Categorizing and Ranking the Managers in the AL Central for 2020

Managers can be difficult to evaluate in baseball. When I was younger, I felt that the manager made a massive difference in terms of wins and losses. After all, I didn’t know much about general managers, as well as the analytics and even nature of the game (more individual-based than other sports). So to me, Mike Hargrove was the reason the Indians won, and Tony Muser was the reason the Royals lost, and if they traded places, the Royals would be an AL Powerhouse, and the Indians would be bottom feeders in the Central.

Of course, it isn’t the simple. In reality, while a manager makes a difference (I mean…Muser didn’t help things), it’s not the primary factor that leads to wins and losses. If the GM doesn’t provide good talent, then there isn’t much a manager can do. If the players don’t produce, it doesn’t matter if Tony La Russa or Connie Mack is in the dugout. The team is still going to lose.

So, with that and other data about the game being known, how should we as fans evaluate a manager? How do we know the good ones from the bad ones, and which ones get the most out of their talent, and which ones fail to lead their teams to their fullest potential?

I was curious about this question and decided to analyze all the managers currently in the AL Central. With the help of Baseball Prospectus’ wRM+, which measures bullpen management (more on that here) and Baseball Reference, I decided to analyze 10 other key metrics of a manager, which I put in this spreadsheet (which I will embed below). These categories offer valuable insight in terms of the strategic decisions a manager makes as well as their impact on helping a team win. Here are the categories:

  • Win-Loss Percentage
  • Team’s Pythagorean Win-Loss Percentage
  • Actual and Pythagorean Difference
  • Stealing 2nd Rate+
  • Stealing 3rd Rate+
  • Sac Bunt Rate+
  • Intentional Walk Rate+
  • Pinch Hit/Game Rate+
  • Pinch Runner/Game Rate+
  • Pitcher/Game Rate+

For the first three categories, that gives us as fans an idea of a team under or over achieves under a manager. Pythagorean W-L percentage basically calculates what a team’s record “should be” based on runs scored and runs allowed. Teams who have worse records than their Pythagorean are considered “underachieving” while ones who have better record than their Pythagorean are ones who have “overachieved.” While luck does play into it, it is mainly thought in baseball circles that a good manager will help their team “surpass” their Pythagorean record more often than not.

Thus, to evaluate AL Central managers in this metric, I subtracted Pythagorean W-L from Actual W-L to see which managers “over achieved” with their clubs (and vice versa). To get a better sample size, I calculated their Actual percentage and Pythagorean W-L percentage over the last three seasons, with certain exceptions: Royals manager Mike Matheny did not manager last year, so I incorporated his 2016-2018 years with the Cardinals; Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire has only managed two seasons in Detroit, and I didn’t feel it was fair to incorporate his last year in Minnesota, which was in 2014; and Twins manager Rocco Baldelli has only managed one year in the Majors, which was last year.

With that being said, here is how the AL Central managers currently broke down, and I also included Ned Yost for fun.

  • Overachiever: Baldelli (+2.4 percent)
  • As expected: Renteria (0 percent)
  • Underachievers: Yost (-0.2 percent); Gardenhire (-0.6 percent); Matheny (-2.4 percent); Francona (-2.5 percent).

So, if we just used that data alone, we might be prone to say “The Twins have a good manager and the Indians have a bad one!” But that is not taking context into account: Baldelli has only one year of sample size, and Francona has never had a losing record since coming to Cleveland in 2013. Thus, I wanted to go into more data to make my evaluations of Al Central managers.

If you look at Baseball Reference managerial tendency metrics, they list all kinds of metrics that evaluate decisions managers make. All these metrics show what a manager likes to do strategy wise over the course of a season or multiple seasons. Furthermore, B/R also quantifies these decisions into “Rate+”, which compares the frequency of a tendency of a manager to the league average that season, with 100 being the league average. Over 100 means that manager utilizes this tendency more than the typical manager; less than 100 means that they employ that strategy less frequently.

Much like Actual and Pythagorean W-L, I took the eight Rate+ metrics and averaged it for each manager over a three-year span. Every metric that was over a 100, I highlighted green. Every metric that was below 100, I highlighted yellow. A manager with more green highlighted cells can be seen as “old school”, meaning that this manager believes that he has a lot of control on the game, and thus, will make more decisions in order to exert that control. A manager with more yellow highlighted cells means that the manager is more “modern”, as Sabermetric thought believes that the less decisions a manager makes, the better it is for the club, since a lot of those strategies are high-risk and/or lead to unnecessary outs or get in the way of run prevention on the pitching end.

Here is a breakdown of what categories the managers in the AL Central fell into based on their “tendencies”.

  • Old School Managers” (50 percent or higher “Green” Categories): Renteria (75 percent); Yost (63 percent); Gardenhire (63 percent); Francona (63 percent).
  • Modern Managers” (Less than 50 percent in “Green” Categories): Matheny (38 percent); Baldelli (25 percent).

Not surprisingly, the two “Modern Managers” are also the two youngest of that group (Matheny being 49 and Baldelli being 38).

I do want to say though that I do not think that one method is better than the other. There have been successful managers who have fit both molds. It really is a matter of preference as well as what style fits with a team’s roster. If you have a bunch of boppers, playing aggressively in that “Old School” way doesn’t make sense. However, if you have a lot of speed, that method could work, especially as it did for Yost from 2014-2017.

So with all this data being known, I am going to go into my rankings of the AL Central managers. I will not include Yost in the rankings, as I may have a separate post comparing him and Matheny in terms of their tendencies in the near future.

