Monday, November 9, 2015

Jump-starting a Baseball Team: Nobody Did it Better Than Billy Martin

As the baseball season recedes and focus turns to next year, a large number of teams will be changing managers, hoping to hit the jackpot. In the past, owners usually resorted to a time-honored formula of following a laid-back player's manager with a fire-breathing tyrant and vice-versa. Often there was a very sad, short list of retread managers who were undoubtedly members of the old-boy network and they simply moved about the league, invariably producing the same results over time. In short, few managerial changes made drastic improvements in a team.

It has often been stated that good players make any manager look good, and there is little a man can do without talent. But there have been a few guys who demonstrated a consistent ability to immediately shake things up. No one did it any better than Billy Martin. Discounting the too-numerous-to-count mid-season dramatics with his buddy George, Billy took over six teams between 1969 and 1983. All of them made predictable jumps in performance. In fact, he never failed.

Below are his results with these teams, with the season immediately preceding Billy followed by his first year:

                                Record             B.A      .      Runs            Steals           Sac              ERA
Twins      1968        79-83              .237              562                 98               69               2,89
                1969        97-65              .268              790                115              65               2.95
Tigers      1970        79-83              .238               666                29               83              4.09
                1971         91-71             .254               701                35               62               3.63
Rangers   1973*       57-105           .255               619                91               45               4.64
                1974         84-76             .272               640               113              81               3.82

Yankees  1975*       83-77             .264               681               102              54               3.29
                1976         97-62             .269               730               163              50               3.19

A's           1979         54-108           .239               573               104              75               4.75
                1980         83-79             .259               686               175              99               3.46

Yankees  1982         79-83             .256               709                 69              55               3.99
                1983         91-71             .273               770                 84              37               3.86

* Martin managed the last part of these seasons

Looking closely at the numbers, one is struck by the remarkable predictability of the results. An owner who replaced his manager with Billy Martin could be absolutely certain about several things, virtually without exception: the team would have an increase in batting average, runs, steals, a lower ERA, and, most importantly, an increase in wins (between 12 and 29 games)

And the numbers aren't even close. His new teams averaged an increase in batting average of .017, an increase in stolen bases of 30 (and this includes the lead-footed, veteran-laden Tiger team in which Billy wisely settled for only an increase in 6), a decrease in ERA of 0.48 and an average increase in wins of 18.67. 

Surprisingly, while some consider bunting to be a staple of the small-ball Billy preferred, sacrifice bunts only went up an average of 2.2--statistically negligible. 

While Billy's long-time pitching coach sidekick, Art Fowler, was sometimes derided as little more than a drinking buddy, it is obvious that the team of Martin-Fowler resulted in dramatic increases in pitching production. Every staff lowered it's ERA (some by as much as 1.29) under Martin except the 1969 Twins, but this must be examined with the understanding that virtually every team had a higher ERA in 1969 compared to the pitching-orgy year of 1968. This is balanced by the fact that modern pitch-count aficionados have criticized Martin for overusing his starters, particularly the young arms on the Oakland staff which turned in the curious stat in 1980 of  94 complete games and only 13 saves and were all out of baseball within a few year (by comparison, in 2015 American League teams averaged 4 complete games and 43 saves).

Some of Billy's reclamation projects were startling, particularly in Texas and Oakland where he took over moribund bottom-feeders and turned them into contenders. 

Unfortunately, for both Billy and baseball owners, there was one more thing that everyone could be absolutely certain of; one slightly annoying quid pro quo to the use of his managerial brilliance; a downside to the whole Billy Martin-as-a-team-savior thing. Invariably within two years he would do or say something that would injure or embarrass--or both--a player, an owner, a coach or a marshmallow salesman. That would render all of his on-field heroics moot and he would be shown the door. Such was the Greek tragedy that was the managing legacy of one Alfred M. Pesano, aka Billy "The Kid" Martin.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting article Doug. Martin's biography by Bill Pennington is excellent. I came away with the feeling that Martin was self-destructive because deep inside he felt undeserving of happiness.