Saturday, November 3, 2007

Coaches vs. Managers

The start of the NBA season has provided the opportunity for certain reflections on the differences between the role of baseball manager and basketball coach, which, when considered practically, cause recent happenings amongst the management of various New York teams to be appear bizarre.

The advent of Sabermetric thinking in baseball has led to many new conclusions, some of them controversial and difficult to accept (such as the non-existence of clutch, and the fact that weather a ball put in play is caught or falls for a hit is a piece of luck that has absolutely nothing to do with the pitcher) and others that are fairly intuitive—in this latter category I would place the revelation that the manager has a minor effect, if any, on the outcome of a baseball season. This is intuitive, because all that a manager in baseball really does is determine the batting order, set the rotation and decide on which relievers to use; occasionally they will put on the hit-and-run, or have a hitter bunt, but these situations come up relatively rarely. Success or failure in baseball has almost entirely to do with the individual battle between pitcher and batter. Having good or bad pitchers or hitters will outweigh good or bad management; there is no statistical evidence that certain managers, by virtue of their presence, leadership, or teaching are able to get their hitters to hit more and their pitchers to throw more strikes. If the Mets were able to obtain Johan Santana at the expense of being managed by the 9th caller on the Mike and the Mad Dog show, they would be idiots not to accept.

The basketball coach, however, would seem to have a more significant role in determining his team’s fortunes. Different coaches employ different scoring and defensive strategies; the coach determines which five players will be on the floor at any given time, and they will occasionally stop play to give their players very specific instructions about where to run, who to guard, and what to do in response to specific, possible actions on the part of the opposing team—and all of these things could have an effect on the outcome of the game that was more or less independent of the skill of the players. Furthermore since basketball involves players working closely together, precisely timing passes, rebounds and shot attempts, it might not be wrong to consider the impact of “intangibles” like “chemistry” and “teamwork”—and again it seems that the coach could have some effect, by either creating or failing to create an environment that leads his players to work well together; in baseball, whenever someone is talking about chemistry or teamwork it is a generally a sign that you can stop paying attention.

As a result, the commotion surrounding Torre’s departure from the Yankees struck people with a serious statistical interest as a little bit weird. Torre had the distinction of being the highest paid guy ever at a job that was fairly irrelevant, so good for him. He had shown himself to be reasonably be good at it and has some ability to deal with Steinbrners and A-Rods and the New York media—all good accomplishments, but perhaps not seven million dollars worth of accomplishments. You can definitely argue that seven million dollars is too much money to pay a guy for a job that is fairly unimportant; you could also argue that the Yankees have all the money in the world, and that there was no good reason to not bring back Torre, since he had clearly shown himself to not be horrible—mainly you can argue that a new manager is WAY less important to the Yankees (and every other baseball team ever) than a new starter and maybe another arm or two out of the bullpen.

However, it is particularly interesting to contemplate the irrelevance of the departed Torre, and contrast it with the possible relevance of the contract-extended Isaiah Thomas. Every year that Torre managed, the Yankees made the playoffs—and even if the manager is irrelevant, it is impossible to say the Torre’s teams were not successful. Thomas has turned the Knicks into a disaster on pretty much every imaginable level—not only has he coached the mediocre players that he himself assembled (and mortgaged the franchises’ future to assemble) to a loosing record last year, but he then managed to drag the franchise name through the mud of a really embarrassing lawsuit.

So, Torre had an unimportant job and was kind of good at it, and got fired/given an offer he had to refuse. And Isaiah Thomas has a job that probably does matter, and is measurably awful at it, and got a contract extension.

Weird, right?

(I actually sort of like Zeke, but that’s just because I know that I wouldn’t find the Knicks more amusing if they won...and because I also don't give a fuck about all those white people)

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