Managerial Hall of Fame candidates: A Pythagorean assessment

For consistent overperformance, one of the four managerial candidates on this year's Hall of Fame ballot stands above the rest.

AUGUST 21, 1990: Reds Manager Lou Piniella threw first base into right field while disputing Barry
AUGUST 21, 1990: Reds Manager Lou Piniella threw first base into right field while disputing Barry / The Enquirer/Joanne Rim via Imagn

Four long-time MLB managers are among the eight candidates for Hall of Fame consideration by this year’s Era Committee. Results of that committee’s vote will be announced this weekend.

The four long-time managers under consideration are Cito Gaston, Davey Johnson, Jim Leyland and Lou Piniella. They join former umpires Ed Montague and Joe West, former National League president Bill White and long-time executive Hank Peters on the eight-person ballot.

Rules allow the 16 committee members to vote for up to three of the eight candidates, with at least 12 votes (that’s 75 percent) required for enshrinement.

There are few widely agreed on yardsticks for assessing the contribution of a manager to team success or failure. That’s due at least in part to the substantial portion of a manager’s duties falling under the broad and very subjective umbrella of "personnel management." The most obvious are championships won, games won, division championships won, longevity and individual awards.

Those are easily quantifiable, and not surprisingly each of the four nominees can present credentials covering those topics.

One area that is also very quantifiable, yet very much open for debate, is this one: How much did the manager’s team overperform expectations?

When a team does outperform statistical expectations, it’s hardly a given that the credit ought to go to the manager for his maximization of talent resources. But it’s at least arguable.

The way to reduce outperformance to a manageable number is via Pythagorean theory. In other words, over the course of a manager’s career, by how many games did his team’s final win-loss record exceed its projected win-loss record based on runs scored and runs allowed?

That overperformance is generally ascribed to good fortune. But if a manager consistently leads teams to overperformance, perhaps more than luck is at work. It’s at least worth consideration.

And as it happens, one of the four managerial Hall of Fame candidates substantially outshines the other three in precisely that statistical measurement.

Here’s a look at the basic credentials of all four of the managerial Hall of Fame nominees.

Cito Gaston. Gaston managed the Toronto Blue Jays from 1989 through 1997, and again from 2008 through 2010. Of the four nominees, he’s the only one who spent his entire managerial career with one team. Under Gaston’s leadership, the Jays won five division championships and took both the 1992 and 1993 World Series. He had a career .516 winning percentage.

Davey Johnson. Johnson managed for all or parts of 17 seasons between 1984 and 2013 with the Mets, Reds, Orioles, Dodgers and Nationals. His teams won six division titles and his 1986 Mets were World Series champions. Johnson was a two-time Manager of the Year, with the Orioles in1997 and the Nationals in 2012. He had a career .588 winning percentage.

Jim Leyland. Between 1986 and 2013, Leyland managed all or parts of 22 seasons with the Pirates, Marlins, Rockies and Tigers. His teams won six division championships and his 1997 Marlins became the first Wild Card World Series champion. Leyland was a three-time Manager of the Year winner, with the Pirates in 1990 and 1992 and with the Tigers in 2006. He had a career .496 wining percentage.

Lou Piniella. Piniella managed all or parts of 23 seasons between 1986 and 2010 with the Yankees, Reds, Mariners, Devil Rays and Cubs. His teams won six division titles and his 1990 Reds swept favored Oakland in the World Series. His teams had a career .537 winning percentage.

Looking strictly at those numbers, the only one that stands out as superior is Johnson’s career .588 winning percentage. It’s 50 percentage points better than the next highest, Piniella.

But when we add Pythagorean performance into the assessment, the case for election of one ahead of the others becomes stronger. The table below reflects the numbers cited above but adds a final column for Pythagorean performance. In the case of career Pythagorean assessment, obviously a score of zero would reflect the expected; the manager’s teams on average did what they were supposed to do based on their talent.

Manager              Awards Pct.        Divs.      WS W    Pyth.

Gaston                 0              .516        5              2              -20

Johnson               2              .588        6              1              +15

Leyland                 3              .496        6              1              0

Piniella                  3              .537        6              1              - 1

Layer the Pythagorean performance of Johnson’s teams atop his overall winning percentage and the case for supporting his candidacy ahead of the other three looks pretty compelling. This was especially true during the early stages of Johnson’s managerial career with the Mets.

As a first-year manager in 1984, he took personnel that statistically should have finished 78-84 and turned it into a 90-win team. That's 12 games right there. Two seasons later, Johnson’s 1986 Mets beat their Pythagorean projections by five games on their way to a World Series win.

In nine of his seasons, Johnson’s teams beat their Pythagorean projections for wins, and they never underperformed by more than five games, that occurring just once, with the 1999 Dodgers. By contrast, Leyland had a -13 season (1986), Piniella -7 (1991) and Gaston -9 (2009).

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