Jim Tracy has had one of the most peculiar career arcs of any manager in memory. He has an overall career record that’s mediocre despite almost never having mediocre teams. They’re either pretty good or really bad, and Tracy’s reputation seems to rise and fall with his teams.
That last sentence is anything but peculiar. It’s a commonly held and widely believed truism that managers get too much credit for their teams’ successes and too much blame for their teams’ failures.
True, but in Tracy’s case it’s more extreme. Every time his team wins at least 85 games in a season, Tracy receives legitimate support in Manager of the Year voting. Conversely, the people who I know who don’t like Tracy detest him as fervently as I’ve known a manager to be detested.
He’s great. Or he’s terrible. Yet his overall record is smack dab in the middle, as he entered 2012 just 10 games over .500 after nearly 1,600 games managed. He’s an odd manager to try to understand.
This is something that I should know something about; or at least be able to pretend like I know something about it since a few years ago, I wrote a book, Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, 1876-2008 that, well, evaluated baseball’s managers.
With Tracy, what I find striking is not his personal proclivities and tactical decisions. Those are almost extraordinarily ordinary. There are certain things he does more or less than an average skipper, but nothing especially notable. The most interesting thing about Tracy is his career arc.
The rise of Jim Tracy
Tracy first joined the fraternity of big league managers with the Dodgers in 2001 and quickly won acclaim, guiding them to four straight winning seasons, including a postseason appearance in 2004. In his rookie season, he finished second in the Manager of the Year voting. On the face of it, that was an odd and unlikely result. In 2000, the year before Tracy showed up, the team went 86-76. With Tracy in 2001, they again finished 86-76. That normally doesn’t get MoY support.
True, but the 2000 team won with strong pitching, and in 2001, many arms—most notably ace Kevin Brown—fell to injury. Ultimately, only pitcher was able to make more than 25 starts in 2001. Yet they stayed in the pennant hunt until late in the season.
Frankly, that 2001 team was lucky, as going by runs scored and allowed they were a .500 team, but Tracy kept them competitive for each of the next three years. And it wasn’t just luck. With the Dodgers, Tracy had the knack to get good performances out of his pitchers.
There’s a system used in my book to judge this: The Birnbaum Database. The Birnbaum Database was created by Phil Birnbaum to estimate how teams over/underperform their predicted performance in a given year. There are five parts to it, but the two most important are a pair of algorithms Phil invented to look at how hitters and pitchers did versus how they would be expected to do.
Say you want to look at how Kevin Brown did in 2001. You look at his performance in the surrounding seasons and use that to determine what he should’ve done in that particular year. Then you adjust for playing time, park factor, and various other basic mathematical hokey-pokey adjustments and boom, you have a reasonable projection. Now just compare that to reality and you have your result.
Looking at the numbers of just one guy doesn’t tell you too much about the manager, but when you combine enough players together, the sample size becomes meaningful. In other words, it’s not random happenstance that Bobby Cox scores historically great with pitchers. In LA, Jim Tracy scores wonderfully: +240 runs with individual pitchers.
It was in LA that he made the best move of his entire career. In spring training 2002, he made a controversial move, shifting a young starting pitcher into the bullpen. The pitcher was a young arm with talent who could strike people out. I remember some opposed moving this lad to the bullpen. He had talent, and if you kept him in the starting rotation, he’d have more innings and thus could mean more to the team. Admittedly, in two partial seasons in the starting rotation he’d been rather middling, but he was talented and entering his prime.
That young pitcher’s name was, of course, Eric Gagne.
Did that move ever work! For a few years, Gagne was the best closer in baseball. It would’ve been perfectly easy to leave Gagne in the rotation or even ship him to Triple-A, but Tracy thought the young kid could make it as a closer, and boy was he ever proven right.
Gagne isn’t an isolated example. Tracy also managed to get superior performances out of middle relievers Guillermo Mota and Paul Quantrill, both of whom did notably better in Los Angeles than in any other stop in their careers. In 2003, Gagne, Mota, and Quantrill combined to throw 264.2 innings, allowing just 11 homers and 61 walks while fanning 280 batters for a cumulative ERA of 1.66. Tracy also had some success with his starting pitchers, most notably Odalis Perez, but that bullpen was Tracy’s strongest feature.
