Like six other teams, the Twins enter 2019 with a manager looking to complete their first full season with the team. Of the seven new bosses, only one has completed a full MLB season for another team – Brad Ausmus, whose time with the Tigers he’d likely prefer to be stricken from the record – and while the expectations for Cardinals manager Mike Shildt are notably higher than they are for the Rangers’ Chris Woodward, it’s good to have a frame of reference for how first-year managers typically do.
Rather than wading through the entire universe of MLB managers, then trying to make judgments about how similar a given era is to the modern game, I’ve looked at the current managerial cohort, all of whom joined their current teams this decade…except Bruce Bochy, who will be stepping aside at the end of this season. (Some managers go out on top, but Bochy – who owns three World Series rings and took the Padres to a fourth – looks set to do the opposite as the Giants are not exactly well-positioned in the NL West.)
Managers making their true debut do reasonably well, but generally unremarkably so, in their first season. Their median record, 82-80, in those maiden seasons is unlikely to produce a playoff run; it’s also unlikely to get them pelted with rotten fruit in the streets. Extend that pace over the course of 20 years, however, and you end up in the company of venerable managers like Jim Leyland and Buck Showalter.
But what happens when a manager takes over a new team, irrespective of whether they’ve managed before? Virtually nothing: Managers in their first season with a new team pilot them to a median mark of 80-82. No playoffs, no fruit in the streets, live to manage another day as long as you don’t make a habit of it. Still, .494 is a better career winning percentage than Tom Kelly, Eric Wedge, or Larry Bowa had.
Mentioning Kelly as a manager who produced below-average results might get you run out of Minnesota on a rail, but it illustrates a meaningful point: If Baldelli wants a long managerial career, he’s better off having up and down stretches rather than being consistently mediocre. Kelly’s highs are obvious and memorable – Flags Fly Forever as the saying goes – but his lows are probably worse and more frequent than most would guess. Of his 13 full seasons as Twins manager – dropping strike-shortened 1994 and ‘95 and his partial season in ’86 – Kelly had 88 or more losses in six of them.
Obviously there are myriad factors at play in any manager’s record, many of which are out of their control, and a managerial platoon of Joe McCarthy and Charlie Comiskey couldn’t have redeemed the 1999 Twins, but it’s proof that high enough highs will buy almost any manager the margin they need to have a few abject failures in their career.
Assuming he ends up near the median for first-year managers, Baldelli can be expected to win about 81 games. On Opening Day Eve, PECOTA has the team projected for 82 wins, as does Fangraphs, and that feels about right given what the team showed in Spring Training. It would take a miracle of no small scale for him to best Alex Cora’s 108 wins in his first season as manager and a disaster of equivalent size for Joe Maddon’s 101 losses with the 2006 Rays to be in play. This doesn’t mean Baldelli won’t have an impact on the Twins’ performance this year, but what he has will largely determine where in the middle third of the bell curve he falls rather than whether the team is a success or a failure.