Baseball's trend toward young managers comes at a cost in October

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By ALEX PUTTERMAN
College Contributor Network

In recent years, Major League Baseball has seen an influx of young managers. Across the league, grizzled grey-haired skippers have given way to recently retired rookie managers.

Welcome Robin Ventura, Mike Matheny, Brad Ausmus, Walt Weiss and Mike Redmond. Door's that way Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox, Jim Leyland, Jim Tracy and Ozzie Guillen.

In an August 2013 blog post called "The Death of the Superstar Manager," Grantland's Michael Baumann nicely summarized this trend.

"If [Angels manager Mike] Scioscia is one of the last of the old breed of manager, one who intends to build his team in his own image, [Rays manager Joe] Maddon is the exemplar of the new breed: a strong public figure who works actively and in concert with the front office to promulgate a coherent institutional philosophy among the players and staff," Baumann wrote.

"Failing to find a Maddon or a [Bo] Porter, GMs are compensating in one of two ways," he continued.

"One is by making the best of the manager they have. ... The other way is to hire a manager without the gravitas of [Ron] Washington. In the past two seasons, the Cardinals (Mike Matheny), Marlins (Mike Redmond), White Sox (Robin Ventura), and Rockies (Walt Weiss) all hired young, inexperienced first-time managers."

Modern-day, Ivy League-educated general managers simply want a manager who will obey orders and implement the organizational policy. Tell Jim Leyland, who managed 22 seasons in the Major Leagues, to shift more often or use his closer more liberally, and he'd likely tell you to stay in your suite. Tell rookie manager Brad Ausmus the same and he might nod and listen along, for the sake of his job if nothing else.

Thus, the century-long reign of the manager-as-critical-figure appears over. The world belongs to general managers nowadays. And it stands to reason this change in power structure has at least partly enabled the boom of defensive shifts across the league and, in some cases, the use of unconventional batting orders and bullpen roles.

But easier implementation of general managers' ideas comes at the cost of micro-level game strategy. Inexperienced managers just can't always be as proficient at in-game tactics as those who've held the job for decades.

Though general managers can instruct their managers on big-picture philosophical subjects, they can't confer with the dugout mid-game on who should come in to pitch with two runners on in the seventh inning.

It's there where young managers are left to sink or swim.

The importance of in-game decision-making becomes magnified in the playoffs, when teams go to their bullpen earlier, deploy their benches more aggressively and generally manage every game like it's essential.

So, you see Matt Williams sending Aaron Barrett and Rafael Soriano to the mound instead of Stephen Strasburg and Tyler Clippard in Game 4 of the NLDS. You see Ausmus repeatedly throwing Joba Chamberlain and Joe Nathan into close games. You see Don Mattingly (a bit older than the others, but from the same "respected player turned player-friendly, clubhouse-controlling manager" mold) benching Yasiel Puig, then using him as a pinch-runner while allowing A.J. Ellis and Justin Turner to bat in the ninth inning of a close NLDS Game 4.

Matheny has mostly avoided armchair analysts' wrath thus far this postseason but has been criticized for over-adherence to conventional wisdom in the past. Of course, that comes with the territory. When LaRussa -- a master bullpen strategist -- retired after the 2011 season, the Cardinals had several directions they could turn for a replacement. They could have promoted longtime third-base coach Jose Oquendo or sought another baseball-lifer with a firm set of old-school strategic beliefs and some experience at least observing bullpen management.

Instead, they opted for Matheny, who had never managed at any level but was respected as a player, liked by Cardinals fans and likely to command the clubhouse without feuding with management too much.

The tradeoff comes late in an October game, when inexperience bites and Matheny calls on the wrong guy who pinch-hits at a poor time.

Of course, greyer managers also mess up: Ned Yost has taken as much criticism as anyone, despite the Royals' success, and Washington was similarly maligned as an in-game strategist before he resigned last month.

But as power continues to shift from manager to general manager and managerial posts increasingly become homes for youthful company men, in-game managing in October won't get any better.


Alex Putterman is a junior Journalism major at Northwestern University and sports editor of the Daily Northwestern student newspaper. He has fairly eclectic interests but loves baseball above all. Follow him on Twitter: @AlexPutt02
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