Maddux combats bias against pitchers
November, 9, 2011
By Christina Kahrl | ESPN.com
The Chicago Cubs' decision to interview Texas Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux for the vacant manager's job provides another reminder that Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and their merry crew aren’t afraid to do things differently. And more power to them. If Maddux winds up being their selection, it will reflect their willingness to break with convention and perhaps accrue an additional benefit as a result.
There’s a long-standing bias against former pitchers becoming managers. It’s a long-standing prejudice that is a little self-reinforcing. You can blame selection bias -- so few ex-pitchers get to manage ballclubs in the first place that a few spectacular failures bias decision makers. Pitching coaches like Larry Rothschild, Ray Miller, George Bamberger and Marcel Lachemann proved to be mediocre managers.
Former pitcher Tommy Lasorda is the all-time leader in wins as a manager, and is 17th overall all-time. The only other former hurler in the top 20 for wins as a manager is Clark Griffith, who did his pitching in the 19th century, won his first and only pennant in 1901 with the Chicago White Sox.
More recent examples of success exist, though even they seem to get slighted. Former Astros ace Larry Dierker took the remarkably unconventional career path of moving from the booth to the dugout. He was a spectacular success, winning four division titles in five years from 1997 to 2001. He was nevertheless seen as unconventional and perhaps even a bit too smart for his own good.
Roger Craig led the Padres to their first winning season in franchise history as a rookie skipper in 1978, but still got canned after they regressed in 1979. After another successful spin as a pitching coach for Sparky Anderson’s Tigers (with a ring in 1984) helped him earn another run with the Giants. All he did was win a pennant and two division titles while finishing above .500 in the first five of seven full seasons skippering the Giants. But Craig is perhaps better remembered for a pitch (the split-fingered fastball) and a motto (“Humm Baby!”).
There is plenty of reason to believe that former pitchers can be good or even great managers. Two current active ex-pitchers are now managing, John Farrell of the Blue Jays and Bud Black of the Padres. Black is one of the best in the business, and he won the 2010 NL Manager of the Year award (full disclosure, I voted for him).
Coming to San Diego as a well-regarded pitching coach, Black has proven effective in the face of limited resources, crafting useful bullpens and exercising adroit staff management. But he has also proven more than capable when it comes to dealing with running an offense. He has proven adept with his lineup construction and playing time distribution, while building platoons to shore up an offense short on premium talent. If anything, he’s proven to be more adaptive and creative on offense than many of his former position-playing rivals.
Whatever superstitions exist over hiring ex-pitchers and ex-pitching coaches, examples like Black, Dierker, Lasorda, and Craig, should be enough to dispose of the bias. But perhaps even more important, managing a pitching staff -- not just who you use, but the logistics of workloads, warm-ups, pitch counts, rest days and more -- is perhaps the most important area of managerial discretion in the game today, especially with the utilization of in-game offensive tactics on the wane.
If Maddux gets past the prejudice and winds up in the dugout, I wouldn’t bet against him. Just as Black’s resume was excellent, Maddux’s track record as a pitching coach in Milwaukee and Texas is nothing short of outstanding. And as Black (and Dierker and Craig) demonstrated, there’s no reason to believe that Maddux can’t pick up running the offensive side of a manager’s responsibilities.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.