It’s now official: This year’s BBWAA Managers of the Year are Joe Maddon of the Tampa Bay Rays from the American League and Kirk Gibson of the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League. The victories for both men have been expected for months, providing only slightly more drama than yesterday’s anointing of Justin Verlander as the AL’s Cy Young winner.
Gibson won the NL honor by drawing 28 of the 32 first-place votes. The others went to the Brewers' Ron Roenicke (3) and the Cardinals' Tony La Russa (1). Maddon's victory was equally decisive, as he was given 26 of 28 first-place votes by AL electors, with Jim Leyland of the Tigers and Ron Washington of the Rangers getting one apiece.
In both cases, the two men managed surprise playoff teams, because on Opening Day neither Arizona nor Tampa Bay was expected to be playing into October. The D-backs were widely expected to finish in last place in the NL West after winning just 65 games in 2010, while the Rays’ offseason defections via free agency and departures through various deals generated the expectation that they wouldn’t be able to keep up with powerhouse Yankees and Red Sox.
If you’re of a sabermetric bent, a particularly interesting distinction between the two managers is that, if you look at how much teams overperform or underperform and want to ascribe some portion of that to their managers, Gibson should very much be your guy. Using Bill James' observation that you can take the Pythagorean theorem and plug in a team's runs scored and allowed to project a winning percentage, you’ll find every team's expected winning percentage and record here.
By finishing five games better than expected, the D-backs were among the league’s best in doing the most with the least, in a manner of speaking; Baseball-Reference.com has them tied with three other teams for the best over-performance of their expected record, winding up six games better than expected. Get really involved, as Clay Davenport invariably is with third-order winning percentage (adjusting for strength of schedule and projected runs scored and allowed), and the D-backs were almost 12 games better than you’d have expected -- the difference between winning their division and losing it.
And the Rays? They’re nowhere close to the top, because they played almost exactly as well as you’d have expected them to, breaking even via B-Ref, finishing a game worse than expected via Davenport’s work or ESPN’s published findings.
All of which is a great way of saying that sometimes the data captures something important about managers, and sometimes it doesn’t. Maddon’s Rays won as a matter of a fulfillment of design and planning. The reasons are as multifaceted as the organization’s genius: Its clever cross-positional platoons to exploit the flexibility of Ben Zobrist; a bullpen that reflected the combined benefits of scouting and analysis to succeed with Kyle Farnsworth, Juan Cruz and Joel Peralta; the thrift in conjuring up a first-base solution like Casey Kotchman; and the benefits of a farm system ready to crank out Desmond Jennings, AL Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and more. Maddon is no push-button skipper, but he’s an aggressive tactician -- especially with the bunt and hit-and-run -- and an adaptive organizer, and a perfect fit for a franchise reliably ready to pounce whenever the Yankees or Red Sox miss a beat. His victory reflects the merit of being the right guy in the right place for the right reasons, and delivering the right stuff.
In contrast, a number of things broke Gibson’s way, but part of that involved risks that were taken and rewarded. In making my own vote as a member for Gibson (with Roenicke second, and the Phillies’ Charlie Manuel third), I wound up favoring the Snakes’ skipper because of what he had and what he did with it.
In the lineup, Gibson had already committed himself to Gerardo Parra as his left fielder back in 2010, something not every manager would do with a power position. His faith proved justified. Not every manager would have been comfortable handing the third-base job to a minor league veteran like Ryan Roberts. Many would have stuck with the collection of veterans the D-backs started out with at first base, but Gibson presided over giving Paul Goldschmidt full faith in the heat of a stretch run. He handled a young rotation in a tough park effectively, breaking in rookie Josh Collmenter. Time and again, Gibson’s Diamondbacks would dump “safe,” ineffective, well-known choices, and time and again, they were rewarded by a faith in relative unknowns.
As a tactician, Gibson was aggressive with his baserunners (leading the league in calling for double-steal attempts), while simultaneously conservative with position-player bunting, the hit-and-run and the intentional walk. He took care of his young charges in the rotation, never taxing anyone with a 120-pitch start. As spreads of tactical and operational preferences go, this was one that statheads can warm up to, and the voters did, as well.
Finally, as a brief postscript, my choice for Roenicke as the second-place finisher was fairly straightforward, going back to my evaluation of him in August. If anything, who I would tab third -- with ballots due at the end of the regular season -- wound up being the choice I hemmed and hawed over longest. In the end, I recognized Manuel for his job for once again steering an excellent team through a series of potentially crippling injuries.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.