Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Next Manager of Your MLB Team Should Be A Backup Catcher

Welcome, backup catcher.

The Cubs hired David Ross to be their next manager, a guy who has never managed before at any level and has exactly zero coaching experience and has spent the vast majority of his professional time since retiring as a player by talking into a microphone about baseball.

Sure, officially he’s worked for the Cubs as a “consultant,” but we all know that means he’s been paid to hang out at spring training for six weeks and then be the guest speaker at various Chicago-area Lions and Kiwanis Club dinners.

In other words, David Ross is a perfect choice to manage the Cubs.

Because David Ross, when he was a player, was a catcher. And more specifically, a backup catcher. In 15 years at the big-league level, Ross played in 805 games and started 669 of them. This is an absurdly small number for a 15-season big-league career.

By comparison, 2019 American League comeback player of the year Hunter Pence has played 13 big-league seasons, two fewer than Ross’ total. Pence has played in 1567 games, and started 1547 of them. In fact, in just a two-and-a-half year span, Pence played in 383 consecutive games… in other words, more than half of Ross’ 15-year career total.

So, what does this have to do with Ross’ impending career as a manager? It means he’s great for it. For 15 years, Ross went through all the strategy meetings to face the opposing lineup, all the meetings to decide how to play each hitter, all the meetings of when to change pitchers, all the meetings of basically how to strategize to win the game- because the catcher is the on-field defensive manager- and then did nothing with that information except sit in the dugout and watch the game.

But he was no doubt paying attention to all those games. The starting catcher might get hurt, or pinch-hit for, or something, and then Ross would have to come in the game. This happened every night for at least 100 games a year (Ross only started over 100 games in a season once, in 2007, when he was with Cincinnati. His next highest total is 75 starts, the year before. Most of the time he started 50 games or fewer). So Ross sat in the dugout with the manager and the coaches- you know, the guys who led those strategy meetings- and got to see what worked and what didn’t. And he no doubt came up with his own ideas about those strategy meetings and what was going to work and what wouldn’t, and got to see if his strategy ideas were more correct than the ones they actually went with, and adjusted his thinking accordingly.

In other words, Ross is a perfect type of manager for today’s game, where he truly can just be a “game manager.” There are so many scouts and GMs and front-office people who make roster decisions that there is no need for a manager to be an expert on all those things. In contrast to football quarterbacks, who are derided for being a “game manager” even though all great quarterbacks are game managers in some form or another- Tom Brady controls the length of the huddle, he audibles, he checks down, he checks off, etc., etc.… he absolutely “game manages” just like Joe Montana did, and you’re damn right Johnny Unitas game managed, and Dan Fouts game managed, and Jim Plunkett game managed, and Peyton Manning game managed, and Aaron Rodgers game manages. A successful QB must be a good “game manager.”  Now, if that’s the only thing you have going for you, you’re not much of a QB, thus the negative connotation when commentators have nothing else positive to say about a QB, so they continuously call him a “game manager.” 

But, I digress. A “game manager” in baseball is a tremendously positive thing, because it means the manager can only concentrate on the game at hand and doesn’t have to worry about scouting or roster moves and the like. Obviously, he would like to have a say in such things because ultimately he is the one who has to manage the players the scouts and front office choose… but he doesn’t have to fret about that all the time.

A backup catcher is truly the best kind of baseball manager there is. But don’t take my word for it, take history’s word for it.  Since the Wild Card era began in 1995, 11 of the 25 teams that have won (through 2019) have been managed by former big league backup catchers, and most of those guys are generally considered the best managers in baseball in the Wild Card era.

It does not hurt that former backup catcher Joe Torre won four of those series with the Yankees (10 of his 18 playing years as a catcher, averaging 90 starts a season) and the Giants' Bruce Bochy won three (9 seasons, 203 total starts). The other four backup catchers aren’t exactly slouches themselves in the dugout.  There’s the Astros current guy, A.J. Hinch, who won in 2017 and had the best team in the regular season in 2019. Hinch played 7 years with the A’s, Royals and Tigers and had 299 starts (again, Pence played in 383 straight in two-and-a-half years).  The other three are Joe Girardi of the Yankees (5 of his 15 playing seasons he started more than 100 games), Kansas City's Ned Yost (6 years, 173 starts), and the D-Backs lone series winner, Bob Brenly (admittedly a slight stretch because he started over 100 games four straight years, but he only played nine years and his fall was as quick as his rise- as a player and manager). 

