Book excerpt: “Evaluating Baseball’s Managers”—Billy Martin

For the next few weeks, THT will publish excerpts from Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, 1876-2008, which is scheduled for release in December, but can be ordered now. For a limited time, if you order it now you will get at no additional charge—new book smell! (I should note I make considerably more money if you order directly from the publisher, but if you want to get it from Amazon or another source that’s your call.)

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(The following excerpt comes from Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, Chapter 8: Managing in Modern Labor Relations, 1977-1997. Martin is one of 17 managers profiled in this chapter)

Billy Martin

W/L Record: 1,253-1,013 (.553)
Managed:
Full Seasons: Minnesota 1969; Detroit 1971-72; Texas 1974; New York (AL) 1976-77, 1983; Oakland 1980-82
Majority in: Detroit 1973; Texas 1975; New York (AL) 1978, 1979, 1985
Minority of: Texas 1973; New York (AL) 1975, 1988
Birnbaum Database: +715 runs
Individual Hitters: +177 runs
Individual Pitchers: +234 runs
Pythagenpat Difference: +179 runs
Team Offense: +74 runs
Team Defense: +51 runs
Team Characteristics: Martin’s teams had superior batting average-driven on base percentages. Their OBP was especially good at the top of the order. He relied as much as he possibly could on the front half of his pitching staff. He detested intentional walks.

Billy Martin was the most fearless manager in baseball history. In 20 years of managing, he never backed down from a challenge. As has been well documented by others, Martin consistently caused dramatic improvements to his squads immediately upon arrival by pushing them hard. The A’s went from losing 108 games to fighting for .500. The Rangers, who had posted back-to-back seasons in which they had played .350 ball, suddenly won half their games when Martin arrived. The Twins and Tigers improved by 18 and 12 games for him respectively. The Yankees won their first pennant in a dozen years under him. The Birnbaum Database gives him high scores for every stop along the way: +64 runs in Minnesota, +199 runs in Detroit, +91 runs in Texas, +142 runs with Oakland, and +219 runs in his various New York stops.

Martin’s approach had its downside. He pushed his teams so hard they could not keep up with his pressure. Hiring Martin was like pushing too much voltage through a light bulb: for a brief while it burns brighter than otherwise possible, but it soon shatters unless the excess electricity is removed. Despite his impressive starts, Martin never lasted longer than three years in any managerial stint.

Though Martin is most famous for piloting the Yankees, his first managerial stint running the 1969 Twins best reveals his method and madness. The gutsy bravado and intensity to win that highlighted his career amply demonstrated themselves that year. Martin approached his rookie managerial season the same way a tough convict handles his first day in prison—determined to prove himself immediately as the cellblock’s most dangerous man.

Martin’s approach to the base paths demonstrated how he wanted his team to play. In the second game he managed, Minnesota’s Rod Carew stole home. This was no fluke—by the end of the month, Carew had three steals of home and by the season’s conclusion he tied Ty Cobb’s single-season record with seven such swipes. Three of them came on triple steals. On another occasion, Cesar Tovar stole home as part of a successful triple steal. Four triple steals are the most by any one team in the last half-century, and probably the most since the deadball era.

On another occasion, opponents tagged Tovar out at the head of another triple steal—which Martin called when the Twins enjoyed a six-run lead. Graig Nettles, of all people, was once thrown out stealing home. Technically he was picked off of third and made a break for it, but he must have had a good-sized lead to draw a throw, as pitchers normally do not try picking runners off of third. Even slow-footed Harmon Killebrew, at age 33, stole eight bases that season. He had 11 the rest of his career. Billy Martin truly did not fear a damn thing.

The ultimate Billyball moment came on May 18 when both Tovar and Carew stole home plate in the same inning—in the same a- bat. Carew stole his way around the bases in that plate appearance. At the plate during this maniacal base running was Harmon Killebrew. Harmon Killebrew! It boggles the mind: With one of the greatest home run hitters of that or any other generation up Martin wanted his men running wild.

One does not have to be particularly skilled at sabermetrics to know that, according to the math, everything just described was insane. Yet while the Minnesota experience was extreme, it was by no means atypical for Martin. Since 1956, the most stolen base attempts by any team with runners on second and third was seven, by the 1980 A’s, whom Martin managed. Only four other teams had more than four—two with Martin at the helm (the 1977 Yankees and 1969 Twins). Stealing home is such a dangerous gamble it is rarely worth trying, and certainly not trying as often as Martin did it. By the numbers, Martin’s moves were terrible.

