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Tough learning curve for Sveum, Ventura

Cubs, White Sox managers finding out what most first-time skippers do: It's not that easy

Phil Rogers

On Baseball

10:59 PM CDT, July 6, 2013

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Terry Francona was run out of Philadelphia before he became an overnight success in Boston. Bobby Cox, who soon will be on his way to the Hall of Fame as a manager, ran up a 262-323 record in his first stint as Braves manager.

Clint Hurdle, the manager who has helped the Pirates to the best record in the majors, says his comfort level as a manager was "night and day'' between when he came to Pittsburgh in 2011 and when he was hired for his first managerial job, with the Rockies one month into the 2002 season.

There's an undeniable learning curve that goes into running a major league team, even if someone like the Cardinals' Mike Matheny makes it look easy every now and then. It should be no surprise that Dale Sveum and Robin Ventura are fighting to keep their heads above water midway through the three-year contracts they were given after the 2011 season.

Managing a major league team is a tough job. It's serious business, especially when you don't have a lot of experience to draw on.

When you look beneath the surface, even Matheny's ride to the National League Championship Series with last year's Cardinals, in his rookie season as a manager, illustrates the learning curve. St. Louis won 88 games during the regular season a year ago; the Pythagorean standings show they should have won 93 given their level of run scoring and run prevention.

That's a -5 for Matheny, and the trend is continuing with this year's Cardinals, who entered the weekend four wins below their Pythagorean number. That's a combined -9 for Matheny, which is the worst number among 24 managers who have been on the job since the start of 2012.

It could be worse. Comparing real victories to the Pythagorean standings, Jim Leyland and Joe Torre were -12 and -11 for their first two years as big-league managers, and even Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox were net zeros for their first two seasons.

You don't need to get out your calculator to know that Chicago's managers have been challenged as they start their careers. They have been learning on the job with bad teams — a reality that is probably easier for Sveum, who knew he was going to suffer, than for Ventura, who had the White Sox in first place at 81-66 on Sept. 18 last season.

It never is easy, as the managers with staying power always learn, usually the hard way. Hurdle says the learning curve for a new manager "depends on how well his team plays.''

In the end, Hurdle reasons, it might be as good to start with a bad team like the Cubs than experience instant success, as the 2012 White Sox were before their rough landing.

"There's less of a challenge (initially) when your team plays well,'' Hurdle said. "It all depends on your players — are your hitters hitting, do you have bullpen challenges, a lack of innings from starters? The challenge might not seem as great some places, but (sooner or later) it's going to be there. You're going to get it.''

The White Sox won the 2005 World Series in Ozzie Guillen's second year on the job. You wonder if he might have been more ready for that had he suffered more at the beginning, like La Russa. La Russa was in his fourth season when the Sox won 99 games in 1983 and didn't get a team back to the playoffs until '88, after he had been forced to move to Oakland.

As the Cubs and White Sox deal with the possibility of a seemingly endless season, with a .500 finish as remote a possibility as it seemed in Pittsburgh before Hurdle's arrival, it's worth considering what they're getting from the guys who stand at the end of the dugout. Here's how they rate across the board:

Preparation

Sveum: A.

Ventura: B.

Both control the parts of the job that can be controlled.

They're hard workers who understand technology. Sveum probably has an edge over Ventura in that department, as he worked as a coach with the Red Sox and Brewers before being hired to manage the Cubs. His work on spray charts and other statistical tendencies stood out to Theo Epstein when they were both in Boston, so it's no coincidence that the Cubs are quick to over-shift hitters and seek small advantages.

Ventura and his coaching staff made an impact by reinstating pregame infield drills at the first game of most series last season. It helped the Sox allow only 30 unearned runs, the lowest total in the majors. They're still doing the drills but without the effect, as they've fallen near the bottom of the American League in fielding stats.

Game management

Ventura: C.

Sveum: D.

In a way, how can you tell?

"Both Chicago managers are saddled with poor roster talent, among the bottom 25 percent in baseball,'' said one longtime MLB executive. "Neither minor league system has any immediate impact talent.''

