This evening the Manager of the Year Award winners will be announced. I don’t think there’s a ton of suspense on that this year. Most people seem to think that Brian Snitker of the Braves will win it in the National League and that Bob Melvin of the Athletics will win it in the American League.
The reason is pretty straightforward: the Braves, while supposed to have improved in 2018, were not supposed to have won the NL East and they did. The A’s were supposed to be pretty awful, actually — most pundits picked them last in the AL West — and they won 97 games. Which underscores the general idea behind the Manager of the Year Award: it’s usually about exceeding expectations.
I don’t have a gigantic problem with this — really, if who wins the Manager of the Year Award keeps you awake at night you should probably seek help — but I do think about it at least for a few moments every year and wonder why we hand out this award in this way. Because giving it out based on which teams exceeded expectations seems to be based on two inherent flaws.
The first flaw is the assumption that those expectations were in any way reasonable.
Sure, most pundits picked the A’s to finish last, but maybe we were all completely wrong? When I do my predictions every year I feel like, in many ways, I’m just guessing. So much so that I put a long comical disclaimer on them assuring my readers that I have no actual idea. A handful of other pundits do too. Sure, it was something of a no-brainer to pick the Astros to win the AL West, but was it really a no-brainer to make such a definitive distinction between how the Mariners, Angles, Rangers and A’s would do? Or, for that matter, how the also-ran Wild Card teams would do? At the time it seemed so — and next spring we’ll pretend we know things all over again — but will we be any less full of crap then than we were last March?
The second flaw — granting that expectations were reasonable and that, yes, the team genuinely and shockingly exceeded them — is giving all of the credit for the manager for making it happen.
Most of the time these days we acknowledge just how much less input a manager has on day-to-day decisions than he used to have. We note that front offices now make decisions about who plays against whom, who shifts where and when and even how the lineup looks on a given night. That stuff is largely invisible, and the manager is the guy who faces the press each day to talk about it, but I think we have less of an idea of who pulled what levers and pushed which buttons to help a team win than we’ve ever really had. And that’s before you start talking about transactions — driven almost totally by the front office — that made a difference. That’s also before you acknowledge that, sometimes, players just go out of their minds sometimes and have fantastic, unexpected seasons. Should we credit Snitker for assembling a shockingly effective relief corps at almost zero cost and for Anibal Sanchez improbably finding the fountain of youth in 2018? Probably not, but we will, effectively, do so in the Manager of the Year voting.
Despite identifying those flaws, I’m not sure what else voters are supposed to go on. Unlike the awards for players, there are no stats by which to judge managers outside of win-loss totals, which we largely and properly discount for all other individual awards. We’d never make a point to blindly give the award to the manager of the team with the best record because (a) that would be boring; and (b) we know, implicitly, that a lot of those managers have advantages other managers don’t in terms of a payroll full of superior players and we don’t give him credit for that. As such, were else except exceeding expectations can we go, flaws in that approach notwithstanding?
So that’s what we do, and that’s why, most likely, Brian Snitker and Bob Melvin will win the Manager of the Year Awards. That’s why Kevin Cash of the Rays, Bud Black of the Rockies and Craig Counsell of the Brewers will get a lot of votes too. Voters will credit them for their skill and acumen in getting more out of teams not picked to win their divisions or make the playoffs than most people suspected they will.
Just don’t ask those same voters why two of the last three Manager of the Year Award winners — Paul Molitor of the Twins and Jeff Bannister of the Rangers — suddenly forgot how to exceed expectations, leading to them getting fired at the end of the year. That might make things a tad harder to square than award voters care to admit.