Robin Ventura and the trial by fire

March, 4, 2012
3/04/12
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Robin VenturaAP Photo/Jae C. HongThe team GM Kenny Williams, left, hired Robin Ventura to manage certainly has its share of holes.


Robin Ventura succeeds Ozzie Guillen as manager of the White Sox, having never managed (or coached) at any level in pro ball. Just what has he gotten himself into?

Distinguished Playing Career

Although he will be hard-pressed to make as vivid an impression as his predecessor, Ventura should be able to command the respect of his players on the basis of his own career as a player. Though he isn’t a Hall of Famer, he has certainly had a career worthy of a Cooperstown exhibit. He was a three-time All-American at Oklahoma State University, where he set the NCAA consecutive game hitting streak record of 58 (he still holds the Division I mark). He was a first-round draft pick (10th overall) of the Chicago White Sox in 1988 and made his big-league debut a year later, after only 129 games in the minors.

While never a top-10 player, with few "black ink" stats on the back of his baseball cards, his career was notable for its consistency. Though he only surpassed 100 RBIs and 30 homers twice in his 16-year career, he was a six-time Gold Glover at third, and from 1991-2003 he compiled a 117 OPS+, with no season lower than 97. Whatever foot speed he had in his youth was erased in a horrific fractured/dislocated ankle injury suffered during a spring training game in 1997. He had compiled a line of .276/.367/.442 prior to 1997, but only .256/.357/.446 from 1997 onward.

Ventura had a knack for making history with the bases loaded. On September 4, 1995, he became only the eighth player to hit two grand slams in the same game. On May 20, 1999, he became the first and only player to hit a grand slam in both games of a doubleheader. During Game Five of the 1999 National League Championship Series, he hit a walkoff slam, which turned into a "Grand Slam Single" when his trip around the bases was interrupted by a celebrating teammate who hoisted Ventura up, preventing him from touching home plate. Another memorable moment came in a game against the Rangers in 1993, when he decided he didn’t like getting hit by Nolan Ryan, and charged the mound, only to be "noogied to death" by the 46-year-old Texan.

Track record of neophyte managers

Of those who will be pacing a dugout in 2012, at least seven went into their first big-league stewardship like Ventura is now, a babe in the managerial woods. But unlike Ventura, they all had prior coaching experience. Let’s examine how those seven did in their first two seasons:

  • Dusty Baker (1993 Giants): Baker inherited a team that won 72 games in 1992. Thanks in large part to the addition of free agent Barry Bonds (who compiled a 1.136 OPS), San Francisco improved to a 103-59 record in 1993, with Baker winning NL Manager of the Year. The '94 squad slumped to a 55-60 mark in the strike-curtailed season.
  • Bob Melvin (2003 Mariners): The 2002 squad went 93-69, only good enough for third place in the highly competitive American League West and six games out of the wild card. Melvin guided the M’s to the exact same record in his first year. This time they nabbed second place in the West, but still missed the wild card by two games. Melvin’s second year saw the Mariners fall from seventh to last in the AL in runs scored, and the team went 63-99. Melvin was fired after the season.
  • Ozzie Guillen (2004 White Sox): After the Sox went 86-76 in 2003, Guillen took over in 2004 and led the team to an 83-79 finish. His second season was when the magic happened: An AL-best 99-63 record and a 11-1 postseason record culminating in the franchise’s first title since 1917.
  • Joe Girardi (2006 Marlins): The 2005 Florida squad went 83-79, and Girardi somehow guided the team with the lowest payroll in the majors in '06 to a very respectable 78-84 record. He was rewarded with the NL Manager-of-the-Year award, but not before getting fired by the Marlins due to some clashes with ownership.
  • Bud Black (2007 Padres): Black’s fortunes were similar to Melvin’s -- he barely changed the team’s record in his first year (going from 88-74 to 89-74, with that 163rd game being a loss in the wild card tiebreaker), then saw the team totally collapse in his second season (63-99).
  • Kirk Gibson (2010 Diamondbacks): The D-backs had suffered through a 70-92 campaign in 2009, and were on the same path in the middle of 2010 at 31-48 when Gibson took over. He guided them to a slightly better 34-49 finish, then surprised most pundits with an NL West Division title in 2011, going 94-68 and earning the league’s Manager-of-the-Year award.
  • John Farrell (2011 Blue Jays): After the Jays finished in fourth place in the AL East 2010 despite an 85-77 record, manager Cito Gaston retired, and Farrell was surprisingly given the reins. The Jays meandered to an 81-81 ledger in 2011, never more than four games over or five games under .500 at any point.
  • Don Mattingly (2011 Dodgers): Donnie Baseball took over for a retiring Joe Torre, who had gone 80-82 in 2010. Despite all the off-field distractions, and very little offense outside of Matt Kemp, Mattingly was able to guide the Dodgers to an 82-79 record in 2011.

