Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Ron Gardenhire Project

Year of Birth: 1957

Years Managed: 2002-current

Record as manager: 709-588, .547.

Managers for whom he played: In the majors, Joe Torre, George Bamberger, Frank Howard and Davy Johnson. In the minors, Jack Aker, Bob Wellman, Bob Schaefer, Sam Perlozzo, Johnson and Charlie Manuel. Schaefer, Perlozzo, Johnson and Manuel all managed in the majors.

Others by whom he was influenced: Tom Kelly, obviously; Gardenhire was on his coaching staff from 1991-2001. Perhaps less obviously, Manuel, who was the manager of a really lousy Portland Beavers team in 1987; that was Gardenhire's last season as a player, and Gardenhire has spoken with admiration of Manuel's work that season.

It's an interesting team, the '87 Beavers — they went 45-96 and provided the parent Twins with little help on their way to the World Series championship. And yet look at them now: Manuel has led the Phillies to three straight division titles, two NL pennants and a World Series title; Gardenhire has won five division titles in eight seasons as manager; outfielder Billy Beane has become a famous and successful general manager; and pitcher Roy Smith and infielder Chris Pittaro went on to prominent front office jobs.

Characteristics as a player: He was better, or at least a better hitter, than he lets on. Gardenhire was the "regular" shortstop for the Mets in 1982 under Bamberger — as least as regular as a player with just 384 at-bats gets. In one of his mid-80s "Abstracts," Bill James mentioned Gardenhire as a potential "Ken Phelps all-star" — a player trapped in the minors better than some with major league playing time. James describes Gardenhire as a marginal defensive shortstop with a high secondary average (that being a James stat that mimics batting average, only with the bases other than singles — walks, steals, extra bases).

Two things undermined Gardenhire's major league career. The first, and most important, were a series of leg injuries, particularly hamstring problems. The second was Davy Johnson.

It's not that Johnson didn't appreciate the value of secondary bases. He did. He did so much that he staffed a middle infield position — second base — with just that kind of player, Wally Backman and (eventually) Tim Teufel. They were both better offensive players than Gardenhire, although neither could even pretend to play shortstop. And having done that at second, Johnson went with a superior glove at short in Rafael Santana rather than further jeopardize his defense.

Maybe, with sounder legs, Gardenhire would have emerged as at least the right-handed complement to Backman, a "switch hitter" who couldn't hit lefties at all. Or maybe he'd have been good enough with the glove to beat out Santana, especially considering the scarcity of ground balls on a staff with Doc Gooden, Sid Fernandez and Ron Darling.

As it was, he was washed up early, finished as a professional player at age 30.


Is He an Intense Manager or More of an Easy-to-Get-Along-With Type? The latter, although he does get ejected with far greater frequency than Kelly did.

Is He More of an Emotional Leader or a Decision Maker? A bit of both, probably heavier on the former.

Is He More of an Optimist or More of a Problem Solver: An optimist for the first five months or so; he'll give a struggling player plenty of chances early in the season. In both 2008 and 2009 — seasons in which the Twins overcame September deficits to force an tiebreaking game — he spent most of the month with a set lineup, sometimes involving seemingly odd choices, and stopped giving the strugglers chances.


Does he Favor a Set Lineup or a Rotation System? The set lineup, basically, although it varies from season to season; in 2006 he used 97 lineups, in 2008 103; both are low by current standards. But he led the AL in lineups used in 2005, and only four managers in the AL used more lineups in 2009. He used a lot of lineups last season just trying to find some alignment that worked. If he finds something that clicks, he'll stay with it even if it has little chance of being a long-term success.

Does He Like to Platoon? No. He's had players — Jacque Jones, for example — who were lineup fixtures despite drastic platoon splits. Even when he does platoon — the Brendan Harris/Brian Buscher combo in 2008, for example — he'll go away from the lefty-righty matchup if he thinks it's causing one half of the combo to sit too much in a stretch.

