Archive for Managing

How Important Are Managers?

Not very, according to my new paper.

HIRED TO BE FIRED: THE PUBLICITY VALUE OF MANAGERS

Abstract
Sports teams frequently fire and hire managers when they experience losing. However, determining managerial responsibility for player performance is difficult to measure. This study examines how major-league baseball players perform under different managers and estimates that managers have little effect on performance. The study further investigates whether or not replacing managers serves as a signal to fans that the team is improving, which boosts attendance. The results indicate that new managers were associated with increased attendance in the 2000s; however, such effects were not present in the 1980s and 1990s.

Here’s an old blog post on some preliminary results from the study. I really wished that I had written a chapter in Hot Stove Economics on this topic, but I just didn’t have the time. I will be presenting this paper at the Southern Economic Association annual meeting later this month.

So, don’t fret Mets fans. I’m not sure it matters all that much whom the front office hires as manager. But a popular hire could at least give a boost to the fan base.

Managers: Hired To Be Fired

We miss the effects of randomness in life because when we assess the world, we tend to see what we expect to see. We in effect define degree of talent by degree of success and then reinforce our feelings of causality by noting the correlation. That’s why although there is sometimes little difference in ability between a wildly successful person and one who is not successful, there is usually a big difference in how they are viewed.
(Mlodinow, The Drunkard’s Walk, p. 212)

It’s that time in the season when fans begin to notice that teams and players aren’t living up to expectations (and to a lesser fans notice that some expectations are exceeded). When a career All-Star bats below the Mendoza line, or a pre-season playoff favorite resides at the bottom of the division, commentators go looking for answers. “He needs to make adjustments to his swing” and “This team has the wrong attitude” are common statements often heard on broadcasts. Right now, the Mariners and Braves are in last place in their divisions; the Red Sox are below .500: fans of these teams are in full panic mode. It’s fine to have some concern—losses in the early season are just as important down the stretch, and poor performance now may indicate poor talent—however, I feel that fans are too sensitive to swings that are largely the product of randomness. Sometimes good teams win and bad teams lose, All-Star sluggers strike out and bench players hit home runs.

Occasionally, these things happen in clumps (like the Braves losing nine games in a row), and fans are quick to respond with disdain and frustration. For example, the data below represent wins (w) and losses (l) in a 162-game season for a .500 team, generated randomly via a computer program (Stata code: generate x=round(uniform(),1)) . Note that this team actually finishes below .500 and has several streaks of wins and losses. In fact, there is an 18-game span where the team has two five-game losing streaks and one six-game losing streak while going 2-16. I imagine the sports pages would have a field day with this team as being one of the worst in baseball, when in fact it is an average team.

l l l l w w l l l w w w w l w w l l l w l w l l l l l w l l l l l w l l l l l l w w w l w w w w w w l w w w l w w w l w w l w w l w l l w w w l w w l l w w l w w w w l l w w w w w l l w w w l l l l w l l w l l l l l l w w w w l w l w w w w w w w l w w l l w w l w w l w w w l w l w l l w w w l w w l w w l w l w w l l l w l

Even though such runs are perfectly natural by random chance, fans often demand changes or they’ll turn away from the team. And such negative feelings can be contagious as they are spread far and wide. In old-media days, management might be able to reason with reporters and broadcasters to keep the mood light. But with the rise of the Internet, venting is impossible to control with spin jargon. In fact, managers and GMs are often mocked when they declare bad luck to be the culprit for poor play.

This has to be frustrating for management, because the belief that random fluctuations represent real and easily-correctable problems can have financial consequences. A good team that plays poorly can translate into losses at the gate. A GM may look at his roster and see a good team that he doesn’t want to change, but “hang on and be patient” doesn’t resonate well among fans who demand answers. How can a GM signal that things are going to get better when the team is already configured optimally? Fire someone who doesn’t matter.

The players are the main input to success on a baseball team, and are the last thing a manager or GM wants to adjust. Replacing Chipper Jones (2010 OPS: .770 with Brooks Conrad (2010 OPS: .822) will only hurt the the Braves’ chances of winning. The next step up the line are coaches. The Mariners have already fired hitting coach Alan Cockrell. Now, there may be good reasons to fire Cockrell, but I don’t think one month of poor performance can be attributed to Cockrell, or that any damage he did will remedy the Mariners’ hitting woes. I have no doubt that Mariner hitting will improve as players regress toward their true talent level with or without a new coach. I’m also certain that someone will attribute the expected turnaround to the installation of Alonzo Powell as hitting coach. But firing Cockrell serves the purpose of appeasing the masses. It’s management’s way saying “hey, we’re mad too, and we’ve fixed the problem.” Many fans who declared their anger may head back to the ballpark that they would have otherwise abandoned.

