Charlie Manuel is an unusually difficult manager to try to depict and evaluate. Well, all managers are tough to evaluate. That’s why sabermetrics usually steers clear of trying to do so. We’re better at analyzing hitters or pitchers or even fielders because it’s easier to get concrete data on their performances. Evaluating physical performances isn’t so difficult.
But a manager? Well, it’s impossible to evaluate managers perfectly. However, imperfection isn’t a synonym for useless. That was a key belief I had when I wrote my book, Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, 1876-2008. And I came up with a few tools and techniques for trying to understand managers in it that someone must’ve thought worked well, because it won the Sporting News-SABR Award for outstanding baseball research.
I covered 89 managers in that book, but Charlie Manuel wasn’t one of them, in part because he hadn’t been on the job very long. But he now has a decade of managing under his belt, so let’s look at him.
The first thing to note is that Manuel really is an unusually difficult manager to get at. He’s been particularly blessed in his career to have an enormous amount of talent at his disposal. You can fill an All-Star team or two with men who played under Manuel.
He’s overseen Roberto Alomar, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, Ellis Burks, David Justice, Bartolo Colon, C.C. Sabathia, Chuck Finley, Travis Fryman, Milton Bradley, Juan Gonzalez, Steve Karsay, and Bob Wickman. Not bad, eh? Yeah, well that’s just what he had in his two-and-a-half years in Cleveland.
In his much longer Philadelphia tenure, he’s managed Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, Raul Ibanez, Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu, Placido Polanco, Mike Lieberthal, Kenny Lofton (again), Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Jaime Moyer, Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Brad Lidge, and Billy Wagner, among others.
Look, all managers have some talent. All managers have some All-Stars. But few managers have that much talent at their disposal. Take Bill McKechnie, for instance. He’s a Hall of Fame manager who won pennants with three different clubs in 25 seasons and over 3,500 games on the job. But a McKechnie All-Star team wouldn’t have a chance against Manuel’s squad. Not only are there a lot of big names listed above, but a heckuva lot of them were in their prime under Manuel.
That’s what makes it so tricky to understand Manuel as a manager. With talent like that, who wouldn’t have a good record? Why, of course he’s had a successful career. What’s more, he hasn’t had to make quite as many decisions as some others would have to make. Who are you going to play at first? Gee, I dunno, maybe Ryan Howard in Philly and Jim Thome in Cleveland. Yeah, ya think?
Okay, let’s start off by looking at how much talent Manuel’s had. His squads have featured three home run leaders, three RBI leader, three triples leaders. two runs scored leaders, and a walks leader. Twice a Manuel guy was No. 1 in slugging percentage. That’s mostly slugger stuff, obviously.
None of his guys ever paced the circuit in batting average or on-base percentage, but once his team had the best average in the league, and twice they had the best OBP. Three times they were the runner-up in getting on base. A half-dozen times his teams finished first or second in slugging percentage.
And, in fact, in his ten seasons, Manuel has overseen 21 different occasions someone belted at least 30 homers. That’s really nice. It’s historic even; it’s the 10th-highest 30-HR managerial performance total of all time. Sure, there’s an era bias as now more guys go deep than ever before, but it’s still 10th-most for any manager. Joe Torre is right ahead of him with 22, and he managed a lot longer in the same era and with the Yankees.
Manuel’s teams are consistently among the most powerful in the game, whether you look at homers or isolated power or slugging average. Twice, one of his squads has led the league in slugging percentage, and four other times they’ve finished second. In none of his full campaigns has a team finished in the bottom half of the league in slugging percentage.
On the bases
It wouldn’t be fair to portray Manuel’s teams as strictly crash-and-bangers, though. They also are good on the bases. On 13 different occasions, one of his players has stolen over 30 bases. That’s nothing historic, but clearly his teams aren’t just practicing take-and-rake ball.
Even more impressive than the raw totals of stolen bases is the success rates of Manuel’s teams. He’s never had a player caught stealing more than 11 times in a season. In a typical season, eight or nine players will be caught stealing at least a dozen times, but not a single player has even done that under Manuel. He’s had the right guys run at the right times, but not otherwise.
Six times his teams have topped the league in stolen base success rate. All six have come in Philadelphia, but his 2000 Indians were second in the league. In Manuel’s Philadelphia tenure from 2005-11, the Phillies have an 83 percent success rate on the bases. No other team in baseball is over 78 percent.
The 2007 Phillies had 138 steals versus just 19 caught stealings. That’s the best success rate on the bases by any team since World War I: 87.9 percent. They had the second-most steals and the fewest caught stealings. From May 4 through July 7, they stole 49 bases in 52 opportunities. Utley has been caught stealing just four times in 68 attempts since Opening Day 2007.
Yeah, Manuel has a core of great base stealers. And you better believe it was nice to have Davey Lopes, the greatest baserunning coach, as Philadelphia’s first base coach from 2007-10. But Philadelphia’s runners have done as well as anyone can imagine, even when they don’t have Lopes. Manuel’s runners have stolen 1,042 bases in 1,316 attempts. That’s the greatest success rate for any prominent manager, period.
Largely because his teams are so good on the bases, they hit into far fewer double plays than one might guess. The 2009 Phillies, for instance, were one of the hardest teams to double up in recent years. There’s a formula I use to figure this: GIDP/(1B+BB+HBP+ROE). It’s the ground into double play divided by opportunities to hit into one. By that method, the ’09 Phillies were the fourth-hardest team to double up since 1994. They were one of three Manuel squads that were the hardest to double up in their league.
