There are several seemingly contradictory yet true statements you can make about major league managers. They matter, and yet they are rarely responsible for much of a team’s record. Failure is never primarily the manager’s fault, but sometimes firing him is the right move anyway. And, when team officials start telling reporters there are “no plans” to fire a manager (and the GM murmurs vague not-quite-denials), the manager in question is probably going to be fired, barring an immediate winning streak. Because eventually, this much attention on a manager’s status becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: You just can’t have that be the main story around your team for too long.
We knew before the season even started that Don Mattingly was going to be managing for his job this year — that much was clear when his contract wasn’t extended (while GM Ned Colletti was given an extension and also the keys to the new owners’ Brinks truck full of cash). But given how stacked the Dodgers’ roster looked this year, that seemed unlikely to be an issue. Well, here we are. The Dodgers are not just underachieving; they’re within shouting distance of the worst month in franchise history. That’s not Don Mattingly’s fault, not mostly, but something has to change, and of course you can’t fire a bunch of players making tens of millions. Part of any manager’s job is to be a scapegoat, for the fans and media as well as the front office.
The worst teams in the majors — the Astros, the Marlins — would be dreadful whether they were being managed by the genetically engineered mutant offspring of Casey Stengel and Earl Weaver, or by a chinchilla. (The inverse is not really true: I think even the best teams, would find being managed by a chinchilla to be a distraction. And anyway, chinchillas are notoriously lousy at deploying a bullpen.) It’s the teams on the brink where the manager really matters — last year’s Orioles, for example, who needed to fight their way into a Wild Card slot and were able to do so via Buck Showalter’s knack for snatching victory in one-run games. The Dodgers may yet get to that sort of position this season, but they’re nowhere close at the moment. Mattingly is not even one of their top ten problems right now.
Don Mattingly could not have done anything to keep Zack Greinke, Hanley Ramirez or Chad Billingsley healthy. He probably could not have done anything to get Matt Kemp out of his rut (though for what it’s worth Kemp did homer Monday night, only his second of the year after offseason shoulder surgery). And Mattingly can’t make Brandon League pitch well… though arguably he could and should stop using him in key situations.
On that note, it has to be said that Mattingly is not a distinguished on-field manager. He is not terrible, not bad in an unusual or dramatic way — his moves generally fall within the bounds of baseball’s conventional wisdom, for better or worse, and are not likely to cost his team more than a few games a year (though, unfortunately for Mattingly, several of those games arguably came this past weekend as the Dodgers were being swept by the Braves via crushing late-inning losses). Like his mentor Joe Torre, Mattingly is a more or less competent tactician who really shines as a clubhouse leader. He treats his players well and, by all accounts, he has their respect. That can’t be measured, and clearly it is not helping the Dodgers win any games just at the moment, but it shouldn’t be written off entirely either. Like the vast majority of employees in all fields, baseball players will tell you that a good manager and a good workplace environment do matter.
It’s not necessarily too late for Don Mattingly, not if the Dodgers really haven’t already made up their minds to let him go. A quick winning streak, the return of Zack Greinke, Matt Kemp getting right, and suddenly everyone is moving on — though missing the playoffs in this season of high expectations would probably still be enough to keep Mattingly from getting a new contract. That might not be fair, but it’s fair enough by the standards of baseball, which is a tough business.
In the end results are all that matter, and Mattingly, who managed to keep his sanity while playing for George Steinbrenner in his Steinbrenneriest years, knows that as well as anybody. The rub is that those results, good or bad, will probably not have all that much to do with any of Mattingly’s actions.