When the Colorado Rockies fired their manager Clint Hurdle last season, the Rockies were 18-28, and had lost seven of their last 10. The Rockies named Jim Tracy as interim manager and he “turned around” the Rockies, guiding the team to a 74-42 record (.638) the rest of the way and into the 2009 NL playoffs.
It is ironic that Hurdle was replaced midseason, because that is how Hurdle got his first managerial job. Buddy Bell was fired 22 games into the 2002 season, and Hurdle was Bell’s replacement.
Tracy replaced Hurdle at a point where the Rockies were nine games back of the NL Wild Card, but ended up winning the Wild Card by five games.
What really happened though was Tracy did nothing to help his team win, except to let them play ball. Tracy had the benefit that their best player, Troy Tulowitzki, started hitting, as did the rest of the lineup. And the expected good, young pitching began to perform better.
Tulo hit only .226 for the first two months that year with a dismal .314 SLG. For the final four months, he hit .351 with a .643 SLG. That production helped boost the entire team, and when your big guy is pounding the ball, wins usually come in bunches.
Another factor for Tracy is that he appeared laid back and did not change much; he just let the guys play. That tactic is the positive theme for the majority of good team turnarounds after managerial changes.
Since 1987, there have been 81 midseason managerial changes, one of which was in 1996 when Tommy Lasorda retired as Dodger manager after suffering a heart attack. Of those 80 changes due to firings, only 19 teams played better than .500 baseball after the change was made, some just barely.
This does not include the changes that were made too early or late in the season to have a definitive impact.
And only five teams made the playoffs following that change: the 1988 Boston Red Sox, the 1989 Toronto Blue Jays, the 2003 Florida Marlins, the 2004 Houston Astros and last year’s Rockies.
Just six percent (5/80) of those teams which switched managers since 1987, made a good enough turn around to make the playoffs. Prior to 1987, there were 183 midseason changes (those not including the first or last 20 games of a season), with about 24 percent improving to a plus .500 team after the change.
Only two teams have made it to the World Series after making a midseason managerial change, the 1978 Yankees and 2003 Marlins. Both times, a more controlling manager was replaced with a more laid-back guy.
In 1978, Billy Martin constantly fought with players and management, and was replaced by a more subdued Bob Lemon. In 2003, Jeff Torborg’s hands-on approach was replaced by “let ’em play” Jack McKeon*, who at 72 was the oldest manager to win the World Series.
* It is interesting to note that McKeon has replaced THREE different managers after a midseason firing, and all three times has led that team to a BETTER than .500 record. In 1988, Larry Bowe was fired by the San Diego Padres after a 16-30 start, and McKeon came in and lead the Padres to a 67-48 record.
In 1997, Ray Knight was let go by the Cincinnati Reds after a 43-36 start, with McKeon finishing up at 33-30. Finally, in that magical Marlins season, Torborg went 16-22 before being canned and having Trader Jack take over.
Similarly, Steve O’Neill did the same thing for three different teams. And Cito Gaston has turned around the Blue Jays on two separate occasions.
Other teams making the World Series were the 1932 and 1938 Chicago Cubs (both obviously lost), the 1981 Kansas City Royals (strike season), the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers (Harvey’s Wallbangers) and the 1983 Philadelphia Phillies.
In almost every case, the team changed from a more hands-on guy to a more laid-back guy. But in most cases of a team making the playoffs after a midseason firing, the team was already pretty good.
For example, the Marlins team that McKeon guided to the 2003 World Series was 79-83 the year before but added Ivan Rodriguez behind the plate to guide the young pitchers. Plus, many new faces were on the 2003 team, and McKeon was helped midseason by the call-up of a 20-year-old Miguel Cabrera, fortifying an already decent lineup.
Also, the 1977 Yankees were coming off a prior World Series title in 1977. The 1988 Red Sox, who were 43-42 under John McNamara, changed to Joe Morgan who led the Sox to a 46-31 record the rest of the way and a playoff berth. Those Red Sox were coming off a down 1987 season, but had made the World Series in 1986.
All other playoff teams were already good, but did need that push of less stress and turmoil in the dugout. However, those teams that flat out stink and change managers, well, they really don’t get better. They just stink with a different guy calling the shots.
That just goes to show that good managers are usually a product of their team’s talent. Terry Francona managed four seasons in Philadelphia, but never had a winning record there. He is a flat out genius in Boston, though.
Casey Stengel was a much better manager when he had Mickey Mantle on his team when he managed the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Bees in the 1930’s and Boston Braves in the 1940’s.
Many of the great managers in the game have been fired and then hired midseason to replace someone else. Tony LaRussa and Sparky Anderson were both hired and turned around teams, but LaRussa was also fired, too, in midseason as were most good managers.
So were Jack McKeon and Steve O’Neill, those two guys who turned around three different teams midseason.
I have always thought that stability in the manager’s job is a key to consistent winning baseball. While most new in-season managers last less than four seasons, and most don’t even get to keep the job the following year, seven different managers have been hired in midseason and ended up managing that team for 10 plus seasons.
They are John McGraw, Bill Terry, Jimmy Dykes, Earl Weaver, Tom Kelly, Bobby Cox and Tony LaRussa. Except for Dykes, all the other managers have multiple pennants under their belts. They may not have won every season, but they did not become terrible managers when they did not win titles, and eventually came back and won titles again.
While good players make good managers, baseball front offices are usually quick to pull a trigger on the manager. As Todd Helton said when Hurdle got fired, “he was the scapegoat, but he didn’t give up the big hit while pitching, and he did not strike out with men on base.”
Good managers usually cannot make really bad teams better, but some bad managers can win with enormous talent. So far this season, the Baltimore Orioles have performed well under new manager Buck Showalter, but the Florida Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks are basically the same teams with different managers. While the Marlins have some bigger stars, namely Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson, I believe the Orioles have more overall talent.
Before a GM wants to make a managerial change, he might want to evaluate the on-field talent first. If you are a good team, coming off a winning year or recent title and were thought to challenge again this season, then changing managers might be a good idea. Those teams that made the playoffs after a change are great examples.
Just have that manager be laid back to just let the players play and not try and do too much. Tracy, Gaston, Lemon and even Jerry Manuel for the 2008 New York Mets and also, do it early enough to give the team time to adjust to the new manager.
But if you are a bad team, and you believe a change in manager will help “spark the team,” it might be wise to get some better players.