Evaluating managers involves consideration of a paradox. On one hand managers are often held accountable for a team's poor performance. Disappointing season — fire the manager. Players underperforming — fire the manager. And yet in addition to this concept of accountability, it is widely regarded that managers have relatively little impact on the final outcome of a season if not an individual game. Systematic comparisons between "good" managers and "bad" managers show surprisingly few differences. There is a tendency to credit players for positive performances, and blame managers and coaches for poor performances. So which is it? Is Wedge responsible for the Indians rise from a 68-win team his first season to a 93-win near playoff team just two years later? Or is he responsible for the late season collapse that kept us out of that post-season? Is he responsible for the disappointing follow-up season in 2006? Or the statement-making 2007 season in which the 96-win Cleveland team was clearly (along with Boston) one of the best two teams in the league? Or is he responsible for the 3 consecutive losses that ended that playoff run prematurely? Or the disappointing follow-up 2008 season? Or the epic failure of this season?
Entering this afternoon's game Eric Wedge's career record as the Indians manager is 560-568, meaning he will finish his tenure just a few games under .500. He has managed the 4th most games as an Indians manager (behind Boudreau, Hargrove and Speaker) and has the 5th most victories (add Al Lopez to the previous list). He has coached one playoff team and won one (very memorable and satisfying) playoff series while losing a second (very memorable and painful) series. Just 35 when he was hired, he was and still is quite young, so his managerial days are quite possibly not over. Having come up through the Indians minor league managerial system Wedge was thought to be someone who would work well with the young and developing team that Shapiro & Co. were putting together in the post-Colon trade era.
Players have both succeeded and failed under Wedge. We have seen the development of an original new "core" set of players with guys like Sizemore, Peralta, Sabathia, Lee, Martinez and Hafner. And we have seen the beginning of perhaps a new core of talent with players like Cabrera and Choo. Several notable players have clashed and/or failed to develop - Milton Bradley, Brandon Phillips, Andy Marte. The discussions which have been going on since the collapse of 2005 will no doubt continue into the off-season. What effect has Wedge's parceling out of playing time had on the development of important organizational parts? Has Wedge used pitchers, particularly relievers, correctly? Can we blame Wedge for being out-coached by Francona in the 2007 playoffs? These are all legitimate discussions to have, but do not have much impact on my view of today's firing.
I am happy to see the Indians fire Wedge today and have a vocal history on this site for arguing he should have been fired back in May. My reasons largely reflect issues independent of the overall evaluation of Wedge's strengths and weaknesses or previous successes and failures. I think Wedge should have been fired because the Indians were going in the wrong direction back in May and had no other options to elicit change in the hopes of producing a different on the field result. Doubts about our starting pitching were obvious and well-voiced during spring training, but there was a sense that we had enough options to play mix-and-match with our depth until we found the right set of 5 guys for any given stretch. Injuries erased much of that depth and gave us few options for changing the cast of characters taking the ball every five days. I, like several others, had high hopes for our bullpen this season. The simultaneous blow-up of four of our top five relievers made alternative courses of action difficult. We did end up putting a shuffle of players together (Chulk, Veras, Herges, Aquino et al.)...but the results were not good. Our offense actually was not that bad, but given that, there was little hope of it suddenly performing so well that our deficiencies in pitching could be overcome. So our only path for success was to perform better with the players we had. And actually, to perform dramatically better. The failures were widespread, although focused on pitching, so simply changing out a coach or two did not appear to be a sufficient solution. The only reasonable solution was firing the manager and trying to inspire better performance out of the 25 guys going in and out of the team clubhouse everyday.
The Indians chose to do nothing. Until now. The decision to do nothing appears even more damning in retrospect. We now know, especially following the trades of Lee and Martinez, that the Indians were operating on a competitive and financial edge not just for this season but for 2010 as well. If this season failed, next season went down with it. The front office knew this by July 1st, which means they should have known it on April 1st. Reviving this season was critical for the trajectory of this franchise. Shapiro should have fired Wedge and whatever coaches he wanted to go with him because it was the only option for saving 2010, as well as salvaging this season. On May 14th the Indians were a very disappointing 8 games under .500 (14-22), but only 4.5 games out of the AL Central lead. Three consecutive losses to Tampa put them 11 games under and 7.5 games out of 1st place going into a May 18th, Monday off-day. Defcon 1 alarm bells should have been going off in the corridors of the Indians front office. I am quite certain the Indians have systematic analysis showing that teams that change managers mid-season do not generally do well. Mid-season firings are not the "right" choice. And I am quite certain I don't care about those results. This is one of those areas in which Cleveland really had nothing to lose by making the move and everything to lose by not making the change.
The Indians actually played with a degree of mediocrity (an improvement) over the remainder of May and first half of June, playing 4 games above .500 between May 19th and June 14th. Then came a devastating back-to-back pair of three-game interleague series, at Milwaukee and at Chicago, in which the Indians went 0-6, losing the first 5 games by 2 runs or less, and falling from 6 to 10 games out of first place. The Indians again had an off-day and again should have considered firing Wedge. At that point, June 22nd, I don't actually fault the Indians for keeping Wedge, but this is only because at that point the season was essentially done. The Indians had to win the AL Central to make the playoffs, were 10 games out of 1st with 4 teams ahead of them in the standings, and had a variety of injuries on the roster. Certainly, I would not have objected if the Indians had them fired him, but the time to make that decision was already in the past. Eric Wedge should have been fired on May 18th.
I am happy the Indians have fired Wedge. I don't know whether Wedge is a good coach or not, although I think there are probably a lot of better coaches out there. I am not sure what failures are properly assigned to Wedge. The decision to fire Wedge now is the right one, but it is in itself a failure, although it is a failure not of Wedge, but of Shapiro.