Collins’ Experience: Good or Bad?

According to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, Terry Collins has emerged as the top candidate for the job of Mets manager in 2011:

Alderson is scheduled to interview Terry Collins this weekend in San Diego and a person who has talked in recent days with Mets officials left those conversations believing Collins is anywhere from “a strong candidate to the front-runner. I think it is possible that all the interviews are just covering bases and they already like Collins the best.”

Collins, 61, has several assets that favor his candidacy, including likely endorsements from powerful voices to Alderson: Fred Wilpon and Paul DePodesta.
Friends of Alderson say they expect him to favor candidates with managerial experience …

Indeed, Collins has experience — he managed for six seasons between 1994 and 1999, split between the Astros and Angels. He has a career 444-434 (.506) winning percentage, and his teams finished 2nd five times out of those six seasons. Clearly, that qualifies as “experience” — nearly 900 MLB games’ worth.

One problem though, is with the “experience” of that sixth season — it was a nightmare of a year in which the Anaheim Angels clubhouse went into complete disarray, ultimately pushing Collins into resignation.

Hat tip to Adam Rubin of ESPN-NY for resurrecting this LA Times article from back then. Here are some quotes from it:

It wasn’t only the losses that made this season so unsightly…

No, the true legacy of this team was its uncanny ability to reach new depths of dysfunction. The lasting image will be the way the Angels nose-dived out of the division race with players bickering and finger-pointing along the way, airing many of their beefs in public.

Whoever is in charge this winter will face the daunting task of retooling a team that had serious deficiencies in both talent and chemistry, a group that didn’t play well together and got along together so poorly that Tavares referred to the clubhouse as “a day-care center.”

In June, players staged a mutiny of sorts against manager Terry Collins, going to Bavasi with complaints about Collins when word of an imminent contract extension for the manager became public.

When they began their free-fall out of the division race in July, Darin Erstad called the Angels “soft” and questioned whether winning was the team’s No. 1 priority, Mo Vaughn said the Angels were “lackadaisical,” and Gary DiSarcina ripped his teammates for being “unprofessional.”

Ironically, some of the internal squabbles were related to Vaughn, who was called out by his teammates for not participating in a brawl — an event that led to the final straw leading to Collins’ resignation:

But the most devastating blows were delivered after that game, when Percival accused some teammates of not backing him in the brawl, and the next day, when Vaughn, believing he was the target of Percival’s criticism, tore into his teammates with two expletive-laced tirades to reporters.

Several players were so upset that Vaughn didn’t join the brawl–Vaughn, the designated hitter that night, claimed he was in the clubhouse and couldn’t get to the field in time–that they marched into Collins’ office the next afternoon with a “Who’s it gonna be, us or him?” ultimatum.

Collins pulled Vaughn from the lineup, the rest of the regulars started, and two days later, Collins, sick of spending so much energy dousing clubhouse fires, resigned.

You could take this two ways: 1) Collins was unluckily stuck with a bad group of personalities; or 2) Collins lost control of the team, and allowed “the inmates to run the prison”.

Stat-focused analysts like to assert that an MLB manager has little effect on a team’s won-loss record, because ultimately a team can only be as good as its players. In other words, there is an insignificant impact of the manager on a player’s, and team’s, performance.

But an incident like this begs the question: if a different personality was in place as manager of the Angels in 1999, might those players have behaved differently, and performed differently? Perhaps better, in both aspects?

I know the answer a military man would offer.

Also from that old LA Times article:

What have the Angels learned from this season? That the so-called core of this team–Tim Salmon, Edmonds, Garret Anderson, Erstad, DiSarcina, Vaughn, Troy Glaus and Chuck Finley–is not good enough to win the division.

That there are gaping holes in the rotation and several leaks in a once-trusty bullpen that can’t count on Percival the way it once did, and that it’s difficult to generate runs with almost no speed.

That these players are either not mentally tough enough or not mature enough to handle the kind of adversity they faced this season, that bad chemistry can tear a losing clubhouse apart, and that Vaughn is not the cure-all leader they thought he would be.

Looking back, the point on Vaughn was dead-on; he was no “cure-all leader”. What’s interesting, though, is that Joe Maddon took over that 51-82 club and went 19-10 the rest of the way. The same Joe Maddon that many feel is “lucky” to be surrounded by good talent in Tampa Bay. Mike Scioscia took over in 2000 with a similar “core” and went 82-80. Collins himself led that team to a second-place finish in 1997 and 1998. But those second-place finishes were what caused the Angels’ front office to sign Vaughn — the person who many blame for the bad chemistry in the ’99 Angels clubhouse.

From the Los Angeles Daily News, November 1998:

Most observers of the ’98 Angels would agree the team needs pitching help. But the view from inside focused on the team’s need for a leader, a player who can make a difference in all of those intangible areas. The Angels’ clubhouse last September was determined but inert. In the last weeks of the season, there was no one around capable of seizing the moment from within. It is not a criticism in the least to say that Salmon, Darin Erstad and Gary DiSarcina are not emotional, kick-butt types of leaders.

Vaughn brings Kirk Gibson-like qualities to the Angels in addition to his .304 average and 230 home runs.

“We have some (players who are leaders),” Bavasi said. “But after the season, I talked with (coach) George Hendricks, and he felt we needed to get a guy who is willing and able to say, ‘Get on my back and let’s go.’

“From his first season, Mo was a guy who took a leadership role on a team and in a city where there is a lot of pressure. When I first met with Adam Katz (Vaughn’s agent), I told him that. We said upfront that we wanted Mo to take a leadership role.”

So there was a problem of leadership in 1998, when the Angels finished second. Sound familiar? Isn’t leadership something that the manager should have been providing?

The stathead might point right here that the Angels were silly to have brought in Mo Vaughn for immeasurable intangibles such as “leadership” or “grission”. That’s fine — so take it from the perspective that the Angels acquired Vaughn because at the time he was a 40-homer, .990 OPS guy who could provide an offensive boost to a team that finished 10th in the AL in runs scored with 787. The point being, from either angle you view it, Vaughn was an individual who at the time, appeared to be filling both holes. In the end it turned out that neither his performance nor his intangibles lived up to expectations, with both contributing to the Angels’ poor season. You could say that Terry Collins had no effect on the first, but his job was to play a part in managing the second.

One of the reasons Terry Collins has not had a job managing in MLB in ten years is because he lost control of his ballclub. He has remained in the game in lesser roles because he is — absolutely — a “good baseball man” and well-liked by his colleagues, superiors, and players. Funny, he sounds eerily similar to another guy who lost control of his clubhouse and didn’t manage again for several years — Jerry Manuel.

So I don’t really “get” this fascination with Terry Collins as a manager. I like him in exactly the role he’s in now, which is overseeing the minor league operations as a “field coordinator”. Considering that the Mets are in a two- to three-year rebuilding phase, I think it is of utmost importance to keep Collins in a role that is best suited for him and best suited for the long-term interest of the Mets — and that is in assisting with the development of their farm system. Further, I think the Mets need a manager who will be a strong leader of men, and have control of his players — including their relations with the media. If Collins couldn’t keep his players from spouting off to the press in Anaheim, what chance does he have in New York City?

But hey, Paul DePodesta (who is not even an employee of the Mets) likes Collins, Collins has experience, and Collins is “fiery”, so I guess that makes him a “top candidate”.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.