October 1, 2013

Ron Gardenhire signs two-year contract extension with Twins

ron gardenhire extension

With his contract set to expire Ron Gardenhire made it clear during the season's final weekend that he wanted to remain with the Twins and they wasted little time making that happen, signing the manager to a two-year extension that also includes his entire coaching staff returning intact. Gardenhire joins his Twins predecessor Tom Kelly as one of just five managers of non-expansion teams since 1945 to remain on the job following three consecutive 90-loss seasons.

For all the advancements made in evaluating just about every possible aspect of baseball during the past decade managers remain largely a guessing game. Stuff like bullpen management, lineup construction, and small-ball tactics are among the key elements of a manager's job that are ripe for meaningful analysis, but there are so many parts of the job that go totally unseen by outsiders and are difficult to quantify by insiders that any overall evaluation is incomplete at best.

Because of that the writer-voted Manager of the Year award often goes to managers of surprising teams that out-perform preseason expectations and within a few years those same award-winning managers are regularly fired when the magic wears off. And even when a consistently successful, longtime manager wins Manager of the Year the follow-up season tends to show that regression to the mean is a whole lot stronger than our ability to judge managers.

Gardenhire is a perfect example of the fickle nature of evaluating managers. For the better part of a decade he was viewed by baseball's collective media as a top manager, finishing second or third in the Manager of the Year voting in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2009. Finally in 2010 he was named Manager of the Year. The next season the Twins went 63-99, followed by 66-96 and 66-96. Did he forget how to manage between 2010 and 2011? Was he never that good?

I honestly think no one really knows, about Gardenhire or most other managers. So much of the job is about things few people can possibly evaluate and so much of the praise or criticism aimed at managers simply revolves around a team's record that the entire process is impossibly murky. I've never viewed Gardenhire as a particularly strong manager based on what I can analyze, but it's entirely possible that those things are overshadowed by what can't easily be analyzed.

I started this blog on August 1, 2002, exactly two-thirds of the way through Gardenhire's rookie season as manager. In the 11-plus seasons and 1,837 games since then I've criticized him plenty, believing there are choices he consistently makes regarding relatively fundamental strategy like platooning and batting orders and reliever usage that cost the Twins runs and games. There have also been players whose specific treatment from Gardenhire rubbed me the wrong way.

And yet his overall record is above .500 even after three consecutive terrible seasons, as recently as 2010 he was annually voted one of the elite managers in the league, and for the most part his players seem to like playing for him. All of which is why, despite frequent criticisms of Gardenhire and a general belief that he's mediocre overall I've never called for him to be fired and news that he'll be back for two more seasons doesn't generate a strong feeling either way.

I've always been much more interested in and concerned with the general manager and the front office than the manager and the coaching staff, and ultimately the Twins' fortunes in the short and long term hinge far more on Terry Ryan's performance than Gardenhire's performance. With that said, it's odd to see so many people who heaped praise on Gardenhire for winning when the front office provided good teams now quick to absolve him of all blame for losing with bad teams.

It's become popular to say that no manager could have kept the Twins from being a disaster for the past three seasons and that's certainly very possible, but that doesn't preclude Gardenhire from also having done a poor job. Nor does it mean he's the right choice to continue managing a team that figures to struggle again in 2014 and is counting on a foundation of young players to climb back to respectability. I'd love to offer a definitive opinion either way, but who knows?

I likely wouldn't have brought Gardenhire back, not because I think he suddenly lost whatever managing ability he had while winning six division titles but because 12 seasons in one place is an eternity in manager years and sometimes a new voice (or voices, to include pitching coach Rick Anderson) is needed. Gardenhire took the job as an enthusiastic, inexperienced 44-year-old and he keeps the job as a grizzled 55-year-old with the second-longest tenure of any manager.

My hope is that Ryan and the front office made the decision to re-sign Gardenhire based on his recent performance and the current clubhouse environment rather than out of loyalty or fear of change. This might be the only organization to even consider keeping a manager after 291 losses in three seasons and it's hard not to see in Gardenhire a man beaten down by all the losing, but as a team rebuilding around young talent the Twins need that 44-year-old version back.

For a lengthy discussion about the decision to bring back Gardenhire and whether Ryan will spend any money this offseason, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

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  1. I agree that he’s probably nothing special, either way. But terrible teams sometimes become a cesspool of negative emotion. Just keeping people level-headed and calm in ugly circumstances might be quite an achievement; who knows.

    There were some years they exceeded my expectations. And I can’t say their failures this year were below expectations. So while I agree it’s impossible to know, my suspicion is he’s an above average manager.

