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Who Should Win Manager of the Year? Who Will?

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Time for my annual rant about the Manager of the Year Award:

Numbers aren’t everything when it comes to postseason awards, but with the Rookie of the Year Award, Cy Young and MVP, you at least have some stats on which to hang your argument. There are basically no numbers that gauge a manager’s effectiveness or performance apart from wins and losses and wins and losses are largely a function of talent on the roster, for which the manager is not responsible. This is not to say managers aren’t important. They obviously are. They make important decisions every day, particularly with respect to the bullpen. They keep the clubhouse running smoothly. They are, essentially, the team’s press agent, meeting reporters every day and putting out fires. That’s all important. It just so happens to be mostly unquantifiable and subject to anecdote and projection.

It’s also subjective as hell. For example:

  • Very often the award is more about the media thinking a team will be bad or mediocre and it, actually, being pretty good. The media gives a manager an award for that for somehow getting more out of his team than it should’ve. Is it not possible that the media just judged the team poorly?
  • And don’t get me started about the teams that get bad quickly. Matt Williams won the Manager of the Year Award with he Nationals in 2014. He was run out of town on a rail in 2015. Did he suddenly forget how to manage? Or did he never really know but was blessed with good fortune and better players the year before? Bruce Bochy won three World Series titles in five seasons and last year helmed the worst team in baseball. He certainly did not forget how to manage.
  • There’s also a bias against giving the same guy the award two years in a row. In fact, only once in the 34-year history of the award, amounting to 68 winners, has there been a repeat winner (Bobby Cox in 2004 and 2005). Dave Roberts won it last year. This year his Dodgers won more games than anyone. Is he somehow less of a manager after winning 104 games? I don’t think so, but even if he does win, I bet he gets fewer votes because someone, somewhere, thinks someone else should get a turn.

All of which is to say that Manager of the Year has always been about narratives and expectations of people on the outside looking in who nonetheless purport to know how the manager performed his job in the most inside baseball kinds of ways. A given voter may have more insight into how a guy they covered for the past six months handles things, but to the extent they know any more than us how the other managers do, it’s mostly hearsay.

They’re still going to give out the award, of course, so let’s try to guess how the voters will guess who the best manager in each league was in 2017:

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Because the BBWAA has already announced the top three vote-getters, we know it’s a three-horse race here, with two of the horses — A.J. Hinch of the Astros and Terry Francona of the Indians — being “managers of dominant clubs” candidates and one — Paul Molitor of the Twins — being the “guy who managed a team that greatly exceeded expectations,” which has long been a favorite of Manager of the Year voters.

Francona won it last year so, in keeping with the hesitance of voters to name a repeat winner, you might expect someone else. Hinch was manager of the World Series champs. Obviously his team’s title won’t enter into it because the voting was completed before the playoffs began, but a guy who won 101 games is going to get some support. It’s possible that he and Francona split the “manager of the dominant team” vote, allowing Molitor to sneak in and claim it as the top “exceeded expectations” guy. If he does, voters will have said that the guy who finished 17 games behind Cleveland in the standings had a better year than Cleveland’s manager did. But like I said, Manager of the Year voting is weird.

Ultimately, I think Hinch wins it. His team won a lot and bounced back from missing the playoffs the season before. His team had a lot of injuries too, particularly to the starting pitching, and voters like to give managers a boost for that. I don’t think, objectively, you can distinguish too much between the jobs Hinch and Francona did, as each had supremely talented rosters and each cruised to a division title, but voters will say Francona should’ve done it, they’ll give Molitor style points but believe he was too far back of Francona and Hinch will carry the day.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

The three finalists here all came from the National League West. Which makes you think you could order them pretty easily, but I’m sure someone will overly-complicate this.

