You can't fire all the players, the old saying goes, so you fire the manager. He is, after all, the easiest target. When a team performs poorly the front office can point to the guy in charge on the field, the figurehead, as the reason. It is, after all, his job to coax the best possible performances out of his players. If things go wrong, the front office can turn the manager into a symbol for the futility. By getting fans to focus on the symbol, the front office can take the heat off everyone else. And as Tim Kurkjian writes Thursday, the ever-increasing spotlight is making it harder than ever to be a big league skipper.
So far this season, we've seen three managers axed. After nearly three years of futility, the Baltimore Orioles finally showed Dave Trembley the door. A team in rebuilding mode, the Orioles probably wouldn't have kept Trembley much longer anyway. But the team so greatly underperformed its modest expectations that management thought something had to change. Also, the Kansas City Royals fired Trey Hillman after a little more than two years on the job. While the Royals didn't project to perform very well this season, they figured to be better than the 12-23 mark realized under Hillman. Under Ned Yost they have performed much better.
So it might also seem that the Florida Marlins fell short of expectations under Fredi Gonzalez. They were just 34-36, 7 1/2 games behind the first place Atlanta Braves, when the Marlins announced Gonzalez's firing. This came as a disappointment after the 87-75, second-place finish from last year, and even the 84-77, third-place finish in 2008. The problem with this comparison is that the 2010 Marlins are not the 2008 or 2009 Marlins. They're a different team that should carry a different set of expectations. Given the team's preseason projection, it doesn't appear that the team underperformed at all.
Using Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections, here are the Marlins hitters' projected weighted on-base average (wOBA) against what they have actually produced in 2010.
Marlins' Offensive Expectation, Weighted On-Base Average
We used Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections for weighted on-base average, and found that the 2010 Marlins have not underperformed.
Only three hitters have come in below expectations. Ramirez, while not hitting to the .410 wOBA he posted last year, still ranks as MLB's best shortstop. Maybin has since been sent to Triple-A for his poor performance. Cantu hasn't been far below his projection. Nor has Coghlan, who has hit .316/.387/.502 since April 30. In other words, he has exceeded expectations for the last two months.
The pitchers, too, have been outperforming their projections. Here we can see the Marlins' five starters and top two relievers projected Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) against what they've actually done.
Marlins' Pitching Expectation, Fielding Independent Pitching
We used Tom Tango's Fielding Independent Pitching and found Marlins pitchers have been exceeding expectations.
This presents more of the same. A number of pitchers are greatly outpacing their projections. The only pitcher on that list not hitting his projected FIP is Nolasco, who has let a few too many fly balls leave the park. If his HR/FB ratio were around league average his FIP would be 3.95, which is much closer to his projected number.
When ESPN ran a season preview featuring ZiPS projected standings, the Marlins ended up with an average of 74.5 wins. Even rounding up, that's a .463 winning percentage. Under Gonzalez they were 34-36, a .486 win percentage. It appears, then, that the Marlins have overachieved this season by about four wins, if they kept the pace of their first 70 games. This is nothing new under Gonzalez. The 2009 Marlins outpaced their Pythagorean record by five wins, and the 2008 team beat their Pythagorean record by three.
When he announced Gonzalez's firing, Marlins President of Baseball Operations Larry Beinfest, said, "This team seems to be stuck in neutral." But that doesn't appear to be Gonzalez's fault. His team, by all appearances, outperformed expectations in 2010. Yet he became the scapegoat for the Marlins' inability to even further outpace their expected performance. However, with the team behind in the standings, the front office needed a symbol for Florida's relative futility. That became Gonzalez -- but he didn't deserve it.
Joe Pawlikowski is a writer for FanGraphs.