On Sunday, the Brewers completed the 2014 season in discouraging fashion, losing two out of three at home to the Chicago Cubs. 53-43 over the first half of the season, they went 9-17 in September, frittering away a multi-game lead in the NL Central during a season in which the other divisional contenders were ripe to be had. Whoever wrote that it is better to have loved and lost plainly was not a baseball fan, and this particular collapse was a brutal pill for the fan base to swallow.
This past weekend, we learned that Principal Owner Mark Attanasio is Very Mad, and is Probably Not Going to Take it Anymore. During his season-ending press conference, Attanasio made a point of saying that General Manager Doug Melvin’s job was safe, but declining to give any such assurances to Ron Roenicke or his staff:
We have a process of going through that at the end of the year,” he said. “This year has been a little different because of us playing the way we have here, and hoping to get in the playoffs late. Those are coming a little bit later, our interviews.
My research interests tend to follow the Brewers’ fortunes, so I’ve discussed on a few occasions Roenicke’s possible role in the Brewers’ collapse. Although I’ve criticized his in-game decision-making as well, I’m far more interested in finding reasoned room in between two very-odd extremes in the baseball world: (1) those who blame the manager for almost everything, since he is in charge of on-field play, and (2) those who believe managers are largely irrelevant and thus cannot be blamed for anything. People in both camps like to insist they are more nuanced than this, but their default positions become obvious over time.
My position, as I stated in this column a few weeks ago, is that while Roenicke cannot himself score or prevent runs, he is responsible for getting the most out of his players. No manager can always succeed at that task, but that, at the end of the day, is his primary reason for existence (and seven-figure income). As such, it is fair to ask whether he is doing so.
Roenicke clearly failed to make that happen over the last half of the season. The Brewers’ job is to answer whether (1) there was anything Roenicke could have done better, and (2) to the extent he made mistakes, whether Roenicke will do a better job in the seasons ahead. If they have serious doubts after considering either question (especially the second one), they need to at least investigate whether there are better options.
Of course, this is a decision that needs to be made thoughtfully, based on information that largely will be kept private and unavailable to the rest of us. Hopefully, this means that the Brewers are looking at factors Roenicke can actually control, and not silly gestures (like ritual firings) that make people feel good but accomplish nothing (and to my knowledge, do not in fact cause people to spend thousands of dollars on season tickets).
It’s not difficult to understand Attanasio’s anger. He made a conscious decision to spend money this season, and to add insult to injury, agreed to pick his own pocket by taking on the sizable contract of Jonathan Broxton at the end of August — a marginal win calculation if there ever was one. Attanasio isn’t just disappointed; he feels like he’s been had. Attansio threw everything into this season, and ended up with a massive turd that clogged his toilet to boot. Rich people are not used to feeling that way, particularly when they credit their own acumen for making them rich in the first place. Attanasio no doubt feels the fool, and that makes Ron Roenicke’s position even more precarious.
What to do? All I can say is that, were I evaluating Roenicke with the information available to Attanasio and Melvin, here are some things I would take into account:
Admit It: This Was a Historic Collapse
Too many people have tried to sugarcoat this regression by claiming that “2014 is just the inverse of 2012” or that “this was an average team that came back down to earth.” I’m sorry, but that’s just not right. Collapses like this one are incredibly rare. You’ve probably seen many versions of the Stats, Inc. pronouncement that the Brewers are only the fifth team since 1969 to miss the postseason after leading their division for over 150 days. Unlike those other teams, the Brewers had two wild-card spots with which to try and recover, but still were unable to do so.
The number that bugs me the most — and probably most upsets Mark Attanasio — is that the Brewers had a 94% likelihood of making the postseason just over a month ago, according to Baseball Prospectus. That likelihood was not simply based on their statistics to date, but taking into account that the team would regress from their previous achievements. Even then, this team outdid itself, collapsing to a .314 winning percentage the rest of way, which is basically like calling up the entire AAA Nashville team and wishing them luck.
