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Success from Manuel won’t be an indictment of analytics

It’s not about analytics, it’s about the message.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The storyline is already out there.

After scoring 11 runs against the Chicago Cubs last night, pounding out 13 hits and smoking three home runs (two by Bryce Harper and a grand slam from J.T. Realmuto), new hitting coach Charlie Manuel is already getting the credit.

And hey, maybe he deserves it. It was certainly a fun night at the ‘ol ballyard and maybe Manuel was a big reason why. It could also be just a coincidence. It would really be something if, by being in the dugout, Manuel magically got this team to go on a blitzkrieg against a very effective starting pitcher in Cole Hamels.

It’s more likely the team struggles to get five hits on Thursday.

Regardless, the offensive outburst that occurred on Cholly’s first night in charge of the bats certainly gives the fanbase a reason to feel giddy, and any praise thrown his way is perfectly justifiable.

Manuel was brought back into the dugout to help change the message. He wants hitters to simplify things and look to hit the ball. It’s a concept that served him well as hitting coach of one of the greatest offenses in baseball history, the late-‘90s Cleveland Indians, and the Phils are hoping he can work a little of that same magic with this group.

But the narrative that has already gotten going is that any success the Phils have under Manuel will be an indictment of analytics.

Folks, there is nothing wrong with analytics. Analytics is simply information based on data. Having information is good. It’s how you use it that’s the key.

On Sunday Night Baseball last week, Alex Rodriguez famously called out Gabe Kapler for not having Nick Pivetta issue an intentional walk to Kevin Pillar after he fell behind in the count 3-1. A-Rod argued that Pillar had been hot recently and, with a base open, Pivetta should have walked him and started fresh with the on-deck hitter, lefty Brandon Crawford, who had been struggling.

After Pillar hit the go-ahead RBI triple, A-Rod called Kapler’s decision “lazy managing,” but on the WIP Morning Show on Wednesday, Kapler defended the move by saying they don’t look at “hot” or “cold” streaks when making a determination on how to approach a particular hitter. They take a longer sample into consideration and, based on the historical data they had, the match-up of Pivetta on Pillar was the right one, given that Pillar was a right-handed hitter and Pivetta struggles against lefties.

In other words, Kapler used one set of data instead of a different set of data to make his decision. It was all analytics, he just chose the wrong data in that moment.

Baseball has long seen managers avoid pitching to “hot” hitters and going after hitters who are slumping. When Rhys Hoskins is mired in one of his month-long tailspins, pitchers should go right after him if they fall behind in the count, because there are times he can’t hit water when he’s standing on sand.

But the villain here is not the analytics, it’s which set of data a person chooses to use.

It’s also about how you transmit that data, and this is where Manuel comes in.

Manuel is not going to come out and use the words “launch angle” or “exit velocity,” but Manuel wants them to do both. He wants them to keep the ball off the ground and hit line drives and deep fly balls. Folks, that’s launch angle. He wants them to hit the ball on the sweet part of the bat. That’s “barreling.” He wants them to hit the ball as hard as they can whenever possible. That’s exit velocity.

But Manuel also knows that, at times, swinging for the fences is the wrong move. When there are two strikes, you have to cut down on your swing. When pitchers start working hitters on the outer half of the plate, hitters need to take the pitch the other way to defeat that scouting report.

Manuel also knows that if you give certain players too much information, it’s going to overload their craniums. And most hitters will tell you that, if they’re thinking too much at the plate, they’re liable to get themselves out.

So it’s not the analytics that’s the problem, it’s the approach and how you use it.

You don’t want the Phillies to go backwards. You don’t want the Phillies to go back to the Stone Age. You don’t want the team focusing on batting average and RBIs. If the Phillies do that, they will fail.

The Dodgers, Red Sox, Astros, Cubs and Yankees, as well as every other successful team in the Majors, uses analytics every single day. The difference is they know how to use it better.

The Phils are still playing catch-up from the Ruben Amaro era and, in the case of John Mallee at least, there appeared to be a disconnect in the messaging and delivery. But knowing how Hoskins is spraying the ball, knowing which pitchers he matches up best against and which pitches he’s struggling with, is all good.

Manuel will certainly not eschew that type of information. He will take it in and then perhaps find a better way of relaying that information to his hitters in a way that doesn’t cause them to melt down inside the batters box.

Success by the hitters under Charlie Manuel shouldn’t demonize “analytics.” Like money, analytics is a good thing. It’s how you use it that matters.

On Episode 310 of Hittin’ Season, Ellen Adair joined me to discuss Charlie’s first night back in the dugout, what it means for Gabe Kapler and Matt Klentak and the Phillies’ use of analytics in the modern game.