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Thursday, October 08, 2009

BBA Awards Ballot: Manager of the Year (AL)

My new BBA membership has me all riled up to discuss regular season awards, so I'm going to put my playoff ranting on hold for the morning at least and address the Manager of the Year ballot in the American League. For the record, as a member without an affiliation, I will choose one league for each award.

While I'm actually more of a National League fan, I've got some strong opinions about AL manager in '09. As much as possible I am trying to distinguish between the job done by the on-field manager and that done by the GM. So, although I think Don Wakamatsu did a great job in Seattle, especially managing his pitching staff, I'm not ready to give him credit for the prioritization of defense which led to the acquisitions of Franklin Gutierrez and Jack Wilson, as well as the long-overdue ousting of Yuniesky Betancourt. I also think that Joe Girardi earned his stripes in New York this season, but, of course, he was handed a behemoth of a team and he was fairly fortunate. Despite preseason uncertainties 8 of the 9 top Yankee hitters got 500+ plate appearances (only Posada got less and he still managed well over 400). 80% of the Opening Day starting rotation made 30+ starts (with Chien-Ming Wang being the only exception). So, the argument for Girardi, I think, stems from his dealings with off-the-field pressures and his Tony LaRussa-like construction of a dominant bullpen as though from thin air (remember how bad things were out there in April and May?!?). It was an impressive job, but it still leaves him just outside my top three.

3. Terry Francona - Boston Red Sox

As the opening paragraph suggests, overcoming adversity is perhaps the quality I most admire in a manager. Only on very rare occasions do teams get exactly what the expected from every member of their opening day roster. Injuries, unexpected ineffectiveness, and chemistry problems test both the depth of an organization, the creativity of the GM, and the perceptive tenacity of the field manager. Theo Epstein is a GM extraordinaire (the V-Mart deal was a midseason coup), but to say that is sometimes to underestimate the contribution Francona has made in the Red Sox exceptional run since he took over in 2004.

This season's team looked much different than any during his tenure. No Manny. No Schilling or Pedro. Much noted declines from Varitek, Lowell, and Big Papi. The 2009 Red Sox were going to feed off of the next generation of BoSox: Pedroia, Youkilis, Ellsbury, Papelbon, and Lester. And, as might be expected, it wasn't a perfect transition. Pedroia and Lester got off to slow starts. Youkilis battled nagging physical issues and perhaps even more nagging mental ones. A rotation that was expected to be very deep faltered early and their top winner from 2008, Dice-K, made only three quality starts, all of them in September.

Francona handled everything superbly. He stuck with Big Papi through two hellish months and was rewarded with an excellent performance in the final four. He forced Youkilis into a short spell on the DL and regular days off to keep him fresh. He didn't allow Dice-K to rush back. After the acquisition of V-Mart, he managed a delicate rotation of stars (or former stars) at C, 1B, 3B, and DH. He resisted the temptation to overuse the flamethrowing rookie, Daniel Bard (perhaps he'd been watching what was happening with Carlos Marmol, who Lou Pinella tortured with long, stressful appearances in '07 and '08). He waited an extra month to bring Clay Buchholz back and got excellent results in the second half.

Francona remained always the picture of calm during the most stormy season of his managing career.

2. Mike Scioscia - Los Angeles Angels

I certainly won't argue that Scioscia doesn't get enough credit. The discussions of him in the Orange County media would make you think he was still calling games and blocking the plate, a kind of idyllic Pete Rose player-manager, with none of the baggage. He hawks refrigerators and pizzas and building supplies and second mortgages. Scioscia has proved himself again and again, and thus his legend grows. Only Bobby Cox and Tony LaRussa have more local reknown and influence over the macro- and micro- workings of their organizations.

The postseason commentary will certainly stress the unfortunate death of Nick Adenhart, as it should. What that disguises is that even before the Adenhart tragedy, Scioscia was facing a challenge that was almost entirely new. From 2001-2008, the Angels never finished lower than sixth in the AL in ERA; never above 4.28. Year after year, Scioscia put together rotations, bullpens, and defense that assured that his ballclub could stay in every game, even if they only scored three or four runs. During Spring Training, it looked like there would be more of the same. Scioscia was returning all five starters from last year's division-leading rotation and had Adenhart and former 18-game winner, Kelvim Escobar, waiting in the wings. Yet, of those front seven, only Jared Weaver and Joe Saunders made more than one start in April. Ervin Santana and John Lackey tried to rush back and combined for an 8.00 ERA in eight starts in May.

