Brewers flourishing under Ron Roenicke
First-year manager has subtly made moves to improve the Brew Crew this season
It's 1984 and Game 5 of the World Series in Tiger Stadium. The whole city of Detroit is going nuts because, just a few minutes before, the Tigers' Kirk Gibson did his thing -- blasting a bomb off a future Hall of Fame closer (Goose Gossage), and making it look easy.
There's a lone Padre on the bases as the last ball gets caught. Like Gibson, he's a former first-round draft pick, but there the resemblance ends. Pinch runner Ron Roenicke is a bum-kneed backup, one who has already been released twice by this point. After getting only a September call-up, he was a late addition to the San Diego Padres' postseason roster.
Playing in the World Series will wind up as the highlight of his career. Way down on what will be a sparse list of achievements is his inclusion on Bill James' original "Ken Phelps All-Star Team" in the 1987 Baseball Abstract -- the great sabermetrician identifies Roenicke as an unflashy player who will do all sorts of things to help a team win.
It will not be the last time Roenicke deserves attention for doing all sorts of things that help his team win.
It also will not be his last brush with Kirk Gibson.
Twenty-seven years later, Ron Roenicke is the rookie manager of the first-place Milwaukee Brewers, and he's a week from skippering his first postseason series. He's far from ignorant of the challenges involved, having been a coach for Mike Scioscia's Angels for 11 seasons and six postseasons.
As Scioscia's third-base coach and later his bench coach, Roenicke was one of the key tacticians responsible for helping inculcate a successful organizational approach that stressed tactical aggressiveness on offense, among other things stretching defenses by pushing baserunners (if not always base stealing). Six of Scioscia's 11 teams rank in the top 10 percent of all MLB teams recorded in the Retrosheet era (1950-present) in getting extra benefit from advancing on base hits, including the highest mark yet, the 2006 Angels. That sort of crude aggregation isn't useful as a suggestion -- it doesn't assess all of the benefits of a ground game's impact of challenging defenders to execute under pressure, of pitchers changing their assortments or deliveries, of the friction that pushing players around the diamond creates on defenses, especially the sloppy ones.
The relationship between Scioscia and Roenicke goes back to their playing days with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Two decades later, in the offseason of 1999, Scioscia defected to manage the crosstown Angels; one of his first hires for the coaching staff was Roenicke. They were joined by pitching coach Bud Black and bench coach Joe Maddon (a Halos holdover). The four were together for the Angels' World Series win in 2002 before Maddon left to become the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2006 and Black departed to become the manager of the Padres in 2007. Scioscia, Maddon and Black have won manager of the year awards, and Roenicke could well join them at some point.
Roenicke is every bit as unflashy as a manager as he had been as a player. After a sloppy mid-September loss to the Rockies, he blandly told those in the media room that "there's always a concern, but we'll get out of it and start playing good ball again."
He is not the man to flamboyantly fulfill the modern manager's role as franchise front man. But whatever pizzazz Roenicke doesn't give the Fourth Estate he instead delivers from the dugout. In an era when managers don't get too involved with in-game tactics -- especially on offense -- Roenicke isn't simply a product of the "Angels way" but is one of its original practitioners. Like Black and Maddon and Scioscia, he's one of baseball's most aggressive in-game managers; the polite off-field baseball lifer becomes a tactical cutthroat. He will find a way to beat you, and the more ways he has at his disposal, the better to keep you guessing, reacting and one step behind.
Roenicke came into the job saying he was going to import the Angels way of taking extra bases and pushing opposing defenses, not to change the Brewers' winning-slugly ways but to augment them. What had been a station-to-station offense under his predecessor, Ken Macha, would have to do more than that to win on his watch. "I want us to be aggressive running the bases, and we will emphasize this with the Brewers," Roenicke said. "I think being aggressive gives the players more confidence, and it also wears on the opposition."
Ten months later, Roenicke has made it so, but he hasn't done it by green-lighting everybody on first with second base open. What had been a below-average baserunning team in terms of stealing bases isn't swiping any more bags; Milwaukee had 89 steals in 2010 and has 81 now. However, the Brewers have gone from being one of baseball's worst teams at advancing on base hits (23rd, losing minus-5.5 runs on their opportunities) to one of the best, ranking fourth overall with plus-6.2 runs, more than a win's worth of difference picked up in one winter. Instead of sending everybody, he's running with the people who can -- not least Ryan Braun, who has set career highs in steals and attempts, going 31-for-37 this season.
In terms of success on the bases, that's quite a bit of change from one season to the next, especially when there has been just one significant change in the lineup in this season from last -- the late-spring trade for lightning rod and leadoff man Nyjer Morgan. Morgan gave Roenicke a top-of-the-order hitter with speed capable of contributing a big OBP boost. So what did Roenicke do, now that he had the speedster and leadoff hitter the 2010 Brewers lacked? He didn't bat him leadoff, instead depositing Morgan in the second slot -- and platooning him there, with Carlos Gomez. It's an inspired choice.
The Brewers' lineup under Macha already had become as short-sequence a setup as you could imagine. In 2010, Macha often used his best four hitters -- Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, Braun and Prince Fielder just like that, 1-4 -- while chucking the rest of his regulars behind them. It was as big a bet on getting the big inning as a manager might make. It was also about as tactically inert a proposition as a skipper could select, and when that sequence's end point -- Fielder -- struggled to plate more than a below-average 11 percent of his baserunners, you can start to understand why Milwaukee wound up scoring almost 30 fewer runs than had been expected in 2010, the worst performance in the league, and a deficit of almost three wins' worth of runs. Fielder had a bad year plating baserunners, and good luck scoring with the balance of that lineup card.
