Sometimes, we forget that this is Ryne Sandberg's first time doing this.
The first 82 games of the season, just past the official half-way point of the 2014 season, is a good time to take stock in what we've seen so far. And most of it hasn't been pretty.
The offense has been, to put it kindly, wildly inconsistent. The defense has been spotty. The starting rotation has lost its best pitcher, and the bullpen has been better than expected. Some of the veterans have mostly done what was expected of them, while some have been only average. And many of the young position players have not developed the way the team was hoping.
It all adds up to a Phillies team in last place, 10 games under .500, with the third-worst run differential in the National League.
Ryne Sandberg is the man at the helm of this ship. He's the one who writes the lineup cards, who makes the in-game decisions, and makes the pitching changes. But how much of the Phillies' struggles are his fault and/or responsibility?
In my opinion, not much.
Sandberg has his good points and bad points. He is not a "modern" manager, despite being one of the league's younger skippers and from a more recent generation than the very old-school Charlie Manuel. He believes in "playing the game the right way," which is fine if you can figure out what that even means. He has stressed focus on the fundamentals, put reminder signs in the clubhouse imploring players to "play the right way," and has stressed holding veterans more accountable.
All those things are fine, if they are actually things that are achievable. But most of them are somewhat nebulous, and it's unclear how those things actually help a team win baseball games. The culture inside the locker room is a difficult thing for a manager to be in total control of, especially when that team is underachieving.
Obviously, talent trumps all, and the Phillies either don't have the right mix of it, and/or not enough of it. And there's only so much a manager can do with a lack of talent.
But what about the things that are within his control? On those items, Sandberg has been a mixed bag so far this season.
His focus on maximizing lefty-righty match-ups in the lineup is a good thing, as evidenced by John Mayberry's excellent first half. Some of his lineup machinations have been a bit confusing, such as hitting Wil Nieves in the two-hole when Carlos Ruiz is out of the lineup (although to be fair, Nieves has hit .429/.429/.786 in 15 plate appearances in the two-hole), but with no true leadoff hitter and a lineup almost completely devoid of power, his seemingly never-ending quest to find a lineup that works is understandable.
Ryne also took a lot of heat early in the season for his mysterious bullpen usage. For all his awareness of lefty-righty splits with his lineup, he seemed oblivious to those same splits when it came to his bullpen. Early on, he used vulnerable right-handed relievers against left-handed hitters, and vice versa, resulting in some late inning bullpen blowups that cost the Phils a couple games early.
However, maybe Sandberg was merely seeing what all those young arms in the 'pen were capable of early on. If so, that has seemed to bear fruit, as Jake Diekman, Justin De Fratus, Mario Hollands, and now Ken Giles have performed better against both righties and lefties. It's still annoying that Sandberg, like Manuel before him, won't use Jonathan Papelbon in a tie game on the road, but that's an old-school approach to bullpen usage that isn't likely to change anytime soon.
The most alarming aspect of Sandberg's managing so far has been the over-use of Cole Hamels this season.
Cole Hamels has thrown 120 or more pitches in 4 of his last 9 starts after throwing 120 pitches in just 9 of his first 260 career starts.— Reuben Frank (@RoobCSN) June 22, 2014
The Phillies have invested a lot of money in Hamels' health, and the number of pitches on Cole's odometer this year are a bit alarming.
Also, as noted in this piece by Scott Butler on PhilsBaseball.com, some of Sandberg's personnel decisions have been mysterious, with two prime examples he notes in last week's series against the Marlins. In the first game of the series, Sandberg gave the struggling Domonic Brown a "mental break" with a day off on that Tuesday. However, that "mental break" lasted just one day, with Brown back in the lineup on Wednesday.
In that game, a Brown error in left field opened the floodgates to three Marlins runs, resulting in a 3-2 loss to the Fish. Brown was then benched the following day. Would Brown have been better served by taking a few days off? Isn't that more of a true "mental break?"
Then on Thursday, with Cole Hamels due to hit in the bottom of the 7th, down 3-2, and Ben Revere on 1st with no one out, Hamels came up in a clear sacrifice situation, having thrown 98 pitches. However, Sandberg pulled Hamels from the game and sent Tony Gwynn to the plate. Gwynn then sacrificed Revere to second, needlessly burning a bench player when Hamels could have done the same exact job and kept Gwynn as an option for another situation later in the game.
I have no problem with pulling Hamels at 98 pitches, especially given all the work he's gotten this year. And the Phils ended up winning the game 5-3. But sometimes the process is as important as the result, and in this case, Sandberg should have left his starter up at the plate if he was going to have that hitter sacrifice Revere over anyway.
Are those two examples, noted by Butler, first-year managerial growing pains? Maybe. And why didn't Larry Bowa, the bench coach with two managerial stints under his belt, advise him to keep Hamels at the plate to perform the sacrifice? Maybe he did, but who knows?
Sandberg appears to be a patient manager, and patience is a good thing. He'll need that patience when dealing with an underachieving club. It's likely some players will be on the way out, and it will be fascinating to see how he handles a clubhouse in a season in which there is no hope of playoff contention.
Last year, when the season became a lost cause, the clubhouse fell apart, as noted by Hamels prior to this season. Can Sandberg keep the team playing hard?
At the end of the day, it seems clear Ryne still has some growing to do as a manager. And it's only fair to give him time to do that. He doesn't exactly have a lot to work with, despite the nearly $180 million payroll. And it's fair to wonder just how much of an impact a manager has on wins and losses anyway, especially when that talent is so thin.
Overall, Sandberg's performance in the first half has been uneven. He hasn't been bad, but he also hasn't done anything to change the culture, improve upon the team's fundamentals, and has raised eyebrows with some of his in-game decisions.
In short, this season isn't Ryne Sandberg's fault, and he's still in just his first full season as the team's skipper. But it's also still unclear if he's the long-term answer, either.