Craig Counsell is Manager of the Year and it Shouldn’t be Close

Earlier this season I wrote an article critical of Counsell’s use of Josh Hader (after praising him in April). Mid-season, when the Brewers were playing more like a .500 team than a division-winner, I assumed that overusing Hader was the only chance they had. As it turns out, I vastly underestimated just how good the Brewers are at this, and how in sync the manager is with the front office. I was wrong then, which is easy to see with the benefit of hindsight, and going forward the team has earned a ton of leeway on strategy. The fact of the matter is that when rosters expanded in September, giving Counsell virtually unlimited weapons in the bullpen and off the bench, he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he knew exactly what he was doing all along, and that no other manager in baseball has as deft a hand balancing the egos of a clubhouse while putting out tactically optimal lineups, and tactically optimal shifts. To the extent he had issues earlier, they were the result of injuries to the depth of the team, and what is almost certainly the correct assessment of Hader’s ability to handle big workloads. Once he had a fully loaded roster, no one did a better job making use of it.

It was interesting to see the national media descend on the Brewers-Cubs play-in game, because outside of maybe the A’s in the American League, no one plays baseball like the Brewers, and if you’re not familiar with them, they can be confusing. Baseball Prospectus alum Joe Sheehan wanted Counsell to be even more aggressive than he already is with his bullpen, and with Hader in particular. Every pundit fixated on Hader, and every non-Hader move was greeted with a chorus of “he’s going to lose it before he gets to Hader”. If you follow the Brewers routinely, you know that, at least in the Brewers’ opinion, Hader is most effective on longer-than-normal rest for a reliever. Counsell was never saving him for an antiquated “save” situation, he was saving him to slam the door, and because the the Cubs’ lineup construction that day, Counsell was able to do so while also deriving the maximum benefit of the platoon advantage. But it’s not just that using Hader earlier would have left them vulnerable later, it’s also that the rest of the bullpen, when used properly, is nearly as effective as the big gun.

Really understanding the bullpen involves understanding platoon pitchers, and dominant pitchers. Most pitchers have platoon splits, but Hader holds opposite side pitching to a .548 OPS. Lefties may be completely helpless against him, but righties are still the equivalent of the worst hitters in baseball. Jeremy Jeffress, who was arguably as good, if not better than Hader this season, has a very small reverse platoon split. Corey Knebel, after his earlier demotion, was just as dominant. Corbin Burnes is also equally effective against both lefties and righties, and because he has starters chops, can take multiple innings when needed. These guys, plus a few select others, can be used for multiple innings against anyone, but they are not the only guns in the holster. The bullpen is amazingly deep, and Counsell excels at using platoon dominance to string together overall dominance. The best recent example of this is lefty Dan Jennings’ lone start of the year, which prompted to the St. Louis Cardinals to play their right-handed lineup, which allowed Freddy Peralta to dominate them after Jennings retired the sole Cardinal lefty, Matt Carpenter, and then promptly left the game. The Brewers do this on a small scale throughout every game they play. 

Counsell had the most difficult job in the National League in terms of bullpen management, going to his bullpen more frequently, and with greater success than any other manager. Tom Verducci wrote a brilliant article on this topic just the other day, citing the amazing fact that the Brewers’ starters stayed in to face batters a third time  in a game less frequently than any other playoff team, including the Oakland A’s. League-wide, only two teams put their starters in this vulnerable position less, and it worked brilliantly.

The Brewers also shift more than just about any other team, and players are often asked to play in uncomfortable spots to extend benches, and allow for greater flexibility in pitching and defensive changes. Earlier this season when the offense was struggling, Counsell gave it a shot in the arm by playing Eric Thames in the outfield. Thames occasionally looked comically bad doing so, but generally speaking, he did a passable job, and the offensive upgrade paid dividends. Later, after the Brewers acquired Mike Moustakas, Travis Shaw was asked to play second base, where he is about half a man larger than almost anyone else who plays there. He took to it well, and is now a crucial piece of the Brewers’ best possible lineup against right-handed pitching.

Shifts and player acquisitions come from the front office, but Counsell has the unenviable task of implementing these strategies while keeping everyone happy. Let’s not underestimate how difficult it is to not just order Shaw to play a very difficult defensive position, but to have him embrace it, and not suffer in other parts of his game. This season, Jesus Aguilar played third base, Jonathan Schoop played shortstop, Ryan Braun played first base, Travis Shaw played first base, and Hernan Perez played everywhere. Players crave comfort, and professing the breakdown of rigid positions is one of Counsell’s key achievements.

The Brewers also sent down former closer Corey Knebel and shortstop Orlando Arcia due to struggles during the season. Some players view such demotions as something to sulk over, or as punishment, but both responded brilliantly, playing some of their best ball. Ultimate credit for this obviously should go to the players themselves, but Counsell is charged with reintegrating these guys upon recall, and both came back stronger than ever.

The front office made some strange acquisitions throughout the year turning over the bottom of the lineup and bullpen frequently, and adding some star power at the deadline. Some of these, like journeyman reliever Mike Zagurski, flamed out almost immediately, but Erik Kratz stuck with the team in a big way. Kratz is an elite pitch framer, and because the Brewers employ so many command-and-control starters like Zach Davies and Wade Miley, Kratz was absolutely crucial to team success. Manny Pina is a good catcher in his own right, and has continued to contribute when he plays, but Counsell paired up Kratz with players who would benefit most from his skill set, and it has stuck.

The Brewer lineup is deadly against right-handed pitching due to a lefty heavy lineup that includes Yelich, Shaw, Moustakas, Thames, and Schoop, who enjoys reverse platoon splits. They struggle against lefties more, especially when Braun is hurt, but Counsell remains one of the best at getting the most out of his left handed hitters even when a lefty starts. Because of the depth of the Brewer bench, they frequently blow through opposing LOOGYs and wind up with their lefty mashers against a slew of righty relievers. Counsell also excels at creating a “closer” defensive alignment featuring Shaw at first base, Arcia at shortstop, and Keon Broxton in the outfield with Cain and Yelich. The Brewers are already one of the best in the bigs at turning ball in play into outs, but this defensive alignment makes stringing hits together almost impossible.

The Most Managing, The Best Managing

I think the strongest argument for Counsell as a manager is that for so long, most managers simply went through the motions, adhering to bullpen roles, sometimes double-switching, maybe playing platoons later in the game. Counsell is actively managing all the time, and getting the biggest advantages possible out of his players.The Brewers almost never sac bunt, they steal bases, efficiently, like mad, and when fully healthy, they make life hard with their pitchers, and their lineup. Counsell is a perfect mix of former player, ex-front office as Special Assistant to Doug Melvin, and manager. He can relate to his players on their level, he isn’t too proud to listen to his front offices ideas, and he commands the clubhouse well enough to keep everything working and in balance. The Brewers are 33-19 in one-run games. These are usually toss-ups, but with Milwaukee I don’t think that’s the case. If you were putting together a team to win close games, you would take all of the steps I described before.

Ultimately the players deserve credit for their success, and every Brewer player should be extremely proud of what they have accomplished, but Counsell has put everyone in a position to not just win, but to have an advantage over whoever they are facing. Managing is improving in baseball, but there are still a shocking number of old-school guys mucking up their teams. While Counsell is not unique in terms of progressive philosophy, no one did a better job combining clubhouse management with advanced strategy. He is easily the National League’s best manager, and should win the award.


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