Therein lies the rub. Instead of getting worse, his teams got dramatically better despite all these reckless maneuvers. If his moves should have hurt them, why did Martin’s presence cause teams to improve dramatically? To solve the riddle of Martin, you have to take a step back from what he did, and understand why he did it. The base stealing makes him sound like a Whitey Herzog protégé. Not really. Carew, despite his thefts at the plate, had only 19 swipes overall in 1969. For Martin, steals were not the ends but the means. He wanted to instill a specific mindset in his players: do whatever it takes to win every game. No manager had as little use for a second place finish as Martin. Players gave it their best effort as a matter of routine, but that was the problem—it was a matter of routine.

There is nothing quite like having a lunatic boss to cause employees to reach deeper within themselves. No one wanted to face a hostile Billy Martin in the dugout. Tellingly, almost all of the Twins’ wild base running came in the first half of 1969. Carew’s last home plate steal came in Minnesota’s 19th game. Once Martin had installed the desired mindset in Minnesota, there was no need to run the risky home plate steals. For the rest of the season opponents played back on their heels, wondering what Minnesota would do next.

The man most comparable to Billy Martin was not Herzog, but Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conquistador who defeated the Aztecs. In 1519, he landed in Mexico to face the hemisphere’s mightiest warrior nation with only 600 men. Upon arrival, he burnt his boats, giving his men no way to leave. That move was pure Billy Martin. Safe to say, that in the military science version of sabermetrics a general would be poorly regarded for intentionally destroying his communication lines, supply routes and exit strategy. It was possibly even worse than having two men steal home with Killebrew batting.

However, like Martin, Cortes had an underlying rationale. The act was not the important part. All that mattered was the message it sent the men: there was no going back—they needed to win. He cared only about coming out on top and ensured his warriors must think likewise. They might lose and die, but with God as their witness no failure would stem from lack of effort on anyone’s part. That was Billyball, 16th century style.

Martin’s tactics against the 1969 A’s demonstrated how he wanted his team to play. Minnesota hosted Oakland over Fourth of July weekend, with the A’s leading the Twins by a game heading into the three-game series. In the first contest, the Twins exploded with an 8-0 lead after four innings. Rather than relax, Martin rubbed it in so everyone would know who was the big dog in the division. Martin twice ordered Tovar to steal second base even though the lead was safely iced. After his last steal, Tovar took such a big lead at second that Oakland’s pitcher tried to pick him off. In frustration, he instead threw the ball into center. The rattled hurler immediately surrendered back-to-back doubles to the Twins, who romped to victory.

Seeking revenge, the A’s beaned Minnesota’s leadoff batter the next day, which played right into Martin’s hands. The beaning rallied Minnesota’s troops, who scored four runs before the first out was recorded in what proved to a 13-1 blowout. A come-from-behind victory the next day solidified their new division lead, which they never relinquished the rest of the season. Martin had not played to win; he came to castrate.

Martin’s unsporting conduct potentially could motivate the opposition to try harder. Martin never cared about the downside, though. He knew repeated humiliation would cause the opponent’s morale to collapse, while these tactics gave his team more confidence in their future fights. Prior to that series Minnesota had gone 5-4 against Oakland on the season. From that series onward, they won eight of nine games, outscoring the A’s 85-37 in the process. In those future showdowns, Martin asserted Minnesota’s supremacy by intentionally baiting Oakland. He once had a batter steal a base with the team leading 14-4 in the seventh inning. In their final showdown, Minnesota swiped a base when up by six runs. Animals who mark their territory by urination were subtler than Martin.

Billy Martin never saw moderation in pursuit of victory as a virtue. He would do whatever it took to win that day, and not worry about any possible negative side effects in the future. The best example came when he ran the A’s in the early 1980s. They had a great stable of young pitchers whom Martin pushed as hard as he could. In 1980, they completed 94 games, the most by any team since the 1940s. Combined, his starters threw 1,261.1 innings, the most by any rotation since at least 1956. The second most in that span is 1,182 by the 1968 Giants, 79.3 innings behind (which is a difference of half an inning per game). For perspective, those Giants are 79.3 innings ahead of the 75th place starting rotation since 1956.

