Robin Ventura? Really?  Uh, okay—Robin Ventura

Wow.

Anyone else have that first reaction? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

The big bombshell dropped yesterday afternoon when the Chicago White Sox announced who their new manger would be for the 2012 season. So many names had circulated around the news since Ozzie Guillen’s non-surprising departure at the end of the season. There were former White Sox player Sandy Alomar Jr. and current Tampa Bay coach Dave Martinez.

For those thinking big, there was suddenly former Red Sox helmsman Terry Francona. (Or, if you want to be completely ridiculous Tony LaRussa—but you’d have to forget he’s always attached to pitching coach Dave Duncan and the Sox already have Don Cooper). If you were looking for something oddball, how about the Sox sticking it to their North Side rivals by hiring Ryne Sandberg?

ChiSox GM Kenny Williams passed on all those possibilities, and for that matter any and all other names floated at all, picking former White Sox third baseman Robin Ventura to becomes the new Chicago manager.

To say it was unexpected would be an understatement. Sports radio personalities first wanted to confirm that this wasn’t some sort of gag or an error on a press release. Robin Ventura?

Anything in the crystal ball?

What sort of manager will Robin Ventura be? There’s only one answer to that—no one really knows. How could you? We don’t know what his proclivities are. We don’t know what his tendencies are. How does he handle his bullpen? Does he like the big inning or will he prefer to play for one run? How often he likes to rest his everyday players. We don’t know squat. Anything said will be pure guesswork. He’s never managed.

True, but it’s easy to overstate the importance of much of the above. Though most of the talk I’ve heard speculating on what Ventura might be like running the game, it’s easy to overestimate strategy. When analyzing managers, we mostly focus on strategic matters—how they fill out the lineup card, how much they care about the platoon advantage—things like that. This makes sense, as it’s the easiest thing for us to notice and measure.

The irony, however, is that in-game strategy is just one facet of the job. Most baseball fans know this, but it’s impossible for us to really gauge the behind-the-scenes stuff. Thus we focus on the in-game items. What happens in the clubhouse and dealing with the players often matters more.

When asked what he looks for in a manager at a SABR convention a few years ago, then-Indians GM Mark Shapiro said that the most important attributes are the ability to communicate, self-awareness, and the ability to prioritize. When a GMs panel at this year’s SABR convention was asked the same question, the panelists gave a similar response.

Simply put, managers are first and foremost managers of men, and only secondarily manager of the game. This ain’t football where a guy can draw up a new play out of scratch.

Managing men

Bringing this back to Ventura, there’s a few things we know about him as a person. By all accounts Ventura is a great guy—no one has a bad word to say about him. He was supposed to be a clubhouse leader as a player. He’s smart and has good people skills.

Okay, so how will that translate into being a manager. Well, again the answer is … we don’t really know. Having great people skills and being a leader should help one become a good manager. But when was the last time you heard a first-time manager panned for his inability to lead or bad communication? Yeah, it doesn’t happen that much.

Even guys who turn out to be bad at it are supposed to be good at it. Don Baylor, for instance, was a widely regarded team leader as a player, but he couldn’t make the connection to his players once he hung up his spikes. Instead, he ended up ignoring his kids, being lax with the vets, manhandling his pitchers, and complaining about all of the above to the press.

That’s a worst-case scenario and thus is highly unlikely to be the fate of Robin Ventura. He should have two big hurdles to overcome in dealing with his players. First, it will be his first experience as the official authority figure in the dugout. Even if you’re a veteran presence and team leader as a player, this is very different from being the point man for all issues.

Second, there’s a generation gap. He’s only 44, younger than many other first time hires, and most managers around the league. But he hasn’t been in a major league dugout in 2004. It’s not like the world has completely changed over the last several years, but that is a gap. When it comes to managing men, those should be Ventura’s biggest challenges.

