This is sort of a follow-up to my piece on Dusty Baker from a few weeks ago. I’m still not sure that I have too many hard-and-fast, sweeping conclusions to draw on, but it’s been bouncing around in my head all the same.
Paul Molitor won the AL Manager of the Year Award in 2017, and that’s not really a bad choice or anything. But I think it does highlight some of the weirdness of the award. The Twins weren’t expected to compete for the postseason after finishing 2016 with the worst record in the majors, but wound up claiming the second Wild Card spot. Traditionally, that type of turnaround has guaranteed a Manager of the Year winner, so it makes sense that Molitor won based on the precedent at the very least.
But then again, the Twins are only viewed as having overperformed in 2017 because they underperformed in 2016. They entered that year coming off of an 83-win 2015 but dropped 24 games in the standings…all under the stewardship of Molitor. Granted, 2015 was in turn a surprise, seeing as it followed four straight years of 70 wins or fewer, and that was Molitor’s first season. On the whole, I’d say that he’s probably a good manager; he just makes for an interesting case-study this year. How much of that turnaround was players returning to form versus Molitor being better? Of course, maybe the players improved because of Molitor’s guidance? Separating all of these factors can be difficult, which makes voters’ decision to use surprising teams look somewhat reasonable.
But surprise turnarounds are hardly the only way that we could be picking the winner, and it certainly leads to some weird outcomes along the way. It’s just that all of the other ways have their own flaws. Wins are in theory good, but it also doesn’t rule out a bad manager with great players. Outperforming your expected record (based on runs scored) is also good, but again, things like bullpen construction may make this not really the manager’s doing. We have records now on how successful managers are at winning replay challenges, but there’s still some contextualizing that will be needed, not to mention that teams will often relay decisions on what to challenge from off the field. Ultimately, we may just be dealing with a dearth of data, although it seems like the answer voters has dealt with that by throwing most of the data we do have out and instead voting based on a single factor.
And when you take a step back and look at the larger context of the award, you see some real weirdness resulting from this single-minded focus. For example, Terry Francona has two World Series titles and two Manager of the Year Awards…but the World Series titles are both from his time in Boston, while his Awards are both from his Cleveland tenure. Or look at A.J. Hinch, who in three seasons in Houston, taken the Astros to the playoffs twice immediately following three last-place finishes and even won the team’s first World Series. Despite that, Hinch is still looking for his first Manager of the Year, finishing third this year and second in 2015 (behind the also-surprising Rangers’ manager Jeff Bannister; hence why the Twins’ big turnaround that season only netted Molitor a third-place finish).
But let’s step back even further, away from the individuals to the larger trends. There hasn’t been a Manager of the Year from a 100-win team since Lou Piniella in 2001. That seems at least a little weird, right? Assuming the Manager of the Year is supposed to name the best manager, you’d maybe expect the best managers to get over that mark at least a little more often. Similarly, we’ve only seen one repeat winner (Bobby Cox in 2004-5), even though I’m not sure how much fluctuation we should actually see in talent levels of managers.
In fact, we’ve seen more managers dismissed from their post within a year of winning than repeat winners. And while I didn’t go all the way back to the start of the award, since the start of the Wild Card Era at the very least, we’ve had three Managers of the Year dismissed within a year of winning, compared to three that followed up the award with 100-win years (all three coming in the past two years; Joe Maddon in 2015-6 and both Dave Roberts and Terry Francona in 2016), and only three winners coming from 100-win teams in the year they actually won. Granted, all of those dismissals were strange edge cases, frequently (though not always) based in disagreement with ownership and such. But still, it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t seem at least a little weird when phrased this way.
Ultimately, I’m not sure what the solution is. Maybe looking at a manager’s longer history? Although that could rule out managers who take over disappointing teams and turn them around. Maybe looking at a broader context of stats? But again, I’m not sure that our current stats capture the full range of duties being a manager entails. In the end, though, it’s enough to make me think that more research on this topic definitely needs to be done.