In-season managerial changes a risk
Rockies have been successful, but move rarely works
DENVER -- On May 29, the Colorado Rockies were 18-28. They had just been swept by the Dodgers, had lost eight of their last 12 games and were already 14 games out of first place in the NL West. General manager Dan O'Dowd decided to pull the trigger and replace manager Clint Hurdle.
"As an organization, we're not a big believer in making changes," O'Dowd explained. "Putting myself in Clint's shoes, I believe it was best to make a change. He may not believe that, but I put myself in his shoes every day. It just got to a point that a change had to me made.
He replaced Hurdle with Jim Tracy, the Rockies' bench coach and former manager of the Dodgers and Pirates. Predisposed against change as he was, O'Dowd looked back to his last managerial move -- replacing Buddy Bell with Hurdle early in the 2002 season -- and saw some similarities. Tracy, he figured, had definitive ideas of how to right the Rox.
"They only work when you have a specific plan in mind of why you're making the change," O'Dowd said. "If you make a change for change sake, you have absolutely no chance for it working."
Usually, teams that change managers during a season don't become contenders. In fact, in the past 10 years there have been 30 in-season managerial changes, and only eight resulted in the new managers posting winning records.
The Rockies are 28-11 under Tracy and at one point won 17 of 18. They are bucking to join just a handful of clubs that became playoff teams after switching skippers. For example:
The 1989 Blue Jays fell to 12-24 with Jimy Williams running the team. A switch to Cito Gaston flipped the switch, and the Jays went 77-49 the rest of the way and made the playoffs.
The 2004 Astros, once more under Williams, were 44-44. Phil Garner took over, and the team went 48-26 and eventually made it to the National League Championship Series. The following year, the Astros won the NL pennant.
The 2003 Marlins started 16-22 under Jeff Torborg. Veteran manager Jack McKeon took over and led the team to a World Series title.
In one of the more stunning moves, last Sept. 15 the Brewers had an 83-67 record but had lost 11-of-14 games and feared their first playoff berth in 25 years was slipping away. So they dismissed Ned Yost. The Brewers went 7-5 under Dale Sveum and made the playoffs.
This is not the National Hockey League, where three of the final four playoff teams this year, including the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, fired their coaches during the season. Changing the manager in baseball is usually a sign of problems not only on the field, but in the clubhouse, the front office and the Minor League system. Such teams are rarely one personnel move away from winning.
"I can't speak for any other sport, but in the history of the game it doesn't work," O'Dowd said. "A lot of times when you make a change, you've got deep-seeded problems that don't go away overnight. And usually your personnel is not very good either. History shows making a change is not an elixir."
That's why such a decision can be agonizing, the way it was for O'Dowd, who doesn't mention removing Hurdle -- who led the team to the 2007 World Series -- without mentioning their friendship, saying it was best for Hurdle, even if Hurdle, who had been at the Rockies helm since late April 2002, didn't agree.
O'Dowd said he made the move because he felt Tracy could quickly implement his priorities.
What makes such a move work? New strategies? A different voice? Shock value? All of the aforementioned changes figured in those successful changes. With the Rockies, all have applied to the turnaround.
|Since 2000, teams have made in-season managerial changes 30 times.|
|2001||BOS||Jimy Williams||Joe Kerrigan||65-53||17-26|
|2001||FLA||John Boles||Tony Perez||22-26||54-60|
|2001||MON||Felipe Alou||Jeff Torborg||21-32||47-62|
|2001||TB||Larry Rothschild||Hal McRae||58-90||4-10|
|2001||TEX||Johnny Oates||Jerry Narron||11-17||62-72|
|2002||CHC||Don Baylor||Rene Lachemann/Bruce Kimm||34-39||33-46|
|2002||CLE||Charlie Manuel||Joel Skinner||39-47||35-41|
|2002||COL||Buddy Bell||Clint Hurdle||6-16||67-73|
|2002||DET||Phil Garner||Luis Pujols||0-6||55-100|
|2002||KC||Tommy Muser||John Mizerock/Tony Pena||8-15||54-85|
|2002||MIL||Davey Lopes||Jerry Royster||3-12||53-94|
|2002||TOR||Buck Martinez||Carlos Tosca||20-33||58/51|
|2003||CIN||Bob Boone||Ray Knight/Dave Miley||46-58||23-35|
|2003||FLA||Jeff Torborg||Jack McKeon*||16-22||75-48|
|2004||ARI||Bob Brenly||Al Pedrique||29-50||22-61|
|2004||HOU||Jimy Williams||Phil Garner**||44-44||48-26|
|2004||PHI||Larry Bowa||Gary Varsho||85-75||1-1|
|2004||TOR||Carlos Tosca||John Gibbons||47-64||20-30|
|2005||BAL||Lee Mazzilli||Sam Perlozzo||51-56||23-32|
|2005||CIN||Dave Miley||Jerry Narron||27-43||46-46|
|2005||KC||Tony Pena||Bob Schaefer/Buddy Bell||8-25||48-81|
|2005||PIT||Lloyd McClendon||Pete Mackanin||55-81||12-14|
|2007||BAL||Sam Perlozzo||Dave Trembley||29-40||40-53|
|2007||CIN||Jerry Narron||Pete Mackanin||31-51||41-39|
|2007||HOU||Phil Garner||Cecil Cooper||58-73||15-16|
|2007||SEA||Mike Hargrove||John McLaren||45-33||43-41|
|2008||MIL||Ned Yost||Dale Svuem||83-67||7-5|
|2008||NYM||Willie Randolph||Jerry Manuel||34-35||55-38|
|2008||SEA||John McLaren||Jim Riggleman||25-47||36-54|
|2008||TOR||John Gibbons||Cito Gaston||35-39||51-37|
|2009||ARI||Bob Melvin||A.J. Hinch||12-17||N/A|
|2009||COL||Clint Hurdle||Jim Tracy||18-28||N/A|
|*Won World Series|
**Won Wild Card
The Rockies and the recent teams that made the playoffs after in-season managerial changes were teams with accomplished or highly regarded rosters that underperformed. A common theme is that they felt the surge was inevitable.