Managing the game

As for managing the game, it might be talked about too much but it does matter. So what can we expect from Ventura there? Well, aside from the all-important caveat that we truly have no idea about him, I can make one prediction. Ventura’s tendencies will align fairly well with Kenny Williams.

Don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t mean Ventura will be some brainless flunky and yes-man. Nothing like that. Going back to the GM panels at SABR conventions, one GM said you hire a manager who you think is right on the broad principles, and allow him to make the decisions, even if you don’t always agree with them. That should be what Williams is looking for. That’s especially likely given what Williams has just gone through with his long, volatile relationship with ex-Sox skipper Guillen.

As for what Williams might want in a manager, it’s worth noting Williams has always been a tricky one to pigeonhole. He’s a mixture of different styles, which is one reason the Sox have been generally successful under his command. When first talking to the press after the announcement of Ventura’s hire, Williams said he wanted someone who could be old school, while still being able to handle some of the newer sabermetric ideas. (And yes, he did use that word in his phone-conference talk with reporters.)

Upshot: I wouldn’t expect Ventura to be particularly extreme in any sort of small ball vs. big inning approach. What goes on with the players should definitely matter more.

One other thought on a Ventura managerial reign. When it comes to pitchers, Sox pitching coach Cooper will have a lot of power in what happens. This is a good thing. Though he hardly gets any press, and virtually none outside the Chicago area, pitchers have a nice habit of performing well under him. He’s been with the Sox for years and the first thing the they did after Guillen left was to re-sign Cooper to a multi-year extension. So you should expect more of the same from the pitchers under Ventura, because Cooper keeps his fiefdom.

Recent comps for Ventura

All that said, when it comes time to hire a manager, usually there’s one of two things you look for. Either the guy has previous managerial experience in the pros, or he at least has served as a coach with some club. Often a new hire will have both going for him.

Ventura has neither. He never served as a coach and he’s never managed. Well, unless you want to count his volunteer work as an assistant coach for a high school baseball team or his brief tenure managing for the White Sox Fantasy Camp. Yeah, those hardly count.

Let’s look this up for a second …. How often does a guy get hired with Robin Ventura’s resume (or lack thereof of one)? Well, way the heck back in the day it was common because many hires were player-managers. Yeah, that doesn’t mean much.

Let’s limit it to 1990-onward. In that period, 104 individuals have been given their first shot at running a big league dugout. Well, some of those were just interim guys holding the fort for a few days. They hardly count for anything.

Among the real hired, it looks like just a handful of men had a background like Ventura’s.

The most recent was A.J. Hinch. He took over the Diamondbacks dugout in early 2009 when the club fired Bob Melvin after a disappointing 12-17 start to the season. Hinch lasted barely more than a year, getting bounced midway through the 2010 season for a team mired in last place.

Prior to managing, Hinch served in the Arizona front office. He had the career arc you’d expect from a potential GM, running minor league operations and rising up to director of player development. Arizona liked his work developing players so much they thought he’d be really good at working directly with the men in the dugout. Instead, the team played worse with him than without him. This isn’t the parallel White Sox fans would like to see.

Before Hinch, you have to go back to 1997, when the Houston Astros gave former star Larry Dierker a shot at the dugout. Dierker didn’t even have front office experience before the team tabbed him. He was simply the team broadcaster. He had plenty of success—in the regular season anyway. Dierker posted a .556 winning record in the regular season, making the playoff four times in five years. But the playoffs were his poison, as he went just 2-12 in them, never advancing out of the NLDS.

There is one other that kind of fits: Mike Jorgensen. The Cardinals tabbed him to manage in 1995, when he’d previously served just as farm director.

But he only kind of fits because he was a midseason interim hire, and teams often just hire someone to plug that gap because they need the gap plugged. In fact, Jorgensen was more than a plugged gap. St. Louis kept him around for nearly 100 games, a legitimate tryout, not just organization filler. So let’s count him.

As for Ventura, the Sox hired him not that long ago to serve as a special assistant to White Sox director of player development. So he’s like Jorgensen and Hinch, just with a lower-down-the-slot job.

