Bob Melvin's chances of keeping his job have taken a couple of terrible hits over the past two days, with consecutive fourteen-run losses to the Mets. Even before yesterday's fiasco, icecoldmo posed an interesting question: "What and how this team would have reacted had Manager Backman been at the helm?"
Of course. that's a question to which we can never know the answer. But the same general topic - how much influence managers have - actually cropped up elsewhere too, as my wife and I debated Joe Torre's chances of survival with the Yankees. I tend to think managers aren't actually all that important in game terms. 90% of decisions could be made by a well-trained ape, and the other 10% are gut hunches that either work or don't. The manager then looks like a genius or an idiot accordingly.
In the specific case of Melvin, it's important to distinguish and separate criticism of his managerial skills, from things over which he has no control. Russ Ortiz, for example, who has to continue to pitch every fifth day, no matter how badly he stinks. To admit the failure and cut him loose would be a horrific loss of face for the front-office, and isn't going to happen.
Similarly, the sucking vacuum in center-field: Jose Cruz, Quinton McCracken, Luis Terrero, whose combined average in that position is .241. Moving Green across from RF is about the best we can do, and lets us play both Tracy and Clark, the #1 and #2 on the team in batting average. It's just a shame it took Melvin 110 games to do it, or who knows where we might be?
But don't forget: this is not a playoff team, and should not be mistaken for such. This not even a .500 team. Before the season, the consensus had the D'backs pegged for around 75 wins, and I don't think many people particularly factored in managerial considerations. The D'backs, despite their latest slump, are still on pace for 73 wins, so it doesn't look like Melvin's skills (or lack thereof) have had much impact.
The area I think managers generally have an effect is in team psychology. They need to try and get the best out of their players, and to do that isn't a one-size fits all policy. A stern disciplinarian like Buck Showalter, for example, might be fine with young players who need to be kept in check, but veterans would (and did, here) resent being treated that way. The best managers can be all things to all players.
The key question would be, "What would you have done differently to Melvin?" I tossed that up in a number of forums, and here are some of the suggested responses. Generally, they can be divided into two sections - lineups and tactics:
These vary from the credible to the borderline-insane, but I can't say any of them would be likely to help all that much. For example, "not overworking the young bullpen arms" is a good thing, but we still need someone to pitch the innings. Who's it going to be?
My instinct is that the best manager in the world would be hard pushed to make this bunch of overpaid veterans and youngsters with potential, into anything better than a .500 team. [A big problem, to me, is too many long-term contracts, which removes an incentive to perform, but that's a side issue here, and the subject for another rant]
Of course, a .500 team would be tied for the lead in the NL West, and Melvin is perhaps partly the victim of this, as well as the team's early success. It's a lot easier to stomach a team that shows improvement, rather than falling apart, even if both end up with the same W/L record. Here's our record for the season:
August has been awful, no question. But the rest of the year - with pretty much the same squad of players, and certainly the same manager, presumably managing the same way - we've been close to .500 (52-55, to be exact), and probably performing above expectations.
On the other hand, it's fair to say that anyone can run a team when they're winning; it's when the chips are down that the true test of managerial skill ensues. Every team will have losing streaks - even the 2001 Diamondbacks started the year 4-8 and dropped seven of nine from August 30 - but a good manager will help end bad streaks and turn a ship around. Melvin has, as yet, shown no apparent ability to do so.
Or perhaps, worse still, any apparent acknowledgement that there is a problem. Banal pronouncements that everything is more or less fine, and we "just" need to win games, aren't helping. They only infuriate fans, who watch games like the last couple of days, and have a very different opinion as to the state of the team. We want to see the gloves come off, heads rolling and anything else to acknowledge that recent performances have fallen far short of what is satisfactory or acceptable.