— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Wednesday, October 29, 2003
Baseball Primer’s 2003 Managers of the Year
Did McKeon get his proper due for his first World Series title?
Trying to deconstruct the Manager of the Year Award is a lot like eating chicken broth with a fork: difficult, and not particularly satisfying. The statistical metrics that are available (whether used properly or otherwise) in trying to determine player awards simply don’t exist for managers. Some have suggested that record in one-run games may be a useful measure of a manager’s skill, but there are so many factors involved in close games that a manager’s record in them may just as well be a function of something entirely unrelated. We’ll look at them because, frankly, there isn’t a whole lot else to look at. But take the one-run records with the appropriate grains of salt.
Before we delve too deeply into the award itself, it would be good to establish (or attempt to establish) some criteria for what makes a good manager. And to do that, we need to know what one does (or should do).
Essentially a manager’s duties are threefold: administrative (set the lineup and rotation, use the bench and bullpen), strategic (call for the hit and run, steal, sacrifice bunt, etc.), and intangible (communicate with players, keep everyone focused on goal, deal with media to take pressure off players, etc.). This is an oversimplification, of course, but it at least gives us a framework within which to work. Basically a manager prepares his team for battle, works with his troops a little during the game, and briefs the media afterward.
The administrative roles of manager are heavily dependent on the skill of the General Manager, who provides the players. Managers don’t win the award here, but some (see Jimy Williams, and his decision to play Geoff Blum over Morgan Ensberg at third base down the stretch) might lose it. Strategy doesn’t come into play all that often, and when it does, it’s largely a matter of going by the proverbial book.
The other aspect of managing deals with the nasty "I" word, intangibles. How well does a manager keep his players motivated and working together toward a common goal? How well does he help deflect negative attention from them when they need to remain focused on the task at hand? Who melts down in the middle of a pennant race, and who inspires a second baseman who should be in the decline phase of his career to put up MVP type numbers? Who gets more out of his club than anyone had a right to expect him to?
These are not questions to which there are good quantifiable answers. The Manager of the Year award, like managing itself, is more instinctual than factual, more art than science. In short, this year’s winners are the ones whose teams were the most surprising in a positive way.
Coming in at #6, with a single third place vote, is Expos’ skipper Frank Robinson. Although Robinson didn’t get hugely unexpected results out of any of his players (with the notable exception of Livan Hernandez), he guided a team that didn’t have a true home to a winning record. Robinson deserves a good deal of credit for keeping his squad’s spirits up despite the craziness that MLB had bestowed upon it. The Expos were 22-24 in one-run games and won three more games than predicted by the Pythagorean Theorem.
Next up is LA’s Jim Tracy. The Dodgers had a reasonably successful season. They did manage to stay in the race for much of the season despite getting almost no production up the middle (and not a lot more from anywhere else). On the other side of the ledger, he enjoyed a healthy Kevin Brown and the best bullpen in baseball. Andy Ashby and Darren Dreifort contributed very little, and Odalis Perez regressed. But Wilson Alvarez re-emerged from the void and did some great work for Tracy down the stretch. With Brown, a great bullpen, and little else, Tracy still managed to coax 85 wins (one more than the 84 predicted by Pythagoras) out of his Dodgers, who went 26-23 in one-run games.
The #4 slot belongs to Bobby Cox, whose Braves rather quietly tied the Yankees for best record in baseball. The fact that they also quietly exited the playoffs is a large part of what keeps Cox from getting more respect as a manager. This year’s Braves were a different bunch from most during Cox’s tenure, which usually are built around strong pitching and a few bats. In 2003, Cox got above-average production throughout the lineup, and unexpectedly spectacular seasons out of Javy Lopez and Marcus Giles. From a pitching standpoint, Mike Hampton had a nice rebound season and the entire rotation stayed healthy. Closer John Smoltz missed time due to injury, with Will Cunnane and others jumping in to help out during his absence. Amazingly, the Braves went 17-25 in one-run games. I don’t know how meaningful such a horrible record in tight games from a team that generally dominated the opposition is, but it sure doesn’t look good. Pythagoras had the Braves winning 97 games.
