack of speed. Still, there are certain situations—with a pitcher hitting with runners in scoring position, for example, or a weak hitter up late in a one-run game—in which the decision over whether or not to bunt isn’t so obvious. It’ll be interesting to see how Callaway handles situations such as those.
7. Intentional walks
This probably won’t set Callaway apart from other managers either, but the use of the intentional walk is something that managers control. The analytics community and, by extension, major league front offices increasingly oppose giving other teams free baserunners. As a result, it would be surprising to see the Mets intentionally walk many hitters in 2018. That said, managers may have different approaches to situations with first base open and the pitcher on deck, and Callaway’s approach to those scenarios could be something to look out for.
Baserunning is a category that managers impact directly in some ways and indirectly in others. A manager can give his players the steal sign, for example, so poorly timed stolen base attempts and a high caught stealing rate could reflect poorly on the manager’s decision making. Due both to the recent analytics-backed trend away from the stolen base and to the Mets’ overall lack of speed, the team probably won’t attempt a ton of steals this year. Indirectly, a manager can impact how aggressive his base coaches are in sending runners from first to third, and home from the other three bases. Again, though, because the Mets will likely rely on the home run ball to score runs, they probably won’t push the envelope too far on the basepaths.
9. Clubhouse management
This is one of a manager’s most important jobs—and probably the toughest to quantify. A team’s players and coaches practically live with each other for more than half the year, so managing their personalities, keeping them motivated, and creating a healthy clubhouse environment is an essential skill for a manager to possess. So far, Callaway’s said all the right things about holding players accountable and creating a winning culture, and the Mets hope that the manager’s fresh approach will yield positive results on the field.
10. Dealing with the press
Addressing the media is a reality for every major league manager, but contending with the New York press corps is a responsibility unique to those in Flushing and the Bronx. Callaway’s telegenic, and his positive demeanor, energy, and fairly thoughtful, articulate answers to reporters’ questions will surely play well in the press. The real test will be when, as occurs in every 162-game season, the team hits a rough patch. Will Callaway maintain his cool, nice-guy approach, or allow the press to get under his skin? Maintaining a strong relationship with the press can help Callaway protect his players from media distractions and create a positive environment in the clubhouse. The New York press corps doesn’t always make that easy, but those challenges come with the territory of managing in the Big Apple.
Bonus: Pythagorean W-L
This last category isn’t part of a manager’s job, but a tool that can be useful in evaluating a manager’s performance. A team’s Pythagorean win-loss record is simply what its record “should” be based on its run differential. The theory is that, if a team is outperforming its run differential, it could be in part because of smart in-game strategy that helps it win close games. While the theory is far from an ironclad rule, Pythagorean win-loss could be a telling stat to consider, especially when it significantly diverges from the team’s actual record.