In 1981, the A’s completed “only” 60 games, but a third of the season was lost to a strike. In fact, no other team of the 1980s completed that many games, despite Oakland only playing 109 games. No team in the last half-century averaged as many innings per start as the 1980 or 1981 A’s. In 1980, at one point Oakland ace Rick Langford completed 23 of 24 games. In the remaining game he went 8.2 innings. The stretch ended in his final start of the season, when he went nine innings in a game that lasted 10. He began 1981 by completing 11 of his first 12 starts.

In the short run, it worked as Oakland produced the AL’s best record in 1981. Then the A’s pitchers’ arms fell off and they lost 94 games in 1982. Martin never considered the long-term repercussions. Then again, it was the only time he lasted three full seasons as manager. Martin was so concerned with seizing the day that he never considered what would happen tomorrow.

He always ran his pitchers hard. In Detroit, Mickey Lolich started 45 games, completed 29, and tossed 376 innings—the most by any AL pitcher since Ed Walsh. Lolich actually held up, but it was a dangerously relentless way to handle him.

In 1975, when Martin replaced Bill Virdon as Yankees skipper during the season, Catfish Hunter became the first AL pitcher to reach 30 complete games since Bob Feller. Though Virdon, who managed most of the season, worked Hunter hard, Martin pushed him more than anyone ever had, making Hunter complete all but one of his starts under Martin. Hunter was never the same, and four years later his career ended. In 1976, when Martin lasted the full season, New York’s starters averaged 7.1 innings per season, the fourth highest total since 1956. In Texas, Fergie Jenkins completed 29 starts for Martin. He won 20 games, but was barely an average pitcher the following season.

Martin handled his relievers similarly. He wanted whom he wanted when he wanted them without concern toward keeping their arms well rested. As a result, his bullpens consistently ranked among the league leaders in most innings pitched by men with zero days rest. The Tendencies Database can measure this using Baseball-Reference’s team splits. That site informs us how many innings were thrown by pitchers who appeared the day before, or who took the mound in the second game of a doubleheader after appearing in the first one. When those splits are combined, the following managers used their relievers the most aggressively:

Most IP with no rest	
Billy Martin	0.574
Alvin Dark	0.586
Frank Robinson	0.659
Dusty Baker	0.674
Jimy Williams	0.731

Martin had unrested relievers gobble up the most innings four times, and was almost always among league leaders in that regard. On the 1974 Rangers, Steve Foucault threw 45 innings on a used arm; entire teams had fewer innings. In early May, he threw 2.1 in the first game of a doubleheader, then faced one man in the second game. The next day Martin had him toss 2.2 innings. The following day he threw a full three. In midseason, he threw in six consecutive games, and eight out of nine. Due to Martin’s aggressive usage, in 1974 Foucault became the only reliever between 1942 and 1996 to record all his team’s saves. Though Foucault was fantastic that year, the load took its toll and he devolved into a sore spot in Texas’s 1975 bullpen.

Whenever he saw an edge, Martin ruthlessly utilized it. His usage of Rickey Henderson demonstrates that. Henderson attempted 376 steals in 415 games under Martin. Given the young Henderson’s speed and ability, any manager would have let him loose on the bases. However, there was no precedent for a player going that wild on the bases. Though Henderson had a long and fruitful career, most players who rack up huge number of stolen bases early in their career age rather poorly due to the wear and tear of all their swipes. Martin, true to form, was not concerned with down-the-road issues.

Martin was the perfect manager to hire if you wanted an immediate improvement, and the worst manager for a team seeking sustained success.

References & Resources
Will Young’s research on the 1969 Twins came in awful handy for this piece (and is a big reason why he’s mentioned in the book’s acknowledgments).

One minor note: A few paragraphs from the book have been broken up. One general style guideline for the internet is that bigger paragraphs are more forbidding when viewed across a 12-inch (or larger) monitor than they would be on a page. Frankly, some of these paragraphs are still bigger than I’d normally like an internet paragraph to be, but I don’t want to go nutty. The important part is that the words are the same as the ones I sent to McFarland in my manuscript.

Some of the research on Billy Martin was first presented in this column. It also indirectly inspired some more work. A Twins blog (I forgot which one – sorry Twins blog, whoever you were!) linked to it and noted the wild ways Martin’s team ran the bases. A commenter to that thread then discovered the two home steals with Killebrew batting. Retired Twins blogger Will Young read that thread and was inspired to do a bunch of research on the 1969 Twins. I spoke with him at the 2008 SABR convention in Cleveland, and he mentioned some of his research to me – most notably telling me there was this wild mid-season series against Oakland. I combined all that with the info I’d already come up with on my own about Martin, did a little more digging, and tried to make sense of it all.

