The Pirates Have To Fire John Russell

In light of Dejan Kovacevic’s damning piece on the Pirates’ historically awful 2010 campaign today, as well as this well-argued John Russell post on Bucs Dugout, I believe now is as good a time as any to state what seems like an increasingly inevitable conclusion: The Pirates cannot retain John Russell as their manager into 2011.

Personally, I have long been of the opinion that a manager in baseball has little to no tangible effect on a team’s record — managers in baseball aren’t comparable to NFL head coaches, who are universally instrumental in the building and development of their franchises as well as their players’ in-game performances, or NHL coaches, who can will a decent team to exceptional performance with defensive schemes and tactical inspiration (See: 2009-10 Phoenix Coyotes). To me, baseball managers exist to manage the personalities of an MLB clubhouse over the course of a 162-game grind, to manage playing time and pitchers’ innings properly, and to make minor in-game tactical decisions. When a manager has been given a team like the 2010 Pirates to work with, there’s simply not much they can do to affect the win column on a daily basis.

That being said, when a team like the Pirates is projected to win between 70-74 games by various neutral preseason statistical simulations (their Vegas Over/Under was 71 wins), and they’re currently on pace to come in between 53 and 54 wins, then clearly, even by the Pirates’ minuscule capabilities coming into this season, they have vastly underachieved. I’m not blaming the failures of the Pirates’ pitching staff or of Huntington’s reclamation projects directly onto Russell, nor am I even really blaming their record on Russell, but put quite simply, when a team performs as across-the-board terribly as the Bucs have this year, it’s impossible to argue that the manager’s effect on the team — even if it’s extremely minor or even nonexistent — has been a positive one.

The fact that managers are so replaceable in MLB is all the more reason why firing Russell and heading into 2011 with a fresh start makes such obvious sense. I’m certainly not arguing that another manager could’ve made the 2010 Bucs competitive, but I simply don’t see why the Pirates wouldn’t take the extremely rudimentary step of hiring a new manager for 2011 to get a fresh voice into the clubhouse and make a clean break from a season of legendary futility. No matter how often we fall back on the “this specific thing isn’t Russell’s fault” argument, at this painful juncture, I cannot imagine what negatives could possibly result from the Pirates bringing in a new manager, provided he doesn’t, say, suplex Jose Tabata or something.

I posted a lot of these thoughts in more detail on this Bucs Dugout thread, which I’ve posted after the jump — sorry for the lazy copy-paste approach, but I already resent the amount of energy I expound analyzing the Pirates on a daily basis, and I have no interest in doubling that amount:

My Initial Comment:

Yes, The Pirates lack talent, but…

For all the legitimate claims that could be made in Russell’s defense that he hasn’t been given much to work with, the 2010 Pirates were still projected to win 70 games by PECOTA, 74 games by CHONE, and their Vegas Over/Under was 71. If they continue on their current .331 pace, they’ll end up with between 53 and 54 wins, significantly under all three already-modest projections. Even if they run off a decent winning streak, which seems less and less likely by the day, they’re still almost certainly gonna come in under 65 wins.

Basically, Russell has been handed a bad team, but they’re still badly underachieving in the W/L column, to say nothing of the above individual player regression examples.

Links – PECOTA, CHONE, Vegas

Response by Adam Reynolds:

We can’t really blame Russell for Iwamura, Clement, Morton, etc. drastically under-performing their CHONE levels.

My Response:

Certainly not on a straight-literal basis, but surely we have to judge a coaching staff to some degree on its ability to have a collection of talent live up to its potential, right?

The under-performance of Iwamura and Clement was obviously painful, but it didn’t cost the team 16 wins, and the team hasn’t played any better from a W/L standpoint since those two were taken out of the lineup months ago (they were .359 on June 15th, Aki’s last game). CHONE also didn’t likely expect Neil Walker to take over as a reliable starting 2B or for Jose Tabata to be a 2 WAR player , and they’re still nowhere near their projected pace. [Ed Note – WAR explanation here, if you’re not familiar]

Whether it’s a series of isolated misfortunes or something fundamentally wrong with the coaching staff, the Pirates are still badly underperforming this year.

Response by Adam Reynolds:

It’s more a combination of isolated misfortunes, and Huntington overestimating the talent of most of the major-league acquisitions. Iwamura was out of shape, but if he spent most of the offseason in Japan, then what is John Russell, Long, and Varsho supposed to do? Go in there and monitor his food intake?

Multiple organizations (Mariners, Dodgers, Braves, Mets, Nationals) couldn’t turn Clement, LaRoche, Morton, and Milledge into productive major leaguers. It’s not just the Pirates coaching staff who struggled to extract value here. Maybe the talent just wasn’t there.

Response by Thunder:


the Pirates admitted they didn’t even do a physical on Aki when they acquired him.

My Response:

I’m obviously not blaming Russell for Iwamura, or saying that Russell specifically didn’t do something that he should have to get value out of Clement – like many people on this thread, I believe that a manager has little if any tangible impact on a team’s W/L record, particularly a team with a 70-win projection. But still, when a team has supposed 70-74 win talent, and absolutely everything goes wrong across the board, it’s tough to argue that whatever small intangible effect the manager has had on that team has in any way been a positive one.

I will agree that the initial PECOTA projections are largely marginalized by the fact that most of the projected starters have flamed out (Andy went from 2.4 WAR in ‘09 to -1.4 WAR this year, and Morton from 0.7 WAR in 97 IP last year to -2.8 in 46 IP this year), but even if you argue that the team’s extra-suckiness (meaning 54 wins instead of 70-74) is mostly the result of unrelated incidents that don’t reflect poorly on the coaching staff, it’s still almost impossible to argue that Russell has had a positive effect on this club, particularly when the few things we can directly pin to the manager — meaning, the many specific incidents relayed in the post above — are unambiguously questionable.

Does anyone actually think that this current ballclub would be losing even more games with another manager? Either Russell has had a negative effect on the team, or he’s had little to no effect on the team — I can buy either argument, but neither is enough of a reason to re-sign him next year.

Response by Adam Reynolds:

He’s already re-signed for next year.

I think coaching has some effect. For example, Alvarez, Walker, and Jones have failed to make progress on defense. Some of that reflects on Carlos Garcia. There’s a very good case for him to be canned.

To fire Russell, I’d want to know what specifically he is in charge of regarding player development. You can’t lay the record on his shoulders b/c of in-game decisions. Some in-game moves may have shaved away 3-5 wins, but he isn’t responsible for most of this disaster, unless there’s more that I don’t know.

My Response:

Sorry, by “re-signed” just meant “brought back.” Though if Russell is retained but not extended, his job status instantly becomes one of the biggest stories looming over next spring.

Also, if the pitching, hitting, and defense all across the board either fail to improve or outright regress, at what point does that kick back up to the manager? If we’re going to fire every positional coach in the regime, why not start fresh with a new manager?



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