You can’t teach an old manager

Here’s a question for you: how did the Rangers get Ron Washington as their manager? After all, he’d been a coach for the team for a decade, was seen as a strong candidate the last couple of times they were looking for a new manager, and this article says that Washington was the first, best and only choice the A’s could make last October. So how, just a few weeks later, did he get the Rangers job? In fact, it was only a couple of weeks after letting Washington go to a division rival that they promoted bench coach Bob Geren to be manager. Surely they knew plenty about the two of them, and could almost certainly have had their choice, so why let Washington go to a division rival?

Moneyball, the book by Michael Lewis about the A’s 2002 season and the way the team was run, has a couple of interesting parts about Washington. Perhaps the most critical line though, is the one where Washington is quoted saying “Somebody on this team runs and get his ass thrown out and you got all kinds of gurus who tell you that you just took yourself out of the inning.” This tells you enough about him to know that he had a fundamental difference with Billy Beane, that difference being that Beane was emphasizing skills like OBP while Washington believed in speed. My guess is that was the seed (or at least one of the seeds, there were probably others we’ll never know about, but this was the most public) that made Beane know that he could never let Ron Washington run his team, because Ron Washington didn’t think the way Beane wants his managers to think.

So although he gets the Rangers job, was he even really in the running in Oakland? Or was it just a smokescreen, and Oakland was happy that he went somewhere else, with the belief that he would do the bad things that Oakland avoids with another team, and in this case he would hurt a division rival?

Now I’ve got to tell you, in case you haven’t realized from reading this blog, that I believe in statistical analysis. Yes, scouts have their place, but numbers don’t lie like scouts do. They may not lie intentionally, but they see a very small sample of someone and believe they can judge them. I, like many or most sabermetricians, look at a small sample of numbers and ask what it is telling me, and what it is not telling me. So when I look at the Rangers, and Ron Washington, I judge them through that lens, the belief that things like bunting and speed and so on are not nearly as useful as you might think.

Ron Washington, on the other hand, grew up with speed and defense, and never hit much. His career stats show he was a middle infielder, who played for several teams but mostly Minnesota in the 80s, never hit much (career OPS+ of 78, means his offense was worth 78% of the average ballplayer), had hardly any power (20 HR in 1500 AB), not much speed (career 28 steals and 18 caught stealing), and surprisingly enough didn’t field very well (his career fielding percentage was below the league average and his range factor was way below the league), considering he was renowned for teaching fielding in Oakland.

Another section in the Moneyball book quotes him as telling the author he stole 57 bases in one season, and fellow coach Thad Bosley stole 90. This has been ridiculed in various places online, since as noted above he only stole 28 bases in his career. However, looking at his minor league stats, he was probably talking about 1974, when he stole 51 bases in A ball, and I don’t begrudge him being slightly off (it’s also possible the author got the number wrong). That same site does not list Bosley’s minor league record, but Wikipedia says he did steal 90 in the minors, so that part is true. Either way, it does appear he ran quite a bit in the minors but very little in the majors.

The book Management by Baseball, by Jeff Angus (which incidentally has a very interesting blog, check it out if you haven’t already), opens with an introduction about Maury Wills. Basically it says that when managing Seattle, Wills had slow slugger Jeff Burroughs try and steal, to no avail. Wills had been an exceptional base stealer during his career, and tried to translate that to his team when managing. He considered the things he did best to be the most worthy things to do, and wanted others to do them too. This has already become apparent with Ron Washington in Texas, in that he is doing just the things he did best while playing, and ignoring the players he has and what they can do. The team is bunting and stealing much more than in the past, flying in the face of all the latest statistical analysis.

A particular incident stands out, since it was from just a day ago, but it could be taken from many other places this year. On Sunday, Ian Kinsler singled to lead off the game, and with the next batter up, Brad Wilkerson, the Rangers bunted. Admittedly, this was a successful bunt, but it gave up an out for little gain, and it was noticeable when two batters later Sammy Sosa hit a home run, scoring Kinsler, but Wilkerson was sitting in the dugout having followed his managers instructions to bunt, instead of potentially rounding the bases with the others. Now, of course, Wilkerson could have done any number of things if he hadn’t bunted, including hitting into a double play, but the Rangers went for the low percentage chance. There are various tables online showing run probabilities, but using this one you can see that with a runner on first and nobody out, a team will on average score 0.88 runs. A runner on second and one out (as in after the bunt), they will score 0.69 runs. So by choosing to bunt, the Rangers give up the chance of 0.19 runs, not much you say but over time it adds up to quite a lot. As a matter of fact the Rangers have sacrificed 47 times this year, and although not all will be in this same situation, using it as a proxy gives us about 9 runs given up, or almost one whole win based on the 10 runs for a win theory. Yes, there is a time and place for bunting (not least to keep the other team on their toes), but in the bottom of the first, why are you playing for a single run, when you should be trying to establish a big lead?