Anchored by that trio, the 2003 Dodger bullpen posted an ERA+ of 164, which is the highest by any relief unit since WWII.
This should not be overstated. Tracy didn’t have a magic wand that made all pitchers under his care better, but on the whole, pitchers improved.
Tracy’s reputation peaked in 2004. Despite a middling offense and an unimpressive starting rotation—the only truly above-average pitcher was Perez—LA won 93 games and a trip to the postseason. Tracy had four consecutive successful seasons under his belt and was one of the best-regarded managers in baseball.
His future seemed secure, and Tracy looked poised to be the next long-term manager of the Dodgers. Instead, Tracy’s career was about to implode.
The fall of Jim Tracy
Tracy lasted just one more season in LA—an incredibly ugly and controversial season. On the face of it, the year doesn’t look that interesting. The Dodgers lost more than they won; 71-91 to be exact. That’s a disappointment to be sure, but plenty of prominent managers have survived worse without incident. The season itself was quite a bit uglier, and Tracy got caught up in the mess.
The Dodgers had a new GM in 2005, Paul DePodesta, who had come to prominence as Billy Beane’s numbers guru in Moneyball. This was the height of the whole stats-versus-scouts controversy, and DePodesta was a flashpoint in that whirligig with people rooting for and against him based on what he represented. DePodesta made a series of moves that worked out on paper, but the team was done in by injuries, and controversies kept swirling around the team.
Where did Tracy fit into this? He didn’t get along with DePodesta. The two never could get on the same page, and as the year wore on, it just got worse. The Tracy-DePo dynamic became part of the larger concerns surrounding the team.
The situation became so poisonous that I’ve heard one Dodger fan float that the only time he ever seriously wondered if a manager was trying to tank a season to torpedo the front office was in the Dodgers’ 2005 campaign. That certainly didn’t happen, but a team that was in first place in mid-May ended up losing 62 of their last 100 contests.
After 2005, both DePodesta and Tracy would be gone. Tracy might’ve been better off taking a few years off after 2005, just as Jim Leyland took a sabbatical after a draining 1999 season. Instead, after his dismal 2005 campaign, Tracy landed in situation where things would go even worse for him, Pittsburgh.
Prior to Tracy’s arrival, the Pirates hadn’t enjoyed a winning season since 1992. On the surface of it, Tracy’s arrival made no difference whatsoever and his two-year stint was just another forgettable pair of seasons in the recent dreary history of Pittsburgh baseball. The team lost 95 in 2005 without Tracy, dropped 95 and 94 games with Tracy in 2006 and 2007, and then lost 95 with Tracy’s replacement in 2008.
You’d be hard pressed to find a more consistent level of performance among any team over four years. Based solely on that, you wouldn’t expect there to be anything especially good or bad about Tracy’s tenure.
Well, that would be wrong. I don’t claim to know exactly what happened, but I will say this: Never in all my days have I ever encountered fans that so vehemently loathe like Pirates fans do with Tracy.
I spend a good chunk of time at Baseball Think Factory, a nice internet watering hole frequented by fans of all types. I’ve known many Cubs fans that were left seething by the likes of Dusty Baker or Royals fans that cringe at the name Tony Muser, or Brewer fans for which “Yost” is the vilest of all four-letter words. But no fans muster the level of outrage BTF’s Pirates fans reserve for Tracy.
Maybe it’s just some random sample-size fluke based on who I’ve spoken to, but those Pirate fans who I’ve met have all had the same reaction: Jim Tracy is the lowest of the low. They despise him as a manager and to some extent as a man. He threw everyone under the bus and came off horribly.
The team apparently agreed to some extent. As bad as the Pirates have usually been, they give their managers plenty of time. Tracy’s predecessor, Lloyd McClendon, lasted nearly five full years. John Russell, their post-Tracy skipper, held out for four years. But Tracy, despite having a far bigger name than either of them, barely made it two seasons.