Does He Try to Solve His Problems with Proven Players or with Youngsters Who Still May Have Had Something to Learn? His preference appears to be veterans; the front office often doesn't allow him that choice.

How Many Players Did He Make Regulars Who Had Not Been Regulars Before, and Who Are They? The vast majority of the significant players on the Twins rosters during his tenure made their major league debuts with the team, and several of those who didn't got more prominent roles than they had elsewhere.

When Gardenhire took over from Kelly for the 2002 season, he made Eddie Guardado the closer and tried to make David Ortiz an everyday DH (injuries interfered). Joe Nathan went from being a middle man in San Francisco to closer in Minnesota; Carlos Silva went from long relief in Philadelphia to starter in Minnesota. Nick Punto was a fringe player with the Phillies, a multi-position fixture in the lineup for the Twins.

Others Gardenhire made regulars include: Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Johan Santana, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Jason Bartlett, Carlos Gomez, Denard Span, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn.

Some of this was not his idea. It took years for Cuddyer to get regular playing time; Bartlett only got his chance when the front office disposed of a veteran shortstop (Juan Castro).

Does He Prefer to Go with Good Offensive Players, or Does He Like the Glove Men? No set pattern, despite his obvious affection for Punto.

The September lineup in 2009 illustrates the mix. He had Kubel and Delmon Young in the outfield corners while benching Carlos Gomez— that's sacrificing defense for offense. He kept Orlando Cabrera in the lineup despite the shortstop's defensive limitations — but installed Punto at second and Matt Tolbert at third to help cover for O-Cab's lack of range. (It helped that both Punto and Tolbert hit around .300 during the month.)

The Twins have the reputation of being an outstanding defensive team; the reality is that they've slipped defensively fairly steadily under Gardenhire.

Does He Like an Offense Based on Power, Speed or High Averages? High averages, although he's less committed to that than Kelly was. He certainly has more tolerance for the home run/strikeout tradeoff than did Kelly, but even with Morneau, Kubel and Cuddyer, the Twins are not among the AL power-hitting lineups.

Does He Use the Entire Roster or Does He Keep People Sitting on the Bench? He frequently has at least one bench player he has no real role for.

Does He Build His Bench Around Young Players Who Could Step into the Breach if Need Be, or Veteran Role-Players Who Had The Own Functions Within a Game? His bench is basically guys waiting for their next start. Part of that is a factor of having 12 pitchers and four reserve position players. In September 2009, with an expanded roster, Alexi Casilla and Gomez on the bench and obvious defensive weaknesses in the outfield, he did quite a bit of pinch-running and defensive subbing.


Does He Go for the Big-Inning Offense, or Does He Like to Use the On-Run Strategies? He uses, by current standards, a lot of one-run strategies.

Does He Pinch-Hit Much, and if So, When? He pinch-hit considerably more often in 2002-03 than he does now. In 2009, he used just 83 pinch-hitters, easily in the bottom half of the league, despite spending much of the season with middle infielders who couldn't hit.

Is There Anything Unusual About His Lineup Selection? Spending seasons with the likes of Doug Mientkiewicz (2002) and Lew Ford (2004) as the standard No. 3 hitter is unusual, at least for a winning team. Even Joe Mauer, until 2009, didn't provide the home runs one generally associates with the middle of the lineup.

He has also been willing to use a low OBP hitter in the leadoff slot (Jacque Jones, Carlos Gomez). That was clearly a function of the roster. Until Shannon Stewart arrived in midseason 2003, he had no good choices for leadoff. Gomez held the role only until it became obvious that Denard Span was better suited to it.

His current preferred lineup has a string of left-handed hitters in the middle — Mauer 3, Justin Morneau 4, Jason Kubel 5. The risk is that it's susceptible to LOOGYs in the middle/late innings, but he wants to have a left-handed bat behind Morneau to punish right-handers who try to pitch around Morneau. If he gets the lead early, he's not concerned about the LOOGYs taking advantage of Kubel.

