Charlie Manuel mastered the art of communication as manager
Charlie Manuel, on the day he was to be honored for his 1,000th career win, was let go by the Phillies on Friday and replaced by Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg. While it's impossible to compare the playing career of Manuel to that of Sandberg, a player's talent on the field is no way to predict how successful he'll be when confined to the spaces outside the white chalk lines.
It's fun to think we can fire a guy and it'll fix something. But it's the factors outside a manager's limited control that mostly contribute to how we measure his success.
In his book, “Evaluating Baseball's Managers: A History and Analysis of Performance in the Major Leagues,” Chris Jaffe broke down the manager’s job into three parts: Communication, self-awareness, and prioritization. Not the sexiest job description, but we’re not here to measure Manuel’s sexiness.
“…[while hiring managers] GMs did not focus on baseball tactics or strategy, but instead they centered on communication.”
Who is most responsible for Charlie Manuel's departure from the Phillies?
|Ruben Amaro Jr.|
|Total votes = 16649|
To the point of cliché, Manuel has been forever known as a “players’ manager." He created a clubhouse in which players would feel loose, comfortable, and able to chat with their manager should they be in need of solid hitting advice or a West Virginia colloquialism.
“For self-awareness, a manager had to recognize how the players reacted to him in order to properly communicate and have the desired impact on them.”
Dallas Green knew the players in his locker room would react to his hostility with a united front, and that front went on to win the World Series.
Charlie Manuel’s style was different, but had similar results. He knew he had gamers like Chase Utley, divas like Jimmy Rollins, and comedians like Ryan Howard, and he got to know their personalities well enough to predict their reactions to his style.
“With prioritization, all clubhouses have 75 fires that need to be put out, but a manager only has time to handle three or four. He needs to take care of the worst ones, so they don’t wreck the season for the squad.”
If Utley’s knees went nuclear, and Manuel had been helping Kyle Kendrick fish a cat out of a tree at the time, he would not be nearly as effective as a manager. When there were issues, he approached them and stifled them as best they could. The evidence that he chose the right ones to address lies in the fact that the Phillies avoided being a frequent source of league drama during his tenure. Concern lied in bullpen management and over-loyalty to veterans rather than fisticuffs in the dugout.
So it’s fair to say that Manuel embodied all three things that Jaffe said a GM could be looking for in his manager. As far as actual baseball-playing goes, well - and I don't want to blow your mind here - but a lot of that rests on the players.
And boy, did the Phillies have players in 2005.
Or at least, they had the hope of developing players. Howard, Utley, and Rollins were beacons of the future – all three were under 27 years of age when Manuel was dropped into Philadelphia in 2005. As time went on, they took turns being NL MVP contenders, with Howard and Rollins actually winning it in 2006 and 2007, respectively.
With the likes of Jayson Werth, Pat Burrell, Shane Victorino, Raul Ibanez and others over the years, the offense – or the intention of offense – was in place, and who better to sit at the firing controls of an arsenal like that than a former AL hitting coach with no shortage of shoulder pats or charming anecdotes. This is the guy who helped keep Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Kenny Lofton, Eddie Murray, and Sandy Alomar so happy that they became the league’s premier run factory in the mid ‘90s; and when he took over as Indians manager in 2000, the team won a division championship the following year with far fewer future Hall of Famers.
At the Major League level, it’s less about instruction and drills, and more about creating an environment in which players feel comfortable enough to channel their raw talent and sharpened instincts and play the way that got them promoted in the first place. We might all perform a little worse at our jobs with Larry Bowa screaming down our necks.
The 2007-09 Phillies - arranged by Pat Gillick, not Ruben Amaro, Jr. - consisted of hitters in various stages of consistency and development, who could benefit from having a ‘happy place’ like a clubhouse run by Manuel to get their heads together.
He had stars, sure, but he got good players to play better for him, and that got him a World Series ring.
And in the winter of 2008, that was more than enough. In the winter of 2009, it was probably still enough, because we couldn’t imagine a time that the Phillies wouldn’t make it to the World Series. By 2011, we couldn’t imagine them not making the playoffs. By Friday, we couldn’t imagine them without Charlie Manuel.
But the Phillies had evolved in a way Manuel could not. This was no longer what analysts had called an “AL lineup in the National League.”
They had seen a decline in raw power and started investing in pitching, which was exciting too, but less of a fit for a team with an offensive specialist at the helm. Charlie was forced to siphon the increasing volume of pitching inquiries to Rich Dubee.
But even while maintaining a culture of relaxed passion continued to be universally helpful, it was no longer enough. Players started getting older, getting hurt, getting traded. Triple-A call-ups took the place of all-stars for chunks of the season.
Manuel was extremely skilled at managing a team of hot young hitters with their whole careers in front of them. But what manager at the Major League level wouldn’t be?
His decisions went from being those of a manager who had to prove himself in a new town to the decisions of a World Series champion. A certain trust was extended, and then questioned, and then measured, and then the 2010 NLCS happened, and things seemed to go permanently downhill from there (if you're using the post season as a measuring stick).
Friday, Jim Salisbury of CSN Philly said he believed the Phillies clubhouse is divided; that not all the players may like each other. He admitted this has a lot to do with the losing, but Manuel was still - until recently - the manager.
The Phillies reached a point when a good environment wasn’t enough; but what they could really use isn’t new handwriting on the lineup cards - it’s a lineup card full of hot young hitters with their whole careers in front of them. But there’s nobody you can fire that will make that the case tomorrow.
The team aged and spoiled, the losses piled up, Manuel’s decisions became questionable, and as a result, his specialty – the clubhouse – may be turning.
He can’t make the players better, he can’t stop them from aging, and he can’t put their bones back together; he can only use what little was left and try to transform it into something you want to look at.
The manager, defined by his communication, self-awareness, and priorities, may not be the only responsible figure in a team’s decline, but he is the most visible, and his will be the first head under the ax. He is the de facto leader, the in-game decision-maker, and the perceived artist behind every loss. When everything feeds into each other so intensely, it’s tough not to blame the man managing the process – but we can’t forget that he’s only as good as his pieces.
Ryne Sandberg isn’t going to make Ryan Howard 25 again. But if he sticks around, and with any luck, keeps the Phillies playing until we can see our breath, he’ll have done it by relying on Dom Brown, Cody Asche, Darin Ruf, and others in a clubhouse of his own design.
Just like Charlie did - until his greatest strength was overcome by his biggest weakness.