This was as tough a year to pick a top AL skipper as I can remember because you could make a compelling case for at least five guys: finalists John Farrell of the Red Sox, Terry Francona of the Indians and Bob Melvin of the Athletics, as well as Joe Girardi of the Yankees and Joe Maddon of the Rays.
As one of the electors this year, whom did I vote for when the ballots were due at the end of the regular season? In the end, I voted: 3. Joe Maddon; 2. Bob Melvin; 1. Terry Francona. That was after I spent a long time picking Maddon over Farrell, almost as much time as I used picking between Francona and Melvin.
Francona edged Farrell to win his first manager of the year award, the BBWAA announced Tuesday. Melvin finished a distant third.
As I have since the first time I voted on a manager of the year award, I consulted multiple colleagues and spent a couple of days mulling different arguments. In the end, I focus on performance, particularly elective decision-making and managers making the most of what they had on hand, especially because a big problem in choosing between managers is the inequality of resources each man has at his disposal. Admittedly, my way risks leaving out important areas of the job they have to do, the challenge of motivating and managing people. In all five cases, you’ll hear folks argue that each of these men is great at this. Unfortunately, we can’t measure the relative impact of each, which leads me to stick with judging observable actions and outcomes when I make my vote.
Running through my ballot from bottom to top, I ended up voting for Maddon over Farrell because of what he had to deal with -- multiple injuries in the Rays’ rotation (with David Price, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb all missing time). That was on top of Price’s Saberhagen-ish even-odd year drop-off from his 2012 Cy Young season, not to mention an outright bad year from Jeremy Hellickson. The lineup had its share of disappointments, as well.
Despite all that, Maddon still helped get the Rays into the postseason. I don’t believe that, having won the award twice already, Maddon has already gotten his due and we should just change flavors for novelty’s sake. Maddon was faced with big challenges, and he helped provide winning solutions with his usual hyperactive tactical activity.
I tabbed Melvin second because he demonstrated that his positive impact on the Athletics in 2012 was no transient phenomenon. The A’s weren’t expected to beat the Rangers in the AL West a first time, let alone a second. However, Melvin’s effective use of floating playing-time platoons in the outfield, at second base and catcher and through the DH slot helped compensate for cycling through multiple backstops while weathering several injuries and off years (particularly Josh Reddick). The A’s also stayed on top while getting excellent results from a young and unheralded rotation. Melvin deserves credit for delivering a 96-win season that was perhaps even more impressive than the 94-win surprise division winner that earned him manager of the year honors the previous season.
But, although I thought long and hard about putting Melvin atop my ballot, in the end I went with Francona. Like Melvin, Francona made a difference on offense, not with in-game tactics but with his lineup cards, compensating for an offense short of star power by exploiting platoon advantages as often as possible. Francona secured the platoon advantage a remarkable 75 percent of the time, second only to Melvin’s MLB-leading 77 percent. In this, Francona leaned heavily on position-switching regulars such as Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana and plugged in position-flexible journeymen such as Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn.
That wasn’t Francona’s biggest area of impact, though. Other managers had to deal with injuries within good rotations or breaking in young talent there while contending with it, but Tito had to deal with both challenges. Francona delivered a wild-card team despite getting just 73 quality starts from his rotation (“good” for 13th in the AL). In part, that was because Francona didn’t ask too much of Danny Salazar, Zach McAllister or Corey Kluber, but the frenetic use of his bullpen -- with an MLB-leading 540 relievers used -- compensated for a rotation that pitched only 5.7 innings per start (12th in the AL). If the bullpen is where a manager makes the biggest in-game impact these days, I chose to recognize that a deep Indians bullpen -- and Francona’s cultivation and employment of it -- was critical to their winning one of the AL wild cards despite a rotation that couldn’t contribute as much. Francona got great work from guys such as Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw to paper over the midgame innings gap that could have quickly killed off talk of Cleveland’s contending. So, Francona was my choice for 2013 AL Manager of the Year.
So, what about Farrell, you ask? With the Red Sox always commanding outsized attention, win or lose, Farrell’s worst-to-first pitch for top skipper was easy to latch onto after the Sox clambered back from their disastrous 93-loss season in 2012. You might think Farrell’s case sort of resembles those of Bobby Cox and Tom Kelly in 1991, when those two men won manager of the year awards in their respective leagues while skippering the Braves and Twins to the all-time awesomeness of the 1991 World Series.
Not so much, though. Those two teams were genuine surprises. In contrast, with the Red Sox committing a franchise-record $175 million or so to payroll, they were supposed to win, and they did. With most of their success falling within the realm of the expected in terms of player performances, the midseason injury to Clay Buchholz was about the only thing that represented a significant setback, which they amply compensated for by acquiring Jake Peavy.
Does that mean Farrell doesn't deserve a ton of credit for a job well done, in delivering on that huge financial investment? Of course not. He did a great job helping sort and re-sort his bullpen in a fluid situation that forced him to switch closers repeatedly; he also got to pick between three save generators making more than $4 million per annum apiece. I would have loved to have voted for Farrell, but I could not, not within this year’s field of excellent alternatives.
Finally, Girardi did a tremendous job managing a Yankees team stuck spending oodles of cash on players who couldn’t or didn’t contribute, especially early in the season. I think it was his most impressive year in the dugout since his award-winning 78-win rookie season with the Marlins in 2006. But the funny thing was, the stronger the Yankees’ roster got down the stretch -- with Alex Rodriguez, Ivan Nova and Curtis Granderson back, and with Alfonso Soriano added to the mix -- the worse they did overall, putting up a .500 record after the All-Star break. Like Farrell, it would have been easy to vote for Girardi in many years, but that sort of reverse relationship between available assets and team performance put him behind a strong field on my ballot.
It was a tough year to choose because my top three and Farrell didn’t make it easy to pick from among them. Here’s hoping at least one Red Sox fan will do me the favor of letting me know if the Red Sox Nation posse is coming for me. And friends and family in New York might do likewise if they’re joined by a bunch of angry Yankees fans. I’ll take solace in knowing that I brought y’all together as you head west.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.