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Wak's Firing Justifiable

As reactions to Wak's firing mount, one caught my eye over at FanGraphs. You can read it here, but basically Matt Carruth argues that Wak's, or any manager's impact, is hard to quantify. However, he concludes that no matter the impact, it probably wasn't enough to make the M's sink or swim. They are bad because they don't have talent.

I was all geared up to agree, but as I lined up my supporting data, I realized that I might have to reassess my stance.

I started with one of the cooler baseball geek tools on the internet, the lineup analysis tool at Baseball Musings. Good luck spending less than an hour playing with it. I always have to try all sorts of hypotheticals.

Anyway, the lineup analysis tool spits out an expected run output for the given offense, but also provides optimal and worst lineups, because order does make a difference. Since the manager fills out the lineup card, we can think of the difference between the best and worst lineups as the difference a manager can make in offensive output.


Based on the M's "regulars" (assuming Kotchman is the starting first baseman, Branyan the DH, and Moore the catcher), the lineup analysis tool says that the 2010 Mariners should score about 3.5 runs a game. However, the lineup bottomed out at around 3.2, and maxed out around 3.7.

So, in some sense, Don Wakamatsu could have made a half run difference per game on offense. Over the course of a season, that's about 80 runs, and using the rule of thumb that 10 runs equals a win, that's an 8 win difference.

Since the Mariners are so awful, eight wins isn't a big deal. However, that is the difference between 82 and 90 wins as well, and that feels like a pretty important difference.

To my knowledge there is no pitching analysis tool, and that might be hopelessly complex to figure out anyway. However, for this argument's sake, let's just suppose that a manager can have as much of an impact on pitching as they do on hitting. That would add up to a total of 16 wins, just depending on how a manager uses the players, without considering defense, defensive replacement, pinch hitters, pinch runners, hit and runs, or sacrifice bunts. That makes managing tactics seem crucial.

However, that figure is misleading, because no manager is bad enough to throw out the worst lineups. For instance, all the worst lineups for the 2010 Mariners had Adam Moore leading off. In general, the worst combinations are so obviously bad that no MLB manager would ever consider them. The "tactical basement" for MLB managers is above what the theoretical basement is. Perhaps the more realistic basement for the 2010 M's offense is something like 3.3 runs a game. That closes the gap between the best and worst strategies to something like 6 wins on offense, and maybe 12 wins overall, making the same fast and loose assumptions from the above paragraph.

So, did Don Wakamatsu deserve to lose his job based on the managerial decisions he made? It is possible, because after looking at the lineup analysis tool, there is a strong argument that a manager can impact a team's wins total more than any individual player. If players can be released or demoted for poor performance, managers should be liable to both as well.

Adding fuel to the fire, Wak batted Michael Saunders ninth most of this season, and a majority of the M's worst lineups had Saunders hitting ninth. On the flip side though, all of the M's optimal lineups had Ichiro batting leadoff, which Wak also always did.

This is all assuming that hitters are the same hitters no matter where they hit in the lineup. However, the reality is that most hitters have different mentalities depending on where they hit, so that's a dangerous assumption to make. This argument is already complex enough though, even making sweeping assumptions about player performance.

The Mariners have scored about 3.3 runs a game, when they arguably should be scoring something more like 3.5. Assuming that is all Wak's fault, he cost the team about 20 runs this season, and about 2 wins, and that doesn't say anything about pitching choices.

This doesn't really challenge any of the mainstream analysis out there. Don Wakamatsu's managing decisions did not hold the Mariners back from greatness. Any team playing with this kind of offensive talent is destined to lose. To a degree, Wak wasn't really the problem.

However, Wakamatsu's decisions this year were as big a part of the problem as any individual player. I am not sure that is enough to warrant firing him, but his decisions were a bigger problem than I realized, and this horrible offense might have masked how detrimental they really were.