Tough learning curve for Sveum, Ventura

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

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

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