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Beyond the Hype: Torre and Manuel

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My guess is that if you polled a thousand baseball fans as to who was a better manager between Dodgers head man Joe Torre and Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel, you’d get about 997 responses for Torre, with perhaps a three-vote margin of error. And on the merits, this makes some sense: after all, Torre has four world championships on his resume. He's a nationally known icon who stars in credit card commercials in which he does yoga. This recent Hardball Times article pegged him as the current manager perhaps most likely to gain baseball immortality in Cooperstown, New York; for much of his Philadelphia tenure, Manuel was probably the current manager most likely to become a former manager. Torre won the high esteem of the press and public in New York with his mastery of the postgame press conference; Manuel endured relentless mockery from Philadelphia’s baseball scribes, and his most famous press conference moment was when he threatened to give Howard Eskin a supremely deserved ass-kicking.

But stripped away of their press notices, accents and regionalisms, and past job postings (Torre managed both New York teams; Manuel ran the Indians), these are surprisingly similar baseball men—both in methods and outcomes. As David—stealing my thunder—mentioned in a piece earlier today, Manuel has the slightly higher career winning percentage, with a .543 rate (574-484) to Torre’s .538 (2151-1848). Manuel has just one losing campaigns—actually, a half-season in 2002—in his seven seasons as a manager; Torre has seven (one of which was a half-season) in his 25 years at the helm, though the first six of those were in his forgettable managerial bow with the Mets in the late ’70s and early ‘80s.

They have similar strengths and weaknesses: both gain plaudits for “running a good clubhouse” and maintaining the confidence of their players, but do so without coming across as pushovers. Both show a slight bias toward veteran players—sticking with guys like Geoff Jenkins and So Taguchi and Juan Pierre and Nomar Garciaparra longer than recent performance necessarily dictated was wise—but ultimately do the smart thing and make decisions informed by recent events. 

Though Torre is sometimes identified as a “National League manager”—notwithstanding that his Yankee tenure elevated him from just another baseball lifer to a future Hall of Famer—and Manuel as an American League thinker, their tactical predilections are pretty similar. The Baseball Prospectus 2008 annual wrote this about Torre:

Returning to the National League should not mean that Torre will let his heretofore repressed small-ball desires run wild. Torre has never been a big fan of the bunt. However, he just might run himself out of an inning or two. He is very aware of the double play on offense and, when not using the straight steal, will often put on the hit-and-run, though ironically that will sometimes result in strikeout/caught stealing or lineout double plays.

The same publication wrote the following about Manuel:

He’s not a hyperactive tactician; he’s not big on one-run strategies and bunts infrequently for a National League manager, though he was more aggressive on the bases last year, both with straight steals and the hit-and-run. With the league’s best lineup two years running, it would have been counterproductive for him to do more.

Indeed, both men utilized speed this season: the Phillies finished third in the National League with 136 steals in 161 attempts, for a success rate of 84 percent, while the Dodgers were fourth with 126 steals in 169 tries, a 75 percent success rate. Manuel pinch-hit a bit more (253 at-bats, second in the NL) than did Torre (236, 8th), but this might have been a function of the greater success Phils bench bats enjoyed—a .253 average, second in the league, compared to .233 (t-7th) for Dodger pinch-hitters.

Probably it could be argued that Torre's 2008 managerial performance was one of his best, despite a regular-season win total of 84 that was his lowest in a full season since 1992, when his Cardinals won 83. Despite a run of injuries to key players that easily could have derailed his team, Torre kept the Dodgers close enough that a lineup reinforced late by the additions of Manny Ramirez and Casey Blake prevailed in the end, and he looked to the future of the team by using, but not abusing, prized rookie pitcher Clayton Kershaw among other high-ceiling young talents. Manuel had an easier time in some ways, though his steady hand probably had more to do with the Phillies surviving their summer offensive outage than is generally recognized. His work last year, when the team overcame a rash of injuries comparable to what the Dodgers endured this season, might have been his best effort—but with a new contract and the best collection of arms in his four years on the job, 2008 represented  Manuel’s most assured managerial performance.

None of this is to say that either team has a clear edge in the dugout; simply that the regard for Torre as a near-infallible baseball genius compared to the dismissal or disdain generally directed toward Manuel is, like so much else surrounding this series, a simplification at best and a distortion at worst. Most clubs would be happy to have the leadership of either of these guys—in part because they offer such similar strengths.