Monday, 26 August 2013

John Gibbons and the Myth of the Magical Manager

"You can't fire me! I quit!" - John Gibbons
 We've all heard it recently. "They need to fire Gibbons and bring in a proven winner!" they exclaim, usually before naming a bunch of old-school, bunt loving, never-coming-to-Toronto-anyways dinosaurs to replace him. Sometimes it's preceded by an "I know the injuries and poor pitching aren't his fault but...", but inevitably most of the commentary on the Blue Jays' new old manager reaches the same conclusion: he's got to go.

Just in the last couple of days, we've seen plenty of debate in the Blue Jays media regarding Gibbons' role in the debacle that has been the 2013 season. On their main sports page, the Toronto Star currently has no less than 5 articles touching on Gibbons' future, or lack thereof, with the team as we begin looking towards 2014. At the Star, the Gibbons articles range from Cathal Kelly's defense of the skipper to Damien Cox's steaming pile of poorly thought out word vomit calling for another man to lose his job for no other reason than Anthopoulos and Beeston needing to "stop being nice guys and deliver a winning ball club". Sportsnet's Dirk Hayhurst falls somewhere in the middle, twisting himself into knots to make it clear that he doesn't blame Gibbons for 2013's epic disappointment, but that he needs to go anyways.

Now I'm not hitching my wagon to Gibbons to the exclusion of all other candidates. I can acknowledge that there are probably plenty of other managers that can do the job as well or better, just as I'm very certain there a lot more managers that would do a much worse job. Should the Blue Jays decide to give him the axe I would feel it was uncalled for, but I wouldn't shed tears. I sure would roll my eyes and shake my head though. At least if they were to do it this off-season.

What drives me absolutely batty are the intellectually dishonest arguments that journalists who should know better are spoon feeding to the lowest common denominator. Why is it so impossible to have a discussion on this topic that hinges on actual baseball? On Twitter this week, I've been trying to find a single person that will make a baseball case for Gibbons' firing. I'm still looking. If you have one I'd love to hear it (@BJaysBlackboard). Instead, every argument I've seen revolves around fuzzy notions of "leadership" and "culture" which, even if they were quantifiable, are completely unknowable to us from the few hours a week that we see these players on TV, or from the cherry picked quotes and soundbites that writers and broadcasters choose to shoehorn into their particular narratives.

As fans, do we want to be a ragtag mob of torch wielding peasants, storming the castle gates demanding a pound of flesh as payment for our suffering? I sure don't. I want my team to win, and winning means making smart personnel decisions. Smart personnel decisions are made by evaluating the entirety of an employee's job performance, not by giving in to a fan base's demand for a sacrificial lamb to soothe their collective hurt feelings.

So let's talk about things a manager actually controls, and which can directly and observably impact the outcome of a baseball game. I'm certain the front office will be, it's their job. By my reckoning, those things are lineup construction, bullpen management, and in-game strategy. These are all things we can actually observe and formulate our own opinions on. Of course to do that, we'd have to learn the game well enough to understand the rationale behind a manager's decisions and whether they increase or decrease the team's chances of winning, and observe closely enough to determine whether or not he's making good decisions more often than bad ones. Not doing so reflects a type of laziness that is forgivable in casual fans, but which I find downright irresponsible in so-called analysts that are paid to do just that. It is, after all, another human being's livelihood we're talking about here. The least we can do is devote a couple of brain cells to it. 

In these three aspects of his job, I think Gibbons comes out looking pretty good. With regards to the lineup, Gibbons generally makes obvious attempts to utiilize the players at his disposal in roles that will allow them and the team to succeed against the day's opponent. That's all he can do. The tendency is always to heap blame on the manager for players' shortcomings (the team's seeming inability to get a bunt down, for example) while withholding any credit for other players' successes. Rajai Davis and Mark DeRosa have had a great deal of success this year relative to expectations, but where are Gibbons' accolades for leveraging their respective 145 and 118 wRC+ against left handed pitching as much as injuries have allowed for? Similarly, Adam Lind has largely been shielded from lefties with the exception of a brief experimental stretch of time when he was hitting everything regardless of which hand the pitcher threw it with, and he's had his most successful year since his breakout 2009. 

