Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Managing in baseball is a pretty tough thing to look at and evaluate. In football coaches shape their team’s actions as in no other sport and are recognized for doing such. The football coaches devise the complicated game-plans (e.g. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson), install complicated and innovative schemes (e.g., San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh and his West Coast Offense or Michigan Coach Rich Rodriguez and his spread-option offense), motivate players (Bill Parcells was a genius at this). To a lesser extent coaches in the NBA and NHL shape their teams too by devising strategies to emphasize and magnify strengths and downplay weaknesses. But unlike in football and basketball and hockey, where the action is fluid and much of the action and decision-making lays in the hands of the coaches, baseball is the game where the players make the key decisions and the format of the game is fairly static. Managing in baseball is less like being at the helm of the battleship as it steams into battle than sitting as the chairman of the board at a Fortune 500 Company.
But managers do shape their teams in far subtler ways that have real impact as the 162-game season unfolds.
I think we can look at a number of things and see how Charlie Manuel manages. Here are a few things that are important:
1. Charlie Manuel got his start in the American League. In Manuel’s first two seasons of managing a Cleveland Indians team in decline (the previous season, in 1999, it had blown a massive lead to the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS, flaming out from the playoffs yet again) were quite successful: the Indians went 90-72 and 91-71. In ’02 Manuel was cashiered after the Tribe got off to a 39-48 start, the beginning of the Indians rebuilding campaign. In the AL, with the designated hitter, they do thing differently. There is more of an emphasis on power-hitting and moving runners around the bases than on timely hitting and speed. Seeing how the Phillies routinely hit poorly in the clutch yet score bushels of runs thanks to their power-hitting, you can see how Manuel’s experiences shaped him when he was the Indians skipper.
2. 2007 was different. The 2007 campaign represented a number of doctrinal shifts in Manuel’s thinking. The evolution of Manuel towards speed and defense – a more National League-oriented game – occurred in ’07. Let’s measure speed two ways: stolen bases attempted and pinch-runners.
The number of stolen base attempts is pretty obvious in terms of the meaning it conveys. After ranking eighth in stolen base attempts in 2006, the Phillies jumped to second in 2007, after the Mets. Manuel did have terrific personnel to pull off the move (Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Michael Bourn) but Victorino and Rollins had been on the roster in ’06 and they hadn’t run much. Victorino had played extensively in ’06 and attempted a mere seven steals. In ’07 he attempted 41. Rollins was pretty consistent in ’06 and ’07, but he was the team’s sole base-stealing threat in ’06. In fact, he attempted 43% of the Phillies steals in ‘06, while attempting 30% in ’07.
Not persuaded? Okay, look at the increasing number of pinch-runners the Phillies used in 2007. As the Indians coach in ’00 and ’01, Manuel used 40 and 30 pinch-runners respectively. That number increased slightly in ’05 when Manuel took over the Phillies: 36. It jumped to 42 in 2006. In ’07 Manuel used 56 pinch-runners, most in the majors. The average N.L. team, as a matter of fact, utilized such 28 pinch-runners, half what the Phillies used. I don’t think this was solely a factor of personnel – the fact that Manuel had the speedy Michael Bourn sitting on the bench – but of a real interest in utilizing speed whenever possible to stretch the defense. When Bourn was on the DL Chris Roberson, the speedy and talented outfielder whom Bourn beat-out for the fourth outfielder slot oftentimes got into the game when the Phillies needed some speed.
Defense became much more important to Manuel. When Manuel took over the Phillies in ’05 he made 19 defensive substitutions. The next year he more than doubled that, making 49. Last year Charlie Manuel made a whopping 75 defensive substitutions, second-most in the N.L. after the Nationals Manny Acta. The average N.L. team made 48 … What that tells me was that Manuel consistently wanted to see better defensive players in the game and to do so he was willing to sacrifice some offense. Typically, the defensive switch Manuel would make would be to bring Michael Bourn into the game to play leftfield in place of Pat Burrell. If the game rolled on and Bourn came to hit, the Phillies would find themselves with a light-hitting outfielder in Burrell’s spot, costing the team plenty of offensive firepower.
However Manuel placed such a premium on defense that he usually assumed the risk and made the switch. Again, like with stealing bases and pinch-hitters, defensive substitutions are typically a National League thing. In 2007, the average A.L. team utilized 32 defensive substitutions. The average N.L. team utilized 48. Five N.L. teams utilized more defensive substitutions than the Texas Rangers, who led the A.L. with 53.
3. Manuel doesn’t tinker. Charlie Manuel utilized 87 different lineups in 2007, second-fewest in the N.L. after the Braves Bobby Cox with 86. The average N.L. manager utilized 115 lineups. I think there is a tendency amongst baseball managers to tinker with their lineups to show people how smart they are and how hard they are working. For example: the manager who decides to sit Person A from the lineup because he hits .001 lower against lefties than Person B. That is someone who is needlessly tinkering and fidgeting with their lineup because that what they think wins baseball games. Players want to know where they are hitting in the lineup and they want to stay there.
Manuel was exceedingly consistent in terms of his lineup usage. His 87 lineups in ’07 is right in line with the 81 he used in ’06 and the 80 he used in ’05.
4. Manuel is a good tactician. This is sort of a tough thing to judge because it is tempting a lot of times to engage in Monday Morning Quarterbacking and pass judgment on whether or not bringing Person A in was a better move than bringing Person B into the lineup or on the mound. It is difficult to tell, difficult to get an actual idea about which decision was the best. I am going to focus on Manuel’s decision-making where it comes to utilizing the intentional walk. The IBB is usually a maneuver teams employ to minimize damage by setting up force-outs or to avoid dangerous hitters. Oftentimes it comes back to bite teams in the butt. The Bill James Handbook started looking at whether or not their utilization of the IBB was good (no runs scored in the inning or the next guy grounds into a double play), not good (one run scored in the inning) or the bomb (two or more runs scored). Manuel utilized the IBB 62 times in 2007. 41 times the outcome was good. That’s a 66% success rate. The average N.L. manager utilized the IBB 50 times, 31 of them good. That’s a 62% success rate.
Okay, my belief in Manuel’s tactical-decision making is partly subject to conjecture, but he really does a nice job in the dugout, in my opinion. He sets a stable lineup and plays to his team’s strengths. He’s willing to change and makes good tactical decisions. And he’s a winner. Aside from his short season in ’02, he’s had teams that contended for the playoffs each and every season. Can’t argue with that.