Yesterday it was the AL's turn. Today, let's look at the four postseason skippers in the senior circuit.
Brewers vs. Diamondbacks
I’m invested in this matchup for more reasons than one. First, it’s a fascinating showdown between two teams that have long been stocked with young talent and whose long-term futures we’ve been arguing over since at least 2007. Players like Prince Fielder and Chris Young are all grown up, Justin Upton's almost old enough to be entering his long-anticipated peak seasons -- might be another year or two yet -- and the two teams get to square off for a shot at the pennant, history and more. Another reason is that after digging into the shared histories of Arizona’s Kirk Gibson and Milwaukee’s Ron Roenicke, it’s impossible not to find the series additionally interesting as a battle between the two leading contenders for the NL’s manager of the year award.
Both of them are managers you can admire for their work this season, whether you’re a stathead or not. They were the two managers in the National League least likely to order up an intentional walk. They oversaw two of the league’s most aggressive teams on the bases, finishing ranked second and third in outs made on the bases behind only the Rockies. Whereas Roenicke’s discrete over who gets to run, Gibson seems to green-light more guys, not necessarily to the best effect.
Where you can give Gibson additional credit is in manager-GM interaction, but it appears that more than anything, results matter. He didn’t get too invested with mediocre veterans at first, second or third base. Not every manager could cope with relative unknowns like Ryan Roberts at third or prospect Paul Goldschmidt being less than a year removed from the Cal League. Gerardo Parra was finally entrusted with a regular role; he’s started 180 of Gibson’s 245 games as D’backs manager. He became the regular left fielder despite his lack of power because Gibson apparently accepted what he can do instead of getting hung up on what he can’t. The same willingness to dispense with failure led to turnover in Arizona’s pen, but now that Gibson can play matchup games with Joe Paterson and submariner Brad Ziegler before getting to David Hernandez and J.J. Putz.
As I’ve noted before, Roenicke is aggressive in calling for the bunt, but that’s by the standards of the day, where non-pitcher bunts in the NL are fairly scarce. He’ll spring the odd first-inning bunt to move the leadoff man up, or a late-game sac when a run will do, doing it often enough to keep people guessing, but not so much that people should decry the outs expended. One thing he seems to especially enjoy is springing one on an opponent in an inning after somebody’s homered.
The other thing to note is that both managers are anti-La Russans when it comes to their pen usage. Roenicke likes to let his starters finish their frames and he uses fewer relievers in games, and less often than most on consecutive days. In a short series, where individual outcomes are everything, you can expect he’ll probably have lefty Chris Narveson bumped into relief work, but among the Snakes’ regulars they really only has Miguel Montero to profitably attack with a situational southpaw. With set-up men as good as Francisco Rodriguez and LaTroy Hawkins, it may not matter very much.
In short, it’s a series in which you’re more likely to see baserunning or a tactical decision on offense have an impact, which should make it that much more fun to watch, whichever team you’re rooting for.
Cardinals vs. Phillies
If there are two managers who hold few surprises any more, it might be Tony La Russa and Charlie Manuel. That’s not to say they won’t be active, though, and they share certain virtues. Neither man gets too hung up on issuing intentional walks, for example, so if that’s your brand of tedium, you may want to wait until next year to see whether Ozzie Guillen or Fredi Gonzalez leads the NL.
La Russa’s been around long enough to challenge for the games-managed record, and he’ll pass John McGraw to set the non-owner record for wins next year. He’s always going to be interesting to follow, as there are few buttons La Russa won’t push -- if he thinks it’ll help win, he’ll push it.
With his current Cards crew, a few things stand out. First, he’s been the NL’s most active user of defensive replacements -- only Jim Leyland uses them more often. This is understandable because he’s bringing them in for former first baseman Lance Berkman in right field and former right fielder Skip Schumaker at second base. That’s sensible enough since neither man is playing his natural position -- you’ll sometimes see Schumaker moving back out to the outfield in Berkman’s place. Pulling Berkman brings up another La Russa gambit, in that he’s more likely to pinch-run than most managers. He’ll also bunt every bit as aggressively with position players as Roenicke does, but some of that’s about trying to cut down on the team that just hit into 169 double plays, most in the major leagues.
You might think that La Russa isn’t the same hyperactive bullpen micro-manager of a decade ago. He didn’t lead the league in relievers used, and he’s one of the most likely managers around to have his closer enter the eighth inning in recent years. However, a lot of that could be explained by personnel -- more simply, not having much choice. Once he was handed lefties Arthur Rhodes and Marc Rzepczynski to play matchup games, things got much more La Russan. If you’re pining for Red Sox vs. Yankees marathons, peg your hopes to the late-game La Russa shuffle.
In contrast, Charlie Manuel remains one of the most successful and underrated managers in the game. Perhaps it’s because he’s a successful practitioner of the “do no harm” philosophy on offense -- he doesn’t run much with his baserunners, he doesn’t bunt with his position players, and he generally eschews one-run strategies.
It’s about reaping the benefit of just letting his hitters hit. Consider what that has meant the last two years as the Phillies’ lineup has gotten older and slower -- they’re no longer famed for running with abandon -- and also as they’ve endured injuries to every regular for one stretch or another. Many managers would feel compelled to compensate and impose themselves on their offense, especially while playing people such as Wilson Valdez. Other than getting his runners in motion more than he's used to, Manuel generally lets it ride, and reaps the benefits.
He’s also far from inert when it comes to keeping his bench involved. That might mean seeing a lot more of Valdez or Michael Martinez or Ross Gload than you’d like, but not every player can deliver from a reserve role. You can credit the former hitting coach with some portion of John Mayberry Jr.’s breakthrough as a part-time player.
You might attribute Manuel's confidence to his good fortune of being able to lean on the game’s great great rotation, but doing so you’d sell Manuel short. Because of his great rotation, Manuel has been able to run his bullpen with a steady hand. Despite the attention paid to the Phillies, he successfully slipped rookie Michael Stutes into an important relief role and never looked back. He switched gears to wind up closing with Ryan Madson in Brad Lidge’s absence without missing a beat, and in retrospect it seems fair to say he got considerably more mileage out of J.C. Romero than anyone might have expected before replacing him with Antonio Bastardo. Admittedly, the strength of his rotation has allowed him to use his relievers with some care, and with the benefit of more rest than any other bullpen in baseball.
Manuel has also been astute in who he orders to intentionally walk people: Half the team’s total belongs to Madson, swing man Kyle Kendrick, and mop-up reliever David Herndon. What do these three pitchers have in common? They’re all right-handers who historically have run into some pretty bad patches against left-handed hitters over their careers. Manuel simply lent them an assist in helping them avoid those matchups.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.