5. Rick Renteria, White Sox

Renteria actually did well in terms of his Actual-Pythagorean difference, as he had a Zero percentage, which means his teams did exactly as expected over a three-year span. What was surprising about Renteria was that he profiled as the most “Old School” manager in the Central with a “Green” percentage of 75 percent. Whenever watching the games, Renteria seemed to be a more laid-back, subdued kind of guy in the mold of a Joe Torre, so I was surprised he rated so highly in this category. But then again, considering the athleticism he has on this roster with Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez and Tim Anderson, I am not surprised that he plays so aggressively especially on the basepaths (he had the highest 3rd base steal Rate+ of active managers in the Central).

However, Renteria had the highest Sac Bunt Rate+ of any manager in the Central (155.3), which I felt was counterproductive to a team filled with power and big boppers. With Luis Robert being called up this year, and the additions of Yasmani Grandal and Nomar Mazara, I wonder if Renteria will start to relent on this strategy and let his hitters handle the production instead of sacrificing outs. Another knock against Renteria is that he has never had a winning record as a manager, and his best year was a .451 win percentage with the 2014 Cubs. While Renteria hasn’t had much talent to work with, I do feel like Renteria isn’t necessarily the guy to get this White Sox team over the top, and it feels like the White Sox’s next manager will be the one to achieve real success, which is exactly what happened to him with the Cubs.

4. Mike Matheny, Royals

I like Matheny personally. I think he has done a great job in his transition so far as Royals manager. It’s not easy succeeding a manager who brought a World Series title to Kansas City and is as beloved as Yost. I was surprised though how Matheny’s metrics played out. For all the “Old School” knocks he gets, he surprisingly has been a more “modern” manager: he doesn’t steal a lot, he wasn’t as bad with sac bunting considering his background has been in the National League (with a pitcher hitting), and he lets his starters work out of jams.

However, where Matheny gets knocked is in his bullpen management, as he was the only AL Central manager to rate as “below average” on wRM+. The bullpen has been an issue the past couple of years, and Yost was known for utilizing the bullpen effectively, especially during the 2013-2015 run. The bullpen may be a strength of the Royals this year, so if Matheny doesn’t handle that effectively, it could sink the Royals’ hopes of a competitive season faster than they may think.

3. Ron Gardenhire, Tigers

I debated when it came to deciding who was better: Matheny or Gardenhire. Matheny certainly has the better record, but Matheny’s bullpen management and lack of familiarity with the American League made me cautious. Furthermore, though Matheny’s three-year Win-Loss surpasses Gardenhire, Gardenhire had a much better Acutal-Pythagorean difference (-0.6) in comparison to Matheny (-2.4).

Gardenhire was an interesting hire: he’s a pretty old school manager through and through, and that was certainly his reputation in Minnesota as well. Furthermore, Gardenhire has a pretty rocky track record, with some really good high’s during his early years in Minnesota, but a lackluster finish toward the end of his tenure with the Twins. It has been kind of the opposite in Detroit, as the Tigers have been one of the worst clubs in baseball the past two seasons. However, it seems like Gardenhire’s old-school approach may be good for a rebuilding team, and he seems to get the most he can out of this pretty rough roster. Of course, another 100-plus loss season might be hard to stomach, especially with a Detroit fan base that can check out of losing campaigns pretty easily.

2. Rocco Baldelli, Twins

Baldelli epitomizes the “modern” sabermetric-friendly manager: he doesn’t steal, he doesn’t bunt, and he relies on his best pitchers, i.e. his starting staff. Baldelli was pretty average when it came to bullpen management, as his wRM+ rated as exactly 100, which is exactly league average. Some more “old school” baseball types may not be thrilled with Baldelli’s more “hands-off” approach, but considering how potent the Twins’ offense was last year, it seemed to work out just fine. There’s no need to give away outs at the plate or on the basepaths when you have an offense that ranked first in the AL in home runs and 2nd in runs.

What prevents Baldelli from getting the top spot in the Central is that 2019 was his first and only year as manager. And thus, it will be interesting to see how his philosophy and tendencies change and develop as he gains more experience as a manager. Baldelli replaced former manager Paul Molitor because they wanted a fresh voice and perspective from the more “old school” Molitor. It seems to have worked in 2019, but will it work in 2020 and beyond?

1. Terry Francona, Indians

Francona is pretty “old school” as a manager: he was tied for second in “Green” categories at 63 percent. Francona also loves to bunt for sacrifice and pinch hit (he ranked 2nd and 1st in those categories, respectively), strategies that are more characteristic of managers in the National League, rather than the American. While Francona cut his teeth as a manager with the Phillies, he’s been in the American League since 2004, so it’s surprising that he still shows those tendencies as a manager.

Despite those “antiquated” approaches, Francona has been a model of success as a manager in the AL Central: he’s never had a losing season as Indians manager, and he was a few outs away from bringing the Indians a World Series title in 2016. Considering Cleveland suffered through the campaigns of Manny Acta and Eric Wedge before him, Indians fans probably are happy with Francona and the job he has done with the Tribe. In addition to his winning record, Francona is probably the best bullpen manager in the AL Central, as his three-year wRM+ was 109.3, the highest mark in the league. So yes, while Francona may employ some head scratching strategies (though he does have good depth and athleticism, so that may be a reason why he opts for an old school approach), the other aspects of Francona as a manager are so strong that he elevates to the top of the AL Central manager rankings in my book (or blog I guess).

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