Going into the 2014 season, MLB teams hired four managers who had never before held the reins in a dugout: Matt Williams,
Ryne Sandberg (thanks to helpful reader and SABR guru Jacob Pomrenke for reminding me that Sandberg actually had minor league managerial experience), Bryan Price, and Brad Ausmus. It has not gone well. Sure, Williams won the NL Manager of the Year award in 2014, but clearly that honor did little to cover the warts that just cost him his job. Sandberg resigned earlier this year after a disastrous run at the helm of the Phillies. Ausmus has apparently successfully fought back against rumors that he was next to go and is hanging on in Detroit after an 87 loss season. Price's Reds lost nearly 100 games, and he may still be on the chopping block in Cincinnati.
Indeed, the recent history of guys going straight from to the skipper's seat without managing in the minors has a decidedly spotty track record in recent years. Other managers falling under this category include Robin Ventura (three straight losing seasons) and Walt Weiss (three straight losing seasons).
Paul Molitor falls under this heading as well and, while it's too early to give up on the Hall of Famer, he did try to make Eduardo Escobar into a left fielder, seems dangerously obsessed with Danny Santana, and somehow allowed Mike Pelfrey to make 30 starts, despite a 5.20 ERA over his final 20.
Mike Matheny and, maybe, Don Mattingly are the only hires without previous experience managing in the minors or majors who seems to have worked out well in the last few years.
There is so much we still can't quantify about managing, in spite of the certainty that having an award devoted to naming "THE BEST" conveys. How much control does a manager have over preventing injuries, or convincing ailing players to go to on the Disabled List? How much do we credit a manager for an out-of-nowhere season by a player or for a pitching coach successfully teaching a guy a new pitch? How much blame does a general manager get for assembling an underperforming roster?
What we do know is that managers have up to four true functions. They can optimize their lineups and manage who rests, though the front office can often have a lot of sway on this. He can manage the bullpen effectively. He can help facilitate a functional clubhouse where players are happy, or at least not hating one another. And he can communicate effectively with the media, defusing potential distractions and controversies that could impact the stability of that clubhouse.
It's hard to practice at least three of those four skills without having experience running a clubhouse and managing a bullpen. And indeed, while a managerial candidate may talk a good game in their interview about what they've learned from their previous bosses and what they would do if they were given the job, ultimately clubs can't know that a potential skipper's battle plan will survive first contact without giving him some experience actually managing. It's not that a manager's job is so difficult that it can only be done by a select few. It's that there are guys out there who are simply not capable of doing it. And the best way to avoid those guys is to go with someone who is, at least in part, a known quantity.
Managers are important. How important are they? It's impossible to say for sure. But they're important enough that Matt Williams actively hurt his team in 2015. And, if I needed to find someone to lead my club in 2016, I wouldn't want to be picking blind. I'd be looking at guys who had already done it at least in the minors. Ideally, they would be guys grown in my own farm system, like prospects, so that I would be familiar with what they do well and with what they don't. I would want to be sure of the person I was hiring and I would want evidence. I wouldn't want to just hope he has the requisite skills and that everything will work out. Because, as we've seen over the last few years, chances are that it won't.