Charlie Manuel Is Too Friendly With the Phillies

The beloved manager may understand how to win games, but none of it matters if he can't discipline his players

Last week’s aftermath of the Phillies’ disheartening playoff collapse included Ryan Howard’s surgery and press conferences held by Ruben Amaro, Charlie Manuel and Jimmy “Gimme Five!” Rollins. We heard statements about how change was necessary. We learned that money promised to already-signed players for next season would likely preclude any big off-season shopping sprees.

And we received a strong defense of Charlie Manuel’s prowess as a hitting coach—from Manuel himself. A day after Amaro said he wanted to see the Phillies take more pitches, and when they swing, go after balls that are actually in the strike zone, Manuel told reporters he always has supported that theory. He’s right. No hitting coach worth a damn instructs hitters to flail at low-and-outside offerings, especially with the count 3-1. Only a free-swinger would say it makes good sense to let a junkballer gain control of at-bats by going after off-speed stuff out of the strike zone early in the count. That’s not Moneyball, people. It’s baseball. Why did Ted Williams lead the majors in walks eight times? Because he didn’t swing at bad pitches. That might have had a little to do with his career .344 batting average, too.

Manuel is not the one who encouraged Phillies hitters to approach their at-bats with an attitude that sometimes seemed cavalier at best. But he did let them continue to do it. He did brush off consistently impatient and ill-advised plate appearances as parts of a season’s natural ebb and flow. He didn’t seem too concerned when whispers surfaced of players’ not spending sufficient (or extra) time watching tape of pitchers. In other words, Charlie may have superior knowledge of hitting. He may even be able to impart that wisdom in a way that makes sense to modern players. But there is no accountability that accompanies the advice.

Throughout the season, Manuel’s loyalty to his starting players won out consistently over the need to make sure they were doing their jobs. We heard constantly that the team was built around the starting pitchers, almost to the point of dismissing the lineup as inadequate. Slumps are part of baseball, but when highly paid veterans are making the same mistakes repeatedly, there has to be a point where the man in charge challenges them to improve or sits them down. You may think that’s impossible, given the large salaries paid to said players, but if there is no threat of retribution for poor behavior, what incentive is there for someone to change?

The playoff debacle against St. Louis proved that the Phillies were an inconsistent, undisciplined offensive team in 2011. In the game-five loss to the Cardinals, the Phillies didn’t walk one time and spent much of the night waving weakly at Chris Carpenter’s collection of changeups, sliders and curves. The Phils only struck out three times, but they grounded out 16 times. It was a perfect example of the team’s problems. Instead of forcing Carpenter to throw his pedestrian, 91-mph fastball by laying off the off-speed slop that veered out of the strike zone, Phillies hitters flailed away, swinging at bad pitches early in the count and giving Carpenter the ability to stay away from the heat.

As the organization tries to figure out what direction it should take for 2012—beyond the gargantuan salaries owed to Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley (total price: $76.5 mil)—it must decide whether to mandate that the players on the roster play the game properly. Baseball is no longer about the three-run homer, although some swore they saw Earl Weaver chain-smoking in the dugout tunnel after Ben Francisco’s bomb in game three against the Cards. In the post-steroid/HGH era, teams must be disciplined at the plate. They must force pitchers to labor and put pressure on them by getting baserunners. The Phillies could well need that approach more than ever in 2012. Utley is no longer a power source. Howard’s production has dipped precipitously since his MVP days. In ’11, he established career lows for hits, runs and slugging percentage, while posting his second worst season in terms of homers, RBI and on-base percentage. And there’s no guarantee he’ll return to the lineup in April (or later) at full strength after his unfortunate Achilles injury.

As for Rollins and his desire to grow old as a Phillie, consider that the soon-to-be 33-year old shortstop rebounded slightly from his recent three-year decline but hardly did enough to merit a long-term deal. The Phillies should offer him a two-year contract with a mutual option. Should Rollins scoff at the offer, then let him try to find someone who will give him more. Chances are it won’t be a perennial winner. Ask Jayson Werth how that worked out in 2011.

The Phillies have serious personnel decisions to make in advance of 2012. Many of those will impact the lineup. But it’s not just the people at the plate that matter. It’s also their approach to hitting. Manuel insists he understands the need for getting people on base and doing the things necessary to win games without a pile of home runs. We should believe him. What we ought to question is whether he’ll be able to discipline those players who refuse to do the right things at the plate. It’s one thing to impart wisdom and quite another to make sure the people implement it.

It’s time for Manuel to get tough. The Phillies’ future could depend on it.


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