Sunday, November 23, 2008

Let's talk about John Russell

About a week ago, ACTA Sports and the Hardball Times were kind enough to send me a preview of this year's Hardball Times Annual. The topic of the preview that they sent me was an interesting one-- quantifying managerial performances. If making a good fielding metric is hard, finding a way to quantify managerial performance has to be nearly impossible. They designed a "Manager of the Year Tool" that compares the team's expected record based on preseason projections (revised for playing time, trades, injuries, etc.) with their actual Pythagorean record and their actual linear weight runs, then compares the team's actual record with their Pythagorean record, then considers the number of wins generated by stolen bases. As a result, Cecil Cooper and Mike Scioscia come up as the best managers in their respective leagues, with John McLaren/Jim Riggleman and Bud Black coming up as the worst. It's not a perfect tool as it relies fairly heavily on projections, which aren't perfect, but it does put some thought into the process of picking the best manager, which is likely more than can be said for the writers who picked Joe Maddon and Lou Piniella without really thinking.

Anyways, I don't want to bore you with the sabermetrics of managing for too long, but I thought it was a good springboard to talk about John Russell, who scored a -3.9 on the THT's scale, good for fourth worst in the National League. Is that really fair? Was Russell terrible last year? Certainly, he had his maddening traits. He loved bunting in all situations, leading to the Jose Bautista debacle during the home opener. He often stuck with his young starters an inning too long, leading to some frustrating meltdowns. But does that make Russell a bad manager?

Take, for example, Joe Maddon. By all accounts, Maddon's done a wonderful job in Tampa with the Rays. He's a bit quirky, he does a nice job matching traditional and unconventional, and most importantly, he understands his team's strengths and weaknesses and managers accordingly. But last year, when the Rays pitching was disastrous and the hitting didn't come around quite as quickly as they needed it to, Maddon would have been the worst rated manager in the AL using the metric that THT came up with.

The difference, I think, is that the manager of a team that's full of young players has to manager differently then the manager of a team that's in contention. When he leaves a pitcher with a reasonable pitch count out for the seventh inning and he melts down and the Pirates lose, then justifies it with, "Our young pitchers have to learn how to pitch deep in the game," isn't that statement kind of true? I mean, what's the difference between 66 and 67 wins for the Pirates? Wouldn't their bullpen blow half those games anyways?

What I liked the most about Russell this year was his demeanor. I mean, yeah, I made fun of his monotone a lot, but an even keel is probably the best way to handle a team like the Pirates. With the caveat that in NC, I see a lot less post-game stuff then most people do, it seemed like he kept the respect of the players a lot better than Jim Tracy did. Maybe it seemed like the Pirates quit down the stretch, but I think that had a lot more to do with the circumstances surrounding the trades than Russell himself.

I think that two years ago, Russell would've driven me insane. This is mostly because I saw Nate McLouth square around to bunt several times this year and that's really something that should give smart baseball fans an aneurysm. But Russell is far from the only manager in the league that would have a "fast" player like McLouth bunt from time to time. That's how baseball is coached. It's wrong, but it's not going to change anytime soon. After years of watching baseball, it really seems to me like the most important thing a manager does is manage egos (I can't take credit for that alone, it's mostly what my dad, who coached Little League forever, thinks). Is it more important to a team that Nate McLouth lays down a few bunts or that Andy LaRoche gets comfortable in the batters box?

JR is far from a perfect manager, but I guess the point is that most managers are far from perfect. Kosuke Fukudome played most of the second half after he tanked in Chicago. Joe Torre was starting Juan Pierre, even in the playoffs. Joe Maddon and Mike Scioscia tend towards small-ball far more than their lineups call for. Russell's quiet intensity seems pretty well suited to a team like the Pirates. We'll probably learn a lot more about him this year then we did last year. Last year, he spent 2/3rds of the season with guys playing their hardest to get out of Pittsburgh, then the last 1/3 with a combination of young guys who were over their heads and old guys were pissed they weren't traded too. This year, he should have a much better opportunity to leave his mark on the team. And so long as that means he doesn't like Doug Mientkiewicz teach everyone how to run the bases like a moron again, I'm not sure that's necessarily a bad thing.