Winning keeps Washington in critics' sights
Despite his detractors, fellow managers have praise for Rangers skipper
ARLINGTON -- When Prince Fielder signed with the Rangers, he was asked about playing for Ron Washington.
"I'm excited about it," Fielder said. "I've heard a lot of great things."
Who hasn't? Almost everybody around baseball loves "Wash," the demonstrative and loquacious manager of the Rangers, a skipper with a big heart, generous smile, quick laugh and sympathetic ear. He backs his players, he "lets them play," and they play hard for him. Washington's ability to get his players to put forth maximum effort game after game is considered his best asset as a manager.
To some, it may be his only asset.
Despite entering his eighth year as Rangers manager with four straight seasons of 90-plus wins and two trips to the World Series in 2010-11, Washington does not enjoy a public reputation for being a brilliant game manager or master tactician. He is better known as a "player's manager" and not a strategic genius who can outmaneuver the guy in the opposing dugout.
Instead, it is sometimes the reverse. Washington is often scorned for the moves he makes, and running a game has been referred to as his weakest asset amid less charitable assessments.
It is not an opinion shared by many of his peers.
"My opinion is shared by a lot of people in the game, because we talk among ourselves," former White Sox, A's and Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "Ron is outstanding. He is a very solid game manager. There's no surprise they went to two World Series. You don't do that and go to the seventh game of the World Series -- they easily could have won that -- unless he has a real good idea of what he's doing.
"It would be one thing if they had been struggling, but they've won two American League championships. You've got to be good if you put your club in position to do that. You can't overcome a bad manager. You might be able to do it occasionally, but they couldn't overcome a bad manager to do what they have done. He's done a great job."
La Russa will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer, along with fellow managers Bobby Cox and Joe Torre. Cox has an all-time winning percentage of .556, while Torre is at .538 and La Russa at .536. Washington has a .538 winning percentage over seven years.
The Rangers were 154-170 in Washington's first two seasons while general manager Jon Daniels launched the youth movement/rebuilding program. Since the beginning of 2009, the Rangers are 457-354. Only the Yankees have won more games or have a better winning percentage in that stretch. The Rangers just don't have the World Series title.
"Ron brings exactly what that team needs," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "Tactically, he is on top of it, there's not anything out there that's going to catch him by surprise. He's alert and he's on top of things. You can tell it means a lot to him. He's done a great job for what they need there. Ron's guys are always going to be as good as they are capable of being."
SUCCESSFUL SKIPPERSTop winning percentage among active Major League managers (minimum 1,000 games)
|Joe Girardi||FLA, NYY||642||492||.566|
|Fredi Gonzalez||FLA, ATL||555||486||.533|
|Terry Francona||BOS, CLE||1,121||985||.532|
|Buck Showalter||NYY, ARI, TEX, BAL||1,163||1,095||.515|
|Bob Melvin||SEA, ARI, OAK||730||694||.513|
|Bruce Bochy||SD, SF||1,530||1,530||.500|
|Ned Yost||MIL, KC||741||831||.471|
|Terry Collins||HOU, ANA, NYM||669||695||.490|
|Clint Hurdle||COL, PIT||779||866||.474|
Despite the Rangers' success, Washington has yet to be voted AL Manager of the Year. But he has been given three bench coaches, three pitching coaches, four third-base coaches and five hitting coaches in his time as Rangers manager.
Daniels, often and rightfully listed as one of the best general managers in the game, was recognized as Executive of the Year in 2010, added the title of president of baseball operations last year, and has been surrounded with most of the same cadre of advisers since he first took the job.
Daniels has been lauded for his moves this winter, and one Internet analysis dubbed him as one of the "winners" of the offseason although still taking him to task for his attachment to the "strategic disaster" of a manager.
"It certainly doesn't bother me," Washington said. "I look at it two ways. If they are right in their criticism, I try to get better. If they are wrong in their criticism, I just ignore it. I think every year I've managed I've progressed and gotten better.
"The first year I was a novice, but after eight years, I've gotten better. I'm just like a player. They allow players to get better; I guess I'm not allowed to get better. But I think I'm much better than I was in 2007, and I'm continuing to get better."
Remember what historian Bill James wrote in his guide to managers: "The average fan has a one-dimensional image of a manager. He's good or he's bad. If he's real good, he's a genius. If he's real bad, he's an idiot."
Washington is a product of a traditional baseball background, schooled at the Royals Baseball Academy and raised through the Dodgers' farm system. He has 44 years of baseball knowledge, and uses it to bring a distinctive style of play to the Rangers.
His stamp is all over the team. There has been the obvious emphasis on pitching promoted throughout the organization, but Washington has also relentlessly hammered the need to play solid fundamental defense, execute situational offensive baseball and run the bases aggressively.