The next level up is the manager, and managers are often fired in mid-season on under-performing teams. Though we often give lots of credit to managers for the successes of their teams, I don’t think managers contribute too much to the game. The nature of the game requires sending individuals up to the plate on their own to perform. There aren’t plays to draw up, junk defenses to employ, or reacting to another coaching strategy. After picking the lineup, all managers can really do is pull pitchers, shift the defense, and call hit-and-run type strategies. And most of these choices could be dictated by a computer algorithm. Managers may do some coaching and stroke player egos, but I don’t believe that managers have much effect on teams. Rather I think they serve as public figureheads, who handle the media and put a public face on the franchise. In this sense, one of a manager’s main responsibilities is to serves as a scapegoat, sacrificed to the fan gods to preserve good will with fans and keep them coming through the turnstiles.

Now, I don’t believe that managers are totally benign, just overrated. But, I wanted to examine who managerial changes affected fans. If new managers affect attendance positively, then the manager-as-scapegoat theory has some support. So, I looked at managerial changes within seasons, where the talent of teams remains someone consistent, and observed the attendance after such changes. This is a complicated exercise because managers are typically replaced on bad teams; attendance is expected to be falling, so this analysis requires controlling for several factors. Using Retrosheet game logs (and double-checking with Baseball-Databank‘s managerial records), I identified how attendance changed when a new manager (managing a minimum of 10 games) was brought in.

As controls I used the performance in the last 10 home games (to proxy recent local excitement regarding the team), the winning percentage for the entire season (to proxy the quality of the club), and the career winning percentage of the manager (to proxy managerial quality). Because of the panel aspect of the data, I corrected for detected serial correlation over time and used fixed effects to control for unique properties in each market. I also used year dummies to capture the impact of individual seasons, month dummies to proxy seasonal shifts in attendance, and day-of-week dummies to capture daily fluctuations. The results below are from a sample from 2000–2009.

			Impact	T-statistic
New Manager		1041	2.60
Wins in Last 10 Games	187	3.62
Team W%			32928	16.50
Manager Career W%	26821	11.66
		
Obs			18614	
R2			0.41	

The estimate indicates that a new manager nets a club about 1,000 additional fans per game. So, even while a team may be losing, and winning more may bring in more fans, the addition of a new manager seems to boost attendance. Thus, it appears that the manager-as-scapegoat theory has some legs.

But, another interesting finding is that this relationship does not appear in the 1990s or 1980s. In the 1990s, the effect is positive, about 140 fans per game, but the estimate is not statistically significant. In the 1980s, the estimate is negative and significant. Are fans more responsive now than they were in the past? Maybe the new social media puts more pressure on teams to act swiftly and fans respond in kind. Or, maybe this is just a spurious correlation. Still, I think the preliminary findings show that it is worth further investigation. And if a team has a run of bad luck, I wouldn’t blame a GM for firing a coach or manager as a PR move. It’s not like ex-managers have a problem getting second and third chances. In fact, firing appears to be part of the job description of managers.

It may seem unfair to put blame on blameless parties, but coaches and managers also receive praise for performances that they have little control over. It’s not like they are not paid well. They continue to receive their contract salary, and they will likely find work again within baseball. So, for the sake of the fanbase, I say fire away.

The Duncan Effect

At Inside Pulse Sports Pip of Fungoes asks:

it’s time for a comprehensive study of whether there is a “Duncan Effect” on pitchers, like the one that JC Bradbury did on Leo Mazzone. Until then, no one knows for certain what kind of an impact (if any) Duncan has on pitchers.

Well, because you ask so nicely, I’d be happy to oblige. :-) Actually, it’s easy because I already did the study.

Two years ago, Sports Illustrated asked me to look into the question, and I ran a study similar to the one I did for Leo Mazzone in The Baseball Economist. I looked at how pitchers performed with and without Duncan, controlling for factors such as age, parks, and pitcher quality. I found that Dave Duncan’s pitchers improved their ERAs by about 0.35 runs—yeah, he’s pretty darn good.

If you haven’t seen this before, it’s because the estimate buried on page 60 of the September 27, 2007 issue of SI in a story about Duncan and his sons. I meant to write about it at the time, but I never got around to it.

UPDATE: Pitchers Hit Eighth posts the link to the SI article in the comments. Thanks!

Dayton Moore’s Extension Was a Bad Idea

So, just after I a write a post about Dayton Moore, he gets an extension. That’s probably a coincidence, but I’m not sure that it is such a coincidence that the announcement took place just after Joe Posnanski left the Kansas City Star.

This was a bad idea, but not because he’s bad at his job. I really don’t have enough information about what he has done within the mess that is the Royals organization to say. He could be running the team into the ground or setting up a foundation to breed long-term success. The reason the extension is a bad idea is that it sends a message to the public that you are committed to the status quo for five more years. If I’m a season ticket holder, does this make me happy or sad? Right now, I’d have to say sad.

