As Miller mentioned in our final results post for our managerial elections, I was very much against the election of Tommy Lasorda to the Hall of Miller and Eric. Yes, I am an annoying contrarian sometimes, but I thought I’d flesh out my reasoning against Tommy since he’s a very popular figure and perhaps a surprising omission to some of our readers.
Actually, let me parse my words. I’m not so much against Lasorda as I am not in favor of him. I’d have rather elected Frank Chance than Lasorda. Miller would rather have elected to eat razor blades than vote for the Peerless Leader. I like that Chance had an all-time streak of amazing seasons, that in addition to simply lucking into good talent, he also did things with that talent to get the most out of it. Things like drilling the heck out of his players so that what we take for granted today as sound fundamentals looked then like brainy play. Things like leveraging his starting pitchers extensively so that his best moundsmen faced the toughest opponents most often. Things like using his the best pitcher on his staff (Mordecai Brown) as both his ace and his relief ace to milk the most value from him. But the problem for Chance is that he didn’t do it for all that long, and he couldn’t replicate that success with other, less talented teams.
Chance creates a very interesting contrast with Lasorda. Tommy is known primarily as a soft-skills manager. Good with the press, good at keeping the clubhouse together, that sort of stuff. A look at his underlying fundamentals, however, shows that he had a lot of trouble with, well, most everything else. Through 2015, 132 men have managed 1,000 or more games. You need to have success and/or be a pretty good manager to get that far along. Well, Lasorda had success, but whether he was pretty good or not is open to debate. Among those 132 fellows, the average manager exceeded by 7 wins the number of victories his teams’ runs scored and allowed predicted (his Pythagenpat wins, that is). Walter Alston, Lasorda’s mentor and predecessor, tops the list at +62 wins versus Pythagenpat. At the other end, Jimmie Wilson, probably history’s worst manager, gave away 46 wins. The average among our HoME managers? A nice +34 wins. Lasorda was at -3. That’s a full ten games worse than the average long-tenured manager and 37 below the HoME average. Two of the managers we’ve elected finished worse than Lasorda versus Pythapenpat. Connie Mack (-6) and Ned Hanlon (-12), and both of them had outstanding peak managerial performances. Indeed, to give credit where its due, in his best ten seasons, Lasorda was +24 against Pythagenpat, a fine figure. It would be the second worst peak in the HoME, and only because Harry Wright managed when seasons were about half as long as in Tommy’s time. The average long-time manager’s performance against Pythagenpat during his best ten years clocked in at +13. The average HoME manager at +44. The point of looking at Pythagenpat is that if a manager has an ability to positively influence his team, it should show up at long-term intervals like ten years or over a career in terms of his ability to win more often than his teams’ fundamentals suggest.
Another way we can look at Lasorda is by wondering how he fared against what we might expect his teams to have won given the talent on hand. I adapted a method that Bill James wrote about in his book on managers. I took the team’s records from the previous three years and added a regressor like James does (with n-1 being worth .5, a .500 record being worth .25, n-2 being worth .125 and n-3 being worth .125). But instead of using the actual winning percentage, I used the teams’ Pythagenpat winning percentages. This way, we try to assess the actual talent of the team and remove some of the good or bad luck that produces outlying seasons. Lasorda came in at +9 wins versus expectation. At least he’s in the black here. The average long-time manager exceeded expectations by +23. The best at it? Bobby Cox at +169. The worst? By far it’s poor old Jimmie Wilson, who won 81 fewer games than expected. The average HoME manager won 79 games more than expected. Whether or not Lasorda had some kind of special clubhouse juju, his teams did not usually beat expectations much more than they beat their predicted Pythagorean records. Lasorda does somewhat better in his peak seasons, coming in at +70 against an average of +40 for our 132 managers with 1,000 or more games. But the HoME average is +103, and everyone we’ve elected beats Tommy.
That’s not all.
In his book Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, Chris Jaffe uses Phil Birnbaum’s managerial database to tease out information about managers. Birnbaum uses a variety of algorithms to determine such things as how well individual batters and pitchers tended to perform for a manager and whether a team’s offensive and pitching performances improved or worsened with a given manager. It also includes an evaluation against Pythagenpat. Lasorda scores -45 runs. He did pretty well with individual hitters (+111) and pitchers (+306) but rotten with Pythagenpat (-200), team offense (-76), and team pitching (-186). The average HoME manager for whom we have complete information scores +613. No seriously, about 600 runs higher than Lasorda. Even Frank Chance who managed about half as many games was better. Actually, Chance was above the HoME average at 686.
But it’s not just the nerdy numbers. Lasorda finished below the HoME average in wins, winning percentage, titles won, and pennants. In other words, in everything you’d care about. It’s incredibly difficult to find a reason to sign off on him.
A very specific picture emerges when we look at Lasorda’s career. Namely that Tommy Lasorda was a slightly below-average manager who worked for an organization that was well above average. The strength of the Dodgers from Branch Rickey through the end of Al Campanis’ tenure as general manager was not only stability but doing things the Dodger Way. From the low-level minors to the big-league team, the Dodgers had a culture that emphasized scouting, teaching, development, and sticking to the plan. Campanis basically never signed a big-ticket free agent. It wasn’t until Fred Claire took over in 1987 that LA began spending in the free agent market sometimes with disastrous results. Lasorda, for his part, basically did no harm, but he added very little. Thanks to the Dodger player acquisition and development machine around him, he always had highly talented teams. It takes little managerial acumen to pencil in Garvey, Lopes, Russell, and Cey everyday for years on end. And while Tommy’s 1988 championship certainly owes something to his adapting to all those injuries, on the whole, and despite his big Italian family atmosphere and hugging, Lasorda the manager was in many ways interchangeable with someone like Joe Cronin, Lou Piniella, Charlie Grimm, or Jim Leyland. Or maybe they are a little better. The only difference is that Tommy was more colorful and his teams won two titles instead of one or zero.
So the problem ultimately with Lasorda? I had nothing to vote for. If that makes me an eggheaded contrarian who only looks at the numbers, then I suppose I’m guilty as charged. But sometimes the numbers are plenty. I got nothing against Tommy Lasorda. I just got nothing in his favor either. And I generally find that the more narrative I have to dig up in opposition to the numbers, the more I’m just diving into the bullshirt dump.