Don Mattingly: Not the Best Manager In Baseball, Definitely Not the Worst Either

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Dodgers are currently 85-63. According to Fangraphs, they are on pace to have a 93-win season and have a 99.5% chance of making the playoffs – that is a statistical certainty. For the last five seasons, the seasons in which Don Mattingly has been managing the Dodgers, Los Angeles has had a winning record and have made the playoffs twice. The 2015 postseason will mark the third consecutive time the Dodgers make an appearance, a first in franchise history.

Year Win-Loss Division Standing
2011 82-80 3rd
2012 86-76 2nd
2013 92-70 1st
2014 94-68 1st
2015 85-63 (Proj: 93-69) 1st

With Mattingly at the helm, the Dodgers have had one of their best multi-season runs in years! But how much of the Dodgers success can be attributed to Donnie Baseball?

‘Players win games; managers lose them’ goes the axiom, but even that assumes that managers have some influence over the outcome of games.
-James Click, Baseball Between The Numbers

The logic follows as such: If a team’s losses can be attributed to a manager because of poor decision-making, then certainly a team’s wins can be attributed to a manager’s superior in-game tactics. Unfortunately, when looking at wins and losses, there is little correlation between a team’s wins and a manager’s influence. A manager simply cannot “get more” out of his players. Thanks to Baseball Prospectus for doing the heavy lifting, we know that the correlation between a manager’s actual won-loss record and his Pythagorean won-loss record – based off of runs scored and runs allowed – is .030. In other words, a manager is unable to repeat winning seasons consistently over the period of several seasons. Even the managers that have been labeled “The Best” will experience awful seasons more often than they wish.

Managers have to make in-game decisions! They do have some influence on the outcome of a game!
-Some guy on Twitter, probably

Over the course of thirty-three seasons rarely has a manager used in-game decision-making to positively affect a team’s win expectations over the course of a single season. In fact, according to Baseball Between the Numbers,  only six times in thirty-three seasons has a manager used tactics such as stolen base attempts, intentional walks, and sacrifice hits to positively impact a team’s win expectations. Moreover, Dick Williams in 1983, the manager that was worth the most wins in any given season between 1973 and 2006 was only worth 0.63 wins. The implications being that while Williams may have been a “better” tactician than most in 1983, he barely made more beneficial decisions than worse decisions. With that said, the fact that Mattingly is a poor tactician should be no surprise, neither is every other manager in baseball.

However, there are more to in-game managerial decisions than meets the eye. Because we are not in the front office or the clubhouse, we are not privy to the inner workings of a team’s thought process. We simply cannot know if Mattingly ever asked Dee Gordon to bunt and steal as often as he did or if Gordon made that decision on his own; or, if the front office requests that Kenley Jansen’s workload is lightened to preserve his health, thus limiting his appearance in relief situations. Of course, this may sound like a copout, but the until we are given uninhibited access to the Dodgers’ think tank, we cannot know what influences an individual’s decision making, or lack of, on a team.

-Another guy on Twitter

Even if we were to assume that Mattingly has free reign over in-game tactics, there is still so much that is out of his control. If we look at pinch-hitter OPS, the data shows that pinch hitters hit for 30 points less off the bench than if they were in the starting line-up. This does not mean that Andre Ethier vs. any lefty pitcher is now favorable, but it does mean that removing a starting Joc Pederson for a benched Justin Turner is probably not the best idea either. Most managers are just not adept at putting a pinch-hitter in a successful situation. The same can be said for using the best reliever at the right time. According to Baseball Prospectus, a manager may show an ability to manage their bullpen effectively an a given season, but that does not mean they consistently do so. Most, if not all managers, employ poor decision making when using relief pitchers.

Unfortunately, there really is not a sexy conclusion to this post. I’m sure there are more nuanced arguments to have, but at that point it becomes a crusade to try to find some unfavorable attribute to pin on Don Mattingly. The objective of this post was to show that Mattingly is on-par with almost every other manager in the league, and probably in recent history. There are some managers that are worse than others, but when they all use similar in-game strategy, a manager that is worse than others usually is simply by virtue of being at the bottom of the list.

A manager’s success and failures most likely lie with things that we call intangibles. One such intangible for Mattingly has always been clubhouse management. The Dodgers are a team with massive personas. Seasons past have proven Mattingly’s adroitness at keeping egos at bay – look no further than last year’s outfield logjam. Managing a team certainly includes managing what happens off the field, and Mattingly has successfully done that with reeling in a green Yasiel Puig and tempering a neglected Andre Ethier.

Unfortunately for him, that does not translate into wins. Though, frankly, players bear the burden of earning wins. No, Mattingly is not the best manager in the league; however, I dare anyone reading this to find one. Instead, Mattingly is the best manager the Dodgers have and have had in some time.

Data used was retrieved from Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus – Baseball Between the Numbers 


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