On the evening of Sunday, May 3 Brewers skipper Ron Roenicke became the nascent season's first managerial casualty, being fired after his team had started a disastrous 7-18, all but punting the whole season and leaving Milwaukee with the hard realization that the whole organization needed a shake-up. More than the terrible start to 2015, maybe it was the most recent precedent that undid Roenicke, as the Brewers collapsed after a promising start to 2014, barely finishing 82-80 despite spending 133 days in first place in the NL Central. Roenicke was named Manager of the Year in 2011 and guided the Brew Crew to the NLCS, but his ensuing seasons failed to yield the same type of results, ending with this unceremonious exit.
By barely making it to May, Roenicke avoided becoming the first manager in 10 years to be fired in April, but he will still be part of the short list of skippers who were let go before the season really started to mature. While offseason or late-season changes are usually the norm, they represent a franchise's desire to start thinking about next year, while an early-season switch could mean that management is thinking about a quick reversal of fortunes, or trying to light a fire under a slow-starting team.
In the Brewers' case, they replaced Roenicke with popular ex-player Craig Counsell, who so far hasn't been able to correct Milwaukee´s pitfalls. As it tends to be the case, the manager can only control so much, and bad records tend to be more the fault of bad rosters than anything else. So even if the Brewers were to actually play better ball for the rest of the year, simple regression would be a better explanation for that.
Still, have there been any recent cases in which an early change in the dugout dramatically affected a team's record? Today we take a look at the cases during the past 10 seasons in which a manager was fired before his team had played 81 games during a given year. By doing this, we will compare how said manager had guided his team before his firing, and how his replacement fared during that season and beyond. As you will see, success rates are all over the place.
2005 – Cincinnati Reds
Fired: Dave Miley (27-43) Replacement: Jerry Narron (46-46)
The '05 Reds had a young Adam Dunn and an aging Ken Griffey Jr. headlining an offense that ended up featuring all its regulars with above-average numbers. However, the pitching was ghastly outside of mediocre Aaron Harang, and so Cincy was outscored by 69 runs that season. Dave Miley had begun his career as a mid-season replacement in 2003, then guided the Reds for a full losing season in 2004, only to get fired after a poor start to 2005. He has never managed again. Jerry Narron produced .500 ball after coming on board, then led the Reds to a 80-82 finish next season, only to himself get canned in 2007. Like Miley, he hasn´t received more opportunities to play skipper.
2008 – Seattle Mariners
Fired: John McLaren (25-47) Replacement: Jim Riggleman (36-54)
The '08 Mariners were a truly horrendous team that gave Yuniesky Betancourt 559 plate appearances on purpose, and that wasted a year of Felix Hernandez brilliance and Adrian Beltre's peak. The got outscored by 140 runs to end the season, so it seems possible that you could have had Earl Weaver managing things and it wouldn't have made much of a difference. Riggleman was only marginally better than his predecessor, playing .400 ball en route to a 101-loss season. In an awkward turn, McLaren's only managerial spot after this firing would come as an interim for the Nationals in 2011, replacing none other than Jim Riggleman. The latter ran Washington for parts of 3 seasons, petering out before the Nats became one of the best teams in baseball.
2009 – Colorado Rockies
Fired: Clint Hurdle (18-28) Replacement: Jim Tracy (74-42)
This is probably the best-case scenario for an early season dismissal, as Tracy was able to turn the Rockies from last place to the playoffs, winning 63.8% of his games in the process. Hurdle had worn out his welcome in Colorado, and was fired despite leading the franchise to its only World Series appearance in 2007. Tracy arrived and led the Rockies to an 11-game winning streak, and only lost more than 3 in a row once. Hurdle probably got the last laugh, as he was hired by Pittsburgh in 2011 to become one of the most respected managers in the game after leading the Pirates to their first winning seasons (and playoff berths) in 20 years. Meanwhile, Tracy led the Rockies for 3 more full seasons, but could never relive the magic of 2009.
