Phillies manager Pete Mackanin has been at the helm of the rebuilding Phillies for more than two full years now, and if you judged his tenure by wins and losses alone, it wouldn’t be pretty. He has gone 170-237 (.418) since taking over for Ryne Sandberg in the middle of 2015, certainly not a sparkling record.
But no one has been judging Mackanin on wins and losses. He hasn’t been expected to win a lot of ballgames, and with 95 losses already on the team’s ledger, they’re battling the San Francisco Giants and the Detroit Tigers for the worst record in baseball. The team can still hit 100 losses with a really bad final week.
The assessment of whether Mackanin has been a successful manager or not goes beyond the numbers. Are players developing? Is the atmosphere in the locker room conducive to winning? Does his usage of the bullpen make sense? Is his lineup construction giving the team the best chance to win every night?
No matter what the fans may think, the Phillies front office undoubtedly has their own opinion of Mackanin’s job performance. General manager Matt Klentak talked last week about his manager, and while it’s important to read the things he said about his skipper, it’s also important to note the things not said.
"When we signed him to the extension, the intention was to take the drama out of both this year and next year," Klentak said. "Beyond that we'll have to see, but I think when we signed Pete that was right in the beginning stages of our struggles. The fact that he and his staff were able to weather the storm and get us going on the right track was really important for us this season.
"Everything I've said about Pete at various times is still the case. He and I will get together either late in the year or right after the season is over and talk about the rest of the staff and how we move forward."
Klentak noted that Mackanin is under contract for 2018, with a club option for 2019, and that the team didn’t want to have any drama regarding the manager heading into next year. He noted Pete was able to “weather the storm” of May and June (in which the team went 15-40), and said he would get together with Mackanin after the season to “talk about the rest of the staff” for next year.
That sure sounds like Klentak is expecting to bring Mackanin back, and that conversations will revolve around the position and bench coaches. But the words you didn’t read are “Absolutely, Pete Mackanin is our manager next year. No question about it.”
Apparently, that distinction was not lost on Mackanin, who said ahead of the Phils’ series opener against the Washington Nationals, that he wasn’t sure if he was going to be back next year.
"I'm signed through next year," Mackanin said on Monday. "I assume I'll be here, but you never know. You never know what they're going to do. So you just keep moving on. I just take it a day at a time and manage the way I think I should manage and handle players the way I think I should handle them. That's all I can do. If it's not good enough then … fine. I hope it's good enough. I hope he thinks it's good enough."
It’s fair to wonder why there would be any question about Mackanin returning for 2018. After all, the Phils did sign him to an extension that guarantees he will paid to manage the team next season, no matter what. And ever since Mackanin was given better baseball players to use, the team has gone 33-37 since the All-Star Break.
Yes, the team is leaking oil here as the 2017 season winds down, but that is likely due to a young roster running out of gas as they reach career highs in games played.
However, heading into the 2018 season without a guarantee for 2019 would essentially make him a lame duck manager. And while that is how he entered this season, there was never any doubt he was going to finish the 2017 season as the team’s manager. And, the franchise is not in the same position now as they were at the start of this year.
The rebuild is nearing its end (we hope!). The team is expected to invest in the roster a bit this off-season, and the expectation is that the team will spend big money following next year. The emphasis will be on winning games. Has Mackanin shown them enough to prove that he deserves to be the guy to continue on after the rebuild is done?
It appears at times as if Mackanin has a hard time getting over a previously established opinion of a player, even when facts indicate his previous assumptions are incorrect. Take his comments about Aaron Nola last night, for example.
“Nola has really established himself,” Mackanin said pregame. “To me, he’s a solid No. 3 starter.”
A No. 3 starter? Among qualified NL starting pitchers this year, Nola’s fWAR ranks 7th (4.3) and his bWAR is 8th (4.5), and that is in just 168 innings. His NL ERA is 12th-best (3.54), his Deserved Run Average (DRA) is 2nd (2.57) and his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is 6th (3.26).
Nola isn’t a No. 1, but he’s clearly a No. 2. And if that’s what Mackanin thinks is a No. 3 starter in MLB, I’m not sure anyone other than Clayton Kershaw rates as a No. 1. Mackanin has also oversold the ability of players like Tommy Joseph and Freddy Galvis this year, although much of that is likely because of how much those guys bring to the locker room and his personal relationship with those players.
Other issues include watching Mackanin bat Galvis, a man with an on-base percentage of .303 entering Tuesday, in the No. 2 hole over and over again. His bullpen usage earlier in the season, waffling back and forth between Jeanmar Gomez, Joaquin Benoit and Hector Neris, was frustratingly haphazard. And his handling of Odubel Herrera has been a point of contention for many, however, while the knucklehead stuff has been frustrating, the center fielder has hit .326/.385/.567 in the second half of the season. So perhaps Mackanin handled all that just fine.
Would the Phils be better served to have a manager who thinks more outside-the-box, who is less traditional in his lineup construction? Or will Mackanin get one more season to show that his interpersonal skills, his decades in the game, and his ability to communicate with players will translate into more victories, now that he has more talent with which to work?
It’s hard to envision a scenario in which Mackanin won’t be back next year. But in baseball, you never know.