    Of course, I’d have no problem with swapping horses either. Their top priority should be figuring out who best can help a bunch of young, mostly hispanic budding stars blossom. If it’s not Gardy, let him take his manager of the year awards somewhere else.

    But despite his hidebound, close-minded, traditionalist approach to strategy, he does seem like a decent guy who expects and gets respect and semi-mature behavior from most of his men, which is probably not as easy as it seems, so he has earned my grudging respect. I think psychology is probably very important in this game, and he seems pretty solid in that respect, at least if measured by the paucity of visible melt downs.

    Comment by by jiminy — October 1, 2013 @ 9:42 am

  2. I just read your post from last week on platooning and got sad. Maybe a change would have been nice…


    Comment by by jiminy — October 1, 2013 @ 9:52 am

  3. Given just that part of that article on platoons, I am perplexed by the degree of wishy-washiness here about Gardenhire’s job. Is anyone to be held accountable for this on-the-field mess? And there is no Gardenhire without Anderson–that guy is always going to be the cling-on to Gardy.

    Comment by Shane Wahl — October 1, 2013 @ 10:40 am

  4. Signing Gardenhire and inviting his coaches back are good decisions. He’s an above-average manager and seems to have the respect of his players.

    The Twins’ recent problems are not Gardenhire’s fault. A confluence of injuries, low draft-order positioning during the 2003-2011 period, and bad personnel moves by the front office, have put the team in its current jam.

    I did not hear any of Monday’s press conference, so I did not catch Ryan’s comments. What I have heard so far is somewhat encouraging. An acknowledgement of mistakes made. Check. A plan to build from the bottom up. Check. Adding another Hispanic coach at the Major League level. Applications currently accepted. Building a pitching staff which mixes finesse-control arms with hard throwers. Work in progress.

    Finally, there’s no need to break the bank this off-season in the free agent market. There are a few veterans who could be signed relatively cheaply. Pierzynski. Morneau. Pelfrey. Hughes. Where would Mauer play? Right field, occasionally spelling Morneau at first, and A.J. behind the plate.

    Comment by jfs — October 1, 2013 @ 10:44 am

  5. I agree that there are some things about being a manager that are difficult to measure. But there are things that you can measure, and using those, Gardenhire is an atrociously bad manager.
    Gardy’s failure to use platoons means that players who have a significant differences in their hitting numbers depending on whether the pitcher is a righty or lefty and put in situations where they are set up to fail. Trevor Plouffe is great against lefties and terrible against righties. Everytime Gardy pencils him in against a right-handed starter means that Plouffe is going to get 2 or 3 at bats with a low percentange of success, while other players on the roster would have provided a better result. A smart team would find a similarly flawed third-baseman who hits righties and platoon them. Sure its two roster spots (although they could fill in at other positions) but those kind of flawed players are cheap. By not doing this, Gardy is giving away runs, and giving away games.
    Gardy’s lineups are another source of frustation. He is obsessed with having a middle infielder batting second, even though players with much higher on-base percentages are batting later in the order. I didn’t mind that Aaron Hicks got a long look this spring and summer. I did mind that this horrendously bad hitter led off for a big chunk of the season. The first batter in the order will bat something like 100 times more than the 9th hitter over the course of a season, so failing to optimize the lineup – seeing that better hitters bad more – costs runs and ultimately games.
    Gardy’s disdain for sabrmetrics, or seemingly any kind of statistical analysis, is just embarassing. Many, if not most, teams are using sabrmetric analysis, and the successful low-budget teams do so the most. Gardy is basically Phillip Seymour Hoffmann playing Art Howe in Moneyball
    My final gripe is that the coaching staff tries to change players to make them fit the Twins’ way, rather than playing to their strengths. Why was Liriano successful this year? Because the Pirates gave him the freedom to pitch the way he wanted. Can we stop with the “pitch to contact.” Can we stop messing with hitter’s swings?

    Comment by Pedro Munoz — October 1, 2013 @ 10:44 am

  6. PREACH!

    Comment by BOOM — October 1, 2013 @ 11:27 am

  7. Amen, Munoz. You brought up some great points. I guess I am inclined to go easier on Gardy. But you and Aaron are right—–the lack of platooning is awful. And your comment about pitching to contact and hitters’ swings is very true.

    Comment by jfs — October 1, 2013 @ 5:37 pm

  8. Is there anything to the idea that Gardy’s Success came primarily from work that front office and coaching staff (especially in the minors) did before he ever got there? Does Gardy have whatever “IT” is to help form young talent into consistently good ball players… getting the most from them?

