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Book Review, Astros Style: Evaluating Baseball's Managers

I have linked to his website before discussing a new way to analyze managers, but Chris Jaffe will soon publish a book based on years of work called Evaluating Baseball's Managers 1876-2008. Chris recently provided me with a couple of excerpts about Houston's five managers that fit the criteria for his book.

You might know Jaffe from his writings over at The Hardball Times. He's spent much of the past year and a half putting together the most comprehesive book on managers that I've ever seen. By our own admittedly shorter conversations about what is important about a manager, it's clear that there is definite interest about this topic around here.

After the jump, I'll give you my impressions on the book's content and conclusions about Leo Durocher, Bill Virdon, Jimy Williams, Art Howe and Phil Garner.

First off, Jaffe sets his book out in part as a reference and in part as pure analysis. Jaffe focuses on the manager as a mover of men, not on the strategy. His book is based on a database set up by SABR member Phil Birnbaum. The full explanation can be found at his blog's FAQ page, but suffice it to say, the database came up with which teams were 'lucky' and which were not. Jaffe took this and ran with it, thinking that the manager influenced luck more than anything. (sound familiar, Cecil Cooper fans?).

I was surprised how many questions this book tended to answer. Better yet, I'm surprised how many questions it answered that I didn't even know I had. For instance, in the section on Bill Virdon, Jaffe talks about how little value Virdon got out of his bullpens. In fact, Virdon got the least value out of his 'pen than any manager in the database. Why is this relevant? Not only is Virdon the Astros' winningest manager in history, it also explains why only three pitchers have more than 100 saves with Houston and how six of the team's top 10 career save leaders played after Virdon left the team.

Now, was this something I had thought about in the past 10 years? Not really. I do remember thinking about how odd it was that BIlly Wagner so easily passed franchise leader Dave Smith as the new leader back in the late 90's, but I didn't get past that wondering. That the Astros didn't have a real closer for most of the club's existence was more a product of the era, right?

Another great note on Phil Garner talked about his reliance on defense and for balls in play. Apparently, Garner scored high on both the offensive and defensive balls in play lists, using good defense to gobble up all those hits and wearing pitchers down with the same. Of course, the downside of this and Garner's eventual undoing is the home run.

Garner's home run differential was the fifth-worst in history. Again, answering questions I didn't even think about before I read this. Garner's tendencies also revealed just as much about the best parts of his time with the Astros as his failures. Good defensive team that put the ball in play (as Garner's did) means that over the course of a season their luck will balance out. This created the great situations with the 2004 and 2005 comebacks while also setting up those late inning home runs to guys like Pujols and Podsednik. Garner as manager isn't the only reason the Astros lost the World Series but after reading Jaffe's breakdown you can certainly see why he was part of the problem.

What Jaffe does with all these guys is highlight why they were good or why they weren't successful. He does an excellent job of it, providing stats to back it up in each manager's capsule, but also backing it up with solid analysis. Bullpen usage, hitting for power, walks, and more are shown as trends for each manager as Jaffe does a good job of describing what kind of team each guy oversaw. It's exactly what history buffs would want and provides the kind of source material that analysts will be using for years. We discussed what makes a good manager and how much influence they really have on a team. I think reading this book will give us a better understanding of how to view Brad Mills and all future Houston managers.

If you're still interested in the book, you can pre-order it here before its release next spring.