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Making the case for the 3 AL Manager of the Year finalists

The Manager of the Year awards will be handed out on Tuesday, and like every year, it will be the most arbitrary of the four major awards doled out by the Baseball Writers Association of America. For players, voters have both hard and soft data with which to evaluate candidates. They may disagree on which numbers to consider, or how much to weight to put each piece of information, but leaderboards, rankings, and historical context can all be established in order to make at least a partially objective case.

No such comprehensive hard data exist for managers. People can point to wins and losses–or improvement of record from one season to another–but it’s impossible to isolate a manager’s true contribution to a team’s success.

A field manager doesn’t build the roster; the front office does that. A field manager doesn’t develop in-game strategy and tactics to the degree a football, basketball, or soccer coach does. There’s only so much tinkering with actual gameplay that a manager can accomplish, and now that we live in an era where we better understand the uselessness of bunting, hit-and-run plays, and other situational hitting tactics, there’s very little imprint a manager can make on what his players do between the white lines.

There have been a few attempts to quantify a manager’s impact by analyzing how optimally they use their bullpens and construct their lineups. That’s certainly a big chunk of what a manager does for a team. But it’s not everything.

We know that players’ managers–guys who know how to talk to their players, motivate them, and build a strong intrasquad chemistry–are more important than ever. But how do we evaluate those abilities, and compare them with other managers? Every time you read a story about a winning team with great chemistry and a manager who’s a great communicator, there are more than a dozen others who fit the same bill, on the winning and losing side of the ledger.

Then of course, there’s the easy way out for voters, which is to pick the new manager who took a losing team and made them into a winner. That’s how the vote usually goes, and which is why Minnesota Twins skipper Paul Molitor, while not new to the team in 2017, is probably the frontrunner in the American League. The Twins were bad two seasons ago, and then they made the Wild Card game. Done and dusted, right?

Well, how much did Molitor really influence the Twins’ turnaround? After all, he led the team to an abysmal 59-103 record the year before. Isolating signal from noise and not mistaking correlation for causation is a tricky business. Molitor oversaw the biggest season-over-season improvement in the majors last year, but is that enough to push him past Cleveland’s Terry Francona, or the Astros’ A.J. Hinch? Let’s weigh the pros and cons of each AL Manager of the Year finalist, and see if we can settle on a winner.

TERRY FRANCONA, CLEVELAND INDIANS

Francona is almost universally beloved, with a sterling reputation among his players. He’s media savvy, and usually provides the some of the best quotes for reporters to work with. Cleveland may have crashed out of the playoffs in the first round, but they did go on a 22-game winning streak–the real all-time MLB streak, if you ask me–and finished the season with the best record in the American League. By third-order winning percentage–which isolates for a team’s actual performance, irrespective of sequencing, luck, and strength of schedule–they were the best team in baseball. Francona had to handle some major injuries this season, thanks to Jason Kipnis, Andrew Miller, and Bradley Zimmer each missing significant time. Nothing seemed to phase either Francona or his players.

Winning streak and Klubot heroics aside, Cleveland was also great two years ago, where they came within an errant Kris Bryant throw and another run of winning the World Series. Nothing much has changed about Francona or the team from that breakout season. Rather, Francona kept a steady hand at the till, guiding Cleveland through what is likely to be a years-long period of dominance in the AL Central.

A.J. HINCH, HOUSTON ASTROS

Hinch doesn’t get bonus points for being the winning manager in the World Series; the votes were sent in during the two-day window between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the playoffs. With that said, the Astros cruised to the AL West crown and the third-best record in major league baseball.

In another season, their 101-61 campaign might have been the best in the bigs. The Astros played loose all year. They played like they were having a blast. Even when they hit the occasional snag–Carlos Correa’s, Dallas Keuchel’s, and Lance McCullers’s injuries all come to mind–they kept level heads and mowed their opponents down. The 2017 Astros produced the best offense in 86 years, and their pitching wasn’t too shabby, either. Like Cleveland, this team was an absolute force.

On the other hand, most pundits and analysts tabbed Houston to hold the AL’s best record at season’s end. By those expectations, the team may have fallen just short, as Cleveland overtook them by a game. Even if we write that off to their injury issues, Hinch appears to have just done the job he was supposed to do, no more, no less. Hinch listens to the numbers guys, and he listens to his players. He’s got the on-paper credentials as a great modern manager, but even so, he didn’t push the team to any greater heights than were predicted.

PAUL MOLITOR, MINNESOTA TWINS

Indeed, the Twins managed to scratch out a Wild Card berth in a year where they were expected to continue the rebuild forced by 2016’s disastrous performance. They did with a largely intact team, too, which might suggest on its face that Molitor was the secret sauce that added 26 wins to their ledger. Their actual play mostly stands up to scrutiny, too. The Tampa Bay Rays may have had the best third-order record–and by that measure, would have captured the second wild card spot if things had broken their way–but the Twins weren’t especially lucky. They beat their third-order record by four games. They were overperforming by eight wins in the first half. The team got better, and they stayed that way down the stretch.

If we want to give credit to Molitor for 2017, then we must blame him for 2016, too. I have heard of no evidence to suggest that Molitor somehow got better as a manager last year, which makes me think that he didn’t really play a huge part in either record.

Every manager on this list has points going for and against them. None really did anything that might have swung their team’s performance in one direction or another–none we can measure, anyway. All three are known as chemistry guys, and their players love them.

If I were to pick one, I’d go with Francona, because the winning streak was a thing to behold. But if you chose Molitor or Hinch, or believed that another deserving manager was snubbed, I couldn’t argue with you. In an age where just about everything in baseball is quantifiable, managers remain a limpid mystery.



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