The extension represents an unnecessary vote of confidence in Moore. Is he in danger of taking a job elsewhere? Maybe if he turns things around he becomes a candidate to move in the future, but if he does this, you’ll have a good organization to build off of. There is very little to be lost by keeping Moore in place and extending him year to year if needed. Until he proves he can build a winner, there is little danger that he leaves. The five-year extension means the Royals are going to be hesitant to fire Moore, and less likely to change.

I think this is a situation where a lack of stability actually signals a brighter future and increases fan interest. If you are a Royals fan, change represents hope; just as a sick dictator may signal coming freedom. The organization has just committed to a man who’s guided the Royals through four losing seasons. And no matter how good Moore may be, that’s not information that is going to excite season ticket holders.

A Tale of Two GMs

A few years ago, it was common knowledge among Braves fans that one of John Schuerholz’s two main assistants, Dayton Moore or Frank Wren, would be taking over the reigns when Schuerholz stepped down.

In 2006, Moore left the Braves to become the Kansas City Royals’ GM. For reasons that I really don’t understand (possibly because of Wren’s unsuccessful one-year stint in Baltimore) some fans were high on Moore but not Wren. I mean, do fans really understand what goes on inside front offices to hold such opinions? (I am also perplexed when fans develop opinions about the draft, when all they are doing is aggregating the opinions of others)…but, anyway…Moore was gone, and it was Wren who took over prior to the 2008 season.

Wren suffered significant criticism in his first term as GM, which is expected when you take over for a popular GM. After public rebuffings by Jake Peavy, Rafael Furcal, and Ken Griffey—and rebukings by John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and even John Schuerholz (strangely apologizing to Glavine)—Wren was not a popular man. Some fans were also highly critical of his acquisitions of Javier Vazquez, Derek Lowe, Kenshin Kawakami, and Garret Anderson.

The Braves will likely miss the playoffs this year—though, I have not given up hope!—but Wren deserves much credit for rebuilding the team. All of the above players have played well, though each player has had down points during the season. The team greatly improved the team over last year’s roster, and only Lowe has a contract that may turn out to be a long-term burden. I am particularly pleased with Anderson, who has been exactly league average for a measly $2.5 million. Replacement level—whatever that is—my ass.

The only blemish on Wren’s year—other than the PR hits that are inevitable in his position—has been the rushing of Jordan Schafer and the continued reliance Jeff Francoeur. But, to his credit, he fixed both mistakes.

Moore, on the other hand, has had a disastrous year, and not just in terms of team performance. It began with the acquisition of Mike Jacobs, but the acquisition of Yuniesky Betancourt did the most damage to Moore’s reputation as an up-and-coming GM. His penchant for ex-Braves prospects is understandable, but is becoming embarrassing. He loves Tony Pena so much he can’t even give up on him properly—seriously, he’s being converted to a pitcher? And then there was the Rany Jazayerli incident, which makes Frank Wren’s PR gaffes look like subtle burps behind a napkin.

I really don’t have anything against Moore. I have very little idea of what he does behind the scenes, and for all I know if I had the same information he does, I might have made identical moves in his position. This post is about how the career paths of Wren and Moore have diverged. It’s like seeing Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake many years ago as a power couple and wondering, “what does she see in him?”

As a Braves fan, I have been happy with Wren. I may not always agree with his moves, and I’m not even sure how much power he has. The thing I like most about Wren is his personality. Unlike his predecessor, his is open, honest, and non-hostile during interviews. He stands by his decisions and doesn’t hide from mistakes.

Why Did the Brewers Fire Ned Yost?

I’m not going to deny that there are plenty of legitimate reasons for firing Ned Yost. I don’t have an opinion on the issue. What I do know is that his firing wasn’t motivated by these reasons.

The Brewers have been a nice story this season, but they really haven’t been as good as their record. Their performance has to do with the assembled talent, and not Yost. In fact, on August 4, I wrote the following.

The Brewers are not that good, and I think there is a decent chance that the front office will realize this before the month is over.

In fact, the Brewers winning percentage today (.557) is virtually the same as it was when I wrote this (.553). Might Yost have been partially responsible? Yes, but why wasn’t he fired six weeks ago?

The real reason he’s being fired is that the Brewers need a scape goat now that the team’s playoff chances are in doubt. The Brewers want to send a message to the fans that if they don’t make the playoffs, Yost was the reason. Now that he’s gone, they hope the fans will keep supporting the team. He might not really be the reason, but it’s something that fans can easily understand.

My point is that Yost wasn’t fired because he mattered, but because he doesn’t matter. Maybe he was too hard, too soft, or made some dumb tactical moves; but, he also probably made some good decisions. In the grand scheme of things, I think it’s difficult for a manager to really screw up a team over the course of an entire season.