Dusty Baker checks in at #3. Baker’s Cubs didn’t get any extraordinarily good performances out of their everyday players, although they did survive the precipitous decline of Mark Bellhorn and season-ending injury to Corey Patterson. Baker also managed to keep would-be up-and-comer Hee Seop Choi out of the lineup more than probably was good for the team. The strength of this ball club was outstanding young pitching, which ultimately may prove unfortunate, as Baker rode the kids very hard:
regular playoffs Age IP P/G IP P/G Mark Prior 22 211.1 113.4 23.1 122.7 Kerry Wood 26 211.0 110.8 27.2 115.5 Carlos Zambrano 22 214.0 106.7 16.2 103.0
I’m not the biggest pitch-count fanatic in the world, but there really isn’t a way to put a good spin on this. Prior and Zambrano are too young for this kind of workload, and Wood still isn’t that far removed from a major arm injury. Baker got some terrific short-term results out of these guys, but if I’m a Cubs fan, I’m not real happy about his methods. That said, it’s hard to argue with the bottom line, at least when you’re looking at Manager of the Year consideration. The Cubs finished 27-17 in one-run games (the Astros and Cardinals, with whom they were battling till the very end went 19-21 and 14-25, respectively) and won two more games than predicted by the Pythagorean Theorem.
The Giants were the second biggest overachievers in the National League this year, at least according to Pythagoras. Felipe Alou’s squad won 100 game, when it should have won 94. Only the Cincinnati Reds had a larger disparity in that direction. Alou’s big job on the offensive front was to keep Barry Bonds happy and healthy. The supporting cast was solid but not spectacular, with Rich Aurilia and pricy import Edgardo Alfonzo performing well below expectations. On the pitching side, Alou managed to survive the departure of Russ Ortiz (Atlanta) and Livan Hernandez (Montreal), and a season without a single inning pitched from longtime closer Robb Nen. Stepping up in their absence were youngster Jerome Williams and a relatively unheralded bullpen, led by journeyman Tim Worrell and failed starter Joe Nathan. Alou’s biggest accomplishments in 2003 were keeping Bonds and the rest of the team at relative peace with each other, and MacGyvering a bullpen that lacked its most vital component. Make no mistake, this was a good Giant ballclub. But Alou really got the most out of his team, which had the best record (28-12) in one-run games in all of baseball.
And the winner is… Larry Bowa. No, wait. Jimy Williams. That’s not right, either. Ah, here we go: Jack McKeon. In one of the most unlikely baseball stories of 2003, the 72-year-old McKeon took over a struggling Florida club back in May and proceeded to guide a team that had been all but given up for dead (remember those Mike Lowell salary dump rumors?) to an 88-win season and a trip to the playoffs. To borrow from Mel Brooks, where did they go right? Lowell played better than expected and Alex Gonzalez came out of nowhere to post respectable numbers. But by and large there weren’t a lot of huge surprises on offense. The unexpected performances came on the pitching side, with Mark Redman having a career year and Carl Pavano finally tapping into the potential he’s had since his days as a Boston prospect. Add the contributions by Josh Beckett (when healthy) and rookie Dontrelle Willis, and key work from in-season bullpen acquisitions Chad Fox, Rick Helling, and Ugueth Urbina, and it’s pretty clear the Marlins got a lot more out of their pitching staff than anticipated. The club also managed to withstand the loss of A.J. Burnett for most of the season. How much of this is McKeon’s doing is anyone’s guess, but the fact is, the Marlins put up very good numbers under his watch. The biggest effect McKeon seems to have had on his club is to get everyone moving in the same direction, working toward a common goal. There aren’t any statistics to measure this sort of thing, but it’s pretty clear that the players love playing for him. After a 16-22 start under former manager Jeff Torborg, the Marlins went 75-39 under McKeon. That works out to a .658 winning percentage, or 107 wins over a full season: six more than the Braves and the Yankees, who tied for the best record in baseball. The Marlins were 30-23 in one-run games and picked up three more victories than predicted by Pythagoras. There’s a lot not to like about Jeffrey Loria, but he picked the right guy for the job of field manager. Jack McKeon is the runaway winner of this year’s NL award.