Because he has so much talent, Manuel generally relies on a set lineup. That’s to be expected for a team full of talent, but Manuel takes it further than other managers would. In fact, the 2009 Phillies’ starting eight position players accounted for 79.7 percent of the club’s total plate appearances. That was not only most in baseball that year, but it’s the most by any starting eight on any baseball team since the 1989 Cardinals.
The main eight on that team tallied 5,054 plate appearances on the year. Only three teams in baseball history have gotten more from their top eight guys: the 1931 Yankees, 1962 Twins, and 1977 Reds.
Yes, there’s an era bias favoring the Phillies over most teams as they played in a higher-offense era that allowed for more trips to the plate, but still, it’s the fourth-most ever. Everyone missed at least two games on that team, but six starters played in at least 156 games.
The 2009 Phillies infield of Howard, Utley, Rollins, and Pedro Feliz had the eighth-most plate appearances by an infield quartet. One of the teams ahead of them is the 2000 Indians, which was the first team Manuel managed. Thome, Alomar, Omar Vizquel, and Fryman combined for 2,756 times at the dish, behind only the foursomes on the 2005 Rangers, 1963 Cardinals, and 1936 Indians.
There’s another reason Manuel relies so much on his starters. Not only are they very talented, but his benches aren’t typically very good. When you measure the production of all benches by park-adjusted Runs Created by 27 outs, Manuel’s benches normally rank 10th- or 11th-best in the league. That was the case 2005, 2006, 2008, and 2009. Then again, by that same measure, the Phillies had the best bench in 2007, and he still leaned on his starters more than most managers.
Because he’s had so much talent, Manuel hasn’t gotten the respect one normally gets from having the success he’s enjoyed. He has a world title and two pennants.
In his nine full seasons on the job, he’s never had a losing record. Six times his teams won the division, and three others times they came in second place. Only once in those nine full seasons has one of his teams finished more than a game out of the postseason hunt, and that squad was just three games out of the wild card race.
Yet Manuel has never won a Manager of the Year title. Well, at least he twice finished as the runner-up. His teams haven’t given him that much credit, either. With Cleveland, he won 90 games in his first year, 91 games and a division title in his second year, and then got fired during the All-Star break of his third year. Clearly, Manuel’s bosses there didn’t give him too much credit for their success and blamed him for the failures. (As it turns out, the Indians continued to founder without Manuel).
Something very similar nearly played out in Philadelphia. In his first two seasons, Manuel’s clubs narrowly missed the postseason each time. For year three, the club made some changes. They hired a stable of formerly fired managers to serve as Manuel’s coaching staff that year: Lopes, Jimy Williams, and one or two others. It’s like the team was lining up possible replacements before getting rid of him. The pressure was on.
The 2007 NL East pennant race offers up an interesting alternate history scenario. That year, the Mets led the division over the Phillies by seven games with just 17 more to play. Then, beginning with a sweep of the Mets by Philadelphia, one of the great stretch-run shockers occurred. They Mets went 5-12 to end the year while Manuel’s Phillies went 13-4. Philadelphia, after two straight near misses, was going to the postseason. Manuel’s job was safe, and they’ve returned to each October since then.
If the Phillies don’t pull off their miracle rally, there’s a good chance Manuel gets fired. As a twice-fired 63-year-old manager, there’s no guarantee he gets hired again. Maybe he would, but maybe not. It’s worth noting that he didn’t even get his initial shot to manage in the big leagues until he was 56, an unusually old age for someone to become a prominent skipper for the first time.
Manuel certainly managed the 2007 pennant race like someone whose future depended on it. Ace middle reliever J.C. Romero appeared in 20 of the team’s 28 games that September. Fellow set-up specialist Tom Gordon appeared in 18. Meanwhile, Manuel’s less-dependable relievers like Antonio Alfonseca and Jose Mesa saw very little playing time. Manuel was going to lean on his main arms as much as he dared, and they were going to take him either to the postseason or oblivion.
So where does that leave us with Manuel? He’s still a tough manager to get a full read on.
Several years ago, an easier, pat answer could be given. After 2007, you could look at his teams and note that the Phillies had arguably the most talent of any team in the NL, yet under Manuel they’d missed the playoffs twice and been swept in the LCS when they finally did make it in 2007. The biggest criticism you can make of a manager is that you can’t imagine his teams doing any worse than they actually had, and that’s arguably true of those 2005-07 Phillies.
Aye, but that was several years ago. The biggest compliment you pay a manager is that you can’t imagine his teams doing any better than they did. And yeah, now you probably can say that of Manuel’s later Phillies. One world title season followed by a pennant-winning campaign, followed by a NLCS appearance, which was in turn succeeded by yet another postseason appearance. Along they way, they’ve averaged 96 wins in a season for those four years.
Hey, maybe they should’ve done better. They are the most talented team. Then again, they’ve won the same number of games as the Yankees from 2008-11—plus the same number of world titles. But the Phillies have more pennants.
My own gut instinct on Manuel is skepticism. I don’t think he’s that bad of a manager, but I’m skeptical he’s that good. Ultimately, he’ll rise and fall with the talent he has on hand. Then again, that’s true of virtually all managers.