Take This Job And . . .

October 20, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Both New York City tabloids had the same front page yesterday – a photo of Joe Torre and the headline SHOVE IT.
The Torre story is big news in New York. Even the Times had it on the front page, and all the TV networks pre-empted their afternoon soaps (or Judge Alex on Fox) to carry Torre’s press conference live.

Torre – does anyone not know this?– has been the manager of the Yankees for the last twelve years. In that period, the team made the playoffs every year, the ALCS seven years, the World Series six years, and won the Series four of those six times.

After the Yanks lost in the division series this year, the management, disappointed, offered Torre a one-year, $5 million contract – not as much as his current salary but higher than any other manager in baseball.

So it’s interesting that the tabloids and probably most of the fans approve of Torre’s decision to quit. They see the Yankees’ offer as an insult, one that well merits the Johnny Paycheck response. Maybe it’s because of the Boss he worked for.

George Steinbrenner, prior to the Torre era, used to fire and hire managers – usually Billy Martin – more often than most of us get an oil change. But the pace of change – different in degree, not in kind from other teams – represents a general tendency in sports. When the team does badly, change managers. But why?

Here's one idea: In an environment dominated by uncertainty, people attribute greater power to leaders. Charismatic leaders don’t arise in times of certainty but in times of crises. If things turn out well, we glorify the leader (or in cases like Rudy Giuliani, the leaders glorify themselves). Institutions that operate in a climate of uncertainty (e.g., a baseball organization) follow a similar logic. If things turn out badly, fire the manager.

But how much difference does a manager make? Managers don’t pitch down the middle, they don’t boot ground balls, they don’t pop up with men on base. More important for social scientists, how could we get any evidence that would allow us to measure that difference? I can’t think of anything. You’d have to have some way of controlling for the quality of the players on the team.

Either that or something like a duplicate bridge tournament. As football coach Bum Phillips said when asked how good a coach Don Shula was, “He can take his’n and beat your’n, and he can your’n and beat his’n.” But in the real world, no such switcheroo experiment is possible.

I did a quick search at the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports (statisticians love sports, or at least those who like sports love to analyze them statistically), but I struck out swinging.

Hat tip to my brother for the JQAS lead and for reminding me of the Phillips quote.


Anonymous said...

Occasionally, you'll see some interesting comparisons when a new manager (or coach, in other sports) takes over a team and performs remarkably better (or worse) than the previous guy. Even that is not a clean analysis, as presumably, some players are a year stronger, more experienced, etc. (or a year worse), but it gets closer to the classic Bum Phillips quote (which I've always loved).

Jay Livingston said...

I think it's more noticeable in football. Seeing Parcells turn several teams around has made me less skeptical about that. But baseball, I still don't know.

And my other favorite Phillips quote was his response when a reporter asked him if he'd say that Earl Campbell (Bum's star running back) was in a class by himself.: "Well, whatever class he's in, it don't take too long to call the roll."