Last Friday, Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin announced that Ron Roenicke will return to manage the team in 2015. It ended nearly two weeks of speculation about Roenicke’s job security following an astonishing September collapse by the Brewers.
Despite holding the lead in the NL Central for a total of 150 days throughout the year, Milwaukee lost 22 of its final 31 games and finished the season third in the division with a record of 82-80. The Brewers became just the fifth team in MLB history to miss the playoffs after leading their division for at least 150 games (for what it’s worth, none of the previous four teams to do this fired their manager as a result).
The decision to retain Roenicke, who has gone 335-313 (.517) in four seasons with the Brewers, was unpopular among many fans, who felt that he should be held responsible for Milwaukee’s freefall. An online poll conducted by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that just 43 percent of the respondents supported the decision to bring back Roenicke.
There was a minor shake-up in the coaching staff, as hitting coach Jerry Narron and first base/infield coach Garth Iorg were both fired. Narron’s dismissal was pretty much a foregone conclusion given the offense’s dismal performance late in the year, and Iorg was let go because apparently it was his job to find a serviceable first baseman.
Despite the insistence by some fans that Roenicke played a significant role in the team’s September swoon, firing him would have solved absolutely nothing. The fact of the matter is, MLB managers’ in-game decisions don’t have that big of an impact on team’s overall record for a season. FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine wrote an analytical piece earlier this year, which found that 95 percent of managers are worth between -2 to +2 wins per 162 games.
Of the four major North American pro sports leagues, it can be argued that MLB managers have the lowest impact on their team’s performance when compared to their NFL, NBA and NHL counterparts. This, of course, won’t stop fans of every fan base from criticizing their favorite team’s manager. After all, it’s a national pastime as old as baseball itself.
This isn’t to suggest that managers don’t make boneheaded mistakes and should never be held accountable for their team’s performance, as that comes with the territory. But a majority of the Brewers’ late-season struggles really weren’t within Roenicke’s control, and firing him would have been making him a scapegoat.
The biggest and most obvious issue with the team is its offense, which averaged a mere 2.7 runs per game in September and scored two or fewer runs 17 times in the last 31 games. Milwaukee’s offense was great at the beginning of the season, but showed signs of weakening and had obvious flaws even before September. The Brewers averaged 4.1 runs in March/April, 4.2 in May, 5.4 in June, 3.5 in July and 4.0 in August. Their batting average on balls in play (BABIP) also followed a fairly similar pattern, sitting at .300 in March/April, .310 in May, .306 in June, .271 in July, .298 in August and .268 in September.
Milwaukee simply cooled off and regressed to the mean during much of the second half of the season. The offense reached cataclysmic levels of stagnancy in September due at least in part to solid defense from its opponents and a little bit of bad luck, which was only compounded as the slide got worse and players tried to desperately jump start the offense.
Given a roster oversaturated with free swingers and lacking a clear leadoff hitter, no lineup that Roenicke set could have prevented the Brewers’ meltdown. Twenty home runs in the last 31 games for a team that relies heavily on the long ball just doesn’t cut it.
Another common criticism of Roenicke is that he’s too soft, emotionless and won’t hold players accountable. Naturally, his predecessor, Ken Macha, was often derided for being too hard on his players.
The problem with this is that we don’t know what goes on behind the scenes and how Roenicke deals with players, but there is nothing to suggest that he has “lost the locker room” or that the players don’t respect him. In fact, players like Ryan Braun vocally supported him after the season concluded. Plus the September gaffes by players that some fans pointed to as proof that they are “undisciplined” were likely more the result of a team trying to do too much than anything else. Pretty much any other team stuck in that sort of funk would likely have made similar errors and mental mistakes.
Roenicke also does occasionally show some fire when defending his players, and even publicly criticized home plate umpire Mark Ripperger in late August. Is it fun to watch managers like Lou Piniella or Ozzie Guillén put on a big theatrical show when arguing with umpires? Sure, but let’s not pretend it’s essential to a manager’s success.
The Brewers have plenty of work to do this offseason, there’s no question about that.
Ryan Braun has already had surgery to fix a thumb injury that plagued him all year and was a major factor in his disappointing 2014 season. The new hitting coach will need to work with Jean Segura to help him rebound from a really tough season at the plate. And, perhaps above all else, Melvin will need to figure out a solution at first base. Whether it be through moving someone there or signing a veteran from free agency, the Brewers need to upgrade from the awful Lyle Overbay/Mark Reynolds platoon that was a burden on the offense all season long.
As for the 2014 team, the bottom line is that they came crashing back to Earth after overachieving for a significant portion of the season. Despite the disappointing outcome, Milwaukee showed that it can contend in the NL Central if it finds some answers on offense.
The Brewers should be expected to contend for a division title in 2015, and everyone, including Roenicke, will need to learn from their mistakes from this season. Sometimes changing voices in the locker room can spark a team, but that can also backfire (Exhibit A: Ken Macha in 2009 and 2010). By retaining Roenicke, Milwaukee decided to place consistency in the dugout above gambling with a new hire for 2015.
All that being said, the Brewers must play better and with greater consistency if Ron Roenicke is to stay in Milwaukee beyond 2015.