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Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Jim Tracy: A Dash of Genius, or a Lot of Luck?

Eric examines Jim Tracy’s record with minor leaguers.

It hasn?t drawn as much attention as it might have, given how badly the Dodgers? free agent signings have tanked recently. But in the two years since Jim Tracy took over the managerial reins in Los Angeles, the team has shown an extraordinary ability to get unexpectedly good results from players being given their first real opportunities to play in the major leagues.

When Bill James devised his "Manager in a Box" evaluation concept in 1984, one of the key questions he asked about each manager was, "How many players has he made regulars out of who were not regulars before, and who were they?" I randomly defined "becoming a regular" as reaching either 350 plate appearances, 40 games pitched, or 20 games started for the first time. By that definition, Tracy has made major league regulars out of eight players who had never before gotten the chance to play:

 

  • A Quadruple-A junkballer who?d been bouncing around the minors since 1991, Giovanni Carrara posted a 3.16 ERA in 85 innings out of the Dodger bullpen in 2001, and replicated that performance in ?02. Picking up a better-than-average reliever off the minor league free agent pile is always a good thing.
  • After getting inconsistent results as a starter, Eric Gagne turned in one of the all-time great relief pitching seasons in 2002. Knowing he would only be pitching one or two innings per game, Gagne?s Tommy-John-survivor arm was able to crank up the heat from 92 mph to 98, resulting in 114 strikeouts in 82 innings, plus an insane 0.86 WHIP. Someone, probably Tracy, deserves a huge amount of credit for seeing the possibilities in this.
  • Kazuhiza Ishii performed about as well as expected after coming over from Japan, going 14-10 with a 4.27 ERA before a line drive to the skull ended his season. He should continue to be a serviceable pitcher in the majors, especially if he can lower his walk total in his second season of MLB.
  • Rated the #67 prospect in the game by Baseball America in 2001, César Izturis looks like he?ll be a perennial Gold Glove candidate as long as he can hit enough to stay in the lineup. After posting a .232 average in 2002, the team will give him one or two more years to learn to hit at the major league level.
  • Though not technically a rookie, 29-year-old Paul Lo Duca in 2001 enjoyed one of the finest seasons by a rookie catcher in baseball history. Lo Duca had been hitting .300 consistently since he was a toddler, but nobody wanted to take a chance on him because he had no power, and because his status as a former college DH led people to question his defensive ability. He answered those criticisms by knocking 25 homers and throwing out 39 percent of basestealers once Tracy put him in the lineup. His star shone less brightly in 2002, but he remains one of the best catchers in baseball.
  • An ex-prospect whose career was derailed by Tommy John surgery, Odalis Pérez was seen by most as a throw-in in the Brian Jordan trade, but ended up blossoming into one of the best pitchers in the league, finishing sixth in Baseball Primer?s NL Cy Young voting. His 0.99 WHIP was fourth-best in the majors, and three times he flirted with a perfect game.
  • Luke Prokopec got off to a good start as a rookie, posting a 6-1 record with a 3.33 ERA in the first two months of 2001. He slumped later in the year, lost his rotation spot, and after being shipped to Toronto for César Izturis, promptly suffered career-threatening injuries to his elbow and labrum.
  • Dave Roberts, a Quadruple-A player whom Evans acquired for a song, became one of the best leadoff hitters in the National League in 2002, posting a .370 adjusted OBP and leading the league in steals until the final weekend of the season ? this by a 30-year-old career minor leaguer who had never gotten a chance before. As Roberts himself told the Associated Press, "It?s hard for a manager to plug somebody in like me, stick their neck out, so to speak… Right before spring training, Jim Tracy told me if I did the right things, I’d have the opportunity to win the job."

 

If you’re keeping track, four of the eight (Gagne, Lo Duca, Pérez, and Roberts) were stunning, unqualified successes. Two (Ishii and Carrara) were more modest successes, one (Prokopec) eventually became a failure for another team, and the last (Izturis) is still too early to call. None of the eight was considered a can?t-miss prospect, yet not a single one of them failed under Tracy?s watch. That?s a remarkable two-year track record, and it?s made Tracy look like a genius. Could it be a coincidence? Sure. Is it a coincidence? Too early to tell at this point.

