Brandon Hyde is slowly, and unofficially to this point, filling out his coaching staff. The Orioles team site still lists only Hyde in their “Manager & Coaches” section, however, that will change once existing offers are accepted and signed. So far, the O’s have asked José Flores to be their infield/third base coach, Arnie Beyeler to be outfield/first base coach, Don Long to be hitting coach, Tim Cossins to serve as catching coach and John Wasdin to be bullpen coach. A few vacancies still remain, but rest assured that they will be filled prior to Opening Day.
Building out a robust coaching staff feels quite significant. Why else would teams do it? Obviously, a hierarchy of authority must exist or else the players would manage themselves, resulting in 162 complete games from the pitching staff and a never-ending argument about who gets to play shortstop each day. But the less obvious impact is the one reflected in the win-loss column. Let’s look at recent Orioles history.
Buck Showalter is generally regarded as one of the better MLB managers over the last decade (2018 disaster aside). In 2011, Showalter’s first full season in charge of the O’s, Bobby Dickerson, Wayne Kirby and John Russell were all on staff. Those three men would remain on the staff, in some capacity, for the duration of Showalter’s run in Baltimore. Over those eight campaigns, the team’s overall performance oscillated drastically from the high of a 96-win 2014 season that saw them claim the AL East title, to a disaster 47-win swan song, with several peaks and valleys in between. Just as the 2018 nightmare does not prove that those four are bad coaches that don’t deserve to be employed by an MLB team, 2014 is not evidence of some advanced, other-wordly baseball knowledge.
Swapping out coaches does not necessarily lead to improvement either. How many times have Orioles fans been told that the pitching staff was due for a bounce-back season? And how many pitching coaches have come to town and failed? Leo Mazzone? Anyone? Well, we’re still waiting. O’s hurlers have the worst FIP (4.65) of any major league team since 2000. Reduce that window down to the successful Showalter era, eliminate 2018 out of mercy, and the Orioles improve...to second-worst (4.36 FIP, behind the Twins).
Attempting to place value on the position coaches seems impossible. They come and go almost as frequently as the players they instruct. While those coaches can give tips to their players, it is ultimately up to the manager to pull the strings. He is the one that builds the lineup, chooses who will pitch to every batter and makes decisions in critical situations. That is why so many thinkers in the baseball industry have tried to pinpoint a manager’s actual value to a team. As you can imagine, it hasn’t been so easy.
Back in 2014, Camden Depot’s Jon Shepherd took a whack at finding what Showalter’s value was to the Orioles as well as how other managers in the league performed compared to their pre-season projections since 2003. Beyond the Box Score did something related in 2012 but looked at all-time data. Both exercises had similar outcomes; highly regarded managers outperformed projections, on average, by a handful of games. Those successes can’t simply be attributed to the manager alone, but as the most public face of the team he deserves a sizable chunk of the credit.
So, let’s agree that good coaches and good managers, in general, do make their teams better, even though we aren’t sure just how much of an impact they have. In what way do they make this impact felt? Is it through lineup construction? Bullpen management?
Eno Sarris wrote about this at FanGraphs in 2016 when he was pondering who to vote for as the American League Manager of the Year that season. Just like anyone else, it seems managers have their blind spots. Joe Girardi received high marks for bullpen management, but rarely put together an ideal lineup for a Yankees team that won five more games than their Pythagorean record says they should have. Clint Hurdle maximized his team’s ability to score runs, but they wound up winning just 78 games. Both Girardi and Hurdle have previously won “Manager of the Year” awards, which would seem to indicate they know how to handle a baseball team even though it did not result in a playoff berth for either of their teams that year in particular.
Perhaps the most important aspects of a manager’s job are the things that can’t be quantified. For example, what sort of relationship does he have with the front office? How often does he speak with minor league coaches? How much research does he do on trends in the game? How does he deal with disagreements between players or coaches? It’s difficult to know if his team’s performance, relative to their projections, is a result of how he handles those intangibles, the various in-game decisions he makes, or both.
There is no track record on which to judge Hyde. As a relatively young coach that has been hired by forward-thinking Mike Elias, one would expect him to grade out well on the analytically-slanted rigors of the job. As a disciple of Joe Maddon, he seems fit to perform well as a man manager as well. But even if Hyde comes into town ready to roll, the best he can expect to do is improve these Orioles by a few games, not the 50 games they missed a playoff spot by in 2018.
The overwhelming pressure of making this team a contender, regardless of who makes up the coaching staff, remains on the shoulders of Elias, his front office staff and ownership’s willingness to spend in areas that they have long ignored. The Orioles have had a systemic problem for a long time. It’s why their pitchers have been bad for nearly twenty years. It’s why they routinely struggle to develop premium talent. And it’s why their minor league system has lagged behind the rest of the league.
Putting a talented coaching staff in place is important. They can help nurture major league talent from competitive to contender, but it’s still up to Elias and crew to supply them with enough talent to get started.