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Analytics fuels trend toward younger managers in MLB

Analytics fuels trend toward younger managers in MLB

By Eric Fisher & Liz Mullen

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Even legendary closer Mariano Rivera, who staked his 19-year playing career on being unflappable, admits he was taken aback by the New York Yankees’ recent nonrenewal of longtime manager Joe Girardi.

“I definitely was surprised. Joe did a great job managing the team for so many years and especially this year,” said Rivera, who played both with and for Girardi. “But it’s a business.”

Girardi, with the Yankees since 2008 and just one win away from this year’s World Series, was one of six MLB managers let go last month by their clubs (see chart), signaling a fast-changing notion within the industry on a manager’s role and desired job skills.

Out are managers such as Girardi, Boston’s John Farrell and Washington’s Dusty Baker, each of whom skippered playoff teams this year and have two World Series titles and three pennants among them. Baker and two other ousted managers, Terry Collins of the New York Mets and Philadelphia’s Pete Mackanin, were MLB’s three oldest managers.

Taking their place are a new breed of considerably younger and largely inexperienced managers comfortable in analytics and able to relate to young players, attributes now heavily prized by general managers and team owners. No longer is simply winning games enough to be considered a successful MLB manager.

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In hiring Baker’s replacement in Washington — Dave Martinez — Mike Rizzo, the Nationals’ president of baseball operations, cited the desire to find someone “who is progressive, someone who can connect and communicate well with our players, and someone who embraces the analytical side of the game.”

Similar comments came out of Boston, where Dave Dombrowski, Red Sox president of baseball operations, hired 42-year-old Alex Cora to replace Farrell and cited Cora’s “full appreciation for the use of analytical information in today’s game, and his ability to communicate and relate to both young players and veterans is a plus.”

Also eroding quickly are years of tradition in which many managers paid their dues en route to the big leagues through long apprenticeships in the minor leagues. These shifting club priorities promise to have far-reaching effects across the sport, tilting the balance of franchise power for on-field matters more fully toward the general manager or president of baseball operations.

“More and more today, the general managers are looking to have their person in that role,” said Derrick Hall, president and chief executive of the Arizona Diamondbacks, which last year made its own switch of managers to the more sabermetrically minded Torey Lovullo.

“What there is definitely more demand of today, with the new generation of general managers and presidents of baseball operations leaning toward analytics, is having managers, regardless of years of experience, willing to embrace the numbers and metrics,” Hall said.

Over the last half decade, MLB teams have frequently invested seven- and eight-figure sums each into developing large analytics staffs and more advanced scouting operations. The move toward the new-age managers represents in part a more overt attempt to gain a return on those investments.

“Too many resources have been invested into scouting, player development and roster creation to allow field managers to operate on islands independent from the front offices that are held accountable for team performance,” said Brodie Van Wagenen, co-head of baseball for CAA Sports.

Both of this year’s World Series skippers, Houston’s A.J. Hinch and Los Angeles’ Dave Roberts, fit directly into the new managerial template. Neither Hinch, 43, nor Roberts, 45, held extensive managerial experience before taking on their current roles. But each were big league players, previously held other coaching and front office positions, and are widely lauded for their analytical and communication skills.

“Leaders like Hinch are … the holy grail teams seek in this environment,” Van Wagenen said.

Because of the insularity of the baseball industry, new ideas and approaches often ripple through the business quickly.

“This is partly the evolution of the game, but also partly a reaction to competitors,” said Mark Shapiro, Toronto Blue Jays president and chief executive. “The industry is increasingly being run by really bright people and they’re coming in with higher and higher requirements, and you’re seeing that in things like what the managers are being asked to do.”

Octagon Baseball Managing Director Alan Nero represents numerous managers and coaches, including Chicago Cubs skipper Joe Maddon and Martinez, and has been around baseball for decades. He, too, has seen a sweeping shift in the sport.

“The game has changed, just like our culture has changed, and there is a new wave of management that is young, highly educated front office people that buy into the information that is readily available to them,” Nero said.

Manager salaries have generally stayed more private than those of players, and the top end of the scale reportedly includes San Francisco’s Bruce Bochy, the Cubs’ Maddon, and Mike Scioscia of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at $6 million per year.

It is believed the salaries for the recent run of new hires are well below these World Series-winning managers, and Baker and Girardi earned $2 million and $4 million per year, respectively, in their prior positions. But beyond the likely cost savings, a tight affinity between the manager and general manager has become increasingly critical.

“More and more, MLB executives are looking for consistencies in philosophy, culture and communication throughout the organizations,” Van Wagenen said.

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