2015 Phillies Report Card: Pete Mackanin
The first half of the Phillies’ season was remarkably poor, considering their intent when the schedule kicked off at home against the Red Sox was to lose as often as possible. Chase Utley suffered an ankle injury, performed poorly for two and a half months, then landed on the disabled list for a month and a half. The veteran pitchers the Phillies slotted into the rotation neither pitched well nor deep into games. Carlos Ruiz became a shadow of his former self.
What was most stunning among all of that, however, was the erosion of clubhouse camaraderie under manager Ryne Sandberg. Former shortstop Jimmy Rollins criticized Sandberg’s inability to communicate effectively with his players. Former reliever Justin De Fratus said his transition to a mop-up reliever was something that wasn’t communicated to him. Sandberg was repeatedly flouted by his pitchers, most notably Cole Hamels.
Near the end of June, with the Phillies sitting on a 26-48 record, an impromptu press was called. Some speculated that GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. had finally been axed; others thought it was a trade announcement potentially involving Hamels. To the surprise of everyone — including close friend Larry Bowa — Sandberg announced he was stepping down from his post. Bench coach Pete Mackanin was named the interim skipper. Mackanin has never been a full-time manager but had been an interim manager twice before with the Pirates in 2005 and the Reds in 2007.
The Phillies didn’t exactly play better under their new manager. From Mackanin’s first game on June 26 into the All-Star break after July 12, the Phillies won only three of 17 games. The Phillies were steadily adding youth to the roster, having called up Maikel Franco in May, Adam Morgan in June, and Aaron Nola in July. Trading away Hamels, Jonathan Papelbon, and Chase Utley netted them some immediately-used young players including Darnell Sweeney, Jerad Eickhoff, and Alec Asher. Whereas one of Sandberg’s struggles involved balancing the playing time between up-and-coming players and phasing-out veterans, Mackanin didn’t have to worry about that too much.
Coming out of the All-Star break, the Phillies looked competent somehow, even amid the various trades executed by Amaro. From July 17 to August 23, the Phillies went 21-12, ranking among the best second-half teams in baseball. Of course, even bad blackjack players can run hot at the card table, so it wasn’t surprising that the Phillies fell back down to earth and went 13-25 the rest of the way.
Still, the players enjoyed playing for Mackanin and it showed. Closer Ken Giles praised him during the team’s hot streak, as Ryan Lawrence of the Philadelphia Daily News reported:
But they’ve shown marked improvement in the last month. How much of that is Mackanin’s doing?
“I think it’s played a huge role,” closer Ken Giles said. “To me, he’s the rock of the team. If something goes bad, he’s there to help pick us up. If we’re playing too tight, he figures out a way to loosen us up. He’s the main reason we’re on a great streak right now. He knows how to keep us loose and he’s just letting us enjoy ourselves. Basically, he just wants us to go out there and succeed. He’s letting us do what we want to do and he’s helping us on the way. It’s huge.”
“I think you’ve seen him with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati do a good job as an interim,” Francoeur said. “He’s got an opportunity here and I think he’s doing a good job. Of course, I enjoy playing for him and if I’m back, I’d love to have him back. … For me, I think he’s doing a great job at knowing when to press the right buttons.”
Mackanin, of course, wasn’t perfect. In this writer’s view, he continued to mismanage De Fratus, called for bunts too often, and gave in to closer orthodoxy in his application of Giles. I also took issue with a particular quote of his and that he allowed hazing in his clubhouse.
With the end of the regular season drawing near in September, the Phillies officially took the interim tag off of Mackanin’s title and announced he would be back leading the Phillies in 2016. Their new deal also includes a club option for 2017. Realistically, the Phillies are a couple of years away from being considered contenders, so it wouldn’t have been prudent to go out and get a seasoned manager — a Dusty Baker, Bud Black, or Don Mattingly — to manage the team. Mackanin had existing relationships with many of the players as he had coached for the Phillies from 2009-12 and 2014-15 and can build upon his experience as a manager this past season. Once the Phillies can truly gear up for a run at the division title, they can worry about the credentials of their manager. For now, the Phillies would be hard-pressed to find a better fit for the team than Mackanin.