Willie survive?

Last week the New York Mets, in a move that surprised many, announced that they would retain manager Willie Randolph for the next season. More than a few Mets faithful figured he’d be gone after how the Mets ended the season. With 17 games to play, they had a seven game lead over the second place Phillies. Yet when the calendar turned the page to October, the Mets were in second and the Phillies were in the postseason. As if that wasn’t bad enough, rumors circled that Randolph had lost the clubhouse and that the team was not happy with the third-year skipper.

That’s not a good combination for any manager who would like to stick around. Losing the clubhouse is bad enough, but at least that’s fairly common in baseball. More damning is the historically bad job his team did holding onto first place in the pennant race. You’d certainly think that such epic suckititude down the stretch would make Randolph a sitting duck. No, apparently not.

How much precedent is there for this? Without looking, I’d assume that managers whose teams blow huge leads end up unemployed posthaste. To see how much precedent there is for the Mets’ decision and what the future holds for Randolph, I’ll look at what happened to previous managers who presided over epic collapses.

Fortunately for me, this is actually pretty easy to check on. Just before the season ended, Nate Silver at Baseball Prospectus wrote a (free) article on the teams who blew it the biggest. He had a nice formula worked out for which teams who missed the playoffs had the best chances to make the playoffs in the course of the season. He listed 13, ranging from famous ones like the 1969 Cubs and 1978 Red Sox to more obscure ones like the 1921 Pirates and 1983 Braves. I’m not going to rehash his entire list; you can check on it and note the teams.

Well, with the Mets (who Silver mentions qualify as the second worst choke ever) that’s 14 teams total, and I want to add five more teams who are also rather infamous for their inability to hold a lead to add to the sample size here.

- The 1987 Blue Jays led the AL East by 3.5 games with seven more to play. They lost all their remaining games to finish behind the Tigers.

- The 1962 Dodgers lost eight of their last 10 regularly scheduled games. They blew a three game lead with six to play to stagger into a tie with the Giants. The team then proceeded to lose a best-of-three play off.

- The 1938 NL race is remembered for a team coming from behind to win (it was the year Gabby Hartnett hit his homer in the gloamin’). But one should note that the Pirates dropped 16 of their last 28 to blow a seven game lead in the last month.

- In 1934, the Giants led by 7 games with 21 left to play. And they still couldn’t get it done.

- 1914 was the year of the Miracle Braves, who went from last to first to win it all. The Giants once led them by 15 games, only to finish up 10.5 behind them.

Of those 18 pre-2007 clubs, how many brought back their manager?

Every single last damn one. No exceptions. Including Randolph, 19 out of 19 were retained for the next season.

Yowza! Now there’s an answer I bet you didn’t expect. Just stop and think for a second: if teams on average—not just chokers, but all teams—fired only one out of 19 managers, the average length of tenure would be nearly 20 years.

Without checking, I feel extraordinarily safe in saying that managers don’t ordinarily last that long anywhere this side of Walter O’Malley. I’d reckon that managers usually only last three to five years, so about four to six of these guys should have axed instead of none. Catastrophic choking actually increases a manager’s retention rather significantly!

The hell?

The Thurmon Munson rule

My answer to the conundrum of how screwing up so badly ensures a manager his job comes from a plane crash in 1979. On August 2, Yankee catcher and aspiring pilot Thurmon Munson died in a plane crash in Ohio. Making the tragedy harder to bear for his fans, the cause of the accident was pilot error. And not just a little bit of pilot error. About 27 bazillion types of pilot error as he made an impressive number of bad decisions that cost him his life.

In the aftermath, some questioned the flight school that trained him. If he was such a ludicrously bad pilot, it must be the fault of those who taught him. The trainers had a ready response. Since Munson’s errors were so impressive, wide ranging, and substantial, that they couldn’t be to blame. Even minimal training, which they could show Munson had, should prevent what Munson did. If it were a little bit bad, it would reflect badly on them, but because it was a lotta bit bad, it was beyond their ability to control.

The same scenario is playing out here. When you drop a lead so historically, it’s frankly beyond the realm of the mere manager to control. Everything has to go wrong. The ball has to bounce the other way. Players have to stall at the wrong times. Another team gets hot. There’s so much ill will to go around that the manager keeps his job. It’s the damnedest thing.

Looking forward: the future and Willie Randolph

Well, if these guys universally hold on to their jobs, how long do they last?

Six of them, exactly one third, lasted a season or less with two (Marcel Lacheman and George Gibson) fired mid-season in the Year After.

Two more were fired during their second season. Jimmy Williams lost his job shortly into his second season after the Toronto debacle of ’87. Don Zimmer got axed with a week to go in 1980. The Dodgers let Charlie Dressen walk away two years after Ralph Branca‘s most infamous pitch. That’s half the managers losing their jobs within two years.

After that, the firings slow up dramatically. Eric Wedge has lasted two complete seasons in Cleveland since they dropped six of their last seven to blow the ’05 wild card. There’s virtually no chance he’ll be sent packing in the foreseeable future. The Cubs dumped Leo Durocher two and a half years after summer of ’69. Gene Mauch lasted less than four years after the great Phillie Phlop.

And … that’s about it. The remaining third: The 1908 Giants, 1914 Giants, 1934 Giants, 1942 Dodgers, 1962 Dodgers, and 1993 Giants (weird how it’s the same two teams) kept their respective managers for quite a while.

Really though, almost none of those six teams are good comps for the 2007 Mets. The 1942 Dodgers and 1993 Giants both played very well down the stretch. They just faced off against a team that played historically brilliant over the same period. And the 1908 and 1914 Giants are both John McGraw. Really, no manager in this land has the stranglehold that McGraw had on the Giants’ position. Sure Bill Terry was only a second year manager in 1934, but his club won it all in 1933, and would win two more pennants in the next three years.

Then there’s Walter Alston. Though he’d won two rings for the Dodgers before 1962, that collapse led to loud calls for his head. He needed a third ring in 1963 to survive. That’s exactly what he did. When the club faltered in 1964, they fans grabbed their pitchforks and torches again. So he won his fourth title in 1965. That’s what he needed to do to survive. That’s the only example of a manager who wasn’t dealing from a position of strength keeping his job for a sustained period of time.

Virtually every single manager here falls into one of two categories: men who were largely untouchable, and men who got fired very quickly. While none lost their jobs immediately, it clearly damanged them so badly they they couldn’t last long.

The middle class consists of Wedge, Mauch, and Durocher, and none of them are good comps for Randloph. Wedge’s 2005 Indians aren’t thought of as a grand collapse. They were never in first. I know they had a strong chance for the wild card late at the end, but that was because of a great late surge. They just ran out of gas. His team actually exceeded expectations that year. Mauch and Durocher, also had special advantages . Both going into the year were hailed by popular acclaim, as among the shrewdest skippers baseball had ever known. While the collapse hastened the departure for both, they had enough clout to hold the naysayers at bay for the immediate future. And I’m sure it didn’t hurt that both franchises were traditional sad sacks with little recent experience in the pennant race. Just getting close was thrilling enough.

None of this is good news for Willie Randolph. The Mets have one of the highest payrolls in the game, and their fans have expectations to match. They came painfully close to the pennant last year, and expected to have the best record in the NL this year. He doesn’t have the juice of a McGraw or even a Mauch or Wedge to keep them at bay.

If he wants to make any long-term housing plans, he better get in touch with his inner Alston and win the World Series. Maybe a mere pennant would suffice, but that’s the minimum. History has shown that while presiding over a disaster allows a manager to stick around for the short-term, it wounds him so badly that unless he’s a local institution, nothing short of unquestioned success will let him remain.

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