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What it means when a star manager leaves his old team

When the Brewers visit Wrigley Field on Friday for their first meeting with the Cubs this season, the focus will be on the managers: Milwaukee’s Pat Murphy and his former protégé, Chicago’s Craig Counsell.

It won’t be the first time they’ve faced off as managers, but it will be the first time they’ve met since Counsell left the Brewers for the Cubs in the offseason for a record five-year, $40 million contract and Murphy, his bench coach, was promoted as his replacement.

Now the two old friends are adversaries – not just for one game, not just for a series, but for an entire season, leading teams that don’t like each other in their mutual quest for the same thing: the National League Central crown.

On the scale of baseball reunions, the Counsell-Murphy combination is historically unique. Part of that comes from their backstory: Murphy coached Counsell at Notre Dame, they faced off a few times as skipper in 2015 when Murphy was interim manager of the Padres, and the next year Counsell hired Murphy in Milwaukee. For eight full seasons, Counsell and Murphy ran the clubhouse at a time when the Brewers were one of baseball’s most consistent winners.

The pair were asked about their unique relationship before their first meeting in 2015, questions that will be asked again on Friday.

“I was horrible to him,” Murphy said at the time about their time at Notre Dame. ‘I was very hard on him. I thought he would never talk to me again.’

“He’s a friend,” Counsell said. “He has been an important person for me in my baseball career. He was a person who made me mentally strong because he challenges you a lot.”

Counsell wasn’t just blowing smoke. Murphy’s Padres won the first game 13-5, but the Brewers ultimately won five of seven meetings over the past two months.

Nearly a decade later, Counsell is off to an excellent start with the Cubs and so far offers nothing but validation of Chicago’s aggressive pursuit of him last fall. What may be a little more surprising is what has happened in Milwaukee, where the Murphy-led Brewers have continued to soldier on.

But the impact of this move can also be felt after the 2024 NL Central race: when a star manager like Counsell leaves an old job to blaze new trails, what does that mean for the manager, his replacement, the team he joins? comes and the team he leaves behind?


What it means for the team left behind

A big factor in this new version of the Cubs-Brewers rivalry is the length of Counsell’s tenure in Milwaukee. He took the job for 28 games into the 2015 season, longer than most managers with the same franchise can enjoy.

In modern times, there have only been 66 instances of a manager being at the helm of the same franchise for eight or more consecutive opening days. At the end of last season, there were five such tenures underway: Counsell, Terry Francona (Guardians), Dave Roberts (Dodgers), Scott Servais (Mariners) and Kevin Cash (Rays). With Counsell now in Milwaukee and Francona retired, Cash’s nine seasons and his numbers in Tampa Bay make him the longest-tenured manager in baseball. Let’s label these managers – those with eight or more consecutive opening days with the same franchise – as “star managers.”

When a star manager leaves, there are countless reasons, and most of them are not positive. Normally, the team has gone through tough times and is looking for a fresh start. Often the manager in question will retire, at least for a while. Sometimes, but less often, he jumps straight into another job.

On average, teams that lose or fire a star manager tend to improve slightly, going from an overall winning percentage of .492 to .513, or an improvement of 3.4 games per 162. The increase is modest, but confirms the ‘new ‘ voice” approach and underlines the fact that the separation occurs because of a lack of success or a trajectory that goes in the wrong direction.

There are many different stories within the dataset. The longest-running managers in history were Connie Mack, who led the Athletics for fifty years, and John McGraw, who led the Giants for thirty seasons. Both franchises made huge leaps in the year after the legends left.

Other clubs fell off the proverbial cliff. The Tigers plummeted to 109 losses the year after Sparky Anderson left. The Red Sox were down 21 games when Francona left that club (Boston’s Bobby Valentine era). Most recently, the Athletics went from 86-76 in 2021 to 60-102 the following year, when Bob Melvin left after ten seasons and the franchise was rebuilt.

Overall, though—since even long-term managers tend to leave their jobs (voluntarily or otherwise) when teams aren’t working—on average, those teams bounce back a little when the new sheriff comes into town.

So far, that appears to be happening again in Milwaukee, despite all of Counsell’s success with the Brewers.


What it means for the manager and his new team

What about the other side of the coin: What happens to those star managers after they move on?

For most of them there is a simple answer: nothing.