That said, Ventura has less post-playing career experience than many others. Partially due to a bad ankle injury, he took time off from the game altogether when his playing career ended, and has been back with the Sox only since June. From that perspective, Ventura has the thinnest resume of any first-time hire in the last 20-plus seasons of major league baseball. His is the oddest of all hirings.

Ventura and Sox history

While Ventura’s hiring might be very odd by the general standards of baseball, it’s perfectly in keeping with the standards of the Chicago White Sox. As noted in an article here at THT, they are the game’s greatest incubators of fresh managerial talent. In their history, 33 men have lasted at least a half-season managing the White Sox. Of them, 24 were first-timers.

More importantly, many of them want on to lengthy careers managing around baseball; most notably Tony LaRussa, Jimmie Dykes and Chuck Tanner. Heck, Ozzie Guillen’s rapid turnaround with Florida is a sign that the team still has the old knack for it.

As some press accounts note, Ventura is also the 17th former Sox player to manage them, a fact which is both true and misleading. Yes, the Sox have hired many of their old players to manage, but most of them were player-managers back in the day. That’s not a good comparison for Ventura, or really anyone these days.

Ventura and the Reinsdorf way

Looking at more recent times, the Ventura hiring fits in perfectly with how current Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf likes to run his clubs.

First, Reinsdorf teams hire new blood to manage. Ventura is the fifth consecutive White Sox manager without any previous big league field general experience. Reinsdorf last hired a veteran manager when Jeff Torborg came aboard in the late 1980s. It’s a similar story with the other team he owns, the NBA’s Chicago Bulls. Six of their last seven head coaches had never run the bench before.

Most of these hires have a previous relationship with the club. That was certainly the case with Guillen, Ventura and Bill Cartwright of the Bulls. For that matter, Reinsdorf’s interest in hiring guys with a relationship to the team goes beyond the manager or head coach. He chose a former White Sox player as his GM, after all. On the basketball side, he pi cked former Bulls starter John Paxson as his GM.

Reinsdorf’s teams like dealing with people they know, people who are known quantities to them. This isn’t always a good thing, as it leads to men getting in over their heads, such as Paxson or former Sox manager Terry Bevington. But it certainly makes sense that if any team would hire Ventura as manager, it would be a Reinsdorf one.

What does this mean for Ventura and the Sox going forward? No idea—no one has any idea, which is partially what makes this so much fun.

Ultimately, I don’t expect the White Sox to be very good next year. That isn’t because of Ventura, but because they went “All In” (as their 2011 team slogan proudly declared) and came up empty. But it’ll be interesting to see what happens.

References & Resources
At around 5 PM yesterday, Kenny Williams and Robin Ventura took part in a media conference call, which AM 670 WSCR broadcast live. Much of my knowledge about the hiring comes from it (including Williams’ comment that they want a manager that can be old-school and still have some sabermetric inklings).

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Comments

  1. George said...

    I was really suprised by this hire but I think its interesting just because he doesn’t have experience doesn’t mean he’ll be bad. Only time will tell.

  2. Chris J. said...

    I missed one by the way – Buck Martinez was a broadcaster (like Dierker) before becoming Toronto manager.

  3. MikeS said...

    There has been an interesting pattern of alternating personality types in the dugout for the White Sox over the last 20 years (apologies for the stereotypes):

    Ventura – quiet, laid back California boy.
    Guillen – latin loud mouth who never had a thought he didn’t voice.
    Manuel – nicknamed “Gandhi” by the press.
    Bevington – Gruff.  Needed a special room constructed to speak with the press.
    Lamont – “Sleepy Gene.”

    So I guess the next guy will be a dynamic type.  Maybe Joey Cora comes back?  Or Nick Swisher gets his first post – playing job?

  4. Mark said...

    Talk about a split personality: hyper Guillen to laid back Ventura.  I’m sure team personnel will respond positively to the change.

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