The Philly managerial phlipby Chris Jaffe
August 19, 2013
Big news out of Philadelphia with the Phillies firing manager Charlie Manuel and replacing him with interim skipper Ryne Sandberg.
On the one hand, this was rather surprising news. Manuel is the winningest manager in Phillies history. He’s piloted more games for them than any other skipper in their 130-year history and has led them to two pennants and the second franchise world championship. Oh, and he was also the longest-tenured manager in the NL. (Now that honor is jointly held by Bruce Bochy and Bud Black).
You just assumed he’d always be there, something of a fixture on the coaching scene. But this was a team on the decline. Their glory run ended last year with a .500 finish, and they are having a horrible time of it this year. When Manuel lost his job, the Phillies were 53-67 and had lost 19 of their last 23 games under his watch.
Those are typically the teams that fire their managers, aren’t they? It really isn’t Manuel’s fault. The team’s talent was old and injured and past its prime, but again, those are the types of teams that typically fire their managers.
Still, the firing seems a little quick, especially for someone who has achieved as much as Manuel had. It’s just been a bad month for Manuel. Okay, so they hadn’t been in contention for a year and a half, but that was still .500 ball. Compare that run with Minnesota’s Ron Gardenhire. He’s on pace for his third straight 90-loss season and hasn’t been let go yet. And Gardenhire has never even won a pennant, let alone a world title.
Let’s look this up. How long do managers last after winning a world championship? Well, over the last 25 years, 17 manager have won world titles. How many of them were fired shortly after the team went sour?
Of those 17, three still are employed by their championship team: Mike Scioscia, Bochy, and Joe Girardi. Of the other 14, most of them kept the job as long as they wanted it. This ranges from guys who didn’t want it much longer (Tony LaRussa retired immediately after winning the 2011 World Series, and Jim Leyland wanted out after the great Florida fire sale) to guys who lasted quite a time (Tom Kelly in Minnesota, Bobby Cox in Atlanta).
The champion managers given the least leeway would be Terry Francona, Bob Brenly, Lou Piniella, and Manuel. Interesting collection. Piniella and Francona each lost their jobs after very good seasons by their clubs.
Piniella won a title with a surprising Reds club in 1990 but was fired after a 90-win 1992 season due to a dysfunctional front office helmed by owner Marge Schott. Francona’s departure from Boston in 2011 also created a lot of controversy over the inner workings of the club's brain trust. (Besides, the Red Sox are one of the few teams that expect to compete for a championship every year, creating that much more pressure to do well).
Bob Brenly won a title in his rookie year 2001 with Arizona, took them back to the playoffs in 2002, and led them to a winning record in 2003, but he was fired in the middle of 2004. So that’s the least leeway a championship has granted any manager in the last 25 years.
That’s not great company for Manuel. Brenly is also one of the more derided championship managers of recent times. He drew plenty of criticism for his in-game tactics during the 2001 World Series. It wasn’t just a matter of people on blogs or in the media sniping at him, either. Nearly a decade since getting the axe, no other team has hired him as manager.
That said, while Brenly may not be the company a champion manager wants to keep, that does fit with Manuel’s overall image. While he’s never been as lampooned as Brenly was, he’s also never been really well regarded, either. Even when his teams won, he was never at the top of anyone’s list of best managers. Not only was he overshadowed by the trinity of LaRussa, Cox, and Joe Torre, but also by Piniella, Leyland, Sciosica, and others.
In 10 full seasons on the job, Manuel’s squads made it to the postseason six times and narrowly missed three others, yet you’d never guess that from the Manager of the Year Voting. He never won the award and received legitimate support in the balloting just two times.
Manuel has a .547 winning percentage and is more than 170 games over .500 but typically is viewed as a guy who won because his teams so often were so very talented.
First, he took over Cleveland from Mike Hargrove. The Indians won five straight division titles under Hargrove from 1995-99, but the club fired him and hired Manuel for 2000. He inherited a lineup featuring Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Roberto Alomar, David Justice, and Kenny Lofton that was expected to win.
So when they won 90 games and came in second in 2000, Manuel didn’t look that impressive. They won 91 times in 2001 but lost in the ALDS. Well, that happens, but Manuel still hadn’t impressed anyone, 181 wins in two seasons notwithstanding. Thus, when the team got off to a lousy start in 2002, the club fired him midway through.
Manuel eventually caught on with the Phillies, of course, and while he had tremendous success there, it’s still those first two seasons with the club that help cement his reputation as a guy who is just along for the ride on a club loaded with talent.
The 2005-06 Phillies had plenty of talent. Their offense featured Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Bobby Abreu, Chase Utley, and Pat Burrell. Their pitching wasn’t as star-powered, but both years, the staff’s overall park-adjusted ERA was better than average. Yet, both times the Phillies missed the playoffs. In each campaign, they were arguably the best team to miss October.