Meanwhile, despite K-Rod move to New York, Scioscia still had most of the key pieces to his great bullpens of '07 and '08: Scot Shields, Jose Arrendondo, and Justin Speier. They combined for an ERA above 6.00 in '09. The primary Angels slugger, Vladimir Guerrero, missed 35 games in April and May. There was no way this team should been anywhere near .500 after the first two month.

Yet, in the middle of May, even after getting swept by the division-leading Rangers, they were 18-18. They held on strong to that .500 record until mid-June (29-29), when they began a stretch of fifteen interleague games, of which they won twelve, and never looked back.

With his pitching in tatters, Scioscia decided he was going to have to score lots of runs. And so, whereas in the past he had resisted playing defensively-challenged power-hitters like Mike Napoli, Kendry Morales, and Juan Rivera everyday, he finally handed them starting jobs and they hit 79 HR and drove in 252 RBI. With the help of Bobby Abreu, he made slick-fielding, slap-hitting middle infielders, Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis, into .300 hitters who were on base over 35% of the time. And he let everybody run wild, just like he always had. Six players netted double-digits in stolen bases.

Now, the reformed Angels are headed into October with some offensive thunder AND their pitching staff. Lackey racked up a 2.89 ERA in his last seven starts. Santana was at 2.84 over his last ten. Neither Shields, Speier, or Arrendondo made the postseason roster. In their places sit Kevin Jepsen (2.93 ERA, 43 IP, 42 K since July 1), Jason Bulger (2.48 ERA, 58 IP, 60 K since May 1), and Matt Palmer (2.74 ERA in 46 IP as a reliever). For most of the last decade, Scioscia has been credited with a particular "style" of AL baseball. This year he broke his own mold. That's worthy of serious consideration.

1. Ron Washington - Texas Rangers

I know, you were expecting Ron Gardenhire. And you aren't wrong, Gardenhire faced some serious adversity, went without the dominant rotation which had defined his tenure in Minnesota, and squeaked into the postseason with a lineup that included Nick Punto, Matt Tolbert, and Brendan Harris. However, Mr. Washington still had a better record (by 1/2 game) and he dealt with all of the above, but without the strong template to start from.

Let's face it, if I had told you at the beginning of the season that the 2009 Rangers were going to finish behind the Angels, the Twins, and the Blue Jays in runs scored, you would've been guessing that they won closer to 40 games than 90. Josh Hamilton was putrid, and hurt. Chris Davis was worse, though healthy. No Texas player made 145 starts. Among players with 100+ plate appearances, only Michael Young (.374), Julio Borbon (.376), and David Murphy (.338) posted OBP above the league average (.335). Four regulars posted OBP under .300. Sure, eight players had 17 or more homers, but this is in Arlington, the ballpark that made power threats out of Gary Matthews Jr. and Rusty Greer. Royce Clayton hit 14 HR there, twice!!! Much more telling is the fact that no Ranger drove in 90 and only Ian Kinsler scored more than 80.

Yet they won 87 games. The Texas Rangers were a pitching and defense team!!! Much credit will be given to Nolan Ryan and Mike Maddux for the reformations of Scott Feldman, Dustin Nippert, and Kevin Millwood. And that's probably just. However, Washington still oversaw that development and managed a staff that suffered prolonged injuries to its closer (Frank Francisco), two of its middle-of-the-rotation starters (Matt Harrison & Brandon McCarthy), and a primary set-up man (Eddie Guardado). Washington also dealt with the transition of Young to third base, he and Omar Vizquel assured that Elvis Andrus was a gold glove caliber shortstop in his very first season, and he juggled crazy platoon situations at catcher, first base, and in the outfield. He had to figure out what to do exactly with a strange roster than included five corner outfielders (Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Marlon Byrd, Murphy, and Borbon), three designated hitters (Hank Blalock, Chris Davis, and Andruw Jones), no true centerfielders, and only one backup infielder (Vizquel). As a prize for leading his division at the All-Star Break, management, dogged by financial problems, made no deadline deals and pretty much allowed the Angels to storm to another AL West title.

Washington isn't going to win this award, either from the BBA or the BBWA, but I think he's as legitimate a candidate as anybody and hopefully will be fronting the Ranger for many years to come.

Honorable Mention: Ron Gardenhire (MIN), Joe Girardi (NYY), Don Wakamatsu (SEA), Cito Gaston (TOR)

And, just for posterity, if I had voted for the NL version of the award, my ballot would've been pretty conventional: 3. Joe Torre (LAD), 2. Jim Tracy (COL), 1. Tony LaRussa (STL).

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