Managers as position players

When I took a look at the League championship series a few weeks ago, I noted that three current managers–Mike Scioscia, Ned Yost, and John Gibbons–all played professional ball, primarily, at catcher. That stood out to me, as I am also fully aware of Cardinals skipper Mike Matheny’s former position. And while it certainly makes sense that former catchers would make adequate managers due to the amount of game-planning and strategy they used as players, relative to their teammates, as well as interaction with the pitching staff and umpires, I was curious just how many major league managers had significant experience as a backstopper, whether in the bigs or minors.

I started with managers who spent at least a month at the helm of an MLB franchise for at least a month during the 2015 season, whether as the manager, one with the “interim” tag attached, or one who got the ax fairly quickly. I also listed those who had been fired, quit, or retired going back to 2010, just for a broader sense. Overall, I counted 71 men who met those criteria–34 who lasted at least a month in 2015 alone, plus another 37 who managed at some other point between 2010-2014 but no longer held the same title.

You’ll notice, in the “position” column, that several managers have multiple positions listed. While almost every man on the list played at least one game in another capacity, I’ve singled out those who played similar quantities of games at numerous positions. I’ve made brief notes pertinent to any such splits involving catchers, explaining why I chose to count them as such. Joe Torre, for example, played almost exclusively at catcher when with the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves; when he was traded to St. Louis, that position was occupied by Tim McCarver, so he moved to first base. The following season, another trade forced him to spend most of his time at third base, where he spent most of the rest of his time as a Cardinal.

Catching: so easy, a caveman could do it.

In 2015 alone, 33 of the 34 managers played professional ball, in the very least, at the minor league level. Dan Jennings, who moved from the Marlins front office, where he had served as general manager since 2013, to the bench after the club canned Mike Redmond (former catcher!), is the only one this season and, indeed, only one of two since 2010 with no playing experience. Altogether, fourteen of this past season’s big league managers primarily played catcher in Major or Minor League Baseball. No matter how you compare that to the composition of an average MLB team–two or three catchers on a 25-man roster (8-12%), or one of nine defensive players on the field at a time (11%)–the 41% rate there is exceptional.

Even by expanding the range of years, there have still been an abnormally high number of managers who played as catchers in recent years. Twenty-four of the 71 (34%) managers counted spent at least the plurality of their time in the majors or minors as a catcher. So while it might not be so unreasonable to expect one of every nine managers to have played catcher at some point, the reality is that one of every three has done so.

But what about other positions? I mean, starting pitchers are divas and pitchers, in general, have trouble relating to position players, so they might not be cut out for managing the way a catcher is. Or a middle infielder, who must consider potential outcomes of batted balls and runners more so than a left fielder waiting for a ball hit out of the infield and a subsequent throw to one of two or three cut-off men, or the designated hitter who has to consider ways not to injure himself while nine of his teammates are out playing defense in the field.

Indeed, the next most common playing positions among recent managers are second base and shortstop (among outfielders, five were listed as left fielders, three in center, one in right, and four, according to bbref, as just that). Even combined with former third basemen, they still only account for as many managerial positions held from 2010-2015 as do former catchers.

Of course, the other way to look at just how good the catcher-turned-manager has been is based on postseason experience. And sure enough, in the National League, two of the five managers to make the 2015 postseason–Mike Matheny of the Cardinals and Joe Maddon of the Cubs–previously caught as a player. Even crazier, on the AL side of the bracket, all five franchises’ managers played behind the plate–Joe Girardi (Yankees), Jeff Banister (Rangers), AJ Hinch (Astros), John Gibbons (Blue Jays), and Ned Yost (Royals). Exactly half of the former catchers who managed in 2015 made the postseason (where, evenly distributed, you would expect one-third, or three to four instead of seven). And seven of the ten participating teams were managed by former catchers (based on the numbers a few paragraphs up, to expect more than two might be ludicrous). Of course, three of the four teams to advance to their respective league championship series were helmed by former catchers.

Gibbons & Yost

Gibbons & Yost

Just so that doesn’t seem like an aberration, in:

  • 2014: Two of the five NL teams (Cards/Matheny and Giants/Bochy) and four of the five AL teams (A’s/Melvin, Tigers/Ausmus, Angels/Scioscia, and Royals/Yost) were managed by former catchers.
  • 2013: Two in the NL, three in the AL
  • 2012: Three in each league
  • 2011: Three in the AL (eight team postseason then)
  • 2010: One in the NL, two in the AL

So, basically, if your team is managed by a former catcher you’ve got a pretty good shot to at least make the postseason. And while it would be fun to point out that five of the past seven World Series champions were managed by a former backstopper, the reality is that Bruce Bochy accounts for three of those.

As we turn the page on 2015 and look ahead to 2016, several clubs have already begun hiring new managers for the new campaign. Two of these, Don Mattingly and Dusty Baker, are already on the list. Of the other two, Andy Green of the Padres and Scott Servais of the Mariners, the latter is a former catcher, as well. So you can pretty much book a postseason appearance for the perennially-sub-.500 M’s for 2016.

One other fun fact I discovered while compiling this list: Charlie Manuel, formerly of the Phillies, is the only manager over the past six seasons to go by a first name greater than five letters long. But as a player, he even went by “Chuck!” No Anthonys, Roberts, Richards, Daniels, Josephs, etc. It’s always Tony, Bob/Bobby, Rick, Dan, Joe, etc… I’m not sure how that compares to the general population, but I’m fairly certain that more than one in every 71 males is known to his family, friends, and colleagues by a name six letters in length or greater.

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