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Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Does picking top skippers make sense?

By Christina Kahrl

Johnson-Melvin
Davey Johnson, left, and Bob Melvin were particularly adept at managing lineups and pitching staffs.


It was the managers' turn Tuesday in Major League Baseball's awards week, and you can understand why this might be greeted by a collective yawn by the performance-analysis community. The throwaway comment is that it's the award for whichever guy in the dugout saw his team improve by 15 or more games from one year to the next.

If that's true, I guess that means we could have ruled out Robin Ventura of the Chicago White Sox (six-game improvement from 2011) and Bruce Bochy of the San Francisco Giants (eight games) right off the bat. Given that the Washington Nationals' Davey Johnson and Oakland A's Bob Melvin are bringing home the trophies in their respective leagues, that fulfills that bit of prophecy.

You could just chalk up the results to simple luck, with voters picking who was luckiest. Buck Showalter, Melvin and all three National League finalists were in the black as far as seeing their teams finish with records better than expected via Pythagorean projections. By that standard, Showalter was most fortunate of all, with his Orioles finishing 11 games better than the 82 wins they were “supposed” to wind up with, while Dusty Baker and Bochy tied for the NL lead at six games better than expected.

Admittedly, Showalter's plus-11 tally represents an unusually good year, and also reminiscent of Mike Scioscia's best years in the Aughties, when the Angels would exasperate statheads yearly by consistently finishing with better-than-expected records. Calling that luck risked losing sight of the Angels' execution and exploitation of opportunities, or the virtues of those teams, and I wouldn't be so quick to consign Sciosia's pair of manager-of-the-year trophies to mere luck. Similarly, I wouldn't say Showalter's Orioles were just lucky.

Certainly, describing a manager's impact on his team defies easy description. Thanks to stats, we like simple, measurable answers, but analyzing managers brings in a broad category of soft factors -- whether managing players' workloads, placing players in the best position to succeed or exploiting their abilities to best effect, or even something as ill-defined as “leadership.” But because we can't ascribe a numerical value to those things doesn't mean we can't pretend they don't have an impact. (Whether or not the people voting for the award have a perfect grasp on those things is another matter altogether.)

Not even the best book on the subject, Chris Jaffe's comprehensive "Evaluating Baseball Managers," succeeds entirely at quantifying a manager's impact, because on some level it's impossible to separate player performance from managerial predilection, and as responsibility for roster design became more and more the general manager's turf over time, you can't credit skippers with most of who's on the team. And in-game tactical options, one of the more obvious places where managers make an impact, are fundamentally rooted in personnel.

Besides which, fixating on that kind of offensive information is particularly pointless today, because for all sorts of reasons, one-run strategies just aren't in vogue. The total difference between the leading teams in position player sac bunts (the Angels and Brewers with 60 apiece) and the last-place team (the Cubs with 19) that had them bunt the least is noticeable, but it isn't anything like the difference between teams managed by Gene Mauch and Earl Weaver in the '70s.

So how do you sort out who did a great job managing his team in a particular year in today's game? I'm someone who thinks the award still matters because -- as someone who has voted twice on managers of the year, in 2010 and again in 2011 -- I think the careful voter can validate the best dugout efforts. But on some level, you have to address the changing nature of the role of managers.

Buck Showalter
Buck Showalter's Orioles greatly exceeded projected win totals, and finished just shy of the ALCS.
Pitching-staff management almost automatically demands the primary place for evaluating a manager's impact, particularly bullpen management. In today's game, you don't necessarily have to be great at it, and you don't have to turn in virtuoso performances like Bochy has in his club's World Series wins or Tony La Russa did in 2011, but as a matter of handling multiple players, varying workloads, game situations and securing the right matchups, it may well be the most important task a manager has to get right across 162 games, not just in a single game. It's equal parts logistics and tactics, foresight and reaction.

On that score, all of the candidates have their merits. Baker's bullpen wound up leading the NL in fair run average, while Johnson cobbled together a fairly effective 'pen despite losing key relievers for extended periods of time. Johnson also had to deal with -- or perhaps fight against -- the tight rein kept on Stephen Strasburg's workload, but ran a deep rotation effectively despite that distraction all season. In the American League, both Showalter and Melvin had to adjust their rotations constantly, and both struck upon effective late-game formulas despite relying on relatively lightly regarded relief corps. Crediting them with getting tremendous mileage out of guys such as Pedro Strop or Sean Doolittle is the least we can do.

Lineup-card management is another thing you have to take into account. Not so much the batting orders themselves, but who gets to play, and to what effect. The mileage that Melvin and Ventura got out of unknown quantities such as Brandon Moss or Alejandro De Aza in their lineups certainly deserve shout-outs. Johnson deserves especially high marks for sticking with a couple of past established habits, stocking a strong bench and using it to good effect (Tyler Moore, Chad Tracy and supersub Steve Lombardozzi in particular).

The other thing I like to look at is how well a skipper adjusted in-season to when he had to adjust his roster, either because of injuries or slumps. Essentially, how well did he adapt when things started going wrong? Because things always go wrong -- players get hurt, somebody earns his release, a rookie earns a shot.

Again, looking at how Showalter, Johnson and Melvin tweaked their rotations and lineups constantly, I think you have to credit them with remarkable adaptability and flexibility. Whether Johnson's willingness to move Lombardozzi all over the diamond or shift Danny Espinosa across the keystone to play short while Ian Desmond was injured or Showalter's aggressiveness in moving Chris Davis around between first base, the outfield corners and designated hitter to try to squeeze every last bit of offense out of the slim pickings he had to work with, some managers were clearly put on the spot and came up with creative solutions.

In the AL, Melvin had to cycle through a variety of options at third base, shuffle around his outfield, and had to work without a perfect answer at first base until the stretch run, when he had the benefit of balancing Moss and Chris Carter's playing time.

Those kinds of decisions and reactions have a place in being honored, in this or any season. I'm glad for dugout favorites old and new -- congratulations to Davey Johnson and to Bob Melvin. They weren't the only managers who did great work, but they were deserving of their honors just won.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.