Thursday November 18th, 2010

Baseball's Manager of the Year awards are essentially prizes for the skipper of each league's most surprising team or the club that overcame the most adversity.

Success in the face of low expectations or unforeseen injuries or other off-field distractions is often the most-cited indicator of a good manager -- one whose job is inherently difficult to quantify -- and that proved true again with the 2010 awards.

The Padres' Bud Black bested the Reds' Dusty Baker by a single point to claim the NL award, and the Twins' Ron Gardenhire won the American League award. Both are first-time winners. Baker had won three previous awards.

Few pundits or fans expected San Diego to even be a .500 ballclub, much less a 90-game winner that was in playoff contention until the season's final day. But Black's Padres had the majors' best turnaround of +15, going from 75 wins to 90 wins.

The Twins, meanwhile, won the AL Central with 94 wins -- a +7 improvement over the previous season -- and did so while losing All-Star closer Joe Nathan for the season with a spring-training elbow injury and All-Star first baseman Justin Morneau for the second half of the season with a concussion.

Black and Gardenhire are bright, well-respected by their players and deserving of this year's award, so this is not meant as a critique of their selections, but there a few questions about the award seem to arise each year, all adding to the difficulty voters have in selecting who truly was the Manager of the Year.

Jack O'Connell, Secretary-Treasurer of the Baseball Writers Association of America, wrote in an e-mail that there are no specific instructions given to voters and that they are told only to "vote for who you think did the best job." So given that the decision is open to interpretation, here are a few questions that should be considered by voters.

Can the job of managers even be compared for all 30 teams?

The best 20 or so teams enter each season with realistic expectations of making the playoffs, meaning their managers are charged with winning as many games as possible. The primary task for managers of the bottom third or so -- which in 2010 meant clubs like the Astros, Orioles, Pirates, Royals, et al. -- is to develop young players for contention in future seasons.

It's easier to determine, of course, who the MVP is or who the Cy Young is because there each player endeavors to perform the best they can -- performances that can easily be identified through statistics and other means.

Figuring out which managers performed the best in a given season is going to be more subjective because there is no way to measure just how much impact a skipper has on his team's success -- and what "success" means to a given franchise.

That Joe Girardi was named Manager of the Year for his work with the Marlins in 2006, despite a losing record of 78-84, showed that the award is not solely intended for the best manager of a contending club, yet he is the only winner who managed a full 162-game schedule and didn't win at least 89 games. That suggests that only once in the 28 years of the award has it gone to the manager of a second-class team.

How big a role should preseason expectations play?

In other words, who is to say which teams are contenders and which are rebuilding each season?

Baker's Reds had the majors' second best turnaround -- trailing only the Padres -- as Cincinnati improved by 13 wins (from 78 to 91) to nab its first playoff berth in 15 years. The Reds made that leap with a highly-regarded core of young players that many thought would soon vault the club to contention. The Reds arrived a year early by winning the NL Central, but the talent was thought to be there.

Much of San Diego's roster, on the other hand, was full of unheralded pitchers and underrated defensive players, a combination that went unnoticed by the many who predicted the Padres would be cellar-dwellers. It wasn't unlike the 2008 Rays who defied the odds by stockpiling talented players who had skills that were undervalued. In both cases their managers did exceptional jobs to harness that ability, but the teams were also a bit better than anyone gave them credit before the season.

When a team battles through injuries, how much of that is the manager's doing and how much of it is the front office's ability to stock the team with depth?

Gardenhire had become a sentimental favorite after previously finishing as the runner-up in five other seasons (2003, '04, '06, '08 and '09) but won the award this year in part because of injuries to key players, as a positive response to a crisis is often a sign of good leadership. Such language is even used on the official Web site for the Baseball Writers Association of America. The text supporting Gardenhire even included this phrase: "despite the loss to injury of closer Joe Nathan for the whole season and slugging first baseman Justin Morneau for half the schedule."

It shouldn't escape notice that the Twins' payroll was roughly $98 million in 2010 -- more than $25 million higher than it ever had been -- so presumably it was also Gardenhire's most talented club. In the bullpen, for instance, his front office made in-season trades for a pair of closers, Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes, deals they may not have been able to afford in previous seasons.

That's not to take away from Gardenhire, who had the difficult chore of reassigning Fuentes from closer to set-up man and try to get him to excel at his seemingly lesser role. Gardenhire also should receive credit for his manipulation of his lineup to account for the loss of Morneau -- among the more notable moves was playing Michael Cuddyer at five different positions, including second base and third where he had scant experience in the past five seasons.

Should consideration for Manager of the Year be restricted to a single season?

The simple answer is obviously "yes" but there ought to be some context taken into consideration.

One of the few stats often cited to gauge a manager's performance is win differential, at least in instances when most of the player personnel remained the same. But that, of course, requires a look at how a club performed the year before, which in turn means that having had a poor previous season can actually bolster a manager's credentials.

Sustained excellence is not considered by voters, so Gardenhire's win is a win for all managers -- most notably Boston's Terry Francona and Philadelphia's Charlie Manuel -- who have turned out good products but seem to have been penalized for annually having good players.

*What do Terry Francona and Charlie Manuel have to do to win a Manager of the Year award?

Philadelphia's Manuel, who received one first-place vote and was named on only a quarter of the ballots (eight of 32), has never won the award despite leading the Indians and Phillies to five division titles, presumably because in each case his teams were stacked with outstanding talent.

That's not to say his job wasn't difficult -- meshing egos and finding appropriate playing time can sometimes be harder than motivating underachievers -- but the perception is that his teams should win. This year's Phillies team had the majors' best record at 97-65 despite 15 different players going on the disabled list, including six of their eight regular position players.

From 1979 through 2003 -- the 25 years before Francona took over as Red Sox manager -- the Red Sox won 95 or more games only twice, but one of those two seasons was in 2003, so that Francona took over in '04 and guided Boston to 95 or more wins in five of seven seasons is apparently less impressive to voters because he has never even received a first-place vote. This year the Sox notched 89 wins with an injury toll similar to Manuel's Phillies, but Francona received only a pair of second-place votes and seven thirds.

But, as noted about Gardenhire and the Twins above, there's no clear dividing line between giving credit to the manager and the general manager.

What -- short of making history -- does an AL East manager have to do to win?

It's not just Francona who can't seem to win. While few would argue with the conceit that the AL East has been baseball's best division for the past decade, its managers have gone light on the hardware. In the past 11 years only one AL East manager has been decorated with the award, and it was Rays manager Joe Maddon in 2008. That year he led a worst-to-first turnaround in which Tampa Bay improved by 31 wins.

Perhaps the problem is that the division is thought to be so difficult that the managers split the vote. In 2010 Maddon and Toronto's Cito Gaston each received a first-place vote. Francona was named on nine ballots, while New York's Joe Girardi had one third, as four of the five AL East skippers received votes. The one who didn't, Baltimore's Buck Showalter, wouldn't have been a bad choice either, even though he only managed the last two months, as he led the Orioles to a 34-23 record after the club had started 32-73 under Dave Trembley and Juan Samuel.

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