The rise of the middle-aged manager

It happens every offseason. Some managers depart, and new ones arrive. This offseason saw five teams switch managers. In all, five managers stepped down, voluntarily or otherwise: Davey Johnson with the Nationals, Jim Leyland with Detroit, Dusty Baker with the Reds, Eric Wedge with Seattle, and Dale Sveum with the Cubs.

Combine their departures with the late-season firing of Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel, and baseball is experiencing an impressive changing of the guard.

Last year, Johnson was the oldest manager in baseball. Manuel was the second oldest, and Leyland the third oldest. Heck, Dusty Baker was the fifth oldest. Now they are all gone. Would you care to guess who the oldest manager will be next year? It’s Mets honcho Terry Collins. No, he wouldn’t have been my guess, either.

Actually, Collins is pretty young for the oldest manager in baseball. He’ll be a mere 64 years of age when 2014 begins. Major league baseball will be without a senior citizen skipper until Collins turns 65 on May 27. Baseball hasn’t had this happen since the summer of 1997 when Felipe Alou was the senior skipper at age 62 (until the Reds replaced Ray Knight with 67-year-old Jack McKeon for the final two months of the year).

It isn’t just the age factor that makes the recent departures so interesting. More importantly is their stature. Johnson, Leyland, Manuel, and Baker all have won pennants, and the first three of those each have a world title. Leyland is a possible Hall of Famer. Leyland, Baker and Johnson combined for eight Manager of the Year awards, and Manuel twice was runner up.

The end of an era

And these men aren’t just losing their jobs this year. Johnson announced before the season that 2013 would be his last stand. Leyland clearly is retiring, as well. Manuel wants to manager, but he’ll turn 70 in January, and few men that age get hired in this profession. Baker might land another job, but that’s no guarantee, either. He’ll turn 65 next summer and twice has been fired by respected GMs right after Baker piloted them to winning seasons.

What’s just happened is the culmination in a process that’s been going on since 2010. Let’s look at the managers who have left the dugout so far this decade:

In 2010, the big news was a pair of giants departing, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre. Heck, it was enough to overshadow that year’s similar retirements of Lou Piniella and Cito Gaston. The next year had the biggest retirement of them all, Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa, just when he was on the verge of passing John McGraw on the all-time wins list. In a stunner, that year also saw the aged McKeon make a brief dugout comeback. I can only assume he’s now gone for good.

In 2012, the biggest name to leave the ranks was Bobby Valentine. His sole season in Boston was a complete fiasco. Combine that outcome with his age, and he’ll probably never get hired again, but he did have a nice overall career. (Jim Tracy and Ozzie Guillen also lost their jobs that year, but in both cases there is a chance they could come back. That is especially true of Guillen, who is still fairly young.)

Now add in the 2013 departures and that gives you 11 managers—Cox, Torre, LaRussa, Piniella, Gaston, McKeon, Valentine, Johnson, Leyland, Baker, and Manuel—with a total 27 pennants, 13 world titles, and a record of 18,336-16,197 (.531). That’s over 210 seasons worth of games managed. And all by guys who (with the possible exception of Baker) are done.

There has never been an exodus of dugout talent like this. We’ve never seen so many prominent skippers leave in such a short time.

Context: other mass departures

There have been other periods when multiple managers have left the game. After the 1920 season, three prominent veteran skippers left: George Stallings, Hughie Jennings, and Clark Griffith. (Technically, Jennings managed again, but only as a fill-in interim manager when his friend McGraw needed some time off from running the Giants.) But those guys weren’t nearly as prominent as Piniella and Leyland, let alone Cox, Torre, and La Russa.

In 1950-51, an even bigger wave of managerial retirements happened. Three Hall of Fame skippers stepped down—Connie Mack, Joe McCarthy, and Billy Southworth—as did a few other pennant winning skippers: Frankie Frisch, Burt Shotton, and Eddie Dyer. That’s a really impressive haul over such a short time span, especially given that there were only 16 teams back then.

The next great wave came in 1976, when five prominent skippers left: Danny Murtaugh, Walter Alston, Paul Richards, Bill Rigney, and Red Schoendienst (like Jennings, Schoendienst actually managed again, but just as a stopgap dugout boss.)

Several managers also left from 1986-86: Hall of Famers Earl Weaver and Dick Williams, as well as Billy Martin, Chuck Tanner, and Gene Mauch. Again, though, in terms of sheer quantity, nothing quiet approaches what’s happened lately.

Changing of the guard

Clearly, a generation is leaving. Just a few years ago, we had three skippers from the 1970s still around. Now, with the retirements of Johnson and Leyland, we’ve lost the last of the 1980s skippers. There are just two guys left in the dugout who were around for the 1994 labor strike: Collins, who was a rookie in that shortened season, and Buck Showalter, who goes back as far as 1992, further than anyone else who left.

If a team wanted to hire a big-name manager at this point, they’d find the pickings rather slim. Let’s say you wanted to hire a former pennant-winning skipper who is still on the market. Who would your options include? Well, would you want a 70-year old Manuel or a 65-year old Baker?