With the exception of a brief swoon in late August and early September, Dave Roberts and the Dodgers dominated baseball in 2017, winning 104 games. They did so with a rookie first baseman no one expected to play like he did, with a converted starter serving as the team’s setup man, a journeyman starter in his late 30s as the team’s number 2 starter and with ace Clayton Kershaw missing a good chunk of the season. The Dodgers are supposed to win because they’re talented, but I think people are underselling just how different it is to win a division with 104 wins vs. winning it with 91 wins, like they did in 2016. Heck, ANY manager who improves by 13 wins has done a great job, right? Is it not harder to improve an already good team than to improve a bad team?

Roberts’ competition are the two NL Wild Card managers, Torey Lovullo of the Diamondbacks and Bud Black of the Rockies. The former was a rookie manager who took a team many people felt was dysfunctional before and pushed them to 93 wins. There’ a lot more to the story than that in Arizona — there was a front office makeover, some trades and some bounce back years in all of that too — but Lovullo will get a lot of the credit. Black’s case is a two-pronged argument in which he (a) took a Rockies team to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, giving him the “exceeded expectations” votes; and (b) turned the Rockies pitching staff into a plus, despite the difficulties of altitude. He’ll get extra credit there.

Ultimately, though, I don’t see how voters can not only look past a 104-win manager, but look past him and give the award to one of the guys in charge of a team that 104-win club buried. I think Roberts should win the award again and I suspect that, for the first time since 2005, we will have a repeat winner.

Must-Click Link: Do the players even care about money anymore?

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Yesterday I wrote about how the union has come to find itself in the extraordinarily weak position it’s in. The upshot: their leadership and their membership, happily wealthy by virtue of gains realized in the 1970s-1990s, has chosen to focus on small, day-to-day, quality of life issues rather than big-picture financial issues. As a result, ownership has cleaned their clock in the past few Collective Bargaining Agreements. If the union is to ever get back the considerable amount of ground it has lost over the past 15 years, it’ll require a ton of hard work and perhaps drastic measures.

A few hours later, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan dropped an absolute must-read that expands on that topic. Through weeks of interviews with league officials, agents and players, he explains why the free agent market is as bad as it is for players right now and why so many of them and so many fans seem not to understand just how bad a spot the players are in, business wise.

Passan keys on the media’s credulousness regarding teams’ stated rationales for not spending in free agency. About how, with even a little bit of scrutiny, the “[Team] wants to get below the luxury tax” argument makes no sense. About how the claim that this is a weak free agent class, however true that may be, does not explain why so few players are being signed.  About how so few teams seem interested in actually competing and how fans, somehow, seem totally OK with it.

Passan makes a compelling argument, backed by multiple sources, that, even if there is a lot of money flowing around, the fundamental financial model of the game is broken. The young players are the most valuable but are paid pennies while players with 6-10 years service time are the least valuable yet are the ones, theoretically anyway, positioned to make the most money. The owners have figured it out. The union has dropped the ball as it has worried about, well, whatever the heck it is worried about. The killer passage on all of this is damning in this regard:

During the negotiations leading to the 2016 basic agreement that governs baseball, officials at MLB left bargaining stupefied almost on a daily basis. Something had changed at the MLBPA, and the league couldn’t help but beam at its good fortune: The core principle that for decades guided the union no longer seemed a priority.

“It was like they didn’t care about money anymore,” one league official said.

Personally, I don’t believe that they don’t care about money anymore. I think the union has simply dropped the ball on educating its membership about the business structure of the game and the stakes involved with any given rule in the CBA. I think that they either so not understand the financial implications of that to which they have agreed or are indifferent to them because they do not understand their scope and long term impact.

It’s a union’s job to educate its membership about the big issues that may escape any one member’s notice — like the long term effects of a decision about the luxury tax or amateur and international salary caps — and convince them that it’s worth fighting for. Does the MLBPA do that? Does it even try? If it hasn’t tried for the past couple of cycles and it suddenly starts to now, will there be a player civil war, with some not caring to jeopardize their short term well-being for the long term gain of the players who follow them?

If you care at all about the business and financial aspects of the game, Passan’s article is essential.