A bizarre phenomenon has been occurring over the past decade in Major League Baseball regarding the hiring of ex-MLB players over experienced managers.
Most of these decisions to hire managers who have played in the past 15 to 20 years have been initially controversial, but the majority have actually benefited teams over the past few seasons.
Third baseman Robin Ventura was just eight years out of baseball when the White Sox hired him as their manager last year. Ventura transformed the previously sub-.500 White Sox to a legitimate contender in the AL Central with a relatively unchanged roster from 2011.
Guys like Alex Rios, Adam Dunn and Gordon Beckham showed vast improvements over their 2011 numbers as a product of the coaching change.
Take another guy like first-year manager Mike Matheny, just six years removed from the majors, and look at the results of his St. Louis Cardinals this season. Matheny’s Cards returned almost all of the players on their 2011 World Series-winning roster, except for one key piece: one of the best hitters in the league, Albert Pujols.
In what was one of the more criticized hires of last season, Matheny dealt with the substantial loss of Pujols and took his Cardinals to a place few thought possible: the seventh game of the NLCS.
Guys like Allen Craig, Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina had some of their best seasons on record under Matheny.
Even the Yankees hired Joe Girardi just five years removed from baseball in 2008. While “Binder Joe” has taken some deep criticism over the state of his team during his tenure, you cannot overlook his four playoff appearances and one World Series title.
So what’s the secret behind this hiring strategy? Why does upper management take the risk on guys with no professional coaching experience?
The game of baseball has changed significantly over the past two decades, and players and managers have no choice but to adapt.
In 2000, the league’s average ERA was 4.77, with no teams having an average ERA below four. The league's batting average was .270.
Today, more than half of the teams in the league own ERAs under four, and teams are scoring less runs as a whole.
Guys like Girardi, Matheny and Ventura played in the heart of the 2000s, experiencing and adapting to the change in pitching talent.
Catchers are specifically familiar with the shift in pitching talent and have observed the league in its bloated offensive days as well.
That’s what the Miami Marlins were thinking when they went out and signed 13-year veteran catcher Mike Redmond as their new manager.
Redmond, just two years removed from baseball, is the next managerial experiment in MLB that has a chance to really pay dividends for the long term.
These young managers have evolved along with the game and are familiar with modern day pitchers’ tendencies.
For example, having pitchers go the distance and pitch complete games is a trend that’s beginning to fade away in MLB. Older coaches like Jim Leyland, Dusty Baker and Terry Collins are more prone to having their guys pitch seven or eight innings, while guys like Bob Melvin and Bruce Bochy are traditionally more conservative.
Signing a manager with no MLB coaching experience is a risk, no doubt, but it can have a unique effect on a team.
Focusing on St. Louis, Matheny had a similar path through the majors with some of the veterans on last year’s team such as Beltran and Berkman. Matheny also played in a somewhat similar league to everyone on the team. Like the Marlins’ Redmond, Matheny played in the conservative pitching era’s infancy in the mid-2000s, winning four Gold Gloves along the way.
Hiring younger managers allows players to relate to their skipper and will usually strengthen a team’s chemistry.
In regards to the Ventura hiring last year, White Sox GM Ken Williams said, “I wanted someone who met very specific criteria centered around his leadership abilities. Robin Ventura was that man. His baseball knowledge and expertise, his professionalism, his familiarity with the White Sox and Chicago and his outstanding character make him absolutely the right person to lead our clubhouse and this organization into the seasons ahead,” reported Doug Padilla of ESPN Chicago.
Williams was looking for Ventura to transfer his leadership and success on the field to the manager position, and he did just that.
MLB GMs are targeting players who not only display apparent knowledge for the game, but also were leaders on and off the field when they played.
The Marlins signing Tino Martinez as their hitting coach and the Rockies signing Dante Bichette as their hitting coach and Walt Weiss as their manager are more examples of MLB organizations taking this approach to hiring.
Don’t be surprised if former Astros catcher Brad Ausmus becomes the next recent MLB player to take over the reins of an organization, as this trend will most certainly continue in the years to come.
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