Managers don't matter, until they do. Sure, these days the Ivy Leaguers upstairs can spit out the charts and graphs and highly analytical intel that produces optimal lineups or defensive alignments, and that's why the modern manager is usually an extension of the front office family.
But when the dude on the mound has a rich (in this case, pun intended) injury history and blisters on his fingers and is perfect through seven innings, somebody's got to have the guts to walk out to that mound, give him the hook and then face the wrath.
Moreover, in the broad spectrum of the season, somebody's got to massage egos, serve as a sounding board for complaining players and handle the deluge of delicate decisions that come with a 162-game schedule.
How do you reward a job like that? Well, with a handsome paycheck, of course, but also with the American League and National League Manager of the Year awards, which are an especially subjective honor that usually go to the guys whose clubs were most successful in outperforming equally subjective preseason expectations.
What follows, with precious few days left in the season schedule, is not an assessment of the guys who are most likely to win these awards but, rather, who this writer feels has (again, subjectively) gotten the most out of his ballclub this season, under the circumstances.
1. Jeff Banister, Rangers
Spoiler alert: Banister will not be the 2016 AL Manager of the Year because he was the 2015 AL Manager of the Year. It's just that simple. In the 33 years they've handed out this highly narrative honor, Bobby Cox (2004-05) is the only guy to win it in back to back years. Basically, once you do well with a club one year, you have inherently raised expectations for the following year, thereby making it difficult or darn near impossible to exceed expectations.
But look, we're not here to hand out an award. We're just here to point out that no team has outperformed its Pythagorean expectation more than Banister's Rangers. Their run differential suggests a .514 winning percentage when, in reality, they are at .596 and have run away with their second consecutive AL West title.
Had the Rangers played closer to a .500 clip, it would certainly be understandable. The rotation has seen Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Colby Lewis spend significant time on the disabled list; Shin-Soo Choo has hit the disabled list not once, not twice, not thrice but four times; Prince Fielder went from Comeback Player of the Year to the retirement home and the bullpen has the highest ERA in the AL. Heck, even something that went so spectacularly well -- the one-year gamble on Ian Desmond -- has fizzled a bit, as Desmond labored at the plate for much of the second half.
But the Rangers won this division by dominating the Astros, with a 15-3 edge in the season series. One dozen of those wins came by two runs or less, so Banister has had plenty of opportunity to screw this thing up, and he hasn't done so.
2. Terry Francona, Indians
Payroll ain't everything, especially in today's game, but it's nonetheless worth noting that Cleveland was the only team in the AL Central with a payroll in the lowly eight-figure terrain this year. And yet they have dominated with a 38-20 record against divisional opponents, poised to finish the year with a winning record against Central foes.
The Tribe has done this, notably, without Michael Brantley, their best and most consistent hitter in recent years. He played just 11 games in which he was virtually invisible, then had his season shut down because of continued shoulder issues. A rotation that shaped up to be one of the best in the AL has also had its fair share of problems, with Carlos Carrasco missing time early in the year with a hamstring strain (and enduring some inconsistency since his return), Danny Salazar having a promising year blown up by elbow and forearm issues and the back end a total question mark, with Josh Tomlin turning into a pumpkin in the second half.
Francona also gets credit for his high-leverage use of in-season acquisition Andrew Miller, which caught some people off-guard. Anyone who thought that Miller would show up and take over the ninth was instead met with the reality that Francona, embracing the idea that the game's most important outs aren't always necessarily the last three, used Miller proactively in the sixth, seventh, eighth, whenever. It's worked wonders for the 'pen.
By now, Francona is well-established as a player's manager who gets his guys on board with his approach to playing time. With Brantley out and both Marlon Byrd and Abraham Almonte banged for PED use at different points, the Indians haven't had a set outfield all year, but they've maintained a highly productive lineup thanks in part to Francona positioning them for the platoon advantage in 70 percent of their plate appearances.
3. TBD: Buck Showalter, Orioles, or Joe Girardi, Yankees
We can debate whether postseason positioning (or lack thereof) should matter in the MVP debate, but it absolutely matters when we're talking about Manager of the Year. And right now, the AL picture is just too clouded with quality candidates to make a real determination.
But at the moment, these two guys really stand out.
Showalter is, of course, one of the great managers of his time, a savant of the sport whose bullpen management and attention to detail are second to none. And boy howdy, has he had a challenge on his hands this year with this Baltimore starting staff, which, between injury, ineffectiveness and the lack of quality options in the trade market (or the resources to obtain what few quality options presented themselves), has been a consistent headache. The bullpen, which is certainly a force in a year in which Zach Britton has inserted himself into the Cy Young discussion, has been challenged both by the lack of consistency from the starting staff and Darren O'Day's injury issues.
The O's, for the record, have outperformed their Pythagorean expectation by four wins.
And the Yankees, meanwhile, have outperformed theirs by six.
At the time of the big Alex Rodriguez announcement on Aug. 7, when they asked Girardi about A-Rod's playing time in his final days in pinstripes, the manager made mention of the fact that the Yanks were still within six games of a playoff spot and that they still had something to play for.
"We're in this thing," he had said.
"Oh, that's cute," was the prevailing response. And Girardi went on to get ripped in some corners for not putting A-Rod on the field more frequently in those final days, for not playing along with the farce as he did in the entirety of Derek Jeter's final season, in which the Captain continued to bat in the two-hole well past his two-hole expiration date.