"We just had to get comfortable," Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta said of this year's club. "At the start of the season you're still kind of finding your swing, finding your stride. The more you keep playing, over time, it rights itself."
Dodgers catcher Brad Ausmus, who played for Garner's Astros, can identify.
"We had the type of lineup that I think, left to our own devices, we probably would have come around anyway," Ausmus said. "We had Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Jeff Kent, Carlos Beltran. We were just really underperforming. The argument can be made that we eventually would have won if everything was left as is."
But a different set of eyes, and ideas, can help.
Garner, who was living in Houston and watching the club, made several changes. He moved Bagwell from cleanup, where his declining power had become an issue, to No. 2, which allowed him to concern himself with getting on base and unlocked the potential of the man behind him -- Lance Berkman. Garner said he also pushed buttons earlier in games to use productive bench players such as Mike Lamb, Jose Vizcaino and Orlando Palmiero. The regular use of Vizcaino paid off when he replaced an injured Adam Everett and played well at shortstop.
The biggest move, however, was solidifying the bullpen.
"The bullpen was going to be priority No. 1," Garner said. "We got Dan Wheeler in a trade [with the Mets], Chad Qualls came up from the Minors and pitched great. Then Brad Lidge, I just told him, 'You're the closer, go do it.'"
Tracy, who was Hurdle's bench coach, is managing with a plan that has become clear. A starting rotation that has turned out frequent quality starts all season now is trusted to go deeper, by about an inning. He has tried to establish a bullpen order based on matchups -- a plan Hurdle couldn't use because several of the relievers who started the season performed so poorly that they were removed from the roster.
But the biggest difference is sticking to a lineup. Two key moves were establishing second baseman Clint Barmes at No. 2 and showing consistency with shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who hit sixth at first and now is at No. 5 more often than not.
Earlier in the season, Hurdle kept changing his lineup, mainly because just about everyone fell into a slump at one time or another. Hurdle's policy of benching a player for two or more games for intense sessions with hitting coach Don Baylor led to many changes.
"I know there's a very, very good chance when I come to the field each and every day that I'm going to be able to help the team in some way," Tulowitzki said. "Before, it was partly my fault. I wasn't playing that well. But I had to check and see if I was in there. Some days I was, some days I wasn't. "You're usually hitting in the same spot. You know who's hitting behind you. You just become accustomed to things that are happening."
Change for Change's Sake?
|Teams that advanced to the postseason after replacing managers in-season:|
|2008||Milwaukee Brewers||Ned Yost||Dale Sveum|
|2004||Houston Astros||Jimy Williams||Phil Garner|
|2003||Florida Marlins||Jeff Torborg||Jack McKeon*|
|1996||Los Angeles Dodgers||Tommy Lasorda||Bill Russell|
|1989||Toronto Blue Jays||Jimy Williams||Cito Gaston|
|1988||Boston Red Sox||John McNamara||Joe Morgan|
|1983||Philadelphia Phillies||Pat Corrales||Paul Owens|
|1982||Milwaukee Brewers||Buck Rodgers||Harvey Kuenn|
|1981||Kansas City Royals||Jim Frey||Dick Howser|
|1981||Montreal Expos||Dick Williams||Jim Fanning|
|1981||New York Yankees||Gene Michael||Bob Lemon|
|1978||New York Yankees||Billy Martin||Bob Lemon*|
|1947||Brooklyn Dodgers||Clyde Sukeforth||Burt Shotton|
|1938||Chicago Cubs||Charlie Grimm||Gabby Hartnett|
|1932||Chicago Cubs||Rogers Hornsby||Charlie Grimm|
|*Won World Series|
Note: The 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers had Clyde Sukeforth as interim manager for the first two games of the season (Leo Durocher was suspended for the year) until Burt Shotton took over.
"They learn to hit by walking up there," Tracy said. "They can hit in this cage. They can hit at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. They can swing and swing and swing, but the evolution of understanding who they are, what goes into being a Major League hitter, they've got to march to the plate during the game and take Major League at-bats."