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Comments

  1. Dennis Landes said...

    Well-chronicled. Martin was always one of my favorite managers because of his desire to win. He pushed his players, and they produced.

    Maybe not THE greatest of all-time, but certainly on the short list for that honor, to be sure.

    There aren’t many, if any managers like that in today’s game, and maybe that’s what’s wrong with MLB today…not enough passion from managers, which trickles down to players.

  2. Mike Rogers said...

    Awesome work, Chris. 3 triple steals? I don’t think I’ve ever even thought of the possibility of a triple steal in my life. That’s nuts! MGL would probably throw his computer through the wall if this were happening now.

  3. Craig Burley said...

    “Stealing home is such a dangerous gamble it is rarely worth trying”

    Carew, for one, was seven for eight in attempting to steal home in ‘69.  I have seen Aaron Hill, who is slow as blackstrap molasses, steal home against Andy Pettitte when Andy went into the windup with Hill on third.

    The fact is that even if your success rate is only 30-40%, there will be a few situations for every team, every season, when a steal of home is going to improve your ability to generate a run.

  4. Paul Moehringer said...

    Billy Martin could have very well have been the greatest manager of all-time, but unfortuantely what pushed him to be so great, also turned out to be his downfall.

    The guy simply could not handle not having complete control over a situation.  He was the ultimate my way or no way type of person.

    With that being said though, he’s one of the top ten smartest minds the game has ever seen in my opinion.

    The only real downside to him from a baseball perspective was exactly what the article stated, which was that he burned out his pitchers.

    Honestly if Billy Martin hadn’t been the manager of the Detroit Tigers, I believe Mickey Lolich would be in the Hall of Fame.  I believe Loich would have been a dominating starter for at least another three years, rather then becoming half the pitcher he was by the time he entered his early 30’s.

  5. lisa gray said...

    really interesting – i wish i could have watched billyball in action instead of just hearing about “the adventures of billy in texas” from my mama.

    billy martin kind of summarizes what happens when you act without thinking of consequences. sort of like people fishing all the fish out of the ocean and then acting surprised when there aren’t any more any more.

    i know a whole lot of people sure wish that managers acted the way they did Back In The Good Old Days, when they could abuse players, both mentally and physically, but those days are gone.

    ballplayers won’t stand for that kind of treatment any more and fortunately for them, the owners won’t allow that kind of treatment, but only because they have far too much money invested in players to allow the billys of the world to use them like so much cannon fodder.

    it’s too bad you don’t have managers (like billy) who can have the same sort of passion without the insistence on abuse of people.

  6. Gary Topche said...

    Martin was the most fascinating manager I have seen in my lifetime.  I started following baseball in the mid-60’s and I saw his entire career.  As a Yankee fan, I watched most of his career very closely.  As a game manager, he seemed 5 steps ahead of his opposition.  I heard a player quoted as saying that he was good for at least 5 games per year based on his in-game strategies.  This article captures the essence of Martin.  He had an impact, both good and bad.  But I bet the fans of all those lousy teams he took over would not have traded the fallout for the positives he brought them.

  7. Marv said...

    Billy was interesting to watch and 1969 was a great year to be a Twins fan.  However, I would never consider Billy Martin a great manager because of the way he ruined careers.
    Lisa is right.  He had a great deal of passion and that was fun.  His lack of concern for the well-being of his players makes him a poor manager historically.
    There is more to the game than winning.

  8. Dave said...

    I started following baseball in 1971; and grew up in Detroit.  Martin was really the first manager I remember – and certainly left an impact in my mind and that of the Detroit area.

    A few thoughts though.

    1.)  Fergie Jenkins had completed 20+ games 6 times pre-Martin; and 30 games once.  So the 29 CGs wasn’t atypical.

    2.)  Catfish Hunter is dead on – he collapsed 2 years later at age 31 – and was no longer a factor.

    3.)  Langford assessment is also dead on

    4.)  Lolich?  Not sure… he really fell off after Martin left. 

    Yet… the excerpt focuses on wearing out pitchers.  I don’t see any evidence that Martin wore out position players; he often got the best out of them.

    My assessment would be that Martin’s psyche was captured correctly and he was not a manager for long-term pitching prowess, but he was fine for other players.  If you look at the player’s BAs for Martin vs. pre-Martin; you see (on balance) notable improvement.  Its disappointing this was left out of the article.

