Sports Outside the Beltway

Managing improvement

Sunday’s Baltimore Sun had an article by Dan Connolly, “Help Wanted” about what the Orioles need in a new manager.

The Orioles have hired a new manager every few years for the past decade or so. They’ve tabbed World Series champions and big names. They’ve developed their own and dipped into the hot-prospect well.

They’ve done just about everything but find the right manager at the right time to point them in the right direction for the long term.

I guess the problem with the article starts at the very beginning. When a team’s problems extend a decade, the manager is probably not the main problem. Since avey Johnson quit, the Orioles have had Ray Miller, Mike Hargrove, Lee Mazzilli, Sam Perlozzo and, now, Dave Trembly as managers. They’ve also had Pat Gillick, Frank Wren, the late Syd Thrift, Jim Beattie/Mike Flanagan and Mike Flanagan/Jim Duquette as general managers. Given the lack of continuity in those running the team it’s not hard to see that the problem extends beyond the manager.

But the Orioles aren’t yet sure exactly what or whom they are looking for. Perhaps a mix of energy and attitude from a good, old-fashioned taskmaster could stop the spiral of losing. It would be a change, but in this era of baseball, that style is on the endangered list, if not extinct.

What’s more likely is a new hybrid, a custom fit that will work in Baltimore, but maybe not in other places. That, however, will take time, research and risk, because as Orioles fans have seen, things don’t always go as expected.

The problems is that none of this illuminates the Orioles’ biggest woes: the inability to identify and develop talent. Earl Weaver was a great manager but there was only so much he could do in 1986. He probably kept that team afloat for 3/4 of the year. But the talent wasn’t there and collapsed terribly in the last quarter of the season leading the first last place finish in the franchise’s history.

In reviewing the Orioles’ managers past, Connolly, only once puts his finger on the manager’s quality.

Then there was Davey Johnson, a superlative tactician with a contagious swagger who didn’t care if he irked players or management. He’s the only one of the recent lot to have won here, but he did it with a star-studded roster, not the collection of complementary players that has defined the Orioles for nearly a decade.

“Superlative tactician” refers to a guy who had Aaron Ledesma replace Rafael Palmeiro at first base when the team faced Randy Johnson. And it marked the only season – including playoffs – in which Randy Johnson lost five times to the same team.

But that’s how I describe tactics. Not calling for steals, hits and runs and double switches, it’s a matter of matching up players to opponents and situations to maximize their value to the club. If a player is weak against left handers then a good manager benches him against lefties and only starts him when a righty is starting against his team.

That’s why the term manager as a job description is appropriate. A manager manages the talent the front office has acquired. This also means that if the talent is limited, so too is the manager.

For most of the season the Orioles have had a slugging percentage of under .400. If that’s the case, unless the team has an ERA under 3.50, it won’t do well. The Orioles just don’t have the talent to compete and even bringing back Earl Weaver at the height of his powers (if that were possible) won’t make this a winning team.

Later on Connolly refers to a poll of Sun readers

The Orioles haven’t had a screaming, in-your-face general since the most successful manager in club history, Hall of Famer Earl Weaver, hung up his dirt-kicking spikes in 1986.

Because of Weaver’s success, however, the perception here is that winning and a fire-breathing leader are as intertwined as hardshell crabs and Old Bay seasoning.

In last week’s Sun/ baseball poll, readers were asked what trait they most wanted in a manager, and more than 40 percent said “a fiery mentality,” easily trumping “ties to the Oriole Way” and three others.

The problem again, is that Weaver didn’t win because he was fiery. Perhaps his personality motivated some players, but the underlying talent was there. Weaver knew how to exploit the talent to his advantage. He maximized the output of the players he had in his charge because he understood platoon splits and the value of a walk and the (negative) value of an out.

(Famously, Weaver supposedly responded to the late Pat Kelly’s admonition that he “… walk with God” with “Pat, I want you to walk with the bases loaded.”)

In other words, Weaver was using the same sort of analysis that Bill James popularized, 25 years before MoneyBall appeared. (Davey Johnson did too.) And the Orioles during Weaver’s tenure were excellent at developing talent.

True the Orioles now have some offensive talent in Brian Roberts and (hopefully) Nick Markakis. And some pitching talent in Eric Bedard and Jeremy Guthrie. (Daneil Cabrera for all the hype, has not as yet been any better than average. He still allows too many base runners. The Orioles best hope for Cabrera is for him to have a breakout year and then trade him to a team that gambles that Cabrera will sustain his success.) Of those four only Markakis is young. Counting on Adam Loewen at this point is ridiculous. But there still isn’t reason to hope that the Orioles lack of success is coming to an end any time soon.

Mike Flanagan might be ranked as the 10th best General Manager in baseball by Forbes, but his record so far from a baseball standpoint is not the so encouraging.

It’s true, that I’d probably prefer a General Manager who subscribed to Bill James’s ideas, but that isn’t necessary. Brian Sabean has had success with the Giants (despite statistically inclined naysayers) and Bill Stoneman has had success with the the Angels, though neither seems much enchanted with statistical analysis. Still each has shown an ability to evaluate talent effectively and build a consistently good team.

As far as manager is concerned, the one person I’d love to see wearing an Orioles uniform in the dugout right now, is Larry Dierker. He did a great job with Houston in part because he’s statistically inclined. (He did have a lot of talent to work with.)

The Orioles may wonder which manager will help the team the most, but unless the Orioles get a General Manager who is effective in recruiting and developing talent, the Managerial revolving door will continue, because all the team is doing is addressing the symptom, not the cause of the futility.

Crossposted at Soccer Dad .

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