Friday, June 24, 2011

How's Your Manager's WOR?

It used to be, the only baseball statistics that counted were fairly simple: runs, hits, RBIs, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, ERA, strikeouts and the like. Then, SABR came along, and Bill James and Moneyball, and suddenly we saw a proliferation of hybrid and derivative statistics like OPS -- on base percentage plus slugging percentage -- that may or may not compute in a dimensional analysis but are useful gauges of hitting prowess.

It's a struggle to keep up with all the new permutations and combinations that the stats geeks come up with to measure performance on the field -- what OPS is considered good, anyway? -- and I say that as a poser of a stats geek myself. Then, there's further analysis you can do once you fold in the business aspects of the game. Player payroll, stars' salaries per season, attendance figures, and season ticket equivalents all serve to indicate the health of a franchise.

In the competitive, metrics-oriented world of sports business, performance on the field is inevitably compared to ownership's investment in player salaries. Analysts originally began by measuring payroll per win. Then, some smart guy figured out that, if a team can win 60 games in a 162-game season even with a roster of Triple-A stiffs, the player payroll should be divided not by total wins but by wins in excess of 60 to determine spending efficiency.

(The ghost of Marvelous Marv Throneberry will thank you not to remind us of the New York Mets' magical 40-win inaugural season in 1962.)

Which brings us to managerial efficiency. If you or I were to manage a major league team -- which, after all, we do in our minds each time we watch a game -- how many wins would our team achieve, despite our indisputable incompetence? We need a baseline number in order to calculate managerial success as the number of wins over that figure.

Happily, the baseball gods have just bestowed an answer upon us. Today we learned that Washington Nationals manager Jim Riggleman reportedly took advantage of a rare winning stretch and super-.500 June record to insist that the Nationals GM Mike Rizzo pick up the manager's contract option for the following season. Rizzo, recalling the adage that the worst deal is the one that you make on someone else's timetable, and in any case we haven't seen July, August, or September yet, demured, and Riggleman resigned before a mid-season road trip.

Over 12 big-league seasons managing the Padres, Cubs, Mariners, and Nationals, Riggleman has compiled a .445 career winning percentage. I heard today on the radio (but have not verified myself) that this is the worst percentage in baseball history among managers who have managed during 12 MLB seasons or more. Multiply the .445 winning percentage by a 162-game season, and Jim Riggleman-managed teams have averaged 72 wins. This exceeds the 60-win bad-team baseline, to be sure, but enough 60-win seasons would doom a manager to a very short managerial career -- certainly, fewer than Riggleman's dozen seasons.

Riggleman's 2012 contract option with the Nationals reportedly carried a salary of $700,000. Presumably you can hire him next season to manage your team for the same, modest price. Or, you can bring in someone else with managerial experience for a bit more, as the Pittsburgh Pirates did this season by hiring former Colorado manager Clint Hurdle for about $1,000,000. Hurdle's career winning percentage in 7 seasons with the Rockies was .461, translating to 75 wins per season, or a WOR (Wins Over Riggleman) of 3. We seem to have established, based on absurdly limited data, that the Pirates paid $100,000 per WOR for their new manager.

(Indeed, 75 wins is a reasonable expectation for the P-Rats this year. Whether they overpaid or underpaid for Hurdle will be left as an exercise for the reader.)

Alternatively, Pittsburgh could have hired former Pirate, Phil "Scrap Iron" Garner, with a career WOR of 6, or Ken Macha, originally from Western PA, with an impressive, if shorter career WOR of 15. However, Macha's early career with the A's might be overvalued, in terms of WOR, with A's GM Billy Beane's stats-driven organization a more likely cause of the team's long-term success. Moreover, Macha had just come off a disappointing Brewers stint (WOR of 7).

Or, the Pirates could have hired a rookie manager with no established WOR, as the Brewers did in replacing Macha with Mike Scioscia's former assistant, Ron Roenicke. Roenicke faces a trial by fire. Brewers' GM Doug Melvin brought in front-line, free-agent starters Zack Greinke and Sean Marcum and kept slugger Prince Fielder for his contract year, widely assumed to be his last in Milwaukee. The expectations for the Brew Crew in 2011 are enormous, and it could be now or never -- which means that, for Roenicke, the only statistic that matters is WOL (Wins Over LaRussa).

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