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A few years ago, in an attempt to analyze the performance of major-league managers objectively, Bill James came up with something called the “managerial box.” It was a series of questions, concerning strategy and the handling of players, that attempted to establish a manager’s style of play and his use of the roster. James quickly abandoned the scheme; it failed in its purpose–to objectively judge a manager. Such a scheme was inherently based on speculation (what statistics do managers have, aside from wins and losses?), while James also decided that the idea of judging a manager–good or bad–was difficult at best. Certain managers–like certain ballparks–are good or bad for certain teams and certain players.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that James’s scheme should be scrapped. It means that such a scheme should be applied with a full knowledge of its short points. In an attempt to perform a postmortem on Gene Michael’s career with the Chicago Cubs, it comes in handy–as long as we begin with this disclaimer.
Name: Gene Michael.
Managers for whom he played in the majors: Harry Walker, Walter Alston, Ralph Houk, Bill Virdon.
Characteristics as a player: Good-field, no-hit shortstop, a starter for only a few seasons, otherwise a utility player, a role player. A lifetime .229 hitter.
Managerial record: A trivia answer as the only manager to finish first and be fired–in that order–within the same season. Took the 1981 New York Yankees to first place in the first half of the strike-interrupted 1981 season, then was fired as the Yanks floundered after the strike was settled. Bob Lemon led the Yanks through both sets of American League playoffs that year, but lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. Michael replaced Lemon 14 games into the following season, but failed to rally the Yanks and was himself replaced 86 games later. Was 46-56 last year, 68-68 this year, for a 114-124 record with the Cubs.
WHAT HE BRINGS TO THE BALL CLUB
Is he an intense manager or more of an easy-to-get-along-with type? I drew this scheme from the Montreal Expos’ entry in the 1985 Baseball Abstract, which concerned manager Bill Virdon. The similarities between Michael and Virdon, as managers, are haunting. Stan Michna’s judgment of Virdon reads, “He is neither easy to get along with nor intense; if anything, he is merely tense.” The same goes for Michael, who played under Virdon in 1974 and who, like Virdon, was scarred under the knife wielded by George Steinbrenner. When Michael came to the Cubs just over a year ago, he was considered a good baseball man. Dallas Green, I don’t believe, had any interest in what he brought to the ball club; Michael was simply the best man available. After firing the permissive Jim Frey, Green should have brought in a disciplinarian–or so reads the baseball “book.” Instead, Green brought in Michael, second-guessed him consistently in the press, and finally pondered his job security in the sports columns of this city’s newspapers. Michael must have inwardly yearned for New York and George Steinbrenner, who at least is consistent in his inconsistencies.
Is he more of an emotional leader or a decision maker? Definitely a decision maker. Saying Gene Michael is emotional is like saying Tom Landry is a party animal.
Is he more of an optimist or more of a problem solver? Problem solver. Michael had little optimism–false or true–about this season, even less after Green dealt Steve Trout. Still, even on departure he left the team at .500, which is about as good as this team has any right to be.
HOW HE USES HIS PERSONNEL
Does he favor a set lineup or a rotation system? As usual with managers these days, a mixture of both, but tending toward the rotation system. He tends not only to platoon (see next question) but also to move the hot bats into and around in the lineup.
Does he like to platoon? Definitely, and it’s one of the triumphs of his administration. Upon his resignation, the Cubs’ center fielders–Dave Martinez and Bob Dernier–had combined for 14 homers, 49 RBI, 30 stolen bases, 94 runs scored, and a .312 batting average. Left fielders Jerry Mumphrey and Brian Dayett, meanwhile, had 17 homers, 60 RBI, and a .325 batting average, which becomes even more incredible when one considers the recent intrusion of Rafael Palmeiro, with his nine homers and 21 RBI.
Does he try to solve his problems with proven players or with youngsters who still have something to prove? How many players has he made regulars out of who were not regulars before, and who are they? Again, one of his triumphs. Michael gave Jamie Moyer and Greg Maddux important experience in the starting rotation. At the same time, he was not unwilling to admit a mistake, or that a young player wasn’t necessarily ready for the larger role, as with Maddux on the mound and with Chico Walker earlier this season. It was Walker–not Mumphrey–who opened the season platooning with Dayett. Meanwhile, he stuck with Moyer and Martinez through hard times, expecting them to pay dividends, and they have. James’s question, here, asks no judgment, but–in a postmortem–we should have no qualms about supplying one. Michael stayed with some youngsters, lost faith in others, and was, in general, very astute.
Does he prefer to go with good offensive players or does he like glove men? Michael is a typical American League manager in a number of aspects, and this is one of them. He prefers hitters. The move of Keith Moreland to third base had long been planned, so that Michael can be neither blamed nor credited with it, but elsewhere he has been quick to overlook the fielding deficiencies of not only Moreland but also Mumphrey, Dernier, and to a lesser extent Palmeiro. He also persisted in playing Dernier in center and Martinez in left in the late innings of close games. These two players are almost equal in what they can and cannot get to, but Martinez’s arm is far superior to Dernier’s, which should dictate that he play center. We must believe Michael was playing to the veteran Dernier’s pride in letting him have center, and that he believed this would pay offensive dividends.