His message has not varied in eight years: "Execute the fundamentals and play the game the way it's presented."
Washington manages that way, which may be why, with all the Rangers' offensive firepower, they still have the second-most sacrifice bunts in the AL over the past four years. He also is not afraid to call for the suicide squeeze, which looks brilliant when it works, but not so smart when the hitter fails to get down the bunt.
The conviction in the sacrifice as a weapon led to a comeback win over the Blue Jays in 2011, when the Rangers bunted three straight times in the ninth, including a suicide squeeze that brought home the tying run. It also contributed to a frustrating, much-criticized loss to the Royals in 2012, when Elvis Andrus couldn't get down a ninth-inning squeeze and the go-ahead run was tagged out in a rundown.
"There are a lot of different things that come into play," former Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "But Wash is great communicator. He does a tremendous job. He's gotten criticized. But you know what? So has Jim Leyland. So has Tony La Russa. All those guys have been criticized. Hey, look, if your critics don't like you, they're going to look for anything. They're not held accountable, so they can say whatever they want to say. But when it comes down to it, success is what tells the story."
Then there is the aggressive baserunning, which Washington is adamant about being a part of the Rangers game. According to FanGraphs, the Rangers' baserunning was worth 36.5 wins over average in 2010-11, second most in the league. It fell to a combined two wins over average the past two years, as the glaring baserunning blunders became magnified and the Rangers' aggressiveness became a prime topic of conversation.
Forgotten was how the Rangers scored three runners from second base without the ball leaving the infield in the clinching Game 5 of the 2010 AL Division Series against the Rays, or Ian Kinsler's crucial stolen base followed by Andrus taking an extra bag on a single in a two-run ninth in Game 2 of the 2011 World Series.
"His style is an aggressive style," Leyland said. "He's very smart. He's very bright. He's not afraid to take a chance. If his club's struggling to score runs, he's not afraid to manufacture some offense. I think that's a part of having your team prepared. You know going in they're going to push, so you try to prepare your team for that. But Ron's smart. He's not afraid to generate something. He's got it figured out."
There are those, though, who are convinced that Washington has figured out nothing when it comes to managing a pitching staff, especially the bullpen. The Rangers blowing a pair of two-run leads late in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series certainly did nothing to change this perception, and handling his staff has been a targeted area of emphasis for his detractors.
But despite whatever perceived mistakes Washington has made, Rangers relievers have more wins and the second-highest winning percentage of any bullpen in the AL over the past four years. They also are fourth in save percentage and bullpen ERA.
Still, maybe the Rangers do win more because of the work of the front office and in spite of the moves made by the manager. But Washington's acknowledged ability to handle his players may at least have something to do with the Rangers' success, because Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick, one of the best general managers ever, is among those who believe that part is crucial for any manager.
"For me, the most important thing is running a good clubhouse," Gillick said. "The X's and the O's -- you sit up in the stands and, for the most part, a lot of fans go to the game and they know what's going to happen. You're going to hit and run, steal, put a pitcher in, take a pitcher out.
"I think it's just like business. You want to come to work and feel like you're fulfilled. You want to come to work and know what to expect when you walk in. You don't want to come into a workplace that's continually in upheaval ... and you lose your focus. Keeping control and keeping the players happy in the clubhouse, I think, is really important."
That part is hard to judge from the outside. But as far as strategy, criticizing and second-guessing managers has become a popular cottage industry in the internet-driven media, and there wasn't a playoff manager who was spared last October.
"If you're managing, you're going to get second-guessed," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "I saw it last year after we were out. I mean, I saw it when it was me, but watching the Cardinals and Boston, it was always, 'The other guy did something wrong, he should have done this or that.' Really? In a way, it's good to know that's just part of it and not take it personally. You might as well accept it right from the start."
"If you go back and look at the history of the game, there are some great managers, who won a lot of championships, who would be scrutinized now," D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said. "You have to make choices and you hope they work out, but there are many more things when you go back and examine every game that factor into whether you win or lose. There are defining moments, but in reality, there are many more than what gets noticed."
Hall of Famer Earl Weaver led the Orioles to five division titles, three AL pennants and one World Series from 1969-74. Yet early in the 1975 season, a Baltimore columnist decided it was time to fire Weaver, pointing out, "The last few years, the manager has mishandled, misused, misarranged, misconceived, misapplied and misbehaved, only to have the players save his bacon with a couple of stretch drives to the division flag."
So it appears Washington is in good company. But it may also be true that managers who continually put their teams in position to play in big games and in the postseason are the ones who will receive the most scrutiny and the most criticism.
Maybe that's Washington's problem. He just keeps winning, putting his team on a platform that invites widespread review of his work.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.