Do the worst of the best players make the best leaders?

When you think Branch Rickey, you think innovator. He broke the color barrier and pretty much created the framework for the modern MiLB farm system. But, before all that, he signed a pro contract in 1903.

He played 82 games in the minors that year, he hit .257. However he was a catcher and it was the early 1900s so that wasn’t like kissing your sister bad. He did worse in 1904 and 1905, but did get three plate appearances in the majors with the St. Louis Browns in ’05. He went hitless with two K’s.

Rickey showed promise the following year, batting .284/.345/.393 in 223 plate appearances. He was then sold to the New York Highlanders and the wheels fell off. He batted just .182/.253/.234 and exhibited perhaps the worst catching defense in MLB history. He was Jesus Montero without the bat. In fact, he once allowed 13 successful stolen bases in a game, a record to this day.

He was out of baseball soon after, but became a front office executive of the Browns in 1913. He signed George Sisler. And the rest is history.

There seems to be a link (or at least the belief of a link) between failing on baseball’s biggest stage and eventually becoming one of the best managers, pitching coaches, GMs or owners. But is that the case?

Joe McCarthy managed for 24 seasons, won nearly 62 percent of the games he managed and seven World Series. While he did a lot of damage with the wrecking crew known as the 1930s Bronx Bombers, he had impressive winning percentages with the Cubs (.579 in 770 games) and Red Sox (.606 in 369 games) and was the first manager to win a pennant in both leagues. McCarthy had a much longer minor league career than Rickey; however it was by no means better. With 15 seasons in the minors and 5,839 at bats, he mustered just 32 HRs. He batted .261 with a .334 slugging percentage. The only time he looked good was his age-26 season, when he repeated the year at Wilkes-Barre: he batted .325 and hit six HRs (the most he ever hit in a minor league season). McCarthy, a no-hit second baseman, grew up idolizing Connie Mack – which makes a lot of sense.

Charlie Comiskey managed for 12 seasons, finished with a .608 winning percentage, four pennants and one World Series. As a first baseman, Comiskey made James Loney look like Frank Thomas. Comiskey played for 13 seasons for the St. Louis Browns. As a player, Comiskey finished with a .264/.293/.337 line and he was worth 11 WAR (although more than half of that comes from defense) (Baseball Reference). Heck, maybe Comiskey should have pitched: he had a 0.73 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in 12.1 MLB innings. Like Rickey, he was also an innovator: Comiskey is credited as being the first player to position himself behind the first base bag and thereby cover more field – he was all over total zone rating.

Frank Selee managed for 16 seasons, won nearly 60 percent of his games and five pennants. Selee, a “balding little man with a modest demeanor and a formidable mustache that gave his face a melancholy case,” never played minor or major league baseball. He did manage Frank Chance who took over managing the Cubs when Selee was too ill to do so.
Frank Chance managed 11 seasons, won 59 percent of his games, two World Series and four pennants. Known as Husk or the Peerless Leader, Chance was the end point of Tinkers to Evers. He was also a no-power first basemen who could get on base (.296/.394/.394). He hit 20 HRs over his 1,288 games played. Chance accumulated 49.5 WAR and was a stud from 1904-1908: .302/.397/.404, with 14 of his 20 HRs. Chance, good player, great manager.

Billy Southworth managed for 13 seasons, won nearly 60 percent of his games, two World Series and four pennants. Southworth was also a fine hitter, batting .297/.359/.415 over 13 seasons. He was worth 20.3 WAR and finished in the top 20 for MVP once during his career. Southworth, a solid regular for seven of his seasons, was the first person in MLB history to win a World Series as a player and a manager.

John McGraw managed for 33 seasons, won 58 percent of his games, three World Series and 10 pennants. He played from 1891-1906 and was player manager from 1899-1906. McGraw, known as Little Napoleon, led the league in OBP three times, scored 140+ runs three times and finished with a .334/.466/.410 line. He was worth 49.3 WAR. It’s entirely possible that McGraw is responsible for the quantity of umpires on a diamond. Like other names on this list, McGraw was an innovator, likely being responsible for the quantity of umpires on the field. When McGraw played, there was only one umpire and whenever the ump was distracted, McGraw would trip or otherwise impede base runners.

