Thursday, February 12, 2009

Number of Days Until Spring Training: Billy Martin (#1)

[Ed. Note: I think we saved the best for last. Well, it's the longest anyway...]

There are 741 billion different ways to arrange a 25 man roster into a 9 slot line-up. Once you select the 9 best players that number drops to 362,880. According to Bill James, the way you arrange those 9 players (at least in computer simulations) doesn't have that much of an impact on how many runs the line up produces. The 2009 version of the Bill James Handbook says "We're trying to pollute the discussion of managers with actual facts."

The reason that a statistically-based analyst would say that, is there are only so many ways a manager can impact the outcome of a game. Most of the decisions a manager has to make, like removing a starting pitcher, pinch hitting, or intentionally walking a hitter are technically possible at all times. However, no reasonable observer would advocate going to the bullpen in the first inning unless absolutely necessary or intentionally walking a batter to lead off the 7th. Like batting order, once you narrow it down to a fairly reasonable set of options, the decision between them isn't statistically likely to make much of a difference.

So how is it that Billy Martin is
universally remembered as a "a genius who could turn almost any kind of team into a winner" and "the perfect short-term manager, as his competitive fire and daring tactics won over fans, management, and players"?

Martin spent 11 seasons as a player in the major leagues, 6 1/2 with the Yankees (although he spent the first two primarily as a pinch hitter). He was primarily a second baseman, but put in some time at third and short as well. He may have also had "competitive fire" as a player, but it never helped him slug over .400 or post a league average OPS over the course of any one season.

During his playing days with the Yanks, he was part of 4 World Series winning teams (1951, 1952, 1953 & 1956). It was more a matter of great timing than his production. He played on teams with Mickey Mantle, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, Gil McDougald, Moose Skowron, and Elston Howard. In 1953, he was the only person on the Yankees to appear in more than 60 games and have an OPS+ of less than 100. On the other hand, in the 28 World Series games he appeared in, he hit .333, well above his career mark of .257.

It might have been this success in the World Series that endeared him to superstar teammates
Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. The trio were legendary for their after hours gallivanting throughout New York City and on the road. That fact that he involved Mantle and Ford in his partying was what got him traded in the middle of the 1957 season.
One evening, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Hank Bauer, Yogi Berra, Johnny Kucks and Billy Martin of the Yankees, along with the wives of the former five arrived at the nightclub to celebrate Martin's birthday. Sammy Davis, Jr. happened to be the headliner. During the performance, a group of bowlers, apparently intoxicated, started to interfere with Davis' act, even hurling racial slurs at him. This behavior incensed the Yankees, especially Martin, since his club roommate was catcher Elston Howard, the first African American to join the Yankees. Tensions erupted between the two factions, and the resulting fracas made newspaper headlines. Several of the Yankees were fined. One of the bowlers sued Bauer for aggravated assault, but Bauer was found not guilty.
Yankees General Manager George Weiss traded thought Martin was a bad influence on the team's stars and traded him to the Kansas City Athletics in a seven player deal. After the '57 season he was traded from KC to Detroit, then to Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Minnesota, never spending more than a season with any of them.

After Billy retired, he worked as a scout in the Twins' organization, then third base coach, AAA Manager and subsequently Major League Skipper, guiding the team
to 97 wins and a Division Championship in 1969. The team's ownership was no doubt impressed with the 14 win improvement from the previous year, but fired Martin after he beat up pitcher Dave Boswell and left him unconscious in an alleyway behind A.C. Lindell's in Detroit.

Martin had always been combative. He grew up in one the poorer areas near Berkley, California - East Bay City and was surrounded by gangs and street violence for much of his early life. His mother sent his philandering father packing before he was even born, and Martin didn't lay eyes on him until he was 15, at which point Billy told him he never wanted to see him again.

In 1971, despite Martin's checkered past, he landed another managerial gig in Detroit. His first season they won
91 games, an 11 game increase from the year before, but finished second to Baltimore. The following year they won only 86 games but edged the Red Sox by one game for first place. He was fired 134 games into the '73 season for ordering his pitchers to retaliate for throwing the spitballs Gaylord Perry was throwing for the Indians on August 30th.

He finished up that season by managing 23 games
in Texas. He presided over a 23 game advance, taking a 57 win team to 84 victories and a second place finish. Martin was fired once again by Texas in 1975, after the team started to fade midway through the season. Within a week, Martin was hired by the Yankees and finished out the last 56 games of the season with them.

Amazingly, in his first year in the Bronx, Martin again steered a team to a double digit rise in wins in his first full year, gaining from
84 to 97. The Yankees won the AL East that year and advanced to the World Series but were swept by the Reds. In his time in Pinstripes, Martin feuded publicly with owner George Steinbrenner despite the fact that the Yanks had just won their first pennant in 12 years. Martin didn't approve of the acquisition of Reggie Jackson, nor of Reggie's infamous "straw that stirs the drink" comment.