If not, the only options from 21st century World Series skippers are Guillen, Phil Garner, and Bob Brenly. It’s pretty clear at this point that Garner has been put out to pasture and that Brenly is better respected as a broadcaster than a manager.

So it’s essentially just Guillen among the non-elderly. Hell, you can push it back to 1990, and the only other options you’ll come across are Mike Hargrove and Jim Fregosi. Fregosi is even older than Manuel and also clearly done. Hargrove is about as old as Baker and Collins, and he quit on the job in midseason six years ago, citing a lack of competitive fire.

So Guillen and maybe Baker are the only pennant winners available with any chance of getting hired again.

The new crowd

I supposed that explains the direction teams took in hiring their new managers this year. Of the six guys hired—Rick Renteria, Lloyd McClendon, Brad Ausmus, Matt Williams, Bryan Price, and Ryne Sandberg—only one (McClendon) has any previous managerial experience.

Ah, well, that makes sense. One generation departs, and a new one arrives to fill the gaps. That doesn’t mean all of the new guys will be as successful as the old guys, but at the very least it’s clearly a changing of the generational guard, right?

Right? Well, not exactly.

You see, for this to be a real changing of the generational guard, you’d expect there to be a new generation emerging. You don’t quite get that this year. Look at the five teams that have hired new managers this off-season. Two of them, the Mariners and the Cubs, hired someone older than the guy they just let go.

What we’re getting right now isn’t a move to a younger generation of managers but an expansion of the middle-aged cohort of managers. Come Opening Day 2014, baseball will have 20 managers in their 50s. That’s an all-time record. As recently as 2008, Opening Day baseball gave us just a dozen in the 50s, with another dozen in their 40s. There will be just seven guys in their 40s when the umpires first yell, “Play ball!” in 2014.

It’s even more tightly packed than that, though. The 10 guys outside of their 50s next Opening Day will include a 48-year-old Matt Williams, a 49-year-old Joe Girardi, a 60-year-old Joe Maddon, and a 61-year-old Ron Washington. Only six skippers will be outside ages 48 to 61. That’s an amazingly tight bunching.

We always think of managers being older sorts. Someone in their 40s tends to sound young, and anyone in his early 40s seems really young. But rookie managers should be young, and a lot of the best-regarded potential managers start in their early 40s.

Look at some of our current managers. Braves boss Fredi Gonzalez filled out his first big league lineup card at age 41, as did Yankee skipper Girardi. Going back a bit further, Bruce Bochy was just 40 when he became a skipper. This still happens now—Mike Matheny was a 41-year-old rookie in 2011—but the guys just hired now are a bit older.

Of the new managers, just two are younger than 50, and one of the other two—Washington’s Williams—will turn 48 later this month. Ausmus, who will turn 45 next April, is the baby of the group.

Historically, this is a really old crop of rookies. In part, that’s because manager hiring is skewing a bit older now than before. As recently as the 1990s, there averaged one team a year with a manager in his 30s. Showalter, for instance, was a 35-year-old on his first day on the job as Yankees skipper.

Since 2000, the only 30-somethings have been Arizona’s ill-fated A.J. Hinch experiment, Washington’s hiring of Manny Acta, and Cleveland’s hiring of the very young Eric Wedge. (Though the recently fired Wedge has 10 full seasons of managing under his belt, he is still younger than all but four skippers. In fact, he’s barely a year older than Ausmus, in fact.)

But by any standards, this year’s hirings are up there in years. To have a prominent managerial career, it helps to have significant career length. Any manager who starts on the job in his 50s doesn’t have much chance to build up enough career bulk to be that notable.

Though the job isn’t physically demanding like a player’s is, it does feature constant pressure, stress, and travel on a daily grind for six months. There is a reason why Cox, Torre, and La Russa all stepped down in their late 60s; it’s tough to do beyond that.

So if the recent managerial trend mean anything—and it might not—it’s that skippers might have shorter overall careers heading forward. There are still younger hirings, like Ausmus and Matheny (and Houston’s Bo Porter and Miami’s Mike Redmond).

But for all the talk about how some new managers come to the job with less experience (Ausmus, Matheny and the White Sox’s Robin Ventura all had virtually nil experience upon being hired), there is this other countering trend where teams are hiring older guys. Combine that with the eldest men departing, and the dugout has never been so dominated by managers in their 50s.

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Comments

  1. Mike C said...

    I wonder if guys aren’t older because players are also older. Say you want a brilliant player to be your manager. A lot of those guys can’t manage at 40 because they’re still playing at 40! The brilliant minds available are likely catchers (Matheny, Girardi) which makes sense because 1. Catchers are closer to managers in terms of responsibilities than other positions 2. The demands of the position will lead to physical breakdown earlier and thus earlier retirement.

  2. Jim said...

    Now that you thanked me, I have more.  I believe the teams are going for “rookie” and young managers because they don’t have to pay them as much.

    Since a third of all teams make into the watered down playoffs, no sense paying much for a manager.

  3. Chris J. said...

    Jim – that may be part of it—- but what experienced managers are out there that will cost you a pretty penny?  Manny Acta?  Eric Wedge?  There aren’t many left available.  Like I said in the article, it’s Ozzie Guillen and not much else in terms of big name managers.

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