An old skipper asked to be a bat fixer

2019-08-13 CharlieManuel
Once a hitting guru, former World Series-winning Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel is now asked to fix the Phillies’ errant bats.

Before he managed the Phillies to National League East dominance, a couple of pennants, and a World Series ring in 2008, Charlie Manuel was known around baseball as a great teacher and shepherd of hitting. And with this year’s Phillies under-hitting while threatening to drop out of even the wild card race entirely, the team brought Manuel back as . . . their hitting coach, at least for the rest of the season.

This happened just a day after the Phillies executed John Mallee, perhaps to the dismay of manager Gabe Kapler. And bringing back Manuel is rich enough. The man who took the ultimate fall for the beyond-control aging of his NL East owners, but was brought back to the organisation as mostly a glad-hander, is now being asked to save their bats.

Already the old schoolers are having a kind of field day with Manuel’s return, seeing it as an overdue triumph over heavy analytics and an object lesson to all those data nerds. They’re not necessarily seeing that it wasn’t analytics, heavy or otherwise, by themselves that put the crimp into the Phillies’ bats.

Analytics applied and operated the right way gives you the Astros since their rebuild. As in, the World Series-winning, American League West-owning, excellent-chance-of-returning-to-the-World-Series-this-year Astros. Analytics applied and operated the wrong way gives you, among other things, this year’s first half Mets and most-of-the-year Phillies.

Mallee’s mistake wasn’t in analytics qua analytics. His mistake was delivering what the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Scott Lauber called a message of “selected aggressive” hitting. And, implementing it up and down the organisation, never mind to the parent club. Aside from the obvious, the big error in such a hitting message is that it didn’t (and doesn’t) marry the data as it should be married, to the individual psyches of the hitters.

To state only the obvious: Bryce Harper has needed someone to remind him that it’s an exercise in futility trying to come right out of the chute living up to the mammoth decade-plus contract you’ve just signed. Because you’re going to be pressing at the plate no matter your periodic jaw-dropping moments. And the Phillies had to look no further to their own Hall of Fame legend Mike Schmidt: Schmidt, too, spent his first season after signing his first big contract pressing at the plate.

Someone needed to tell Harper, Rhys Hoskins, and other Phillie swingers that not only is the data just another tool in their boxes but that you shouldn’t let the data knock you off your game. The data’s telling you you should be looking for this or that pitch in this or that zone slot? “Selected aggressive” hitting is just as liable to keep you from hitting the pitch when you get it. It’s also liable to put you in a place where you’re not as comfortable at the plate as you should be.

Just as good scouting marries the data to the makeup of the prospect, sound analytics marries the data to the makeup of the player. That’s where Mallee seems to have made his mistake. Even the most stubborn among the analytics minded know there’s no such thing as one size fits all when it comes to hitters. Or pitchers, if you nod toward the Astros’ astonishing ability to either remake pitchers successfully or get proven pitchers back to where they once belonged.

And when you apply and operate all the analyses and data the wrong way, you need a Charlie Manuel to come in and apply enough of a fix to stand you in good enough stead for the rest of the season and next year. If anyone in baseball can turn what the analytically overfed Phillies have been fed into practical execution, it may just be Manuel. He may not be of the analytics school, but he can sure as hell get these Phillies back to using that information sensibly.

“Selective aggressive” hitting, my foot. Get them to jump when they get the pitch they’re most likely to hit, or get them back to working toward forcing the pitcher to throw it to them. Manuel is an established virtuoso at developing or straightening out major league hitters.

If he decides to use the Phillies’s analytics after all and conform it to his knowledge that no one size fits every hitter, he’s going to leave the Phillies in a better frame no matter whether he sticks around after this season or not. If he decides the Phillies’ hitters have all the data they can digest without him, and just sticks to bringing them back into their individual sweet spots, he’ll have done them a huge favour.

Sure it hurt when the Phillies lost leadoff man Andrew McCutchen for the year. But these Phillies were beginning to look a little lost at the plate anyway and stayed there. Sharp teams overcome a loss like McCutchen. The Phillies’ batters were about as sharp as a bag of marshmallows.

Harper isn’t the totally lost cause you’re foolish enough to think his .250 traditional batting average this year indicates. His real batting average in 2019—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifices divided by plate appearances—is a healthy enough .572. Which is fifteen points below his career RBA. Only Rhys Hoskins has a higher RBA for 2019 (.586) among Phillies hitters; Hoskins and Harper are also the only Phillies regulars with 80+ walks.

But with nobody else on the Phillies reaching base often enough since McCutchen’s injury Harper and Hoskins aren’t getting the RBI opportunities they should get. And under Mallee’s “selective aggressive” approach, they weren’t giving anyone else that many chances to drive them in, either. Seemingly, “selective aggression” gives more extra advantages to pitchers facing Philadelphia bats than to Philadelphia bats facing the pitchers.

Why else bring Manuel back even as a hitting coach? Possibly to send a message to manager Gabe Kapler, who’s much like his now-former hitting coach in that he’s not exactly the Astros’ kind of smart about analytics (not many analytically minded teams are) or the most deft situational tactician, either.

On the other hand, it wasn’t anybody’s fault that the Phillies’ bullpen, which wasn’t exactly one of the top pens in the league as it was, was decimated by injuries near the middle of the season, either. Whenever there was something to protect, or something for which the other guys needed to be throttled while giving the Phillies time to revive, wherever you looked another bullpen bull joined the walking wounded—Pat Neshek’s shoulder troubles, Tommy Hunter’s pending elbow surgery.

And, in the case of David Robertson, uncertainty over whether it’ll be his elbow flexor tendon requiring surgery or his ulnar collateral ligament requiring Tommy John surgery. If it’s the former, Robertson could be back for 2020. If it’s the latter, it could be career over for a 34-year-old relief pitcher who’s worked a heavy load in his career even by today’s short relief standards.

But it’s also not impossible to believe that Manuel’s return even in this capacity might be the Phillies’ backhanded way of saying they made a big mistake making him the fall guy for things beyond his control. Things like the injuries that wrecked and finally ended Ryan Howard’s career and put paid to the late Roy Halladay’s career. Things like the aging of middle infield commanders Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley.

Might.

Manuel once shepherded the likes of Hall of Famer Jim Thome plus Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle in Cleveland as a hitting scientist, either making or steadying them as dangerous hitters. (Ramirez and Belle, for different reasons, had themselves to blame in the end for missing out on Hall of Fame election.) He’ll have the rest of this season at least to get Harper, Hoskins, and other Phillies batters steadied back.

Beyond this season? Excellent question.

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