Of all the awards doled out by Major League Baseball, the one that is most difficult to quantify is Manager of the Year. There’s limited consensus on how to gauge the job a manager has done. It’s hard to know how to assess them.
The debate as to whether it should be an “achievement” award, an “overachievement” award, or should hinge on other factors makes it a complicated choice. The subjectivity is complicated further by the egocentric aspect, as many voters base their decisions on how they believed a team would fare — and if the manager goes beyond that projection, he’s perceived to have done a “good” job even if he hasn’t.
Let’s look at the three finalists for the National League award and see which category they fall into.
Bud Black, Colorado Rockies
The Rockies had endured six consecutive losing seasons before 2017, when they reached the NL wild-card game. The club had been in undisguised turmoil before hiring Black. Former manager Walt Weiss was low-paid and on a series of short-term deals. The front office was being restructured with new stat-centric general manager Jeff Bridich , who was making changes to how the club had been run by Bill Geivett and Dan O’Dowd.
The 2017 club had the familiar pop that is expected from a Rockies team, but it was not based on home run power above all else. They were 10th in the NL in home runs, but led the league in runs, on-base percentage and OPS+.
Pitching is a constant problem in the thin air of Colorado, and the Rockies were functioning with a starting rotation that ranged mostly between the ages of 22 and 25. The “old man” of the staff was Tyler Chatwood at age 27. The key to their season was their bullpen. They beefed up the relief corps with Jake McGee and Mike Dunn, and rolled the dice on Greg Holland as he returned from Tommy John surgery. All worked out.
They also had a tremendous infield defense.
The ideal complement to their new blueprint was an experienced manager whose forte was dealing with pitching. Black made his reputation as the pitching coach for Mike Scioscia with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and spent 8 1/2 years as the manager of the San Diego Padres, with intermittent success and no playoff appearances.
Making him more attractive to the Rockies was his familiarity in working collaboratively with the front office. Black survived three different baseball ops regimes with the Padres before being fired by the fourth. It’s difficult to find anyone in baseball who dislikes him. His weakness in running an offense was largely mitigated by the style with which the Rockies played. The pitching was the key and that was why he was hired.
His fatherly handling of the young starting pitchers, maximizing them while protecting them, and his deft deployment of the bullpen helped the Rockies make their playoff run.
As has been common with Black’s good Padres teams, the Rockies got off to a searing hot start, culminating with them being 21 games over .500 in late June. They stumbled before righting the ship and finishing at 87-75.
The team was expected to improve, but making the playoffs in a tough division and league was a lot to ask, yet they did it.
Voters will tend to look at team expectations, history and talent level. Black is a worthy candidate based on all three.
Torey Lovullo, Arizona Diamondbacks
Since Lovullo’s great run as the Boston Red Sox interim manager when John Farrell was being treated for cancer, he was expected to be a fine major league manager. When Mike Hazen was hired away from the Red Sox to take over as Diamondbacks GM, Lovullo was an obvious choice to be the new manager.
The situation he and Hazen walked into was far better than the previous season’s record of 69-93 and Tony La Russa-inspired turmoil made it look. This was generally known throughout baseball and among respected prognosticators.
The Diamondbacks took steps to improve the starting rotation and defense by acquiring Taijuan Walker and Ketel Marte. And they signed a veteran catcher Chris Iannetta and a veteran closer in Fernando Rodney. With superstars Paul Goldschmidt and Zack Greinke already in place and rising players A.J. Pollock, Jake Lamb, David Peralta and Robbie Ray, the Diamondbacks were not the prototypical 69-game winner that needed a substantial rebuild.
Lovullo, however, built upon his burgeoning reputation as a managerial prospect with a playoff season.
The Diamondbacks were projected to be better, but reversing their record from 93 losses to 93 wins? Lovullo gets the “fixing a mess” credit in determining whom to vote for as Manager of the Year.
Dave Roberts, Los Angeles Dodgers
Roberts epitomizes the “chicken or the egg” argument in judging a manager.
On one hand, the Dodgers had the highest payroll in baseball by a wide margin, a clubhouse stacked with veterans and top-tier young talent, and arguably could have functioned reasonably well without any manager.
On the other hand, massaging all those egos and incorporating young players into a veteran environment — while making the tough decisions of who plays and who sits with a dozen (and more) position players who have a reasonable argument and the contract status to be in the lineup — is not easy and can go bad in a flash.
Add in that he had to deal with Yasiel Puig and keep him in line – and did it – is notable. While the front office is heavily involved in how the team is run on the field, the personalities are Roberts’ responsibility, and he dealt with it well.
In the Dodgers’ situation, the players know the score. The manager is a conduit to the front office, and if they look at it with either objectivity (or vindictiveness), they can choose to ignore the manager, knowing that their contracts and importance to the team far surpass that of the low-paid and preprogrammed manager. If the players had decided they didn’t like the quick hooks on the mound, the benching of veteran players or anything else petty or legitimate, they could have easily quit on Roberts and have him replaced.
It’s difficult to know how much of the tougher decisions – playing Chris Taylor, demoting Joc Pederson, putting Austin Barnes in ahead of Yasmani Grandai, using Brandon Morrow as the setup man, the quick hooks for Rich Hill and other starters not named Clayton Kershaw – were Roberts’ calls. Even if they weren’t, he had to sell them without extensive drama and protest that can fester and poison the clubhouse.
To his credit, a team with massive expectations must still perform on the field. A prediction of 100 wins and a World Series is fine, but the team still must do the little things to make that a reality. The Dodgers did, making Roberts the “fulfilled expectations” candidate.