There is something nearly impossible about evaluating the best managers in Major League Baseball, and because of that, Manager of the Year is arguably the most fun of the major awards to discuss. With Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, and MVP awards, one could just rank the top relevant players by WAR and submit that list and have a perfectly defensible ballot (while I didn’t do that exactly on my votes, looking at the WAR leaderboards was the first thing I did on all three awards–I suspect many if not most actual awards voters did the same). With Manager of the Year, we don’t have that choice. It requires some creativity. It also means my ballot might look stupid.
The most common trajectory for a manager to win this award is for the team to improve significantly (particularly if it is a first-year manager) or to overachieve expectations, and those played some role in my voting, but they were not the entirety of my criteria. I used some intangible evaluation of their management, hearsay and speculation, and all sorts of things that would make me uncomfortable if reliable managerial metrics existed.
Well, here we go.
1. Kevin Cash–Tampa Bay Rays: No manager in Major League Baseball received more attention for the uniqueness of his tactics in 2018 than Kevin Cash, whose innovative use of “the opener”, essentially where a reliever starts a game to face the top of the opponent’s order and then a more stretched-out pitcher comes in relatively quickly in relief. In the end, the opener received more attention than it probably warranted–statistically, it probably provides some advantage, but nothing too significant–but that’s what a great manager does. Managers can’t turn bad teams into good ones, but they can turn middling teams (what the Rays were expected to be entering 2018) into 90-win ones. Cash’s success with the Rays was a bit overlooked because the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees ran away in the AL East, but the Rays finished in sixth in the American League despite trading their Opening Day starter at the trade deadline.
2. Bob Melvin–Oakland Athletics: It was Melvin’s eighth season in Oakland, so giving him credit for his team’s jump from 75 to 97 wins isn’t entirely fair, as he helped set his own low expectations. But a look at the personnel which Melvin guided to a Wild Card berth, and nearly an AL West title over the heavily favored Houston Astros, is jarring. The Athletics overcame a general lack of starting pitching (the team’s leader in innings, Sean Manaea, missed all of September; the team’s #2 in innings was somebody named Daniel Mengden) and rode shockingly productive seasons from players like Matt Chapman (already a good player, he became an MVP-caliber one) and Chad Pinder to unexpected success.
3. Alex Cora–Boston Red Sox: Cora garnered further acclaim in October, but based on his regular season performance (I wrote my ballot before the playoffs began), he still merits consideration. The Red Sox were already a good team, coming off consecutive 93-win seasons and back-to-back AL East titles, so there wasn’t a ton of room for growth, but Alex Cora managed to lead the Red Sox to a 15-win improvement. Despite widespread belief that the New York Yankees were favorites for the division, the Red Sox were the best team in baseball throughout the season, despite lackluster performances at several positions (notably catcher, first base, and the back end of the bullpen).
1. Craig Counsell, Milwaukee Brewers: Counsell had the advantage of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain having MVP-level seasons, yes, but the Brewers won the NL Central despite an outright dreadful starting rotation. With Jimmy Nelson out, Counsell and the Brewers depended on Jhoulys Chacin and whatever else they could get, and expertly deployed bullpen pieces Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress, and Corey Knebel. Counsell would make unconventional moves, employing Kevin Cash’s opener strategy liberally and juggling the team’s ample outfielders as pinch-hitters to overcome the team’s offensive deficits in the infield.
2. Mike Shildt, St. Louis Cardinals: When Mike Shildt took over as Cardinals manager one game before the 2018 All-Star Break, the team was 47-46. In the remainder of the season, the Cardinals went 41-28. Although Shildt lost some luster as the team’s late surge fell futile, his team’s overall performance, with a 96-win pace played throughout, was a marked improvement over Mike Matheny, and his tactical improvements (most notably, more defensibly using his bullpen) probably didn’t represent a true 15-win swing, they were pivotal in making the Cardinals competitive for a playoff berth up until the season’s penultimate day.
3. Brian Snitker, Atlanta Braves: When a young team exceeds expectations (or at least ascends more quickly than anticipated), it’s hard to know how much credit should go to the manager and how much should go to the front office. I mostly side with the latter–it’s not like Brian Snitker signed Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albeis–but at the same time, Snitker was tasked with handling a very inexperienced clubhouse. He may not have taught the young Braves players how to play baseball, but he did ensure that its young core did not fade down the stretch under the weight of the pressures of Major League Baseball.