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November 18, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

The Manager of the Year Award

by Christina Kahrl

If, in my first year in the BBWAA, I got to vote for the AL Rookie of the Year, one of the advantage of being in a two-team market was that in the next, I got to change teams and be one of the Chicago voters for NL Manager of the Year.

Now, to some extent, this was a fairly exciting development. Evaluating managerial performance on the basis of objective data has long been one of the things I'd long pressed for us to contribute towards quantifying. Finding a willing partner in this act of faith in Steven Goldman, we introduced manager comments in the BP annuals in the 2007 edition, presenting as well a few evaluative metrics that pointedly go beyond the excellent collection of information that BIS publishes annually in The Bill James Handbook.*

But beyond that, picking a Manager of the Year has always been an area of some suspicion. Where it was always easy to curl up in outsider's armor and sneer about how the vote could be a popularity contest, or a perfunctory exercise in post hoc ergo propter hoc rationalization: a winning team wins because of a manager who knows how to win, evidenced by its having won. It's the trophy that goes to the guys whose teams are flying a league pennant or a divisional guidon or whatever it is that you get for a wild card. If baseball is interwoven with American history like so many sinews, you can see this as the bit that goes all the way back to the Salem Witch Trials, which had their own brand of tidy circular logic and celebration.

So, confident that I knew better, I embraced this challenge. I figured, heck, it'll be fun, it'll give me additional cause to scope out boxes and look for especially clever gambits and adaptations, and in the end, I'll have just cause for voting as I would. Which is not to say that I didn't invest in a wee bit of pre-season double-think: when I made out my pre-season picks, I pegged my NL Manager of the Year selection on the outcome of my prediction for the standings. Perhaps fatefully, I'd anticipated a second-place finish for the Reds, expecting that they would contend, and that when they did, by the very logic I described, I anticipated that the voters would, in such a circumstance, vote for Dusty Baker as Manager of the Year. It figured to be a wee bit of redemption for the skipper still living down the Giants' and Cubs' near-misses of 2002 and 2003—and we all know writers love a story.

Then the season played out, and we saw who won and why. The Reds did more than just make a run, they won their race. If you wanted to rely upon stats like our adjusted standings report, you might have felt that the Astros' Brad Mills was a miracle worker for winding up with a record 10 games better than expected, but as I pointed out last week (in the comments section of Matt Swartz's piece on the adjusted standings), it's important not to lose the trees in the forest—the Astros' big “miracle” depended on spectacularly awful lineup selections up front, and belatedly getting acquainted with what adequacy looked like after the first two months.

So, I wasn't going to vote for Mills—it was a place to start. I wound up feeling there were five solid candidates for the three slots on the ballot: the Braves' Bobby Cox, the Phillies' Charlie Manuel, the Giants' Bruce Bochy, the Padres' Bud Black, and Baker. Even with the best of intentions, there ended up being subjective factors that came into play.

To go case by case:

Cox: Beyond the viking funeral element of giving the man his due on his way out of the game, you could not help but recognize that he had to be very flexible as the season progressed. Picking an outfield became a day-to-day adventure, the frustrations with employing Yunel Escobar got to be a distraction, and the cheap job-share arrangement at first base with Troy Glaus and Eric Hinske wound up coming up short. If not for Omar Infante's health and career year, the lineup might have proven a debilitating problem, but Cox adapted to the talent on hand and the flexibility built into the roster. The bullpen, so often a target of media criticism during the Cox era despite fairly good work, wound up producing another better-than-expected performance, not merely because of famous additions like Billy Wagner or despite fragile, sporadic contributors like Takashi Saito, but because Cox once again broke in yet another kid, Jonny Venters.

