Baseball has a serious leadership problem, and I’m not just talking about that lawyer who sits in the commissioner’s office.
This once great game decided managers are not really that important and must be told what to do, not only on a daily basis, but on an inning-by-inning basis, even a pitch-by-pitch basis.
In both the major leagues and in the minor leagues.
The tide is not yet totally turning in the game, but a number of teams have had the good sense to hire true leaders to man the dugout and to the Mets credit, they have hired Buck Showalter. This follows Dusty Baker being hired a couple of years ago in Houston, Tony La Russa tabbed by the White Sox a year ago, Alex Cora getting his job back in Boston, and Bob Melvin being taken on by the Padres. And don’t forget Don Mattingly keeping his job in Miami with Derek Jeter in charge and Joe Maddon with the Angels.
Some of the younger managers have shown true leadership skills as well like Charlie Montoyo with the Blue Jays, Gabe Kapler making some nice adjustments the second time around in the dugout with the Giants, Brian Snitker having paid his minor league dues in the Braves system and, of course, Kevin Cash with the Rays.
The Nerds can try to paint the picture any way they want, but for a team to really succeed, it has to be more than a paint by numbers manager.
Leadership matters. It matters now more than ever.
Ever so slowly, some owners are coming to that conclusion – and I say that because of the hiring of some senior advisors like former managers Clint Hurdle in Colorado and Bryan Price in San Diego, experience is coming back in vogue. And here is the really interesting part, some of the people I just mentioned have a direct relationship with the owner of the team, and that is certainly the case with Buck Showalter and Steve Cohen.
For a change, there won’t be a wall of Nerds between manager and owner and that is a great thing for Mets fans and for Buck and Cohen. They are building a trust.
Just imagine the amount of baseball knowledge that will be flowing in Cohen’s direction from Showalter, who has a reason for everything he does, even his screw-ups.
The leadership gap is a real thing in baseball and if you are not getting true leadership from the manager, you are going to need a key player to step up and show leadership in an everyday manner. Snitker had help with the Braves winning the World Series this past October by relying on Freddie Freeman and third base coach Ron Washington, who worked the infielders every day to keep them at the top of their game. That made a huge difference.
I say it all the time: baseball is not a video game. It’s a game where all factors have to be taken into consideration.
“You never want to confuse change for a lack of tradition” – Buck Showalter.
On Tuesday the Mets had a Zoom call with Showalter and he made it clear he is all in on analytics and wants to have the most information possible. That’s really a no-brainer. But it still comes down to Showalter’s decisions.
I asked Showalter about the recent hiring of veteran managers like himself and does that close the leadership gap in the game a bit. His answer was fascinating.
“I worry sometimes that we are not developing the managers sometimes in the minor leagues, that we need to,’’ Showalter said. “You want to have that flow of it, I think because the job description of minor league managers are so different today and I have a respect for what they are trying to get them to do, but along the way, I think sometimes we lose some of the things that managers have to have during the course of the game.
“Sometimes change is good, but you never confuse change for a lack of tradition, you try not to go down that vibe,’’ he added. “You respect the tradition of baseball but sometimes there is a way to make things better, sometimes something new may not be better so I think you try to challenge everything with an open mind and I’m going to be open to everything; but I also am going to challenge ‘How did we get to that equation and how does that help us win a game in the eighth inning when you got five seconds to make a decision? Don’t bring it in after the fact. I want to have an avenue where you feel comfortable bringing it in. But know you are going to get: ‘Okay, how did you arrive at that and how does that help us?’’
Showalter is so right about not developing young managers.
How can you learn to manage, if you are not allowed to manage? If every decision is made for you, you are not making any decisions that matter. You are not learning. You are not growing as a manager and you know what, players know when someone else is pulling the strings.
There are helicopter parents and helicopter GMs.
One of the wisest baseball insiders I know offered this about the subject. About four or five years ago he spoke to others in the industry about the neutering of managers.
“We had started to see lineups being e-mailed to managers,’’ he told BallNine. “Scripts for pitching, five innings, two innings. This is how you run the game today. Right then, we said we are going to have a whole generation of guys who have no gut, no feel on how to manage a game.’’
Surprise, surprise, he was right again, that is exactly what the Nerd GMs and their acolytes got, and what they wanted because they want to run the games, every aspect of the game.
“They think they are the smartest people in the room,’’ the insider told me. “At all times.’’
