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Is Don Mattingly The Best Former Player Managing Today?

Miami manager Don Mattingly talks about his team at the Winter Meetings.Arturo Pardavila III, Hoboken, NJ, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

By Sean Millerick

Earlier this week, I published a piece on the unique connection shared between Don Mattingly and Charlie Montoyo. While I encourage you to find it and read it, for the sake of your edification and my page views, what the special connection boiled down to was the fact the two are the only managers in all of MLB right now that spent their entire MLB careers with one team. 

Mattingly did so by dint of a Hall of Fame caliber career in pinstripes with the New York Yankees, whereas Montoyo did so with the much humbler showing of five at- bats with the Montreal Expos.

I stumbled across this while researching another idea entirely, which was essentially which MLB team came out the best when you played Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon: MLB Manager edition.

I believe the answer to that question is the Boston Red Sox, but I freely admit to losing interest once I realized my beloved Miami Marlins were not the answer, as I thought they might be. You’ll have to check my math on that one.  

However, all this fun manager research did put me in the position of taking a really close look at who is currently calling the shots for all 30 MLB teams.

Two things had become painfully clear. Firstly, I really need help, with time management at a minimum and likely a great deal more. Secondly though, and of much more importance and interest, is this: 

Don Mattingly is far and away the best former player managing right now. 

Frankly, it’s not even close, and hasn’t been for a while. His career WAR of 42.4 is at least 20 points ahead of every active manager except Dusty Baker (37.0), and with all due respect to Dusty, I don’t think it’s heretical of me to say Mattingly was a much better player.

Craig Counsell is next on the WAR list at 22.4, just edging out Mark Kotsay’s 21.3 mark. Counsell and Kotsay were certainly useful contributors in their careers, sometimes as starters, often as role players, and just feel like the kind of player you expect to end up managing a team. 

Which brought me to a simple question: why?  

Why is it that more superstars, or even just pretty good players, don’t end up as managers? Granted, WAR isn’t everything when it comes to player evaluation.

Mike Matheny has a career mark of -0.5 but won four Gold Gloves. It obviously isn’t a clear prerequisite for quality managing either; Tony La Russa had -0.6 WAR as a player but seems to have figured out how to make it as a manager anyway.

At least six current managers have never had so much as a single MLB at-bat. Still, it seems odd that only one active skipper has anything close to a Cooperstown resume. 

And that’s actually been true for decades. Mattingly is one of only five former MVP winners to win a Manager of the Year award, which he picked up after the 2020 season. Kirk Gibson is the only other person to do it this century, and he last managed in 2014.

Courtesy of same great research at Baseball:Past and Present, it would appear that out of the 57 players with 50+ WAR who became a manager, only six started playing baseball after 1960. That’s insane. Put a much simpler way, that means you can probably count on one hand the number of MLB managers ever selected with any kind of enthusiasm in a fantasy baseball draft.  

So why so few? After all, this lack of superstar managing wasn’t always the case. Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, and Cy Young all managed. Pretty sure I remember hearing something about Pete Rose giving it a whirl as well. WAR-wise, 12 managers had a 100+ career as a player. Yet in 2022, we’re tipping our caps to Donnie’s 42.4 mark.  

Blame it on television and money.

The opportunities to make money while staying connected to the game are just so much more prolific than they once were. ESPN, MLB Network, Fox Sports, even just RSNs and local radio all provide lucrative positions for former players.

Seemingly every team has also chosen to hire at least one special assistant, largely ambassadorial positions that are just as much about exciting the fans as they are about really contributing to the team. Though some absolutely do offer real value (you’ll never hear me criticize the value of letting any baseball player interact with Ichiro). Teams have infinitely more money to throw around these days. 

Consequently, player earnings are also drastically higher, especially for the game’s elite. These people don’t need to work another day in their lives, and for some it’s debatable if their children will have to do all that much either. On that note, baseball unquestionably takes players away from their family more than other sport. If financial necessity isn’t a factor, why hit the road again? It could be that simple.

However, I think a final culprit could be the analytics age. Again, at least six active managers never played. I doubt anyone reading this expects that number to regress.

The MLB manager of the future is much more likely to resemble Jonah Hill’s character in Moneyball than, say, Tom Hank’s slugger-turned-skipper in A League of Their Own. A bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but not by much. Managing is hard, and much more cerebral than it once was. 

Then again, maybe things start to swing back the other way in the coming years. I wouldn’t bet against Joey Votto making the Hall as a player and a manager. Right now, though? It’s Don Mattingly by a mile at the top. 

Sean Millerick is a diehard Miami Marlins fan but still finds cause for hope every Spring Training. He currently writes for @CallToThePen. You can find him on Twitter @miasportsminute.

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