This excellent piece by former Brewers beat writer Drew Olson (who now writes for OnMilwaukee.com) caught my attention because it spoke to a long held opinion that I have about MLB managers: They simply don’t matter as much as many fans seem to think they do. I think the article is sharp enough that instead of just linking to it, I have copied it in full here:

Should Brewers manager Macha be on the hot seat?

For those who have been too busy working, studying or trying to figure out the most recent episode of “Lost” to notice, the Brewers are scuffling.

A deflating 9-2 loss to Atlanta Wednesday afternoon at Miller Park capped an ugly three-game sweep and dropped their record to 15-19 overall and a hideous 4-11 at home.

Given the circumstances, it’s not surprising that many fans are taking out their frustrations on manager Ken Macha. The accusations range from strategy (“He leaves pitchers in too long”; “He tinkers with the lineup too much”) to style (“He doesn’t show any emotion; he looks sedated.”)
It’s pretty standard stuff. Fans are riled up about the team’s inconsistent play — especially at home — and the “throw the bum out” crowd seems to be turning up the volume a bit.

After a brutal series in San Diego during the last trip, general manager Doug Melvin offered the opinion that Macha was not to blame for the team’s struggles. “We’re not performing well,” Melvin said, “but Ken, I haven’t seen him swing at a bad breaking ball yet. I haven’t seen him give up two runs, three runs in an inning yet.”

While those comments may have made Macha feel better, they also riled up his detractors.
“Managers never swing a bat or throw a pitch,” a co-worker commented. “If you go by that measure, why would you ever fire a manager? Why do you even have a manager?”

Since that last question was flip, I gave a smart-alecky answer: “Because they need somebody to focus on in the dugout when a pitcher melts down on the mound!”

The manager is the public face of the organization. He’s the conduit between the ball club, the media and the fan base. He’s a natural lightning rod. But for all the talk about lineups, matchups, double-switches and motivational speeches, the manager’s role in a team’s success or failure is grossly exaggerated.
Because the manager controls the lineup, you can say that everything that happens in a game is his ultimate responsibility. The reality is that the guys on the field dictate the action in a game is steeped in streaks of success, failure and logic-defying luck.

If a pitcher throws the ball down the middle of the plate and the batter fouls it back, it’s a strike. Bad pitch, good result. Earlier this year, Trevor Hoffman threw a nicely-located pitch that St. Louis’ Nick Stavinoha golfed off his shoelaces into the stands. Nice pitch, horrendous result.

It’s pretty much the same thing with managers. A handful of times this year, Macha and the Brewers followed their pre-game blueprint to the letter, took a lead into the ninth inning, handed the ball to Hoffman, the all-time saves leader, and ended up losing the game.

A loss like that ends up on Macha’s record, but it wasn’t his fault. On the flip side, managers can get caught in bad matchups late in games and have them work out favorably.

I’ve talked to plenty of managers over the past 15 years and my belief that a skipper’s strategic moves — the actual chess match maneuvers that fans obsess about — directly influence the outcome of somewhere between five and 10 games per season.

I don’t mean to diminish the importance of those games. Over the course of the 162-game schedule, they can be the difference between a playoff berth and an October tee time.

It’s just that the majority of the action on the field is dictated by players and not managers/coaches. Now, if the players “quit” on a manager, that can be a sure sign that a change is needed. Sometimes, there is merit to the “change for the sake of change” move.

Baseball is a long-haul game, not given to snap judgments. Were fans asking for Macha’s head after the ugly series in San Diego lobbying for him to get an extension when the team clobbered Pittsburgh the trip before?

With that out of the way, we return to the central question: Should Ken Macha be worried about his job security at this point? While my inclination is to say “Of course not; it’s too early,” the memory of Ned Yost creeps into the equation. The Brewers fired Yost with two weeks left in the 2008 season and the team holding a 83-67 record. With an incident like that in the past, an early exit for Macha wouldn’t be shocking.

At this point, though, it wouldn’t be warranted.

Macha will look a lot smarter if/when Ryan Braun’s bruised elbow heals, Prince Fielder starts producing, Hoffman regains last year’s form and starters Yovani Gallardo, Doug Davis and Randy Wolf start working deeper into games to take a strain off an overworked bullpen.

If those things don’t happen in the next six weeks or so, the Brewers will have a tough time living up to the modest projections of the experts who envisioned a slightly-better-than-.500 finish and Macha’s seat will be much hotter than it is today.
By then, though, fans may bypass Macha and shift their focus to Melvin.

That last bit is particularly spot on. If Doug aces Ken, then all eyes are on Melvin. And that is probably as it should be.

That aside, I wanted to join those offering good wishes to Ned in KC–he’s going to need all the positive energy available to crack that nut. I was never as down on the guy as many fans were (and remain), but that had less to do with my feelings for and about Yost than it does for my beliefs about the role and relative importance of managers as articulated by Olson above. In retrospect, I think Ned did a lot of good for the Brewers and, ultimately, had a measure of success that the team hadn’t experienced in nearly two decades. Capping him and bringing in a “proven winner” has shown that the difference that managers make to the winning equation is relatively minor.

 

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  • http://mike BigSnakeMan

    Before the season, I had this team pegged for a finish just above .500 based on the personnel on the roster. Given that they’re only 4 games below even in mid-May, I don’t understand all the angst among the fans. Maybe it’s because their successes and failures have been mostly of the spectacular variety. As of this point, there has been very little middle ground.

  • http://www.retaggr.com/Page/crichar3 Chris

    I think it is all about expectations. Too many fans were expecting too much from this team, or so it seems to me. Unless Macha loses the clubhouse entirely, MKE is probably still an 82 win team. But that will be a gross disappointment to those who saw a playoff contender in March.