Beltway bosses Johnson, Showalter favored for Managers of the Year
Davey Johnson led the Washington Nationals to the best record in baseball in 2012
Buck Showalter guided the Baltimore Orioles to a rare postseason berth
Dusty Baker, Bruce Bochy, Bob Melvin, Robin Ventura are other candidates
The Baseball Writers Association of America is handing out its major awards this week, continuing Tuesday night with the Manager of the Year award in both leagues. In a change from previous years, the awards are being announced live on MLB Network as part of an hour-long special starting at 6:00 p.m. Eastern Time. Another change this year is that the BBWAA announced a short list of finalists for each award last week.
Here, then, are the three finalists for the Manager of the Year award in each league along with my take on who will win, who should win, and why.
Announcement: 6:17 p.m. ET
Dusty Baker, Reds: 97-65, 1st place NL Central
Baker's Reds won 18 more games in 2012 than they did in 2011 despite losing their best hitter, 2010 NL MVP Joey Votto, for seven weeks in the second-half of the season. That said, Cincinnati did win 91 games and the division in 2010, and Baker didn't have to do too much with this team. Rookie Todd Frazier ably plugged the holes created by the fortuitously staggered injuries to third baseman Scott Rolen and first baseman Votto, and everyone else Baker largely left alone. He only needed five starting pitchers all season.
If anything, one could point to areas in which Baker could have been more proactive, such as identifying Aroldis Chapman as his best option to close games earlier than late May or replacing the struggling Drew Stubbs in center or dropping him in the order sooner. Still, the Reds won 97 games, one off the major league lead, so it's as difficult to criticize him for his inactivity as to praise him for it. Baker won the Manager of the Year award three times while with the Giants, taking home the hardware in 1993, 1997 and 2000. A fourth win would tie him with Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa for the most in the award's 30-year history.
Bruce Bochy, Giants: 94-68, 1st place, NL West
San Francisco's World Series title doesn't factor in here, since voting was conducted before the start of the postseason, but Bochy still had an impressive year even before that run began. The Giants had to endure a season-ending injury to Brian Wilson, their All-Star closer, in mid April and the year-long struggles of former ace Tim Lincecum, who finished dead last among ERA qualifiers in ERA+. Among the team's hitters, third-baseman Pablo Sandoval missed 43 games via a pair of disabled list stays and leftfielder Melky Cabrera, the team's best hitter in the first half, was suspended for the final 45 games of the regular season after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
On Aug. 15, the day Cabrera's suspension was announced, the Giants lost behind Lincecum and fell into second place in the NL West. They played their best baseball over the season's remaining 44 games, though, going 30-14 (.682) down the stretch to win the division by eight games and finish with eight more wins than in 2011. Deadline acquisition Marco Scutaro hit .381/.397/.494 over that span, giving the Giants an unexpected performance that picked up Cabrera's slack, but Bochy, who won this award with the Padres in 1996, deserves credit for keeping his team focused at a moment when the season could have been lost.
Davey Johnson, Nationals: 98-64, 1st place, NL East
Like his fellow nominees, Johnson guided his team to a notable improvement in W-L record. The Nationals won 18 more games under Johnson in 2012 than they did under Johnson, Jim Riggleman and interim manager John McLaren in 2011. Washington had its share of injuries to overcome. Starting catcher Wilson Ramos was lost for the year in mid-May with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, leftfielder Mike Morse missed the first 50 games of the season due to a strained latissimus dorsi and closer Drew Storen sat out the first 89 games of the season following elbow surgery, while rejuvenated rightfielder Jayson Werth missed 75 games with a broken wrist.
Johnson advocated for and by late April received the promotion of 19-year-old rookie blue-chipper Bryce Harper, who proved to be a five-win player for the Nationals per Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement. Johnson also tactfully and matter-of-factly managed the circus that surrounded the organization's decision to limit ace Stephen Strasburg's innings. Being tasked with routinely pulling Strasburg after six or seven innings or at the first sign of trouble surely helped, but only Terry Collins of the Mets got more quality starts from his starters while blowing fewer by leaving a starter in too long. The Nationals also led the majors in pinch-hitter batting average, though that's something that Johnson, who won this award in the American League while with the Orioles in 1997, surely had less direct influence upon.
Who Should Win: Johnson
Who Will Win: Johnson
This is a race between Bochy and Johnson, and either man would be a deserving winner. This award tends to go to the manager whose team most exceeded the expectations of the electorate, which is why Johnson will win. As to why he should, he took a franchise that hadn't had a winning record since 2003, the penultimate season of baseball in Montreal, and not only made it a competitor but led it to the best record in baseball.
That wasn't all Johnson's doing; Washington greatly upgraded its rotation with the additions of Cy Young finalist Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and a healthy Strasburg and its lineup with Haper and a healthy Adam LaRoche, but it also suffered those injuries to Ramos, Morse, Storen, Werth and shortstop Ian Desmond, who missed 25 games in the second half. Also, Johnson has a well-established history of greatly improving teams upon arrival. Managerial impact is difficult to measure, but given Johnson's history, it seems reasonable to attribute some significant portion of the Nationals' improvement in 2012 to their skipper.
Announcement: 6:47 p.m. ET
Bob Melvin, A's: 94-68, 1st place AL West
In February, I thought I was being extremely positive about the A's 2012 outlook when I wrote that they looked to me like "a team that hasn't lost much ground compared to the year before despite trading Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey and losing Josh Willingham, David DeJesus and, eventually, Hideki Matsui to free agency." The A's won 74 games in 2011 and while I didn't expect them to be much worse, many others did.