As for my point of the players sniffing out the vulnerability of these managers, the insider said, “Some of these kids in the minor leagues are bullet proof. You can’t bench them. You can’t do anything to them.’’
As for their major league brethren, all you have to do is look at how Francisco Lindor was in the middle of controversies last year as young manager Luis Rojas had no control over Lindor.
First there was the fight with Jeff McNeil and the rat-raccoon coverup. Then there was the thumbs down to the home fans with Javy Baez and Kevin Pillar.
I’ve been around players and clubhouses the last 46 years. You know how much energy has to go into coming up with the thumbs down script? First you have to come up with the idea, discuss it and set up the pantomime. It’s not something that is organic.
Some kind of thought has to go into this to basically mock your own fans after you (finally) do something good at the plate and get on base.
That is Next Level Stupidity.
We all know what the thumbs down gesture really meant towards the fans. (Photo: Wendell Cruz/USA Today Sports, via Reuters)
It is remarkable to me that no one in that Mets clubhouse had the guts or the brains to say, “Hold on, fellas, this might not go over well in New York. You know you are no longer in Cleveland, right Francisco?’’
The fact that Rojas was clueless about the whole production tells you how out of touch he was in his own clubhouse and how the players had no respect for him – because ultimately this comes back on the manager.
As I have said before, I like Luis Rojas and he comes from baseball royalty but letting stuff like this go on in your clubhouse, in your dugout, on your home field, well, that’s exactly how you go from managing a big league club to not managing at all.
You can be sure Buck Showalter will be plugged into everything going on in his clubhouse, in his dugout, on his field. Showalter always has had the good sense to put his veteran players in charge and let them help him police the clubhouse. He tells the players this is your team, let’s make sure we do things right.
Does that mean there will not be any embarrassing moments for the Mets? They are the Mets – things happen – but if you set up a culture of success, really stupid things should not happen. And if they do there has to be immediate accountability.
That’s called leadership.
I’ve always said that the really smart managers make their star players believe they have a vested interest in the entire team. Give them that power but also make it clear there is a respect and accountability factor that comes with that power.
That’s how it was with David Wright. That’s how it was across town with Derek Jeter and the Yankees.
David Wright, maybe the LAST on field leader for the Mets? (Photo via SI)
Leadership comes from the manager who then allows his stars and senior players to lead. Service time means a lot to Showalter and the players will soon see that whenever baseball gets around to playing baseball again.
Buck will work diligently with the analytic professors in the organization to get as much information as possible. But it’s clear he will take that info and digest it and it had better be accurate analytics. He will have questions and that is a good thing.
Like Showalter said, “How does that help us win a game.’’
Question the questioners.
Of those analytics-driven personnel, one baseball insider noted with a chuckle, “They are the best Monday Morning quarterbacks in the world.’’
You outsmart the Monday Morning Quarterbacks by asking pertinent questions before the game and you can be sure Showalter will have plenty of questions, so that will be a good thing all around for the Mets.
“This is a fresh start for everybody,’’ Showalter said.
Showalter, who turns 66 in May, has managed a total of 3,634 games, 3,067 in the major leagues over his 20-year career that started with the Yankees in 1992, working for George Steinbrenner.
What has been lost throughout baseball is the act of coming together as a team because so much of the game has become individualized with the technology from the minor leagues to the major leagues.
“They don’t understand how important playing the season, a group of men playing the season together is what builds championship teams,’’ the insider said. “And it’s not always teams filled with superstars.’’
Even if some of the players get injured, the core for success is still there and the pieces are picked up by other players. The Braves were a good example of that success this past season. The Mets will have to beat the Braves in their own division to reach a success level they have not seen since 2015.
It will take a lot of changes — and Showalter is not afraid of change and welcomes all the information that is given him to make better decisions. Let the manager make the decisions. Games are not decided in the five o’clock meetings, they are decided in the moment, sometimes as Showalter said, in the “five seconds’’ a manager has in a game to make a decision.
That comment made me think back to Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, who was the youngest oldest looking manager baseball ever saw.
“People who live in the past generally are afraid to compete in the present,’’ Sparky, who won five pennants and three World Series championships over his 26 years of managing, once said. “I’ve got my faults but living in the past isn’t one of them. There’s no future in it.’’
Managers have to learn their trade. They must manage and not be puppets following a script. It sounds so simple, but it is another example of how baseball has changed from within and may finally be going back to the future by letting managers manage again with the knowledge of using all information.
Leadership counts more than ever. That’s the future.