Why John Russell Shouldn't Be Fired

As you may already know, I don’t believe that a baseball manager has a significant impact on a baseball team.  I feel that the most important thing is talent, and that “good managers” are usually managers who have been blessed with good players.  Too often a manager is fired as a scapegoat.  When the whole team is playing horrible ball over an extended period, it’s easier to fire the manager and send a message, rather than replace the whole team.

So what happens after the manager gets fired?  The fan base wants to replace him with an established manager.  This buys further in to the fallacy that managers actually play a significant role in the process of winning.  The idea is that an established manager will turn the team in to a winner, because he won with other teams.  The truth is that if this “established manager” was really this good, why did he ever get fired from his job?

Take Buck Showalter, for example.  Showalter is interviewing for a job, and being mentioned as a candidate to take over for the Orioles.  Yet once upon a time, Showalter was fired from the Arizona Diamondbacks, and later fired from the Texas Rangers.  You can imagine at the time that those fan bases were calling for Showalter to be fired, with an established manager being needed to turn the team around.  So how does a guy like Showalter go from being the guy who needs to be fired so that his former team can turn things around, to the established manager that can turn things around?  All by being fired?

I always bring up Jim Leyland as my example of why a manager doesn’t matter.  Leyland is considered a great manager.  He led the Pirates to three straight first place finishes in the NL East from 1990-1992.  However, in 1993 the team saw the loss of several key players, most notably Barry Bonds.  The Pirates, as we know, haven’t won since.  Leyland managed the team from 1993-1995.  So did Leyland go from a good manager from 1990-1992, to a bad manager from 1993-1995?  Or did the records have to do with the level of talent on the team?

Leyland then went to Florida in 1997 and won the World Series.  The next year the Marlins posted a 54-108 record.  Leyland resigned after the 1998 season.  That’s a big jump to go from the league champions to one of the worst teams in the majors, all in one year.  Did this have to do with Leyland, or was it simply because Florida traded their whole team away before they could even pop open the champagne to celebrate their World Series victory?

In 2006, Leyland joined the Detroit Tigers, who went 71-91 the previous season.  That year, Leyland led the Tigers to a 95-67 record, and saw his team lose in the World Series.  Was this turnaround because of Leyland, or was it due to acquisitions like Kenny Rogers, Ivan Rodriguez, and Magglio Ordonez, plus young talent like Justin Verlander and Curtis Granderson?

The only constant thing with Leyland is that he was a winning manager when his team had talent.  Take the talent away, and his teams lost.  So what does all of this mean for Russell?

Clearly the 2010 Pirates are not comparable to the 1992 Pirates, the 1997 Marlins, or the 2006 Tigers.  I can say with 100% confidence that this 2010 team wouldn’t even win with Jim Leyland as the manager.  Here are some reasons why:

-Akinori Iwamura hit for a .182/.292/.267 line in 165 at-bats during the first two months of the season as the starting second baseman.

-Jeff Clement hit for a .189/.230/.331 line in 127 at-bats during the first two months of the season as the starting first baseman.

-Andy LaRoche hit for a .228/.294/.307 line in 202 at-bats as the starting third baseman, and forgot how to play defense.

-Ryan Doumit has displayed horrible defense, and can’t throw out a baserunner to save his life.

-Ryan Church has received way too much playing time this year, hitting for a .195/.247/.333 line in 159 at-bats.

-Charlie Morton put up a 9.35 ERA in ten starts.

-The Pirates have faced so many injuries and so much disappointment in the rotation this year that Dana Eveland, Chris Jakubauskas, Brian Burres, and Jeff Karstens have been called upon to start.

-Ross Ohlendorf has struggled, clearly not putting up the numbers we saw from him in 2009.

-Zach Duke has struggled even more than Ohlendorf.

-The base running has been atrocious at times.

One look at that list can easily tell why Russell shouldn’t be fired.  No manager could deal with what Russell has dealt with this year, and come out a winner.  Ohlendorf and Duke were the top two starters last year, and Morton was supposed to show some major progress, rather than total regression.  All three have bombed in 2010.

The starting infield on opening day (Clement, Iwamura, Ronny Cedeno, LaRoche) doesn’t have a single player with an OPS over .637.  Cedeno holds that mark, with Andy LaRoche being the only other player over .600, at .601.  The defense by Iwamura and LaRoche weren’t good at all.  The defense and hitting by Ryan Doumit has left a lot to be desired, especially the lack of defense.

So to review: the team has major issues hitting, fielding, and pitching out of the rotation.  It’s clear to see why people would want the manager gone.  The team can do almost nothing right, and one would think the manager would be to blame for that.  But is that really the fault of Russell?  Or is the bad start due to the players?

