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Observations From Cooperstown: Talking Yankee Managers

Among the finer baseball books to be published this spring is Chris Jaffe’s Evaluating Baseball’s Managers. Full of anecdotes and analysis, it’s an in-depth study of many of the most significant managers in the game’s history. Earlier in the week, Chris answered a number of questions about the book, including his thoughts on some of the most important managers to wear the pinstripes.

Markusen: Chris, in putting this book together, it’s obvious that you’ve put in an exhaustive amount of research and time. How much, if at all, were you influenced by the previous books on managers done by Bill James and Leonard Koppett?

Jaffe: Both were very helpful. Neither was the main inspiration, but both helped.  Koppett gave me a sense of how the position evolved over time. Early in his book, he talks of New York’s 1876 National League manager Bill Cammeyer. He owned the team and invented the baseball stadium.  Nowadays, he’d never be manager, but then the position was different.

The James book probably helped a bit more. (Actually, Bill James gets mentioned more times than any non-manager in the book. I suppose that’s not too surprising given that it’s a Sabermetric work).

The big inspiration from the James book was a little 2-3 page section at the end where he noted how often particular managers’ teams led the league (or came in last) in various categories.  It let you know whose teams relied the most on power, or complete game pitching, or whatever. James said the list came in handy when discussing various managers.

I liked the idea and thought it could be taken further.  I thought rather than just look at how often someone ranked first or last, note how often they came in first, second, third … .all the way down to last, average it out, adjust for league size (because coming 6th in an 8 team league is different from sixth in a 16-team league), and get a better sense of where managers stand in various ways.

That became the Tendencies Database, which is the main tool I used to look at individual managers.

Markusen: Based on the research you did for the book, who emerges as the greatest manager in the history of the Yankees? Did this differ from any preconceived opinions you might have had?

Jaffe: Joe McCarthy kicked so much butt he had to wear special shoes.  I knew going in he was terrific so it didn’t go against any preconceived opinions, but there you go.

Stengel is more remembered because he was better with the media, came in the early TV era (when the Baby Boomers can remember him), and last, but certainly not least, won five straight titles.  That said, McCarthy’s post season accomplishments were in their own way even more impressive than Stengel’s.  In his nine World Series, McCarthy’s teams not only won eight world titles, but they won 29 out of 38 games.  A 29-9 record is remarkable if it’s a midseason run, but it’s almost impossible to do that good when facing pennant winning teams in rival leagues.  Stengel’s Yanks won a bunch of closely fought World Series, but McCarthy went 28-5 in his eight triumphant Octobers.  They never even saw a Game Seven.  Heck, they only had one Game Six.  Stonewall Jackson once said an army conditioned to victory will become invincible.  That’s what happened to those Yankees.

Markusen: Let’s talk more about Yankee managers. I’m sure that you, like everyone else, have preconceived notions of certain managers. Of all those Yankee managers you included in the book, whose evaluation surprised you the most? Was it someone who turned out to be a better manager than you thought, or worse?

Jaffe: Joe McCarthy came out as the best manager of all-time. I suppose that isn’t too surprising. After all, he had the best winning percentage of all time and never had a losing record in 20+ seasons of managing.  (For perspective, only one other manager in history with more than SIX years managing never had a losing record). However, the scale of his victory blew the field away. He was almost 50 per cent over second place.

Really, I can’t say the Yankee managers surprised me too much. Huggins, McCarthy, Stengel, Torre, Martin – these guys all did pretty well. They all had individual quirks or characteristics I could find surprising. For example, Miller Huggins essentially ran a modern pitching staff.  Back in those days, managers either liked to match up their pitchers against particular opposing team (a practice I called leveraging in my book), or put their ace pitcher(s) out there as much as humanly possible. Huggins did neither. He balanced the innings pretty evenly among his starters without doing much leveraging. For example, the 1922 Yankees had five pitchers start 28 to 34 games each, and 152 of the team’s 154 games in all. They all faced opposing teams fairly randomly. It wasn’t quite the same five man rotation we know today (the proliferation of doubleheaders made a pure ABCDEABCDE rotation impossible, but it’s roughly the same things.

Speaking of leveraging, Casey Stengel was one of the greatest leveragers of starting pitchers in baseball history.  Again, that isn’t too surprising I suppose.  I live in the Chicago area, and old-time White Sox fans still remember the Billy Pierce – Whitey Ford duels.  That said, the extent Stengel leveraged could be pretty damn impressive.  The 1954 Yankee rotation was the most heavily leveraging group of starting pitchers in baseball history.  If you ever get a chance, look it up – it’s remarkable how almost every prominent pitcher on the staff was linked against someone. Almost half of Ford’s starts came against the White Sox and pennant-winning Indians. Actually, Ford, Eddie Lopat and Allie Reynolds accounted for 17 of the 22 starts against the Indians that year. Meanwhile they faced the last-place A’s only five times (as many as Tom Morgan did by himself).

