CLEARWATER, Fla. — Charlie Manuel and Larry Bowa have more baseball knowledge stuck in their wrinkles than Matt Klentak and Gabe Kapler have stored in their laptops.
Manuel, 74, and Bowa, 72, cannot conceive of a world in which players are allowed to show up late, or completely take a day off, in spring training.
But these days, baseball seems to be less about knowledge than numbers; less about fielding than feelings. Maybe that’s better. Maybe there’s real magic in the analytics that helped the Royals, then the Cubs, then the Astros build their franchises into champions the last three seasons.
Manuel and Bowa, former Phillies managers turned front-office advisers, have reservations about the numbers-based approach and the touchy-feely management style, but they’re curious to witness the new approach of Klentak, the 37-year-old general manager, and Kapler, the 42-year-old rookie manager.
“It’s kind of different to me,” Manuel said, “but at the same time, I see where the players are very relaxed.”
Manuel’s player-friendly style helped the Phillies win the 2008 World Series and five consecutive National League East titles.
“Kapler does a really good job of communicating with the guys,” Manuel said. “He’s a leader. He’s prepared. I believe the team is going to play hard.”
When they don’t, there won’t be hell to pay; at least, not the way it was for Bowa when he played shortstop for the Phillies’ other title team, in 1980. Instead, Kapler can point to the numbers and explain why hitting the cut-off man is the higher-percentage play; and he can do so clinically, without the histrionics that so effectively served Dallas Green.
“With this generation of players, that’s good,” Bowa said. “It’s a different generation. Back in the day, guys took constructive criticism as constructive criticism. These guys think, ‘Why are you getting on me?’ ”
Manuel and Bowa are beloved Phillies because, as managers, they followed hitting reports and read spray charts but they also went with their gut. There’s no “gut” metric. That’s one facet of analytics that disturbs them: that it dehumanizes the job.
There are facets that they love, such as the wealth of information available to hitters.
“When I was manager I had some matchup stuff, which was good at the time, but these guys go more in-depth,” said Manuel. He was fired in 2013, two years before the Phillies hired Klentak as general manager and committed more fully to analytics. “They push out the percentages.”
The percentages are pretty amazing, since they can quantify a pitcher’s likelihood of throwing each pitch in each count to each type of hitter.
“A hitter can go up there and say, ‘We just had a meeting this afternoon, and when he’s ahead in the count, he loves to throw the slider 85 percent of the time. Change-up, 10 percent of the time,’ ” Bowa said. “It’s not foolproof, but he can sit on that pitch.”
Imagine what Chase Utley could have done with that information, eh, Larry?
“Right?” Bowa replied. “Or Tony Gwynn!”
Utley, Ryan Howard, and Jimmy Rollins never hit like Gwynn, but they were stars, and they won. Bowa and Manuel now realize that they might have won more if the Phillies had been early analytics adopters like the Red Sox, Yankees, and Cardinals. Better at the plate, anyway.
Manuel and Bowa have little love for the way numbers can affect defense, and they’re especially leery of the most exotic defensive strategies. They don’t mind shifting infielders extremely, but not all the time. And only the infield.
This spring Manuel nearly swallowed his tongue when Kapler shifted leftfielder Rhys Hoskins to right field in the middle of an inning. Bowa could not have saved Manuel, because we’re pretty sure Bowa fainted.
“I think he won’t be shuffling his outfielders like that when the regular season begins,” Manuel said.
Not Hoskins, anyway. He just converted from first base to left field in the middle of 2017.
“If you had three guys who had played all three positions, and one stands out [as poor], I think there’s merit,” Bowa said. “I just think, a guy learning a brand-new position, and he’s still gettting his feet wet? That would concern me a little bit.”
Bowa won two Gold Gloves, and he has coached defense since he left the playing field. He has absolutely no use for the formulae and criteria used to judge fielders.
“I don’t like the defensive analytics,” he said bluntly. He then launched into a detailed diatribe regarding the flaws in how categories such as range and positioning are judged. Every point he made was completely valid.
If this contradicts the current company line, so be it. Manuel and Bowa aren’t paid to regurgitate the company line. Klentak, Kapler, and team president Andy MacPhail say they invite dissent. They welcome criticisms. They understand their strategies will face resistance.
Will Kapler use non-traditional leadoff men? Will he constantly shuffle his lineup? Will he routinely bat his weakest hitter ninth, behind the pitcher? Will Hoskins play both corner outfield positions in the same inning?
Probably. And when he does, the voices of Manuel and Bowa will be heard.
Maybe they’ll even come around to see things Kepler’s way. Neither completely abhors analytics.
“There’s things about it I would have used. I’d say 50-50,” Manuel said.
“There might be merit to what they’re doing,” Bowa said.
Both wish Kapler well.
“I think he deserves a real good chance, to see if his philosophy works,” Manuel said. “He definitely deserves the benefit of the doubt.”
Bowa and Manuel had doubters. They earned those wrinkles by trying and failing and trying again. That’s the benefit of knowledge.
Given the chance, it can turn into wisdom.