Baseball is a sport of numbers: 762 home runs, 511 wins, a 56-game run.
But while players’ baseball cards are full of stats, one key person in the game is ignored by fans when it comes to counting and analysis: the manager.
Sparky Anderson, who has played 1,834 games and won three World Series titles, went so far as to say that managers were just a “necessary evil.” But thanks to a growing ability to track managerial decisions on sites like Baseball Reference, fans can take a closer look at the inclinations of the people who run their teams, which can help explain exactly what they’re doing in those dugouts.
The stats show who stands out in terms of strategy and, more broadly, they show how the game is changing. (All stats through Tuesday.)
There will likely be less than 2,200 steals this season, continuing a downward trend since their modern heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, when over 3,000 was the norm. But some managers still believe that being aggressive on the bases is an advantage.
Overall, about 5.7 percent of runners on first base make an attempt to steal second. That number rises when they play for Don Mattingly of the Miami Marlins (9.3 percent) or Jayce Tingler of the San Diego Padres (8.9 percent).
Some of this, of course, is staff-driven: Mattingly had the fleet Starling Marte (22 steals, for a trade to Oakland) and Jazz Chisholm (18). But Mattingly loved to steal when he was also the manager of the Dodgers, scoring 11.2 percent in 2014.
All that stealing seems to be helping the Marlins. They steal bases with a success rate of 79.5 percent, well above the 67 percent that statisticians say must be achieved for an attempt at stealing to be worthwhile.
In contrast, David Bell of the Reds is holding his runners in the mud. Only 3 percent of his men on the first left for the second. Given that Reds players have only been successful 55.1 percent of the time, he might consider stealing even less than that.
Deliberate walks, one of the least popular moves for statisticians – and many fans – keep falling. But there are still a few managers who value the first base of a team.
No one gives even one percent of the batters a free pass, but Dave Martinez of the Washington Nationals and Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers still send 0.8 percent of them into first place. Not surprisingly, they are managers of the National League, where it is quite routine to run the man in front of the pitcher.
Remarkably averse to strategy, American League managers Brandon Hyde of the Baltimore Orioles and Dusty Baker of the Houston Astros offered intentional walks only 0.1 percent of the time this season, or about once per 1,000 batters. Each has intentionally walked only seven men this season.
One of Hyde’s walks came to Shohei Ohtani last month, and it got boos from Orioles fans, who, in a season where their team saw their team play 31 games from third instead (and already eliminated from the fight after the season) probably just wanted to see the Angels superstar take his cuts.
Baker spent most of his managerial career in the NL, regularly walking nearly 1 percent of batters for the San Francisco Giants in the 1990s. That figure dropped when he led the Chicago Cubs, the Cincinnati Reds and the Nationals, and it collapsed with his arrival in the AL last season.
Another game that annoys many new-age statisticians is the bunt: the consensus is that giving up an out usually costs more than winning by advancing a bishop.
Don’t tell that to Mike Matheny of the Royals, whose non-pitchers have successfully put down sacrifice bunts 21 times this season, 1.8 percent of the time the strategy was available. (Workers are excluded from this stat because those not named Ohtani almost always bunt when they can.) Matheny has had a sacrifice bunt as much as 2.3 percent in his career, and it’s been noticed. In 2016, he stated that he was done answering questions about his tendency to punch players. “More than sick and tired of answering,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
But if you’re playing for Mike Shildt of the St. Louis Cardinals, Roberts of the Dodgers, or Bell of the Reds, you’d better swing the bat. Each has made only two non-pitcher sacrifices this season. (Shildt got FanGraphs “worst bunt of the year” in June after a botched sacrifice by Jose Rondón turned into a double play. He may have learned a lesson.)
Use of pitchers
In the 60s, 70s and 80s, teams used about 2.5 pitchers per game. As any fan watching a game creep into its fourth hour in 2021 can tell you, managers are now using a lot more. Each manager in the majors currently uses between four and five pitchers per game.
At one extreme is Tingler of the Padres with 4.8 pitchers per game. On the other hand, the White Sox’s old-school Tony La Russa is at 4.1.
You would think that a team with a bad pitching staff would turn on more and more pitchers as starters and center lights are fired upon. But oddly enough, the use of pitchers by Tingler and La Russa doesn’t seem to be explained by the quality of their staff: each team is ranked fourth in the ERA in its class.
In case you’re wondering, La Russa, 76, has moved with the times. In his first round with the White Sox in the 1980s, he used 2.5 to 3 pitchers per game. That number has increased as he progressed, but his 1986 White Sox squad, with 3.2 pitchers per game, was the only team in his 34 years in charge to be the best at using pitchers, despite its reputation for playing a large part to have played. standing up for situational relievers.
A new way to evaluate managers is their use of replay challenges. There are plenty of caveats: The sample size is small, and some managers may take a challenge to help a player’s morale or send a message to a referee.
That said, it’s La Russa who tops the list here: seven of his nine challenges have been successful this season, at a baseball-best 77.8 percent. Coincidentally or not, La Russa helped create the repetition system.
In contrast, both Hyde of the Orioles and Bob Melvin of the Oakland Athletics destroyed only one of the ten challenges.
The man who likes challenges the most is Charlie Montoyo of the Blue Jays. He has made 25 of them, nine of which were successful (36 percent).
In some games, the manager is not very noticeable. But it’s hard to miss it when he gets the boot. Any Atlanta Braves fan can tell you all about that after years of watching Bobby Cox lead the team as he was ejected 162 times – a season of early showers.
Tingler of the Padres and Aaron Boone of the Yankees have received the heave-ho six times this season. For Boone, who is known for his theatrical berating umps, it is a new personal best, surpassing his five expulsions from 2019.
Gabe Kapler of the Giants, Kevin Cash of the Rays and Brian Snitker of the Braves receive the Good Citizenship Award: They haven’t been told to leave yet. (All three have been thrown out in previous seasons, however, but Kapler’s tally of four expulsions in 523 games as manager shows excellent behavior.)