OK, to start on the Manager of the Year, here’s a fun little list -- managers of the year who resigned or were fired within three seasons of winning the award:
Tony La Russa, 1983 (fired midseason 1986)
Jim Frey, 1984 (fired midseason 1986, never managed again)
Hal Lanier, 1986 (fired after 1988 season, never managed again)
John McNamara, 1986 (fired midseason 1988)
Don Zimmer, 1989 (fired early 1991, never managed again)
Frank Robinson, 1989 (fired early 1991)
Jeff Torborg, 1990 (resigned after 1991 season to manage Mets)
Gene Lamont, 1993 (fired early 1995)
Buck Showalter, 1994 (fired after 1995 season)
Davey Johnson, 1997 (forced to resign immediately)
Jimy Williams, 1999 (fired midseason 2001)
Tony Pena, 2003 (quit in early 2005, hasn’t managed again)
Buck Showalter, 2004 (fired after 2006 season)
Joe Girardi, 2006 (fired BEFORE he won the award)
Bob Melvin, 2007 (fired early 2009)
Eric Wedge, 2007 (fired after 2009 season)
Lou Piniella, 2008 (resigned midseason 2010)
This year, Buck Showalter probably will win his third Manager of the Year award for his marvelous work with the Orioles. He will hope it doesn’t end up like the other two. Davey Johnson probably will win his second Manager of the Year award for guiding the miraculous Washington Nationals, and he’s already in better shape than he was the last time he won the award (in that he’s still the manager).
Why is there so much volatility with this award? I think there are a couple of reasons. The first is obvious: The Manager of the Year has a certain rhythm that has been built up over many years -- more often than not, the award goes to the manager whose team most clearly beat expectations. That’s the main thing. It only rarely goes to the manager of the team with the best record. Here’s a great trivia question for you: Name the last Manager of the Year whose team won 100 games.
Answer: Lou Piniella in 2001.
Bobby Cox won the award four times -- none of them among the SIX TIMES his team won 100 games. Tony La Russa won it four times -- none of them in the three years his team actually won the World Series. It has happened seven times that the Manager of the Year’s team won the World Series -- the last time was Ozzie Guillen in 2005 -- but it’s not the usual vote.
No, the usual vote goes like this: Team surprises the voters, the manager must have done a great job. Nobody expected anything from Arizona last year -- the team won 94 games and Kirk Gibson was Manager of the Year. Nobody expected anything from San Diego two years ago, the team won 90 games, Bud Black was Manager of the Year. And so on.
Well, as we know, teams that have surprising seasons one year very often -- indeed, most of the time -- crash the next. Bill James wrote about this at length when he came up with his Plexiglas Principle (“All things in baseball tend to return to their previous form”). There are good reasons for the principle. Teams that win suddenly tend to lose their bearings a bit. They expect repeats of unlikely performances. They count on staying healthy again. They are reluctant to make changes that need to be made.
And when the crash comes ... the manager crashes right alongside.
The second reason why there is so much volatility with this award, I think, is related. It is simply this: What works one year will not necessarily work the next. Certain managers, the rare ones, have the ability to either change with time or to bend time to their own will. They have a style and managerial presence that works year after year after year.
But most managers -- most people -- don’t have that kind of adaptability. They are who they are, and their style might work beautifully for one kind of team and disastrously for another.
Take Tony Pena, your Manager of the Year in 2003. Everything he tried that year just worked. That was as hopeless a team as any you will find. The Royals had lost 100 games in 2002, and they spent the offseason dismantling that team. They lost by far their best pitcher when Paul Byrd went to Atlanta. They dumped veterans Roberto Hernandez, Neifi Perez, Jeff Suppan and Chad Durbin. They released one-time promising hitter Mark Quinn, and traded away former No. 1 pick Jeff Austin. In other words, they came into the offseason as a 100-loss team and got rid of pretty much all the players whom anyone had ever heard of.
Pena was a whirlwind. He just crackled with energy and enthusiasm and hope. Every day was a pep rally. Every press conference was a rousing sermon. He had T-shirts made -- “Nosotros Creemos,” “We Believe” -- and he raced around spring training pumping up every player, every day, and he refused to allow any negativity to get near the team, and it was quite the scene. The team won and won in spring training, but that was just spring training. Then the season started, and the team improbably kept on winning. They won on Opening Day -- their Opening Day starter, someone named Runelvys Hernandez, combined with two others for a three-hit shutout -- and they held on to win game two. They promptly won again and again and again and again. Going into the second weekend of the season, they were 9-0. Soon after they were 16-3.
The magic lasted for most of the season. They signed Jose Lima out of the independent league, and he was unbeatable for a month. Carlos Beltran had a huge season, Angel Berroa was Rookie of the Year, enough other guys had good seasons, rookie reliever Mike MacDougal made the All-Star team, and the Royals were in first place as late as Aug. 29.
They sputtered down the stretch, but that did not dampen the miraculous job that Tony Pena had done as manager. It was really one of the more amazing things I’ve seen. He did not just win Manager of the Year ... he won in a landslide. He got 24 of the 28 first-place votes. His spirit, his optimism, his ability to bring out the best of his players… it was a clear choice.
What happened the next year? Tony Pena was just as spirited, just as optimistic, just as manic. Only, suddenly, all of those things that had made him Manager of the Year in 2003 made him a nutcase in 2004. Suddenly, the guy was guaranteeing that the team was going to win the division when they had the worst record in baseball. Suddenly, the guy was jumping into the shower with his clothes on to break a losing streak. Suddenly the guy was completely ineffective in getting veteran Juan Gonzalez to even play, much less play well. The Royals lost 104 games. Pena quit after 33 games in 2005 under bizarre Petraeus-like circumstances. The team was 8-25 at the time.
