Robin Ventura, the new White Sox manager, never coached or managed at any professional level. Neither did new Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. There are a lot of opinions about what that means for Ventura's and Matheny's ultimate success. Most of those opinions are wrong.
Not much, really.
You see, there's been some hand-wringing over the fact that neither Robin Ventura, the new White Sox manager, nor Mike Matheny, the new Cardinals manager, has any previous managerial experience. Neither managed in the minor leagues. Neither served as a major league bench coach or base coach. They played in the majors, of course -- Ventura for sixteen seasons, Matheny for thirteen -- retired ... and then, poof, were hired as major league managers.
Some people found the choices inspired. Others found them risky, and regretted that minor-league managers and big-league coaches with more experience were passed over. For every argument for (inspired) or against (risky) the hirings of Matheny and Ventura, there are historical examples of novice managers succeeding or failing.
Those flashing the caution sign point to A.J. Hinch, who played 350 major league games at catcher over a seven-year career and was then hired to manage the Diamondbacks halfway through the 2009 season. After compiling a record of 89-123, Hinch was fired before the end of the 2010 season and hasn't managed since. (Hinch is now an assistant general manager with the Padres.)
Those buoyed by the selections point to Larry Dierker, who pitched for the Astros for thirteen seasons (and one for the Cardinals), retired to the broadcast booth, and then returned to the Houston dugout as manager. In five seasons (interrupted by emergency brain surgery in 1999), Dierker compiled a record of 435-348 and led the Astros to four division titles.
On the surface, Dierker seems like the better comparison. Both Matheny and Ventura had longer and much more successful pro careers than did Hinch. And while Ventura is taking over a White Sox team in some turmoil -- not unlike the Diamondbacks in 2009 and 2010 -- he is doing so as a White Sox hero from his playing days in Chicago. Same for Matheny with the Cardinals. Hinch had no such history with the Diamondbacks. In fact, Hinch played only four games in a National League uniform (for the Phillies) before taking over as a National League skipper.
And for those who aren't sure what to make of the Matheny and Ventura hirings, there's Joe Torre, whose first managerial job was as a player-manager with the Mets in 1977. Torre, who by that time was playing mostly first base, took over after Joe Frazier was fired forty-five games into the season. In four-plus seasons as the Mets' skipper, the team never posted a winning percentage greater than .462, and that came only in the second half of the strike-shortened 1981 season. Torre had some success as Braves manager from 1982 through '84 but had mixed results at the helm of the Cardinals from 1990 through '95.
And then, the Yankees. Twelve seasons as the Yankees' manager, six American League pennants and four World Series titles. Torre finished his managerial career with the Dodgers for three seasons, including two first-place finishes in the National League West. Early struggles like Hinch, but later success, like Dierker.
If you search hard enough, you can find any number of examples to support your opinion of Matheny's and Ventura's likely success as managers. There have been 672 managers in major league history. Only 224 have career winning records. That's just thirty-three percent.
Of those 672 managers, 247 had at least one season as a player-manager, suggesting that they began their professional managerial careers without any prior managing or coaching experience. But guess what. Thirty-two percent of those player-managers had career winning records, nearly the same as the rate for all professional managers.
What about managers who never played in the big leagues? There are 118 such men, managers like Earl Weaver, Buck Showalter, Jack McKeon, Joe Maddon, Jim Leyland, Fredi Gonzalez, Manny Acta, Jim Riggleman, Terry Collins, Jim Frey, Kevin Kennedy and John McNamara, among others. Thirty-five of the never-played managers have career winning records. That's thirty percent, again just a bit off the percentage for all major league managers.
And so on.
Does minor-league managerial experience help a big league skipper prepare for the job? Sure it does. How much? We don't know. Maybe it would have helped A.J. Hinch. And Don Kessinger, Jerry Coleman, and Buck Martinez, for that matter. Maybe it wouldn't have made any difference at all.
Does big-league playing experience play a role in becoming a good major league manager? Sure it does. How much? We don't know. Maybe it would have helped Terry Collins, Jim Riggleman and Jim Frey. Maybe it wouldn't have made any difference at all. The lack of playing experience doesn't appear to have negatively affected the managerial careers of Earl Weaver, Joe Maddon or Jim Leyland.
Indeed, in a study conducted for the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), Richard Schumann evaluated the careers of 338 men who managed in the majors between 1901 and 1981. Schumann found that managers with no big-league playing experience and those with more than sixteen years of big-league experience had the highest career winning percentages. The study also concluded that, contrary to conventional wisdom, catching experience didn't necessarily lead to managerial success. Infielders, it turns out, had the most successful managerial careers.
So forget the conventional wisdom. Forget the A.J. Hinch story and the Larry Dierker story and the Joe Torre story.
Ventura and Matheny had unique playing experiences. They have unique leadership and strategic skills. Those skills and experiences, together with the twenty-five man rosters they're given, will have the greatest impact on their ultimate success as manager.