Yesterday, Russell Carleton took a stab at quantifying the value a manager can add (or take away) from his team's on-field performance. For as long as I have been attentive to the publicly available research being done in baseball, every attempt at assessing the impact a manager has on his team's win-loss record has ended with the conclusion that we really don't have any idea how to properly evaluate managerial ability. In that light, it's nice to see research that concludes with some evaluative claims even if the observed effect is small.
In the past year, Ryne Sandberg has endured a lot of flak around these parts of the internet for his rigid bullpen usage, his penchant for letting starters rack up obscene pitch counts, and his general old-school approach. Some (myself included) have even stooped so low as to question his intellectual capabilities. It's wrong and lazy of us to levy the latter criticism, but that they are levied reflects the low level of confidence many of us have in his suitability for his job.
What Carleton's article suggests is that Sandberg might be providing some tangible value to the Phillies that we hadn't noticed before. Aside from in-game strategies such as bullpen management, defensive shifts, baserunning decisions, and pinch hitter usage, managers are also responsible for making sure their players are healthy and able to perform at a high level over the course of a long season.
It turns out, Sandberg might be good at maintaining his hitters' ability over the long grind of the MLB schedule. Carleton found a high year-to-year correlation on a manager's ability to maintain his hitters' plate discipline, measured by strike-avoidance. I'll confess that I don't entirely understand, and therefore can't here explain, the math underlying Carleton's conclusion, but the conclusion is that Sandberg is the best at maintaining his team's plate discipline throughout the season.
Specifically, Carleton provides a value that fits the following statement: "Given a batter-pitcher matchup that would result in an overall 50/50 chance on Opening Day of a pitch resulting in a not-strike, a player who had manager X would have this percentage of avoiding strikes by mid-season." Sandberg outclasses he peers in this regard with a 50.5% chance of avoiding strikes. The next best was Brewers manager Ron Roenicke at 50.3%. He has this to say about Sandberg:
For what it’s worth, Sandberg led the league in 2013 as well. He might have been given a team that was only good for a sub-.500 record, but they didn’t fade on his watch. (In case you don’t remember -- and let’s be honest, no one does -- Buck Showalter received the AL award last year, and Matt Williams took it home in the NL) Maybe Ryno deserves a second look. Maybe we all need to take a second look at how we think about managers.
While a difference of 0.2% might seem negligible, Carleton notes that a difference of 0.1% represents about 22 additional balls over the course of a season, which translates to something like 2.2 additional runs. That means that, in 2014, Sandberg was 4.4 runs better than the next best manager and 11 runs better than average. In other words, Sandberg may have helped the Phillies win an additional game or two because of his ability to keep hitters fresh. For what it's worth, Charlie Manuel rates highly over a 2010-2014 sample, so maybe the Phillies are on to something. Or maybe they just got lucky two times in a row.
With Sandberg in particular, it would be nice to see a similar study on the managerial effect on a pitcher's ability to throw strikes as a season goes on. I think our collective gut would assume Sandberg, because of his tendency to perhaps overuse his starters, would rate poorly here.
Regardless, we now have hard, quantifiable evidence that Ryne Sandberg might not be a terrible manager. Entering the dark days of the 2015 season, any suggestion that the Phillies are better than other teams at something should be taken with undue amounts of joy.