It’s hard to remember there being as much buzz surrounding the hiring of a rookie manager as there’s been in response to the Mets’ hiring of Carlos Beltran. That is predominantly due to his storied playing career with the organization, but the fact that he’s so widely respected around the game for his baseball acumen and his leadership skills certainly doesn’t hurt. Regardless of whether or not Beltran was the right pick for manager, it’s hard to imagine the Mets making a more exciting pick.
With that excitement comes no small amount of uncertainty about how Beltran will actually perform in the role. That uncertainty is one that surrounds all rookie managers, and it’s the main reason why so many fans wanted the Mets to go with Joe Girardi, since his past experience provided a baseline of competence which they could expect to see. With Beltran, we have no clue, and that naturally leads to a certain level of skepticism. Allison McCague and Thomas Henderson both captured the competing feelings of optimism and nervousness in a recent article, and this one thought from Thomas is worth reflecting upon further:
We, as fans, do not remember the right moves the managers make, because they are the obvious and logical ones. We remember the starter that was left in too long, or the reliever who faced the wrong batter. We remember the mistakes they make, and often hoist blame upon them, deserved or otherwise.
It is true that the mistakes a manager makes tend to occupy the majority of our attention when evaluating their job performance. Part of the reason for that, however, is because those mistakes often occur on a semi-consistent basis for some—arguably most—managers. Our expectations for how Beltran will perform at the job should thus be measured—not because there is anything wrong with him as a managerial prospect, but simply because of how the majority of his now-peers fare in the role.
It would be going too far to say that there are no good managers, but it’s fair to say that they are certainly in short supply when it comes to in-game strategy. A lot of managers don’t know how to operate a bullpen. They bunt too much. They place an overabundance of faith on washed-up veterans. And they scorn the advanced analytics which tell us that a lot of their decisions don’t make any sense.
Some combination of these and other errors in judgment recur for most managers, and it results in them being a consistent source of ire amongst their respective fanbases. Trek into the comments section for any of our sister SB Nation sites and get a sense of what those fans think about their managers. Not every site is going to feature calls for the skipper’s head, but the vast majority of them will contain plenty of venting about a number of areas where they too often make the wrong decisions.
You may see slightly less of that if you’re looking on the sites for teams like the Astros and Dodgers, and it’s easy to assume that the reason for that is because their managers are inherently superior. But A) as Thomas discussed in his and Allison’s article, even those managers are susceptible to making terrible decisions in important spots, and B) the quality of their respective teams likely has a far more important impact on their reputation as baseball strategists. Managers try their best to put their players in the best possible position to succeed, but players still need to execute, and they can succeed at that even if their manager makes the wrong decision or fail even if they make the right one. The good teams succeed more often, and thus they make their managers look right more often even if they often make many of the same boneheaded decisions as their counterparts on less successful teams.
None of this is to say that a team’s choice of manager is irrelevant, nor is it to say that Beltran is destined to be a failure in the role. But the factors by which we judge his performance in the role should extend beyond the strategical decisions he makes, and it should take for granted the fact that he will inevitably make some mistakes in that department. We can and should expect him to be at least somewhat better than Mickey Callaway at putting his players in the best possible position to succeed, and we should certainly not expect his decisions to “go against the analytics 85% of the time,” as Callaway infamously stated when explaining one of his many baffling decisions this season.
But we should also expect him to do a better job at interacting with the media than his predecessor did. That involves avoiding the kind of blow-ups between players and/or reporters like the one we saw in Chicago in the middle of the season, but it also means conveying an air of competence and team unity in his responses to the press. Callaway’s failures in those departments—whether in offering inane explanations of his strategic decisions or in providing answers which contradicted information that other people in the organization provided—resulted in prolonged controversies for the team and further perpetrated the sense that the organization as a whole was entirely dysfunctional. One of Beltran’s main jobs as manager will be to do what he can to eliminate that perception.
One of the factors that will play a part in that will be his ability to cultivate a positive and confident clubhouse environment, and that will also play an important role in evaluating his success in this new job. Again, this arguably has as much to do with the quality of his players as it does with him—winning teams will generally be more positive and confident than losing teams, as we see when comparing the clubhouse of the 2019 Mets in the second half as opposed to the first half—but it’s still a manager’s job to make sure that his players buy into the organizational philosophy and to keep them happy and assured in their roles on the team. If Beltran does these things successfully, then the fact that he will probably make some strategical blunders that make us angry won’t matter too much in the grand scheme of things—he’ll still be reaching the baseline of competence that we should rightfully expect from a manager.
In the end, though, the future prospects of the organization have always been far more dependent on the roster moves that Brodie Van Wagenen and company make this offseason and beyond than it’s been on the manager they chose. If they make the right player personnel decisions—which will depend in no small part on their willingness to spend more money—then the club will be in a good position to build on the strength they showed in the second half of this year, and all Beltran will need to do to be seen as a successful manager will be to not get in his own way too much. If they don’t do enough to improve the roster, then the club will continue to sputter, and Beltran will struggle to retain his job even if he winds up being a brilliant strategist and clubhouse leader. Such is the life of a major league manager.