Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 14, 2022

A Tough Season On Managers

A NOTE TO READERS:  On Sports and Life will be spectating as NASCAR pays its annual visit to New England this weekend, while also keeping an eye on events at the Old Course in St. Andrews.  As a result, Sunday’s post will be delayed by one day.  As always, thanks for your support.

In fairness to Benjamin Franklin, when, in a 1789 letter to French scientist Jean-Baptiste Le Roy, he used the manifestly incomplete phrasing, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” none of our current major sports leagues were yet in existence.  Besides, while Franklin is usually credited with originating the familiar phrase, he was actually borrowing from at least two early 18th century works in which it first appeared.  So had he been, say, a Phillies fan, and thus felt obliged to add the obvious third certainty of our existence, namely that managers and head coaches get fired, Franklin would have been defacing the good words of Daniel Defoe and Christopher Bullock.

More than two centuries later, sports fans know all too well that job security is not an attribute one attaches to the role of guiding a franchise from the sidelines or dugout.  Followers of the Great Game have been given repeated reminders of that truth in the past several weeks, with the first midseason firings of managers since exactly four years ago, when Mike Matheny was sent packing from the St. Louis Cardinals dugout on July 14, 2018.  Just like this one, that season saw more than one skipper relieved of his duties with meaningful games left to play.  Matheny’s dismissal just before the All-Star break came with the Cardinals at 47-46, but three months earlier Bryan Price’s four season tenure in Cincinnati was cut short a mere eighteen games into the schedule, after the Reds stumbled to a 3-15 start.  The Rangers’ Jeff Bannister was also fired during that season’s final days.

Late September dismissals like Bannister’s, done by teams that are long out of the playoff hunt and just playing out the string, happen almost every year and are little more than housekeeping by front offices wanting to get a jump on other franchises by announcing to prospective managerial replacements that yes, there is a job opening here.  But replacing a field general in the middle of a campaign is a riskier proposition.  In 2018, the Cardinals were in 3rd place in the NL Central when bench coach Mike Schildt took over for Matheny, and that’s exactly where they ended up.  The story in Cincinnati was the same.  The Reds tabbed bench coach Jim Riggleman to replace Price, but despite having many more games than Schildt to right his team’s ship, the new Cincinnati manager could only change doleful to woeful, with the club locked in last place through the season’s final day.

While the Cards and Reds 2018 experience is fairly indicative of what usually happens with midseason manager changes, there are exceptions.  Most notably, in 2003 the Marlins front office jettisoned Jeff Torborg after a 16-22 start.  Enter Jack McKeon, who led Florida to a 91-71 record and what was then the lone NL Wild Card spot in the postseason.  The Marlins then beat the Giants in the NLDS and the Cubs in the NLCS – a series that Chicago appeared to have in hand until a fly ball wandered down the left field foul line at Wrigley Field late in Game 6 – before finally dispatching the favored Yankees in the World Series.

Perhaps GMs and owners think of McKeon and the Marlins magical year when deciding to make a managerial change in midstream.  Or perhaps they merely want to shift the focus from their own roster-building decisions in the previous offseason.  Either way, they almost certainly want to send a message to the players on that roster, who of course have far more impact on a franchise’s fate than any manager.  This season, mixes of such thoughts have led three teams – so far – to oust skippers.  First to go was Joe Girardi in Philadelphia in early June, followed less than a week later by Joe Maddon in Anaheim, and joined this Wednesday by Charlie Montoyo in Toronto.  The common theme of the three firings has been a gap between preseason expectations and actual performance.

The first firing was the least surprising, and not just because the Phillies were seven games under .500 and fading in both the NL East and Wild Card races.  Since Girardi was hired prior to the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Philadelphia has flirted with but failed to make the playoffs, missing by one game in 2020 and being eliminated with three contests remaining last year.  Given Girardi’s winning record in the Bronx that included the 2009 World Series title and five other postseason appearances, it’s reasonable to assume that team president Dave Dombrowski, with his history of “win now” roster formation, would have little patience if the team again looked to be falling short.

Maddon’s dismissal wasn’t as predictable, largely because of his lengthy tenure as a coach with the Angels early in his career and resulting close ties to the team’s ownership.  But the franchise’s front office and certainly its fans have to be intensely frustrated with repeatedly missing the playoffs despite fielding a roster built around Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani.  This year looked to be different when L.A. started strong, battling Houston for 1st place in the AL West through the season’s first seven weeks.  But then things quickly spun out of control, with the Angels losing fourteen straight.  A dozen losses into that skid, Maddon was done.

If standings alone told the tale, those two firings were arguably foreseeable, since both the Phillies and Angels were under .500 when their managers were let go.  The Blue Jays, however, were 46-42 and holding on to the AL’s third and final Wild Card spot in Montoyo’s fourth year at the helm.  But expectations in Toronto were much higher, especially after the team won 91 games last season.  Many preseason forecasts, of both the computerized and “gut feeling” variety, touted the Blue Jays as the AL’s representative in this year’s Fall Classic.  By that standard, clinging to the league’s last available playoff spot didn’t look nearly so becoming.

Whether changing the manager in midseason alters the trajectory of any of these clubs remains to be seen.  The Phillies have improved under Rob Thompson, though only enough to be back in a familiar and maddening position of just outside the playoff field.  The Angels, however, have gone into a death spiral since Maddon’s firing and are on the verge of irrelevancy.  And the Blue Jays are only now adjusting to their new reality.  The surest measure will be how many of the three are among the dozen squads that play on into October, and for how long.  For now, all three franchises have opted for the high drama of a quick fix to their problems.  But in doing so they have ignored Benjamin Franklin’s warning that “great haste makes great waste.” 

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