Welcome to Rounding the Bases, a weekly column where writers Ryan Topp and Steve Garczynski participate in a discussion on one baseball topic. This week, how do managers and general managers get along?. You can follow @RyanTopp and @SteveGarczynski on Twitter.
The Milwaukee Brewers followed up losing 8-of-9 with a nine-game (and counting) winning streak. Even at the most dire moments in the young season, there never seemed to be any panic coming from the clubhouse. The Brewers still feature a lot of home grown talent, but at this point, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Yovani Gallardo, et al. Have been through the ups and downs of a season and it takes a lot to get rattled.
Even with veterans, the tone is still set by the guy making the calls in the dugout, and Ron Roenicke has an even keel demeanor. The 2012 Red Sox had a lot of seasoned ballplayers, but Bobby Valentine clearly didn’t have the right personality to prevent that team from turning toxic. The Brewers of 2009-2010 were always a little tense and that can be traced back to the chilly relationship Ken Macha had with his stars Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.
Roenicke has been dubbed “Runnin'” Ron because of his professed affinity to coach up a team that puts pressure on a pitcher by constantly being a threat to run. He’s an interesting match for General Manager Doug Melvin who said in Richard Justice’s piece on Brewers.com that he’s, “more from the Earl Weaver school of playing for the three-run home run, but that’s not Ron. We led the league in stolen bases and home runs last year, and we’re [hitting a lot of homers and stealing a lot of bases] again this season”
It was only a week into the season when Ken Rosenthal wrote his first “Managers on the Hot Seat” article. Ron Roenicke, with very few similarities his boss, was nowhere to be found on the list. How does a manager and GM with differing views on running a team make their working relationship run smoothly?
They are pretty different, aren’t they? Beyond Melvin’s affinity for the “three-run homer” which in the post-Moneyball era has become not-so-subtle code for liking guys who walk and slug, he’s also on the record as being against giving up outs to score:
“I’m a big believer in getting all 27 at bats. When you hit into double plays or get guys thrown out , you might get 23 at bats that game. I would rather have 27 outs swinging the bat and we try to eliminate the 27 outs of the other team.”
It’s hard to see sometimes exactly how that philosophy meshes with a manager like Ron Roenicke, who led all of MLB in calling for sacrifice bunts last year. One would think that a GM who hates giving up outs to advance runners would loathe having a manager who leads the league in such tactics, but that really doesn’t seem to be the case at all. Melvin seems entirely at peace with letting his manager apply his philosophy as he see’s fit in this case.
While that seems strange, perhaps it really shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does. There is a school of thought that says that most of what a manager does, both good and bad, to affect the fate of his team is done when the bright lights aren’t on. Rather it’s before and after games that the groundwork for success is laid. We see what happens during games, but we don’t see all the efforts made (or not made) to connect with players. To find out what makes them tick. To figure out who needs to be pushed when struggling and who needs space to relax.
I have yet to read any sort of article that claims Ron Roenicke is anything less than the consummate players manager. The next whisper of dislike for the skipper or dissention within the ranks that I see will be the first that I can ever remember. The players seem to play hard for him even after prolonged runs of heartbreaking losses, like those sustained by the bullpen early last summer. Even after trading away their best starting pitcher, the team was still engaged and focused enough to reel off an impressive winning streak. Not all teams in that position would have done the same.
So what do you think? Is Melvin right to be so seemingly alright with having a manager who doesn’t do things the way he might if he were running the team on the field?
Everything goes back to evaluating how the manager runs the clubhouse. Most managers on the hot seat are not only going through a team slump on the field, but that is usually accompanied by whispers of losing the clubhouse. Sometimes that’s an off the record comment from a player, other times it’s a beat writer picking up on the atmosphere when they’re around the team before and after the game.
So if a GM finds a manager who has the right mentality to manage the team, but some questionable strategic tendencies, what can they do? Building a roster that’s “dummy proof” is a good start. If the manager doesn’t have the option to make questionable decisions, they won’t have a choice but to manage straight up.
Doug Melvin has kind of gone in the other direction though. The Brewers are filled with speed/power combo guys and are able to straddle the line. Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart were bigger base stealing threats in their younger days. Ryan Braun is an excellent hybrid with the ability to post 30/30 seasons with regularity. Then there are guys like Carlos Gomez and Norichika Aoki who either have developing power or the ability to bunt for hits. All of these guys steal with relatively high success rate, limiting the potential to kill rallies on the bases.
Even if fans can quibble with some of Ron Roenicke’s decisions, this roster is constructed in a way that plays to his tendencies. He can run a decent amount without giving up too many outs, and there are still runners on base to cash in on those three runs shots.
This concept of a GM “dummy proofing” a roster for his manager is an interesting one for me. It’s something I’ve heard more than once to explain how Ron Roenicke was able to lead the 2011 team to 96 wins, particularly as it relates to the bullpen. The basic idea is that Melvin gave Roenicke K-Rod in the second half of the season so that he would just have a pitcher good enough to stick in the 8th inning pretty much no matter what the situation was. Thus, Roenicke’s insistence on having an “8th inning guy” would not cripple the team.
It’s a fun narrative, and not completely off the wall, but I think it misses the main point: the GM went out and got a guy who was better than any of his other relievers (save Axford) to help lock down the late innings. He made the roster better, which is what GM’s in that situation are supposed to do. You don’t get bonus points in the standings for how you win games, or how difficult a task the manager is faced with. Leaving a manager inferior options should never be the goal, so if a GM is “dummy proofing” his roster, it generally just means he’s getting the best players possible.
Anyway, beyond that I think it’s worth pointing out that the whole “power-speed” thing has been sort of a thing for Melvin and his scouting staffs for a long time. Jack Zdurencik loved drafting guys who could run, hit and slug, and Melvin often gravitated towards those players when making other personnel moves. So in a sense, it’s also odd that Melvin hired Ken “thou shalt not run” Macha to manage his roster for him for a couple years, because he put the brakes on the team using the speed it had quite a bit.
I guess that’s probably the whole point here, is that it’s going to be rare to find a manager who is just like the GM in every way. There are bound to be differences, and in the end it really just comes down to a question of priorities. If a manager is good with the players, and does a few tactical things the GM probably likes (like running at high success rates, shifting, not handing out lots of IBB) then it’s going to be relatively easy for the GM to overlook some other differences. Melvin no doubt knows from experience by now that his perfect manager isn’t out there.
No, the perfect manager isn’t out there, just like the perfect GM doesn’t exist either.
I do have to laugh about how “dummy proofing” the roster just means getting the best players. That concept is going to get Joe Torre into the Hall of Fame. He might be the ultimate example of a guy who was a tactical idiot, but had great rosters that covered up for his deficiencies and had the mentality to maintain a good clubhouse (and that is an incredible skill in New York).
Anyway, Doug Melvin has a solid manager in Ron Roenicke and they have what appears to be a good working relationship. The Brewers still function as the same type of team during any other point in Melvin’s tenure even if Roenicke may be too fond of “small ball” cliches. He’s on solid ground and it would take some extreme circumstance for that to change anytime soon.