In light of Craig Counsell agreeing to a five-year, $40 million contract with the Cubs to become the highest-paid manager in Major League Baseball, I found myself wondering two things. First, what is to come next in the Astros’ managerial search? At this juncture, I’d like to believe the front-runner is possibly Joe Espada. The long-time bench coach would make the most sense in terms of keeping some continuity while hopefully being more in line with Dana Brown and the front office than Dusty Baker.
From the outside looking in, Espada fits the bill with what I hope the Astros are looking for in their next manager, with his approach toward analytics and player development highlighted in his time in New York with the Yankees and Houston. It is almost easy to forget that Espada served as the bench coach in 2019 under then-manager A.J. Hinch and then-general manager Jeff Luhnow. While it remains to be seen about the direction of the front office under Brown, I think hiring Espada would help calm those doubts to a certain extent.
Brad Ausmus is another name to watch considering his relationship with Jeff Bagwell, who is among Jim Crane’s inner circle. I’d like to think I am more open to the idea of Ausmus than others, but that relationship with Bagwell would make it difficult to believe that it was solely for baseball reasons. Or, at least, the best baseball reasons. I mean, Ausmus could succeed in this role, but I think it is clear at this point that the manager and front office need to be more in sync to optimize the entire operation again. I’m not entirely convinced it could happen with Ausmus. Heck, it may not even happen under Espada, who is technically on his third general manager since joining the Astros before the 2019 season. But the possibility of hiring Ausmus, even if it works out, would feel more like succeeding despite best practices, not because of it. Based on my limited knowledge, Espada’s background appears more conducive to that type of working relationship with the front office compared to Ausmus.
My second thought was how much value a manager brings to a franchise. It wasn’t a secret that Counsell wanted to reset the market in terms of a manager’s annual salary. He certainly did that with his new $8 million per season contract. For a league lamenting the loss of coaching talent to more lucrative gigs in college baseball, Counsell’s new contract may help, to use a certain idiom, stem the tide. Of course, it begs that pesky value question, which remains an ever-difficult issue to quantify and even that feels like a generous stretch. Is it possible that managers have become undervalued? Various attempts have been made to measure certain aspects of a manager’s job responsibilities, namely lineup optimization and bullpen management. I particularly enjoyed this FanGraphs post from Eno Sarris on how to evaluate a manager back in 2016. From a pure baseball point of view, below are the four variables in defining a manager from Sarris.
- When he uses his best relievers.
- How rigid his approach to the bullpen is.
- Where he puts his best hitters in the lineup.
- How often he bunts with non-pitchers.
I won’t attempt to recreate some of the more data-heavy points in Sarris’ article, but, generally, I agree with those four variables. One of the main responsibilities of a manager is to put their club in the best position for success on the field, with the roster they have at their disposal. Utilizing best practices and the appropriate data to optimize decisions. Working in sync with a front office about how to communicate that information. Of course, extenuating circumstances also apply and could influence how we weigh these in-game decisions compared to managing a clubhouse.
With Baker and the Astros, it was clear that the veteran skipper was stepping into a volatile situation back in 2020 with the franchise on the heels of their sign-stealing scandal. Baker was hired primarily to manage the clubhouse dynamics amid this heavy backlash. He was the right choice, in all honesty, considering the context of the situation. Were his in-game decisions, or his explanations behind those choices, immune to criticism? Of course not. But Baker’s job in Houston was more complicated than most if any managerial positions at the time. The in-game component, especially in his first two seasons with the Astros, was more of a secondary concern compared to the off-the-field drama circling the club. Those decisions became more of an issue in 2023, especially when Houston had better options at a couple of positions than Baker’s regulars, namely how much he played Martín Maldonado over Yainer Díaz. There is also the question of how he utilized the bullpen at times, especially in the postseason.
I think this is where the balancing act in what to look for in a manager meets a crossroads, though. On one hand, I do believe it is imperative to find a manager who utilizes analytics and works well with a front office. Does the manager have to become completely in sync with his general manager? I waver a bit on this point, as I believe it is sometimes to the detriment of a franchise to have too many like-minded individuals in the room. This is one reason why I didn’t particularly care for Luhnow’s decision to dramatically cut back on the number of scouts employed by the Astros during the later years of his tenure. Of course, there is a potential issue with having too many voices. In other words, it is a complicated balance to discover and ultimately maintain. But a manager ought to have the freedom to question decisions and vice versa. I’d rather see a leadership structure in place with healthy discourse rather than everyone agreeing with each other.
On the other hand, a manager’s job responsibilities expand beyond gameplan decisions. There is the managing of different personalities and various clubhouse dynamics. Communication, for example, is key. If this aspect of the job was ever quantified, I have a feeling we would see Baker high on the clubhouse management leaderboards. It is a leadership role, after all. He frankly excelled in that aspect. Was the future Hall of Famer perfect on this level? Nope, but it was clear that he connected with the majority of his players on a personal level. There is value in developing a positive working environment as Baker and other managers have done.
But here is the $8 million question: What matters most for a manager? I think it is a bit of both worlds, with a skipper who can foster those positive working relationships while incorporating data into their decisions. There is a balance to strike between these two camps. Much easier said than done, though. It is also interesting to see how some of the more traditional managers get a bit more consideration for positions now, especially with the recent successes of Brian Snitker, Baker, and Bruce Bochy in each of the past three seasons. It is possible that while the industry has become increasingly appropriate in how to gauge a manager’s value in terms of in-game decisions, it possibly undervalued the human element in terms of managing a clubhouse and personalities. I am curious to see how the remaining managerial openings are filled in the coming weeks, including the Astros.