Why does Frank Robinson always manage best in his second season with a team?

This is a matter of some interest to me, since Frank Robinson is the manager of my city’s new ballclub, the Washington Nationals. It’ll be his fourth season as the manager of what used to be the Montreal Expos.

The pattern’s unmistakable. Here are his tours of duty as a MLB manager, and his records in chron order, with the second season with each team bolded:

  1. Cleveland Indians, 1975-77: 79-80, 81-78, 26-31.

  2. San Francisco Giants, 1981-84: 56-55, 87-75, 79-83, 42-64.

  3. Baltimore Orioles, 1988-91: 54-101, 87-75, 76-85, 13-24.

  4. Montreal Expos, 2002-04: 83-79, 83-79, 67-95.

He’s been really quite good in his second seasons with his various ballclubs, but it’s been all downhill from there. Needless to say, I worry about the same thing happening here. He’s never gotten to manage a club for an entire fourth season, but given the absence of a Nats owner, he’ll almost surely get the opportunity now, in the summer of his 70th birthday. But the record sure doesn’t look encouraging.

It’s not that I’m totally down on Robinson as a manager. I’m still in awe of the job he did with the O’s in 1989; that team won 87 games on smoke and mirrors. But in his second year with a team, he seems to get as much out of them as he’s going to get, ever, and after that, whatever pixie dust he sprinkled on them to, for instance, turn Jeff Ballard into a staff ace, wears off again.

So: will it be the same with the Expos/Nats? Or will he finally manage to buck his lifetime trend this season? I’d love it if he did.

This could be sheer random chance. In the case of the Indians there’s really almost no difference between Year 1 and Year 2, and not really THAT much difference in Year 3. With the Expos there’s no difference at all in years 1-2. There wasn’t much of an improvement with the Giants, either - maybe 5 games over a full season. Only the Orioles showed substantial improvement.

The pattern to my eyes is not that he does better in Year 2, but WORSE in Year 3. I notice a similarity between Baltimore and San Francisco:

  • With Baltimore, his 87-75 team was heavily dependent on Jeff Ballard and Bob Milacki. Neither man could strike batters out so it was inevitable they would collapse. The 87-75 season was basically a gigantic fluke, especially Ballard’s 18-8; Ballard is one of the worst pitchers in the history of baseball to win 18 games in a season.

  • The 1982 Giants got tremendous seasons out of of various relief pitchers, including, Greg Minton, Gary Lavelle and someone named Fred Breining. The top starter was Bill Laskey, who won 13 games. Neither Minton nor Laskey could strike anyone out, and both declined dramatically in 1983.

The Expos in 2004 were basically a joke team, had just lost their best player, and I think it’s miraculous he got 67 wins out of them. The Indians in Year 3 weren’t under Robinson long enough to draw a conclusion.

I don’t really see a distinct pattern. In Cleveland and SF he did get some unusual performances out of marginal control pitchers, like Ballard. Perhaps he can get those guys to give him a good year or two. But such pitchers never last.

It could be. But if you took Robinson’s records with each club, and shuffled the years, the odds are 1 in 72 that this would happen - that he’d have his best year (or in the case of a tie, one of his two best years) in his second season.

The odds are 1 in 24 that, by this means, he’d have one season (regardless of which) always be his best/tied for best.

I wasn’t comparing year 1 with year 2, or year 2 with year 3. I was comparing year 2 with all the other years, and noting that he never did better than year 2 in years 1, 3, or 4.

I think it was less of a fluke than sleight of hand that couldn’t be done with the same players in multiple years. Which isn’t that far off from what you’re saying.

Part of the 1989 O’s miracle season was due to the pitching sleight-of-hand; another part (which helped the pitching part work) was very focused, error-free defense. (At least for a good part of the season.)

Here’s how the Orioles broke out of the pack in the spring of 1989: on May 14, they were a lackluster 15-19; a month or so later, they were 37-28. They did this by giving up only 78 runs over those 31 games. That’s 2.5 runs a game, which was damned good even then. The starting rotation over that stretch was Ballard, Milacki, Dave Schmidt, Brian Holton, and Jay Tibbs - truly a collection of castoffs. (Schmidt had been a respectable long relief man for several years. But he’s the exception.) But he had a very good (and mostly fairly young) defense on the field, and (for awhile, anyway) had them playing each game like it was the game the season depended on. “A year in a game,” was his slogan.

It worked, for awhile. During those first 65 games, they gave up only 6 unearned runs. The problem is, few people can bring that sort of intensity to the game every day; it’s a long season. And doing it for multiple seasons is out of the question.

I haven’t seen his handling, up close, of the other three teams he’s managed. But if there’s been any similarity in his approach, it would explain the pattern. One season to figure out just what he’s inherited, a second season to squeeze 120% out of it, and then the inevitable decline.

And I agree with you on Jeff Ballard: he’s unquestionably one of the worst pitchers in the history of the game to post that sort of W-L record. The best thing the O’s could have done after that season was to trade him and Milacki while they had the illusion of value.