But Girardi deserves credit for believing in that which seemed beyond belief. The Yankees are, indeed, in this thing, almost inexplicably so. "Baby Bombers" might serve as a convenient catchphrase, but the truth of the matter is that Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin have contributed very little since their historic back-to-back jacks in their debut (and now Judge is done for the year with an oblique issue), and Gary Sanchez also endured an adjustment period after that initial burst of brilliance. The rotation outside of Masahiro Tanaka is far from imposing, on measure, and the bullpen was gutted by the Trade Deadline. But the Yankees keep hanging around, just as Joe insisted.
Super special honorable mention: Rookie skipper Scott Servais gets a pat on the back for the Mariners hanging around in the AL Wild Card chase. It's been an inordinately streaky team that hasn't had as good a rotation as planned, hasn't had as good an offense as hoped and has had to basically rebuild its bullpen twice. But they're still standing.
1. Dave Roberts, Dodgers
The Dodgers have an especially exorbitant payroll, but the modus operandi of the Andrew Friedman regime has been to compile depth on top of depth, to stray away from the elite free-agent or trade options and instead put quantity ahead of (known) quality.
There are really good, statistically inclined arguments for this approach, especially with so many players in today's game buckling under the weight of the long schedule. But the obvious drawback is the difficulty of managing a club with so many moving parts, and this 2016 season doubled down on the difficulty for Roberts simply because, in so many cases, that depth became not a luxury but a necessity. The Dodgers, as of this writing, have used a Major League-high 15 starters and 55 players overall, didn't have Clayton Kershaw available to them for 75 days, didn't get the big bounceback from Yasiel Puig and didn't get the expected second-half health boost from the likes of Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson.
And oh, by the way, how about Roberts, in his very first year at the helm, having the stones to take Rich Hill out of a perfect game and Ross Stripling out of a no-hitter (and quite justifiably on both fronts, I might add)?
None of this is meant to suggest that the Dodgers haven't had pure positives, and Corey Seager's borderline MVP rookie year is chief among them. But any club that can go 14 games over .500 without its established ace (after posting a sub-.500 record on days he didn't start in the season's first three months) is, in some measure, a reflection of its manager.
Roberts is Rookie of the Year, in that regard.
2. Joe Maddon, Cubs
The Cubs absolutely ran all over the NL Central and are due to eclipse the 100-win total. Believe it or not, run differential suggests the Cubs should actually be four games better than they already are, but it's the difficulty of winning the award in consecutive years -- not any mathematical formula -- that is most likely to hurt Maddon's candidacy.
Well, listen, there are thousands upon thousands of words readily available on the internet celebrating the Cubs skipper. Sportswriters, by and large, love two things: Bruce Springsteen and Joe Maddon (and the fact that Maddon himself loves Springsteen only adds to his popularity among scribes). A cynic might start to grow tired of the positive press, but, honestly, there's nothing not to like about a guy who keeps his clubhouse loose, has players who buy into the value of versatility (Kris Bryant had no qualms about bouncing between the infield and outfield in what has turned out to be an MVP-worthy campaign, and the trust in a kid like Willson Contreras making the move from behind the plate to the outfield is far from the norm) and is never afraid to paint outside the lines if it improves the odds of winning a ballgame ("Pitchers in the outfield? Sure!").
The Cubs have had insanely good starting pitching. That, more than Maddon, is the reason they've overcome the Kyle Schwarber injury and lived up to every lofty regular-season expectation placed upon them. And maybe, in ranking Maddon No. 2, I am just another sucker sucked into the Maddon Mystique. But what can I say? The guy's good at what he does.
3. Dusty Baker, Nationals
Dusty was a pretty likely Manager of the Year candidate coming into the year, inheriting the special alignment in which the clubhouse cohesion was so bad that it almost had no choice but to improve, and the roster was built to win right now. It seemed to be the perfect situation for Baker, a man who relates well to his players and keeps his calm, to thrive -- and thrive he has. The Nats are on the verge of winning the division title they, honestly, should have won a year ago.
How much is the title attributable to Dusty? Well, here's where the subjective and the statistical clash, because the Nats are actually three wins shy of their Pythagorean expectation. Baker has had his share of hurdles here, with Bryce Harper quickly cooling after a hot start, the back end of the bullpen turning into a midseason mess with Jonathan Papelbon's problems and the continuing injury woes of Stephen Strasburg adding a late-season catch to the Nats' clout. The case for Dusty, though, is largely and admittedly anecdotal. By and large, guys love playing for him and feel he has their back. Nobody's choked anybody (not in public, anyway), so that's a positive.
Basically, the Nats have not been the underperforming disappointment they were in 2015 and '13, so that's just swell. Because of this, Baker, who came over on a one-year deal after things broke down with Mike Rizzo's first choice in Bud Black, has a very legit shot at his fourth Manager of the Year trophy and first since his San Francisco days.
Super special honorable mention: There are other interesting/worthy candidates (and for those who have already written me since this piece was posted, yes, absolutely Terry Collins is a strong candidate, should the Mets nail down a Wild Card, given the injury hits they've endured), but how about a rare shout-out to Pete Mackanin. The Phillies have a .441 winning percentage, but their run differential suggest they should be at .386 (so basically on pace for 99-100 losses). Either give Mackanin credit for helping a team that should be absolutely horrendous instead be merely terrible or deride him for hurting their draft position.
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.