Is Bruce Bochy One of the Best Managers in Baseball History? (Yes. Here’s Why.)

The Giants’ success starts with the players, of course — the mainstays like Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, and Madison Bumgarner who’ve come up big in the last three postseason runs. Superstitious types will cite The Even-Year Effect, which (theoretically) enabled the San Francisco squad to carve through October every even-numbered season. But at some point, we have to throw some credit to the man who has been there longer than all but two members of the current roster.1 It’s quite possible that the Giants wouldn’t be where they are now without the guidance of Bruce Bochy — one of the best managers in baseball history.

It may sound strange to anoint Bochy with such a lofty title. After all, managers don’t pump out detailed, easily scrutinized stats the way that star players do. Objective data tells us that Derek Jeter is a no-doubt Hall of Famer, even before we get into reverence and rings. With managers, the only standard on which everyone can agree is wins. And judging a manager solely by team wins is just as problematic as judging a pitcher by the same measure. But that’s not to say evaluations can’t be made. And when you look at it closely, there’s no doubt Bochy is an all-timer.

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The Bullpen Boss

One of managers’ most stubborn tendencies is their refusal to use their closers in tie games on the road, preferring to preserve them for save situations. Everyone from media darlings like Joe Maddon to whipping boys like Ned Yost fall into that category. Bochy is a different story. He brought in stopper Santiago Casilla in the 11th inning of a July 22 game in Philly, bailing Jeremy Affeldt out of a potentially costly leadoff walk and enabling the Giants to extend a game they would eventually win 9-6. Ditto for a pivotal September 22 matchup at Dodger Stadium, one that saw Casilla enter in the bottom of the 11th and set down the heart of the Dodgers order en route to a 5-2 victory in the 12th.

But it’s in the playoffs when Bochy’s willingness to break from orthodoxy truly stands out. We saw it in Game 1 of the 2010 NLCS, when he got a four-out save from Brian Wilson. In the deciding Game 6 of that series, he brought Wilson in for the eighth again, this time asking his relief ace to bail the team out of a first-and-second, one-out jam. The examples go on and on: In Game 3 of the 2012 NLDS, the deciding Game 5 of that series, and Game 2 of this year’s NLDS, Bochy broke with tradition and earned a win in return.

The thing about bullpen usage is that it isn’t about new-school vs. old-school thinking — Goose Gossage was putting out fires in the seventh inning back in the ’70s, after all. It’s about using your best players in the biggest spots. After Washington’s series-ending loss to San Francisco on Tuesday, reporters asked Nats manager Matt Williams why he went to journeyman lefty Matt Thornton, rookie Aaron Barrett, and Rafael Soriano (the former closer who hadn’t pitched well in weeks) with the Nationals’ season on the line. Why, the media wanted to know, didn’t Williams go to closer Drew Storen? Or excellent setup man Tyler Clippard?

“Because,” said Williams, “those are our seventh-inning guys.”

That kind of rigid thinking2 is a great way to end your team’s season. Bochy is intellectually flexible enough to recognize important moments as they come and adjust his moves accordingly. In the playoffs especially, that’s a really big deal.

Getting the Most Out of Veteran Hitters

In his book, Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, Chris Jaffe highlighted Bochy’s ability to squeeze maximum value out of his hitters. Using numbers compiled by baseball researcher Phil Birnbaum, Jaffe found that Bochy’s teams scored 270 more runs than expected during the manager’s 12 years in San Diego. Even more notable was how well Padres veterans hit under their manager. Phil Nevin, Ryan Klesko, Mark Kotsay, Mark Loretta, Mike Cameron, and Wally Joyner all produced better-than-expected results in notoriously pitcher-friendly parks. And as for Tony Gwynn? He put up some of his best numbers in his thirties and was still a .300 hitter past 40.

Now, a skeptic might argue that players experiencing power spikes during the 1990s and early aughts should be viewed with suspicion, and that Gwynn was just freakishly great. But the same thing happened when Bochy moved to San Francisco. Aubrey Huff looked finished after hitting .241 as a 32-year-old in 2009; the Giants grabbed him, and Huff responded by batting .290/.385/.506 in 2010, finishing seventh in MVP voting.3 Pat Burrell hit so poorly in Tampa Bay that the budget-conscious Rays released him and ate the rest of his salary; the Giants picked him up for free and got a .266/.364/.509 performance. Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro fit the same mold. It’s hard to say exactly how it happens, but it does. And at some point, Bochy deserves the credit.

