Why a "Manager of the Year" award is dumb

Elsa

I think it's safe to say there won't be any Arizona representatives needing to clear mantelpiece space today. But, really, is there a point to this award?

Manager of the Year seems like an odd award. For the player honors, performance is out in the open, and even if you don't see a particular guy much over the course of the year, there are plenty of websites where you can go and look up their statistics to establish their value. Nothing comparable exists for managers. Sure, you can look at their in-game management skills, but I suspect that 95% of managerial moves could be made by a well-trained monkey, and how the other 5% look is as much the result of good luck as anything. If you intentionally walk Batter A, and Batter B strikes out, you're a genius. If he homers, you're an idiot.

I think the more important side of management is people skills: taking 25 disparate personalities on your roster, and turning them into a cohesive whole. I almost said "forging," but I think the necessary tools are more likely Krazy Glue, duct-tape and a nail-gun. And if you're experienced in herding cats, that's useful too. How you do is something only even slightly detectable first-hand, if you are there (or thereabout) in the locker room on a regular basis. That's going to be the case for local writers, so two of the 30 voters - or less. Not to pick on him, but this year, USA Today's Bob Nightengale is an Arizona rep. How well can a national writer judge Kirk Gibson's management skills?

I'm surprised there isn't more fuss about this. It's now pretty well established that judging a pitcher by their win total is stupid. But that's basically what we do with managers. Since the award was established in 1983, there have been 30 National League managers of the year. If we eliminate the partial seasons round the 1994 strike, there have been only two people who have won the honor, while winning less than 90 games: Larry Bowa went 86-76 in 2001, and Joe Girardi became the only manager in either league to win while at or below .500, taking the trophy home in 2006 while going 78-84.

You could be the greatest manager in the world, but if you work for stingy owners or beneath an incompetent GM, it's almost impossible to get recognition. Girardi managed it, keeping the Marlins in contention for most of the season, despite a roster almost entirely composed of minimum salary rookies: only two players earned even a million dollars, and the total payroll was $15 million, less than half that of the 29th-ranked team, Dontrelle Willis and Brian Moehler. When your second highest-paid player has put up a total of 1.8 bWAR over the previous five years combined, yeah, you probably deserve some recognition for your talents.

But even there, how much of the credit should really go to Girardi, rather than the farm director, or those who scouted and drafted all those rookies? Because, while it may have been a fresh deck of cards, Girardi still had a heck of a hand with which to play. An unprecedented three of the top four players in Rookie of the Year balloting were Marlins, with no less than six being named overall. I think if you gave me a team which included those vote-getters, Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla, Josh Johnson, Scott Olsen, Josh Willingham and Anibal Sanchez - oh, as well as some guy called Miguel Cabrera, who put up 5.8 bWAR - I could do reasonably well.

Conversely, if you have a big payroll, you can just about kiss any chance of the award goodbye: that's why no Yankees manager has won it since 1998, despite eleven division titles and three World Series in that time. You are "expected" to win with a big payroll, even if you played little or no part in signing the free-agents responsible. Looking at the last few NL Managers of the Year, here's where their teams ranked in MLB payroll.

  • 2012: Davey Johnson, Washington, 20th
  • 2011: Kirk Gibson, Arizona, 25th
  • 2010: Buddy Black, San Diego, 29th
  • 2009: Jim Tracy, Colorado, 18th
  • 2008: Lou Piniella, Cubs, 8th
  • 2007: Bob Melvin, Arizona, 26th
  • 2006: Joe Girardi, Florida, 30th

You could make a pretty good stab at predicting the winners, simply by picking the playoff team with the lowest payroll. On that basis, I'm predicting the order for today's award to be Clint Hurdle (Pittsburgh, 26th), Gonzalez (Atlanta, 19th), Mattingly (Los Angeles, 2nd). While there may be extenuating circumstances occasionally, payroll and victories appear to be virtually the sole factors which determine the winner. Given the limited extent to which both can be considered truly under managerial control, it's like awarding the Most Valuable Player award, based purely on RBI and home-run totals.

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