John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
In the end, Mickey Callaway gave the Mets no choice. The in-game mistakes continued to be too glaring for a team that expects to contend next season, and so GM Brodie Van Wagenen made the proper call by firing his manager with a year remaining on the contract.
Sure, you can make the case that Callaway was sabotaged by the back end of the bullpen, and could well have guided the Mets to the playoffs with even decent seasons from Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia.
But that would have been overlooking Callaway's obvious flaws. In year two on the job, he simply offered no indication that he was ever going to develop the feel that good managers have for situations, for strategy, for everything that goes with making important decisions and explaining them afterward.
That feel can be as intangible as tangible, which is why it's always risky hiring a first-time manager. In Callaway's case, there were plenty of examples of strategy decisions that didn't make sense, yet what was most surprising was the lack of feel for pitching changes considering he'd been a highly-regarded pitching coach for the Cleveland Indians.
There was the rather famous Steven Matz game in Atlanta on Aug. 14th, when Callaway made a hurried decision to pull the lefty after 79 pitches because the Mets rallied to take the lead. He paid for not giving Seth Lugo enough time to warm up.
Over the next couple of weeks, there were similar head-scratching calls like pulling Noah Syndergaard after six innings when he was cruising, then paying for pushing Jacob deGrom into the eighth inning on a night when he was fighting his command from the start.
And don't forget the infamous June loss in Chicago when a tired Lugo clearly didn't have good stuff, yet Callaway left him in for a second inning to blow a game to the Cubs. That led to the ugly clubhouse scene where the manager lost his cool with a reporter.
All of that is more about feel than even some indefensible strategy decisions, like intentionally walking the No. 8 hitter to allow the Phillies to pinch-hit Bryce Harper with the bases loaded. And that's what puzzled baseball people the most, especially the ones who hired him.
Last winter, before he left the organization, then-assistant GM J.P. Ricciardi told me privately he was stunned at how poorly Callaway handled the managing duties in his first season, as much for the sense he was just in over his head as any particular decision.
"He checked all the boxes for us in the interview process," Ricciardi said at the time.
That's all the more reason the Mets can't afford to take a chance on this next hire. It can't be a first-time manager, no matter how impressive he may come off in an interview, or how highly he is recommended, as Callaway was by Terry Francona. And especially in New York where the media scrutiny on the in-game strategy is intense, it has to be somebody who has proven he excels at running a game and making good decisions in the heat of the moment.
The most obvious candidates are Joe Girardi and Buck Showalter, and either one would be a good call for a team with an impressive young position-player core that looks ready to take the next step toward serious contention.
The Mets would have to pony up a big salary, even if managers aren't commanding nearly what they once did. And Van Wagenen would have to be willing to cede some of the control that he and his front office exerted on daily decisions, based largely on a more analytics-oriented approach than the Mets had ever used in the past.
In fact, people close to the situation say that Adam Guttridge, the analytics guru hired by Van Wagenen last winter, has heavy influence in most decisions the Mets make, based on what his numbers are telling him.
That's baseball these days, of course, as most teams rely heavily on analytics and want managers to whom they can dictate much of the decision-making. As such, the manager has been de-emphasized, and teams aren't willing to pay the salaries that big-name managers such as Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa, Mike Scioscia, and the recently-fired Joe Maddon were making over the last couple of decades.
The new approach can work with the right combination of collaboration, player-talent, and manager, as it did with Alex Cora and the Red Sox just a year ago, and might again this year with Aaron Boone and the Yankees.
Yet Callaway and the Mets were a reminder that managers still matter, that it's not as simple as scripting lineups and late-inning bullpen matchups.
Managers need to have presence, they need to have a feel. In the case of New York, specifically, they need to have a level of sophistication in dealing with the media that was a problem for Callaway as well.
Often times, remember, his post-game explanations for his strategic mistakes only made matter worse. As I've written more than once now, Callaway's claim that he allowed the Phillies to pinch-hit Harper against Tyler Bashlor so he could get journeyman reliever Mike Morin out of the game was an all-timer.
Yet, the one that may have sealed Callaway's fate was, in trying to justify the time he pulled Matz in Atlanta, he said that "85 percent of the decisions we make go against analytics."
In truth, however, Van Wagenen probably wanted to hire his own manager upon taking over as GM last winter, so now he gets the opportunity.
And much as he might like to discover baseball's next great manager, he'd be smart to take this advice: considering this organization also swung-and-missed badly on Art Howe, who famously "lit up the room," he can't let the interview be the deciding factor.
Go with a sure thing.