Wednesday, October 30, 2002
Does success in minors help prospective managers?
By Rob Neyer
Yesterday, just an hour or so before the Oakland Athletics officially announced that Ken Macha would become their new manager, I talked to Billy Beane about Macha. Mostly, Beane talked about Macha's communication skills and his leadership abilities (which go hand in hand, of course).
One thing that Beane didn't mention was Macha's performance as a minor-league manager. So I asked ... Did Beane take that into consideration, when he was deciding whether or not Macha was the man for the job?
"No, I don't really pay any attention to that."
Well, I did. Macha managed four seasons in the minors, and his teams finished better than .500 in each of those four seasons. His worst team was his first, as the Trenton Thunder went 73-69 in 1995. Overall, his teams won 56 percent of their games. You can talk about Macha's leadership all day long, but it seems to me that his performance as a manager is a qualification, too.
But is it?
It may be true that teams don't focus on a prospective manager's record in the minor leagues, but I suspect that it must come into play. If a guy spends five seasons managing in the minors and his teams fare poorly in all five seasons, he's probably not going to get a lot of attention from major-league teams looking for a manager. And the converse is probably true, too. Earl Weaver managed nine seasons in full-season minor leagues, and his teams finished better than .500 -- quite a bit better than .500, usually -- in every one of those nine seasons.
You don't think anybody in Baltimore noticed?
And it's not just Weaver.
Sparky Anderson managed in the minor leagues for five seasons ... and in four of those five seasons, his teams finished better than .500. Overall, his five teams won 57 percent of their games.
Tony La Russa didn't manage in the minors for long -- parts of two seasons -- but in both seasons his teams finished better than .500. Overall, they won 58 percent of their games.
Davey Johnson managed in the minor leagues for three seasons ... and in all three seasons, his teams finished better than .500. Granted, Johnson's record is brief and it's skewed by his 51-21 mark in the Inter-American League. But overall, Johnson's minor-league teams won 55 percent of their games.
Bobby Cox managed in the minor leagues for six seasons ... and in all six seasons, his teams finished better than .500. Four of his teams weren't all that far over .500, but one went 84-56 and another went 82-57. Overall, Cox's minor-league teams won 53 percent of their games.
Buck Showalter's not on a Hall of Fame path, but I happen to believe he's one of the great managers of our time. He managed in the minor leagues for five seasons ... and in all five seasons, his teams finished better than .500. Overall, Showalter's teams won 63 percent of their games.
The truth is that it's damn near impossible to find a highly successful major-league manager who was not also highly successful in the minor leagues (assuming, of course, that he did manage in the minors).
What does this prove? Not a thing.
There are two obvious reasons why managers who win a lot of games in the major leagues would have won a lot of games in the minor leagues. They're different sorts of reasons, but they're obvious.
One, managers who aren't successful in the minor leagues probably won't even get a chance to manage in the major leagues. My guess is that most major-league managers -- great, lousy, and everywhere in between -- were at least modestly successful in the minors. Otherwise, they wouldn't have got a major-league job in the first place.
And two, franchises with a lot of talent in the minor leagues will probably end up with winning minor-league teams (duh). If you're lucky enough to manage in an organization like this, you may well be blessed with talented teams, first in the minors and then in the majors. This was certainly the case with Earl Weaver and the Orioles.
Which is to say, in the minors the manager's no better than his material.
But then, don't people say that about the majors, too? Every time a "great baseball man" gets fired, the pundits excuse his team's poor record by running down his players. It happened with Tony Muser, with Buddy Bell, with Hal McRae, and every other manager who didn't completely alienate the media. And you know, there's definitely something to that argument.
On the other hand, I'm firmly convinced that there are managers who turn a bad team into a decent one, a decent one into a good one, and a good one into a great one. And I also think that the abilities that make a manager successful in the major leagues are often the same abilities that made him successful in the minor leagues.
I look at the great managers of the last few decades, and I see managers who won and won and won, not just in the majors but in the minors, too. Does that mean a winning manager in the minors will become a winning manager in the majors? Hardly. Muser managed in the minors for seven seasons, and his teams won nearly 53 percent of their games. His major-league teams ... well, they didn't fare quite so well.
I'd like to say that I've discovered some great truth about managers, but I suspect the real truth is that while general managers might say they don't care how many games a managerial candidate might have won and lost in the minors, they really do. If I were hiring a manager, I probably wouldn't even bother with a guy whose minor-league teams hadn't won at least half their games.
Nor, I suspect, would most general managers. Whether they know it or not.