Managers matter, except when they don’t.

Everyone in baseball can tell a story of a manager who turned around a team, from Sparky Anderson and later Jim Leyland with the Detroit Tigers to Buck Showalter with the Baltimore Orioles and Joe Maddon with first the Tampa Bay Rays and then the Chicago Cubs.

And, perhaps, Dusty Baker with the Washington Nationals.

The Nationals fell in 2015 at least in part because Matt Williams was their manager. They rose this April at least in part because Baker is their manager now.

As MLB Network’s Jon Heyman tweeted recently:

Managers matter, except when they don’t.

For every story of a team that won because it found the right manager, there’s a story of a team that won in spite of its manager. Every player who has been around long enough has been on a team where someone said, “Let’s keep the manager out of this.”

In other words, let’s play well enough so that the manager can’t mess it up.

A few years back, when a group of scouts were sitting around discussing the worst managers they’d ever seen, one veteran scout (and former big league manager) trumped them all. Who was the worst he’d ever seen?

“I can’t say,” he shouted. “Because he won a World Series.”

He never did say, but the others in the room believed he was talking about Bob Brenly, who won the 2001 World Series with the Arizona Diamondbacks and thankfully left for the television booth a few years later.

But even if teams can win with bad managers, it’s a lot easier to win with a great one. The great ones do make a difference, although even the great ones fail if they don’t have talent on the field.

The Nationals have talent, and they were (eventually) smart enough to understand a manager like Baker could help that talent thrive.

How many wins will Baker be worth? It’s a great question, one asked all the time but still really has no good answer.

A manager has no real numbers on his record other than wins and losses. But how many of those wins should be credited to him?

What is it worth to make the right move more often than the wrong one? More than that, what is it worth to create a clubhouse atmosphere that allows talented players to thrive rather than one that stymies any talent that exists?

“You can’t quantify it,” Miami Marlins reliever Craig Breslow, who has played 11 years for 10 different managers, said. “You just have to appreciate it. You have to appreciate that he plays some role.”

Breslow‘s current manager is Don Mattingly, brought to Miami by owner Jeffrey Loria because he was convinced Mattingly could make a difference. The Marlins lost 10 of their first 15 games but are now 13-12.

Even when they were losing, Mattingly was getting credit for the better feeling in the clubhouse.

“It’s a wonderful vibe,” Loria, who so far is declining any more comment on his manager and team, said.

Mattingly has preached accountability to his players and stability and consistency to them and everyone else. The Marlins will need every bit of that and more now as they deal with second baseman Dee Gordon’s 80-game suspension for the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Mattingly walked into the Marlins clubhouse with the credibility that comes with a playing career that fell just shy of a Hall of Fame level and a managing career that included three consecutive division titles with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In Miami, he replaced Dan Jennings, who was liked by the players but not necessarily respected for his managing skills. Jennings replaced Mike Redmond, who replaced Ozzie Guillen, who replaced Edwin Rodriguez, who replaced Fredi Gonzalez, who…well, you get the idea why stability and consistency mattered to Mattingly when he took over.

With Baker and Mattingly taking over teams that have underachieved before, the 2016 National League East race exists as almost a lab experiment for the “How much do managers matter?” question.

The Nationals added second baseman Daniel Murphy last winter, and the Marlins added Opening Day starter Wei-Yin Chen, but it’s no reach to say that with both teams, the most significant switch was in the manager’s office.

Mattingly won in Los Angeles. Baker won in San Francisco, Chicago and Cincinnati.

“I believe in Dusty Baker,” Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips said. “All he’s going to do is make that team better. We loved him. I wish he was still here.”

Baker lost his job in Cincinnati after three quick postseason exits in four years. With the Reds in full rebuilding mode now, he might not be the best fit there, anyway.

He’s a perfect fit with the Nationals, who have the kind of star players Baker thrived with in San Francisco (Barry Bonds), Chicago (Sammy Sosa) and Cincinnati (Ken Griffey Jr., Joey Votto).

Already, the Nationals are seeing it.

“Dusty Baker squeezes out the most talent from each and every individual we give him,” general manager Mike Rizzo told Hal Bodley of “His use of the bench and the way he handles the veteran players, giving them days off when they need them, is a marvel to watch.

“Dusty Baker has been a breath of fresh air.”

Baker is an old-school baseball man, and Rizzo is a GM with a heavy scouting background. But even front offices with strong analytics bents have come around to the idea that the manager matters.

They’re not just “middle managers,” as New York Mets GM Sandy Alderson was quoted calling them in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. And while there are teams whose front offices take over some of the manager’s traditional duties (making out the lineup, for example), that’s not the case now with every analytics-heavy team.

“The manager runs the team,” Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. “If the GM is spending time worrying about the lineup, he’s not worrying about the things he needs to.”

Luhnow hired A.J. Hinch to manage the Astros last year, and the result was the team’s first postseason berth in a decade. While Hinch obviously shouldn’t get all the credit for it, Luhnow is happy to give him some.

“A manager sets the tone in the clubhouse from day one,” he said. “That makes a difference.”

Even Alderson has changed, or at least has given a different explanation of what he said two decades ago.

“Middle managers are important,” he told Steve Kettmann for a story in the New Yorker. As Kettmann wrote: “The field manager’s role, [Alderson] added, remains pivotal in an era of exploding data. … The contemporary manager has to process reams of information and back up decisions with an informed thought process he can explain both to his players and his bosses.”

Alderson could be describing Showalter or Maddon or Bruce Bochy, all of whom get votes when baseball people debate the best managers in the game today. One American League executive said Showalter and Maddon are so good that opposing teams feel a need to prepare to face them as well as their talented players.

Still, Showalter‘s Orioles finished 81-81 last year, a distant third in the American League East. Maddon‘s Tampa Bay Rays went 77-85 in his final year there. Bochy‘s San Francisco Giants finished 10 games under .500 in 2013, the year in between their last two World Series titles.

Baker isn’t a sure thing to win this year with the Nationals. Mattingly isn’t certain to win with the Marlins, either, and his task got a whole lot harder with the Gordon suspension.

But Mattingly wouldn’t be in Miami and Baker wouldn’t be in Washington if those teams didn’t believe a manager could make a real difference. Few in baseball would argue against the idea that he can.

Yes, managers matter. And guys like Mattingly and Baker are already making a difference early in 2016.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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