Dodgers outfielder Juan Pierre, a part of the Marlins' turnaround in 2003, said it's not always true that players on underachieving teams want the manager pushed out the door.
"But maybe it's a different personality or a different voice," Pierre said. "I'm not a parent, but I know some parents can tell their child to do something over and over again. Then maybe they have an aunt or an uncle or a neighbor tell the child the same thing, and the child listens.
"It applies to kids, and sometimes it applies to professional athletes."
In Houston in '04, the situation called for urgency.
"Garner came in with the attitude, 'I've only got three months. I don't care if I hurt feelings, you'll do it my way,'" Ausmus said.
With the Rockies, there has been a change in tone.
Hurdle has a deep, booming voice. His whisper could make a floor shake. Players have described it as intimidating. Tracy's voice is raspy but light. But to describe the presence of Hurdle's personality as a hindrance and the change having quelled that is a slippery slope that players artfully avoided.
"With Hurdle, he was obviously very outspoken, very loud -- he got his point across in different ways than Tracy does," Tulowitzki said.
Third baseman Garrett Atkins said, "I don't think it had much to do with that. Tracy has kind of kept to himself. He stays in his office for the most part. But you've noticed the changes out there on the field in the way he's managed the game."
Nothing changes an atmosphere like key victories. Pierre recalls June 28, 2003. The Marlins went into the eighth trailing the Red Sox, 9-2, but scored four in the eighth and four in the ninth to win, 10-9. It was a day after the Red Sox had scored 14 in the first inning and beat the Marlins, 25-8.
"I think that game showed us we can definitely play with anybody if we don't give up or give in," Pierre said.
The Rockies, traditionally a poor road team, point to a road sweep of the Cardinals and a three-game sweep of the Brewers, both in enemy territory, as their turning points. Both teams led the NL Central when the Rockies arrived. The sweeps were part of a club record-tying 11-game win streak.
"We were like, 'If we can do this on the road, we can definitely do it at home,'" Tulowtizki said. "That gave us a great deal of confidence."
Shock only goes so far
The Brewers' move last season was the ultimate surprise. And, yes, the Brewers made the playoffs. But Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash isn't recommending it to everyone.
"I don't know if we'll ever know that answer," Ash said. "You have to balance the shock value of it, which I guess is why you make the change, with the upheaval of it. No matter what side of the issue you are on, and for us there were some in favor, some against, it becomes an upheaval. Usually, over time, what's shown is that continuity is better. Continuity works best."
Ash was also assistant GM with the '89 Blue Jays, who took off after switching to Gaston, a soft-spoken hitting coach.
"The team was dramatically underperforming, and that time it was just like the Rockies [this season]," Ash said. "They just took off. It was a complete turnaround, and they made the playoffs. The dynamics are such that if the players have decided that they have quit on the manager, they are unfortunately stubborn enough to take that out on the field." Garner also mentioned the ugly truth about some clubs.
"I knew Jimy Williams a little bit, and a part of me is a bit sorry, because to get that opportunity means someone else got fired," Garner said. "In today's game, not very often if a team stops playing for its manager does it turn out well.
"Unless you're a Tony La Russa or Bobby Cox or Joe Torre, or if the owner comes out and signs you to a two-year deal, a change happens more often than not."
No one has said the Rockies stopped playing for Hurdle, but the tightness with which it played in close games suggested that the manager's tenuous status had become a distraction. But just a few days before the decision, the players called a team meeting and looked at the men in the mirror.
The day he went into that team meeting, longtime star first baseman and clubhouse guru Todd Helton said, "We have to change the whole mental attitude." The conclusion during the meeting was that Hurdle was as good as gone, and there was no guarantee players would stay if the losing continued.
Tracy's plan for success
Tracy quickly moved the team toward calmness. He guaranteed players their space.
"When I spoke to them on the 29th of May, I was very up-front with them about what it was I had seen and what it was I would like to see changed," Tracy said. "But I made sure that they felt very secure in the fact that they had their area and I'm not going to invade their space. I'm not going to have them feel they're being hovered over. If they need me, they know where my office door is."
Tracy had some specific changes in mind. He wanted his hitters to be more aggressive and not let good pitches go by -- a problem from Opening Day to when the win streak started. He ordered catchers and pitchers to watch video together and discuss strategy. But most of all, he has been patient, even when games aren't perfect.
The Rockies have cooled off a bit lately, winning six of their last 10 games, and scoring three or fewer runs in eight of their last 16 games. But Tracy has continued to show patience, and a big offensive showing in a 10-4 victory over the Nationals on Wednesday afternoon and in Thursday's 7-6 win over the Braves could be read as a sign that the light touch is working.
"To me, over the last six to nine days, I don't really feel like we've been completely firing on all cylinders. The best of this offense is yet to come," Tracy said. "That being said, you go back to May 29 and other than two games, one against the Tampa Bay Rays and one against the Anaheim Angels, there has not been a game other than those two there hasn't been a game we didn't win or didn't have a chance to win.
"Now if you can come out and do that day in and day out at the Major League level over the course of a period of time, I guarantee you'll be in great shape.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Ken Gurnick and Adam McCalvy contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.