Pirate fans have also said Tracy didn’t develop his players worth a damn, and the Birnbaum Database agrees with them there. He scores miserably, and once again dealing with individual pitchers was the engine of his overall score. This time, however, he scored –86 runs with individual pitchers.
Let’s pause here for a second. As noted above, the Birnbaum scores aren’t prefect, and there’s always some noise in the signal. Managers often have their ups and downs, even when it looks like the data are telling us something about the skipper himself. But rarely do managers suffer the sort of whiplash-inducing shift as what happened to Tracy.
The Pirates had a crop of young pitchers that the team rested their hopes on when Tracy arrived in 2006. In general, they fizzled.
It’s one thing to have a dismal departure from LA. He had enough success there to excuse it as just one of those things. But Pittsburgh made it two jobs in a row over three full seasons of disaster. And really, Tracy only had those four good years with only one playoff appearance. It’s not too surprising that Tracy was left dugout-less for a stretch after his days in Pittsburgh.
Jim Tracy: Repeating his own history?
Then, after a few years on the sidelines, in 2009 the Rockies hired Tracy as their midseason manager. As expected, Pirate fans prophesied doom, doom, and even more doom. No good will ever come of Jim Tracy. He’d screw over the kids, be impatient with his players, and be a self-glorifying lout all the while. Just wait.
Well, that isn’t what happened. A team that went 18-28 under Clint Hurdle suddenly erupted, going 74-42 and making a stunning appearance in the playoffs (where the Phillies soon dispatched them). Back from his depths, Tracy’s reputation was restored as he won the Manager of the Year title.
Not only was he successful, but he showed a willingness to do those things he failed at in Pittsburgh. He was patient with the younger players. He took Ian Stewart, who’d been moved all over the diamond, and made him the regular third baseman, allowing Stewart to develop his power stroke to the tune of 25 homers. When Carlos Gonzalez couldn’t hit, Tracy stayed with him anyway, and Gonzalez eventually flourished. Instead of promoting himself, Tracy gave the players all the credit, noting they’d been to the World Series just a few years earlier.
You could seemingly write a new narrative. Former Rockies manager Jim Leyland once explained his failures in Colorado and subsequent success in Detroit by saying that sometimes with a manager what matters most of all is the fit. It’s how he meshes with the situation, not his own personal proclivities. Maybe both DePodesta and the Pirates were just bad fits for Tracy. Maybe he just needed some time to recharge.
Yeah, but instead of building on his initial success, Tracy has once again done another U-turn. The longer he’s been there, the less patient he’s become. Young players who struggled would find themselves back in the minors. Stewart perhaps cratered the worst. In 2011, just two years after looking like the team’s third baseman for years to come, he batted .156 with zero homers. The team traded him away for silly string and chewing gum this most recent offseason.
The team is going backward, not forward, with him. You can all but hear the “Told ya soes” coming from Pittsburgh. Not only are the Rockies stalling from year to year, but also within years. In 2010, the team was in the pennant race until late, but it then dropped 13 of its last 14 games. Last year, they were better, losing only 11 of their last 14. For that matter, in his final season in Pittsburgh his team was 2-12 at the end. Tracy’s teams weren’t normally bad in the past, but that’s a pretty impressive trio of season-ending performance over his last four years on the job.
As for the Birnbaum Database, it doesn’t tell us much about Tracy’s Colorado stay. By its nature, you need data for 2012 and 2013 to measure what happened to players in 2011. His overall career score is still good—he’s +190 runs with pitchers and –25 with hitters—but those numbers could be a bit inflated. Tracy does well in 2011 in part because players are expected to regress a little in 2012-13. When those years are added in, he’ll fall some.
It would be nice to have some brilliant and insightful summation of Tracy’s career to date, but his tenures seem to defy an easy wrap-up. He’s probably the best current example of how a manager can get too much credit or blame for his teams’ wins and losses.
References & Resources
Rockies fan Tom Nawrocki offered some valuable feedback for the Colorado portion of his career.
Baseball Think Factory, as noted in the article, came in handy, especially the thoughts expressed on Tracy over the years by its leading Pirate fans, most notably Mike Emeigh and Vlad.
Phil Birnbaum created the Birnbaum Database, which is actually more elaborate that described here.