2009 – Arizona Diamondbacks
Fired: Bob Melvin (12-17) Replacement: AJ Hinch (58-75)
When Mark Reynolds and his 223 strikeouts are your second-best player on offense, you know there is a problem. That was the case of the '09 Dbacks, who were going to be a bad team regardless of who managed them. Even still, upper management showed a quick hook with Melvin, who was a popular presence in the dugout and had guided Arizona to one division title in 4 seasons at the helm. Hinch couldn't do much after coming on board, and was then fired after starting 31-48 in 2010. Melvin went on to lead the A´s in mid-2011, and has had plenty of success with playoff berths in each of his 3 full seasons with the team. Hinch had a longer wait, but he was hired by the Astros this year, and is currently part of the biggest surprise of 2015, so far.
2010 – Kansas City Royals
Fired: Trey Hillman (12-23) Replacement: Ned Yost (55-72)
Another Yuniesky Betancourt fan club (88 OPS+ in 588 PA's!) came up in Kansas, where the 2010 team was just another pitiful exercise in futility. Before the cavalcade of prospects were to arrive, the Royals really had some terrible teams, and even the most progressive managers couldn´t have done much to remedy things. Hillman had been given the chance to manage two seasons in Kauffman, barely staying above .400 before being fired after a miserable start to 2010. He hasn´t managed since. Yost came on board despite limited success (.477 in 5+ seasons, including an embarrassing exit just before the 2008 playoffs), and he couldn´t do much better. After slow improvements from 2011 to 2013, which included a winning season, Kansas´ patience was rewarded with a miraculous run that ended with a game 7 loss in the 2014 World Series. It took a while, but this move seems to have worked out well for the franchise.
2010 – Baltimore Orioles
Fired: Dave Trembley (15-39) Interim: Juan Samuel (17-34) Replacement: Buck Showalter (34-23)
The 2010 Orioles were such a bad team that they gave Kevin Millwood 32 starts despite him finishing 4-16 with a 5.10 ERA. Dave Trembley had been given enough chances in Baltimore, but ended his managerial career with a sub-.400 winning percentage, while his interim successor wasn't much better, and also hasn't managed since. After years of ineptitude, the move to hire Buck Showalter proved to be a turning point for the franchise. His hiring in 2010 saved the team from what looked like a sure 100-loss season, and after a rough 2011, the Orioles have turned into a contender in the AL East, with three straight winning seasons, two playoff berths, and the team's first division title since the late 90´s.
2010 – Florida Marlins
Fired: Fredi Gonzalez (34-36) Replacement: Edwin Rodriguez (46-46)
Gonzalez had been with the Marlins since 2007, and while the team had never bottomed out, they were nothing more than an average squad. Despite the promotion of a rookie then known as Mike Stanton, the Marlins again had a slow start, which prompted Jeffrey Loria & Co. to have a quick hook. Edwin Rodriguez held on to finish the season playing at a .500 clip, and earning a vote of confidence to start 2011. Rodriguez started 32-39 and resigned mid-season, as he still awaits another opportunity to manage in the big leagues.
2010 – Arizona Diamondbacks
Fired: AJ Hinch (31-48) Replacement: Kirk Gibson (34-49)
After firing their manager before the middle of the season in 2009, the Dbacks went ahead and did it again a year later. Again, the team's talent level wasn’t enough to contend in the NL West, and it showed after Hinch led them to a .392 winning percentage, and then Kirk Gibson finished with a .409 mark of his own. Gibson turned the team around in 2011, winning the division and earning Manager of the Year distinctions, but then floundered to consecutive 81-81 finishes in 2012-13, and finally bottoming out to the cellar in 2014. Gibson was unceremoniously fired near the end of 2014, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him get another crack around the league.
2011 – Oakland Athletics
Fired: Bob Geren (27-36) Replacement: Bob Melvin (47-52)
Geren was given a fair shot to return the A's to glory, as he managed to lead the team for four full seasons since 2007. However, Oakland never finished above .500 in those years, with an 81-81 record being the closest they came to success. A slow start to 2011 sealed his fate, and so Billy Beane turned to Melvin, who already had a ton of experience under his belt. While Geren hasn't managed since, Melvin has held on to the job in Oakland, leading the A's to two unlikely division titles, three total playoff berths, and a franchise renaissance. Just like with Yost and Showalter, this move ended up working out great.