One manager I never liked was Jim Tracy.  When the players would screw up, he would blame the poor results on them, saying that they weren’t following the instructions of the coaching staff.  When the players played well, he’d pat himself on the back and congratulate the coaches for doing a good job.  I hated that, but the exact opposite is going on now with Russell.  When the players play well, it’s because of the players.  When the players struggle, people blame it on Russell.  Tracy never took the blame, but was quick to accept the rewards.  Russell never gets any credit for the good things, but always sees the blame.  Ironically, Tracy is another manager who was considered to be a good manager when he was on a good Dodgers team, only to turn in to a bad manager with the Pirates, followed by a move to Colorado where he’s been a good manager thanks to the talent on the team.

I don’t feel that Russell should get a lot of credit for the players playing well, but at the same time, it’s not fair to give him credit for the players playing poorly.  Why would you fire Russell at this point?  Because the starting pitching is bad?  I’d say that has more to do with Joe Kerrigan.  Last year Duke and Ohlendorf made big strides, and Morton looked competent in the rotation.  This year it has all gone downhill with those three.

Maybe it’s because of the base running and other funda

mentals?  I’m a believer that these are things that are over-stated as far as coaching.  At this point, a major league players has been playing baseball for several years.  He’s learned what he’s going to learn regarding base running.  Some players make mistakes, and some players make mistakes more often than others.  I don’t think you can work with a player for a week or two and make him a better base runner at this level.  If he’s a bad base runner now, that’s probably a habit that he’s picked up over several years, and that’s not something that can easily be broken.

Or do you fire Russell because of the bad hitting? I mentioned how bad the infield was, but it goes beyond that.  The only two players from the start of the season that I would be comfortable with at the plate are Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones.  Everyone else has been horrible, although Lastings Milledge has been on fire the last two months.

Now you’ve got Neil Walker playing well, Pedro Alvarez starting to heat up, and Jose Tabata showing signs of his potential at the plate.  As I mentioned, Milledge is also heating up at the plate.  Iwamura, Clement, and LaRoche are three big reasons why the current record is the way it is.  Their hitting was horrible.  But if you’re going to blame that poor hitting on Russell, shouldn’t you give him credit for the good hitting we’re seeing from guys like Walker, Alvarez, and Milledge lately?  Or should the focus be on the player, good or bad?

Coming in to the season my biggest complaint against Russell wasn’t on the performance of the team, but some of the strategies.  The biggest thing was the “no triples” defense.  It seemed like this should have been called the “automatic double down the line” defense.  I wasn’t a big fan of the pitcher batting eighth either.  We’ve learned this year that those decisions are made above Russell’s head, and that Russell doesn’t have total say there.  So while I entered the season not liking Russell for these strategies, I’ve since realized that Russell doesn’t really have the control you’d expect a manager to have.

That’s the main reason I feel Russell shouldn’t be fired.  You could put anyone in this position, and they’re going to have the same results.  When the shots are being called by the higher powers, that makes a manager pretty insignificant.  You’re not going to have a manager come in and change things, because obviously the manager in this situation is just a place holder, because you have to have a manager.  It’s almost like Billy Beane in Oakland.  The shots in Oakland are called from Beane’s office, and he looks for a manager who is willing to accept this role.

If Russell is fired it would be very disappointing.  Russell would be a scapegoat in that case.  He’s not responsible for the poor play by almost the entire opening day roster.  He’s not responsible for some of the crazy strategies.  He’s basically responsible for turning in the lineup card and making in-game changes, and even then I’m not sure how much control he really has.

If you fire Russell, you’re not changing the problem.  You’re not going back and reversing the poor hitting by Iwamura, Clement, and LaRoche in the first two months.  You’re not reversing the poor pitching by Morton, Ohlendorf, and Duke.  If you fire Russell, you still have the same team: young hitters getting adjusted to the majors, and a questionable rotation, with help arriving next year from the upper levels of the minors.  If you fire Russell, you’re giving the players a free pass for their poor play, all because it’s easier to fire one person and send a message than it is to get rid of every person responsible for the losing.

The Pirates may have their top prospects in the majors now, but they’re still in the early stages of rebuilding.  The team has had Alvarez, Tabata, McCutchen, Jones, Walker, and Lincoln on the same team for about a month now.  It’s unreasonable to expect an immediate turnaround once these players arrive.  It’s also unreasonable to expect Russell to have a better result under these rebuilding circumstances, especially with the small amount of control that he has.  That’s why I don’t think Russell should be fired.

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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