How Much Difference Do Managers Make?

One has to wonder why Phil Garner was fired this past week.  Yes, the Brewers weren't that good, but they really don't have a lot of good players.  Jeromy Burnitz was their best player and he had been out for nearly a month.  The injury-prone Brewer pitching staff has been kept together with duct tape and string and has boasted two of the worst closers in baseball over the past couple of years.  They do have two rising stars in second baseman Ron Belliard and outfielder Geoff Jenkins, but the rest of the team is rather unremarkable.  So how exactly was Phil Garner supposed to compete with a powerhouse rival like Houston?

Managers are often given undue credit for their team's success and blame for a lack thereof.   However, this is not to say that managers don't make a difference.  Houston's Larry Dierker, Montreal's Felipe Alou and San Francisco's Dusty Baker do remarkable jobs with their teams, although Baker is establishing a bad trend of overuse with young pitchers.  And there are some managers who routinely underachieve with teams stocked with talent... Bobby Cox of the Braves comes to mind.  And some guys seem to alternate between genius and clueless from year to year.  One such case is Bruce Bochy of the Padres.

Last year, the Pads won 98 games and went to the World Series with a team that had more injuries to key players than just about any in baseball.  Wally Joyner, Tony Gwynn, Ken Caminiti and Quilvio Veras each spent more than a month on the DL.  And yet the Pads set a club record for victories.  Bochy's calm collected demeanor and relaxed style were pivotal to the team's success during such trying circumstances.

This year is a different story.  The Pads don't have as much experience as last year's ballclub, but it's arguable that the Pads have nearly as much overall talent, certainly more than their 54 wins would indicate. Reggie Sanders is having as good a year as the departed Greg Vaughn and Ruben Rivera's numbers are not that far off what Steve Finley produced last year.  Bochy is still the same calm, collected gambler he was last year, so what is different?  So far, it appears that Bochy just doesn't know what he has.  There aren't as many name players as last year and he just seems more comfortable writing veterans in to play everyday over guys with more talent.

For instance, the Pads are 24-41 when Chris Gomez is the starting shortstop.   They are 30-23 when Damian Jackson starts at short.  Jackson has more speed, more power, a better range and a better arm, but Gomez is a veteran relative to Jackson, so Bochy continues to stick with Gomez.  Some would point to the number of errors that Jackson has committed to justify Bochy's reasoning.  It's true that Jackson has committed a huge number of errors.  However, many of those errors have been lapses in concentration rather than physical errors.  These types of errors tend to correct themselves with experience.  And while Jackson was on pace for 50+ errors, he was also on pace to record 100 more outs (putouts, assists and double plays) than Gomez.  Since Gomez isn't perfect either, averaging about 10 errors a year, Jackson, even with all those errors, would still have prevented 60 more opposing baserunners than Gomez.  With Jackson being the much better offensive player of the two, one has to wonder what Bochy is thinking.

Another questionable decision was Bochy's reluctance to establish Phil Nevin as the everyday third baseman.  Nevin opened the season as one of several Padres' catchers.  After Leyritz and Myers went down with injuries, he became the primary receiver as the Pads wanted to break in Ben Davis slowly.  They called up Davis on the June 23 and within a week it was pretty clear that he didn't need any breaking in - hitting .310 and throwing out 50% of opposing basestealers.  Meanwhile, the Pads were getting no production and bad defense out of the third base. George Arias, Dave Magadan and Carlos Baerga were pitiful while Nevin, who was drafted as a third baseman, who was slated to succeed Ken Caminiti in Houston and the reason the Astros felt comfortable trading Caminiti to the Pads in 1995, and who won the Golden Spikes Award in 1992 for best college baseball player as a third baseman... this guy was sitting on Bruce Bochy's bench, occasionally playing left field, first base and catcher.  And it's not as though no one knew he could still play third.  Throughout his career, his best numbers, both offensively and defensively had come at third, hitting .277 and slugging .571 with an above average range and arm.  In fact, his career defensive numbers (.953 fielding percentage, a 2.788 range factor and a .784 zone rating) were comparable to those of Robin Ventura (.958/2.812/.846), Ken Caminiti (.947/2.778/.816) and Chipper Jones (.951/2.363/.807).  Even this year, Nevin's numbers were clearly superior when he played third base.  All this, and Bochy took nearly a month, until July 31, to try Nevin at 3rd base on an everyday basis.  Since being installed as the Padres regular 3B on July 31, Nevin has gone 19-for-51 with three homers and 13 RBI.  Overall, he has a .339 average, .432 on base, a .677 slugging percentage, 12 runs and 16 RBI in 23 games at third.  Defensively, he's taken to the steady work as well, fielding at a .964 clip with a range factor of 3.183 and a zone rating of .931, numbers that place him near the best in the league.  Of course, those of you who read my 7/26 column (The Trade Deadline), already knew about this guy.

So what is my point in all this?  Well, sometimes manager's don't always know what's best for the team and unwittingly hide next year's stars, in this case, Nevin and Jackson.  Both of these guys have finally gotten a chance to play full-time, which gives a fairly clear picture of what they might produce as regulars.  If we prorate the numbers they produced while playing full time to a full season's production, their numbers look like this:

Damian Jackson: 15 homers, 53 RBI, 42 steals, .260 average
Phil Nevin: 35 homers, 112 RBI, .310 average

Guys like Cliff Floyd and Brian Giles experienced similar usage problems due to their managers before their breakout years.  So keep a close eye on part-time guys who do well when they get a shot at full-time play, even if it's only for a month.  Somewhere, someone's gonna notice and find a way to give them a chance.