First off, yes, I realize that Ryne Sandberg is talked about ad nauseam here and other places. However, while his traits (selflessness, accountability, etc.) are most often talked about when examining why Sandberg would be the proper manager for the Cubs, his managerial qualities are often ignored.
With Lehigh Valley visiting Indianapolis for a four-game series over the weekend, and since the IronPigs play just 56 games a year with National League rules, I felt like the time would be right to see if I could gain any insight into Sandberg's managerial personality. (And yes, I realize the sample size is small)
A Brief History
55, 71, 58. In the three years before Ryne Sandberg's arrival in Lehigh Valley, those were the win totals for the IronPigs. Now, while different organizations have markedly different goals for their minor league affiliates, winning just about 40 percent of one's games is still difficult to do. In Sandberg's first year, Lehigh Valley has already set a franchise record with 74 victories and is in position to reach the International League playoffs with two weeks to go in the year. How have they gone about this?
Lehigh has not relied on player development at Triple-A this year. The IronPigs have a veteran roster (Brandon Moss, Josh Barfield, Rich Thompson, Tagg Bozied, etc.), which can be a double-edged sword. Some teams will have 25 players with 25 agendas, which quickly submarines the team. However, this group, judging from the temperament in the clubhouse and on the field, seems to be pulling as one. Mix in the experience, and generally things work well.
The two positional prospects playing regularly for Lehigh are playing well under Sandberg's tutelage. Domonic Brown has no business being in Lehigh Valley; he's Major League ready, but is able to utilize all five of his tools for the IronPigs, stealing five bases in the four-game series.
Freddy Galvis is a 21-year old shortstop from Venezuela, who in limited at bats (he was called up on Aug. 2) entered last night hitting .314. His hustle down the first base line allowed him to beat out a bobble by the second baseman, leading to the game's decisive four-run outburst last night.
And while the offense is collectively hitting .254 (with a .721 OPS), Sandberg has utilized the team's one obvious strength this year: speed. Seven different players have 10 or more stolen bases, creating more run-producing opportunities for the middle of his order. Rich Thompson leads the club with 39 swipes, while Lehigh's 103 thefts are fourth in the League, helping the club scratch across every available run.
The place where Sandberg (and pitching coach Rod Nichols) appear to have excelled, however, is in the construction of the team's bullpen. While Lehigh's starters have been solid throughout the year, their bullpen has been one of the best in Triple-A, sporting a 34-15 record with a 2.76 ERA (449.1 IP, 138 ER, 529 K). It hasn't come through the traditional means, either, of getting six quality innings and turning it over to a few trusted relievers.
Instead, six players on Lehigh's active roster have a save, with Sandberg even going to his closer for a two-inning save on Saturday night. Mike Zagurski picked up the majority of his 11 saves in the first half of the year, before Juan Perez and Scott Mathieson began collecting saves in June. However, Mathieson was moved to the rotation around the end of June (where he had shined until last night), leading to Michael Schwimer's 10 saves. With Schwimer in Philadelphia and an assortment of power arms in the bullpen (Philippe Aumont, Justin De Fratus, Drew Carpenter) waiting, however, Sandberg was able to roll through multiple innings at a time with his relief corps, rarely playing lefty-right matchups in the four-game set.
In dealing with the pitching staff, Sandberg had no trouble pulling a starter and turning the game over to his pen. On Saturday, he pinch hit for Nate Bump in the top of the 6th inning with Lehigh down 1-0, 2 outs and the bases loaded. Bump's line at the time was: 5 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 4 K, 58 pitches.With Bump cruising, Sandberg sent Cody Overbeck to the plate (if Overbeck is ever on the ML roster, that team is in trouble). Overbeck's bases-clearing double sent the IronPigs on to a 3-1 win.
Tuesday, with Mathieson struggling (3.2 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 6 BB, 3 K, 93 pitches), Sandberg didn't wait for the end of the inning to bail the starter out. Instead, he went his bullpen, getting 4.1 innings, in which the pen allowed 2 runs, by which time Lehigh led, 7-4.
I didn't see much of the "fire" that people are surprised to see when Ryne Sandberg manages; for the four games, he stayed even-keeled for the most part, but backing up his players when they felt the strike zone was too large, or if the umpire missed a call.
For the most part, Sandberg seemed to be thoroughly enjoying his time; his entire family was in town (I'm pretty sure the Sandberg Family Christmas Card will feature the skyline of Indianapolis from Victory Field), which I'm sure helped. And while he's always been known to sign autographs for fans, doing so each and every day - even when the last game of the series was delayed for an hour - was impressive to me.
Whether it is as a manager or bench coach, Ryne Sandberg is ready to make the leap to the Major Leagues. I have no idea if Ryne Sandberg will be the next manager of the Cubs. After watching him for four days, I came away with the impression that he's prepared to manage at the next level. His handling of a pitching staff, in particular, I felt was impressive. His team's even approach throughout the year, I believe (based on talking to Lehigh's radio/media relations director and reading the paper), has been a reflection of him and his leadership, as well.
In any case, sorry for the length, but I hope it lends a little insight into how Ryne Sandberg has managed this year.