With the abundance of analytics permeated throughout the game, front offices are smarter today than they ever have been. They are equipped with real-time data that allows them to make extremely accurate projections and ultimately, better decisions.
We are seeing a trend in baseball in how clubs embark on their managerial searches. At this point, if a coach or manager is unwilling to embrace analytics or acknowledge its impact on the game, they will probably be fired by the time you finish reading this piece. In 2019, each club has their own army of analysts whose sole job is mining their team’s statistics to create sabermetric solutions to find a competitive advantage. A pitching coach has specific jobs that include finding a release point, arm angle, balance, pitch feel, location, and harnessing the inner thoughts of a pitcher while he’s on the mound. A hitting coach helps players with swing pattern, plate discipline, and launch angle. These job-specific skills are known as hard skills. They’ve been acquired through years of education, programs, and on-the-job training. Between all the coaches and R&D analysts, each club has the hard skills covered.
With advanced data, front offices have a tremendous opportunity to effectively utilize those resources to make their club better. However, when it comes to their managerial search, they are strongly prioritizing soft skills. These attributes include interpersonal communication, listening, and empathy. The days of screaming at players are long gone. Say goodbye to managers like Lou Piniella, Billy Martin, and Earl Weaver. Yes, it’s less entertaining for the fans, but more productive for the players. Soft skills are more difficult to evaluate because they aren’t quantifiable. It’s why Don Mattingly was replaced with Dave Roberts and why Joe Girardi was replaced with Aaron Boone. It should be noted that Boone and Roberts had zero professional managing experience before they were hired. That continues to be a trend throughout MLB where front offices are looking for younger guys who are in their early to mid-forties to lead their ball clubs.
Gabe Kapler managed one season at Class A in 2007 and was the Dodgers’ Director of Player Development from 2014-2016 before he was hired as the Phillies manager in October of 2017. Dave Martinez was the Cubs bench coach before he was hired as the Nationals manager in 2017. David Bell worked as the Giants’ VP of Player Development in 2018 before being named the new skipper of the Reds for 2019. Rocco Baldelli worked as the Rays‘ Special Assistant to Baseball Operations from 2011-2014 before being named the Twins manager for 2019. Scott Servais worked as the Angels’ Assistant GM from 2012-2015 before being hired as the Mariners manager in 2016. Craig Counsell of the Brewers and A.J. Hinch of the Astros also fit into this new breed of managers.
Being well-versed and open to analytics is now considered a prerequisite for a MLB managerial job in today’s game. Unfortunately, this only puts a candidate “in consideration” for the position. The main factor that actually gets the person hired for the job is soft skills. At this point, all 30 MLB teams are operating on relatively the same sets of data. Player development is becoming the new competitive advantage of 2019. The key is getting players to buy into what front offices want them to do. In order to accomplish that, you need a manager who is trustworthy, personable, and able to effectively communicate the front office’s strategy down to the players on the field. That takes the ability to empathize and communicate with a variety of different personalities and departments. The modern-day manager needs to be able to talk analytics with the President of Baseball Operations, in-game strategy with the bench coach, and then be compelling and optimistic with media all after a loss, every single day for 162 games.
The most successful managers in today’s game are ones who are authentic and can relate to young players. Cubs skipper Joe Maddon is often praised for his ability to effectively communicate with young players, thus allowing them to relax and maximize their potential. It was evident that the 2018 season for the Cubs was a disappointment, despite winning 95 games and going to the playoffs for the fourth year in a row. After doing extensive exit interviews with all the coaches and players at the end of last season, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer concluded that there was a disconnect between the coaches and young players. There were several reports that hitting coach Chili Davis did not resonate with the Cubs’ young hitters, which might’ve resulted in the team’s decline in power and increase in ground ball rate. It was a trend seen throughout the Cubs coaching staff, which was why there were several off season changes going into 2019. Veteran pitching coach Jim Hickey was replaced with 37-year-old Tommy Hottovy. Chili Davis was replaced with 45-year-old Anthony Iapoce. Even Joe Maddon wasn’t immune to Epstein’s culture shift. Like every work professional, as your industry changes, so does your education and training. During this off season, Maddon has been reading up on Managing Millennials For Dummies to try to better relate to his younger players.
In today’s game, younger players don’t mind being told what or how to do something, but they do want to know why. Loud dictating managers now fall on the deaf ears of young players. I’m sure the older generation doesn’t like it, but they didn’t like analytics either. That archaic approach and mindset doesn’t work anymore. Players have better information and front offices have evolved. The manager should be able to develop good relationships with the scouting director, director of player development, players, coaches, and the front office. There is no denying the power and influence that front offices have over how their club operates. I think what makes a great manager in today’s game is utilizing the analytics and strategy from the front office, but not being afraid to make executive in-game decisions based on feel and intuition. Creative tension is not always a bad thing because it leads to new ideas and innovative solutions.
Alex Cora and Aaron Boone were ESPN Baseball analysts before they were hired as MLB managers. How could someone go from the TV booth straight to the dugout? If you watched their broadcasts, it was clear even as a viewer that they were excellent communicators. As a TV broadcaster and more specifically an analyst, soft skills are paramount. They were able to empathize with what goes through a player’s mind after he makes an error in the field and how it will impact his play as the game goes along. Great broadcasters tend to have magnetic personalities that not only get the viewers excited to watch, but validate themselves as thought leaders in their area of expertise. This makes them likable, personable, knowledgeable, and trustworthy. These soft skills make up the type of manager that a guy wants to play for in 2019. Front offices picked up on this and saw its potential impact.
The same goes for analysts like David Ross and Mark DeRosa who will eventually become MLB managers someday. They exhibit a magnanimous personality on air that makes people want to tune in. I’ll admit that I’m much more likely to watch a broadcast that Ross is doing, regardless of who’s playing because he’s extremely knowledgeable, likable, and hilarious. When DeRosa is doing in-depth analysis on MLB Network, he’s extremely knowledgeable about the game, but also exudes a lot of optimism and excitement.
That passion is necessary when you’re trying to lead a large group of people and get them to earn your trust. Managers have to be authentic to have success at relating to young players. It won’t work any other way. Some people view soft skills as weak or non-essential to winning. I get that it’s gratifying to see a manager kick dirt on an umpire and yell a sea of expletives two inches away from his face. But what’s even more gratifying to watch is a confident and professional Alex Cora leading his team to a World Series Championship.
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