Two of the most recent examples of managers being hired despite no prior managing or coaching experience have turned out poorly:

  • Buck Martinez (2001 Blue Jays): The 2000 season saw the Jim Fregosi-led Jays go 83-79. Martinez, who spent most of his post-playing career in the broadcast booth, led the ’01 squad to a similar 80-82 record; after getting off to a 20-33 start in 2002, Martinez was fired.
  • A.J. Hinch (2009 Diamondbacks): The 2008 Diamondbacks went a disappointing 82-80, and when they started out 12-17 in '09, Hinch was given the job, at the tender age of 34. He led the team to a 58-75 finish to that season, and was 31-48 in the 2010 campaign when he was replaced by ... Kirk Gibson.

As you can see, most times there is little change in year one, but major upheaval (both good and bad) in year two.

The team he will manage

Since their splendid 99-63 regular season run to the 2005 World Series title, the record of the ChiSox has been neither wretched nor exemplary. With the exception of 2007 (a 72-win campaign), they’ve won between 79 and 90 games each year. They’ve compiled a .511 winning percentage and just one playoff appearance. They rank 13th in W-L percentage during that time.

[+] EnlargeJohn Danks
Jennifer Stewart/US PresswireHow John Danks, right, performs as No. 1 starter and whether Gordon Beckham can get his OPS back on track are key questions awaiting Ventura.
But last year’s club showed some glaring weaknesses. On offense, the 2011 squad had only two regulars compile an OPS greater than .728 (the league OPS was .730) or over a 100 OPS+. There were 22 players with more than 400 plate appearances and a sub-.660 OPS during 2011, and the Sox had five of them. The team finished no higher than seventh in the AL in any offensive category. It were also the third-oldest offense in the league. On defense, committing the second-fewest errors in the AL couldn’t mask the lack of range afield, as White Sox' Defensive Efficiency ranked third from bottom. If you reached first base against the Sox, you ran, as they threw out a league-low 22 percent of stolen-base attempts. The pitching helped keep some of the pressure off of the defense, as their 7.5 K/9 and 2.78 K/BB led the AL. But they still ended up with a league-average 4.10 ERA.

In 2012, the club will face some major hurdles if it wishes to improve on last season's performance or even just to keep pace with it. The starting rotation must replacing staff ace/workhorse Mark Buehrle’s 200-plus innings. Buehrle’s 2,425 frames since 2001 are 60 more than anyone else. John Danks, who pitched better than his 4.33 ERA might suggest, assumes the No. 1 starter position, with 22-year-old Chris Sale stepping into the rotation. Philip Humber pitched more than 21 2/3 innings in the majors for the first time in 2011, by 141 innings; his BABIP was a low .276, and something may have to give in 2012. In the bullpen, Matt Thornton has been the ChiSox primary set-up man for six years, and had a shot to close last year but lost it; with the departure of Sergio Santos via trade, can the 35-year-old Thornton step up, despite a sharp drop in his K/9 rate last year (12.0 to 9.5)?

On offense, there is a growing concern over second baseman Gordon Beckham. The former first-round draft pick has seen his OPS slide from .807 to .695 to .633, though his defense has improved at second base. Third baseman Brent Morel may not be the answer at the hot corner, as his profile (a .250 doubles hitter with few walks and below-average range) is lacking for the position. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski is 35 and closing in on 1,500 games behind the plate. His 120 games at catcher last year were his lowest since 2004, and he threw out only 20 percent of runners attempting to steal, below his career mark of 24 percent. There have been only 30 player-seasons in the past 50 years where a 35-or-older catcher has managed at least a .728 OPS (as Pierzynski did last year).

Then we come to the two biggest enigmas, Adam Dunn and Alex Rios. Everyone is well aware of Dunn’s legendary collapse in 2011, including his .064 batting average versus lefties. With three years and $44 million to go, can new hitting coach Jeff Manto get "The Big Donkey" standing upright again? Also, while Rios will never truly be worth the $21 million he is drawing each year through 2014, the Sox hope for something closer to the .284/.334/.457 line of 2010, rather than the .227/.265/.328 slash of 2011. They’re moving him to left field this season, where he has played one game his entire career.

Will Ventura exceed expectations?

So, Robin Ventura will certainly have his hands full (and tied) with a team that is, at best, in transition and, at worst, about to fall off a cliff. If he can move the White Sox in the right direction, it will be yet another extraordinary performance, as impressive as any of his grand slams. Given his history as a player, and the opportunity to establish a new atmosphere in the clubhouse, I think there is at least a chance he can pull it off.

Diane Firstman blogs about baseball at Value Over Replacement Grit, a SweetSpot network affiliate, and you can follow her on Twitter at @dianagram

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