With the Brewers' playoff hopes dashed and the likelihood of selling on the horizon, conversation among Brewers fans yesterday on Twitter turned toward manager Ron Roenicke, who is in his second year with the team. Some fans don't mind him, others hate him, and some were even wistfully dreaming of Ken Macha, who napped in the Brewers dugout during the '09 and '10 seasons. But as someone who watches a lot of baseball, and sees so much bad managing across the MLB landscape, I will now try to convince you that Roenicke is the best the Brewers are going to get, and why that's not a bad thing.
Because if you think Roenicke is the center of the Brewers' problems and/or must go, you are an idiot.
If I've already offended you, you should probably stop reading.
Tossing aside the obvious notions of "the grass is always greener on the other side" and "you don't know what you have until it's gone", fans in general put too many expectations on managers while demanding for their heads when things go downhill. It's only natural. Fans focus only on the bad things the manager does and ignore the good they've done until years later when they see how bad their new current manager is. It's part of being a fan, to think irrationally. And since most of the fans only watch the Brewers, they have little concept as to what else is out there. They hear writers saying "Dusty Baker is great!" and " And as far as Roenicke is concerned, fans are constantly ignoring positives while instead frothing at the mouth about bunting or that one time Mark Kotsay played center field in a playoff game. But before I go further, I will say this; I don't think Roenicke is a good manager (in a vacuum, anyways), merely an average one. In today's MLB (or any day's MLB), that's pretty good.
I've made a handy breakdown of every MLB manager, sorted by how good they are at their jobs. How do we measure how good they are? Acceptance of sabermetric ideals, competent lineups, bullpen management, use of bench, handling of players as well as dealing with adverse situations, etc. Things we can reasonably measure. And if you plan on arguing that win-loss record should factor in, instead find your dog and light him on fire. It will heat your house as well as being more productive than the argument you are about to make. A monkey can manage a World Series team if they have enough talent. And a team overachieving does not mean their manager is good, either. It means they are getting lucky. If you have trouble remembering this list, you can always print it and put it on your fridge or maybe tape it to the windshield of your car, right above the steering wheel.
Good managers Average managers Bad, but not killing team DERP
J. Maddon (Rays) B. Showalter (Orioles) B. Valentine (Red Sox) N. Yost (Royals)
M. Acta (Indians) R. Ventura (White Sox) J. Leyland (Tigers) C. Hurdle (Pirates)
M. Scioscia (Angels) R. Gardenhire (Twins) J. Tracy (Rockies)
J. Girardi (Yankees) B. Melvin (A's) Frediot (Braves)
R. Roenicke (Brewers) E. Wedge (Mariners) B. Mills (Astros)
J. Farrell (Jays) R. Washington (Rangers) B. Bochy (Giants)
M. Matheny (Cardinals) K. Gibson (D-Backs)
B. Black (Padres) D. Baker (Reds)
D. Johnson (Nationals) D. Mattingly (Dodgers)
D. Sveum (Cubs) O. Guillen (Marlins)
T. Collins (Mets) C. Manuel (Phillies)
You'll notice most managers fit into the bad/worse categories, and this is because they are constantly making bad decisions as well as ignoring progressive thinking or change. Winning can cover up their faults (Manuel is a shining example of this), but when things go poorly they look like bumbling fools. Things have gone badly for the Brewers this season, but Roenicke's only major contribution to this is believing in the sacrifice bunt.
This is the most common criticism of Roenicke - too much bunting. This criticism is well-founded. The Brewers are tied for the major league lead for bunting with the Dodgers after finishing second in the category last year. The Brewers have sacrifice bunted successfully 48 times (hits and unsuccessful sac bunts not included) this season. 35 have come from position players, and it's impossible to sort how many of those players were actually trying to push bunt (bunt for a hit, in other words). The team bunts too much, and while some players bunt under there own volition (Nyjer Morgan and Corey Hart have both claimed to have done so), Roenicke deserves blame for this.
