The D-backs hired Wally Backman as manager today. It makes sense. It seems like teams today either hire a former backup catcher as a student-of-the-game type or a middle infielder who was a fiery, scrappy player that they hope will be a fiery, scrappy manager. Usually, a losing team chooses the latter.
Backman wasted no time in presenting his scrappiness credentials:
"My style is hard, aggressive baseball," Backman said. "If my brother is second baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers and if it mans taking him out at second base, that's what I expect my players to do. That's the way we play the game."
This is the sort of fire that scrappy shortstop-cum-manager Larry Bowa lit under the Phils…initially. But it wore out awfully quick. Bowa won Manager of the Year in his rookie year at the helm of the Phillies in 2001 after a 21-game improvement. However, they never improved on 2001 in Bowa's three subsequent seasons.
Of course, the ultimate scrappy manager was probably Billy Martin, a former second baseman, of course. Martin won the division with four of the five organizations that he managed. However, he never lasted more than five seasons with any one organization, and that was the late-Seventies Yankees, with whom he won two championships and appeared in three World Series. So basically scrappiness may get the troops a-jumping but wears out its welcome more quickly than a mixed metaphor.
What can we expect from Backman, who makes the difficult jump from Single-A to the majors? Hey, Albert Pujols did it. However, he takes over a club with a starting lineup that even GM Joe Garagiola Jr. doesn't recognize. This team fell from a .500 team in 2003 to abysmally poor this season. Can Randy Johnson or the windfall he may produce when traded lead this team back to the postseason or at least respectability?
Well, the previous 88 teams in baseball history that won no more than one-third of their games (Arizona had a .315 winning percentage), improved by an average of 100 percentage points the next season. The average record for those teams was .293 in the first year and .396 in the second. Hey, 100 points? That sounds great, right? Well, consider that translates into a 64-98 record for those teams on average—not too impressive. For the D-Backs that portends a 67-95 record in 2005, which would still tie them for fewest wins this season. Again, that's not too impressive.
But maybe I'm being a little rough on the D-Backs. They were a .500 club a year ago. Couldn't they return more quickly to respectability? Look at the Tigers and their near 200-percentage-point improvement this season.
Well, there are just seven teams in major-league history that fell from a winning record one year (at least .500 winning percentage) to winning no more than one-third of their games the next. The last was the Boston Braves in 1934. Those teams on average improved less in their next season than did the larger group that I mentioned above, only 93 percentage points (.300 to .393). Yeah, that's not a lot of data to go on, but it does show that a) a precipitous fall like the one the D-Backs experienced this past season is extremely rare to begin with and b) no team in major-history has rebounded after such a fall to be a .500 team the next year.
And yet Backman predicts:
"This is not a rebuilding program. I'm here to win. That's what I've always been about and that's what the Diamondbacks are about," Backman said. "And we will get back to the Diamondback ways of the past as soon as we possibly can. We will make some changes and this team will compete. That's one thing that every team that I've ever managed does."
Let's say that Wally is in for a good bit of comeuppance.