Managers with the Most Wins and Their Playing Careers Part I, an Overview

Let’s get this out of the way: team wins are an imperfect way to measure managerial success.

Throughout this series, we’ll look at different ways to ascertain a good manager. While many (from GM to utility infielder) have a hand in a win, certainly managers who stuck around long enough to manage teams that won the most games in Major League Baseball history were, for the most part, successful. Hopefully, using bulk wins (and as a byproduct years managed) will shed some light on the types of players who become successful managers.

Somewhat surprising: of the managers with 900 wins or more, just seven of the 64 never reached the majors. Of course, those seven boast the two managers with the best winning percentage: Joe McCarthy and Frank Selee. In fact, with Earl Weaver having the seventh best winning percentage, non-MLBers claim three of the top seven winning percentage spots.

In addition, John McNamara is the only member of the 900 win club with no MLB experience who posted a sub-.500 winning percentage, although Jim Leyland’s record is 1588-1585 and, if Buck Showalter manages the Orioles much longer, he could end up with a losing record (he’s 985-949).

Turning to those who played, the great majority of players turned managers (PTMs) with 900+ wins had reasonably long playing careers. Just Walter Alston, Sparky Anderson and Tom Kelly played only one year in the bigs, while Bobby Cox and Jimy Williams played parts of two seasons. Tommy Lasorda pitched in parts of three seasons – and that’s the group with less than six years in the majors. In fact, the average playing career of this group was 12.9 seasons.

That’s not to say the group represents the best players in baseball history, as they average just 22.6 WAR. In fact, 25 of the 57 managers recorded less than 10 WAR. Terry Francona comes in at the bottom with -3.7 WAR, but he’s joined by seven others with negative WAR. On the flip side, seven players were worth 55.6 or more WAR. That group includes six Hall of Famers (Frank Robinson, Cap Anson, Frankie Frisch, Fred Clarke, Joe Cronin and Lou Boudreau) and one future Hall of Famer in Joe Torre.

Mgr

Played in MLB

WAR

W

L

W-L%

Billy Southworth HOF as player

20.3

1044

704

0.597

Frank Chance HOF as player

49.5

946

648

0.593

John McGraw HOF as player

49.3

2763

1948

0.586

Al Lopez HOF as player

13.5

1410

1004

0.584

Harry Wright HOF as player

1

1225

885

0.581

Cap Anson HOF as player

99.5

1295

947

0.578

Fred Clarke HOF as player

73.4

1602

1181

0.576

Davey Johnson as player

24.5

1188

931

0.561

Steve O’Neill as player

17.4

1040

821

0.559

Walter Alston HOF as player

0

2040

1613

0.558

The four PTMs with 900+ wins and the highest winning percentages were pedestrian to above average baseball players: Billy Southworth, Frank Chance, John McGraw and Al Lopez. The fifth member of this group, Harry Wright, accumulated just one WAR in seven seasons. But, immediately after him, we have Anson and Clarke, one immortal and one solid Hall of Famer. Davey Johnson is next, followed by Steve O’Neil and Alston. Bobby Cox was right behind Alston on the list.

Of the ten 900+ win managers with the highest winning percentage, two were worth more than 73 WAR in their careers; two were worth 49-50 WAR; two were worth 20-25 WAR; two were worth 13-17.5 WAR; and the last two were worth 0 and 1 WAR. It seems it didn’t take a great player to become one of the managers with the best winning percentage and 900+ wins.

Similarly scattered: the playing careers were somewhat evenly distributed throughout the 900+ win managers (yet, for obvious reasons, skewed a tad to baseball’s past):

  • 10 managers began their playing careers before 1900;
  • Nine began their careers between 1904-1919;
  • 13 began their careers between 1920-1947;
  • Nine began in the 50s; nine began their careers in the 60s; and
  • Seven began their careers after 1970.

It is somewhat surprising that as many 900+ win managers began their careers during the 50s and 60s as began their careers before 1920.

That said, six of the seven managers in the group with the best winning percentages started their careers in 1913 or before, with five starting their careers before 1900. Of the top 10 by winning percentage, only Al Lopez (1928), Johnson (1965) and  Alston (1936) began careers after 1913. It appears the best of the best came from PTMs in baseball’s infancy.

Mgr

Played in MLB

WAR

W

L

W-L%

Billy Southworth HOF as player

20.3

1044

704

0.597

Frank Chance HOF as player

49.5

946

648

0.593

John McGraw HOF as player

49.3

2763

1948

0.586

Al Lopez HOF as player

13.5

1410

1004

0.584

Harry Wright HOF as player

1

1225

885

0.581

Cap Anson HOF as player

99.5

1295

947

0.578

Fred Clarke HOF as player

73.4

1602

1181

0.576

Davey Johnson as player

24.5

1188

931

0.561

Steve O’Neill as player

17.4

1040

821

0.559

Walter Alston HOF as player

0

2040

1613

0.558

Meanwhile of the ten 900+ win managers with the worst winning percentages, four began their playing careers after 1950 and another two began their careers in the 1940s – only three began their careers before 1920. Expanding this pool to the 13 managers with sub-.500 winning percentages gives us seven managers who began their playing careers after 1950.

Before looking at the data, it would have been natural to assume that managers in the past stuck around more as there was less scrutiny, pressure and money on the line. However, at least of the managers with the most wins, the opposite is the case. Aside from Connie Mack who is special given that he owned the team, the majority of poor performing managers who stuck around long enough to win a ton of games were from more modern times.

It’s hard to understand exactly why these managers had such staying power as they had just four World Series between them and none averaged a divisional finish above third. In addition, aside from Robinson and possibly Boudreau, none were particularly outstanding ballplayers.

This much is clear: the most successful managers in terms of wins and winning percentage did their work 100 or so years ago. In addition, how good a manager was as a player had little bearing on their ability as a manager, as those with the most managerial success tended not to be stars.

 

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