Instead, they were 20 games better and stole the AL West title from the two-time defending AL champion Rangers by sweeping them in the final three games of the season. They did this despite losing their intended third baseman for the season to a torn ACL before the season and lacking a respectable replacement for much of the season, despite miserable seasons from Opening Day starters Kurt Suzuki, Jemile Weeks and Cliff Pennington, despite injuries to Coco Crisp, Yoenis Cespedes and Brandon McCarthy, despite getting just six starts from Brett Anderson and none from Dallas Braden, and despite veteran rotation anchor Bartolo Colon being suspended for the final 39 games of the regular season after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
Oakland opened the season with Suzuki at catcher, the trio of Brandon Allen, Kia Ka'aihue and Daric Barton at first base, Weeks at second, Eric Sogard splitting time at third base, and a starting rotation that included Colon, McCarthy, Graham Godfrey and Tyson Ross. None of those players, be it due to poor performance or injury, made the playoff roster. The 25 who did included 12 rookies as well as minor league journeyman Brandon Moss, who had just six major league plate appearances in 2011 and 33 over the previous two seasons.
At one point late in the season, Oakland's rotation consisted of five rookies (Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily and Travis Blackley). They completely overhauled their rotation, all four infield positions and catcher over the course of the season, and they still won 20 more games than the previous year. General manager Billy Beane deserves credit for acquiring the players, but Melvin, who won the Manager of the Year award for leading a young Diamondbacks team to a division title in 2007, deserves an incredible amount of credit for assembling them into a club that was able to race past the reloaded Angels and unseat the mighty Rangers.
Buck Showalter, Orioles: 93-69, 2nd place AL East, 2nd wild card
I might have been mildly positive in February about the A's not being flat-out terrible in 2012, but when it came to Baltimore, I wrote, "The Orioles have no hope of contending in 2012. None. They're not just a weak team, they're a weak team buried under a thousand miles of stone and marble." That "stone and marble" was meant to represent the rest of the well-stocked AL East, and that sentiment was not only echoed but applauded by some Orioles fans. Well, the O's new caps must have had diamond buttons on top as they shot up through all that rock by winning 24 more games than in 2011 despite making no major upgrades to their roster.
Compared to the A's, Baltimore's lineup was fairly stable, not only throughout this season, but over the last two. The only spots with significant turnover were third base, leftfield and designated hitter. At third, Wilson Betemit was replaced down the stretchy by an aggressive promotion of 19-year-old blue-chip shortstop prospect Manny Machado; in left, the O's lost Nolan Reimold to neck surgery in April and ultimately settled on shockingly productive free-talent pick-up Nate McLouth; and at DH 26-year-old Chris Davis rejuvenated his career in place of the departed Vladimir Guerrero and the perpetually injured Nick Johnson.
The starting rotation, however, was another matter entirely. Eight different pitchers made more than 10 starts for the Orioles, not counting late-August trade addition Joe Saunders, who made seven starts down the stretch. Only one pitcher, Taiwanese lefty Wei-Yin Chen, made more than 20.
Then there's the matter of Baltimore's record in close games. The Orioles went 29-9 in one-run games, the best mark in such contests in major league history, and 16-2 in extra-inning games, winning 16 straight after dropping two to the Yankees in the season's first week. A lot of the credit for those marks goes to the team's outstanding bullpen, and some of it will always come down to luck, but there's a tendency as well to credit such victories to the manager, who not only has to carefully deploy that bullpen, but carefully avoid any strategic mistakes that could tip the balance in such a game.
Curiously, Showalter, who won this award with the Yankees in 1994 and the Rangers in 2004, didn't necessarily excel at the latter. The Orioles ranked among the league leaders in sacrifice bunts by positions players (though those bunts were successful more often than those of any other team), were last in the AL in stolen base percentage and among the worst teams in the majors in pinch-hitter performance.
Robin Ventura, White Sox: 85-77, 2nd place, AL Central
Ventura exceeded all expectations in his first year as a manager at any level, but the White Sox' six-game improvement from 2011 is easily attributable to the changes in performance by his players. Most notably, that includes bounce-back seasons from Alex Rios, Adam Dunn and Jake Peavy, a career year from A.J. Pierzynski in his walk year, the mid-season acquisition of Kevin Youkilis, and a break-out season from first-year starter Chris Sale.
Since its creation in 1983, three first-year managers have won this award: Hal Lanier of the Astros in 1986, Baker in 1993 and Joe Girardi with the Marlins in 2006. Ventura had a fine season, but he won't add his name to that list.
Who Should Win: Melvin
Who Will Win: Showalter
It wouldn't come as a shock to see Melvin and Showalter tie for this award. It has happened once before, in 1996 when the Yankees' Joe Torre and the Rangers' Johnny Oates tied for the AL honor. It's almost impossible to separate the remarkable achievements of Melvin's A's from those of Showalter's Orioles. I favor Melvin because of just how unstable his roster, lineup and rotation were all year and the number of rookies he had to break in over the course of the season.
To me, Melvin simply had more work to do and thus could be said to have a greater share in his team's strong season than Showalter. Also, the A's success seemed less fluky to me, in part because of their superior run differential, but also because the potential in their young players was apparent before the year, and one could give Melvin some credit here for drawing that potential out, as well as from journeymen like Moss and Blackley.
The theory there is that Melvin benefitted less from luck than Showalter. However, if the award is to be given to the manager whose team most exceeded it's perceived potential, as the writers typically do, the winner would be Showalter, who guided a franchise that last had a winning season in 1997 to 93 wins and a final-week battle with the Yankees for the division title.