Actually, one of the most interesting things I found out was about second-tier Yankee manager Ralph Houk. He leaving his relievers in for longer outings than anyone else in the last half-century. Since the mid-1950s, the longest average relief stint (innings pitched per relief appearance) by any team was a Ralph Houk team. The second longest average relief stint by any team in that period was another Ralph Houk team. As was the third. Added bonus: they came with three separate franchises. The 1974 Tigers averaged 2.73 innings per relief outing (quick question: when was the last time you saw any reliever last 8 outs, let alone a team average that for a season?), the 1973 Yanks were at 2.68, and the 1982 Red Sox at 2.51. The fourth and fifth longest average relief outing by any team in the last half-century were also Houk teams. Folks, that’s what you call a trend.

In 1982, Houk had Bob Stanley pitch over 3.5 innings per relief appearances.  In the 5,000 or so times in baseball history a hurler made at least 25 games without ever starting any, no one else ever average over three innings per appearance, yet there’s Stanley over 3.5.  Unreal.

Markusen: Unless there is a sudden move to elect Houk, Joe Torre will be the next Yankee manager elected to the Hall of Fame. How does he fit into the pecking order of great Yankee managers, a group that is headlined by Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, and Casey Stengel?

Jaffe: I’d put him fourth among that group, but that fact shouldn’t be taken as an insult toward Torre. It’s a really tough crowd. Actually, in terms of overall career value he may edge Stengel when all is said and done, but that’s only because Stengel well past his expiration date in his final years and that cost him.

One thing I will say, that I found interesting in the book. Almost all great Yankee teams had similar managers. Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, and Joe Torre all had the following in common: none had any connection with the Yankees before getting hired as their manager. In fact, none had ever been in the American League before. All had spent some time as player-manager early on (McCarthy and Stengel were player-managers in the minors, admittedly, but they still did it. Torre had two at bats after taking the helm with Mets). Aside from McCarthy, all had lackluster career winning marks before coming to the Yankees. They were all good managers before coming to New York, they just hadn’t been given the horses.

Markusen: Along with great managers, the Yankees have also had their share of characters who were managers. Two that come to mind are Stengel and his protégé, Billy Martin. Who is the more fascinating to you?

Jaffe: Billy Martin.  I found out a lot of great stuff about him, particularly about his time with the Twins in 1969.  I took a whole herd of team splits info from Baseball-Reference.com and put it into excel.  From there I learned that the most triple steals any team has ever pulled off in one season was that Twins team: they had four successful triple steals.  That’s the year Rod Carew tied (or set?  I forget) the record for most steals of home in one year.

I mentioned the triple steal factoid in a Hardball Times column about two years ago, and it inspired a Twins blog (Stick and Ball Guy?) to do some digging and find several insane examples of baserunning from the Twins that year. One reader of the blog found an occasion when two Twins stole home in the same inning – in the same at bat.  The batter was Harmon Killebrew. Just insane.

When I looked at how Billy Martin ran a team, it reminded me of something I heard about Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes. When he arrived in Mexico to conquer the Aztecs, he burnt his boats behind him. That’s a stupid maneuver in and of itself, but it sent a message – we’re here to win and nothing else. Billy Martin had the same attitude when he managed. He didn’t always run his bases as wildly as he did with the Twins, but he went completely all out.

Markusen: Of the Yankee managers you studied, who did surprisingly poorly in your evaluation?

Jaffe: I can’t say any did that poorly in all.  Casey Stengel’s overall career mark was lower than I would’ve guessed, but the Mets’ years killed him. It’s worth noting only one man has ever managed at an older age than Stengel – Connie Mack.  And Mack was pretty much a figurehead by his latter years – and terrible as well. There is a certain energy and concentration one needs to muster on a daily basis for six months that is tough to manage as one reaches the 70s. To put it another way, Stengel was to managers what Steve Carlton was to pitchers. His career looks even better if you pretend the last few years didn’t happen.

Markusen: Ralph Houk seems to be one of the most forgotten of Yankee managers. Is he underrated, or simply overlooked because of the passage of time?

Jaffe: I already said my piece on Houk, I suppose.

I think what kills him was that his first act overwhelmed the rest of his career. He had the single best start to his managerial career in baseball history. No exceptions. He won 109 games in his first year (1961) – the most by any first year manager. (Earl Weaver had 109 in his first full season, but he managed a half-year before then). Plus, the 1961 Yanks won the World Series.

