Criticism of Bowa Is Off The Mark

The Phillies are 12 games over .500, but a recent poll in <i>Sports Illustrated</i> has Larry Bowa in the basement among major league managers. And their poll was based on major league players opinions. Now, other media outlets are jumping on the anti-Bowa bandwagon. Is the criticism of Bowa justified?

Baseball Prospectus (BP) provides some of the finest statistical analysis on the Internet, but it does suffer from a couple annoying tendencies. As one poster on a Fanhome message board put it, the BP writers are "in love with their own cynicism." To put it bluntly, they tend to be more than a tad dogmatic and often seem to present evidence which best suits their own preconceived notions.

BP has never been a fan of Larry Bowa, and rarely has anything positive to say about the Phillies in general. Take a look at a recent Triple Play article about the Phightin's:

"Recently, Sports Illustrated published the results of a survey of big league ballplayers which tagged Larry Bowa as the worst manager in the major leagues. Predictably the current members of the team decried the result--though no one was sadistic enough to ask Scott Rolen about his opinion of the matter."

You can almost sense here a gleeful rubbing of the palms: "Ah hah! We get to rip Larry Bowa!"

It does seem odd that BP would put such stock in players' evaluation of talent, when a day later, an article on the site points out that players are good at playing baseball, but not necessarily very good at election time: "Any electorate that would submit more votes for Rocco Baldelli than for (Milton) Bradley deserves to have its judgment questioned."

Yet, when that same electorate makes a choice it happens to agree with, it must be right. Nonsense. Bradley and Bowa both represent the same problem in such a poll: They're largely unpopular, especially with opposing players. They're both no-holds barred, intense competitors who don't give a rat's behind about what you think of them.

Let's take a look at the rest of the Bowa bash sentence by sentence:

"However, a look at the offensive development of the Phillies would lend some credence to the thought that something is wrong with the coaching staff at the Vet, whether with Bowa, hitting coach Greg Gross, or both."

"Rolen is the most famous case of a player who sparred with Bowa, and his production went down the longer he played for him. As soon as he was traded to St. Louis Rolen's numbers rose substantially--he's now having the best year of his career."

Too many words have been spent on the Rolen-Bowa affair, so let me just dismiss this one quickly: Scott Rolen is a fine player, but I'm glad he's gone. It's not likely that we'll find a third baseman nearly as good as Rolen for quite a while, but Phillies fans should be thanking their lucky stars he didn't accept the $150 million the Phillies offered him back in 2001.

"Jimmy Rollins has shown essentially no development with his walk and power rates being completely flat despite being at an age where at least the power numbers should be improving. Pat Burrell has been enduring a nightmare season this season where he has been one of the worst hitters in the majors a year after being considered for the All-Star Game."

"An additional problem over the past two seasons has been consistently poor hitting with the bases loaded, with both the team on-base and slugging percentages below .300 in almost 300 plate appearances in those situations. What is most telling about those situations is that normally patient hitters such as Burrell, Bobby Abreu, and (last season) Jeremy Giambi would come to the plate at start swinging at bad first or second pitches, far from their normal behavior. They looked like they were feeling considerable pressure to get the job done and were not relaxed and acting like their normal selves."

First off, BP is using situational splits to prove a point? BP, where everyone insists there's no such thing as a clutch hitter, that all hitters hit the same all the time and don't make any adjustments or use different approaches depending on the situation? Hysterical, I say. (I will admit that it looks like Jeremy Giambi has completely relaxed and is acting like his normal self now that he's gotten away from the oppressive boot of Bowa. .173 .331 .355).

I'll be the first to say that Jimmy Rollins' lack of development has been puzzling and frustrating. Pat Burrell has had an awful year, and Bowa/Gross deserve some flak for that. But hey, who was the manager when Burrell had a breakout year last year? When a young hitter shows tremendous development, it's all him, but when he regresses badly, it must be the manager, right?

What you sense here is the same-old standard BP obsession with walks. Yes, walks are great. On-base percentage is vital to a team's offense. But will BP ever admit that, just maybe, Alphonso Soriano is going to be a pretty decent player?