Al Lopez managed for 17 seasons, won 58 percent of his games and two pennants. Lopez, who managed the Indians for the 1950s and later the White Sox, played from 1928-1947. His playing career, lasting 19 seasons, wasn’t overly interesting: .261/.326/.337 with 13.5 WAR. That said, Lopez, a catcher, set the record for career games at the position until Gary Carter broke it in 1990. Lopez died four days after the White Sox won the World Series in 2005, the franchise’s first championship since Lopez led them to the World Series 88 years before. Lopez was a colorful character and solid catcher for nearly 20 years and a great manager for even longer.

Earl Weaver managed for 17 years, won 58 percent of his games, one World Series and four pennants. Weaver is, perhaps, my favorite baseball entity. His book Weaver On Strategy is one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever read. His career is probably the reason for this column as I know he struggled mightily in the minors (.267/.269/.344) across 14 seasons. However, Weaver knew how to manage a baseball team and farm system. While he couldn’t play well, his mind and understanding of the game was up there with anyone. He was also similar to Al Lopez: neither found an umpire they couldn’t get to throw them out of a game. Man, I miss Earl Weaver.

Cap Anson managed for 21 seasons (nearly two-thirds of that time he was player-manager), won 58 percent of his games and five pennants. Anson is, of course, one of the greatest players of all time: .334/.394/.447 with nearly 100 WAR. He won the batting title twice, lead the league in OBP four times and generally dominated the 1870s, 80s and 90s. Between Anson’s career and managerial record, he could be the most complete baseball man of all time!

Connie Mack, or Cornelius McGillicuddy, Sr., managed for 53 seasons, won 48 percent of his games, five World Series and nine pennants. Mack, the Tall Tactician, played 11 seasons in the majors predominantly at catcher, finishing with a .244/.305/.300 line and 4.5 WAR. Mack had nearly 60 more walks than he did extra base hits. He also had 15 more K’s than he did extra base hits. Another innovator, Mack would simulate the sound of a foul tip when he was catching. At the time, a caught foul tip was automatically an out. In 1891, the rule was changed that only a caught foul tip on a third strike signaled an out.

Casey Stengel managed for 25 seasons, won 51 percent of his games, seven World Series and 10 pennants. Stengel, the Old Perfessor, wasn’t a bad hitter either. He played predominantly right-field and finished with a .284/.356/.410 line and OPS+ of 119. He was worth 18.7 WAR for his career. Stengel was a slightly above average player for about 10 of his 14 seasons – not bad.

Most of those are old time managers; however recent successful managers like Sparky Anderson, Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox, Tommy Lasorda, Terry Francona, Joe Girardi and Davey Johnson didn’t have overly distinguished playing careers. In addition, pitching coaches like Dave Duncan (career .214/.279/.357 hitter) and Leo Mazzone (had a 1.40 WHIP and 0.93 K:BB rate across 10 minor league seasons) weren’t successful players. That said, Joe Torre had a near Hall of Fame playing career.

In short, good players and bad players turned out to be great managers, GMs (Billy Beane), pitching coaches and others. However, in recent time, the game seems to have trended away from stars becoming managers. Perhaps if Ryne Sandberg ever gets a shot or if Mark McGwire continues as a hitting coach we’ll know more.

It does appear that the decline of the player-manager has changed the pool of managerial candidates. With the better players playing longer into their careers, they lose out. Nowadays, players like Terry Francona (who last played in the Bigs at 31) are earning valuable experience 5-10 years before stars retire. In addition, we can always blame Pete Rose.
Lastly, perhaps there is a bit of perception bias. The majority of people fail at baseball, so, necessarily, there are far more bad players looking for managerial jobs than good players.

5 Replies to “Do the worst of the best players make the best leaders?”

  1. Just really digging into data on managers – it seems like the best players who became managers were from the early days of baseball. Am i just not thinking of recent examples? Joe Torre, Gil Hodges, Don MAttingly come to mind, but they have nothing on Cobb, Hornsby, Anson, etc.

  2. Good stuff. Torre and McGraw should be Hall of Famers as players.

    Something you hear a lot is that good managers have dealt with struggle before. This tries to explain why Ted Williams wasn’t a great manager (I don’t know, just look at the ball and crush it, kid).

  3. Yeah – I really want to delve into this idea a bit more — it’ll require running numbers on 670 or so managers. My thought is that earlier in baseball ~largely because of player-managers~ greater players became managers and slowly, we’ve moved away from that. Not sure if that’s the case, but I aim to figure it out soon.

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