Then, in 1962 the Yanks repeated all the way. It’s easy to assume the Yanks always one the World Series back then, but this was their first back-to-back World Series championships since the big five-peat under Stengel from 1949-53. Then the team wins 104 more games and claims a third pennant in 1963. They lose the Series, but no one else began a career with that impressive a bang.

Then things got derailed, and he never even made it back to the World Series. He only won 90 games once ever after in his managerial career. It’s like Bucky Harris, only with a shorter career, and without the late-career world championship.

Markusen: Dick Howser was one of the managers you did not feature in the book, probably because both his Yankee and overall managerial careers were so short. Do you have any thoughts on Howser?

Jaffe: I don’t have as much to say about shorter career guys in general. It’s harder to separate them from the teams they had. Obviously, that’s always a problem, but with shorter career managers, they can have one core corps dominate what their teams look like.

Looking at his teams, walks leap out at me as interesting. His pitchers rarely walked batters and his hitter rarely drew them. That could just reflect the talent on hand, but it’s pretty extreme.

Even though he had really good teams, he used his bench more than most teams did.

The key trend I can say about Howser: he (like Houk) liked to keep his relievers in for longer stints than almost all of his peers. In 1980, the Yank bullpen averaged 2.13 innings per relief appearance, the second longest average in the league that year. He also had the second longest average in 1982 in KC (behind the master, Ralph Houk – that was the year Bob Stanley averaged over 3.5 innings per appearance).  In 1983, 1984, and 1986 his bullpens averaged the longest relief stint of any team in the league.

As a result, his pitching staffs didn’t have the platoon advantage as often as most of their competitors did.  If you take every time team’s pitchers (the entire staff here, not just relievers) had the platoon advantage in a match up and divided it by total batters faced, Howser’s staff were the least likely to possess the platoon advantage in 1980 with the Yanks and 1985 with the Royals.  They were the second-least likely teams to have that advantage in 1982, 1983, and 1984.  Folks, those are the only five seasons he managed the entire year.

Markusen: It’s still very early in Joe Girardi’s career, but perhaps there has been enough of a sample to make a good judgment. Based on what we’ve seen of him in three seasons–two with the Yankees and one with the Marlins–how would you evaluate him?

Jaffe: I’m impressed.  He isn’t in my book because his career was too short (especially when one notes my manuscript was due into the publisher prior to Opening Day 2009), but if you look at what happened in his career, remarkable things seem to occur.

Girardi’s 2003 Marlins had the greatest bumper crop of rookies any team has ever had in one season. They had six guys receive votes for Rookie of the Year in one year, including the first, third, and fourth place finishers. That’s never happened, even back in the days of an 8-team league. That it happened in the current 16-team National League is that much more remarkable.

Obviously, it would be a complete mistake to give all the credit to Girardi.  First and foremost, the front office did a stupendous job identifying talent. Then they did a wonderful job developing them in the minors. That said, cutting the manager completely out of the credit of proper player development is as wrongheaded as giving him all the credit. Player development isn’t something that just happens in the minors, but when the player arrives in the majors as well. Arguably the leap from Triple-A to the big leagues is the most important step in player development.

If you look at baseball history, you can find managers who not only were willing to play many young players, but had tremendous success with the young players they played.  John McGraw lived for this. Dick Williams had an amazingly long list of players who blossomed under his watch. Even lesser lights like Burt Shotton and Art Howe had noteworthy success with multiple teams in developing players.

When Girardi first came to New York, I thought he might be a bad fit because they had such a veteran lineup. Last year, the veteran hitters across the board played as well as one might hope. I don’t literally mean that every individual hitter over the age of 30 improved over the previous year, but as a team they did better than one might expect. I’m more hesitant to give Girardi credit for that improvement, but the best managers are the ones who get their players to produce the best. Let’s see it happen for more than one year with Girardi and the veterans to see if it wasn’t a fluke, though.

Markusen: Final question for Chris. Who will eventually succeed Girardi as Yankee manager?

Jaffe: No idea. Finally, a short answer.

Markusen: Our thanks to Chris Jaffe for his numerous insights into Yankee managers. Once again, the book is Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, available from McFarland Publishing. To purchase the book, visit McFarland’s web site at mcfarland pub.com.

Categories:  Bronx Banter  Bruce Markusen

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1 williamnyy23   ~  Apr 23, 2010 10:24 am

I understand Jaffe's point about McCarthy's relative post season dominance, but Stengel was basically playing with an all-white team against more integrated National League teams. If McCarthy had the same handicap, he may not have been as dominant against the NL, or conversely, if Stengel had a Hank Aaron or Willie Mays, his teams may have been even stronger.

2 The Hawk   ~  Apr 23, 2010 3:54 pm

Great stuff.

Fire Girardi

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