As ever, Cox had proven adaptable in his lineup and in his bullpen selections. When given cause to cast aside ineffective players, whether Kenshin Kawakami or Troy Glaus, or losing assets like Eric O'Flaherty or Kris Medlen, Cox adapted, as he always had. On the other hand, he'd futzed around with Melky Cabrera a lot more than more consenting adults would have, kept finding ways to avoid employing Craig Kimbrel despite obvious need, perpetuated a late-career tendency of burning through his bullpen and getting into trouble by overusing the intentional walk, and wound up with a record either falling short or running even with his expected record. In short, it was a season with pluses and minuses.

Manuel: Sure, the man might seem to have everything going for him—an All-Star lineup, plus an outstanding rotation with the recent addition of Roy Halladay. It's easy to envy the man his lot. However, he also had to deal with losing six lineup regulars to the DL at different points of the season, and where some skippers would have blown a gasket, panicked, or gotten far too invested in one-runs strategies, Manuel, true to form, rolled with it. He didn't freak over inconsistency in his rotation or his pen. His team's getting older, so he's running less often. In short, he was exactly the sort of skipper you want, operating with high expectations and in the face of fluid situations—he adapted, and never handicapped his team's potential to win. The fact that the team wound up two to seven wins better than expected better than all of the non-Mills candidates while handily winning the NL East despite so many challenges, well, that deserved some sort of recognition, didn't it?

Bochy: For a man who might never get credit as a tactical genius, it was hard not to come away with a ton of respect for Bochy's creativity. A Travis Ishikawa/Aaron Rowand lineup platoon, with Aubrey Huff moving between an outfield corner and first base, with Andres Torres shifting from center to right against lefties? A manager who was aggressive in his use of defensive replacements and pinch-runners? A manager willing to employ his closer in the eighth inning? While you can fuss over how many sac bunts the Giants attempted and made, even there, I wasn't bent out of shape—most of that work was by his pitchers, as he didn't go totally nuts bunting with position players.

In short, it was a season's worth of skippering that was a flashback to the '80s, where Bochy made an impact with his lineup cards as much as his tactics. His post-season performance, admirably daring as it was, was in the future at the time I'd cast my ballot, but it was also consistent with the man's demonstrated willingness to roll the dice in-season and in-game. Add in the Giants' outperformance of their expected record by as much as five games (by third-order wins in our adjusted standings), and it was hard not to feel like I'd stumbled across a bit of skippering I'd have readily recognized in my youth.

Baker: I was ready to afford the man the credit that goes with the usual mummery; the “steady hand” argument, if you will. But he was careful with his younger rotation starters—proof of an old dog learning new tricks, given his past record—he came around on young relief assets like Logan Ondrusek and Jordan Smith, while successfully integrating Bill Bray as well in the second half. He was fairly aggressive in employing defensive replacements, especially for Jonny Gomes. He ran a nice catching combo with Ramon Hernandez and Ryan Hanigan, integrated Drew Stubbs into the lineup, and proved willing to experiment when Orlando Cabrera flopped at the top of the order—and I know, for some in the stathead community, lineup order doesn't matter, but I'm willing to credit a manager for addressing a veteran's performance failure. Would that he had been more willing to bench Gomes, but that might have been what Jim Edmonds would have allowed him—except that Edmonds got hurt so soon after his arrival, eliminating a potential solution to the worst of the team's lineup problems.

Black: Yes, the Padres were underdogs, and you can make a lot out of that. But more interesting than any mere overperformance of pre-season expectations was Black's aggressive willingness to address problems and fix them. He didn't have a great outfield, but did he wallow in despair over it? No, he formed a series of platoons, employing Tony Gwynn Jr. and Chris Denorfia in center, and Will Venable and Aaron Cunningham in a corner. When Everth Cabrera couldn't cut it at short, Black was party to an operational decision that, not only were the Pads going to acquire Miguel Tejada, they were going to make the old man a shortstop again. Perhaps that was more affordable because of a park or a high strikeout rate pitching staff, but in this era of feverishly aggressive pronouncements on the value of defense, it was an inspired choice that provided adequate D and offense the club desperately needed. The Pad pen was a work of intricate genius, ranking fifth all-time via WXRL, providing a reliable everyday asset that afforded the skipper a quick hook with a young and uncertain rotation—despite which, the Pads' rotation still finished third in the league in SNLVAR despite finishing 12th in starter innings pitched. And beyond the platoons, he'd been willing to bring his closer in before the ninth inning as well, just like Bochy(or Lou Piniella with Carlos Marmol), tickling my '80s vibe. All told, the team wound up third in the league in outperforming its third-order winning percentage. 