Although you can compare it to other situations where teams have had a bad month, the fact is that in these other situations — like the end of 2012 — there was no real statistical likelihood that the Brewers were going anywhere. Closing the gap toward the end of the season makes for good copy, but that’s it. The 2014 team was in a very different position, and I think it a stretch to shrug and say that teams in that Baseball Prospectus 6% are simply unlucky or getting what they deserved. That’s effectively a diagnosis of exclusion, and you can only intelligently conclude that after a great many PowerPoint slides come first.
Can Roenicke Separate his Players’ Interests from the Team’s Interests?
This may not ultimately be that important, but has been tough to ignore. Roenicke seems to be obsessed with making certain players happy, and with giving them defined roles that are theirs until they no longer want them. Ryan Braun plays if he feels like playing, even if there is no reason to believe he is going to be effective. When Carlos Gomez makes a boneheaded play on the base paths, it’s just Carlos being Carlos. Francisco Rodriguez has to be the closer and only pitch in save situations, and Jonathan Broxton has to be the 8th inning guy, because as a former closer, well, you know.
After two years of Ken Macha not really caring if players bought in or not, we now have a manager who seems obsessed with players buying in and getting self-esteem from their titles. Some of these complaints are universal to all managers, and a replacement in many respects would probably be no better. And I completely agree with Doug Melvin that people complain about Ken Macha when they have Ken Macha and complain about Ron Roenicke when they have Ron Roenicke. But the entire point of having a manager who supposedly has his finger on the pulse of the team is that he is more effective at getting the best out of them when it matters. For what it is worth, I wonder if Roenicke’s touch is growing thin on a team whose window is quite short.
Will the Front Office Hold Itself Accountable?
This is the one thing I haven’t heard discussed, and Attanasio’s pronouncement that Doug Melvin’s job was safe should not detract from the reality that the front office has some things to answer for too.
Many of the front office’s moves have been excellent: spotting the improvement in Zach Duke, taking a risk on Matt Garza, and their recent investments in Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez are some of the best contracts in baseball. Other moves did not really pan out, but are certainly excusable: the Brewers were hardly alone in thinking that Segura would rebound this year after some rest, and for all the criticism of the Mark Reynolds / Lyle Overbay platoon, the Brewers’ first goal was to stop leaking defensive wins at first base, which they basically achieved.
But particularly during that last month, it’s hard to believe the front office outdid itself to help Roenicke and the Narrons diagnose the hitting problems for a lineup whose true talent is much higher than it played. Since August, the Brewers weren’t simply hitting balls to unlucky places: they were generating groundballs at previously-unprecedented rates. Ryan Braun was hitting a ton of ground balls. So was Aramis Ramirez. And Khris Davis. Even Jonathan Lucroy was hitting more, and he may have the best all-purpose swing on the club.
In other words, one gets the sense that there was something systematic going on here, perhaps in the way the Brewers were getting pitched. As Ben Lindbergh’s recent article on the Pirates makes clear, teams need their staff sabermetricians to be feeding them that information on the field so that they can make adjustments.
Perhaps the front office looked at the trend and found nothing. Perhaps they found something and Roenicke’s staff blew it off. Or Roenicke’s staff tried to implement a fix but the hitters either couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything about it. What was clear is that Roenicke seemed to have plenty of stats available on things that don’t matter — such as small-sample batter-pitcher results when choosing lineups — but had no answer for his hitters looking utterly lost at the plate game after game, series after series, week after week.
So, while Ron Roenicke and his staff need to be evaluated, Attanasio and Melvin also need to be honest with themselves about whether Roenicke was given the tools he needed to succeed. Firing the hitting coach is a time-honored (if crappy) compromise, but the next guy will do no better without the proper intellectual support. An investment in better data and self-scouting is far cheaper than paying two managers next year, particularly if the replacement will actually expend brain cells looking for his new eighth-inning guy.
At this point, it’s really difficult to say what the Brewers will do. The prevailing wisdom at the moment seems to be that Doug Melvin has prevailed upon Attanasio to take his time, and that this may bode well for Roenicke. All we can really ask is that the Brewers truly follow a reasoned process, and make a decision that will actually make the team better, rather than simply make the owner or talk radio feel better. Too often, teams don’t seem to appreciate the difference.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter @bachlaw