The Flexibility of Craig Counsell

For a manager in baseball, as for any person of authority in any field, rigidity can be deadly. While every worker should try to change with the times and stay ahead of the curve, the decision-maker ultimately bears the most responsibility in these areas, since they set the example for everyone else to follow. In America’s pastime, that means trying innovative strategies and not hesitating to change something that doesn’t work. During his first spring training in Milwaukee, Craig Counsell has indicated, in a few different ways, that he can fulfill these responsibilities.

One example of this came a couple weeks ago. Counsell, who oversees a number of compelling hitters, has had the option of slotting one in at leadoff and sticking him there. But as Tom Haudricourt wrote at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, that kind of approach doesn’t suit Counsell, who wants to keep things fresh:

“We get to have a new lineup every day, so it doesn’t have to stay the same,” he said.

“We’ve talked about a lot of different lineup considerations. I think we’re going to be flexible throughout the year on lineups.”

While lineup choices don’t matter quite as much as we might think, putting a subpar hitter at leadoff can sink you. Royals manager Ned Yost, for instance has continually relied on Alcides Escobar atop his lineup, and Reds skipper Bryan Price has penciled in Jason Bourgeois to lead off. Neither of these makes sense — USA Today’s Ted Berg called the former “a lousy strategy,” and ESPN’s Dan Szymborski likened the latter to “a surgeon leaving instrument inside a person 16 times.” (The fact that Kansas City doesn’t seem to have suffered from Yost’s faulty thinking shouldn’t impact our opinion of it.)

Counsell, by contrast, has demonstrated an ability to tweak his lineup. Sometimes, he’ll use Jonathan Villar to lead off, as he told Haudricourt. Other times, Domingo Santana gets the nod; yesterday, the spot went to Eric Young Jr. When the season starts, the lineup may crystallize more formally, but as Counsell explained, he doesn’t expect to set anything in stone: He explained that the team is “set on No. 3″ (Ryan Braun), beyond whom things might change. On a team with so many moving parts — which, admittedly, Yost’s Royals and Price’s Reds may lack — that sort of flexibility makes a sizable difference.

In the bullpen, we got another development yesterday. While this one appears to differ a bit from the leadoff question, it still testifies to Counsell’s willingness to change. When’s Adam McCalvy asked the manager about his plans for closer, Counsell told him that one man alone won’t occupy the role:

Beyond that, Counsell expects to use both [Will] Smith, a left-hander, and [Jeremy] Jeffress, a right-hander, in early-season save opportunities.

“I’m not putting any limits on it,” Counsell said. “It certainly could end up being one guy, but I don’t think there’s any reason to put restrictions on it right now. Those guys are both really good. One throws left-handed, one throws right-handed, and I think we should take advantage of that.”

A strictly defined closer can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Most notably, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny didn’t put in Trevor Rosenthal during Game 5 of the 2014 NLCS, with St. Louis and San Francisco tied in the ninth inning. Michael Wacha allowed a walk-off home run to Travis Ishikawa, ending the series and eliminating the Cardinals. Matt Williams — whom, uncoincidentally, the Nationals fired this offseason — displayed a similarly perplexing mindset. He unwaveringly deployed Rafael Soriano and Jonathan Papelbon to close games, despite the former’s struggles and the latter’s behavior.

This assertion from Counsell seems to indicate that he won’t fall into that trap. Smith can set down lineups with a lot of lefties, whereas Jeffress will seal out victories against righty-heavy teams. If the starter departs early, either Jeffress or Smith can enter in the eighth inning, to earn a four- to six-out save. Other managers have helped to blaze the closer-by-committee trail — at the beginning of last season, the Yankees, Mets, and Rockies all experimented with the idea — and now, hopefully, Counsell will adopt it as well.

Because they play in a small market, the Brewers operate with a setback relative to their peers. They need to seize every advantage they can get, which means they can’t lag behind with old-school thinking. Counsell recognizes this as well as anyone — he told Haudricourt that they “have to redefine ‘conventional'” and they should focus on “making good decisions,” regardless of customs. If Counsell holds to his promises about the lineup and the closer (and his apparent strategy with stolen bases), his sagacity will likely manifest in the win column.

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