Craig Counsell might be the hottest MLB free agent not named Shohei Ohtani. What makes the Brewers' manager so special?

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Sept. 22, 2023. On Monday, Nov. 6, Craig Counsell shocked the baseball world by joining the Chicago Cubs.

Short of Shohei Ohtani, the MLB offseason’s most interesting free-agency decision might be made by a manager. With new speculation and rumors popping up weekly, Milwaukee Brewers skipper Craig Counsell figures to rate as one of the most sought-after people in baseball this winter.

As Ken Rosenthal has reported at The Athletic, Counsell's contract runs out at the end of the 2023 season, his ninth at the helm of his hometown team. Just this month, reports have vacillated between saying that he plans to take at least a year off and, alternatively, that he plans to manage in 2024, possibly sparking a bidding war involving the New York Mets, who are reportedly hiring his former boss, David Stearns, as their president of baseball operations. The Brewers, for their part, have made it clear that they want to keep Counsell.

The Brewers just clinched their fifth trip to the playoffs since 2018. Between the Mets hiring Stearns and the apparent demand for Counsell's services, there is obvious respect for the management that has propelled the Brewers toward the top of the NL Central and sustained their status as one of the league's most consistently good teams in recent years. Unavoidably, you also have to note that this run of success has come in one of MLB's smallest markets, with a payroll that has landed among the top half by competitive balance tax calculations only once.

Yet managers are famously difficult to evaluate. Some huge, unquantifiable swath of their job is tending to the individual personalities and collective attitude of their clubhouse across the longest season in major team sports. Another large chunk of their time is devoted to managing outward, keeping things on an even keel among winning streaks and losing stretches. And in the somewhat observable sliver of the job that remains — on-field tactics, bullpen management and the like — their contributions have become harder and harder to separate from those of front offices and the streams of information they provide.

No matter. As the longest-tenured manager in the NL and third-longest-tenured overall, Counsell has clearly won public confidence in a role in which it can be easily and irretrievably shaken.

There are not many blockbuster managerial changes, not in the moment. There are certainly hires that turn out to be momentous — such as the Braves’ tapping minor-league lifer Brian Snitker or the Phillies’ handing the reins to longtime bench coach Rob Thomson last season — but few are recognized and reckoned with ahead of time like player movement.

Bob Melvin’s jump to the San Diego Padres from the sinking ship that was the Oakland A’s probably qualifies as the last one to move the needle. The Detroit Tigers’ move to bring in AJ Hinch following his suspension over the Astros sign-stealing scandal certainly raised eyebrows (and seemingly the floor for Tigers management). Luring icons such as Bruce Bochy and Buck Showalter out of semi-retirement stirred up some attention.

But the last managerial affair with this much hype was probably Joe Maddon’s leap from the Tampa Bay Rays to the Chicago Cubs ahead of 2015.

In this case, the conflicting reports and anonymous speculation are a quirk of Counsell's contract situation and Steve Cohen's uniquely domineering approach to owning an MLB team. But all of this intrigue rests on an underlying assumption: Counsell is not just any manager, not just any good manager. He's a special manager.

So what makes him so special?

'I think we, as a team, have always done it a little bit different'

If you remember Counsell’s managing from one moment, it’s likely the Wade Miley Maneuver. That’s the one his players remember, too.

In 2018, the Brewers were battling the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS. Coming off a 13-inning loss in Game 4, Counsell sent out Miley — a veteran lefty — as the starter on short rest. But one batter into the game, he pulled him and summoned a right-hander to put the Los Angeles lineup at a platoon disadvantage and boost Milwaukee’s less-than-great chances against Clayton Kershaw.

Two-time All-Star Brandon Woodruff, then an unproven commodity with fewer than 15 major-league starts to his name, was that right-hander. He recalled that game fondly this month, reveling in the hush-hush conspiratorial spirit of postseason strategery.

“I don't know the exact conversations that were had behind doors, but Couns had mentioned that night, like, ‘Hey, just obviously be ready for tomorrow,’” Woodruff said of their postgame chat after Game 4. The next day, Counsell read him in on the full plan: He was to warm up in a tunnel, out of sight, as Miley warmed up in the bullpen as a starter normally would. The goal, Woodruff remembers, was “to be ready like hitter No. 2.”

“The way everything was run, it didn't really make sense, but he knew what he was doing,” Woodruff said. “Just the thought behind that and how that all kind of happened is pretty crazy.”

The result didn’t pan out in the Brewers’ favor. They dropped Game 5, eventually pushing the Dodgers to Game 7 but falling short of the World Series. Still, Woodruff’s comfort in the moment and his enduring trust in Counsell are part of a well-worn path for Brewers players.

That 2018 season was shaping up as Woodruff’s first full major-league campaign, a year he could establish himself as a rotation stalwart. Instead, in the midst of a contending season, he shuttled back and forth to Triple-A and mostly pitched out of the bullpen. Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta, now Woodruff’s partners in a devastating 1-2-3 atop the Milwaukee rotation, also spent time honing their craft in a variety of roles before locking down starting jobs.

“I think we, as a team, have always done it a little bit different,” Woodruff said.