Billy pulled Jackson from a nationally televised game at Fenway Park on June 18th, 1977 for failing to hustle out a fly ball in right field in the bottom of the 6th. When Reggie got back to the dugout, tempers flared and they both had to be restrained. Despite the drama swirling around in the clubhouse (the Bronx Zoo), the Yankees won 100 games that year, topped the Royals in the ALCS, and beat the Dodgers in 6 games in the World Series. It was the only World Series victory of Martin's managing career.

The madness didn't subside in 1978. Midway through the season Jackson ignored signs from Martin and bunted when it wasn't called for, causing Martin to issue the following barb against him and Steinbrenner:
"...the two of them deserve each other - one's a born liar [Jackson], the other's convicted [Steinbrenner]."
It would prove to be his undoing as Yankee Manager (for the time being) and he resigned a few days later. He ended up returning for the final 95 games of 1979, replacing Bob Lemon and had a winning record, but the Yankees finished 4th.

Back to the original question. What made Billy Martin so good as a manager?

Out of 25 guys, there should be fifteen who would run through a wall for you, two or three who don't like you at all, five who are indifferent and maybe three undecided. My job is to keep the last two groups from going the wrong way.
When he was with the Twins, he taught Rod Carew how to steal home, and as a result 7 of Carew's 20 stolen bases in 1969 were of home plate. In Oakland from 1980-1982 he used hit and runs, squeeze plays and the stolen base, but the reason they were successful was probably because his teams lead the AL in HRs.

He also
used some odd tactics, like allowing Fergie Jenkins to DH for himself and when broke up a no-hitter in the 6th inning in a game in 1974. He literally drew the Yankees line-up out of a hat on April 21st, 1977 against the Blue Jays, a game which they won 8-6. Billy once inserted Rick Rhoden as a DH because he was the only right-handed option, resulting in a sac fly RBI and a walk before he was pinch hit for in the 5th inning.

Could his strategies alone possibly be the only reason that every team he managed got significantly better as soom as he got there? Some of those things, like DH'ing Rhoden or Jenkins, while creative, couldn't have possibly created a positive win expectancy. But sometimes you can make a low percentage play and have it still work out. He went all-in with a straight draw and caught it on the turn.

I don't know how much Bill James is going to like this, but the historical consensus is that Martin's true genius was in his personality. He was intense, cantankerous and blunt but also had an incredibly thorough knowledge of the game. Mike Pagliarulo said:
He was the kind of guy who wasn’t afraid to tell you what he thought of you. If I got one hit in a game and hit a couple other balls well, but they were caught, what he’d say to me was, “You dumb-ass dago, you can’t get more than one hit.” Billy was very honest.
But then added:
Billy could see the field so completely; he knew what everybody was doing.
Martin also had a penchant for riding his players, especially pitchers. He once sat down and explained his managing philosophy to Leonard Koppett:
A lot of the time, you have to make a player do something he doesn't want to do, for the good of the team, or to push him harder that he thinks he should be pushed. You can't do it if the player thinks "Why should I listen to him? He's not the boss. He may be gone next year. I'll do it my way" When that attitude takes hold, teams don't win.

Managing is teaching, first of all. That's even more important than winning itself. When you get a player whose postenital you can see, and show him things that can make him better, and show him the things that can make him win, and then you can see him later realizing those things - it's like a graduation. It makes you feel satisfied even if he's no longer your player.

For a team to win, a manager has to find ways to motivate different individuals. He has to judge correctly each man's abilities and weaknesses, and find the right ways and the right times to use them.


But the enjoyment comes from the things I put in.... The victory at the end is only proof that you succeded, and nobody can take that away from you once you've won. But the fun and the rewards are in what you do getting there.
[Ed. Note: Since Google Books doesn't let you cut and paste, I had to type that out by hand. It was worth it, but damn you, Google Books.]

This also lends some insight as to why Martin never lasted as manager for more than two consecutive full seasons with any team. After managing near his hometown in Oakland, he returned to the Yankees in 1983 and won 91 games. He was fired that offseason and re-hired in 1985 when he won 91 games again, except this time he only had a chance to manage 145. His last stretch with the Yankees was in 1988 where he started out 40-28, but was replaced by Lou Pinella.

His overall managerial record was (1253-1013) good for 32nd on the all-time list, but his .553 winning percentage and 240 wins over .500 place him at 21st and 20th, respectively.

In 1989, he had been brought back to the Yankees as a special consultant and it was rumored he had been asked to manage and had already assembled a coaching staff. On Christmas day, he was riding in his longtime friend William Reedy's pick-up truck and both had been drinking but neither was wearing a seatbelt.

They were approaching Billy's house in Johnson City, NY, just outside of Binghamton, when the truck skidded off the icy road and down a 300 foot embankment, ending up at the foot of Martin's driveway. Reedy was left in serious condition, but Martin was not so lucky. He was 61.

Martin's tombstone reads: "I may not have been the greatest Yankee to put on the uniform, but I was the proudest"

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