But while bunting annoys fans, it doesn't kill run expectancy and certainly doesn't hurt it the way it used to in the current environment where strikeouts are way up (16.8 K% a decade ago, up to 19.6% now) . While a decreased run environment increases the value of an out, increased strikeouts slightly increase the value of a "productive" out. This doesn't excuse Roencike, but I can at least see where he's coming from. So we've got one mark against him, but to me this does not make him a bad manager, merely a flawed one. Oh, and by the way, every team (save maybe the Indians) bunts stupidly. The Brewers are towards to top of the list, but they're not miles ahead of the competition.
Most of the whining about the lineup centers around Weeks batting at the top of the order the first couple months of the season along with whichever center fielder is in the lineup. Lineup construction doesn't matter all that much in the long run, but since we're here we might as well discuss it. Weeks has had a disaster season, but still has an OBP north of .300. He's a career .350 OBP hitter. Until there was a large enough sample to prove that Weeks wasn't snapping out of his slump, there was no reason to remove him from the leadoff spot. He'd never been this bad during his career, so there was no way for Roenicke to know that Weeks wasn't simply just experiencing bad luck. Corey Hart has also spent some time in the leadoff role the past two seasons, which is also fine seeing as he also owns a decent career OBP. Morgan's story is similar to that of Weeks. He has also had a terrible season but owns a career .342 on-base (.355 against RHP). Morgan's problem has been a BABIP that's almost 60 points below his career average. That's not Roenicke's fault. Gomez's occasional inclusion in one of the top two spots is a little puzzling, other than the fact that whenever he does get on base he usually blazes his way into scoring position.
To his credit, Ron has shown the willingness to tinker with the lineup to try to maximize production where he can. He moved Aoki to the leadoff role as well as moving Lucroy up in the order when he started hitting. He is neither reactionary (Aramis Ramirez is struggling to start the season? Drop him to the 8th spot!) nor completely static (I don't care if Weeks is hitting .160 after two months, he's my leadoff hitter forever).
This ties into the lineup a little bit. Fans wanted Weeks benched during his slump, ignoring that the team had no one to replace him (Taylor Green should not play second base, and there's little evidence he's not a PCL creation). Even in a slump, Weeks has higher upside than anyone who could replace him. Nyjer Morgan is also a popular "bench him!" candidate, but there's a multitude of problems with that. Not only is he a popular clubhouse guy and generally good defender, he's a possible trade piece that's not going to get more valuable sitting on the bench. And opening up more playing time to Gomez sounds good until your realize he has the baseball IQ of your now-incinerated dog.
As for 2011, Yuniesky Betancourt and Casey McGehee had to play. Betancourt may be the worst full-time player in the majors, but the Brewers didn't have anyone better. McGehee had a season and a half of good production prior to struggling in '11, so Roenicke gave him as long a leash as he could to give Casey the chance to snap out of it. And don't tell me Roenicke doesn't keep guys accountable. Betancourt was benched for two games against the Rockies last year when he lost focus at the plate and on the field, and Yuni responded with better play. Roenicke hung with McGehee (another clubhouse favorite) until the playoffs, then turned to Jerry Hairston when production was needed. And for all the gnashing of teeth surrounding Morgan's brain cramps this year, he's cleaned up his act since the series against the White Sox. He wasn't benched, but who knows what was said behind closed doors. They players trust Roenicke, and although it's not a requirement for a team to have a rosy clubhouse to win (nor is it quantifiable), it shouldn't be ignored that Roenicke has had a favorable working relationship with his players. I can tell you from my own experience that having a likable boss can improve performance at work.
And the Mark Kotsay stuff was blown way out of proportion. Hart, Morgan, and Gomez all spent time hurt at the beginning of the year, he had to play. And the playoff game where he started in CF? Roenicke took a risk to get his bat into the lineup (Kotsay has mashed Carpenter throughout his career), and defensively it didn't work. Kotsay couldn't get to a fly ball. He also hit a home run. Shut the fuck up about it. Kotsay wasn't a disaster in his spotty playing time CF during the season, it was bad luck it happened during a playoff game. The Brewers didn't lose the playoff series because of that play, they lost it because Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum pitched like absolute garbage and the Cardinals had an amazing offense. And let's also conveniently ignore that the opponent, the Cardinals, got away with playing Nick Punto and Ryan Theriot in the playoffs. Or that other managers have played Aubrey Huff and Vlad Guerrero in the outfield during actual World Series games. And Roenicke did learn from his mistake. Have you seen Hart or Ishikawa playing CF this year?
