How do first-time managers fare in Major League Baseball?
Alex Cora’s baseball acumen and ability to connect with those around him is unquestioned by anyone who has crossed paths with him during his playing, television, or coaching careers. He represents a wealth of attributes that positioned him as a compelling managerial candidate.
“We were very impressed when we interviewed Alex,” Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said Sunday in a statement.
“He came to us as a highly regarded candidate, and from speaking with him throughout this process, we found him to be very knowledgeable, driven, and deserving of this opportunity. He is a highly respected and hard-working individual who has experience playing in Boston.
“Alex also has a full appreciation for the use of analytical information in today’s game and his ability to communicate and relate to both young players and veterans is a plus. Finally, the fact that he is bilingual is very significant for our club.”
Yet while Cora — the bench coach for an Astros team that has advanced to the World Series — represents all of those elements, there is at least one box that is unchecked: The 42-year-old never has managed in the big leagues. His managerial experience is limited to two years as the head of the Caguas Criollos in the Puerto Rican Winter League.
For a team coming off a playoff campaign with World Series aspirations, a first-time manager in his first year on the job represents an atypical profile.
|Year||Team||Playoff manager||Record||Advanced to||Replaced by||Year||Record||Advanced to|
|2015||Dodgers||Don Mattingly||92-70||NLDS||Dave Roberts||2016||91-71||NLCS|
|2013||Tigers||Jim Leyland||93-69||ALCS||Brad Ausmus||2014||90-72||ALDS|
|2013||Reds||Dusty Baker||90-72||WC||Bryan Price||2014||76-86||Missed playoffs|
|2011||Cardinals||Tony LaRussa||90-72||Won WS||Mike Matheny||2012||88-74||NLCS|
|2006||Athletics||Ken Macha||93-69||ALCS||Bob Geren||2007||76-86||Missed playoffs|
* - Michael, a first-time manager, replaced Howser, but was fired in September of the strike-shortened 1981 season. Lemon, who had prior managerial experience, replaced him for the final 25 games of the regular season and the playoffs.
Of the 47 World Series winners since the introduction of the League Championship Series round in 1969, just three have been helmed by a player in his first full season as a manager: the 2001 Diamondbacks (Bob Brenly), the 1987 Twins (Tom Kelly), and the 1980 Phillies (Dallas Green).
Both Kelly and Green had served as the interim managers of their teams late in the season before their championship runs as “rookie” managers, and so they generally are viewed as being at least somewhat distinct from Brenly, who became the first manager to claim a title without prior big league managerial experience since Ralph Houk won titles with a loaded Yankees team in 1961 and 1962.
It’s far more common for an experienced manager to inherit a ready-to-win club and to achieve baseball’s ultimate prize in his first season with a new club. Of the nine managers to do so since 1969, the most recent two were Red Sox. Terry Francona (four years removed from his firing in Philadelphia) won in his first year on the job in Boston in 2004, while John Farrell won a championship with the Sox after coming to Boston in 2013 following two years managing the Blue Jays.
Of course, the idea of managerial turnover for a team that reached the playoffs is itself unusual. Since 1969, there are just 25 instances in which a team that got to the postseason one year turned to a new manager the following offseason. Of those 25 teams:
■ 14 (56 percent) missed the playoffs in the first year under their new manager;
■ 5 (20 percent) had a better regular-season record;
■ 11 (44 percent) reached the playoffs again;
■ 4 (16 percent) advanced deeper into the postseason under the new manager; and
■ 3 (12 percent) won the World Series.
Notably, all three of those championships — the 2004 Red Sox (Francona), the 1996 Yankees (Joe Torre replacing Buck Showalter), and the 1974 Athletics (Alvin Dark replacing Dick Williams, whose A’s had won back-to-back titles in 1972 and 1973) — were won under veteran managers.
In short, it’s unusual for a team in the Red Sox’ position to entrust its clubhouse to someone who has never performed in that role. That said, it’s not unprecedented.
After the 2013 season, Jim Leyland retired from the Tigers. Then-Tigers president/CEO/GM Dombrowski replaced him with first-time manager Brad Ausmus.
More recently, after Don Mattingly led the Dodgers to a Division Series loss in 2015, a built-to-win Los Angeles team replaced Mattingly with first-timer Dave Roberts. Despite Roberts’s lack of managerial experience, the Dodgers felt comfortable about the impact he could make based on what they learned through the interview process.
“I don’t know if you ever know if a guy is ready. Experience is great, but the energy [Roberts] brought into a room was second to none,” explained Dodgers vice president of amateur and international scouting David Finley (formerly the Red Sox’ director of player personnel), who took part in the process that led his team to Roberts. “He’s a player’s manager. He can be tough on the players, as well. The culture he builds in the clubhouse, the chemistry was noticeable from the beginning. You could tell that would be the case in the interview process.
“There was no doubt he was going to be able to manage people, just because of his personality. Not having manager experience, I think he’d managed a part of the clubhouse for so long it didn’t matter.”
Finley’s description of Roberts’s attributes — energy, authenticity, a natural ability to forge strong relationships, someone who’d become a team leader during a long big league career as a supporting cast member rather than a roster centerpiece, experience as a bench coach — encompasses a number of traits (and résumé lines) possessed by Cora.
As for in-game management, the Dodgers were convinced that Roberts’s intelligence would translate — particularly given the favorable impression that he made during managerial situations that were part of LA’s interview process. (The Red Sox likewise used managerial simulations in the process that led them to Cora.)
“Analytically, he’s brilliant. That was probably the biggest question for some of us who didn’t know him,” Finley said of Roberts. “In-game, running through the simulations of the game, he was strong — very strong . . . You could tell he’d be well-prepared and there would be thought behind every action. I’ve got to believe the interview process, you have to perform there in a big moment as you’re fighting for a job. He was great at it.”
Roberts led the Dodgers deeper in the playoffs in 2016 — the NLCS — than they’d been the previous year under Mattingly. And this year, Roberts oversaw a Dodgers team that won 104 games and cruised to the World Series, where they will oppose Cora’s Astros.
“It’s important to have a manager who can get the best out of every player. To me, that’s why we’re having this success. Every player has a role,” said Finley, suggesting that Roberts has helped players such as Justin Turner, Chris Taylor, and Yasiel Puig deliver star-caliber performances.
“I can’t think of a player who had an underachieving season. He gets the most out of every player. That’s what’s important for a manager.”
Cora’s Astros likewise saw their roster deliver across-the-board performances at the upper range of projections. Cora has received credit for being a part of the culture that allowed such a development to occur — a noteworthy part of his and his team’s profiles given that the Red Sox’ lineup this season was plagued by players who fell short of expectations.
In an effort to alter that mix, the Red Sox elected to look beyond managerial inexperience for someone whom they believe, like Roberts, embodies nearly everything else that they seek. In so doing, they are making an atypical gamble with a team that will enter 2018 with championship ambitions — believing that the best candidate need not be the most experienced one.