Troubling trend in hiring is closing door on baseball’s veterans
As Bob Dylan might say, when it comes to hiring in baseball, you don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows.
If you’re a minority, minor-league manager or longtime major-league coach, you probably can forget about managing. And if you’re an analytics-minded, Ivy League graduate, you’ve got the inside track to becoming a GM.
Welcome to the new-boy network, in which the best way to become a GM is to present your fancy degree to an owner, and the best way to become a manager is to enjoy a close relationship with the GM.
I don’t mean to disparage new Mariners manager Scott Servais, who has never managed or coached at any level, or new Phillies GM Matt Klentak, whose résumé actually is quite sufficient for his new position.
It’s the pattern that troubles me. And it’s a pattern that should trouble baseball, if the sport truly is interested in diversity for its top positions. Not just ethnic and racial diversity, but intellectual diversity, too.
I’m sorry, but as much as I recognize the importance of analytics, it is disrespectful for teams to overlook the value of experience when considering prospective managers. If the main prerequisite for managing is merely sharing and implementing the GM’s vision, then a whole bunch of qualified people will continue to be shut out.
I’m talking about minor-league managers who spend years honing their skills but lack the requisite connections to advance.
I’m talking about longtime coaches such as the Giants’ Ron Wotus and Dodgers’ Tim Wallach who continue to wait for an opportunity.
I’m talking about minority candidates such as Blue Jays bench coach DeMarlo Hale, Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez and Indians first base coach Sandy Alomar Jr., who barely seem in the mix.
In fairness, a number of teams hired first-time managers from the coaching ranks last season. The Rangers’ Jeff Banister, Twins’ Paul Molitor and Rays’ Kevin Cash fared particularly well. The D-backs’ Chip Hale made a solid impression. And the Phillies recently promoted a longtime candidate, Pete Mackanin, from interim to permanent manager.
The Mariners’ hiring of Servais, though, continues a trend of former players becoming managers with little or no previous experience. The Dodgers could make the same type of move if they promote farm director Gabe Kapler, whose only previous managing job was with a Class A affiliate of the Red Sox in 2007, to replace Don Mattingly.
Servais and Kapler are more untested than unqualified — their front-office backgrounds hold considerable value. But are they more qualified than any number of other candidates? Or do they simply have better friends in high places?
I understand why new Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto, after stepping away from a power struggle with manager Mike Scioscia in Anaheim, would hire Servais, a former teammate and close colleague. In an age of high stakes and intense scrutiny, a GM and manager must be close allies and trust each other deeply.
Still, when will it be time for a market correction?
In the past five years of hirings, the Cardinals’ Mike Matheny is the only manager to succeed despite little managing or coaching experience. A larger group — including the Tigers’ Brad Ausmus, Marlins’ Dan Jennings, White Sox’s Robin Ventura and Rockies’ Walt Weiss — have achieved mixed results at best. A.J. Hinch failed with the D-backs, learned from his mistakes and returned five years later a much better manager with the Astros.
Analytics are changing the game. The manager’s role is changing along with it. Still, a manager’s No. 1 task is not to crunch numbers, but to connect with 25 premium athletes, ages 20 to 40, who are full of ego and bluster.
The idea that a manager must slavishly adhere to his front office’s philosophy is as narrow-minded as the old-school rigidity that gave rise to sabermetrics in the first place. The best managers adjust to what they see on the field, applying knowledge gained from years of watching games unfold in front of them.
Think about it: Would Earl Weaver, Whitey Herzog or even Joe Torre be considered for a managerial position today? Would the Royals’ Ned Yost or Blue Jays’ John Gibbons even find other jobs if they were fired tomorrow? Are former managers such as Dusty Baker and Ron Gardenhire simply viewed as dinosaurs now?
Baker is getting a second interview with the Nationals, according to the Washington Post, and while he lacks sabermetric bona fides, his gift for bringing teams together might be just what the Nats need. Gardenhire, too, does not qualify as a new-age thinker, but a team such as the Padres could do a lot worse.
The problem for such veterans is that precious few old-school GMs remain, and GMs in their 30s are going to hire like-minded managers. Most of the younger GMs hail from Ivy League and other elite colleges in the northeast. If that is the new talent source, how can baseball expect to attract a diverse pool of GM candidates?
Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill is an exception, an African-American who is a graduate of Harvard. But even though the Ivies and other schools aggressively recruit underrepresented minorities, their campuses do not include as many Latins and African-Americans as American society at large — or increasingly multilingual major-league dugouts (Full disclosure: I am a graduate of Penn).
Meanwhile, the Braves’ Fredi Gonzalez is the only current minority manager. The DBacks’ Dave Stewart, Tigers’ Al Avila and Dodgers’ Farhan Zaidi are the only minority GMs, Hill the only minority president of baseball operations.
Minorities, though, are not the only ones getting pushed aside by the new-boy network; older scouts, instructors and executives are losing their jobs as the game becomes more data-driven. Some are indeed ill-equipped to keep up with the changes in the industry. But others bring an institutional memory and time-honored wisdom that is invaluable.
For an example of how newer isn’t always better, consider how some of the Royals’ biggest plays in the ALCS derived from information compiled by their advance scouts, who began tracking the Blue Jays on Sept. 1. Many teams now rely solely on video and data for their advance scouting. The Royals still see the value of advance scouts watching games in person, looking for tendencies, digging for information.
I am not railing against metrics; every team incorporates them, and anyone with an even remote interest in the game understands their value. Nor am I railing against any specific hire; almost all are defensible on their own merits.
The problem is that with all of these custom-fit hires, the new-boy network threatens to be as damaging as the old.
The analytics door opened. A bunch of others closed.