Manager of the Year?
A Boston beat reporter got in touch with me the other day, because he has an AL Manager of the Year vote and he wanted to make sure he did his due diligence all the candidates, rather than just circling John Farrell’s name and being done with it. He’s quite familiar with Terry Francona’s managerial stylings, obviously, but he wanted to know the in-depth details of how that’s translated to Cleveland.
Knowing too well the tunnel vision the baseball beat can create when you’re surrounded by one team and one team only for the better part of eight months, I respected that this BBWAA member was putting homework ahead of homerism. That’s not always the case, of course. And anyway, he got me thinking more seriously about the Manager of the Year topic.
You’d have to imagine, right off the bat, that Farrell is the favorite. Not only did he guide a team from worst to first in his first season at the helm, but he did so in the AL East and, yes, in a major media market.
The Manager of the Year award sometimes seems to follow the same criteria as the Comeback Player of the Year award, acknowledging those who made the most successful strides from oblivion to relevance. That’s why the A’s Bob Melvin was such a great candidate last year and why, I imagine, he won’t get nearly as many first-place votes this year. It’s nothing against Melvin or the two-time division champion A’s, it’s just that the A’s are established now. Like George Costanza carrying around a picture of a beautiful ex-wife to attract other beautiful women, Melvin’s hand has been stamped, he comes and goes as he pleases.
Sometimes it comes down to who did more with less. That’s where Joe Girardi comes into play. The Yankees were officially eliminated from postseason consideration Wednesday night, but the fact that they were in it at all is a minor miracle. Based on playing time, this is what will be remembered of the Yanks’ 2013 lineup:
C: Chris Stewart 1B: Lyle Overbay 2B: Robinson Cano 3B: Jayson Nix SS: Eduardo Nunez LF: Vernon Wells CF: Brett Gardner RF: Ichiro Suzuki DH: Travis Hafner
All this, combined with the A-Rod media madness and staff ace CC Sabathia enduring a 39-percent regression in performance, and I wouldn’t wish that particular club on anybody. Not even Bobby Valentine.
So, yeah, Girardi did a great job. But he’s not the Manager of the Year, either. To me, it really does come down to Farrell and Francona, two guys who are the best of friends and who have intimate knowledge of each other’s organizations.
I’ve got a ton of respect for Farrell, no matter what anybody in Toronto says or thinks about him. He was an incredibly insightful resource back when he was farm director for the Indians, and I was convinced he was on the path toward a GM job. But I underestimated his desire to get back into uniform, and he was certainly a big part of the Red Sox’s run (through Cleveland, of course) to the 2007 title. His time in Toronto was largely unfulfilling and uncomfortable, and now people there feel he was too distracted by the thought of returning to Boston to do an adequate job. In reality, I’m sure Farrell was like a lot of people in that his heart might have been elsewhere but his mind was on the task at hand. And as the Jays’ 2013 season has demonstrated, the task of building a winner can often be a long one devoid of shortcuts.
It all worked out for Farrell in the end. He got the job he wanted, and while the Blue Jays have been one of the biggest busts in baseball, the Red Sox have surged to first place with 96 wins, entering the season’s final weekend. If Farrell wins the Manager of the Year honor, he’ll be lauded for “changing the culture” in that clubhouse in the wake of the Valentine era. And while there’s certainly truth to that – just as there’s truth to Francona “changing the culture” in Cleveland – what I see in Boston is an ultra-talented team that got the most out of its ability thanks in no small part to the direction and preparation provided by Farrell and his coaching staff. It wasn’t just about a group of guys getting along with each other and their manager; it was about guys like Jon Lester and John Lackey and Clay Buchholz making the necessary adjustments to return to the strengths that had once made them so successful. And I have very little doubt that Farrell played an integral role in that transformation.
So the Red Sox made the major stride in the standings, which is why Farrell is such a good candidate. I wouldn’t, however, say he did more with less. The Red Sox have nine qualifying position players with an OPS above the league average. Nine of them! That’s a staggering amount of depth, and, with all due respect to Farrell, I think that’s more attributable to Ben Cherington’s excellent offseason – piecing together Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew and Jonny Gomes – than to anything actually tactical.
Still, worst to first in the East, 96 wins and counting, a great back story and a pitching staff that shaved nearly a full point off its ERA from year to year (despite some notable injuries in the back end of the bullpen). You can do no wrong in voting Farrell for Manager of the Year.
The story of Francona arriving and completely altering the outlook of this organization has been repeated and repeated and repeated again, to the point that even Francona is probably tired of it.
“I think I’ve probably gotten too much credit at times,” he said Wednesday. “I think organizationally there are so many outstanding people already in place here. Just because you haven’t won or haven’t won recently doesn’t mean they’re not good people, or know what they’re doing. I think that whatever has happened good, like for me, I think these people in this organization have helped bring it out.”
Indeed, I think the $56 million waved in front of Nick Swisher and the $48 million offered to Michael Bourn (as camps were opening and he remained in free-agent limbo) and the mere opportunity that was granted to Jason Giambi and Scott Kazmir — those are all things that likely would have lured those guys to Cleveland, independent of the manager.
But the manager didn’t hurt. And Francona, having been in Boston when the Red Sox targeted and eventually acquired Mike Aviles, had big input into what was the Indians’ most successful offseason transaction — the trade of Esmil Rogers for Aviles and Yan Gomes. So he gets major points for that, in my book.
Francona also gets credit for the steadiness he’s provided in what has been a strange and at times rocky season. He’s always the same guy in front of the cameras, assertive in his assessments and ultra-protective of his players. And funny. Funny always helps.
More to the point, the Indians aren’t riding the wave of any outlandish seasons, unless you count what Ubaldo Jimenez has done in the second half as outlandish (and you just might). They’ve got just two guys – Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis – with an OPS above .800, they’ve experienced regression from setup man Vinnie Pestano and, lately, closer Chris Perez, and the rotation has required quite a bit of patchwork and problem-solving (if there’s a Pitching Coach of the Year award, give it to Mickey Callaway). The Indians’ greatest asset has undoubtedly been the bench, and it’s a bench that Francona has expertly employed, getting the most out of Ryan Raburn and Aviles and Giambi without over-stepping his bounds.
And while this might not mean anything to anybody, it is nonetheless worth noting that Francona’s Indians are two games ahead of their Pythagorean win expectation (based on run differential), while the Red Sox are two games behind theirs.
The only strike against Francona is the division-heavy schedule that has allowed the Indians to creep into contention. Would they be here had they not played 19 games against the White Sox? Hard to say. (Then again, would the Rangers be in this contention conversation without their 19 games against the Astros?)
I think Francona’s right. He probably gets too much credit. But I think that’s true of any successful manager, and I think the reverse is true of many of the unsuccessful ones. In the final analysis, though, I find it really hard to imagine this club being where it is – potentially on the brink of a postseason appearance – had it not hired a manager with Francona’s poise and presence. My only issue with the guy is that he let Danny Salazar face Miguel Cabrera a fourth time on Aug. 7, but I’ll get over it.
Manager of the Year? Everybody in baseball knows and respects Terry Francona, so I’m quite certain he’ll fare well in the voting, and he’ll be deserving of every vote he gets.
I don’t know if he’ll win it, but I already know he’s won more in 2013 than anybody could have reasonably imagined.