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Are MLB managers still skippers of the ship?

The dugout will never be the same.

San Francisco Giants v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

As the Bruce Bochy era ends and the Gabe Kapler era begins, it raises some interesting questions about the future of the manager position in Major League Baseball.

The game has changed dramatically in the past five years and a new breed of MLB manager has emerged. Once, a big league manager had total control over his ball club. The daily tasks of writing a lineup for a game, evaluating players, and implementing in-game strategy were a routine part of their job.

However, we’re increasingly seeing the opposite: managers with very little actual coaching experience. Some have been very successful, such as AJ Hinch (Astros), Aaron Boone (Yankees), Alex Cora (Red Sox), and Kevin Cash (Rays). Could that be because their managerial duties have been circumvented by their respective front offices?

Nowadays, it’s the front office that determines how the game is run. Presidents of baseball operations, general managers and the numerous analysts who work under them dictate everything from lineups to shifts to pitching schedules. They call the shots, armed with their numbers, stats, charts, etc.

Divisional Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros - Game Two Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Meanwhile, San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy has always used his experience and instincts to manage a game. He was the one to make important decisions about when to take out a struggling pitcher or a position player in a double switch.

For old-school skippers like Bochy, there are other factors involved that would affect their managing style. For instance, there are rule changes MLB has been implementing under Rob Manfred’s direction to increase the pace of play, such as the 20-second pitch clock.

This was taken off the table in agreement with the MLBPA in exchange for the player’s union agreeing to the “three-batter minimum rule”, which will require pitchers to face no less than three batters in an inning or the final out of an inning. That means less specialization in the bullpen.

This shift would be very difficult for a manager like Bochy, who would use his entire bullpen as a strategic weapon and masterfully mix and match against the opposition.

Another factor is a MLB manager’s salary. Shockingly, a big market team like the Los Angeles Dodgers only pays its manager Dave Roberts $500,000 a year. By comparison, the league-minimum player salary in 2019 was $555,000.

Conversely, Bochy topped the list of highest-paid managers, as his $6 million salary was tied with Joe Maddon (Cubs) for tops among all 30 MLB skippers.

The days of manager salaries like that are slowly coming to an end in part because their duties and responsibilities have diminished. The franchise does not value the role of manager as it once did. Some say they are just glorified clubhouse babysitters now. Perhaps Bochy saw the writing on the wall and is leaving the game at the right time.

Atlanta Braves v San Francisco Giants Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Out of the 30 MLB teams, only eight have managers age 60 and older, and four of those managers will not be returning next year. Bochy and Ned Yost (Royals) retired, while Maddon and Clint Hurdle (Pirates) were cut loose by their respective teams.

Changes in the baseball hierarchy are still taking place. In the years to come, there will likely be more managers who are willing to adapt to this new philosophy and take a back seat to the decisions of the front offices in the process. Some derogatorily refer to them as “puppet managers”—obsequious men who are good at taking orders, and not much else.

As a baseball fan, one hopes it won’t come to that, and the game will arrive at some middle ground where managers can still maintain their integrity and relevance, but the game can continue to evolve. Gabe Kapler himself pushed back against the idea that he would simply be following orders, saying, “I know the working structure here, but I also have very strong opinions, and I’m not uncomfortable expressing those opinions.”

One of the final statements Bruce Bochy made before he departed as manager reflected on this, too: “I hope we don’t lose the game to numbers too much. It’s still about people.”

This upcoming season, new manager Gable Kapler and the San Francisco Giants will find out if they can have both.