Colby Rasmus and Brett Lawrie have been two obvious coaching success stories. By his own admission, Colby used to make so many tweaks and take so many reps in the cage during a slump, that he'd lose his swing and approach. He's credited Gibbons and Mottola for allowing him to relax at the plate and in his preparation, so if you go in for such things the proof should be in the pudding. Brett Lawrie began his season at the plate as a hunched over, hyperactive bundle of fast twitch muscle fibers that seemed incapable of hitting a ball out of the infield. Now, he's standing straighter and stiller in the box, and once more the results should speak for themselves. 

The bullpen was supposed to be the team's weakness, but has instead been its greatest strength. Despite having pitched more innings than any other relief corp, the Blue Jays pen ranks 11th by ERA and 7th by FIP. Those rankings were even stronger recently before fatigue and injuries started to catch up to them. Ultimately it's the pitchers themselves that have exceeded expectations, but Gibbons' deployment of them has certainly helped them do so despite the heavy workload. Bullpen moves are always easy to question in hindsight, and without the benefit of inside knowledge like how a particular pitcher's arm is feeling on a given night. Sometimes the right move goes wrong, and while some of Gibbons' decisions with the pitching staff are debatable, they are almost never indefensible. That's more than can be said of a lot of managers.

When it comes to criticizing John Gibbons, in-game strategy is probably the lowest hanging fruit, but the players have done him absolutely no favours. For starters, some of it comes down to philosophy. Gibby is not big on the small ball, and we knew that coming into this whole thing. He doesn't believe in running into outs or playing for one run, and with a lineup like the Blue Jays should have had, there shouldn't have been a whole lot of need to manufacture cheap runs. Imagine for a moment, that the Jays had been healthy for the entire season and able to run out their projected starting lineup for 150 games. It probably would have looked something like this:

1. Reyes
2. Melky
3. Bautista
4. Edwin
5. Lind
6. Lawrie
7. Colby
8/9. JPA/Izturis/Bonifacio (Who cares?)

Seriously, how many of those guys do you really want to see giving up an out to lay down a bunt like... ever? Izturis and Bonifacio sure. It would be great if JPA could, but given the type of player he was supposed to be it wouldn't be surprising if he's never been asked to lay down a bunt in his entire career. Most of those guys you want swinging the bat almost all of the time. The few times that you might want them to lay down a bunt and they fail may be painful, especially when magnified by the frustration of a losing season, but those moments cost the occasional run, not seasons. Besides, Gibbons took over a team of veteran Major League baseball players this past winter. Many of them broke into the league with other organizations. If they never learned fundamental baseball in all the years they've been playing prior to this one, it wasn't on his watch. A baseball season is a daily grind and there is only so much time in which to teach fundamental baseball skills that should have been taught years earlier.

Despite their seeming inability to manufacture runs, the Blue Jays haven't had any trouble scoring them. They're seventh in the league in runs scored, and all the teams ahead of them are in the hunt for the playoffs, depending on how you feel about Cleveland's chances. It's hard to blame the offense for this season's woes.

They've been let down by starting pitching. Full stop. The rotation's 5.06 ERA is second worst in baseball. They're third from the bottom by FIP and fifth last by fWAR. They're pretty much right at the bottom of any statistical category that has to do with keeping runs off the board. That's not a recipe for success, and even the Blue Jays' healthy offensive output was never going to be able to overcome the poor performances of the starting staff.

Funny though, how the part of the team that is almost entirely to blame for the season's crushing disappointment is the one that Gibbons has the least to do with. He may set a lineup, he may manage a bullpen, but there's not much he can do with the starting staff. He pencils their name in every fifth day and decides when to take them out of the game. Whatever happens in between is almost entirely out of his control, just as it is for all managers.