1 2 3 Blts Pts Jack McKeon 6 1 1 8 34 Felipe Alou 4 4 12 Dusty Baker 3 2 5 11 Bobby Cox 1 1 1 3 9 Jim Tracy 1 3 4 8 Frank Robinson 1 1 1
Nabbing the last spot on this list is Boston’s Grady Little. His postseason troubles notwithstanding, Little did guide his team to 95 wins. Jason Varitek enjoyed a career year, and free agent pickups Bill Mueller and David Ortiz contributed more than could have been expected. The latter two are feathers in GM Theo Epstein’s cap, but it’s worth noting that no other manager had ever coaxed this kind of production out of either Mueller or Ortiz. On the pitching side, it was pretty much the Pedro show. Tim Wakefield and Derek Lowe logged a lot of innings, but both fell off significantly from 2002. As for the bullpen, much was made of the decision not to use an established closer. Right now, the statheads aren’t looking real good on this one. Maybe the personnel wasn’t right. Maybe there were other factors. But the bottom line is, this group didn’t get it done with any kind of consistency. The designation of closer is probably overrated by traditionalists, but it may also be that it’s underrated by the sabermetric community. At the very least, a clearer definition of individual roles within the bullpen might have helped these guys. Boston’s experiment was interesting, and it may eventually lead to something: often the original innovators fail, only to pave the way for others down the line. But for 2003, the bullpen was a nightmare and the starting pitching beyond the front three wasn’t real strong. This team was all about scoring runs, and Little deserves more than a little credit for choosing to stick with Mueller at third over Shea Hillenbrand and somehow winning a playoff series without a playoff-caliber pitching staff. The Red Sox finished 26-16 in one-run games and won exactly as many games as predicted by the Pythagorean Theorem.
Checking in at #5 is Lou Piniella. He wasn’t on my ballot, and frankly I’m not sure that the Devil Rays couldn’t have won 63 games without Sweet Lou at the helm. I don’t understand this one and I don’t feel compelled to comment on it. Tampa Bay was 23-27 in one-run games. Piniella is the only manager who received a vote in either league whose team underperformed relative to Pythagoras, which had the Devil Rays winning 67 (only the Astros, Mariners, and Phillies had larger negative gaps in 2003).
Joe Torre is the embodiment of the manager who communicates with his players, deals with the media, and keeps everyone focused. Every year his job is basically to keep everyone happy and focused. To an extent, that’s every manager’s job. But Torre does it in the country’s largest market and working for a boss and fans that have come to expect nothing less than a championship. Torre does a terrific job of handling that pressure and getting his team to perform despite the many distractions that such an environment could create. On offense, there weren’t a lot of surprises this year. Jason Giambi and Bernie Williams aren’t what they once were (although still darned good), and Hideki Matsui picked up a ton of RBI but generally underperformed. But for the most part, guys did about what they were expected to do. On the mound, the biggest keys were a healthy rotation and Mariano Rivera, who had his best season since the late-‘90s. As for the rotation, any time four of your pitchers make 30 or more starts, that’s a good thing. The final spot was shared by Jeff Weaver, who never has seemed to get comfortable in the Big Apple, and pricy import Jose Contreras, who pitched very well down the stretch. For the most part, though, this was a team built by GM Brian Cashman and handed to Torre with instructions not to blow it. And, as he does every year, Torre did an outstanding job of doing just that. You’d be surprised how many people, when given the directive not to blow it, promptly blow it. Torre deserves a lot of credit for focusing on the positive and getting the job done. His Yankees were 21-14 in one-run games. Pythagoras predicted 97 wins.