Of the 61 long-serving managers who left before the end of last season, only 18 guided a new team at the start of the next campaign. Many of the others retired, such as Mack and McGraw, while others returned after a year or two’s hiatus, Bruce Bochy being the most prominent recent example.

Before the dawn of the division era (1969), there were only four examples of a star manager jumping straight back into contention with a new club: Frank Selee (Cubs, 1902), Jimmy McAleer (Senators, 1910), Bill McKechnie (Reds, 1938) and Bucky Harris (Phillies, 1943).

But increasingly, star managers have become hot commodities whose names dominate the manager rumor mill. When teams hire them, it often creates a lot of excitement. This is a particularly familiar story on Chicago’s North Side, where Counsell becomes the third star manager this century to be hired by the Cubs, following Dusty Baker (hired in 2003 after 10 seasons with the Giants) and Joe Maddon (hired in 2015). after nine seasons with the Rays).

The list does not include Lou Piniella, who was certainly a star manager when he was hired by the Cubs in 2007. However, Piniella doesn’t quite meet our criteria here, as his long stint in Seattle (10 seasons) was followed by three seasons. year with the Rays and a year off before going to Chicago.

Why have teams increasingly sought out big-name managers? Because hiring them usually works.

Of the 18 long-serving managers who were immediately reassigned, 14 guided their new teams to a higher win total the following season. And the scale of the improvements is quite staggering: the average is 14.9 additional wins, with nine out of fourteen being double-digit improvements.

The only clubs that did not show a profit from their star managers:

Expos from 1969: They couldn’t improve despite hiring Gene Mauch because they were an expansion team – although winning any game could be seen as an improvement in that context.

2000 Orioles: They trailed by four games after Mike Hargrove replaced Ray Miller after leading Cleveland for more than eight seasons.

Giants from 2007: After twelve seasons with the Padres, Bochy took over an old Giants team at the end of Barry Bonds’ career, and San Francisco fell five games in Bochy’s first season. In the end, though, things worked out for Bochy and the Giants.

Marlins 2012: Hiring Ozzie Guillen seemed like a good idea after his eight largely successful seasons leading the White Sox. It turned out that this was not the case.

The Cubs’ list of biggest star manager improvements is very encouraging. Limited to the division era, only two names are listed: Baker (21-game improvement in 2003) and Maddon (24-game improvement in 2015).


What it means for the Brewers and Cubs

If the history of these types of management shifts is any guide, both the Brewers and Cubs should do well, although the scale of improvement is heavily in favor of the team that gets the star manager as opposed to the team that lost him .

But through the first few weeks of the 2024 season, it’s far from certain whether the pattern will hold for Counsell and Murphy.

Let’s start this point with a management ranking and laggards, using the EARL metric. EARL (the name is a tribute to Earl Weaver) is something of a hodgepodge of management-related measures that together quite well anticipate the mindset of those who will ultimately fill the Manager of the Year election. It looks at factors such as winning above or below differential expectation, over or under preseason win expectation and success in one-run games. Here is the list of Monday night’s games:

Note the language of the EARL description: the system doesn’t so much measure a manager’s performance — which may be impossible — as it serves as a barometer for the kinds of things that influence pricing sentiment. Counsell, whose Brewers beat consensus over/under annually and had unusually good records in close games, is almost always high on the EARL leaderboard. In the very beginning of the 2024 season, Murphy has beaten him.

The Cubs and Brewers have both won at a higher rate than would be expected based on run differential, even after last weekend’s unwieldy results for both teams. (The Brewers were beaten twice by the Yankees, while the Cubs absorbed a 17-0 drubbing from the Red Sox.) The degree of overachievement from both teams is close.

But Murphy is off to a 7-2 start in one-run games, while Counsell’s Cubs are just 4-5. Meanwhile, the teams are in a near dead heat in the standings, although the Cubs (87.5 over-under, per ESPN BET) have higher expectations than the Brewers (84.5). Combine these factors and Murphy and Counsell are the best players in baseball so far in 2024.

These numbers can change quickly this early in the season, but if these patterns hold, we could see Counsell and Murphy as the leading contenders for NL Manager of the Year by the time September rolls around.

We’re still a long way from all of this becoming a reality, but it will continue to unfold this weekend in a reunion unlike anything we’ve ever seen in baseball.