Measuring Joe Torre as a manager

In my long life of watching the New York Yankees, I feel like I have two Yankee uncles. There was Phil Rizzuto and there is Joe Torre. Since the better half of me is Sicilian, I guess the feeling is natural. My Uncle Joe was elected into the Hall of Fame this week. I want to celebrate. I really want to celebrate. My problem is that I have no idea how to rate managers. In other words, I don’t know if he belongs there any more than Mayo Smith. You cannot go to a stat site and see WAR or wOBA totals for managers. And if you think win-loss records for pitchers are fairly useless, what does that make the win-loss total of a manager? So how, then, do we measure Joe Torre?

The current way managers make the Hall of Fame is to hang around a long time and win at least one World Series or manage the Yankees. In the former category, Tony LaRussa and Bobby Cox join. Uncle Joe is in both categories. And there have been endless debates at how good a manager Joe Torre was.

You have heard them all, right? Anyone could have won with all that talent. Any manager looks great when his team can buy higher priced talent. And even the oldest one: Joe Torre was not a good manager until he came to the Yankees. Are any of them true? How can we tell? Would Torre, LaRussa and Cox be in the Hall of Fame if they spent their careers managing the Pirates after Bonds or the Royals after Brett?

A player can be great on a bad team. A manager cannot. Sometimes a manager can be bad on a great team. But how good can a manager be on a great team?

Joe Torre was our calm in the storm. When all things Yankees flew around like fruit in a blender without the cover, he was unflappable. He was the rock with the press. He did not take any gumf from George Steinbrenner. There was hardly ever a ruffle in his posture. I once made the joke that Joe Torre was the Ronald Reagan of managers. He made it look so easy that he could not have been that great.

And when the Yankees won it all and Joe Torre broke down in tears, he was one with the fans that identified so strongly with him.

Those things are nice. Did it make him a great manager? One of the highly imperfect ways I tend to judge managers is by the Pythagorean Win-Loss Record. What this statistic measures is how many runs a team scores in contrast to how many runs the team allows and how many wins and losses a team should have had with the run differential.

Of course, this method of rating managers is as flawed as any method can get. But when there is nothing else concrete to hold on to, it is my current go-to method. If a team’s actual record is higher than the Pythagorean record, then perhaps the manager got more out of his team than not. I know, it stinks and luck can have just as much to do with the difference as anything else. Blowout wins can throw those numbers all over the place.

But I cannot use a manager’s winning percentage, so bear with me. During Joe Torre’s run with the Yankees and continuing on to his time with the Dodgers, Torre’s teams were +35 over their Pythagorean record. Here is a breakdown:

  • 1996 – P (88-74), A (92-70), +4 – Yankees
  • 1997 – P (100-62), A (96-66), -4 - Yankees
  • 1998 – P (108-54), A (114-48), +6 - Yankees
  • 1999 – P (96-66), A (98-64), +2 - Yankees
  • 2000 – P (85-76), A (87-74), +2 - Yankees
  • 2001 – P (89-71), A (95-65), +6 - Yankees
  • 2002 – P (99-63), A (103-58), +4 - Yankees
  • 2003 – P (96-66), A (101-61), +5 - Yankees
  • 2004 – P (89-73), A (101-61), +12 - Yankees
  • 2005 – P (90-72), A (95-67), +5 - Yankees
  • 2006 – P (95-67), A (97-65), +2 - Yankees
  • 2007 – P (97-65), A (94-68), -3 - Yankees
  • 2008 – P (87-75), A (84-78), -3 – Dodgers
  • 2009 – P (99-63), A (95-67), -4 – Dodgers
  • 2010 – P (78-84), A (80-82), +2 – Dodgers

One of Torre’s themes in his recent book was that his teams from 2002 through 2006 won despite stupid choices on free agents and personnel choices. The numbers seem to bear out his statements.

But what about Torre’s early years managing bad teams? It turns out that all those teams add up to a -4 in this statistic giving Torre a career total of +31.

How does this Torre stat compare to some of his peers? Remember when the Angels always seemed to win more than their run differential said they should? Mike Scioscia received a lot of credit for those finishes. His career with the Angels adds up to +23. Ron Gardenhire was given much the same credit in his earlier years with the Twins. He too stands at +23 for his career.

Jim Leyland was +2 for his years with the Tigers. Tony LaRussa was +6 for his sixteen years in St. Louis. Bobby Cox was +7 for all his years with the Braves. Joe Girardi is +8 in his seven years as manager. Six of Girardi’s total were for 2013, which many say was Girardi’s best year as manager.

Was Joe Torre a great manager? Don’t ask David Wells and Gary Sheffield that question. But the results are hard to argue. Four world titles, a string of first place finishes, plus his actual wins compared to his run differential seem to paint Joe Torre as one of the great managers of his generation. But I still don’t know if any of that means anything. But I am going to celebrate anyway because I love old Uncle Joe.

William Tasker grew up in Bergenfield, New Jersey but has lived in New England since 1975 and in the far reaches of northern Maine since 1990. Tasker is the author of nine (non-baseball related) books and, besides writing here for three years, has written for his own site at www.passion4baseball.blogspot.com since 2003.

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