(Brewers manager Ron Roenicke (right) with bench coach Jerry Narron; Image: Reuters)
Believe it or not, Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke is already the second-longest tenured manager in the NL Central. Roenicke’s three seasons in charge at Miller Park have been inconsistent, to say the least. In his first year, 2011, the team improved by 19 games, won the division, and reached the NLCS. Roenicke was runner-up in the NL Manager of the Year voting, finishing just behind Arizona’s Kirk Gibson. Yet, as Brewers fans are painfully aware, the team has regressed in each of the past two years, slipping below .500 and into fourth place last season. Assessing the impact that a manager has on a team’s success is always imprecise, and Roenicke is no exception. Yet ultimately, it seems that Roenicke is probably just about an average manager.
One way to judge a manager’s success is with Expected Win-Loss Record. This number, also known as the Pythagorean Win-Loss Record, was developed by Bill James to project a team’s record based on its run differential. For the purposes of our discussion of managers, it is reasonable to infer that a manager who significantly outperforms his team’s Expected Record did a good job maximizing his team’s potential. Conversely, a manager that does worse than his Expected Record may have made questionable moves that failed to get the most out of a talented team. While this measure is by no means a perfect way to assess managerial performance, it gives us a framework for the conversation. Based on Expected Record, Roenicke has had a marginal impact during his tenure. Over the past two years, the Brewers have had a combined four fewer wins than they would be expected to have. However, the 96 games Roenicke won in 2011 were five more than he was projected to get. This 2011 difference turned out to be significant. Had Milwaukee conformed to its Expected Record, they would have won only 91 games, and would therefore have ceded home-field advantage in the NLDS to Arizona. Yet despite this instance of success, looking at the full three years indicates that Roenicke has been pretty ordinary. Over his 486 regular-season matchups, the Brewers have outperformed the Expected Record by just one game. In short, they have practically conformed to their statistics.
Evaluating Roenicke’s pinch-hitter selections is similarly inconclusive. Interestingly, Roenicke goes to the bench more than most managers. It stands to reason that, without the Designated Hitter, National League skippers need to pinch-hit more frequently than those in the American League. Yet even compared with his Senior Circuit counterparts, Roenicke utilizes pinch hitters quite often. His 282 bench selections led the majors in 2012, and he had the 5th-most pinch-hit attempts last season. However these selections have been only moderately successful. Last year Brewers’ pinch hitters batted .210, placing them at 16th overall. Such a middle-of-the-pack result was consistent with Roenicke’s first two seasons, when his picks had the 11th- and 15th-highest batting averages respectively. While this stat provides an imperfect assessment of managerial success – some managers have better players to use as pinch hitters than others – it does reveal that Roenicke does not distinguish himself as being particularly good or particularly bad.
As noted, attempting to quantify a manager’s success gets pretty frustrating. The two metrics used here both have notable flaws. Further, it was fruitless to even try to analyze another key aspect of managerial strategy, bullpen decisions, because so much is dependent on the pitchers themselves. The key portion of a manager’s contribution comes from off-field intangibles. If Roenicke can seamlessly manage the Ryan Braun controversy within the Brewers’ clubhouse this spring, he will have earned his paycheck. However, it is difficult to say that Roenicke has a tangible or quantifiable impact on Milwaukee’s on-field performance.