Which made for a great set of selections, but in the end, I had cut-downs and choices to make. After a long afternoon of wallowing and consulting colleagues to bounce arguments off them, I eliminated Cox first. In the end, I couldn't help but think that a lot of voting for him included sympathy for the sendoff argument, and between expensive preferences for Alex Gonzalez and the intentional walk, plus the failure to resolve the outfield's casting at the non-Heyward slots left me thinking he deserved what I've given him here—an honorable mention.

My next dilemma was to sort out who else to cut, and come to terms with who might win. In that, as sympathetic as I was initially to Manuel, I wound up deciding that the man did have the advantages of his cast to fall back upon. For as many injuries as he'd had to manage around, he did nevertheless have a ton of talent to fall back upon. Competence and adaptability were outstanding qualities, but they're also easier to summon up when you've got as many fixed qualities as the Phillies had going for them.

Which left me with my trio, the same that finished in the top three slots of the final ballot. Bochy's candidacy was delightful for so many reasons, and perhaps would have profited from the additional knowledge of what he would do in the postseason; in a way, it reminded me of Don Zimmer's first and last good year as a manager, with the '89 Cubs, in that he was willing to take risks, and those paid off more often than you might have expected. But as creative as I felt he'd been with his lineup, he owed a lot to having a rotation that was every bit as good as the Phillies, and was perhaps deeper, providing that much more freedom of action to take chances—could I credit Bochy with all of that, when so much relied on the presence of five quality starting pitchers? I decided he was my third-place vote.

So then there were two. As much as I respected what Baker had done, and as impressed as I was that he'd proven admirably changeable after all these years, I was left thinking that Black's brio, with his lineup and that pen, with his aggressive handling of an uncertain rotation, was the combination I was most impressed with. Perhaps it relied heavily on low initial expectations, perhaps not. I know that I was chagrined for quite some time over whether or not voting for Baker—after picking him in the pre-season—constituted some form of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the end, I was left with the conviction that Black deserved it, for the difference he had made with his staff, and for his creativity in compensating for his shortage of quality lineup regulars with platooning and job-sharing arrangements.

My ballot ran exactly as the final outcome: Black in first place, Baker in second, and Bochy in third. Which was extremely conventional, given the final outcome, yet not intentionally so. Well, that, or I'm becoming a conventional sort of person in my fortysomething dotage. Perhaps all of us who voted wound up with similarly skinned cats, but I felt I'd taken care to sort out where and why I was catskinning in my own particular way.

 --

There's also the American League result to ponder, not that I had anything to do with it. Ron Gardenhire's victory can be treated as something of his come-uppance, I think that does him little credit. Instead, note what he did demonstrate: patience with Delmon Young, yes, but also creativity in keeping Jim Thome in the lineup, in moving Michael Cuddyer around, and in tweaking his rotation. This was not simply a team that had Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, and therefore rolled—Morneau went away far too soon for anyone's liking, while the latest comebacks of Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano should redound to their skipper's credit somehow. And here again, a fine hand with his pen deserves some measure of credit. While Ron Washington, Joe Maddon, and—yet again—Mike Scioscia deserve props for their work, it's an outcome you can respect.

*: A collection of info, I should add, that John Dewan and company have outdone themselves on in this year's edition. If you've allowed yourself to lapse purchasing the BJH in previous seasons, get a copy of this year's edition for this and several other reasons, because the BIS crew has done an exceptional job of reinventing the book to make it more valuable still.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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