November 15, 2012
In A Pickle
Manager of the Year is stupid. Manager of the Year voting is stupid. Given the former, it's not clear that the latter matters in the least, but indulge me.
Despite the language in the above paragraph, I'm not a 2002 stathead, though I certainly was once upon a time. I can't pretend today that the semi-tangible, semi-measurable aspects of managing a baseball team that fans love to talk about are the most important aspects, because it is highly likely that they are not. Computers and front-office nerds alike (hold the jokes, HOLD THE JOKES) can do an excellent job deciding when to bunt (never), when to substitute a relief pitcher (as often as possible), and how to construct a batting order (Barry Bonds leading off!), yet we've heard more in recent years about the possibility of a player-manager (Paul Konerko) than nerd-managers. (And no, Joe Maddon does not count—he was briefly paid to play the game of baseball, after all, and I'm talking about putting Paul DePodesta or Ben Lindbergh in the dugout, not an ex-minor-leaguer who happens to wear glasses and listen more carefully to his team's analytics department than most dugout men do.) This absence of nerditry would suggest that baseball teams making seven- and eight-figure bets on their personnel and leadership decisions value significantly the immeasurable side of managing that includes dealing with personalities, keeping an eye on low-level health issues, and even actual coaching. Sure, teams can be subject to biases and path-dependency just as anyone else can, and the size of the gamble doesn't mean the play isn't stupid (heyyyyy Wall Street), but we can't go off half-cocked on these teams and demand firing Dusty Baker every time he bunts, either.
With that 2012 Stathead's Apology out of the way, I would suggest that if we're going to persist in the fool's errand of ranking managers for a yearly award, as was done recently with the election of Bob Melvin to the position of Manager of the Year in the American League, then we ought to examine what are clearly the core criteria on which the voters vote, to see if they might have logical holes. But really, I should use the singlar: that criterion is simply, "Which manager's team was most surprisingly good?" That is, switching to the second person like Hubie Brown, if you have your general manager hand you a $180 million behemoth with six All-Stars and you massage those egos and keep those players healthy all the way to a 96-win season, you'll get a handful of third-place votes. But get lucky with your run differential and win a bunch of games via bleeps and blonkers and take a team that everyone wrote off to 92 wins and the wild card and you're a mortal lock for hardware. (Unless, as was the case this year in the American League, there were two surprise teams. Then they'll split the vote and whoever is nicer wins by a hair. Always be nice to the media.)
Before we jump whole-heartedly into the criticism of this method, though, I want to note: the funny thing about expectations and how we make them and where our biases might be is that I can think of exactly two situations in which preseason expectations matter. First, if you like gambling on season lines at your local legal sports book, you are presented rather directly with the expectations question and you put your money where your brain is.
The only other place where expectations really matter is in the issue at hand: end-of-the-year manager awards. I guess here I should expect some quibbles that the awards don't mean anything. To these quibbles I have two responses: