Green Grass And Expectations - The year was 2001. I was a freshman in college, and the Texas Rangers has just finished a horribly disappointing 71-91 campaign as a follow up to winning the AL West for the third time in four years the previous season.
It began to sleet as I made the drive up 35 in my O’Reilly Auto Parts delivery vehicle while listening to “The Hardline” talk about another subpar Cowboys season gone by, or so I remember. Suddenly the freeze of a dreadful DFW sports winter thawed away as news broke that Alex Rodriguez was signing a 10 year contract with the Rangers, making him the richest player in MLB history.
ARod was one of several power bats signed by Texas that winter, and though they for the large part ignored upgrading a pitching staff coming off of an impressively inept 5.52 ERA and 1.640 WHIP year, expectations were high for a turnaround.
Johnny Oates began the season as the second winningest manager in club history, but the promise of an offense that was sure to bash their opponents into submission and the bitter pill of finishing 20 games under .500 the prior season fed into an ever growing popular theory that Coach Oates was the wrong man to oversee this next phase of Texas baseball.
I was 19 at the time, and this was long before the statistical revolution brought about by the burgeoning internet explosion (Baseball-Reference.com had launched just a year earlier), so it’s hard to recall any particular criticisms about flaws in Oates’ game strategy. Though, I do remember the numerous complaints about his demeanor on the bench.
“He’s too passive.”
“The players show emotion. Why can’t he?”
“It’s time to get some passion from the manager. Time for a change.”
After an 11-17 start to the 2001 season, those seeking a change of the guard got their wish, and a franchise that had known no greater success than the years spent under the guidance of Oates would trudge on for 9 more season before making the playoffs again.
Now, the manager who took the Rangers back to the playoffs, who delivered them their first ever playoff series victory, who was one strike away on two occasions of bringing the organization it’s first ever championship, and who is now second in franchise wins is hearing cries for his head from an angry mob who won’t be content without Ron Washington falling on the sword if Texas fails to make the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year.
“He can’t manage a bullpen.”
“He will never abandon the old school ways that are holding this team back.”
“The veterans in the clubhouse are too comfortable with the status quo.”
Those demanding for Wash’s job now sound as absurd to me as those demanding for Oates to be canned over a decade ago. How was Johnny Oates ever expected to succeed with a starting rotation that featured Doug Davis, Rick Helling, and Kenny Rogers as its three best pitchers?
In the same respect, how can we be surprised that Washington’s team is falling in the standings when Justin Grimm, Nick Tepesch, Martin Perez, Ross Wolf, and Josh Lindblom have made just 5 fewer starts than Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison? Or how about the loss of 75 HR and 251 RBI with the departures of Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli and Michael Young that have been replaced with 21 HR and 87 RBI from A.J. Pierzynski, Lance Berkman and Leonys Martin?
In a debate with my good friend and seamhead Jeff Feltman, he argued that Wash’s weaknesses will always prove fatal with ace managers like Joe Maddon and Jim Leyland occupying opposing dugouts.
“But isn’t Wash 3-0 in series against Maddon and Leyland?”
“His teams were simply better.”
“But the Rays scored more runs and had a better team ERA and WHIP in 2010.”
“Well the Rangers had Cliff Lee.”
“So what about 2011 when the Rangers didn’t have a bona fide ace to pitch against David Price and Justin Verlander?”
“Well their offense was just too good.”
“But the 2010 Yankees that the Rangers beat with their ace in 2010 scored more runs than the 2011 Rangers offense did that bested two aces, right?”
“It’s just time for a change.”
That of course was the overwhelming sentiment after Terry Francona’s 2011 Red Sox crashed out of the playoff race in September. Bobby Valentine was the tough love personality needed to shake up a complacent Boston roster.
Bobby V did such a great job of making his players uncomfortable that the Red Sox finished 5th in the AL East for the first time since the 3 division format was introduced in 1994, and the teams 69 wins was the lowest total in a full season since 1965.
I’m not suggesting that Jon Daniels and Nolan Ryan would pick a replacement for Wash as historically horrid as the Valentine hiring in Boston, but sometimes that greener grass is laden with poison.
Wash Geometry 101 - The Pythagorean Theorem of Baseball, introduced by Bill James, is designed to deduce if a team’s performance in the win/loss column matches up with their expected results based on the number of runs scored and given up by that team. The theorem is designed so that the actual W/L total should be within 3 games or so of the expected W/L total for each team at the end of the year.
Any variance in the number is viewed by many sabermetricians as an outcome of luck, but I’ve been pondering lately if it could also be seen as an indication of a good or poor job of managing. After all, the moves that managers make in the course of a game and season are intended to maximize the precious resource of runs, so that their club is in the best position to rack up as many wins as possible.
For instance, legendary manager Joe Torre ended his 12 year run on the Yankees bench with 1173 wins, though his expected win total based on the Pythagorean Theorem of Baseball was 1132. The 41 game difference averages out to about +3.4 wins per year in Torre’s favor, which is just above the 3 win difference attributed to luck. However, that’s a big overall number in the positive direction when you consider that there should be a handful of years where luck went against Torre and the Yanks.
In fact, there were only two of the twelve years where Torre ended up winning fewer games as a manager than he should have based on the theorem (1997 and 2007), for a total of 6 fewer wins. So, was Torre the beneficiary of great luck, or was he a damn fine manager for an extremely talented bunch?
Give me the latter.
As this relates to the Rangers, a constant criticism of Ron Washington is that he costs his team several wins a year because of his poor game management.
Washington enters tonight (7/29) with 576 wins as Texas’ manager. His Pythagorean total is 573. While three more wins over the expected total is not close to Torre’s outrageous total of 41, it does not fit the description of a manager who bungles a handful of games away with a multitude of bunts and questionable pitching decisions.
As for Joe Maddon and Jim Leyland? Maddon has a 647 win total compared to 652 expected wins, and Leyland has 666 compared to 665.
Though it could all just be luck.