I've never been one to think that managers have that much impact one way or the other on a game to game basis. There is lots of data to show this is true. Yet whenever something goes wrong, the manager is to blame. It goes with the territory.
I tend to have a mixed opinion here. I see a manager's most important duty as his ability to manage personalities and distribute playing time down the roster, but I don't see the day-to-day decisions as being much of a factor (i.e. should he have bunted, did he pull the pitcher too early? Too late?)
A lot of emphasis tends to go toward the latter and it's a common complaint I get from some readers. My answer is that, though we don't see it, those kinds of decisions are based in large part to random fluctuation. Those decisions tend to even out much more than we think because, once we decided the manager is to blame, we selectively choose to confirm our bias. We'll mention every time the "wrong" relief pitcher was used, but ignore the times when the "right" decision was made. I barely heard a peep out of Twitter when Sveum made a series of correct bullpen moves that ensured a Cubs one-run victory against the Pirates om the last series (though our guy Felzz was on top of things there) -- but the very next day when his reliever gave up a run, the anti-Sveum contingent was out again in full force. The quality of the bullpen pitchers also plays a factor. Hard to make the "right" decision when you are likely to get scored on no matter who you put in.
I've heard complaints ranging from not using a pitcher to pinch-hit for Donnie Murphy (so that he can bunt) to not arguing about a play that was "clearly" fan interference -- yet pretty much missed by everyone involved. It obviously wasn't that clear. It struck me that those were extreme reaches to place blame on a guy who has become a convenient target.
It makes great talk show fodder because a manager and his decision making process is such a visible target. It's a game we can play along -- decision-by-decision -- where we also happen get the benefit of hindsight. We make note of a managerial decision when it doesn't work. We discard it when it does work. And so the balance seemingly shifts to a series of bad decisions, not because that's necessarily what's happening, but because that's the way it is perceived to be happening. How easy is it to go back and point out all the mistakes a manager makes in a loss? We can do with any manager in any game for any given team.
The narrative that Sveum is to blame on a game to game basis is not one to which I personally subscribe. I think those in-game decisions even out pretty close to 50/50, to the point where a managers decisions may only affect a few games one way or the other over a season long sample size -- and even that can swing in the other direction the very next season.
That is not to say I'm absolving Sveum and saying he has no impact on the Cubs performance as a whole. I do think managers play some role in a team's success, but I think it needs a bigger picture perspective.
I'm more concerned about how a manager...
- Manages his players and their personalities
- How he distributes playing time and whether he puts his players in a position to succeed
- (In a rebuilding situation), how his players develop over the course of a season.
The first example is a bit abstract and difficult to measure but managers to some degree are salesmen. You have to know and understand your players and you have to get them to "buy in" to what the team is doing. A name that comes to mind that was a success in this area was former Bulls coach Phil Jackson. In baseball, Joe Maddon fits the bill while, on the other end of the spectrum. we saw Bobby Valentine almost single-handedly take down a once powerful Boston Red Sox team. It's a part of the job that's easy to do when a team is winning, however, and not so easy when the team is losing. So even that is influenced by team performance. I can think of no better local and recent example than former Cubs color analyst and Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly. When the Arizona Diamondbacks were hitting on all cylinders, the team tolerated his abrasive, micro-managing style. When they didn't win the next season, they quickly tuned him out and he lost control of the team, ultimately leading to his demise as a manager.
I bristled when Dale Sveum called out his young players publicly early in the season but I also believe he learned from that mistake. Sveum has seemed to keep that player criticism in-house. Moreover, I've always seen Sveum's criticism as constructive. He wants his players to improve and the criticism tends to focus on that goal, but keeping that in house is an area in which he has greatly improved as the season has progressed. We can't forget that he's learning as much as some of his players in some respects.
Distribution of playing time
There are areas to improve, as some have noted. James Russell has been overused, though some of that had to do with lack of personnel early in the season. The Cubs now have Zac Rosscup and Brooks Raley as additional lefties in the pen. Sveum hasn't learned to trust them yet and so Russell's workload has remained heavy. Sveum has fallen in love with Russell, much as he fell in love with Shawn Camp last season. When you have a bullpen as frightful as the one the Cubs have, perhaps a security blanket is almost a necessity. Sveum needs to learn to trust more of his bullpen, but by the same token he needs better personnel for that to happen. It's a two-way street.
We also talked about perhaps giving Anthony Rizzo a day off against a tough lefty like Francisco Liriano -- especially late in his first full MLB season and one in which a day game followed a night game. Others have pined for Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro to get more rest. Again, this is partly due to a lack of personnel. I imagine if Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy were utility players as they should be, Sveum would be more inclined to find spots to play them and rest Castro and Barney.
But Sveum has also been pretty good about putting players in positions to succeed. Some complained that Bryan LaHair didn't play enough against lefties and should have been an everyday player. It's easy to say now that should not have happened and that the Cubs managed to stretch out LaHair's production and value to it's very limits last year. They have also made great use of Nate Schierholtz, though he is tiring now, as well as rotating outfielders Ryan Sweeney, Junior Lake, and Bryan Bogusevic. All have thrived as they've been put in situations where they matched up well.
I also like the way Welington Castillo was eased into a full-time role over the past two seasons. Catching is a demanding, grinding job and not every player can be thrust into that role -- especially one who still had work to do in managing a game. Here is a good example where the Cubs had good depth and it allowed Sveum to gradually bestow the full-time role on Castillo. Dioner Navarro had an excellent season and Sveum didn't hesitate to use him to give Welly a breather. The same will happen, as I said above, once Sveum has guys like Valbuena and Murphy that he can bring off the bench in the infield or when he has other guys in the bullpen he can trust.
This is the toughest task the Cubs have assigned Sveum. You would hope that by the time the players reached the majors, they would only need occasional fine-tuning and adjusting -- but Sveum has had to try and develop more than his share of flawed players. Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters were early examples of players who received more than your normal amount of instruction at the MLB level. Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo are players who have had to make big adjustments as MLB' ers and both have struggled to adapt at this high level of competition. The jury is still out on both but I have greater hope for them because of their past record of success and because each have shown glimpses of being that improved player we all want them to be.
Again,a good example of a player who has developed well has been Welington Castillo, who has gone from a talented player with gifted skills to a player who has supplemented those gifts with proper technique and a greater understanding of the game.
While there is some worry that the young core has struggled and that that may have some implication on the Cubs next wave of talent, which includes top prospects like Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, and Albert Almora. My answer to that is that you hope that these players come to the majors more prepared for the big leagues than their predecessors, so that they won't need big changes once they arrive in the pros. The hope is that this part of Sveum's responsibilities as a manager will be greatly diminished over the next couple of years as the Cubs have assigned greater responsibility for development to their farm system -- where it should be. That would leave him to concentrate on the first two areas we talked about.
It's too early to judge Sveum and certainly to move on to a different manager. Yes, it's been two years, but it's been a very atypical two years for a manager in that he didn't have the luxury of handling talented, MLB-ready players from day one. Of course, some of that improvement has been laid at Sveum's feet as well and ultimately he will be judged partly on how much progress his young core makes. But whether you agree with how he's done it, he has put the work in with his young core and I think he deserves the chance to see what he can do once those players start performing better on a consistent basis.
I don't see Sveum as a point A to point B guy. I see him simply as the best available choice at that time and the Cubs will give him every chance to succeed, in part because continuity also plays a role with a young developing team. He'll be judged on whether he's the guy to take the team to the next level when the team itself is ready to reach the next level. That is only fair.
Filed under: Manager