    I don’t know if it is primarily the coaching staff (as a whole) or the front office but we’ve seen both bad signings (front office) and players leave here and thrive under different coaching.

    I’m also not one to say “fire Gardy” (although I might say fire Anderson and Brunanski after our hitting got WORSE from last year) but I don’t know if he has what it takes to help lead the team forward on the upswing of this rebuilding…

    is this instead the place for fresh blood to take the young talent on the way up along with our few veterans and make a plan for 2016. Gardy hasn’t shown that.

    He seems to be like a college coach who wins a bowl game with the past guys recruits and then proceeds to decline as his own draft classes fail to measure up. Usually that means a new staff all around (and, if bad enough a new AD — a.k.a. GM)

    Comment by FargoJP — October 1, 2013 @ 11:16 am

  9. Another great write-up AG. Fair and honest. I don’t like the re-signing though. I will always go back to this one moment that turned it for me. It was 2009 first playoff game at Target field vs. NYY. But a center field camera caught the worst of Gardy. (still havn’t found the right video clip). The Yankees dugout is pumped for the start of the game, Everyone is standing, everyone is talking. Meanwhile Gardy is sitting peeking out of the corner of our dugout w/ eyes of sheer panic “spying” on the Yankees. All the Twins are seated – not talking. Not excited and it showed all game. We basically collapsed since that moment.

    Sure our GM decisions sucked, but Gardy doesn’t appear to be having fun and him playing “favorites” with players is rubbing off. Anyone who’s played team sports knows the feeling. When your teammates aren’t talking or engaging with each other you almost never win. Comradery brings positive thinking, which brings confidence and kills nervousness, and soon hitting on your team becomes contagious. Anyone who plays baseball knows the feeling. The Twins have lost that loooovin’ feeeelin’ and a new, spirited leader would have been great to see.

    Comment by funkymahn — October 1, 2013 @ 11:57 am

  10. Absolving Gardy of bad player personnel decisions is just wrong. While there may not be a smoking gun on Gardy’s role in player personnel decisions, there is ample circumstantial evidence that he has had too much input, especially with deals made under Bill Smith’s tenure as GM. In the offseason prior to the 2008 season, BS tried to find a 3B and shortstop after the 2007 season in which Punto had 472 at bats and posted a 562 ops. Smith tried to remove the sharp stick from Gardy’s hands and brought in Lamb and Everett. It did not work out and Gardy then inserted Punto at short, Harris at 3rd and Cassila was at second and Punto responded with a 726 ops in 377 at bats and the team had success and tied the White Sox at seasons end. Gardy was then given a contract extension in the offseason and the Twins move in fall of 2008 was signing PUnto to a 2 yr contract of slightly over 4 million per year. A contract that was huge for a utility MI but the keys to shortstop were then handed over to PUnto……Gardy involvement in the Punto FA signing? All clubs were holding off in Fall 08 because of the market crash and FA negotiations went almost universally in favor of the teams rather than the FA’s.
    Hardy is traded for Gomez, comes back too soon from a wrist injury and despite evidence that his troubles from Milwaukee in terms of performance are now behind him, gets shipped for a bag of beans to Baltimore since he is not the prototypical “fast” middle infielder Gardy loves. Instead, we sign a “fast” and vastly overrated MI from Japan.

    In 2010, Nathan goes down with a season ending injury. Gardy, a lover of the cookbook on baseball managing, screams to BS to find him a closer and BS send Wilson Ramos for Capps. And then the Twins PR including Gardy say we never would have won the division w/o Capps.

    The list of trying to get ballplayers to change and conform to Gardy’s idea of players for either the position or order in the lineup is long as well.

    Both TR and Gardy have responsibility in this mess. And Gardy is not the manager I want to take young players like Sano and Buxton to the next stage.

    Huge mistake by the MN Twins…….this organization has become an incestuous mess. It desperately needs help from the outside. And TR’s interview on Reuses’ show shows how out of touch he is when he claims that the Twins were one of the leaders in using sabermetrics and analytics for player personnel decisions and that they have 25 people working for them skilled in analytics called scouts.

    Give me a break

    Comment by Miles K — October 1, 2013 @ 1:30 pm

  11. What on earth does “his overall record is still over .500” have to do with anything. Aaron, you always point out how truly Toronto Blue Jaysesque the Twins were during those playoff years. They were blessed to be in a weak division and could rack up wins against KC and Cleveland (and some early off years for the Tigers and later off years for the White Sox).

    Comment by Shane Wahl — October 1, 2013 @ 3:42 pm

  12. OH. MY. F’IN. GOD. NO.

    Comment by Kez — October 2, 2013 @ 5:40 pm

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