The Rangers have stolen more this year too, and pretty successfully, currently standing at 70-17 for stolen bases-caught stealing. That’s about an 80% clip, fairly well above the 70% which sabermetricians tend to accept as the break-even point, but with the small numbers involved it would only take a couple of steals to get right back to average. Again, using something that Washington supposedly excelled at, speed, he tries to model the team after himself and ignores current and future realities.

According to Jon Daniels they had a couple of great interviews with Washington, and immediately decided to hire him. I’m assuming they got into detailed information about how he would run a team, specific situations, because otherwise the only things that came out were all touchy-feely things about how he is a people person, and they were looking for that after the Buck Showalter regime went too far the other way. What did Washington tell them about managing a game, about when he would bunt, or steal, or pinch hit, or pull pitchers from the game, or how he would specifically run things? Did they hear any of that? Does Jon Daniels (or Tom Hicks) have a philosophy about running the team, or do they leave that up to the manager? JD does not have a long history in baseball, coming out of college as a management type, so it’s possible he thinks he needs to let the manager choose the philosophy on the field, and his job is just to get him players. If that’s the case, he’s going to be a weak GM, not allowing the team to reflect what he wants it to. Yes, the manager should have input, but I believe that the GM should give him a direction to head in, and if he won’t follow it then he should move on.

When Mark Teixeira left a few weeks ago, you have to wonder what he was thinking. Thanks to this recent interview with Michael Young, we know some of it.  In it, Young says that Tex can’t say enough good things about Bobby Cox.  Now, we know that Tex and Washington had a run-in, where their screaming at each other was heard outside of the manager’s office, and we know that Washington was telling Tex to do things his way.  Obviously Tex is a very good player, who knows what he is doing with a bat, and the implication seemed to be that Washington didn’t think he knew what he was doing.  How much of Tex’s decision to turn down $140 million and be traded was down to Washington?  100%?  No, not even close.  Probably not even 10%, maybe just 1% of Tex’s thought was “I don’t want to play with this guy”.  But if that’s the case, and if the same is happening with others, then Ron Washington and by extension the Rangers have a problem.  Yes, he was lauded in Oakland for his ways with the players, but he was a coach there and he is the manager here.  What’s the difference?

My personal opinion, having watched Ron Washington for just five months, is that he is not cut out to be a big league manager.  He was very successful as a coach (and oddly, when he came on board in Texas, said he looked forward to working with Blalock on his fielding, which is not something a manager should be doing, it’s the infield coach’s job).  But he seems to have ignored, willfully or not, the lessons he should have learned in a decade in Oakland.  Maybe it’s the result of being third base coach, where he doesn’t get to sit in the dugout with the manager and discuss or hear the thought processes.  Or maybe he thinks he knows it all from when he was playing, and that is the way he will always play the game.  He has little if any tactical ability, his decisions on pulling pitchers is terrible (backed by a poor pitching coach), he seems to pinch-hit at random, he clearly plays favorites and rubs some players the wrong way (my bet is that Gerald Laird will be gone by Opening Day next year), and as for the other Moneyball quote, where everything out of his mouth is something that should be in Bartlett’s Quotations, well, I haven’t heard a single thing yet.  I had little clue who he was when he was first mentioned for the Rangers job, I had to look him up online like most other people, and frankly I have little clue who he is today.

I believe he has a two year contract, which is ridiculous, it’s telling people that you don’t have much faith in someone as soon as you hire them.  That means that this winter one of three things will happen:  the Rangers will fire him (saying they didn’t see anything changing), they’ll extend him (with a bunch of platitudes about the ship moving in the right direction), or they’ll do nothing, and he’ll spend a year being a lame duck.  I will tell you right now that I think it’s 50-50 he is still the manager on Opening Day 2008, and in my opinion he is almost certainly not there on Opening Day 2009.  At this point I’m supposed to suggest an alternative, and I think Art Howe was hired as bench coach with the plan that he would take over if and when Washington failed.  He will either be interim manager at some point next season, or a strong contender for the job this offseason.

The little I’ve seen of Washington, I just can’t get into him.  He doesn’t seem to be a very warm person.  He doesn’t seem particularly managerial.  Of course I wish things could work out for him in Texas (in fact, the Showalter curse suggested we should be winning the World Series this year).  He just doesn’t seem to have a plan, or at least to communicate a plan, which means he always seems to be a step behind where we think he should be.

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One Response to “You can’t teach an old manager”

  1. Ioannis Says:

    I just want to say that this is a fantastic piece. On our blog, we spend a lot of time mocking John Daniels, which probably means that we let Ron Washington off the hook for a lot of things. I’m glad I read this, so we can spread the bitterness around more appropriately.

    This was a phenomenal piece of writing. Keep up the good work.

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