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Some thoughts on managers....and Cecil Cooper

Richard Justice opined that McLane should give Cooper a contract extension.  Justice said:

Asking an inexperienced manager to work a lame-duck season is asinine.

There's no way he should be fired. Maybe he's not the second coming of Tony La Russa, but based on the club's performance last season, he deserves an extension.

Someone commented in one of the threads earlier today that they have never understood this type of argument.  And I agree.  The idea that managers always need to be working with at least an extra year on the contract defeats the purpose of a contract.  Does it make sense to evaluate a manager before  40 - 50% of the evaluation period has occurred?  Not to me.  The fact that Cooper is inexperienced, as Justice mentions, is even more reason for management to want to see a full evaluation period before extending a contract.   If either the players or manager change the way that they perform based on the perception of a "lame duck" contract, then there is something wrong with either the players or manager or both.

Some pundits on the web have picked Cooper as the manager most likely to be fired first this season. That opinion probably is mostly based on those writers' view that the Astros will have a terrible season---it can't be based on Cooper's managing style since none of them have watched Cooper as much as most fans here at TCB.  As the Astros got off to a 1-6 start to the season, accompanied by horrid offensive output, the possibility that they could be right creeped into the back of my mind.  I begin to wonder if a more experienced manager--say, LaRussa--would have gotten a different result.  And I don't know the answer.

I am reluctant to even raise the subject, because I like Cooper.  He has been a great player, and he seems like a decent guy.

And this "nice guy" characteristic brings me to a quote discussed in Joe Posnanski's column. Reading back over some of Bill James' old writings, he provides James' take on the famous Durocher line, "nice guys finish last."  The James quote:

“Every good manager effectively threatens his players with professional extermination if they don’t give him the best effort they are capable of giving; Casey Stengel, Billy Martin, White Herzog and Earl Weaver are masters at it, as was Durocher. These are not nice people. They are manipulative, cunning SOBs, hard and crass and they drink too much. Nice guys finish last because a nice guy is not going to coldly exploit the insecurities of his players. Nice guys finish last because a nice guy is not going to kick an old friend out of his comfortable sinecure the minute that old friend becomes a milli-second too slow on the fastball.”

Cooper does seem like a nice guy, and he doesn't appear to fit James' description of a good manager.  Now, I'm not convinced that good managers have to be mean SOBs.  Joe Torre had the reputation as a "nice guy," for instance.  In fact, in this age of free agents and multi-millionaire players, one could argue that the styles exhibited by the Martins, Durochers, and Stengels wouldn't work on modern players.

While LaRussa's gamemanship irritates me as an Astros' fan sometimes, I have to admit that he is a good manager.  He isn't overtly crude or mean, like some of the managers mentioned in James' quote; he is more like a baseball version of the more refined Tom Landry.  Seemingly intellectual and creative on the one hand, LaRussa also comes across as manipulative, cold and calculating.  But you can't beat the results; LaRussa seems to get the most out of teams with less talent.

During the recent Astros-Cardinals series, I was taken by the fact that Cardinals players seem to go into the series with a game plan for pitching, hitting, and runniing the bases.  If the Astros had a clear game plan, it wasn't apparent from their play.

I'll list my three top criticisms of Cooper.  First, he should restrain his tendency to publicly cirticize players or make decisions about players before he talks to the players first.  In fairness, I don't recall him doing this since spring training.  Second, his "aggressiveness at all costs" approach to the running game seems to run the team out of innings.  Third, I wonder if he is an effective manager of pitchers.  Part of this question comes from the way he handled pitchers like Oswalt, Backe, and Chacon last season.  I'll admit I could be off target on these criticisms; after all, I am just a fan watching from a distance. 

On his side, Cooper seems to be thoughtful and willing to re-think decisions which aren't working out.  Some fans criticize Cooper's tinkering with his batting orders, but I don't mind it.  There is something to be said for "trial and error."

Even if the Astros' record continues to slide, I doubt that an in-season manager firing is justified.  I am mindful of Larry Dierker's contention that a manager has minimal ability to affect the outcome of games.  In addition, I don't know of any potential managers who would be a clear improvement over Cooper.  I'm not aware of any proven winning managers who are just sitting on the sideline waiting for a managerial job.

What are your thoughts on Cecil Cooper's managerial performance?