The future of baseball skippers
David Kramer | Monday, November 15, 2021
The memories of wedging into an outfield reserve seat of the electrifying, drafty and almost surreal coliseum of the Twin Cities, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, will always be some of my most deeply cherished as a Twins fan. During the eras of success under the dome, reporters would compare the decibel level of the crowd to that of a large jet at the nearby Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Throughout the dynastic years of Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter, Johan Santana and Joe Nathan, comparisons tended to fall flat for Minnesota natives.
But alongside peak fandom in the Metrodome came heart-wrenching defeats, most of which fans attributed to the managerial woes of former manager Ron Gardenhire. Fiery, impassioned and regimented, Gardenhire, who ranks seventh on the all-time manager ejections list, would shout and stomp his way through 85- to 90-win seasons, all the while eyeing his first playoff series win since 2002. His trademark altercations with home plate umpires gave the fanbase life during a time when the near-supersonic big-moment success of the team’s two World Championships was nothing short of lackluster.
Much like his MLB counterparts, Gardenhire offered a method behind the madness in Minnesota. Real-time decisions to keep the bullpen cold and let Francisco Liriano paint a complete-game masterpiece became the life force of his managerial role. Gameplay strategy on the basis of “trusting his guys” placed an undeniable weight on his shoulders, still in the shadow of Moneyball’s introduction into the game.
Years later, Ron Gardenhire’s leadership feels like an all too distant era. The rapid infiltration of data into almost every aspect of the game has forcibly and indefinitely shifted the role of a good manager. Dugout deliberations adhere to tried-and-true predictive algorithms at the fingertips of every coaching staff. The dynamic duo of robot umpires and robust video replay virtually reduces the classic tirades of Gardenhire to relics of the past. Analytical insights on pitching make lengthy starting pitcher performances, and all of the managerial wisdom that hangs in the balance, true anomalies.
The role of the MLB skipper is changing, perhaps more rapidly than fans might realize.
With general managers behind closed doors stripping dugouts of more decision-making responsibilities than ever before, a pretty significant dilemma is destined to present itself to MLB offices: How much baseball knowledge is necessary for a successful tenure as manager?
Undoubtedly, the human aspects of managing —communication, personality management, real-time health evaluation and support for players — are not going anywhere. They can’t go anywhere. Algorithms can’t act as charismatic spokespersons to reporters.
All things considered, interacting with elite baseball players, I would argue, requires some experience on the diamond. Building relationships and establishing common ground with an ever-evolving mix of diverse players certainly calls for some first-hand experience of “the grind” at a high level.
Could mere sports therapists, conflict specialists or psychologists that implement the data-driven choices of the front office without batting an eye fit the mold? Could former Ivy League student-athletes with advanced degrees in sociology have what it takes to manage in a data-driven baseball landscape? In all likelihood, no. The most successful managers at any level of the game maintain agency behind their decisions.
Studies have proven that athletes thrive in an environment of trust. Pitchers jog from the bullpen and take the mound with confidence that their manager supports them, trusts them, believes in them. Culture wars within locker rooms have utterly debilitated organizations; safeguarding against so-called “culture problems” starts at points of leadership, particularly those with agency in the decisions that they make. Simply relaying the calculated and quantified choices of the front office with no dugout involvement leaves very little room for trust between players and coaches.
Enjoy the Gardenhire tirades while we still have them. Take heart in knowing that decisive managers are here to stay.