You see, managers are not magical beings. They are mere mortals like you and I, ever at the mercy of chance and circumstance. If you don't believe me, all we need to do is look at two current managers whose teams are trending in completely opposite directions since last year. Davey Johnson was the National League Manager of the Year in 2012. He "led" his Washington Nationals to a 98-64 record and the playoffs. This year, they're sitting at 65-65 and 13 games back of the NL East leading Braves. Red Sox manager John Farrell has taken over a team that missed the playoffs after an historic September collapse and has managed them into first place in the toughest division in baseball. What was he up to last year again? Oh, that's right. He was presiding over a 73-89 Blue Jays season, departing amidst howls of a lack of accountability, leadership and winning culture. So much so, that I can't think of a single fan or media member that thought the Jays had lost a quality manager in that fateful trade that let Farrell accept his dream job in Boston. Did Johnson forget how to be a good manager this off-season? Did Farrell learn? There are even segments of the Boston fan base that will tell you the team is succeeding as much in spite of him as because of him. Or could it be that managers are pretty far down the list of reasons that baseball teams succeed or fail, and always receive too much credit for a team winning, and an even more disproportionate amount of blame for a team losing?

He deserves the chance to start next season as the manager, hopefully with a couple of upgrades around the diamond and a healthy squad. If you want to give him a short leash after giving him a fair shot even I won't stand in your way. All I ask is that we have the conversation in terms that we can observe and understand, and if we do you might even be able to sway me that moving on from Gibbons is a smart baseball move. But Gibbons isn't Gandalf, so don't pretend he's got some magic wand he just isn't waving or spell he isn't casting. It doesn't work that way, and pretending it does is how bad decisions get made.

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  1. I agree with a lot of things mentioned (well-written article BTW!) One thing that I'd like to highlight that was not mentioned is the amount of games the Jays have lost as a result of their defence, and the role of the coaching staff on this issue. I think one additional area where the manager and coaching staff can wield their influence is on the execution of defensive fundamentals. Coaches should be working with players who are making repeated fundamental mistakes, while constantly reminding them and reinforcing the proper way to do things. There have been at least a dozen games this year where multiple defensive miscues have contributed heavily to the outcome of those specific games. Errors happen even to the best of teams throughout the season, and the 2nd base 'experiment' from Apr-Jun contributed to some of these errors made. However, there have been some games that have been painful to watch this year because of the team's poor defensive play and a seeming loss of focus (two games in the Anaheim series come to mind, as well games in Oakland...and there are many more!) I'm talking about things such as hitting the cut-off man from the outfield, more accurate throws from the outfield to home plate, and catchers blocking balls in the dirt more proficiently. I realize that these guys play practically every day, but when you are at the bottom of the league in most defensive categories at this point in the season, there should be emphasis on practicing certain fundamentals. If the players who are repeatedly making these mistakes are unwilling to work on their skills, shame on them and that needs to be addressed by management. However, if coaches are not spending time working through these issues with the players and reinforcing a strong defensive mindset, then the coaches - with Gibby being their leader - need to be held accountable.

    Oh, and one more thing - as much as this roster was not built for sacrificing runners over and bunting, I think winning teams will do what needs to be done to win close, important ball games. As such, these are skills that most of the players should be able to execute with some level of decency.

    1. I'll definitely give you the defensive lapses, but I don't think they've cost the Jays as many games as you're suggesting. In the course of a frustrating season like this one things like that tend to be magnified in a way that they aren't when teams are winning. Also, I'm not so sure that the coaching staff has as much control over fundamentals as fans like to think. Does anyone really believe that Tony LaRussa didn't rip a strip off Colby for always throwing the ball up the line? I'm sure Colby is trying his hardest, but it's not an easy thing to do. Lapses in team defense are one thing (not knowing who should be covering a bag for example), but individual errors are quite another. Sometimes players just aren't that good (Bonifacio), and regarding that game in Oakland... it's not like Gibbons can coach them how to not lose balls in the sun.

      Every team has flaws and every player has strengths and weaknesses. With a veteran team like the Jays have, at some point you have to accept the warts on each player and devote your time to trying to get the most out of what they are instead of trying to coach them into something they may never be.

      I'm also not convinced the Lawrie at 2B experiment was all Gibby. Imagine the organizational flexibility it would give them in trying to improve over the off-season. I think that trying it mid-season meant it was more likely to fail than succeed, but the organization had to know before the off-season if Lawrie could hack it. Besides, the season was essentially lost at that point. I wouldn't even be surprised to see him getting reps at second next spring training. I doubt we've heard the last of this.

      Thanks for the comment! I remain pro-Gibby for the time being, but really appreciate you making the argument in baseball terms :)