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Managing Expectations

By Nathaniel S. Rakich, None

WASHINGTON, D.C. — During his short tenure as manager of the Washington Nationals, Manny Acta witnessed 28 members of Congress lose their jobs due to poor performances; you’d think he’d have gotten the memo. Instead, he led the Nats to the worst first half of the baseball season in their history—and was promptly fired himself.

Except Acta probably did get the memo. Rumors about his job security have flown around Washington for months, and yet his team did no better. That, frankly, reflects a baseball reality that few are willing to concede: A manager has no significant impact on his team’s win total.

It might be specious to suggest that Acta could have just flipped a switch to become a better manager and save his job—except that this very logic is necessary to substantiate the belief that managers do make a difference. Take, for example, Joe Maddon, the celebrated manager of the Tampa Bay Rays. In his third year in Tampa, Maddon took the Rays to the World Series—after finishing dead last his first two years. Maddon is now regarded as one of the league’s best, because he succeeded in flipping that switch.

In reality, the performance and talent of a team’s players make the real difference—a difference that might be correlated, in part, with the advice of a batting or pitching coach, but not with the more bureaucratic manager. It’s true that a manager does make strategic decisions about how to use that talent; the foundation of his job description includes fitting together a lineup and deciding when to make mid-game substitutions, especially of the pitcher. But while strategic decisions may turn the tide in one or two games, they’re hardly enough to mean the difference between a good team and a bad team over the course of a season.

Moreover, a manager’s decisions fail as often as they succeed, depending on luck or the smallest minutiae of a player’s performance. A manager might make the logical call to take out a starting pitcher after 130 pitches over eight and two-thirds shutout innings in a 1-0 game, but fans and pundits will cry foul if the next batter hits a home run.

Of course. that’s all theoretical, but it holds up in practice. Countless managers (Joe Torre and Terry Francona are two) only began to enjoy a winning reputation after escaping their jobs managing perennial losers—and taking the reins for teams with true talent. It also cannot be a coincidence that good teams are never considered to have sub-par managers.

The only remaining area where a manager might seem to make a difference lies in the intangibles he brings to the clubhouse: his ability to defuse conflicts, to maintain optimism, and to instill motivation in his team. But, ultimately, these too belong to the players. No matter how fiery a pep talk is, it takes major-league determination to channel it into a five-RBI night. Teams don’t win when they think they can win; teams win when they have good reason to think they can win.

The Nationals do not have that. In fact, they have the worst pitching and the worst defense in their league; that’s not Acta’s fault, and his firing is an unfortunate part of how the game is played. If they are serious about competing, the Nationals need to focus on making changes, on the field and in the mindset of their front office, that will fix what’s actually broken.

Nathaniel S. Rakich ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Cabot House. He suggests firing Julian Tavarez instead.

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