You can debate whether Sveum plays the percentages too often, juggling relievers into and out of games in a hurry and taxing his bullpen, and you can fault Ventura for hitting Adam Dunn third throughout a season when he struck out 222 times. But as Hurdle says, moves are only good when they work and neither Sveum or Ventura pull rabbits out of their hat on a regular basis.

Witness the Cubs' 25-46 record in one-run games the last two years. That's a big reason Sveum's Pythagorean factor over the last two seasons is -8, better than only Matheny. Ventura's -4 isn't a whole lot better.

Both have been guilty of pushing pitchers too hard. Shawn Camp and James Russell made 157 appearances combined for the Cubs last season, way too many for guys on a team going nowhere. Ventura joined Leyland as the only manager who allowed his starting pitchers to throw 120-plus pitches three times in the first half of the season, including Chris Sale throwing 124 on June 14 and 123 on June 30. Both outings came after he missed a start in May because of tendinitis in his shoulder.

Setting a tone

Sveum: A.

Ventura: D.

With his trademark stubble and steel worker's eyes, Sveum sometimes looks like the dirtiest guy in the dugout. Ventura cleaned up well as a player and still does, which isn't great when his team is going down in flames and he seems headed to a cookout on his cul-de-sac.

There was no visible sense of urgency during the 8-23 slide that took the White Sox from 24-24 and third place in the AL Central to oblivion, and that rests as much on the shoulders of the laid-back manager as the clubhouse missing its sandpaper guy, A.J. Pierzynski.

Ventura missed a chance to make an example of Dayan Viciedo after a game last weekend when he threw to the wrong base and twice failed to hustle running the bases. This was in the first game of the doubleheader against the Indians. Viciedo didn't start the second game, but when quizzed by reporters Ventura explained that it was more about matchup numbers than punishment. Nobody yells in baseball anymore, and sometimes it's a shame.

Sveum did a remarkable job by keeping the overmatched Cubs playing hard all last season, even after pitchers Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm were traded away at the deadline. That will be tougher this time around, with Jeff Samardzija's comments after the Scott Feldman trade an example.

Selling the product

Sveum: B.

Ventura: C.

Handling media responsibilities is a big part of a big-league manager's life, whether he loves it or hates it. Both Ventura and Sveum are good sports about the twice-daily media sessions. Like most managers, they give good answers when they're asked good questions.

Sveum, who had a chance to learn from Francona, Ned Yost and Ron Roenicke, among others, is refreshingly straightforward and seems a little more engaged. Ventura is extremely witty but knows he was hired for his strong image and knowledge of the game, not to be a sideshow. The worse his team plays, the more important it is that he connect with its fans on a regular basis. They need reasons to watch, not tune out.

Commitment

Sveum: A.

Ventura: D.

You know Sveum is in it for the long haul, working to hang on to his job until the better teams are built. Ventura turned down a one-year contract extension last winter, saying he wanted to serve out this three-year contract before deciding if this is the life he wants for the long haul.

"I wonder if Robin is motivated to be a part of a complete rebuild,'' an MLB executive said. "Maybe that's why he did not take the extension. They'll be bad for an extended period. He's such a winner, this might not be something he wants to endure''

Given the job demands that require 12-hour work days and the relentless nature of a 162-game schedule, it would be easy to understand if Ventura walked away. But White Sox GM Rick Hahn needs to resolve this question as soon as possible, not after the 2014 season. If the manager is taking a wait-and-see approach, it's easy for fans to follow that example.

Final grade

Sveum: B.

Ventura: C.

That's a high B for Sveum and a low C for Ventura, who probably didn't get too many of those while attending Oklahoma State.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers

Pythagorean ratings last two years

How their teams have performed the last two seasons according to the Bill James formula that projects expected wins and losses based off metrics

The best

Buck Showalter +14

Clint Hurdle, Ron Washington, Dusty Baker, Bruce Bochy +6

Joe Girardi, Bob Melvin, Davey Johnson, Don Mattingly +3

The worst

Mike Matheny -9

Dale Sveum -8

Joe Maddon -6

Ned Yost -5

Robin Ventura -4