Both Eric Wedge of Cleveland and Bob Melvin of Arizona had the virtue of skippering division-winning ballclubs. So, sorry, Nats fans, while Manny Acta's superb job of taking a team handicapped by a real-world replacement-level pitching staff to respectability drew a quartet of third-place sympathy votes, the National League's electorate probably had its fill of underdog heroism after tabbing Joe Girardi last year for his equally shockingly decent Marlins team last year (a selection they may come to regret).
To be fair, the Senior Circuit's slate made for a exceptionally tough group to pick from, as voters struggled between choosing which manager of the three different late-season upset comeback teams deserved the most credit, while also having to address Arizona's perhaps even more surprising triumph over the heavily favored Dodgers and Padres in the NL West. As a result, Melvin, the Phillies' Charlie Manuel, the Rockies' Clint Hurdle, and the Cubs' Lou Piniella all got first-place votes.
Perhaps interestingly, two of the quartet's victims -- the Pads' rookie manager Bud Black and the Brewers' Ned Yost -- joined Acta to complete the full body of vote-getters, but that last trio finished well behind the front four. In picking Melvin, the voters tabbed the season-long surprise over the stunning conclusions to the National League's Central, East, and wild-card races.
If Melvin's Snakes were something of a surprise to the analysis community, Wedge wasn't to most in the analysis community. Speaking as somebody who picked the two winning managers' teams to win their respective league's pennants before the season, only to see both teams come up short in the LCS round of the playoffs, I guess you might imagine that I'm the picture of smug sabermetric know-it-all-ism, but instead, I think my colleagues and I need to enjoy and explore what both teams -- and both managers -- successes can tell us about the limitations of our own wisdom.
Let's start off with the Indians, because they're relatively easy, and because there really wasn't any debate among AL voters -- Wedge received 19 of 28 first-place votes, and was the only manager to show up on all of the ballots, and beyond perhaps Seattle's John McLaren, there really wasn't a viable dark-horse candidate who might filch down-ballot votes from any of the playoff teams' managers. Wedge was johnny-on-the-spot as far as getting blamed for his club's exasperating shortfalls in one-run ballgames and their overall record in the last couple of seasons. This wasn't entirely fair -- as I talked about in the 2007 edition of our annual Baseball Prospectus, the real problem in their 2006 drop-off from to 78 wins wasn't the one-run games, it was the fact that some of their stars were pretty scrubby, they didn't have good fall-back options, and their bullpen was horrendous coming into the middle of innings with runners aboard. Although their efforts to get Jhonny Peralta and Cliff Lee back on track didn't really bear fruit in 2007, the one area beyond keeping faith with Fausto Carmona that you could argue that Wedge made a difference was in who he used and when out of the bullpen in 2007 as opposed to 2006 -- where the '06 Indians ranked next to last in baseball in relief performance, the '07 Indians improved on that by finishing fourth overall in the majors, and the performance difference between the two years represents 15 wins' worth of difference.
There is the question of agency -- is this Wedge's doing, or the benefit of having a full season of Rafael Betancourt on top of getting Rafael Perez into the mix? But that's splitting hairs, and it's better to think of the Manager of the Year Award as the positive reflection of a manager using his talent to best effect. There's no doubt that the Indians improved in terms of what they got out of their relief help, and there's no harm in crediting the players, the organization, and the manager for that critical improvement.
In contrast, the Diamondbacks are a genuine statistical anomaly, if less so an analytical one. By that, I mean that the D'backs' projected record on the basis of their runs scored and allowed on the full season should have translated into 11 fewer wins and a fourth-place finish; take things up a notch as BP's Clay Davenport does, and adjust for strength of schedule, and you wind up with what should have been a last-place team, with only 78 victories, a dozen behind their actual finish. As we know, Arizona actually won, and that despite allowing more runs than they scored on the year. A major component of their winning was that their bullpen was especially good at keeping a weak rotation's damage to a minimum once Melvin pulled his starter and inserted some relief help into an inning; if the Indians were the third-best team in providing bullpen support to their rotations, Arizona was the second. (The MLB leader? The hapless Marlins, not too surprising considering the number of messes their rotation created.)
Focusing on an area where managers have a direct impact -- bullpen usage patterns and success rates -- is without doubt a disservice to both the benefits of each man's leadership qualities. That's an area where the stats are mute, which is not the same thing as pretending that leadership doesn't matter, the way too many statheads are too-ready to assert.
Melvin deserves credit for being a manager who could trust kids like Justin Upton or Mark Reynolds or Chris Young in a pennant race; similarly, not every manager would be as confident as Wedge was with Asdrubal Cabrera or Ryan Garko or Franklin Gutierrez. In this respect, both managers are the field managers that represent the sharp end of both organization's shared faith in the talent they're bringing up, and for that, both men deserve credit -- but again, as individuals within what has to be seen as organization-wide successes on the level of player performance, managerial execution, and front office guidance.
It's worth noting that by Clay's analysis, the Rockies finished exactly where they should have, although they should have been the best team in the division by his calculations; as a result, the fact that Hurdle's club won the NL pennant shouldn't really be seen as that much of a surprise, and however amazing the fashion that they did it with their incredible finish, it would be hard to credit Hurdle overly much. Under these same considerations, Manuel rates a solid second-place finisher behind Melvin, as the Phillies weren't supposed to finish higher than second or third, locked up as they were in a virtual analytical tie with the Braves, with both behind the hapless Mets.