Those choices, which surely sprang from a blend of player development tactics and win-now priorities, could’ve been discouraging or disorienting to a young pitcher under different guidance. But now, Woodruff concedes that the progression was helpful for him. And with five more very successful seasons now under his belt, he recognizes that most other clubs don’t wind up talking about the playoffs nearly as consistently as the Brewers do.

“So there's a lot of stuff that goes on as far as decision-making that us as players, we don't really get into,” he said, “but he does a dang good job at it.”

He credits Counsell as a “smart fella,” but that’s secondary in his mind to the respect Counsell engenders in the clubhouse as a 16-year major-league veteran with two World Series rings — a “player’s coach.”

“I think that's what makes Couns so good is that he can relate to us so much,” Woodruff said, “because he went through this. He did it for a long time.”

'It looks like he's always in deep thought, which he probably is'

The elevator pitch for Counsell’s managerial appeal starts with that duality: A smart fella and a player’s coach. A nerd in jock’s clothing. A modern GM’s brain functioning in a grizzled — and successful — former player’s body.

Counsell was appointed to the manager job from a role in the front office, but he brought in his college coach at Notre Dame, Pat Murphy, as his bench coach in 2016 — a yin to his yang, one former player said.

No longer contorting himself into his trademark batting stance, the version of Counsell presiding over the Brewers dugout often strikes a pose straight out of "A Beautiful Mind," rapt in tactical consideration.

“If you see him on TV, it looks like he's always in deep thought, which he probably is,” Woodruff said. “He's thinking about the next move. He just plans out ahead so much that there's so much information that goes into each decision he makes.”

And you do see his intensity, his attention to the smallest detail. Last weekend, when Mark Canha belted a grand slam in the eighth inning and changed the complexion of the Brewers bullpen’s task, Counsell didn’t even watch the ball land before bolting to the phone to offer new instructions.

That, however, is just his game face.

“I think a lot of people, from the outside, when they look at him during the game, he's just kind of pacing around, or he's got the lineup card, and that's kind of how he is,” said Brian Anderson, the Brewers’ utility player in his first season under Counsell. “But I think other than those times during the games like that, he's a really approachable guy, really easy to talk to and a good communicator.”

Even among former players, the mention of Counsell’s name sparks praise.

“I feel like from the moment you get there, he welcomes you in and kind of lets you be yourself,” said Jace Peterson, a veteran infielder now with the Arizona Diamondbacks who spent three seasons with Milwaukee. “Allows you to kind of show up every day, and he expects you to be a professional, expects you to prepare, but other than that, he allows you to be yourself and be comfortable and kind of get in and fit in where you do.”

Anderson said one of the first things Counsell said to him when he arrived at Brewers camp was in a similar vein: “He was like, ‘However you are, we want you to be yourself, just the best version of yourself.’”

“Couns, he's a special guy,” Peterson said. “And it was a pleasure to play for him. I'd go back and play for him in a heartbeat. Definitely my favorite manager I've played for in the big leagues so far.”

A real difference-maker in the murky role of manager

Beyond his players’ vocal admiration, it’s what you won’t find on Counsell’s résumé that might be the most attractive point in his favor. He has no dogmatic methods and is wedded to no style of play. You won’t find him caping for the old days of the sacrifice bunt, but you would almost certainly find him using the tactic if it became strategically advantageous.

When he lacked proven starting pitchers, he steered his 2018 team to the brink of the World Series with tandem starters, bulk guys and multi-inning relief aces. When the young starters were emerging, he was crucial in engineering and implementing a plan that built in extra rest to amp up their effectiveness and ease their transition to throwing a full workload. This year, with a team built around those starters, he has leaned on them and worked to put his bullpen in the best situations possible, most often involving clean, one-inning stints.

You can see his adaptability in more extreme relief on the basepaths. In 2016, his first full year managing, Counsell used four pinch-runners all season, about 22% of the average MLB manager's total. As recently as last year, with scoring heavily dependent on the home run, Counsell used 53% as many pinch-runners as the typical MLB skipper but more pinch-hitters than average. This season, with stolen bases far easier to come by and more hits falling in due to shift restrictions, Counsell has changed course, using 46% more pinch-runners than the average MLB manager.

As Rosenthal pointed out in attempting to unearth evidence of Counsell's widely agreed upon excellence, his teams have routinely outperformed both their preseason projections and their expected records based on run differential. No one stays ahead of the game forever — see Maddon and his Angels tenure — but in a game that changes all the time, the most successful managers change, and respond, all the time.

Yet the one thing Counsell hasn’t changed so far is, notably, his loyalty to Milwaukee. He grew up in the area — his father worked for the team — and raised his family in the same town, Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. He retired from his playing career as a member of the Brewers and quickly took the front office job that led to his current gig.

The man whose name adorns the local high school baseball field in Whitefish Bay, who seeks out players who spent time in the Northwoods League — a collegiate wood-bat league based in Wisconsin — wouldn’t take the idea of leaving Milwaukee lightly. Right now, beyond the rumors, it’s completely unclear whether Counsell would even consider joining Stearns in New York or whether he intends to manage next year as his two sons prepare to play college baseball.

What’s clear is that Counsell will be in demand, that he has convinced the baseball world he’s a real difference-maker in the murky role of manager — a trick that might be even more difficult than convincing the Dodgers that a lefty is pitching.