BOSTON — Manager of the Year should be more interesting than this, but it rarely is.
The Most Valuable Player award drives people crazy because of the built-in ambiguity of its criteria: everyone can define value a little differently. But from a hand-wringing and hair-pulling standpoint, Manager of the Year is actually more compelling, or at least, it should be.
There’s no great way to settle a debate about skippers. There is no set of reliable or popular statistics for managers, aside from team wins. And the worst part of the vote’s tendency — 30 writers in all — is that the expectation of team wins seems to dictate the outcome. The award seems to most consistently speak to surprise teams and underdogs above all.
There’s no way to prove that the job Bob Melvin did in Oakland — where he was given a pitiful payroll and piloted an upstart, small-market team to the postseason — is actually more impressive than what Alex Cora did as a rookie manager, in Boston, in a setting that had been somewhat combustible with the previous manager, with a ton of talent on hand.
Inherently, the vote compares apples and oranges, people in vastly different circumstances.
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Understanding how a manager actually impacted a team is difficult. A lot of what a manager does is never known publicly, inside the market or out. Players always spew the cliches about their boss, because they feel they have to — and maybe they do.
The gentle or angry closed-door conversation with a player who needs it. The fires put out almost daily. Those are hard matters to gauge if they're never learned about.
But big-market managers with large payrolls can do tremendous jobs with those moments as small-market managers can. And they may be more frequent in the spotlight.
Melvin was not in a position to create a culture change as Cora was. If anything, Oakland has had an established culture for some time, with leadership stability under Billy Beane and David Forst.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, went through well known turbulence. But Cora clearly came in and spearheaded a change in how the team conducts its business, be it in the implementation of analytics in cooperation with the front office, to person-to-person dynamics behind the scenes.
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Punishing Melvin for enjoying continuity in his organization (if not on the field) isn’t fair. But this isn't about fair, about leveling the playing field between managers, because that's a virtually impossible task.
Cora deserved credit for taking on a new scene. Just as Kevin Cash in Tampa Bay deserved credit for implementing “the opener.”
The debate about the best manager is difficult to settle, if not impossible, in most any year. But the end result seems to too often skew toward an upstart team, rather than an in-depth evaluation of what the manager actually did for a team, expectations aside.
Not every team that exceeds expectations did so because the manager was a genius. Sometimes, repeating can be harder than succeeding for the first time. The Astros, like the Red Sox, set a franchise record for wins too in 2018.
But everyone thought the Astros would be good as defending champs; just as everyone thought the Red Sox would be a contender again. That doesn't mean a manager has it easier than an underdog, yet, the vote always seems to reach that conclusion.
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