The Miami Marlins have reportedly signed Don Mattingly to a four-year deal to become the team's next manager, and the first thing to point out is that Mattingly did not exactly impress during his time in Los Angeles. His time with the Dodgers was always plagued with rumors of potential firing given the team's large expectations. Mattingly won 55 percent of the games he managed, but somehow he was always questioned about his skills.
The biggest questions on Mattingly are clearly about his on-field managing skills. The questions have come up many times before, so it is not difficult to find Google results for Mattingly's various mistakes on the field, going back to his very first error as a manager after replacing Joe Torre after an in-game ejection in 2010.
Yes, this was embarrassing, though it should be obvious that Mattingly has learned from the more obvious errors like this since then. However, it is hard to argue against the point that Mattingly is not a good tactician on the field. He bunts far too often. He uses double switches as sometimes unnecessary points. During the playoffs, he famously leaned on Clayton Kershaw early and often, and it occasionally led to disastrous results.
I would agree that Mattingly probably is not an elite tactician like Bruce Bochy or Joe Maddon. But neither of those managers were available, and the Marlins were never going to find some elite tactical genius in the minors or poach a strong pitching or bench coach off another staff who had that reputation. This is especially true given the most recent firing of Redmond, a relatively inexperienced manager.
The Marlins were always going to go with a big name this time around, and what big names were available? Dusty Baker? Ron Gardenhire? Each likely have similar tactical deficiencies in the purest sense; no commonly named managerial candidate appeared to be one of those progressive names like, say Gabe Kapler will probably be with the Dodgers.
However, unlike some of those other names, Mattingly does bring a supposedly tangible and useful skill to the game. As Jonah Keri of Grantland highlighted earlier this past season, Mattingly is a player's manager who has protected his team to the media and handled a difficult roster en route to success.
Mattingly’s job, and the job of any modern manager, is primarily to connect with players, like he did last offseason with [Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis], when he spoke candidly with the veteran backstop about losing playing time to newly acquired Yasmani Grandal. Asked to name Mattingly’s greatest strength, [president of baseball operation Andrew Friedman] cites those communication skills: "He’s really good at [communicating] when we make a hard decision, about playing time or a guy being sent down," Friedman says. "He’s very good at talking to the guys about it, being very up front and honest. Beyond that, he also appreciates just how difficult this game is — he hasn’t forgotten that. That helps a lot in his dealings with players."
We discussed this earlier in the year, but the manager's role is not just as the on-field tactician. In fact, I rated in-game tactics seventh among the seven things that encompass a manager's responsibility. Minute moves like the right pinch-hitting or baserunning moves are mostly not relevant. Bullpen management is a slightly different story, but the point remains the same; a significant portion of the job of the manager is tied to things that have nothing to do with on-field decisions.
What did I rank first (or tied for first, clearly) on the list? From the inspiring Grantland article by Michael Baumann:
That apparently is exactly what Mattingly does best. In a tough clubhouse, managing multiple personalities and acting as the "leader of men" may be the most important role for a manager. Mattingly dealt with the tempestuous Yasiel Puig and the equally tempestuous Hanley Ramirez on the same team, had to balance four separate outfielders who all felt like they were starting-caliber, and juggled numerous other "first-world" franchise problems of having too much talent clamoring for playing time. Those are real issues which likely have some effect on subsequent on-field performance. These issues can even affect on-field decision-making. The manager has to be aware of who is on and who is off, both on-field and personally, and factor that in with their decisions.
By all accounts, it appears as though Mattingly is adept at keeping a clubhouse intact. One of the problems last year was that Redmond supposedly lost the clubhouse's interest and that the team "lacked fire," according to Giancarlo Stanton. It seems hard to believe that Redmond lost them so quickly after having earned an extension, but perhaps he never engaged as well as his reputation would have suggested. Dodgers players have nothing but excellent things to say for Mattingly, even after he left the team in an official capacity. It sounded like many developed strong personal relationships with Mattngly.
There is a question as to whether the Marlins really need a deft clubhouse tactician for manager, however. The team has a lot fewer big personalities who might be problematic behind the scenes. If the roster remains unchanged, you could see Marcell Ozuna being the only problem child on the roster, given his contentious relationship with the front office. But if Mattingly can help Ozuna be accepted and assist in guiding him to a strong year, it may be just as worth it as him knowing exactly which reliever to turn to in the seventh inning in a certain game. The modern manager serves many roles for many bosses, and on-field tactics is just a part of that. It is not unimportant, but Mattingly has skills elsewhere that are easy to forget about but should not be dismissed.