About one year ago today, Ron Roenicke was hired to manage the Brewers, replacing the much-maligned Ken Macha. At the time of his hiring, there were plenty of questions about Roenicke as a manager: How would his plan to be more aggressive on the field and in the bases work when put into practice? Would he be able to keep hold of the clubhouse through the season, as his predecessor allegedly failed to do? Will his post-game interviews make at least a little bit of sense?
One year plus two postseason series later, not all the questions have been answered (a good few have been added, in fact), but most Brewers fans have a much better idea of what kind of manager Roenicke is. Today, we’re going to look back at how the man known as Runnin’ Ron ran his ballclub this season, and what we can expect going forward.
(Just to clarify, this article is going to be referring only to the on-field decisions that Roenicke made. Other intangible factors such as communication are tremendously important, but we don’t have nearly enough information on that topic to cover it intelligently.)
We’ll start off with what probably is Roenicke’s best-known characteristic as a manager: His supposed predilection for running and other small ball tactics. A lot of eyebrows were raised after he said (about his desire to emphasize “small ball”, namely running more often), “That’s the style I like to play. Lots of guys will get thrown out, but we’ll also score a lot of runs.”
Things didn’t quite turn out that way. The Brewers did score their share of runs (4.45 per game, good for 11th in MLB), but were only moderately aggressive on the bases while, by all indications, choosing their opportunities very wisely. The Roenicke-led Brewers were actually below average in the number of steals they attempted (125 attempts, compared with a league average of 131), but were successful 75.2% of the time, above the league average of 72.2% and right in the 75-80% success zone, generally agreed upon by sabermetricians as the point where steals begin to positively affect a team’s run total.
Also, the vast majority of the Brewers steals were attempted by efficient base thieves such as Ryan Braun (85% success) and Nyjer Morgan (76%). (On the flip side, Casey McGehee attempted three steals this season, which could be taken either as an egregious tactical error or proof that Roenicke has a sense of humor.) All told, the Brewers had a fine season on the bases, with the eighth-most runs gained on the bases in MLB, according to Baseball Prospectus, and Roenicke, along with his coaching staff, deserves credit for putting his players in position to succeed there.
Sticking with small-ball, we briefly turn our attention to the bunt. The Brewers had 85 sacrifice bunts on the season, well above the league average of 71 and a sharp contrast to the mere 31 that Ken Macha ordered up last year. The bunt can be a great source of frustration for fans when used in excess. A closer look reveals that the position players (who account for 43 of the 85 sac bunts) called on to move runners over were almost exclusively weaker bats such as Carlos Gomez or Craig Counsell, which makes the decision a little more understandable, but still probably in the category of “self-defeating”. If Prince Fielder’s imminent departure leaves the Brewers lineup lacking its usual punch, we can only hope that a flurry of Scioscia-ball tactics is not Roenicke’s preferred method of compensating.
Though the running and bunting Roenicke called for stood in sharp contrast to most fans’ recent memories, the new Brewers skipper followed the batting order used in years past surprisingly closely, usually putting Nyjer Morgan into the second spot, batting Yuniesky Betancourt sixth, and leaving the rest of the lineup intact well into the summer. Later on, he began to account for the struggles of Betancourt and Casey McGehee by dropping them down, then flipping Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart. If all this seems like a whole lot of “meh” to you, that’s actually a good thing, as the construction of a team’s lineup shouldn’t draw much attention unless the team or the lineup has a problem. Game 3 of the NLCS, where Roenicke arguably undid most of the sound decisions he made in the summer, would be a pretty good example of this.
In a similar vein, an area I was very interested to see Roenicke manage was the Brewers bullpen, which Ken Macha actually did an excellent job with during his tenure in Milwaukee. However, Doug Melvin was able to assemble an excellent relief corps that, for most of the year, left Roenicke with very few tough decisions to make. John Axford was lights out for about 73 of his 74 games this season, while Takashi Saito, LaTroy Hawkins, and Francisco Rodriguez had every inning from the fifth on covered if Roenicke needed them. It’s very hard to look like anything less than a genius with such a deep late-inning corps (of course, not as much of a genius as Tony La Russa), but some questionable moves were routinely made in the first half of the season, when Saito was injured and Rodriguez was closing games for the New York Mets.
With no other solid eighth-inning option, Roenicke decided to turn to Kameron Loe to do the setup work. This wouldn’t have necessarily been a bad thing if Roenicke had not thrown Loe almost every single day (causing him to rack up a ridiculous 44 innings before the all star break) and in situations that were far from optimal, frequently leaving him in against big left-handed hitters (who have hit him to the tune of .305/.363/.474 for his career) when he had no lefty available. Then, after racking up seven losses in the season’s first half, Loe was banished to a vague ground-ball-specialist role and rarely seen again, throwing just 18 innings the rest of the year. This could be waved off as a rookie manager learning as the season goes on, but if a couple of 2011’s bullpen stalwarts aren’t back, the problems Roenicke showed in the first half of the season could easily manifest themselves again.
Even if Kotsay-gate left you with bad feelings towards Roenicke, it’s hard to argue that his first year as manager could have gone much better. Some of the tactics he employed are certainly debatable, but in a season where he led a new team to within two games of the World Series, he obviously did more than a few things right. However, next year will bring numerous changes to the team, and not all for the better. What Roenicke can do with the remains of this year’s playoff team in a season the Brewers will be expected to contend will be an even tougher test of his managerial chops.