Craig Counsell is ready to manage in the playoffs | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

I own the scorecard of the game that got Ned Yost fired.

You may very well remember the exact game, but in case you need a reminder, it was game one of a Sunday doubleheader in Philadelphia. The Brewers entered the four-game series with a four-game lead over the Phillies. They left tied and with a new manager.

The collapse was impressive, but it was really one game that truly displayed Yost’s ineptitude–the straw that broke the camel’s back after many boneheaded straws throughout the course of the season. That game was Game 1 of a Sunday doubleheader.

The Brewers held a 3-1 lead after 5 1/2 innings, and they were tied at 3 after 7 1/2 innings. To lead off the bottom of the 8th, Guillermo Mota allowed a leadoff single to Jayson Werth. With stud lefties Chase Utley and Ryan Howard due up, Yost summoned effective LOOGY Brian Shouse. After an Utley sac bunt, Howard came to the plate. Howard had been on a recent hot streak, which Yost used as motivation to make a truly crazy decision. Consider the following:

Ryan Howard, career vs. lefties: .708 OPS
Ryan howard, 2008 vs. lefties: .746

Pat Burrell, career vs. lefties: .891
Pat Burrell, 2008 vs. lefties: .952

Brian Shouse, career vs. lefties: .593 OPS against
Brian Shouse, career vs. righties: .861 OPS against

Based on this, anyone who knows what numbers are could tell you the following things:

  • Brian Shouse is the definition of a left-handed specialist
  • Ryan Howard is significantly worse against lefties than righties
  • Pat Burrell mashes left-handed pitching

What did Ned Yost do with this easily accessible, widely known information? He intentionally walked Howard to have Shouse face Burrell. What did I do? Nearly destroy my friend’s apartment (I was a bit less even keeled in my younger and more vulnerable years).

The Phillies went on to complete the sweep, Mark Attanasio gave the order to axe Yost the next day, and the rest is history. That one move, that one unthinkably bad move, sealed the fate of the worst in-game Brewers manager of my fandom.

A few months later, at a Brewers clubhouse sale, my brother and I were flipping through official scorecards that were for sale. All of a sudden, in as serious a voice as you could imagine at a Brewers clubhouse sale, he said, “Steve. Look.” There it was, in all its glory: the scorecard to Game 1 of the September 14 doubleheader against the Phillies. There was no decision to be made. I needed to own it, and to this day, it hangs, neatly framed, in my home.

******

Things didn’t get much better, managerially. Ken Macha, the next full-time manager, was an improvement strategically, but it quickly became apparent that players hated playing for him, and he was gone after two seasons. Next came Ron Roenicke, who wasn’t much better than Yost but lucked into a great team, the 2011 Brewers.

The 2011 Brewers are the best Brewers team of my lifetime and certainly had enough talent to win a world series. In hindsight, it seems criminal to leave such a team in the hands of someone as overmatched as Roenicke.

Roenicke either didn’t know he was in the playoffs or didn’t know that you need to manage differently once you’re there. In the postseason, you need to do everything you can to win a game. You don’t have the luxury of playing for the next game like you do during the regular season because there may not be a next game. For instance, when the Cardinals knock Shaun Marcum out of Game 2 of the NLCS with 5 runs in 4 innings, you don’t bring in your long reliever. Roenicke brought in Marco Estrada in a 5-2 game in the 5th inning. It is important to note that this is not the current “solid starting pitcher Marco Estrada” we’re talking about here, but the “unproven, pedestrian long reliever Marco Estrada.” Into a 5-2 game in the fifth inning! Estrada gave up two runs right away and the Cardinals were well on their way to an easy 12-3 victory.

If we’re looking for other moves to criticize, Roenicke used to be way too in love with small ball, started Mark Freaking Kotsay in center field in the playoffs, and continued to roll out Marcum in the playoffs after repeated shellings. Yost used to ignore platoon stats and instead refer to “his gut” (he cited gut feelings often). During pennant races, he would throw out mediocre reliever after mediocre reliever ahead of his closer Francisco Cordero in extra inning games down the stretch and allow his team to lose without ever using his closer. After the game, he’d say, “We just couldn’t get to Franky with a lead!”

******

What is the point of dragging poor managers from six and nine years ago? It’s that Craig Counsell has never made one decision as egregiously bad as any of these. Most importantly, in refreshing contrast to Roenicke, he has completely adapted his decision-making to reflect the importance of these games the last few weeks. Notice how rarely we’ve seen Carlos Torres lately? Or Matt Garza? Or even Oliver Drake, until Counsell was forced to go to about his sixth option last night? It’s because he refuses to lose games without giving his team the best chance to win.

Counsell is consistently using his best relievers in the highest leverage situations. Josh Hader, with all of 41.2 innings, has been the Brewers’ fifth-most valuable pitcher (according to Baseball-Reference WAR) solely based on pitching exclusively in high leverage. When it isn’t Hader, it’s Anthony Swarzak and Corey Knebel, who have both been outstanding. He’s using them liberally because these are highly important games. You can’t worry about tomorrow, when you’re in a playoff race, if you have a chance to win today. Counsell has continually demonstrated an understanding of this.

It’s not just pitching, either. He understands–rather, embraces–platoon advantages. Thames/Aguilar, Phillips/Broxton, Walker/Sogard/Villar. He loads up lefties against tough righties. He has enough righties to tip the advantage from a left-handed pitcher. He’s not afraid to pinch hit, pinch run, and use defensive subs. You know that, at the end of a remotely close game, you’ll see Orlando Arcia at short and Eric Sogard at second because that’s their best defensive infield. Brett Phillips has gained playing time lately due to two things: his defense–in particular, his absurd throwing arm, and his left-handed bat.

Counsell won’t bring in his seventh best reliever trailing 5-2 in the fifth inning when all his other relievers are rested, like Roenicke. He won’t ignore platoon advantages like Yost. If it weren’t for the Brewers uniform, you’d think you were watching Joe Maddon or Terry Francona wheel and deal in the playoffs.

I distinctly remember the huge disadvantage the Brewers were at in 2011 with Roenicke vs. Tony LaRussa, along with the feeling of helplessness that came with it. When the Brewers next make the playoffs, whether it’s this year or further down the road, they will not face that disadvantage. Counsell is proving to be a great manager, and the Brewers are already benefitting from it.

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