Gardenhire Philosophy

On the Twins Caravan yesterday Ron Gardenhire made very clear that he was looking forward to this spring training. He compared it to last year by saying this year everything will be on HIS schedule. Last year he had to follow schedules made up by doctors for Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Delmon Young and Michael Cuddyer. As he said, we all know how that turned out.

In his typically humorous way he said he had been practicing yelling and even has learned how to “yell a little bit in Japanese”! He proclaimed himself ready for spring to begin. Obviously, the manager likes things to be done his way.

Reading between the lines on his comments, it seems to me pretty obvious that Gardenhire is not about to change his philosophy of how to run a ML ball club, in spite of the worst year he ever had as a manager. He is convinced he knows how to prepare a team for the long season ahead and he plans to execute his plan leaving little doubt about who will be in charge this spring. It won’t be the doctors/trainers, the players, or, for that matter, the players’ agents. The latter group may have had too much influence, or at least communication control last year. It also won’t be the General Manager, so if there are any “philosophical differences” between the two, Gardenhire is prepared to put himself on the line.  For the record, I don’t think there is much difference in philosophy of how the manager should operate between Terry Ryan and Ron Gardenhire. They have known each other for a long time and if there was a significant problem, last fall would have been the time to correct that by moving to the future with a new manager and coaching staff.

We can debate whether or not Gardenhire’s philosophy of management of a team is as good as some other managers, but other than last year, it is fair to say that the Twins preparations for the season and spring regimen have been quite effective for winning division titles.

An important element of his philosophy appears to be having a determined role for each player. He has said he believes players respond better when they know their role and expectations for that role. This is almost certainly the reason he has named a starting pitcher for opening day already and yesterday indicated who he would like to see in his opening day lineup.

Last year he deviated from that approach because he had not seen Tsuyoshi Nishioka play before he arrived at spring training so Gardenhire waited to see how Alexi Casilla and Nishioka worked together and how they looked at shortstop and second base before making a decision on who would start where. As it turned out, that combination never got a chance to gel before Nishioka’s injury. This year, there is no hesitation on Gardenhire’s part. Casilla will be at second base and Jamey Carroll will be at shortstop.

Such an approach makes it easy for bloggers and beat journalists to “predict” who will make the 25-man roster at the beginning of the year and who will be in what roles. That does not mean there is not plenty of room for opinions on the wisdom of those decisions. In fact, I expect there will be continuing vigorous debate in the blogosphere about Casilla and Carroll with many believing Carroll would be better at second base, but barring an injury to Casilla, I don’t expect that to happen by opening day.

Another element of Gardenhire’s philosophy that many in baseball find wise is his belief that bench players need opportunities to stay sharp and regulars need periodic rest to get through the demanding 162-game schedule. Last year was an aberration, but otherwise the Twins have been strong down the stretch and many attribute that to this approach to managing players.

A little more into the speculative realm, I think Gardenhire gives more decision-making responsibility to his coaches, especially pitching coach, Rick Anderson, than most managers do, at least publicly. Glimpses of this philosophy appear every once in a while. For example, recently when talking about Carl Pavano as his opening day starter he said something to the effect that he talked to Anderson and Anderson told him Pavano was the guy. This is  certainly not the only time the manager publicly appeared to defer to his pitching coach. While this may well all be just for public display and something else actually goes on behind the scenes, I have no reason to believe Gardenhire would attempt such an ongoing ruse.

Gardenhire wins much praise on a regular basis for his ability to manage the people. Many players are very positive about working under his leadership, so much so that he has earned the reputation of a “players manager”. Many fans, on the other hand, are quite critical of this element of Gardenhire’s leadership style saying that he needs to be much tougher and take charge, show who is the boss. I happen to believe in this age of players salaries and attitudes, Gardenhire’s approach is much more conducive to a good working environment than what so many fans call leadership.

Over that last several years of following the Twins, I have come to believe he is good with people, but not very good at game management. His in-game decisions are sometimes really suspect at best and it ends up costing the Twins games. Also, when it comes to big games, such as the Yankees or the playoffs, he appears visibly nervous and I suspect that is because he knows he is not good at single-game management. In the playoffs especially, there is no long-term to balance out the errors in critical strategic decisions that sometimes mean the difference between winning and losing a game. With his particular set of skills, Gardenhire would be wise to hire a bench coach who is a master tactician who could be the game manager for him. Unfortunately, I don’t think Scott Ullger is that guy and neither was Steve Liddle.

In spite of my misgivings, I expect Gardenhire and his philosophy to be around for a long time. The Twins’ ownership and management are not only satisfied with him in the dugout, they act as if they believe he embodies the Twins’ philosophy. About the only way he would be gone is if the Twins lose another 99 or 100 games in 2012 leaving ownership and top management no real option but to sacrifice the manager and coaches to appease what will almost certainly be hostile fans.

I’d be very surprised if 2012 is the disaster that last year was, but it will take some minor miracles to go from last to first in the division. More about that in a future post.

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