Measuring the impact of a manager on a Major League Baseball team is a difficult thing to do at best. The closest approximation we can come up with is to compare the number of games a team wins to the number of games the team should have won.
Using Fangraphs data for the last four seasons, we compared total Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for each team to the number of wins each team had greater than 55. In theory, my six-week old daughter could manage a big league club to 55 wins, so we want to see how each team performed compared to the worst possible scenario (55 wins).
What we see is a close relationship between a team’s total WAR and the number of games a team wins. No surprise there. We are more interested in the trendline (black line above). This gives us a formula that will help us determine how many games a team should have won based on how the players performed.
EXPECTED WINS = (0.95 * WAR) + 48.2
Now let’s look at every team from this past season and see how their actual wins compares to the number of expected wins.
As you can see, the Rays 2009 win total was 12.6 fewer than what would be expected based on how the players performed this season. That was the worst mark in Major League Baseball this season.
The way we see it, there are two possible explanations. Either the Rays were the unluckiest team in baseball, or Joe Maddon did not get the most out of the talent he was working with [Ed. note: see comments for discussion on Strength of Schedule as a factor. In summary, it likely plays a role for some teams, but not necessarily for the Rays in 2009].
While we don’t want to completely discount the possibility of “luck” being a factor, there are a couple indicators that suggest the Rays were not that unlucky this season.
First is the team’s Pythagorean Win Percentage. Based on the number of runs scored and runs allowed, the Rays should have won 86 games this season. That is only 2 wins more than the actual number. This suggests the Rays were a little unlucky, but certainly not 13 wins unlucky.
Also consider that we are dealing with a 162-game schedule. How much of a factor can “luck” have over 162 games? We aren’t exactly talking about a small sample size. Maybe luck can swing a team’s record one way or the other by a few games, but can it cause a team to lose 13 more games than expected? We don’t know the answer to that question, but our gut says “No.”
Also, if the Rays were “unlucky,” then certainly this should be an aberration on the record of Maddon. Actually, turns out it is not.
In three of Maddon’s four seasons as manager of the Rays, the team’s win total underperformed the performance of the players by a wide margin, ranking at or near the bottom (complete data for 2006-2008 can be found after the jump). Even 2008, when the Rays won the AL East and Maddon was named American League Manager of the Year, the team still only won 2 more games than expected.
The counter-argument is that Maddon was not managing to win in 2006 and 2007 as the team was in a developmental stage. So maybe we should not hold Maddon accountable for 2006 and 2007.
Also, one could make a case that outside of his in-game decisions, the manager is somewhat responsible for getting the players to perform at a high level. The Rays WAR values suggest that the players are indeed playing at a high level. However, that level did not lead to the number of wins that would be expected, and that could be directly related to Maddon’s managerial decisions during the games.
We are not ready to say JoeMa has been a bad manager. You can’t be a bad manager and win a pennant in the same division as the Red Sox and Yankees. But according to this data, the team played like a 97-win team this season and yet they only won 84. Is that all Maddon’s fault? Not likely. But it is hard to imagine that any other manager would have done worse than 84 wins with this level of talent.