August 3, 2010

John Russell's Managerial Tendencies

The Pirates face an interesting decision this offseason in whether to retain John Russell as manager. He was extended through 2011 prior to the season but the Pirates could eat his contract at a cost of less than $1 million. J.R. has supposedly been on the hot seat at various times this year, but he's taken way too much blame for the Pirates' record. Coach John Wooden wouldn't have had a great result with the 2009-10 New Jersey Nets either. Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at what Russell's strategic tendencies are as manager.

Bunts, Steals and Walks
He started managing with the Twins' rookie league team in 1995 and has been managing ever since apart from a three year stint as the Pirates' third base coach. Let's look at how often his teams employed three strategies, starting with his first year managing at the AAA level in 2001.

Here are his teams' league ranks in stolen bases attempted, sacrifice bunts, and intentional walks given.It looks like Russell has mostly eschewed all three of these strategies. Apart from his 2006 Scranton club which included Michael Bourn, his teams never attempted an above average number of steals for their league. This is perhaps no more apparent than with this year's team. Six of the eight players in the lineup have the ability to steal bases but they've made few attempts. Recently, even Andrew McCutchen is only running when a steal is absolutely necessary.

He employed the bunt frequently with a couple of poor hitting teams in 2006-07 but otherwise has rarely asked his position players to bunt, even this year when the Pirates rank last in the league in runs. Defensively, J.R. employed the intentional walk often in his first Pirates season but that was an anomaly; the Pirates now issue the fewest free passes in baseball.

Lineup Composition
J.R. hasn't had that much to work with but has done a pretty solid job of getting his high-on base guys near the top of the lineup.

Since J.R. has managed the Pirates, here are the team on base percentages along with the OBP from each of the first three lineup spots.Mostly success here. The key failure has been the 2010 leadoff spot, but that is mostly a performance problem rather than a philosophical one since Akinori Iwamura would have been expected to get on base out of the leadoff spot. Maybe J.R. stuck with Iwamura too long, but Aki was good enough to lead off for the 2008 AL champions so I can't really blame him.

The other thing that stands out is Russell's tendency to vary his lineups. The only guys who have batted consistently in the same spot were Xavier Nady, fifth in 2008; McCutchen, leadoff in 2009; and Garrett Jones, cleanup this year; none of those represent full seasons.

Defensive Positioning
There are no stats for this but under Russell the Pirates have played their infield in nearly all the time when it is reasonable to do so. Consistent with his disuse of the intentional walk, J.R. doesn't want to give the opposing team anything free.

More controversially, the Pirates have often employed an outfield shift where the left fielder played almost in left center field while the center fielder shifted towards right. This reflects a "two center fielders" philosophy where the Pirates have preferred speedy guys in both positions - Nate McLouth, Nyjer Morgan, Andrew McCutchen, Lastings Milledge and now Jose Tabata - and shifted them so none of the ground they covered overlapped. This worked pretty well in 2009 and was somewhat of a disaster in 2010. According to the Post-Gazette's coverage this positioning was not Russell's doing but a directive from the front office.

Pitcher Usage
Russell is typically conventional with his starters, but seems to have more of a tendency to try to wring another inning from certain guys as we saw last night with Paul Maholm. But like in the rest of Major League Baseball today, when a guy gets in trouble around pitch 100 the hook is coming.

J.R. has always employed a single closer and has shown a tendency to stick with his guy through struggles, most notably with Matt Capps last year but also with Octavio Dotel in early 2010. This is the reason I expect Joel Hanrahan to be the sole closer going forward in 2010 despite claims to the contrary. In the rest of the bullpen, Russell likes to have four back end guys, including one or two primary setup men and a lefthanded specialist, along with two long men. Like most managers J.R. will deploy his primary lefthander quite frequently, in nearly half the games. In almost all cases he does not let pinch hitting situations affect his pitcher usage; he's willing to let a pitcher bat if he wants that guy to start the next inning and he also won't make a special effort to get a guy through an inning just because his spot is coming up in the batting order.

Russell is about as calm of a guy as you will see, which is what I think a young team works best with. At press conferences he speaks so quietly it is hard to even hear what he is saying. Fans have clamored at times for a more fiery guy or more umpire arguments, which is perhaps the reason Russell has gotten thrown out of three games this year, all at home. His personality won't light a fire under certain guys but is well fitted to persevering through the ups and downs of a baseball season. We'll see if he gets a chance to manage the Pirates again in 2011

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