Does He Use the Sac Bunt Often? Yes. The Twins have led the AL the past two years in sacrifice attempts. In 2008 the Twins tried 73 sacs; the next highest was Cleveland at 56.

Does He Like to Use the Running Game? Consistently below average in stolen base attempts. His speed is largely in front of Mauer and Morneau, and he doesn't want to lose runners in front of those two.

In What Circumstances Does He Issue an Intentional Walk? Reluctantly. Bill James noted that in the three seasons before coming to the Twins, Livan Hernandez had issued 30 intentional walks; this was equal to the career total of Johan Santana and Carlos Silva combined entering the 2008 season.

Does He Hit and Run Very Often? He'll do this (or bunt) with the speed guys more than steal to stay out of the double play. He seldom used the hit-and-run in 2002-03, but has been over 100 times a year consistently since. (One hundred is the low, and that was last season).

Is There Any Unique or Idiosyncratic Strategies that He Particularly Favors? Not unless you count the infield hit as a strategy. There is an aspect of managerial choice in the abundance of infield hits for the Twins, if only in roster selection; we'll see how this translates with the move from the Metrodome to Target Field.

How Has He Changed the Game? Not so much Gardenhire perhaps as the organization, but the Twins approach is being mimicked around the sport. We see increasing numbers of teams reluctant to surrender draft picks to sign free agents and unwilling to trade prospects for quick fixes.


Does He Like Power Pitchers, or Does he Prefer to Go with the People Who Put the Ball in Play? Strike throwers who put the ball in play.

He's more than willing to have a Santana or the '06 version of Liriano striking people out, but the single most dominant trait of the Twins under Gardenhire (and Kelly before him) is refusing to walk opposing hitters.

This is not just a function of the available talent. Consider:
  • Carlos Silva's walk rate with the Twins: 1.3 BB/9. Before joining Minnesota: 3.1. Since leaving Minnesota: 2.1
  • Johan Santana's walk rate with the Twins, 2004-07: 1.94. With the Mets: 2.4
  • Livan Hernandez' walk rate 2004-07: 2.87. With the Twins in 2008: 1.9; with Colorado, 2008: 3.1; with the Mets, 2009, 3.4
Lots of teams talk about throwing strikes. The Twins preach it, teach it, live it.

Does He Stay With His Starters, or Go to His Bullpen Quickly? Despite Bert Blyleven's "analysis" on the Twins broadcasts, Gardenhire is slower to pull his starters now than he was earlier in his career.

By Baseball Info System's definitions of "Quick Hooks" and "Slow Hooks," Gardenhire had 50 or more quick hooks four times in his first five seasons (49 in the other), leading the league in that category twice, but hasn't topped 47 the last three seasons.

He is far more willing to push his relief pitchers. He led the AL in using relievers on consecutive days in 2008 with 115 and repeated that number in 2009 (second highest).

Does He use a Four-Man Rotation? No. He seldom even skips the fifth slot for off days unless he's protecting a injured pitcher.

Does He Use the Entire Staff, or Does He Try to Get Five or Six People to Do Most of the Work? Entire staff.

How Long Will He Stay with a Starting Pitcher Who is Struggling? About six starts, then he'll try someone else. This applies to both young pitchers (Anthony Swarzak, Scott Baker early in his career) and low-grade veteran imports (Ramon Ortiz, Sidney Ponson, Livan Hernandez). If it's a key figure — say Brad Radke or Carlos Silva in 2006 — the leash is much longer.

What Is His Strongest Point As a Manager? He buys into the organizational philosophies — throw strikes, catch the ball, don't pay big money for small talent, don't fear roster turnover — and gets his players to buy into it as well.

If There was No Professional Baseball, What Would He Probably Have Done With His Life? Career military, like his father.

1 comment:

  1. Nice analysis, and I remember reading through James' format years ago. It's interesting that Gardy buys into the team's pitching philosophy--throw strikes-- but refuses to emphasize defense, especially in the outfield. And I knew he liked to waste outs on sacrifice bunts, but the raw numbers are even worse than I thought.