Leave ‘em in the Oven

From MLB.com:

Reds don’t want to rush Bailey, Bruce:Pitcher, outfielder developing, growing at Triple-A Louisville
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com

CINCINNATI — Two-fifths of the Reds’ rotation hasn’t been getting it done. The offense has sputtered as some hitters have been slow to heat up.

Help is only a phone call away at Triple-A Louisville, where the organization’s top two prospects — pitcher Homer Bailey and outfielder Jay Bruce — just happen to be flourishing.

Manager Dusty Baker said on Thursday that promoting Bailey and Bruce was a consideration, but indicated it wasn’t the preferred one yet.

“The thing about it, though, is you don’t want to stunt their progress and growth,” Baker said. “It’s very tempting to think only of today vs. thinking what’s right for them and us in the long run, for years to come. A month can be worth years in terms of experience and confidence.”

I’m a fan of leaving guys in the minors. It conserves service time, and it gives players time to work on performance in a competitive environment without harming the big-league club. Now, it’s hard to know this, but I feel that the Braves have been too quick to bring guys up. Jeff Francoeur could have worked on pitch identification and stealing bases. Kyle Davies could have gained better command of his pitches. Maybe there is something to be gained from big-league experience at a young age, but I often wonder if these guys could have harnessed their natural abilities to a greater degree with a little more practice.

Like I said, we don’t have any way of knowing when is the optimal time to bring guys up, but I like the Reds approach, especially considering the state of the ballclub.

What are Managers Worth?

This was the question asked to me by Darren Everson of the Wall Street Journal for a story he was doing on Joe Torre’s $4.3 million per year contract. It’s a question that has interested me, and other economists, for some time. There are many inputs into winning, such as playing talent, medical treatment, coaching, and roster management. Managers have a large say in coaching and roster management, but separating these contributions from others is difficult. A manager who has good players may look good, a manager with bad players may look bad. But, do good teams win because of or despite their skippers?

Currently, I am working on a project to evaluate manager contributions. It’s a long way from completion, but I’ll report some preliminary findings. I looked at how hitters performed under different managers while controlling several relevant factors, such as inherent talent, aging, and ballpark effects. For Joe Torre, the main subject of Everson’s article, I did not find an impact that was significantly significant. In fact, no manager stood out as being particularly good or bad when it came to hitting. The best managers were Don Baylor, Dick Williams, and Davey Johnson. The worst were Bob Boone, Terry Collins, and Hal McRae. But, even at the extremes the impacts were not statistically significant.

Thus, Everson quotes my conclusion in the story.

“I think managers are a bit overrated in terms of the impact that they have on their players,” says J.C. Bradbury, an economist and associate professor at Kennesaw State University and author of “The Baseball Economist.” To make a team better, he says, “get better players.”

This does not mean that managers don’t serve an important function on teams. I think it is quite clear that managers are needed; however, if no manager is superior to any other, then why spend big money on manager with a good reputation like Torre?

A team might choose to spend big bucks on a manager is to signal to fans that the team is making a serious commitment to winning, which causes fans to pay attention and come to games. Managers like Lou Piniella, Dusty Baker, and Joe Torre are household names whose reputations as well-known public figures may combat fan outrage over a team’s previously poor performance. Also, these managers may also be adept at working with the media (Piniella and Baker have done a good bit of media work) and might be able to manage PR in a way that keeps more fans in tough times. This certainly can affect a team’s bottom line. Managers might also be able to recruit better players through free agency for less. My guess is that some players would be willing to take a little less to play for Torre.

Why Pay Dusty Baker $3.5 Million?

The Cincinnati Reds just signed Dusty Baker to a three-year contract worth $3.5 million per year. Why do this? The mean and median manager salaries in 2007 were $1.45 million and $940,000. Yes, Dusty Baker has a lot of managerial experience, and because his broadcast position is opportunity cost is higher than some other managers. However, I don’t see why the Reds would fork out this money for a manager. Is this the main problem? Both the hitting and pitching are below league average when controlling for the ballpark. I would think the team could use is resources in a better way and just hire an unproven bench coach for less.

It is possible that Baker gets more out of his players than other managers, but I don’t think that is the main reason for this hire. I suspect that the Reds are trying to signal to fans and free agents that this team is going to make a major effort to turn the team around. A big-name manager may help keep some season-ticket holders in the fold. Plus, free agents who want to play on a competitive team may see the Reds as changing course. I would not be surprised to see the Reds make a play for some big-name free agents this offseason, including A-Rod.

JC on Baseball Prospectus Radio

Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus has posted an interview with me regarding (mostly) the Orioles managerial change and Leo Mazzone. If you didn’t know I was from the South, you will after you hear my accent.

Mp3 of the interview

Thanks to Will for doing the interview. I enjoyed it.