Does he like an offense based on power, speed, or high averages? Definitely power, but with speed and averages at the top of the lineup. As an AL-type manager, he has been more than willing to wait for the three-run homer, even when the wind is blowing in in a gale at Wrigley Field.
Does he use the entire roster or does he keep people around sitting on the bench? Another triumph. Michael used almost everyone, found a role for Mumphrey, and got great production from part-timers like Manny Trillo and, to a lesser extent, Jim Sundberg.
Does he build his bench around young players who can step into a breach if need be or around veteran role players who have their own functions within a game? Vets, to be sure. The platoon dictated its own strategy here, but when Walker floundered, and then Mike Brumley and Paul Noce struggled after a short time in the spotlight, Michael didn’t hesitate to send them down to the minors to get regular playing time. Trillo and Sundberg, meanwhile, retained their roles.
GAME MANAGING AND USE OF STRATEGIES
Does he go for the big-inning offense or does he like to use one-run strategies? Big inning or no inning at all, definitely.
Does he pinch-hit much, and if so when? Michael is one of those managers who likes to save his pinch hitters for the end of the game. I don’t know the exact figures, but Trillo probably has more pinch-hit appearances than Dayett, and not only because he’s started fewer games. Michael has an idea that, like Earl Weaver, he can wait until the perfect moment and then send one pinch hitter after another to the plate. Unfortunately, in the National League, with that persistent hole in the number-nine spot of the order, it doesn’t always work that way.
Anything unusual about his lineup selection? Not really. Speed and average at the top, followed by the sluggers in descending order of effectiveness. He did take a while to realize that Durham wasn’t protecting Dawson, and that–since he had a higher on-base percentage–he should bat third with Dawson fourth, but Michael beat us to the punch on that, so we can’t fault him.
Does he use the sac bunt often? Not too. Almost exclusively with the pitchers.
Does he like to use the running game? This is one of the pivotal questions. Michael came out this year knowing the Cubs had been miserable on artificial turf last season, so when the Cubs went on the road he had them running. They stole bases, they hit-and-ran, they worked to put the speedsters at the top of the lineup in scoring position for the big bats. Unfortunately, it worked. Andre Dawson caught fire, and Michael became addicted to his production and ignored the things that had been giving the Cubs success. On May 13–which is the last USA Today I have that shows the Cubs in first place–the Cubs were 18-13 and led the Saint Louis Cardinals by a game. They were only 10-11 on grass, but they were 8-2 on artificial turf. Meanwhile, their 39 attempted steals were fifth in the league. Through last Tuesday, the Cubs had 129 attempted steals, last in the league. They had played 137 games, meaning they attempted .94 stolen bases per game. In the first month of the season, they attempted 1.26 a game. Their record on artificial turf, meanwhile, has fallen to one game over .500. Of course, the early 31-game survey is open to charges of being statistically meaningless, but I don’t believe these are legitimate. This was a perceptible change in strategy. The loss of Ryne Sandberg for a month does not in itself explain it. Michael simply got used to waiting for the three-run homer. It’s one of the things that cost him his job.
Does he hit-and-run very often? Hit-and-run figures are, of course, elusive, but I believe I’ve noticed the same decline in his use of the hit-and-run as we saw in stolen bases. The ’87 Elias Baseball Analyst, meanwhile, shows that in 1986 the Cubs’ base runners advanced fewer bases–on average–on base hits than any other team’s base runners in the league. That’s a function of the hit-and-run, and I don’t believe that’s going to change this year.
HANDLING THE PITCHING STAFF
Does he like power pitchers or prefer to go with people who put the ball in play? A tough read, but he seems to stress control over power, especially when it comes to youngsters like Moyer and Maddux. Moyer started throwing his change-up more under Michael, and he came up with a good one. Maddux did the same, couldn’t get it over the plate, and went to the minors. As I said, a tough read.
Does he stay with the starter or go to the bull pen quickly? Another fatal question. Michael, with his AL ways, loved to stick with the starter, even when the dullest fan could see that he was too tired to lay the ball across the plate. He was also slow to get the bull pen working, a consistent–and consistently annoying–trait.
Does he like the four-man or the five-man rotation? Five-man, and aside from the troubles following the departure of Trout he remained relatively consistent with it.
Does he use the entire staff or does he try to get five or six people to do most of the work? The inconsistency of the starting staff didn’t give anyone a chance to rest, but ideally it appears Michael would love to use only five starters, Frank DiPino, and Lee Smith.
What is his strongest point as a manager? His strongest talent is that decision-making role. He appears to be an astute talent scout and a fairly decisive decision maker, within reason. He is a businesslike manager, who wouldn’t necessarily be a player’s best friend but whom a player playing well could know he could depend on through the troughs–Shawon Dunston and Leon Durham are, however, another column entirely.
If there were no professional baseball, what would this manager probably be doing? Probably, he’d be that one fellow on an oil company’s board of directors who is always worrying about the environmental concerns of various drilling projects–the lone voice of reason. The guy the president is always making light of. Either that or Jimmy Carter’s butler, depending on how good a toady he makes.