Trusting the Kids

The Padres may have whiffed on a bunch of draft choices during his tenure, but highly regarded young players like Sean Burroughs, Ben Davis, and D’Angelo Jimenez flamed out on Bochy’s watch. He struggled integrating prospects early in his Giants tenure too. Most infamously, he remained loyal to Huff well after it became clear he wasn’t going to hit anymore, in the process burying Brandon Belt, the first-base prospect who’d put up huge numbers in the minor leagues. (Ask any Giants fan and they can easily tell you tales of the #FreeBelt wars.)

Bochy’s willingness to trust in unproven talent has improved considerably since then. The team’s no. 3 and no. 4 hitters, Posey and Sandoval, are homegrown players who’ve thrived under their manager. Bumgarner claimed a rotation spot as a 20-year-rookie, and then pitched (and dominated) in the World Series. Rookie second baseman Joe Panik making a major impact for this year’s team marks another point in Bochy’s favor, one that has the young guys doing a lot of celebrating this fall.

Beating the Odds

Another way to measure a manager’s effectiveness is to compare his team’s win-loss record with its expected win-loss record. In Bochy’s case, we can see a clear pattern of his teams outperforming what you’d expect based on those run totals.

Bochy with the Padres

Year Win-Loss Expected Win-Loss Difference
1995 70-74 72-72 -2
1996 91-71 90-72 +1
1997 76-86 73-89 +3
1998 98-64 93-69 +5
1999 74-88 74-88 0
2000 76-86 75-87 +1
2001 79-83 79-83 0
2002 66-96 66-96 0
2003 64-98 66-96 -2
2004 87-75 87-75 0
2005 82-80 77-85 +5
2006 88-74 86-76 +2

Bochy With the Giants

Year Win-Loss Expected Win-Loss Difference
2007 71-91 77-85 -6
2008 72-90 68-94 +4
2009 88-74 86-76 +2
2010 92-70 94-68 -2
2011 86-76 80-82 +6
2012 94-68 88-74 +6
2013 76-86 74-88 +2
2014 88-74 87-75 +1

That’s a total of 26 extra wins over the course of his career.

Of course, one of the surest ways to outperform your expected record is to have a stacked bullpen. The closer for Bochy’s entire stay in San Diego was Trevor Hoffman, one of the best ever, so that certainly helped. In his eight years with the Giants, though, Bochy has cycled through multiple closers and many bullpen configurations, handing ninth-inning duties to everyone from Casilla and Sergio Romo to Wilson, and the immortal one-two punch of Old Armando Benitez and someone named Brad Hennessey. At a certain point, after 20 years of managing, with two teams and all kinds of rosters, you have to acknowledge the common denominator.

The Verdict

Jaffe released his book in January 2009. Because of the nature of his data collection,4 the numbers Jaffe accumulated only went through 2006, Bochy’s final season with the Padres. Counting only those years, in which the Padres actually finished 24 games under .500, Jaffe ranked Bochy as the 30th-best manager of all time, thanks to the skipper’s ability to get the most out of some often talented-starved teams.5 In other words, none of that counted what he’s done with the Giants, with two World Series titles in the last four years, and a good shot at a third this October.

You can argue that a manager’s most important job is to lead his team through a grueling 162-game schedule, keeping everyone motivated and preventing infighting or out-and-out mutinies.6 That’s a tough trait to isolate and quantify. But Bochy deserves credit for handling all kinds of roster volatility and potential player ego blows over the years, up to and including this year, when he demoted Lincecum and Romo; dealt with season-ending injuries to Matt Cain, Pagan, and Scutaro, and serious injuries to Belt and Mike Morse; handled major turnover in the outfield; and cycled through about 12,000 options at second base before landing on Panik.

That ability to overcome adversity — combined with the data and sheer number of rings he has won — net out something you wouldn’t expect: the conclusion that Bruce Bochy not only has a case as the best manager in the game today, but as one of the greatest of all time. Sounds weird, but it’s true. And that sound you hear is grateful Giants fans hollering in agreement.

Filed Under: 2014 MLB Playoffs, MLB, San Francisco Giants, Bruce Bochy, Baseball, San Diego Padres

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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