Managers have an ambivalent relationship with optimism and pessimism as it applies to their own players. Casey Stengel once looked at one of his Dodgers pitchers and said, "This is what drives managers nuts. As a manager, you work hard, analyze the game, study your players, learn the weakness of every team in the league, and think and sweat all day long. And once every four or five days you have to trust your job and reputation to a lunkhead like that."
At the same time, they have to be optimists or they wouldn't keep running Yuniesky Betancourt out there. Yuni has long since played his way out of the starting lineup, but Ron Roenicke always finds reasons to give him another chance, pinch-hitting him 16 times (he's 2-for-14 with two walks) and giving him another 28 times at bat after entering the game as a substitute (5-for-24 with a home run). Each day dawns, Betancourt is still on the roster, and Roenicke thinks, "Today will be the day."
Now we have newly-christened Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg thinking he's going to get Jimmy Rollins to learn a new approach at the plate at the age of 34. "That'll be the challenge," Sandberg said of Rollins' age.
if you're batting in the first or second spot, your job is to get on base and to do that, it's more about quality at-bats. With a guy with speed, it's about staying on top of the baseball and concentrating on hard ground balls and line drive stroke. I think that's something he can work at and get better. I think that can help him for the rest of his career, so that's something that will be stressed.
As Buddy Holly sang, well, alright. Old dogs do learn new tricks sometimes. In his first full season in the majors, big Frank Howard took 32 walks in 487 plate appearances. Nine years later, he took 102 in 702 PAs. The next year he led the American League with 132 in 706. He was 33. Of course, he had Ted Williams glowering at him from the dugout, and since he was good for 40 home runs a year he had given pitchers a reason to respect him.
Rollins has never been a ground-ball hitter. As he's gotten older he's stayed set in his ways. In his 20's he hit .71 grounders for every fly ball. In his 30s, that ratio is .68, for all intentions and purposes the same thing. Despite the passage of time, he hasn't gotten any closer to being Derek Jeter.
The downside of that is Jeter (when he's healthy enough to play) grounds into double plays all the time. He grounds into double plays when it's sunny and grounds into double plays when it's overcast and grounds into double plays when there's no one on base and when he's on injury rehab or making an appearance to promote some gas-guzzling SUV.
Jimmy Rollins almost never grounds into a double play. He's having one of his worst years in that regard, hitting into a twin-killing in 14 percent of his opportunities. For late-period Jeter that would be a major victory -- last year he grounded into a double play in nearly a quarter of his chances.
Jeter's tendencies point out the problem with Sandberg's formulation: Few players gets rich by hitting ground balls, with the possible exception of faster-than-light deadball-style hitters such as peak-period Ichiro Suzuki. Take the last three years for example: when hitting the ball on the ground, hitters have averaged .239. And since grounders generally don't find get too far into the outfield before someone picks them up, they pretty much slugged .239 as well. For all his speed, when Rollins has hit the ball on the ground he's averaged .218.
(Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports )
Now, Sandberg likely has a larger point, which is that for Rollins, hitting fly balls in an effort to knock the ball out of the park is a strategy of diminishing returns. It is for almost everyone. Yes, most of your home runs come on fly balls, but the price a hitter pays for that is that the vast majority of those flies are caught before they reach the seats. Look at the last three years again: the average cat has hit .210 when the ball is hit in the air. Now, they've slugged .573 while doing that -- that's the payoff in home runs.
The thing is, not all fly-ball hitters are created equal. Let's take Rollins' much-derided teammate, Ryan Howard. Howard is so strong that over the course of his career he's hit .400 and slugged 1.302 when hitting the ball in the air. Rollins doesn't have Howard's strength. His career return on fly balls is a .157 average and a .431 slugging percentage. This year he's hitting only .087 on fly balls.
Since that nets the Phillies only 15 or 20 home runs a year, it's just worth it compared to Rollins just trying to make contact and hit line drives. Sure, Rollins might lose some of his remaining power, but he'd pick up a great deal more in batting average.
So Sandberg is not completely off his nut here despite the misplaced emphasis on grounders. Perhaps that's simply what it takes to get Rollins' mind off of fly balls. "Think down, not up."
Of course, managers have been saying these kinds of things to Rollins for close to 15 years now only to find he prefers to be the lightly slugging "J-Roll" to the all-around run-producer that a less free-swinging Rollins might have been. Given Rollins' age, the chance has likely passed. Still, Sandberg has to keep busy, has to show that his replacing Charlie Manuel means that he's the Man with the Plan rather than the Grinch Who Replaced Grandpa.
He probably won't succeed, but Rollins has two seasons at most left on his contract (assuming that general manager Ruben Amaro junior's sentimental streak doesn't force another extension), whereas Sandberg hopes to be managing for far longer. It's a long time to keep the audience distracted, but given the state of the Phillies it's probably his best shot at anything like Manuel's longevity.