Rookies in the dugout: Experience no longer mandatory for MLB managers

Experience is not what it used to be.

When the Washington Nationals tabbed Matt Williams as their new manager earlier this month, the club joined a growing trend among Major League Baseball teams: Hiring someone with extremely limited or no managerial experience at any level to run a team.

Williams retired in 2003 after a spectacular 17-year playing career, served as a broadcaster and then returned to the field in 2010 as a coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks. That was enough for Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who was with Arizona’s front office when Williams was still a player.

“There are different routes to the manager’s chair,” Rizzo said. “I think each situation is unique.”

But Williams‘ ascension is becoming all too common even for contending clubs. The Detroit Tigers, three-time defending AL Central champions and back in the ALCS again this past season, recently needed to replace longtime manager Jim Leyland, who retired after his team was eliminated by Boston in the ALCS last month.

The choice? Brad Ausmus, a former big-league catcher who ended his 18-year playing career only in 2010. Ausmus served three years as a special assistant with the San Diego Padres after retiring. That’s the extent of his resume. But even teams like the Tigers, who are primed to compete for titles year-in and year-out, have decided that’s enough to succeed in the modern game. There are plenty of examples proving that direction makes sense.

St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny had a resume similar to Ausmus‘ when he took over for the legendary Tony LaRussa following that club’s 2011 World Series title. And yet, despite never having managed at any level or even coached in the majors, Matheny, 43, piloted St. Louis to 185 wins over the last two seasons and this year’s NL pennant.

“To a certain extent, you really don’t need that experience at all,” said Will Clark, a six-time All-Star first baseman and now a special assistant for the San Francisco Giants. “The reason is you’re surrounding yourself with a bench coach and a hitting instructor and guys who’ve probably been around baseball just as much as you have, if not longer.

“The big thing is — and Matheny is a perfect example — managing your players, knowing what they need to succeed.”

It is exactly the scenario the Nats have in mind with Williams. He is only 47, young enough to be considered a contemporary for some of his older players. (Washington outfielder Jayson Werth broke into the big leagues for the first time in 2002.) Washington is counting on Williams‘ non-managerial experience to come through. But his coaching staff remains reasonably intact with four holdovers out of six. Third base coach Trent Jewett left Monday to take the bench coach position in Seattle under its new manager, Lloyd McClendon

“You have to be a quick learner because there’s going to be new stuff as a manager,” said Craig Counsell, a 16-year big leaguer who is now a special assistant with the Milwaukee Brewers. “As long as you learn fast from your decisions, it’s doable. Experience helps. But 15 or 20 years in the big leagues is a lot of experience, too. You’ll already see a lot of things that a manager will see.”

This isn’t exactly a new trend. New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi has been in his position since 2008. Like Williams, he, too, retired in 2003 and became a broadcaster. But Girardi was on a fast track. By 2005 he was Joe Torre’s bench coach with the Yankees and in 2006 was plucked by the then-Florida Marlins to be their manager at age 41. He immediately won NL Manager of the Year, but was fired anyway after conflicts with ownership. By 2008 Girardi was back in New York as the Yankees’ manager.

But the move toward younger, less experienced managers has accelerated. Since the end of the 2011 season, there have been 14 new managers hired. Half had extremely limited or no previous managerial experience, including in the minors. Williams had a short stint as Arizona’s Double-A manager in 2007 on an emergency basis when Brett Butler suffered a stroke.

Williams, Bo Porter (Houston), the former Nats third base coach, and Bryan Price (Cincinnati), himself hired last month, were all coaches at the big-league level. Price was a pitching coach for 13 years before taking over for Dusty Baker last month.

Robin Ventura (Chicago White Sox), like Ausmus and Matheny, was a special assistant, though only for four months before his hire after the 2011 season. That move was still less shocking than Walt Weiss, who was coaching high school baseball when he was hired by the Colorado Rockies last offseason. Weiss had played for the team and spent six years in the front office before leaving the organization.

Four of those 14 managers — McClendon, John Farrell (Boston), Terry Francona (Cleveland) and John Gibbons (Toronto) — are veterans with previous experience. Three — Ryne Sandberg (Philadelphia), Mike Redmond (Miami) and Rick Renteria (Chicago Cubs), hired just last week — had managed in the minors.

“Things aren’t necessarily the same as they were. Teams are willing to give on experience if they believe in the person they’re hiring,” said Luis Gonzalez, a five-time All-Star outfielder and now a special assistant with the Diamondbacks. “That’s probably allowed a lot more guys a chance sooner than they would have had before. That’s not always a bad thing.”

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