With the firing of Ned Yost yesterday with less than two weeks to go in the regular season, I thought it would be interesting to continue the errata from It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over: The Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book with this tidbit on managerial changes and pennant winners.
After dropping a 4-2 contest to Brooklyn at Ebbets Field on Tuesday August 2nd 1932, the Cubs under manager Rogers Hornsby were sitting at 53-46 in second place staring up at the Pirates who held a 5-game lead. As in his three previous managerial jobs Hornsby rubbed the powers that be the wrong way and William Veeck (father of the more famous Bill Veeck) ousted him and his $8,000 per month salary "for the best interests of the club" as the Cubs traveled on to Philadelphia. In his place he ensconced first baseman Charlie Grimm. After an off-day the team beat the Phillies 12-1 with the Pirates dropping a doubleheader to the Dodgers to shrink the lead to three and a half games. Under Grimm the Cubs went a sizzling 37-18 the rest of the way including a 14-game winning streak from the 20th of August through the 3rd of September. The Pirates meanwhile struggled to a 27-26 finish thereby propelling the Cubs to the pennant by a comfortable 4-game margin and coming in 132nd in our rankings.
The distinction of the 1932 season was that it was the first time in the modern era that a team changed managers in mid season and went on to win the pennant. Perhaps inspired by the move owner P.K. Wrigley in 1938, with his team in third place with a record of 45-36 5.5 games out, fired Grimm at the end of July and replaced him with catcher Gaby Hartnett. In no small part the hiring of Grimm as the needed sparkplug was based on the results of a study performed by a University of Illinois professor Wrigley hired to psychoanalyze the team. While team chemistry is often derided, perhaps the professor was onto something. Down the stretch the Cubs posted a 44-27 record including a 10-game winning streak from September 22-28. And of course famously it was manager Hartnett who homered in the bottom of the ninth on September 28th with darkness threatening to give the Cubs a 6-5 win over the Pirates and the league lead which they would not relinquish. That 1938 race ranked 70th in our list and so in the span of six years the Cubs had twice replaced their manager well into the season and both times it paid dividends.
Although these first two occurrences were wildly successful, it would take another 40 years and the advent of divisional play before the fateful summer of 1978 would see a similar occurrence. With the Yankees sitting at 52-43 in fourth place and behind the Red Sox by 10.5 games on the morning of July 25th, Bob Lemon would replace Billy Martin (Dick Howser managed one game in the interim) who resigned after disparaging comments referencing star Reggie Jackson and owner George Steinbrenner. Lemon is credited with calming the stormy sea and the team went on a 47-20 tear to tie for the AL East title and then…well, the rest as they say is history.
It wasn't long after, that three teams in the fateful summer of 1981 would make the post season after having made a managerial change.
But none of these were, statistically speaking anyway, the biggest turnarounds correlated with managerial changes by post season teams. That honor goes to the 1989 Toronto Blue Jays. After enduring a 12-24 (.333) start under Jimmy Williams, General Manager Pat Gillick hired Cito Gaston on May 31st as the interim manager. That interim title was quickly forgotten as the Jays reeled off a 77-49 (.611) record with the help of acquisitions Lee Mazzilli and Mookie Wilson from the Mets leading to a 20-9 August that saw them pull into a first place tie with the surprising Orioles as the month closed. After holding a slim lead most of the month of September, the Jays hooked up with the Orioles in a three game series at the new Sky Dome (opened in June and host to a new Major League attendance record of almost 3.4 million fans) on the season's final weekend with the Orioles one game back. The Blue Jays took the first two games of the series 2-1 and 4-3 to seal the deal and come in 129th in our rankings. The difference in winning percentage after the managerial change of .278 was the largest in history by a wide margin.
All of the races already mentioned and a few more where post season teams have made managerial moves are shown in the table below and sorted by change in winning percentage.
Year Team Lg Manager W L Pct Replaced By W L Pct Change
1989 Toronto AL Jimmy Williams 12 24 0.333 Cito Gaston 77 49 0.611 0.278
2003 Florida NL Jeff Torborg 16 22 0.421 Jack McKeon 75 49 0.605 0.184
1981 Kansas City AL Jim Frey 30 40 0.429 Dick Howser 20 13 0.606 0.177
1978 New York AL Billy Martin 52 43 0.547 Bob Lemon 48 20 0.706 0.159
2004 Houston NL Jimmy Williams 44 44 0.500 Phil Garner 48 26 0.649 0.149
1932 Chicago NL Rogers Hornsby 53 46 0.535 Charlie Grimm 37 18 0.673 0.137
1982 Milwaukee AL Buck Rodgers 23 24 0.489 Harvey Kuenn 72 43 0.626 0.137
1983 PhiladelphiaNL Pat Corrales 43 42 0.506 Paul Owens 47 30 0.610 0.105
1988 Boston AL John McNamara 43 42 0.506 Joe Morgan 46 31 0.597 0.092
1938 Chicago NL Charlie Grimm 45 36 0.556 Gabby Hartnett 44 27 0.620 0.064
1981 Montreal NL Dick Williams 44 37 0.543 Jim Fanning 16 11 0.593 0.049
1996 Los Angeles NL Tommy Lasorda 41 35 0.539 Bill Russell 49 37 0.570 0.030
1981 New York AL Gene Michael 48 34 0.585 Bob Lemon 11 14 0.440 -0.145
A few notes:
From an analysts perspective the thing to note is that except in the cases of the first three teams listed in the table, all the rest were respectable to good teams who simply played better once their new managers were in place. The aggregate winning percentage of these thirteen before the change was .512 while after it skyrocketed to .616. In other words, these teams were already in a position to succeed.
Aside from these teams there have been 276 others since 1900 (not counting the 1961-62 Cubs whose famous "college of coaches" experiment failed) that have employed multiple managers (with the 1937 Tigers and 1968 White Sox employing five managers each). Obviously the vast majority of managerial changes engender no such turnaround. Even so, considering only the 52 teams who already had a .500 record or greater when their first manager was replaced, we find that roughly 20% (13 of the now 65) of the teams equipped to win, went on to post season play after changing managers. Most front offices would take those odds. Knowing when to pull the trigger, on the other hand, is the tough part.