The irony, of course, is that under Bowa, the Phillies have become one of the most patient teams in the majors. In 2000, under super-nice guy Terry Francona, the Phillies were eighth in the league in walks, and a putrid dead last in runs scored. In 2001, under Bowa, the team improved to sixth in walks and ninth in runs scored. In 2002, they improved both categories again, to second in walks and eighth in runs scored.

This year, despite so many disappointing performances, the team is again eighth in runs, second in walks. They have, for example, 65 more walks than the Oakland A's. Of all the A's' players, only Erubiel Durazo has many walks this year – 61, to be exact. Durazo is Oakland's primary DH, and, of course, the Phillies don't have that luxury for most of their games. Oakland DHs and pitches have 53 walks on the year, Phillies pitchers and DHs have 16 on the year. Meaning, in the other spots, the Phillies have amassed 102 more walks than Oakland.

Yet, somehow, I don't suspect that BP will point this out as an organizational failure on the part of the Athletics. Who's running that team, anyway? Doesn't anyone in Oakland understand the importance of walks?

The problem with the Phillies' offense this year is not because Bowa and Gross are converting all the hitters into Shawon Dunston clones. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Placido Polanco, last year's acquisition, has already set a career high in walks, with 29, and his .354 OBP would be the best of his career if he maintains it. David Bell, another new player, has had a nightmarish season, but he, too, is on pace for a career high in walks. Even Burrell, as silly as he's looked at the plate sometimes, is walking a good amount – 46 in 355 plate appearances, the same rate he had last year, when he walked 89 times.

If a manager is going to make a serious impact on a player's performance or approach to the game, it's not going to be with established star hitters. This is obvious. Larry Bowa isn't going to tell Jim Thome how to hit a baseball, and a player of Thome's stature probably wouldn't listen anyway. If anything, that's the lesson of Pat Burrell: After establishing himself as a young star, Pat the Bat probably isn't as receptive to instruction.

But fringe players, they're existence as major leaguers depend heavily on doing what the manager tells them. Young players not yet established in the majors don't have the cache to ignore the manager.

The Phillies probably have the most patient bench in baseball. Their five most-used bench players are Ricky Ledee, Tomas Perez, Todd Pratt, Jason Michaels and Tyler Houston. The Phillies have gotten outstanding production out of all of them, as the five have combined for a .283 average and .449 slugging percentage, and 60 walks in 449 at-bats. That's impressive; most bench players are bench players because they lack plate discipline, and almost every team has a pinch-hitter or fourth-outfielder type, a Karim Garcia or Andres Galarraga, who just goes up to hack.

And the prize rookie this year is Marlon Byrd. Byrd was a noted non-walker in the minors, and in a brief callup last year, walked just 1 time in 36 plate appearances. This year, he's walking much more, with 19 walks in 212 plate appearances. Of course, part of the reason for that is he was batting eighth most of the year, ahead of the pitcher.

Of course, Byrd is part of the offensive development of the Phillies that BP chooses to ignore. The fact is Bowa had done a masterful job with Byrd. First, by putting him eighth, a nice, low-pressure situation where Byrd could get his wings, so to speak. It was a situation where Byrd, with the pitcher behind him, would have to learn to be selective, or he'd never get a good pitch to hit. And Byrd struggled mightily, hitting just .167 through May 15.

It would have been very easy for Bowa to abandon him at that point, send him to the minors or beg Ed Wade to get him a new center fielder. Instead, Bowa stuck with him, and that decision has paid dividends. Byrd hit .364 in June, and has sparkled in his new role as Phillies leadoff hitter.

There's no doubt that the Phillies have been an offensive disappointment. But this is completely unwarranted: "Bowa has a reputation as a very hard-nosed manager and quite often those managers have a limited effectiveness, getting very good results initially but then failing to build on those results as the tough guy act wears thin. The problems of the Phillies hitters could very well be an indication that this is playing out in Philadelphia."

Oh yes, quite. It's all playing out in Philadelphia, where the Phillies are playing their best ball in a decade. Indications are that the Phillies will be in the playoff hunt and will make a run at Atlanta. And Bowa will be here for a decade.

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