Alex Cora and a new wave of success,
MILWAUKEE – Experience is overrated.
Or so it now seems in baseball, where the idea that bigleague managers have to first toil in the minors or on someone else’s staff is going the way of complete games. The managers of three of the teams still playing had little or no on-field training before getting hired, with Craig Counsell and A.J. Hinch coming out of the front office and Alex Cora coming out of the TV booth with a stopover on Hinch’s staff in Houston last year.
“There’s different ways to get experience in a job, for a job,” said Counsell, who was working in the Brewers front office when he was hired in 2015. “Anytime you get the big job, whatever job that is for anybody, I don’t think anybody’s ever completely prepared for it. There’s always a learning curve for the big job.
“But I feel like the experiences I got did prepare me to do this,” added Counsell, who played for five teams in his 16 years in the majors. “And I think that’s what a lot of teams are saying about the people they’re hiring.”
The trend began almost a decade ago when Hinch was hired to manage the Diamondbacks in May 2009 despite never having coached or managed a game at any level. Instead, he’d spent his entire post-playing career in the Diamondbacks front office.
(Yes, Joe Girardi was hired as the Marlins manager in 2005 after one year as a bench coach. But after 15 years as a catcher, including four in the Bronx, he’d forgotten more about baseball than most managers would ever know.)
After being fired in July 2010, Hinch went back to the front office, working as the Padres’ vice president of professional scouting. When the Astros were looking for a manager after the 2014 season, they called on Hinch.
By then, other teams had begun warming to the idea that not all managers needed to have similar résumés. With so much emphasis on analytics, power has shifted to the front office and lessened the need for that “old school” managerial experience. Lineups and in-game moves are now dictated as much by numbers as they are by feel.
Since then, the Brewers have hired Counsell, the Mariners took Scott Servais out of the front office and the Yankees lured Aaron Boone out of the broadcast booth. Cora spent four years as a color analyst for ESPN and one season as Hinch’s bench coach before the Red Sox named him manager.
“It’s not the answer key that everybody can just go to the front office and learn the inner workings of an office and be good at the manager position,” Hinch said. “But it is a route. And it’s proven to be something that there’s valuable lessons to be learned that way, just as there’s valuable lessons to be learned on-the-job training leading a team. I’m not sure there’s a perfect way either way.”
To be fair, it’s not as if these teams have plucked guys off the street or out of beer leagues to manage. Counsell, Boone, Cora all had long playing careers, which gave them opportunities to study various managers and how they went about their jobs.
In fact, when the Brewers last made the playoffs, in 2011, Counsell was on the team but not getting much playing time. So he observed.
“I was doing a lot of the thinking about this stuff because I knew I wasn’t going to play,” he said. “When you’re in that stage of your career, you do put yourself in that position of thinking about what the manager is doing. I think that’s kind of natural for guys that are on the bench at the end of their career.”
Is that enough to turn over the keys to a franchise?
Boone led the Yankees to the second-best record in baseball in his first season, but his management of his pitching staff cost the Yankees the American League Division Series. Maybe that doesn’t happen if he’d spent a year or two on someone’s bench.
Then again, Joe Maddon worked his way up the ranks before becoming a manager, and his moves nearly cost the Cubs the 2016 World Series title.
“I can see how the trend is going, because there’s a lot of good stuff out there,” said Dave Roberts, who had front office and coaching experience when the Dodgers hired him in November 2015.
“But you still have to put that right person that the players and coaches respond to.”
In other words, experience still matters. It’s just that the definition of it has changed.
After a 16-year playing career, Craig Counsell was in the front office when the Brewers named him manager early in the 2015 season.