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Ron Washington, Jon Daniels, and the modern manager's role

The local controversy over whether the Ranger front office is overly involved in telling Ron Washington how to do his job ignores that this is part of a larger trend in baseball

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

There's been something of a controversy that has arisen lately among those who follow the Texas Rangers, in regards to the level of involvement the front office has in the on-the-field decision-making.

The decision by Jon Daniels to fire bench coach Jackie Moore seems to have galvanized the debate.  Moore himself, in his scorched-earth interview last week, made reference to the front office dictating how deep into games Yu Darvish should be used.  And Randy Galloway took Daniels to task for forcing out Moore so that he could put his "own man" next to Wash, who would mandate how games would be managed:

Or much more likely, Daniels wants a bench coach at Ron Washington’s dugout side who will constantly deliver the kind of situational message the general manager tells him to deliver.

The irony of complaining that Daniels fired Moore because he wanted someone his own person advising Ron Washington is clear, though...after all, the whole reason Moore was hired as the bench coach was because Nolan Ryan wanted his own person advising Ron Washington after Ryan fired Art Howe after the 2008 season.

Its led to some arguments on Twitter about whether Daniels (or the front office in general) dictating to Ron Washington how he is going to manage is a good thing or a bad thing.  Some comments come to mind from Chuck Cooperstein in this series of tweets:

The primary complaint from those unhappy about the Jackie Moore firing and unhappy about the front office wanting to tell the manager how to make strategic decisions is that those sorts of things are the purview of the manager...particularly after the 2011 season, there seemed to be an attitude that Ron Washington had skins on the wall and had earned the right to do things his way.  The front office hired the manager and brought players in, but it was the manager's job to decide who stays, who goes, and how best to utilize those players.  If the manager doesn't want 20 year old Jurickson Profar to play, the front office shouldn't be telling him he has to play Profar.

And that's the way, for years and years, baseball was run.  In the 21st century, however, that model has been changing and evolving.  More and more, it seems, front offices are looking for managers who can manage the players in the clubhouse, and implement a game plan formulated by the front office on the field.

Joe Posnanski had an outstanding piece at Hardball Talk yesterday, which starts off being about Jim Leyland's career, but turns into an examination about how the modern manager's job has changed.  I would encourage you to read the entire thing, because it pertains to this discussion, but there are a few things in particular that jump out:

Bill James, not surprisingly, has written some of the most interesting thoughts about managers and what they do. "Bill James Book On Managers" might be the best of his excellent books. Bill comes up with thoughts on managers the same way he has come up with thoughts on everything else — by asking lots and lots of questions and trying to find dispassionate answers.

For instance, 25 or so years ago, he asked: What are the manager’s actual responsibilities?

He came up with three levels.

1. Game-level decision making. These are the strategic game decisions a manager makes, everything from picking a starting pitcher to deciding whether or not to bunt in the ninth inning. Bill estimated a manager legitimately makes about 70 decisions every game.

2. Team-level decision making. These would be decisions about the team itself such as whether to go with young players, whether to get an established closer or go with a live arm, whether to build the team around speed or power or something in between.

3. Personnel management and instruction. That would be everything else — such as how a manager treats players, how he sets the rules, how strictly he enforces the rules, how he deals with the media, how much teaching he does …

I think in the last 25 years, these have changed slightly. I think it’s more like this now.

Level 1: Game decisions.

Level 2; How you work with the GM and the rest of the organization.

Level 3: Managing people.

The main change is at Level 2 — it seems to me that GMs now play the big role in defining a team’s personality. My impression is that managers used to have a lot more power; this was the thing that Moneyball mocked. The GM always some autonomy, of course, including the power to fire the manager. But it feels like now the GM is much more involved in decide what KIND OF TEAM the manager will get. The manager has some input, of course, but again I think it’s more a manager’s job these days to work with the GM (and owner’s) vision of the team than it is to come up with the vision himself.

Posnanski goes on to talk about what is involved in "Level 3":

Then there’s Level 3, the actual management of people. This is probably both the most underrated part of the job and the toughest part to quantify. Even so, I think it’s fair to say this: Leyland is spectacularly good at managing people.

What does this mean for a baseball manager? Again, I have collected some thoughts from big league managers. They say that their jobs include (in no particular order):

– Dealing with he media.

– Build confidence and puncturing arrogance.

– Helping team avoid distractions.

– Deflecting praise while diving in froth of blame.

– Developing an atmosphere of unselfishness.

– Protecting players’ vulnerabilities.

– Highlighting players strengths.

– Maintaining discipline.

– Being consistent.

– Fostering an even keel mood where nobody looks too far forward or too far back.

It seems like the Rangers' front office wants someone who is great at the "Level 3" aspects of the job, will defer to the front office on the "Level 2" aspects of the job, and will implement the strategy put in place by the front office on the "Level 1" aspects of the job.

And that may seem radical...but as Buster Olney writes today, its something more and more teams are doing:

The days of John McGraw, Casey Stengel and Earl Weaver being bigger than anybody else in the organization are over.

Instead, the manager's position has become merely a piece of the front office.

"It's a lot like being the White House press secretary," said one highly ranked executive. "You speak for the team on a daily basis, and you have some input into the decisions that are made. But you are a part of the process. You aren't the President of the United States."

The change has resulted from the influx of statistical analysis, which is generated from inside the front office. The information is then presented to the field staff, with the manager often expected to go along with the rationale. He rubber-stamps the decisions, makes in-game choices according to the recommendations made by the front-office, and explains them to the media and fans.

Given the top-down decision-making dynamic that has evolved within the sport, perhaps the most important trait for managers, in the current thinking, is that he must work well with others, in a manner that is generally egoless.

Olney points to the managers of both World Series teams -- John Farrell and Mike Matheny -- as these types of managers, as well as Terry Francona, Joe Maddon, Joe Girardi, and several others.  The trend, Olney makes clear, is towards a manager who will implement the strategy formulated by the front office, not dictate strategy himself.

Olney concludes with an anecdote that sounds like it could have come from Ron Washington:

An example of the current managerial climate: After a manager announced a significant pitching decision this season, a friend texted him to ask, with surprise, about the choice. The response was private, and tart:

Do you think that was my decision?

What the Rangers' front office is doing is what, it seems, a lot of the successful organizations are doing.  And the notion some locally seem to have that what Jon Daniels is doing is outrageous, out-of-line, an unacceptable breach of the manager's prerogative ignores what is going on all over baseball right now.