It has been two weeks since the Miami Marlins shocked the baseball world by firing their manager and replacing him with their current general manager, Dan Jennings. So far, it has been the disaster that other managers may have secretly been rooting for.
The move was shocking because unlike other sports, there is typically a very clear line between the manager and the front office in Major League Baseball. Rarely does one person try to be both the coach and the person in charge of player personnel.
The last team to attempt the move was the Atlanta Braves in 1990 with Bobby Cox who had previous managerial experience. Jennings’ previous coaching experience came 30 years ago with a high school team.
Through 10 games, the Marlins are just 2-8 under Jennings and have fallen from 6.0 games back in the National League East to 10.5 games back through Wednesday’s games.
During that time, Jennings has demoted one of his coaches, a rare in-season move, and according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, players are growing frustrated.
But more importantly for the sport of baseball, Jennings’ performance has become a referendum on the managerial position in general, and a lot of people are watching very closely.
There is an old theory that of the head coaches in the four major sports (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL), the baseball manager that is the least important and that only a select few can actually have a positive impact on a team. This is a theory that has gained more steam in recent years with the use of advanced metrics, where many decisions can be mapped out ahead of time based on simple probability of what the most likely outcome will be.
Buster Olney of ESPN explained the thinking in a recent column:
“For [team executives], there is a recognition that [Bruce] Bochy has distinguished himself in his work with the Giants, as had Buck Showalter and Terry Francona. But there is also the belief that the majority of managers are like mediocre starting pitchers — you can always find somebody to do that job, to implement the strategy generated and laid out by front offices that are increasingly filled with really smart people who understand the chances and odds built into each decision better than the manager. A lot of folks in the front offices just hope that the guy in the manager’s chair doesn’t screw up — by doing something stupid and ad-libbing off the script honed by the staff above them, by failing to be direct in presenting a decision, in saying something really dumb on camera or into a microphone. As written here early last year, a lot of folks in front offices look at the manager perhaps in the same way that Barack Obama views his press secretary: Stay on message, please.”
By moving Jennings from the front office to the dugout, the Marlins, intentionally or not, are testing this theory and according to Olney, other managers are “appalled and believe it to be an insult to the profession.”
One coach told Olney that Jennings will be terrible.
“He won’t know how to react,” the coach said. “I kind of feel bad for him.”
Other managers have been openly critical of Jennings’ in-game decisions, something unheard of among MLB managers. Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald chronicled a couple of examples.
- After one recent game, Arizona Diamondbacks manager Chip Hale, who had previously called the hiring of Jennings “frustrating,” pointed out that his team beat the Marlins in large part because Jennings did not have a right-handed reliever ready when Hale brought in a pinch-hitter who eventually hit a game-deciding 2-run home run.
- After a loss to the Marlins, Orioles manager Buck Showalter was critical of Jennings for over-using his bullpen, saying, “They used what, three guys three days in a row out of the bullpen to get it done? We’ll see how that works down the road.”
Meanwhile, the players have been put in a tough position. Under the traditional system, there is a buffer between the players and the one person who typically has the most say in how much they make and whether or not they keep their job. The Marlins players are now in a spot where there may be added tension and pressure that players on other teams don’t face.
It has only been two weeks and there is still plenty of time for Jennings to settle into this job and right the ship. But so far it is playing out exactly as many feared and some hoped.
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