Even in his best days Charlie Manuel was never seen as an in-game tactical genius, but since Opening Day 2012, he's received especially harsh criticism from certain quarters (including myself) for his strategic blunders. And rightfully so: his decision-making has been even poorer than usual over that time period, in my view. Yet he deserves a small pat on the back this season for one thing, and that's giving reasonably frequent off-days to his starting infielders in the early going.
The reasons why this has been a wise course of action are obvious. Ryan Howard has had a gimpy ankle since 2011, and he missed nearly all of 2012 following an Achilles tendon blowout. Chase Utley's bad knees have prevented him from reaching 120 games in any season since 2009. And while Jimmy Rollins and Michael Young have been reasonably durable for the last few seasons, they are 34 and 36 years old, respectively. There may not be a scientific formula that tells us exactly how many days off a given player should get, but common sense suggests that these guys should, at the very least, get more than the average starter in MLB.
And they have. The Phillies just finished a stretch of seventeen games in seventeen days. Over that stretch, Charlie gave Howard three days off (albeit only one that was voluntary, as he had a sore groin for the other two), Utley two days off, Rollins one day off, and Young two days off. They might have pinch-hit or played an inning or two in the field on those days, of course, but they didn't start.
It probably sounds like faint praise to congratulate Charlie for using common sense, and maybe it is. But the fact is that in the past, he always, always had a gigantic blind spot about resting his starters. Try doing a Google search for Charlie with the words "number one priority." That's been one of his favorite buzzphrases over the years, and I'll bet you that you'll find multiple occasions in which he's used it for the specific purpose of saying "Yeah yeah I know guys need to get rest, but my number one priority is to win tonight's game."
If you don't think it through carefully, that "number one priority" stuff can sound like wisdom, because it's sort of reminiscent of the "bird in the hand is worth two in the bushes" concept. "A bird in the hand" can, at times, be a useful guide to managing. For instance, it teaches us that if you're all tied in the ninth inning of a game on the road, then it's dumb to save your closer for a save situation, seeing as how you don't know that a save situation will ever develop at all (for instance, perhaps your offense will score four runs in the top of the tenth). Make sure you win the inning in which you know that game will be hanging in the balance, because you don't know if anything will be hanging in the balance in future innings.
But deciding whether to rest your starters in a particular game isn't like that. That's because you can be sure (more or less) that another 80, 120, 160 games will remain in the season after that game. That isn't speculation - it is, for all practical purposes, a certainty. Neglecting to rest your starters isn't capturing a bird in the hand; it's playing Russian roulette with the remainder of the season.
Thankfully, Charlie may have learned something here (or at least we can hope). That doesn't mean he deserves a good overall grade for his managerial performance so far in 2013. But not every post about Charlie has to evaluate his overall performance. Sometimes it's okay to take note of individual data points.