The other question is, is there any precedent for this in baseball history? In a word, yes. There?s plenty of precedent for it. Strangely, the last four managers to wear suits instead of baseball uniforms in the dugout are all good examples. I swear that?s just a coincidence, but Tracy might want to invest in a bowtie and stovepipe hat just in case:

 

  • From 1947-49, KOBS (Kindly Old Burt Shotton) presided over the first major league successes of Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Don Newcombe, and Carl Erskine. That’s a remarkable group of players to find in a three-year period, but none of them were really Shotton discoveries. Three were already established stars in the Negro Leagues, two (Snider and Erskine) were mega-prospects signed by Branch Rickey, and the sixth, Gil Hodges, was a holdover from before the war.
  • From 1908-13, Connie Mack broke into the majors youngsters Eddie Collins, Home Run Baker, Black Jack Barry, Stuffy McInnis, Wally Schang, Bob Shawkey, and Bullet Joe Bush, although he loses major points for giving up on the young Shoeless Joe Jackson after an unimpressive first ten games.
  • When Frank Selee came to Chicago in 1902, Frank Chance, Johnny Evers, and Johnny Kling had been riding the pine more than they?d been playing. Selee made regulars out of them, and over the next four years also gave Joe Tinker, Wildfire Schulte, and Ed Reulbach their first chances to play. The end result was 530 wins over a five-year period, but Selee, like Mack, missed the boat on arguably the best player of the bunch: Rube Waddell.
  • In 1913 and 1914 George Stallings, the Braves? Miracle Man, molded a pennant winner by developing young players Hank Gowdy, Rabbit Maranville, Lefty Tyler, and Bill James, while coaxing solid big-league performances from a bunch of retreads who nobody else thought could play: Dick Rudolph, Joe Connolly, Larry Gilbert, and Butch Schmidt. Stallings is probably the best parallel in baseball history to what Tracy?s done with the Dodgers.

 

What?s notable about the above four managers, other than their fashion sense, is that all four of the teams they built resulted in World Championships, and in three of the four cases they became league dynasties. The current Dodgers, of course, haven?t won jack, and are extremely unlikely to develop into a dynasty. The reason they won’t, in a word (actually two words), is Kevin Malone. The four big pitching contracts awarded by The Sheriff ? Kevin Brown, Darren Dreifort, Andy Ashby, and Carlos Pérez ? cost the team a combined $72 million over the last two years, for basically zilch in production. Had that $72 million been spent wisely, Tracy might be wearing a couple of World Series rings right now. As it stands, his managerial heroics have saved the Dodgers from the fate of the Baltimore Orioles.

But who really deserves credit for these unexpected successes? Is it Tracy, who provided the playing time? Or is it Dan Evans, who was hired away from the White Sox in May 2001, and after being named GM six months later, presided over the acquisitions of Odalis Pérez, Izturis, Ishii, and Roberts? The answer, of course, is that both men deserve ample credit, but Tracy was the only one present for all of these successes, and was also the one actually writing the names on the lineup card. Regardless of assigning credit, Tracy and Evans do always appear to be on the same page, which is good news for Dodger fans.

So what does all this mean for the immediate future? Well, the only new player likely to fill a full-time role is second baseman Joe Thurston, who turned in a .334/372/.506 season at Las Vegas. Thurston was already in the farm system when Evans and Tracy were hired, and any manager in Tracy’s shoes would give Thurston a shot this year, so it should come as no surprise when that happens. A more telling situation will be that of Mike Kinkade. A .330 lifetime hitter in professional baseball, Kinkade won?t quite be a full-time player, but it appears inevitable that Tracy will make better use of his talents in 2003 than any other manager ever has. Kinkade will occasionally spell McGriff at first base, will be the team’s top pinch hitter, and along with Daryle Ward, will serve as Brian Jordan insurance. Kinkade, like Dave Roberts, has such an extensive record of minor league success that it?s difficult to label the manager who gives him a shot a genius. But the fact remains that Kinkade is 30 years old, and nobody has given him that chance up to now. "What he did today doesn’t surprise me," Tracy said after Kinkade belted two homers in the first exhibition game this spring. "The fact that he can hit, I knew last August. This guy could be a diamond in the rough in the mold of Paul Lo Duca and Dave Roberts."

 

Eric Enders Posted: March 18, 2003 at 05:00 AM | 4 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Joey Numbaz (Scruff) Posted: March 18, 2003 at 01:45 AM (#609658)
Cesar Izturis hit lefties pretty well, over a .700 OPS last year, which playing half the time is Dodger Stadium is perfectly acceptable for a Gold Glove caliber SS.

Has anyone considering telling him to quit switch hitting and only hit from the right side of the plate? It's got to be worth a try, because he's putrid as a left-handed hitter.
   2. Ned Garvin: Male Prostitute Posted: March 18, 2003 at 01:45 AM (#609672)
Good article. I wonder why people don't see the cheap quality that older minor leaguers can provide more often.

Also, I think that anyone who "missed the boat" on Rube Waddell should be forgiven, at least from the stories I have read.
   3. Eric Enders Posted: March 18, 2003 at 01:45 AM (#609677)
Click the website link for an interesting article on Tracy by Alan Schwartz. It's a couple months old, but it's interesting to find out, among other things, that Tracy has read The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers.
   4. Eric Enders Posted: March 19, 2003 at 01:46 AM (#609703)
Phillippe,
I used the accents for everyone except Gagne because
a) I know Spanish, but not French, and therefore
b) did not know the name Gagne had an accent on it.

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