Up to 2006, Manuel’s reputation wasn’t very inspired, then. Despite averaging nearly 90 wins a year in his four full seasons, his teams seemed like underachievers. And nothing hurts a manager’s reputation more than having teams underwhelm.
From that perspective, Manuel has done a marvelous job improving his reputation over the last several years. Though never in the top tier of managers, he’s at least respected.
Manuel’s make-or-break moment came in Sept., 2007. After a 12-0 blowout loss to the Rockies on Sept. 12, the Phillies looked destined to yet another best-of-the-rest finish, where they’d be the most prominent team to miss the postseason. They trailed the first-place Mets by seven games with just 17 more games left to play. If they spent October at home, it’s an open question if Manuel would have returned for another year. (And if not, would any other team ever hire him as its skipper?)
Well, as we know now, the Phillies pulled off a miracle. Sure, they were greatly helped by the Mets flopping to a 5-12 finish, but the Phillies still had to go 13-4 on their end. And Charlie Manuel did more than just sit around for the ride.
Manuel needed to make every game count and not concede anything, and he had to do so despite a shaky starting rotation and a bullpen with a solid core but not much else. So he rode that core for all it was worth.
The team played in 28 games in September, and their top four relievers—J.C. Romero, Tom Gordon, Brett Myers, and Geoff Geary—combined for 67 relief appearances and 66.2 innings. (Prorated over a full season, that’s about 90 innings and appearances per man, something no one does at all any more, let alone four pitchers at the same time.)
And that core four was fantastic, posting a 2.43 ERA. That was the difference in the season. Romero appeared in 20 of the final 28 games (on pace for 116 in a season!) and didn’t allow a single run. That aggressive handling of the bullpen made the difference for the Phillies as a team and Manuel as a manager.
They may have been swept in the NLDS, but making the playoffs allowed Manuel to come back in 2007, when they won it all. And in 2008, when they lost the World Series. And then the next two years when they went back to the playoffs. But the memory of those earlier failures still stained the perception of Manuel as a manager. Maybe if the Phillies had won another World Series things would be different, but that’s not how it happened.
The Phillies at least were nice enough to keep Manuel around long enough to pick up career win No. 1,000. That’s a nice gesture. The team isn’t going anywhere anyway, so let him pick up his nice milestone.
It’s really unlikely any other team will tap Manuel as a new manager. He’ll turn 70 years old next January, and the only men that old ever hired as managers are Casey Stengel by the Mets and Jack McKeon by the Marlins. No, that’s not a very big club at all.
Now Manuel is gone, and the new manager has been hired, Sandberg. He is easily the most prominent former player working the dugout now. Typically, Hall of Famer players don’t become baseball managers. In fact, Sandberg is just the third person to make his dugout debut after his Cooperstown induction.
Luke Appling and Ted Williams are the others,and neither was very successful. Appling lasted just 40 games as interim manager for Charles Finley’s Kansas City A’s in 1967 (in fact, that makes him the last A’s manager before the move to Oakland) before losing his job. Williams was out of his depth as manager of the late-1960s/early-1970s Senators/Rangers. He knew about hitting but not beans about pitching. Still, two managers is far too small a sample size to draw any conclusions from.
Interestingly, it used to be common for the best players to graduate into field generals. If you look back at the five men in the inaugural class at Cooperstown—Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson—four became managers. Only Ruth was left out.
In fact, of the 15 people inducted as players in the 1930s, 10 served as managers. The others typically had problems that made it impossible for them to become managers, including early death (Lou Gehrig), syphilis (Charley Radbourn), or alcoholism (Pete Alexander). Back then, being a great player made people think that gave you the right to manage. No one thinks that any more.
So in a way, Sandberg is a throwback, a great player who became a big league manager. But he also shows how times have changed. He didn’t just get the job because he’d once been a great player. Several years ago, when he approached the Cubs about managing, they told him he’d have to pay his dues.
And so he did. He became a minor league manager, working his way up from Class-A to Triple-A. He won titles along the way and was named the 2010 Pacific Coast League Manager of the Year. Still, then-Cubs GM Jim Hendry opted to pick someone else to replace Cubs skipper Piniella, and so Sandberg joined the Phillies organization. He was named 2011 Minor League Manager of the Year by Baseball America and joined Philadelphia’s major league coaching staff in 2012.
In other words, Sandberg paid just about every due you could want: minor league managing experience, major league coaching experience, success on the job, public respect for his accomplishments, the works.
None of this means he’ll be successful in his new job, but at the very least, he’s been properly vetted. That’s why Sandberg became just the third Hall of Fame player of the last 20 years to become a manager, joining the aging Frank Robinson with the Expos/Nationals and Tony Perez, who had brief stints with the Marlins and Reds.
References and Resources
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.