Then add Morgan to the mix. Even though Morgan had previously spent most of his career leading off (and playing every day), his speed makes him an unlikely DP threat from the second slot. His OBP skills are still in front of Braun and Fielder -- but as the trailing runner behind the leadoff man, the guy with farther to go but the afterburners to take that extra base. Meanwhile, having Hart lead off puts him behind the pitcher -- and automatic sacrifice bunts -- so the slugger hasn't lost too many opportunities to bat with runners in scoring position. With Morgan or Gomez batting in front of Braun, it's been easier to keep a base clear for the Brewers' left fielder to steal 31 bases. That's helped Fielder draw a career-high 31 intentional walks, creating even more scoring opportunities.
Adding Morgan was supposed to free Roenicke to bat one of those four good hitters behind Fielder. However, between Hart's early-season injury and Weeks' later breakdown, it hasn't been something the Brewers have gotten to do for an extended stretch, so Fielder has spent much of the year with Casey McGehee still batting behind him. But even as McGehee struggles through his worst season, Fielder, a Three True Outcomes bopper, has adopted the Angels way of putting the ball in play, dropping his strikeout rate to a career-low 15.6 percent and plating more than 17 percent of his baserunners. Call it regression or call it execution, but Roenicke's Brewers are enjoying the benefit while scoring right around their expected runs totals.
Helping yourself on the lineup card is one thing, but what about in-game aggression? More than most of his peers, Roenicke bunts. In the National League, it's easy to mistake a manager's bunt totals for his commitment to bunting, but to really see whether a manager is bunting because he wants to as opposed to when he has to, you ought to take pitcher sacrifice bunts out of the total. That done, you get a much better sense of how much a manager is investing in this particular one-run strategy.
With his real hitters, his non-pitchers, Roenicke bunts far more than Macha, whose 2010 team finished last in sacrifices. Here again, Roenicke is doing most of it with his center-field platoon, with Morgan and Gomez. Roenicke is the new entry of an old-school trio, joining the St. Louis Cardinals' Tony La Russa and the Florida Marlins (mostly Jack McKeon) as the only NL skippers to have more than 40 sac bunts from their position players.
However, it's a relative thing, and Roenicke doesn't go nuts about it. Morgan and Gomez are his sac bunt weapons of choice; they have a combined 32 bunt attempts, according to ESPN Stats & Information. But Roenicke also used them more a lot earlier in the season -- sending a message to his team and to opponents. Morgan dropped five sac bunts in his first 15 games with the Brewers, but he has throttled back since. It's still on the menu but is employed more discreetly. Just eight of his successful sac bunts are what you might call Jay Bell specials from Jim Leyland's bunt-happy early-'90s Pittsburgh Pirates teams: first inning, leadoff man aboard, have the No. 2 hitter drop a sac bunt.
However, almost half of his position-player sac bunts happen exactly when even the least bunt-loving stathead would agree it can help: in the bottom of the seventh inning or later in a tight game, when playing for one run can be decisive. And some of the bunting involves saving him the trouble of reaching for the bench late in games, accepting a platoon mismatch, and letting Gomez face a righty or Craig Counsell a lefty because why burn through your reserves and lose a useful defender when you can at least get a base out of it?
What we haven't talked about as much is Roenicke's handling of his pitching. It's been his good fortune to manage the rotation Brewers general manager Doug Melvin put together in reaction to previous disappointments, a staff boosted by the additions of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. Having good starting pitching has always been a hallmark of Scioscia's Angels clubs, but it has become a feature of Joe Maddon's Rays and Bud Black's Padres -- and now also Roenicke's Brewers.
Just one year into Roenicke's managerial career, we'll have to see what happens when or if he doesn't have a rotation almost as good as those of the Philadelphia Phillies or San Francisco Giants. You can credit the talent and Roenicke and Brewers pitching coach Rick Kranitz, but we can't know by how much. It's worth noting that, when the Brewers have had to deal with losing a starter, Roenicke has gotten good mileage out of journeyman Marco Estrada in a swing role -- something else that's old-school in an era of hyper-specialization.
What shines through from Roenicke's elective decision-making is that, however busy he keeps himself on the offensive side of the ball, he's a noninterventionist with his pitching staff. Per Baseball Info Solutions' manager data -- better than ever in the indispensable Bill James Handbook -- the Brewers are one of the two teams in the league least likely to issue an intentional walk; the other is Kirk Gibson's Arizona Diamondbacks. Neither team looks likely to reach 20 ordered-up free passes, whereas Fredi Gonzalez has put a league-leading 70 men on base while managing this year's Atlanta Braves.
With his 'pen, Roenicke has used fewer relievers than everyone but Charlie Manuel of the Phillies -- another skipper with a rotation you've heard about -- but, also like Manuel and La Russa, he's among the managers least likely to use a reliever on consecutive days. In today's situational relief-mad competitive environment, he hasn't freaked out over not having a reliable lefty specialist -- something else he has in common with Mike Scioscia, who pulled the same feat back in 2004.
The regular season is coming to an end, and Roenicke's team will still be playing in October. So will Gibson's Diamondbacks. Between now and then, the ballots for the National League Manager of the Year will get filled out by BBWAA voters, and Gibson is widely considered the easy choice and the likely winner. Just as in Roenicke's playing days, this isn't something he has much control over. He also probably isn't worrying about it much -- instead, he's delivering on what he does control, which is finding ways his Brewers can beat you. In whatever order he wins trophies, with his team or in recognition of his work, he's the latest proud product of the Scioscia "family tree" of successful managers, doing it the Angels way.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.