In the #3 spot, it’s another manager who looked much better during the regular season than in the playoffs: Ken Macha. Offensively, except for a spike from Ramon Hernandez, it was pretty much business as usual. Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez started slowly but ended up with solid numbers. On the pitching side, the A’s received stellar work from their top three of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito. One-time prospect Ted Lilly did a credible job in his first full season. The A’s also quietly assembled a terrific bullpen, headed by Keith Foulke, Chad Bradford, and Ricardo Rincon, all of whom GM Billy Beane has snagged from other clubs over the past few years for very little. This is a solid A’s team, but is there really anything Macha did that Art Howe didn’t do before him? Both were able to take a talented group of players put together by Beane and plow their way through the regular season. Both had difficulty executing fundamentals in the playoffs and were defeated by arguably inferior opponents. That said, it is difficult to argue with 96 wins and it’s clear the voters felt the same way. Oakland went 25-20 in one-run games and finished with one more win than expected.
Ron Gardenhire is this year’s runner-up in the AL, leading an underfunded, overachieving Twins club to the playoffs for a second straight season. A.J. Pierzynski and Doug Mientkiewicz had somewhat surprisingly good years, but for the most part Minnesota got about what it should have expected out of its lineup. The mid-season trade of Bobby Kielty for Shannon Stewart also ended up giving the Twins a significant upgrade in that lineup spot. As for the moundsmen, Gardenhire got enough innings out of his front three of Brad Radke, Kenny Rogers, and Kyle Lohse to get the ball to LaTroy Hawkins and Eddie Guardado late. The remainder of starts were split among Rick Reed, Joe Mays, and of course Johan Santana. Much has been made of the decision to use Santana out of the bullpen for a good portion of the season, but considering he’s still just 24 years old, I’m not sure that was such a bad idea. He’s already a terrific pitcher, and he has a chance to become even better. Put it another way: I’m happier with the way Gardenhire handled Santana than with how Baker handled Zambrano. The Twins also were operating without the services of rotation mainstay Eric Milton for all but the final few weeks of the season. No starting pitcher averaged more than 99.5 pitches per start (Rogers), and nobody on the staff walked more than 50 (also Rogers). Not sure how much of the credit goes to Gardenhire here, but Minnesota had an incredibly efficient pitching staff. The Twins were just 22-20 in one-run games, but they did win five more games than predicted by Pythagoras (only the Reds and Giants had a better positive differential).
This year’s winner of the AL Manager of the Year is none other than Tony Pena, whose Royals shocked the baseball world by remaining in the playoff race almost till the end. The most pleasant surprise on offense was the emergence of Baseball Primer’s AL ROY, Angel Berroa. Part-time regular Aaron Guiel also provided unexpected production. On the negative side, Mike Sweeney battled injuries and youngster Ken Harvey underperformed. Where Pena shines is in his work with the pitchers. That Pena, a former All-Star catcher, was able to win 83 games with a staff that finished with a 5.06 ERA and whose staff leader finished with 10 victories is nothing short of miraculous. Darrell May, following four years in Japan and a 5.35 ERA with the Royals in 2002, worked 210 innings and fashioned a 3.77 ERA. Again, it’s hard to say how much of the credit goes to the manager. But May had never shown any indications at the big-league level of being able to put up those kinds of numbers. And the guy is 31, so it’s not like there was great cause for hope. The second winningest pitcher on the club, Chris George, finished the season with a 7.11 ERA and out of the rotation. Runelvys Hernandez, one of the more promising young arms in the organization, missed much of the season. The Royals coerced eight wins out of Jose Lima, who hadn’t been effective in years. Mike MacDougal saved 27 games despite coming into the season having pitched just 24 big-league innings and with nothing in his statistical record to suggest that he would have any kind of success in that role. I doubt most folks would’ve believed before the season that Pena could win even 70 games with his pitching staff. He did a terrific job of getting something out of nothing. Pena’s team finished 18-22 in one-run games. Like Minnesota, the Royals won five more than Pythagoras expected.
1 2 3 Blts Pts Tony Pena 5 1 6 28 Ron Gardenhire 1 3 1 5 15 Ken Macha 1 2 1 4 12 Joe Torre 1 2 3 11 Lou Piniella 4 4 4 Grady Little 2 2 2
So speaketh the Primer voters. Now we’ll wait and see what the BBWAA has to say.