Ron Washington was this close to becoming a superstar. From Sept. 19, 2011, until late in the night on Oct. 27, 2011, Washington was one of the most popular men in sport. He was funny. He was charming. His character in the movie version of Moneyball -- which was released on that Sept. 19 -- has the best line in the whole movie, telling Chris Pratt's Scott Hatteberg about playing first base: "It's incredibly hard." (Washington's take on his portrayal was perfect: "I'm not that fat.") His dugout reactions were consistent sources of comedy, and in a different, better world, might have kicked off an international dance craze. And he was manager of a 96-win Rangers team that was young, exciting and hungry -- and loved its manager. The Rangers looked set to dominate the American League West for the next-half decade, and Washington would be right out front the whole time. I imagined him potentially becoming a late-night television guest staple, sort of baseball's version of the late Art Donovan.
And he'd have the caché too, because on about seven different occasions during the night of Oct. 27, 2011, it looked like he was going to become a World Series-winning manager. The camera wouldn't stay off him that night: His emotional, oh, gyrations became a sort of physical manifestation of the madness of 2011 World Series Game 6. He looked like how everyone watching felt.
Then the Rangers, somehow, lost. Washington had a hand in that, to be sure. Everything since then for this franchise -- one that had its fair share of angst before that game -- has engendered nothing but more pain. It is increasingly likely that, in one week, Ron Washington will no longer be the manager of the Texas Rangers. He was so close. It can happen so fast.
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The Rangers are in the midst of a nasty September collapse. ESPN's David Schoenfield has the full gruesome details, but here's the gist: The Rangers are 5-15 in September and have fallen from a two-game lead in the American League West to a game-and-a-half behind Cleveland for the final playoff spot, with six games to go. It's possible the Rangers still sneak into the wild-card game, considering they play their final six games against Houston and Anaheim, but it's not likely: Baseball Prospectus puts their odds at 35 percent. On Aug. 31, they were 98 percent. It has been a tough month, and if it doesn't turn around, Washington is certainly going to be the one to get the ax.
How much a manager actually impacts a game, and a team, has been a debate among the advanced analytics community for decades. Bill James did pioneering work in the field, though, as with most of James' early work, I tend to remember less the conclusions he came to than the fun, lively way he approached them. (James might be overrated as a baseball mind, but he's definitely underrated as a writer.) The general consensus is that a manager, all told, doesn't make that much difference on a particular game. Casey Stengel famously said, "Managing is getting paid for home runs someone else hits," and that advanced analysis bears that out. A few years ago, baseball economist J.C. Bradbury distilled the managerial position succinctly:
The nature of the game requires sending individuals up to the plate on their own to perform. There aren't plays to draw up, junk defenses to employ, or reacting to another coaching strategy. After picking the lineup, all managers can really do is pull pitchers, shift the defense, and call hit-and-run type strategies. And most of these choices could be dictated by a computer algorithm. Managers may do some coaching and stroke player egos, but I don't believe that managers have much effect on teams.
That "coaching and stroke player egos" bit, that's what has always been known as Washington's skill. Even when he'd make some questionable moves -- Joe Sheehan, a longtime Washington critic, has feasted on his odd tactical decisions for years in his terrific newsletter -- it was supposedly made up for by his clubhouse presence, by how much his players love him.
You might believe this, and you might not. I tend to agree with Bradbury: A manager doesn't make that much difference either way -- in players' heads, or on the field -- which means it mostly all comes down to that nebulous notion of "confidence." Does this guy feel like he has things moving in the right direction? Bradbury writes that a manager is, in many ways, "a public figurehead." When a team is going well, he is praised as a leader of men. When a team isn't going well, he is a convenient scapegoat, an easy head to lop off. As the saying goes, you can't fire the players.
Ron Washington probably did more harm than good for, and to, the Rangers: A bad manager can hurt his team in ways he probably can't help them. (Schoenfield's piece runs down some of Washington's dumber moves on Sunday.) But all told, he's not a different manager today than he was on Oct. 26, 2011, when the world loved him, when he was a dancing folk hero. The difference is not him. The difference is that the 2011 Rangers had a lot more people who could hit, and a lot more stable of a rotation, than the 2013 Rangers. The Rangers can't overcome Washington's relatively minor deficiencies the way they could in 2013.
If this last week doesn't turn around, he's probably going to be fired for it … but I'm not sure the move's going to make the Rangers any better, or any worse. It'll be done because it feels like it should be done. This is the way the careers of managers are going; to steal Bradbury's title, they are hired to be fired. The general manager is so much more important than a manager, but still far less of a public face. The manager's job is to deal with the media every day, make out the lineup (which is less important than we pretend it is) and keep his players from killing each other, or him. If the team happens to be winning while that happens, that's great: That makes it more likely he'll stay employed, because the fans are happy. But I'm not sure he has that much to do with it.
Mike Matheny, the current manager of the Cardinals, is, well, perhaps not the world's most skilled technical manager, and he doesn't exactly have the confidence of the fanbase. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz nails the Matheny issue here.) But it doesn't really matter, because the Cardinals are likely to win the National League Central this week, regardless of Matheny's skills and debits. He's winning, that's all that counts. But someday the Cardinals will lose when it seems like they shouldn't, and Matheny will be the one to take the hit. That is his job.
When you're a manager, you're never really up, and you're never really down. You're just along for the ride. And when the car crashes, like it is for the Rangers this week, everyone just decides to pretend you were driving all along.
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