It's also easy to overlook the use of the CF platoon (and the sort-of SS platoon). There are plenty of managers out there that don't recognize or won't admit when a player shouldn't face LH or RH pitchers. We're lucky enough to have one that does.
Honestly, if you have a problem with Roenicke's bullpen usage, drive to your mother's house, punch her in the face and yell "WHY DIDN'T YOU PROVIDE ME A BETTER EDUCATION?!" Fans had a problem with Kameron Loe being dubbed the "8th inning guy" last year, but those same fans must not have realized there was no better solution. Takashi Saito and LaTroy Hawkins were both hurt at the time, and when Hawkins came back the team had to ease him in. There weren't any better options in the minors and there was no lefty on the team (or in the system, for that matter) who could have platooned with Loe. And as for this year, when every reliever sucks, replacing one crappy reliever with another doesn't help you. Axford is the team's best reliever, and Roenicke had to use him that way.
Ron's not been afraid to use his best reliever outside of a save situation, either. Axford has twice pitched in the 8th inning of a tight game while the team was close, and did it once last year. Ax gave up a home run in one of those games and lost another, but Roenicke was using his best reliever against the heart of the opposing team's order. It didn't work, but it was still the right thing to do. Your best reliever should face the best hitters late in a game, regardless of whether it's tht 8th or 9th inning. And he's also started using Manny Parra in high-leverage situations, likely realizing he's pitched better than his surface numbers suggest and challenging him to succeed while also making him a more valuable asset.
The Zack Greinke situation
Greinke's bizarre three-starts-in-a-row fling followed by his brief shut-down period has also been blamed on the manager. This is pure insanity. Roenicke is the field manager, not a power-crazy dictator. He has authority over him. It's true that he sets his pitching rotation, but a decision such as this is made by multiple people. How do I know? BECAUSE THEY SAID SO. The decision to start him two consecutive days was made be Roenicke, pitching coach Rick Kranitz, and Greinke himself, who asked to start the second day in the first place. It bears to reason that Melvin had a say as well. And a pitcher experiencing fatigue and subsequently having a start skipped is something that happens more often than you think. The decision to rest him was also a joint decision.
This is a category most often ignored by Roenicke detractors because, frankly, it's the hardest to see unless you're actually attending the games (TV cameras focus primarily on the pitcher and batter). Using defensive shifts is smart baseball. If a batter has tendencies, take advantage of it. Moving the defense and forcing the batter to adjust is a good move, and no one does it more in the NL than the Brewers (they're the only NL team in the top ten). This was vastly important during the 2011 season when the infield defense was horrible and it played a big part in the team's excellent run prevention. By Bill James' measures, the Brewers infielders improved by a combined 56 runs in 2011. If you're going to rip on Roenicke for giving away outs on offense, then give him credit for taking them away on defense.
So what do we have here? Sounds like a pretty average manager. There are positives (sticking up for struggling players, shifting, strict platoons, bullpen management) and negatives (bunting, batting Gomez 2nd, the Kotsay thing since you probably won't drop it). But to act like the negatives are glaring evidence that a change must be made or that that Ron is killing the franchise makes you either an idiot or someone with an affinity for lazy analysis. Good managers are hard to come by and I don't think making a change to someone like Davy Lopes will improve matters any. This team is not bad because of Roenicke but because they've sustained injuries and the bullpen has been really, really bad. They've simply become a bad team. So remember, if you use the hashtag #fireRonRoenicke and you're not being ironic, you are actually an idiot. Congrats. You should probably apologize to your mom when she regains consciousness.