MLB: NLCS-Los Angeles Dodgers Workout

Yesterday, Jim Leyland stepped down from his position as manager of the Detroit Tigers. Today, the Cincinnati Reds announced Bryan Price as their new field manager. Tomorrow night, the Boston Red Sox take the field under the stewardship of manager John Farrell, a man they wanted so badly they sent a player to the Toronto Blue Jays in order to free him from his contract.

Obviously, there is a lot of value in hiring the right manager for the right job. Despite the limited scope of their duties, it is not a one-size-fits-all role – the “right” person exists for each and every job.

But how much impact does a good manager actually have? When in doubt, follow the money.

During his farewell press conference yesterday, Jim Leyland made a telling comment about how he maintained good clubhouse chemistry – he flatly said he stays out of the clubhouse altogether. Jim Leyland is a rare bird, a respected veteran manager who earned his stripes managing and coaching for the better part of his entire life. Jim Leyland’s most important role as the manager of a good, contending team is facilitating for the great players under his charge. Get out of the way, let them do their thing.

And he was paid well for his services, as he sheepishly mentioned during yesterday’s presser. Most big league managers do make a lot of money…compared to you and I. There are only 30 jobs like theirs in the whole world, you better believe they’re well compensated.

Compensation is a relative thing, however. The managers are well compensated until you compare their pay packets to the other men in uniform, the players.

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly heard whispers that his time was up all spring in Los Angeles. The best team money could buy got off to a slow start and the buzzards circled Donny Baseball’s office. Suddenly, the team reeled off an incredible 50-game run and all was right in the world.

Fast-forward to yesterday’s contentious press event in which Mattingly and Dodgers general manager Ned Colleti discussed the field general’s future. By reaching the League Championship series, a contract option automatically vested for 2014. Mattingly clearly prefers more security than going year-to-year but the club is unsure if they’re willing to offer.

Mattingly’s contract for 2014 calls for him to earn $1.4 million bucks – about as much as he made as a 25-year old going through arbitration for the first time…in 1986. Among arbitration eligible players on LAD, only Drew Butera earned less than the manager.

Joe Girardi just signed a four-year contract extension with the New York Yankees. As I argued on a recent Getting Blanked podcast, the Yankees like what Girardi brings to their table. Like Mattingly, his job is more than just filling out the lineup card. His is a job of managing the daily media crush and sorting through the wreckage of a thousand broken egos. But at $4MM per, he earns less than Mark Reynolds for the 2014 season.

What if we bring it back to the bottom line currency in baseball – wins? If baseball front offices are willing to pay in upwards of $6MM (ymmv) for a Win on the free agent market, does the same calculus not apply to managers? Is the difference between Joe Girardi helming the Yankees and Larry Rothschild or Jim Fregosi or any warm body just a single win over the span of a season, as his salary suggests?

The Blue Jays and Red Sox settled on Mike Aviles as part of the compensation for John Farrell last fall. The Jays included David Carpenter in the deal to even things out. Aviles was worth less than 1 WAR this season, par for the course over his six Major League seasons. Toronto eventually shipped Aviles and Yan Gomes to Cleveland for Esmil Rogers, a pitcher who was worth…about half a win, according to the main flavors of WAR.

Somehow, it seems both probable and unlikely that teams use the same type of valuation for managers and players. And yet…in this world you often get what you pay for. Which isn’t to suggest that managers are fungible and indistinguishable from one another. But front offices do not hire new managers thinking they are the difference between winning and losing. No manager in the history of baseball can turn bad players good.

The number one front office priority must be hiring for fit. Bring in someone who fits with the front office’s vision and goals and a clear understanding of how to bring that to life. What a manager can do, however, is put his players in a position to bridge that divide. Follow through on the brain trust’s plan that allows more players to be at their best, to realize their abilities and recognize progress in real time.

In the end, most managers experience a similar fate to that of Jim Leyland or Charlie Manuel – they’re insightful leaders of men with terrific baseball acumen right up until the minute that the team gets old or their impassioned speeches fall on deaf ears or the front office loses their edge.

We cannot forget our most truthful of truisms – the victors write the history books. No, wait – to the victor go the spoils. I dunno, a manager is only as smart as his players and is also only as good as his general manager. Some managers are better suited to some situations, but the way the front offices pay their field bosses points to an impact much, much less than we like to think.

If the opposite were true, in a sport awash in TV bucks, a lot more money would trickle down to the great leaders of men with greying temples. Instead, they’re paid more like end of the bench scrubs – not consistent with their importance but in line with their production.