We’ve seen current general managers tied to tabloid scandals, lousy public predictions, the fallout from disastrous contracts, and on-the-record allegations of front-office incompetence. Yet the last time a GM lost his job, the Astros had just dropped 100 games for the first time, the Marlins were in the midst of a spending spree, and Mike Trout had a .672 career OPS. Homeland was locking up all the Emmys. It was a different world.
On Twitter and talk radio, it’s still easy to find fans who think someone else (namely themselves) could do a better job of running their team than the GM currently in charge. But not since the Astros fired Ed Wade on November 27, 2011, has an owner come to the same conclusion. It’s been close to two and a half years since an MLB GM lost his job, which is the longest lull of at least the last four decades, and is all the more remarkable considering there were fewer teams for most of that span, and thus fewer opportunities for firings. ...
According to information from Baseball America’s executive database (which lists each team’s general managers since 1950) and additional research by Baseball Prospectus staff, however, it’s typically rare for the GM community to go more than a year between casualties. The longest period without a firing in recent years had come between Royals GM Allard Baird’s ouster on May 30, 2006, and, depending on your definition of “fired,” either June 20, 2007, when the Orioles hired Andy MacPhail to replace Mike Flanagan (who stayed with the team for the rest of the season), or August 27, 2007, when the Astros dismissed Tim Purpura. Even the longer, Baird-to-Purpura span stretched only 453 days. Before the current drought, the longest definitively demotion- and firing-free period of the past 40 years was 560 days, between Frank Wren’s dismissal by Baltimore in October 1999 and Malone’s “resignation.” (If you want to be a stickler and count only official firings, 53 more days takes you to June 2001, when the Pirates fired Cam Bonifay.) We’re up to 830 since the Astros jettisoned Wade, with an end to the streak unlikely before midseason. ...
2. Parity Plus Wild Cards
By any measure, baseball has become a more balanced game than it used to be, as revenue sharing and the luxury tax, the expansion of the player pool, and small-market teams’ early adoption of analytics, among other factors, have at least temporarily leveled the playing field. Where once the odds seemed hopelessly stacked against lower-revenue teams, baseball now compares favorably to other major sports in terms of turnover among contenders and champions. As Sam Miller wrote last season, “The correlation between money and wins is now lower than at any point in the last 20 years.”
Just as a GM can entice fans to come to the park or tune in on TV by fielding a competitive team, he can earn a stay of termination from an impatient owner by staving off mathematical elimination in August or early September.
“The majority of teams have been to the playoffs relatively recently,” says Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, who gives parity partial credit for the longer leash today’s GMs are enjoying. “Of those that haven’t, a number of those are in the middle of planned rebuilds. So most current executives have either won recently or gotten sign-off from ownership to take an intentional step back.” That leaves few GMs in the job-threatening region where it’s equally hard to remember the last successful season and envision the next one.
It’s not just that the league is less stratified, of course; there are also more playoff spots available. From 1977 to 1992 (except for the 1981 strike season), there were only four playoff spots for 26 teams; when the Marlins and Rockies arrived in 1993, a postseason berth became even harder to come by.1 The playoff pool’s subsequent expansion to eight and then 10 teams, thanks to the six-division format and the addition of two wild cards to each league, has made October much more inclusive. Now that a third of the teams advance beyond the regular season, all but a handful have at least a faint hope of reaching the postseason. We can’t even count on the Pirates and Royals to roll over anymore.
As one former National League GM says, “The second wild card has given false hope to some organizations, making them appear to be a contender for the postseason when in fact they were only ‘in’ due to the math.” So far, the four winners of the second wild card have completed their 162-game schedules with an average of 90.5 wins, which means that it takes a losing record to finish with a demoralizing double-digit deficit in the games-back column. It’s easier to give a GM another chance after a near miss than it is after a season in which his team wasn’t in it at all.