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Arizona Diamondbacks Spring Training Questions, #4: Meet the Manager

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Torey Lovullo will be in his first season as Diamondbacks manager. What can we expect from him and the other coaches?

MLB: Winter Meetings Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The new manager: SnakePit concern level 3.22 out of five.

To start with, here’s how the various team managers in history have done during their first 162 games in charge:

  • Buck Showalter (1998): 65-97
  • Bob Brenly (2001): 92-70
  • Bob Melvin (2005): 77-85
  • A.J. Hinch (2009-10): 72-90
  • Kirk Gibson (2010-11): 77-85
  • Chip Hale (2015): 79-83

That works out as an average record of 77 wins in their opening season (whether they started on Opening Day or not). But only once has a manager delivered a winning record right out of the gate: the winningest man in Diamondbacks history, and now the color commentator in the booth, Bob Brenly. If Torey Lovullo repeated that success - not least the little matter of the World Series win which capped it off - I think we’d be happy with that. But the history above does show that the odds are not in his favor.

Personally, I always find it harder to judge managers and coaches than players, because I feel a manager’s job is like an iceberg, with nine-tenths of it out of sight. The obvious in-game management stuff is almost the easiest part; you could probably code an AI to make those decisions, virtually as well as a human. Most of the actual choices - pinch-hit here, go to the bullpen there - seem fairly obvious. The art is in deciding who goes up, or which reliever comes in, as there are usually several options even after taking platoon considerations into account. It’s a bit like rolling dice: you can play the odds, but if it comes up snake-eyes, you’re gonna look bad anyway!

So I think the difference between the “best” and “worst” managers is probably relatively trivial there. What’s a lot harder to evaluate - and is probably a lot more important, too - is handling all the disparate personalities, from Zack Greinke to Fernando Rodney, and getting them to pull in the same direction. On the individual level, you have to be part coach, part motivational speaker, part therapist - I’ve got to think it must feel like being a one-parent family, with 25 kids to take care of. It’s not a job I could ever imagine doing, and one which would likely reduce me to a babbling idiot within weeks, rather than months.

The question of “clubhouse chemistry” is an interesting one. It’s obviously difficult, if not impossible, to measure (you’ll notice this entry is entirely free of tables or other statistics) - but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. On the other hand, there are clubhouses that have not exactly been joining hands and singing Kumbaya, but have still been highly successful. There are literally as many different approaches to the manager’s role in all this, as there are managers. But back in 2015, then-new Cubs manager Joe Madden said the following - and given he’s now the reigning World Series champ, we should perhaps listen:

"Everything in this game is connected. It's all about me building relationships with you and then you trusting me. And then we can have an exchange of ideas. That's it. Everybody wants to say they want to go to the World Series. But what's the process in how to get there? The first three steps for me are relationship building, development of trust, and then at that point, now we could honestly exchange ideas without any pushback. That's my main objective when I walk in the door."

That’s an unusual way to put it: the manager as caretaker whose role is to foster an open exchange of information. And it probably is not limited to between the manager and players. You want them to foster an environment in which Pitcher A can feel secure enough to be able to go over to Pitcher B and say, “Hey, I noticed you doing X, and your curveball was staying up as a result.” And Pitcher B can also feel secure enough to not feel threatened by the advice. It’s a complex equation, whose impact will depend on how the suggestion is given and received, which in turn could depend on things both inside and outside the manager’s control.

Among these are the coaches with which he is surrounded, and there’s no shortage of new faces there either. He’ll have a new right-hand man, eventually, we hope, a healthy Ron Gardenhire, who will bring a wealth of managerial experience - over 2,100 games in charge himself - to assist rookie manager Lovullo. Third-base coach Tony Perezchica may be in a new role, but has been in the D-backs organization since 2003, mostly as minor-league infield coordinator. There will be familiar names though: Dave Magadan as hitting coach and Dave McKay at first, but as the offense weren’t the issue in 2016, focus will likely be on Mike Butcher’s sophomore season as pitching coach.

By all measures, the Diamondbacks’ pitching last season was a disaster. They posted a major-league worst ERA of 5.09, and everyone expected Butcher to pay the price. After all, the Braves fired their pitching coach of 11 years, Roger McDowell, despite a 2016 ERA more than half a run better than the D-backs. But Butcher stayed: rumblings suggest he may have been hampered last year by interference from elsewhere in the organization. [Did anyone hear if Dave Duncan was kept on? As of Christmas, he was still on the bubble] I’m also curious to see what impact new “pitching analyst” Dan Haren has on the structure and approach - he worked with Butcher on the Angels.

There’s no denying the pitching staff has upside. We could end up with a rotation of Zack Greinke, Shelby Miller, Robbie Ray, Taijuan Walker and Patrick Corbin, where all of them would have career ERAs lower than the figure they posted in 2016. Quite a feat, considering Greinke is the only one who’d be older than 27. It’ll be interesting to see what happens, and how long a leash Butcher gets. While the new front office may be given time to turn things around, I’m not certain the same can be said about the pitching coach. If the trend is not positive, and quickly, he may be gone before the All-Star break: for there’s only so long you can get away with blaming other people.