The most assuredly non-backup catcher who won a World Series in this time as a manager is former Angels guy Mike Scioscia, who skippered for 19 years. He was the starting catcher for the Dodgers throughout the ’80s, playing 13 seasons, making 1278 starts, and nabbing two titles- ’81 and ’88.

And then there’s the backup catcher who has lost the series, Mike Matheny (started over 100 games in 6 of 13 seasons). Four of the guys previously mentioned also lost the series- and three of them lost to another guy on the list! Bochy (to Torre), Torre (to Brenly), and Yost (to Bochy).

Counting it up, that means of the 25 World Series played since 1995, a catcher has managed 17 of the 50 teams.

Now we get into some iffy ground. Does a guy who never made the majors but was still a catcher in the minors count as a former catcher? By saying yes, we also include the man who finally took the Cubs to the promised land, Joe Maddon, as well as both of the guys who managed the Marlins the years they won, Jim Leyland and Jack McKeon (who beat Torre). That gets you up to 20 of 50, a darned good percentage.

There is one unfortunate omission on this list, and that is current A’s manager Bob Melvin, who should have at least gotten one World Series appearance by this time. Melvin played ten years in the bigs and started 518 games.

once a catcher, always a catcher. Melvin in thought.
And there you have it. As a player, Melvin did the same thing Ross did- he was part of all the meetings, prepped like he was going to play- and then did absolutely nothing except watch the game from the dugout. So he learned. And succeeded. (And has absolutely no control over the roster. But he succeeds as a manger by knowing what every single guy on the roster can do well, and gives them the opportunity to do so.)

As I’ve been working on this theory, a number of people have said “Was Tony La Russa a catcher?” And the answer is no, La Russa never caught. He was a journeyman middle infielder who knew very early he would never become a star on the field, so he continued his studies and eventually passed the Florida bar and could have become a lawyer had managing not worked out. So La Russa certainly does not qualify.

There are a few other non-catchers here worth mentioning, because they were tutored like they were backup catchers. That’s because they are sons of major-league players, so they have been raised watching the game from a different perspective from the jump.  Terry Francona’s dad Tito played 15 years in the bigs as an outfielder/1st baseman and played most of his career in Cleveland, which explains why Terry’s in Cleveland.

There are two other non-catchers that should be honorary members of the backup catcher/manager club: Aaron Boone of the Yankees and David Bell of the Reds. They are not only third-generation MLB players but their fathers were also managers. Boone has the edge here, for his Dad, Bob, was an 18-year MLB catcher, almost entirely a starter. So everything that’s been mentioned about sitting on the bench learning the game as a backup catcher applies here to Boone and Bell. (The Boones and Bells also have a chance to be the first four-generation MLB player family.)

Since Boone and Bell are current managers, that brings us to this: how many catchers- backup, minor-league or everyday- are now managing in the big leagues? 

Heading into the 2020 season there are 10 of 29 (with the Pirates being the only team yet to hire somebody, which is very Pirates-like). Melvin, Maddon and Hinch are all in the AL West with Seattle’s Scott Servais, making that the most backup-catcher heavy division.  Atlanta’s Brian Snitker was a minor league catcher and the Phillies just hired Joe Girardi. The Cubs hired David Ross, my excuse to finally write this up. Baltimore’s Brandon Hyde was a minor league catcher/1st baseman type. Tampa’s Kevin Cash is a classic backup catcher turned manager prototype (they are succeeding in part because of that). The Royals just hired Mike Matheny for his second go-round. And the honoraries, Boone and Bell, make it 12. At one point it was even more than that, for the Giants just let Bruce Bochy walk away and the Angels fired backup catcher Brad Ausmus to hire Maddon.

Five of those managers made the 2019 playoffs (Hinch, Melvin, Snitker, Cash and Boone). Four more made the playoffs recently (Maddon, Bochy, Girardi and Matheny). That’s a really good percentage.

But here’s the not so nice part: All 14 of those catchers-turned-managers are white guys. That’s because there is one black catcher in the bigs: Russell Martin (and he’s a free agent). As of 2017, there were five black minor-league catchers.