  9. Chris Jaffe said...

    Dave,

    Interesting bit about batting averages under Martin. I did note in passing (in the team characteristics thing at the outset of the article) that his teams had AVG-driven OBP, but I never looked into the area you mention.

    If there’s one thing I learned in researching, writing, and revising this project is that there’s never really any such thing as being done.  There’s a deadline you have to finish up by, sure.  But even after that day has come and gone, new ideas will always come up.

    Thanks for the info.  I’ll have to check on that when I have the time.

  10. mark shapiro said...

    I can remmember a game in the 1980’s when Billy had Mike Pagliarulo(a left handed slugging third baseman) turn around and hit right handed vs a southpaw pitcher. Sheer genius or maniac? As it turns out Pags took three stright stirkes and was called out. Later we found out that Pags was a switch hitter in high school. Billy would do anyting to win…he was a mad scientist in the dug out, kind like Casey Stengle but with a hugh chip on his shoulder.

  11. cc said...

    Chris, thanks. I just get tired of reading non-experts’ opinions about Winston Churchill & George S. Patton in all kinds of essays about non-military topics. The Martin-Cortes comparison is actually relevant and pretty original then. I’ll look out for your book in December.

  12. cc said...

    Interesting excerpt. But does every manager entry make allusions to military-historical figures? That’s common in baseball writing, and it gets old fast.

  13. Chris J. said...

    cc,

    If I recall correctly, that’s the only such comparison in the book.  I also compare Walter Alston to Michael Curtiz, but he’s a film director, not a military general.  I few times I compare managers to other managers (Jimmy Dykes and PHil Garner, Bobby Valentine and Charlie Dressen, Cito Gaston and Jimmy Collins) but I really don’t think I make that many comparisons overall (that said, I”m sure the above isn’t a full list).

  14. Steve S. said...

    Loved the piece, Chris. Despite being asked to steal home, Nettles has often been quoted as saying he absolutely loved playing for Billy Martin. Nettles was a self described ‘Military Brat’ who apparently loved playing for the little dictator. Martin created an ‘us against the world’ mentality, the kind that’s more common among Football coaches than Baseball managers. I’ve always suspected Billy had an effect on George Steinbrenner as well. George was fairly low key in his first few years of ownership (73-76), but once he hired Martin his management style seemed to mirror Billy’s. Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way. George made no secret of the fact that he loved Billy as well, so much so that he kept bringing him back to the point of absurdity.

    Again, great read and I will be looking out for your book.

  15. Cris E said...

    I have a small quibble with one point in this piece. You wrote

    “Tellingly, almost all of the Twins’ wild base running came in the first half of 1969. Carew’s last home plate steal came in Minnesota’s 19th game.”

    That’s not really true. In the first half he was 13-2, and it’s true things really did slow down for the summer (3 for 7 in July and August).  But the last steal of home was July 16, and he did run more in September, going 3 for 6. The three times he got caught that month were twice at home and once at third. (In the game of Sep 10, in addition to being caught at home, he stole second and third and scored on a WP.) 

    One thing that supports your main point is the weird distribution of SB attempts by Martin.  The Twins tried 4 or more SB in a game ten times, including three games in one week in mid-July. But there was only one other such game between mid-June and the end of the year. The last hundred games featured only a single Sept game and a couple days in July where runners ran wild.

  16. Hank Gillette said...

    After reading this, it’s difficult to see how anyone could think Martin was a great manager. Martin was immature, a bully, and a pugnacious drunk. He was getting into drunken fights well into his 50s.

    He couldn’t last longer than two years with any one team (OK, 3 with Oakland), because he couldn’t get along with management, and fought with players, road secretaries, and the occasional marshmallow salesman.

    His teams temporarily improved, but at the cost of several players’ careers. Ruining pitchers’ arms for his short term gain was the ultimate act of selfishness.

    Billy Martin is the last person I would want managing my baseball team if I cared about the future of my players. Anyone can make a candle burn brighter for a short time by burning both ends, but a smart person doesn’t, because the extra light doesn’t compensate for the reduced life of the candle.

  17. Laurent said...

    There isn’t more to the game than winning?
    Winning is everything.
    Martin’s view was, arms hurt? Get me some more pitchers!  You have to keep in mind he came from the Yankees of the 50’s where the arms were in abundance.
    Plus, we talk about the arms he damaged,  how about the guys that didn’t get hurt.  I am not saying usage doesn’t hurt, but we really don’t know.
    Guys get hurt from usage, under usage, whatever! We’re trying to win ball games here!

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