Nationals manager Jim Riggleman just finished the first year of his two-year contract, but the second year can be bought out for $100,000 now that the season is over. Yet, next season Riggleman will only make $700,000, so the question really is, which is the better deal?
Similar to an analysis which focuses primarily on walks, strikeouts, and hit dispersion (ground ball%, lind drive%, fly ball%, etc.), an analysis of managers should consider only the things a manager can control, such as intentional walks allowed, stolen base attempts, bunt attempts, the players on the field at any given time, and positioning. These latter two categories would involve some play-by-play analysis which I just don't have abilities to do right now. We can to some extent, however, investigate the first three categories.
If you've read Baseball Between the Numbers, then you know that walks are never good and that intentional walks are even worse-in the latter case you didn't even try to get the batter out. The analysis mostly comes from the run-expectancy table which lists every possible scenario in a baseball game and the runs that have scored on average from the time that situation occurred to the end of the inning. As you can see, putting a man on never seems to help.
But you might argue that the intentional walk could be a good idea if the person being walked is as good as, say, Barry Bonds in his prime. But even then, unless you are an extreme risk-taker (which is not good for your health), it is still a bad idea to issue the free pass.
I can still imagine some situations where the intentional walk could help (bases empty, 1 out, 8th batter is up, pitcher hits 80% ground balls and runs like molasses) but in most cases it is a destructive play. Our man Riggleman called for the intentional walk more often than all but three other managers this year.
The stolen base is one of the more controversial plays in baseball, but sabermetricians are not as rigid in their condemnation in the stolen base as you may think. If we reference the run-expectancy table, we can see that advancing a man without giving up an out is always a good play. The problem is, however, that making an out far outweighs the gain of making a successful steal. Additionally the other supposed gains of stealing bases ("making things happen," throwing off the defense, yadda yadda yadda) are minimal if not detrimental; for instance, batters seem to actually do worse after a successful steal.
Essentially what this analysis tells us is that there is nothing wrong with stealing bases if you do it at a high enough rate. Even then, however, the best runners are still only usually capable of successfully stealing no better than 80% of the time. Assuming that a runner must be successful 75% of the time just to break-even (this number is derived from more recent run-expectancy tables) this means that the variation in runs netted from stealing is very small. In the Majors this past season, the team that hurt itself the most stealing was the White Sox with 15.5 runs lost and the team that helped itself the most was the Philles with a gain of 11.25 runs. With the sabermetric rule of thumb that ten runs is worth one game, the Phillies got themselves about one win through stealing and the White Sox lost about one over the course of the entire season.
The Nationals were in the middle of the pack last year, with 3.25 runs lost from stealing. They were, however, 10th in the Majors in stolen base attempts, the effect of which needs more play-by-play analysis to quantify. What should be becoming clear, however, is that Riggleman is a big fan of small-ball.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the category of bunt attempts. Again, sabermetricians are not entirely rigid on bunting but they are reasonable: a bunt is a good play in a few situations (bad hitter up, value of one more run is very high, runner on first, perhas) but in most situations it is not. This conclusion again essentially comes from the run-expectancy table. Now, as I have already mentioned, I cannot go through the play-by-play data right now and determine whether every time Riggleman called for the bunt it was a good idea but I'm going to bet not. The Nationals bunted more than any other team this season and because their percentage of bunts that went for hits was so low (.197), I'm guessing most of those were sacrifices. (Nyjer Morgan's 12 hits on 49 bunt attempts didn't help.) I think it would be pretty uncontroversial of me to say that this is not good.
As for lineup and bullpen management, Mike Morse rode the bench too long and Nyjer Morgan didn't ride for long enough, Tyler Walker (when he was healthy) and Joel Peralta should have gotten more innings and Miguel Batista and Doug Slaten fewer, and I'm going to make a crazy guess here and say that Riggleman pinch-hit, played match-ups incorrectly (At some point in June Riggleman claimed Morse was hitting worse against righties than lefties when the opposite was true), and didn't get the most out of his closer amongst many other problems. His positioning was also probably pretty bad (but probably not much worse than anyone else's). That's right, Riggleman is probably one of the worst managers in the Majors in terms of game management.
But Riggleman, by all accounts, seems to be a great guy. He also does not seem to be much of a player's manager, which I've heard is a good thing. Finally, all these statistical shortcomings may have a fairly small impact considering how bad the Nats are. But, if they get Brandon Webb and a few other guys this offseason, they could be looking at contention soon, and Riggleman's small impact will be felt much more strongly.
Even deeper than this, however, is the question of what a manager is really good for. We have very precise ways of quantitatively judging a manger's decisions. That is, we know the optimal strategy that a manager should be undertaking. This means that questions of strategy (Should I bunt right now? Who should I bring in to close and when should I bring him in?) should largely be taken out of a manager's hands. Instead a Moneyball situation should prevail in clubhouses, with Art Howe managers looking the part and not letting their players know that cold logic is dictating their playing time. This is because managers are simply not as good at calculations as computers and computers are not as good as looking like managers as managers.
What I'm trying to say here, is who cares about Jim Riggleman? He's so cheap that it doesn't really matter what he does (He won't do anything too crazy because he's an old-timer) and, besides, it should really be Mike Rizzo making his decisions. That is, we should really be asking why a Moneyball situation isn't happening in the Nats clubhouse right now. Or maybe that is already the case, which means we're in a lot more trouble than I thought.