2016 Phillies Report Card: Pete Mackanin
Evaluating managerial performance remains one of the more elusive tasks of publicly available baseball analysis. Based on the aspects of the role that are relatively easy to quantify and assess–reliever usage, lineup construction, defensive shifting–it appears that managers have a minimal impact on team performance. Yet, teams continue to hire, fire, even trade for managers as if they have more impact than our simple analytical tools suggest.
All of which is basically to say that I actually have no idea whether Pete Mackanin is a good or bad manager. With that out of the way, let’s approach this effort at assessing his performance from a completely unscientific angle, listing two good things and two bad things Mackanin did in 2016. At the end, we’ll arbitrarily plop a grade on it that will so accurately capture his performance that it will render the previous analysis useless.
1. Realistic Approach to Veteran Players: Mackanin handled two potentially caustic situations in 2016 smoothly. The easier one, of course, being Carlos Ruiz. After 2015, it was relatively clear that the veteran catcher could not hold up to the physical rigors of being a full-time starter. So, Chooch wasn’t a full-time starter in 2016, mostly splitting duties with Cameron Rupp. The result of that move was that Ruiz bounced back enough that the Dodgers saw value in trading for him.
The second potential issue was at first base with Ryan Howard. After the Big Piece came out throwing punches at the front office before the season started about being relegated to a platoon with Darin Ruf, it was clear that this wouldn’t be a graceful departure. Instead, it actually sort of was. Not only did Howard produce reasonably well at the plate in the second half of the season, but Mackanin also found playing time for surprise first baseman of the future Tommy Joseph in the process.
2. “Team Chemistry”: This isn’t specific to this year, but when Mackanin first took over for Ryne Sandberg in the middle of 2015, much was made of his efforts to learn and communicate with his players in Spanish. As the manager of a team that has strong operations in Latin America and a major league roster that has a ton of Hispanic players, this would seem like common sense. However, as Ryne Sandberg’s terrible tenure showed, communication is important. Learning the language that half of your clubhouse speaks is a simple, but effective, way to send a message that you care about your players. Mackanin did that and, I suspect, it’s a big reason that the Phillies have been a cohesive unit despite all the losing of the last two seasons.
1. Tyler Goeddel and the Outfield: Entering the season, the Phillies outfield was exciting, if not particularly good. Odubel Herrera was coming off one of the best Rule 5 rookie season of all time; Nick Williams was knocking at the door of the major leagues; Aaron Altherr was somehow worth nearly 2 fWAR in 40 games in 2015; Tyler Goeddel was the (unlikely) next coming of El Torito. Fast forward to July and this is a representative starting outfield: Herrera, Cody Asche, Peter Bourjos. Aside from Odubel, that lineup is neither good nor in the service of future development.
When asked by Philly Voice’s Ryan Lawrence why Goeddel wasn’t playing over the likes of Asche, Bourjos, and Jimmy Paredes, Mackanin said something to the effect of, “he’s going to be around next year anyway, I don’t need to see any more of him to make a decision.” That’s complete nonsense for reasons I don’t even need to write out, but I will anyway. Unlike Paredes, Asche, and Bourjos, Goeddel is a potential part of the Phillies’ future. What’s the point in playing those three over Goeddel when it’s very possible that additional playing time would be in the long-term interest of Goeddel and, as a result, the Phillies? If you’re not going to focus on developing young players on a 90-loss team, what are you even doing? To me, this is by far the most baffling thought process of Mackanin’s tenure, which, honestly, is a positive given how likely insignificant Goeddel is in the big picture.
2. Bullpen: I don’t like to harp too much on managers’ bullpen usage. Sure, we all know on paper how to use a bullpen well at this point: Use your best reliever in the highest leverage situation regardless of inning. Avoid the times through the order penalty with starters. Use platoon advantages wisely. But, the reality is that no manager–save perhaps Terry Francona–practices optimal bullpen usage. It’s unrealistic, at this moment in history, to expect a manager to bring in his “closer” in a high-leverage moment in the sixth inning of a mid-May baseball game.
Nevertheless, Mackanin probably didn’t do the best job with the Phillies bullpen this season. Although he didn’t have much choice in the matter given the available options, he perhaps relied too heavily on the trio of Jeanmar Gomez, Hector Neris, and David Hernandez. As the only reliable relievers among a collection of flotsam, they usually represented the best options for winning baseball games. However, with “winning baseball games” not the highest priority on the organizational agenda, it would have been nice to see a bit more restraint in using them.
Grade: B. Mackanin is entering the final guaranteed year of his contract with the Phillies with a team option for 2018. Given what he’s had to work with, Mackanin has done a surprisingly good job not only at using his players, but dealing with potentially volatile personnel decisions, i.e. Ryan Howard. Evidence is mounting that he’s not as analytically friendly as I or readers of this site would likely want, but he’s aced pretty much every other test he’s faced.