Why is that? There are black pitchers, outfielders, infielders, etc. and so on. Why hardly any black catchers?  You know why and I know why. White baseball players have a reputation. And white baseball players who live up to that reputation will not allow themselves to be instructed by a black man, whether that’s a catcher telling him what to throw, or a manager telling him where he’s going to bat in the lineup or if he’s even playing that day.

It starts with white coaches with that reputation not allowing a black player to even try catching in the first place, or black catchers being "encouraged" to change positions. For recent examples, 3B/Panda Pablo Sandoval was a catcher until he got to pro ball, and so was ace Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen. Sandoval ceased being a full-time catcher in 2005, his first full season in pro ball. In the spring of 2009, Jansen was the starting catcher for the Netherlands in the WBC, but by the fall of that year the Dodgers told him “he had no future at catcher” and switched him to pitcher. Now, both those guys were probably still not totally fluent in English when they made the switch. But the sign for a fastball is one finger in any language. And those guys have been All-Stars by any measure. Pablo still loves to catch in practice or batting practice. Yet he wasn’t good enough to be a catcher in the pros? I doubt that very much.

Kenley Jansen in the 2009 WBC, virtually unrecognizable
Seems pretty obvious to me that more black catchers would result in more black managers just by continuing the path that so many catchers have been on. And baseball would need to do nothing except letting black catchers stay black catchers. It is the baseball equivalency of the NFL insisting that black QB’s in college become wide receivers or defensive backs or…. Anything but a black QB in the NFL.

But because it is done at the minor-league level, well before your Lansing Lugnut becomes your Toronto Blue Jay, it is hidden from public view. Insisting that a guy like Lamar Jackson “wouldn’t succeed” as a black QB when he’s a Heisman Trophy winner and known to every college football fan is one thing. He is clearly proving the naysayers wrong, but how many black QB’s had to say yes to the position change?  Tony Dungy was an outstanding QB at Minnesota but became a defensive back in the NFL because no one wanted him as a QB in the 70’s. Eventually Dungy became the first black head coach to win a Super Bowl, but suppose he was allowed to stay a QB? Might he have won a Super Bowl years before Doug Williams did so in 1987? The point is, he was denied the opportunity.

A catcher like Sandoval coming from Venezuela, or Jansen, a Curacao native, cannot insist on staying a catcher if he is a 19-year-old in a strange country trying to play baseball for a living. He knows perfectly well that saying no may mean the end of his career, which has barely begun. The future Sandovals and Jansens should be allowed that same opportunity as Jackson, and then perhaps they too can become a manager someday. (And you know Sandoval will never be considered for a manager job, yet he clearly knows the game very well. Even if he expresses interest, he will be dismissed without thought.)

It is a reasonably easy path from backup catcher to manager at any level of baseball, as we have seen, and the path became well-known early on in baseball, solidified by one particular player/manager. This journeyman backup catcher was responsible for several rule changes in the late 1800’s because of his knowledge of the game. He was almost always a backup because he couldn’t hit much- his 11-year career average is .244, with an OBP of only .305 (rather similar to our first man, David Ross, who checks in with .229/.316, and our position player Hunter Pence provides a .280/.335 comparison). Because he was so smart he became a player-manager towards the end of his playing career (rather common in those times), but unlike other player-managers parlayed that into part-ownership of one team and then another, where he hired himself as manager and stayed- for 50 years.

Yes, that smart backup catcher who became a manager, and then an owner-manager holds the record for most years managed and most wins in baseball history- Connie Mack of the Philadelphia A’s. He won an insurmountable 3,731 games as manager (John McGraw is 2nd- and nearly a full thousand wins behind at 2,763), but because the A’s were generally so bad his last 15 years (From 1934-1950 the A’s finished over .500 only twice, and lost more than 100 games five times and no one was gonna fire him because he owned the team), he also holds the record for most losses by a manager- 3,948!  (McGraw is also 2nd there but exactly 2k behind, at 1,948.). So it’s good to be a manager/owner sometimes. (By the way, nowadays active players are not allowed to own any part of a team.)

Most managers get fired or quit before they hit 20 years, much less 50. So David Ross’ chances of winning 1,000 games as manager are reasonably slim- only 64 have done that in the history of baseball. But the Cubs didn’t hire Ross to win 1,000 games, or even 500. They hired him to win the most important dozen games in the season- the playoffs. It’s something former backup catchers have done really well the last 25 years. And it’s why your next manager should be a backup catcher.

Connie Mack still put on the gear sometimes

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