It seems that every game, Ryne Sandberg calls for (at least) one questionable bunt that, due to a combination of poor percentage-playing and horrific execution, costs the Phillies a chance to score a rare run.
Last night, that moment came in the 8th inning, when Cody Asche came up to the plate with one out and runners on the corners in a game tied at zero. Never mind that Asche has been one of the Phillies' best hitters in the early-going with a 139 OPS+, this situation somehow demanded a bunt. It's unclear what the goal of that bunt was. Was Chase Utley going to scamper home as the Braves stood around in amazement at the tactical brilliance of this Sandbergian ploy? Was Asche sacrificing himself to advance Jeff Francoeur to second to get two runners in scoring position with two outs?
While the intentions behind the bunt remain unclear, it is abundantly clear that the call was the wrong one independent of execution. According to data from 1993-2010, there is a 65% chance a run will score in an inning when runners are at first and third and one out. Say Asche didn't intend to score Utley with the bunt, but simply advance Frenchy to second on a sacrifice. In that outcome, which seems the most likely, the Phillies chances of scoring in the inning would drop to 28%. Factor in that the Phillies offense is well below average in 2015 and that the data for these probabilities comes from an era of high offense, and the decision to bunt looks even more bizarre.
But this isn't really about that bunt. It is about the post-game discussion of that decision. When asked about that eighth inning play after the game, Sandberg said that he would have preferred Asche swing away, and the bunt was of Asche's volition, according to The Inquirer's Matt Breen. Regardless of the truth of that statement--though I find it difficult to believe that Sandberg's call for bunts in similar situations throughout the season coupled with his continued stressing of smallball and fundamentals didn't significantly influence Asche's decision-making process--good managers don't typically deflect blame onto their players.
On Thursday, Grantland's Michael Baumann engaged in a thought experiment to construct the perfect manager. In so doing, he identified seven traits--some more serious than others--that contribute to managerial success. Those traits are man management, lineup construction, pitcher usage, in-game tactics, relationship with the front office, relationship with the media, and swearing.
Sandberg does one, maybe two of those things well: cultivating a positive relationship with the media and carrying out the wishes of the front office. Unfortunately, those are probably two of the least important responsibilities of a manager.
Regarding the four most important categories, Sandberg performs poorly on his best days and horrendously on most others. The lightning-round critique of his acumen in those four categories goes like this: All the failed bunts cast serious doubt on his ability to make the proper tactical decisions to increase his team's chances of winning; Jake Diekman, has faced 237 right-handed hitters, who hit .338 against him, and only 108 left-handed hitters, who hit .241 off him, since the start of last season; until recently, Sandberg stubbornly slotted Ryan Howard into the 4th spot in the batting order despite declining production; blaming Cody Asche for a poor in-game decision.
That last development is the first tangible evidence that Sandberg doesn't have the man management aspect of managing down either. There have been rumblings that the atmosphere in the Phillies locker room wasn't great last year, but it was unclear how much of that blame fell on Sandberg. Last night, Sandberg provided information suggesting he doesn't understand the manager-player relationship. Can you imagine Charlie Manuel blaming an in-game decision on a player? Across the street, Andy Reid took the blame for all in-game wrongdoings to a comical extent.
While Charlie and Andy Reid certainly had their faults, there was never any doubt that they commanded the respect and love of their players. In baseball, where game-plans and in-game tactics are less important than in the three other American Big Four sports, player management assumes a unique importance, so much so that it is very possible that it is the most important duty of a baseball skipper.
That duty becomes even more essential when managing a losing team. The difference between a good players' manager and a bad one can be the difference between a clubhouse where players feel comfortable and relaxed and the disaster of the Bobby Valentine-managed 2012 Red Sox. It's no secret that the Phillies, organizationally, are more focused on transitioning responsibilities over to younger players in 2015. Those players will have many on-field adjustments to make as they advance to the majors and it doesn't behoove the Phillies to have a clubhouse environment that adds even more adversity to that experience.
If Sandberg isn't going to be a good in-game tactician, he needs to at least be a players' manager. The 2015 Phillies aren't trying to squeeze out an extra win or two from savvy bullpen usage and optimal lineup construction, so those sins can be forgiven. What can't be tolerated, however, is any indication that Sandberg does not provide an environment 100% conducive to developing the younger players who are currently on the roster as well as those who will be on the roster by the end of the season.
Throwing Cody Asche, or any player, under the bus for making a poor in-game decision will not contribute to the creation of that environment. Like Andy Reid or Charlie Manuel, a good manager needs to absorb the blame for whatever might go wrong in the course of a game so that the players can focus on the next game and feel comfortable and loose on the field. If Sandberg can't assure that those conditions are met, he is not the manager the Phillies need at this stage in their developmental process, or ever, really. Even though the season is young, the leash on Ryne Sandberg should already be getting quite short, or, as Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh termed it on their Effectively Wild podcast, his chair should already feel pretty wobbly.