Of course, the Royals didn’t win in 2003 because Tony Pena made cool T-shirts, and they didn’t lose in 2004 because he jumped into the shower fully clothed. They won because in ’03 they finished fourth in runs scored -- thanks to a lineup that most days had six or seven above-average hitters -- and then they lost because the next year that lineup was broken down by desertion and collapsing performances.
They won in 2003 because they got surprisingly good pitching from Darrell May and Jose Lima and Brian Anderson and a half season of stardom from closer Mike MacDougal. They lost in 2004 because they thought that was actually real ... and it wasn’t.
So, Tony Pena was just a small part of it all. But as far as his small part goes, he was pretty much the same manager both years. It worked in 2003, maybe because it was fresh and the team was hopeless and the Royals got off to a good start. It failed in 2004, maybe because it wasn’t fresh, and the team had expectations, the Royals got off to a terrible start. Whatever the reasons, though, Tony Pena deserved the Manager of the Year award in 2003. And he deserved to be fired after 2004. And he didn’t change one bit.
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Buck Showalter will be difficult to explain to future generations of baseball fans. He was the one who took over the dreadful New York Yankees in 1992, and under his management they became a consistent winner. He won Manager of the Year once, and finished second another time. Then he dared to finish fourth in the voting -- leading the Yankees to their first playoffs in 14 years. That’s when he got fired, and Joe Torre took over and won four World Series championships in five years.
Next Showalter took over the expansion Diamondbacks. First year, the team lost 97 games. And the next year they won 100. He didn’t even get a Manager of the Year award for that – he finished fourth, in fact. The next year, the team finished a mere eight games over .500. He was fired. Bob Brenly took over and led the Diamondbacks to a World Series championship.
Then came Texas. The Rangers had been terrible for three straight seasons. In Showalter’s second year, after the Rangers had traded away A-Rod, he led them to an 89-win season. He won his second Manager of the Year Award for that. Two middling seasons later, he was fired. Ron Washington was hired. It took Wash two more middling seasons to turn it back around. He then led the Rangers to back-to-back World Series appearances.
And now, of course, Showalter led the Orioles to not only their first winning season in 15 years, but to a 93-win season and a playoff appearance. Oakland’s Bob Melvin pulled together a story at least as good with the remarkable A’s season, but I’m thinking Showalter will still win the award, his third.
So, why has it always ended so badly for him? People who know him will talk about how his extreme nature will wear on people after a while. They will say that he can be difficult to work with because he wants to be involved at every level and because he has a strong opinion about everything and doesn’t tend to believe he’s wrong often.
But it still doesn’t make much sense to me. Winners usually get to write the rules -- it’s the Steve Jobs way. And Buck Showalter’s teams win. There’s a theory out there that Showalter is the kind of manager who can take teams to the brink, but can’t take them all the way to the championship. Thing is, when you look at his history, he has never really been given the chance to take a team to the championship. He has never stayed in one place for five seasons. Like I say, it’s a strange phenomenon.
* * *
Davey Johnson was the first manager I covered on a day-to-day basis -- this was back in Cincinnati in the mid-’90s -- and what amazed me about him was that he never seemed overconfident about anything. I don’t mean that he was unconfident. No, he just seemed to understand that there were real limits to what he could do. He had this “Well, heck, it’s baseball, anything can happen, we’ll just give it a try and hope it works out” vibe going for him. It’s a vibe that I have never really seen with any other manager.
Because of this vibe, it has always been easy to underestimate Davey Johnson. I’ve written about those players who have the gift of making the game look easy -- Josh Hamilton, Carlos Beltran, guys like that. The gift makes them so much fun to watch. And yet, the gift also makes you think that they should be better somehow. Nobody can ever watch Raul Ibanez out there -- huffing and puffing, plowing down the first base line with so much effort that you can almost see the sweat pouring off him -- and think he’s underachieving. But watch the smoothness of B.J. Upton and you can’t help but wonder why he isn’t more.
I think Davey Johnson manages with that kind of “make it look easy” grace. He isn’t famous for doing anything in particular. He is statistically oriented, but not so much so that anybody really notices. He follows Earl Weaver’s patterns, for the most part, but not so much that he stands out. He has a .564 career winning percentage -- which is better than Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, Sparky Anderson, Walter Alston, Bruce Bochy and Billy Martin -- and yet few people talk about a Davey Johnson managerial style to copy.
From what I can see, the style is that you would like to play for the guy. He will give players all the credit and he will take all the blame. He is optimistic, he will move on from losses, and he does not appear to be a grudge-holder by big-league manager’s standards. He has a good sense for how to use a bullpen.
And there’s that odd feeling of calmness about him. Here’s a guy who has been through everything. Here’s a guy who managed the ’86 Mets. Here’s a guy who managed for Marge Schott. Here’s a guy who got into a public spat with the owner of the Orioles. He knows this game can pull you and push you and, in the end, you don’t have much control.
Yes, Dusty Baker did a great job with the Reds and Bruce Bochy is just perfectly suited for San Francisco and that team. But Davey Johnson led Washington to a 98-win season the same way he has been leading teams to winning seasons for almost 30 years. What is that way? It’s hard to explain. It’s pointless to explain. Heck, it’s baseball. Just go out and play and hope for the best.