2012 Award Winners—American League Manager of the Year

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A few weeks ago, I listed my picks for the Cy Young Award in each league. Along with that, I listed who I picked before the season and who I think will actually wind up winning. You can read it here.

Now let’s look at the intense debate for Manager of the Year in the American League.

The two candidates for the award are the Orioles’ Buck Showalter and the Athletics’ Bob Melvin. You can’t go wrong with either. For my purposes, I have to go point-by-point to see if I can find an advantage to tip the argument in the favor of one or the other and come to a conclusion that makes sense.

The Orioles started the season with an $84 million payroll; the Athletics started with a $52 million payroll. Showalter had more proven veteran talent. With Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, J.J. Hardy, and Mark Reynolds, the Orioles’ lineup was going to score runs. Their question marks were in the starting rotation and with bullpen depth. Showalter worked his way around not having one starting pitcher throw 200 innings. It was his deft use of the bullpen that carried the Orioles through.

Melvin was working with a patchwork quilt of pitchers comprised of youth (Jarrod Parker, Dan Straily, A.J. Griffin); journeyman veterans (Bartolo Colon); and the injury prone (Brandon McCarthy). The bullpen was also in flux as he bounced back and forth between Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour as his closer. The lineup was similarly makeshift with unknowns (Yoenis Cespedes); youngsters who’d never gotten a chance (Josh Reddick); and other clubs’ refuse (Brandon Moss, Brandon Inge).

Neither team had any expectations before the season started. Both clubs were in divisions where they were picked—across the board—to finish in or close to last place. The American League East and American League West had powerhouses with massive payrolls, star power and history behind them. But the Orioles and A’s overcame their disadvantages to make the playoffs.

Is there a fair way to break what is essentially a tie in making a pick?

Yes.

The one method I can think of to determine who should win is by looking at the managers, but switching places and determining whether Showalter or Melvin would have been capable of replicating the success they had with their club and mimicked it with the other club.

Could Showalter have done the job that Melvin did with the Athletics?

Could Melvin have done the job that Showalter did with the Orioles?

Showalter has long been a manager who maximizes the talent he has on the roster with his attention to detail, flexibility, and perceived strategic wizardry, but his teams have sometimes wilted under his thumb and tuned him out. Showalter’s unique maneuverings have invited quizzical looks and accurate criticism. One example was the decision not to hold Mark Teixeira on first base in the fifth inning of a scoreless tie in game 5. Teixeira stole second and scored on a Raul Ibanez single. Under no circumstances should Showalter have done that. Teixeira was running well on his injured calf and the risk wasn’t worth the reward to let him take the base. It cost them dearly, and because he’s Showalter, he gets away with it. It was a mistake.

In every one of his managerial stops, Melvin has been an underappreciated manager to develop youngsters and let them have a chance to play without scaring or pressuring them into errors, physical and mental. His strategies are conventional. He lets his players play. The players like playing for him and play hard for him. Every time his teams have underachieved, it hasn’t been Melvin’s fault. That’s not the case with Showalter as the Diamondbacks and Rangers grew stagnant with him managing their teams. On that basis, Melvin’s style would’ve translated better to the Orioles than Showalter’s to the Athletics.

In the end, it comes down to who was faced with the bigger disadvantages to start the season and overcame them; who had more proven talent on his roster; and who held the ship together when the circumstances were bleakest. The Orioles were never under .500 in 2012; the A’s were 9 games under and 13 games out of first place in June and came back to win the division.

Based on these factors, the Manager of the Year is Bob Melvin of the Oakland Athletics.

In the preseason I picked Manny Acta of the Cleveland Indians to win the award.

Before any laughter, it gets worse. The following is 100% true: Prior to making a last-minute change, I had initially written that the Indians were going to be a disappointment after positive preseason hope and hype and that Acta would be fired and replaced by Sandy Alomar, Jr. But I changed my mind and picked the Indians to win the AL Central (mistake number 1), and selected Acta as Manager of the Year (mistake number 2).

I believe that in spite of Melvin’s slightly better case as the recipient, Showalter is going to win.

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The 2012 Athletics Are A Great Story That Has Nothing To Do With Moneyball

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Going to Michael Lewis for a quote about the 2012 Oakland Athletics because he wrote Moneyball as the author does in this NY Times article is like going to Stephen King for a quote on time travel and the Kennedy assassination because he wrote a novel about time travel and the Kennedy assassination. Lewis’s book was technically non-fiction and King’s is decidedly fiction, but the “facts” in Lewis’s book were designed to take everything Billy Beane was doing to take advantage of market inefficiencies and magnify them into an infallibility and new template that only a fool wouldn’t follow.

Lewis had an end in mind and crafted his story about the 2002 Athletics and baseball sabermetrics to meet that end. It’s not journalism, it’s creative non-fiction. Beane went along with it, became famous, and very rich. None of that validates the genesis of the puffery.

The intervening years from Moneyball’s publication to today were not kind to Beane or to the story…until 2012. The movie’s success notwithstanding, it was rife with inaccuracies, omissions, and outright fabrications such as:

  • Art Howe’s casual dismissal of Beane’s demands as if it was Howe who was in charge and not Beane
  • The portrayal of Jeremy Brown not as a chunky catcher, but an individual so close to morbidly obese that he needed to visit Richard Simmons, pronto
  • The failure to mention the three pitchers Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito
  • That Scott Hatteberg’s playing time was a point of contention and Beane traded Carlos Pena to force Howe’s hand to play Hatteberg—Hatteberg was still learning first base and wasn’t playing defense, but he was in the lineup almost every day as the DH from day one

There are other examples and it wasn’t a mistake. The book was absurd, the movie was exponentially absurd, and there are still people who refuse to look at the facts before replacing the genius hat on Beane’s head as “proof” of the veracity of Lewis’s tale.

This 2012 version of the Athletics is Beane’s rebuild/retool number five (by my count) since 2003. The Moneyball club was blown apart and quickly returned to contention by 2006 when they lost in the ALCS. That team too was ripped to shreds and the A’s traded for youngsters, signed veterans, traded veterans, signed veterans, traded for youngsters and finished far out of the money in the American League from 2007-2011.

Then they cleared out the house again and are now in the playoffs. It has no connection with Moneyball nor the concept of Beane finding undervalued talent. It has to do with the young players succeeding, as the article linked above says, and winning “in a hurry”.

Let’s look at the facts and assertions from the book/movie followed by the truth:

The A’s, under Beane, were “card-counters” in the draft

The only players on this Athletics’ team that were acquired via the draft and have helped the club are Jemile Weeks, Cliff Pennington, Sean Doolittle (drafted as a first baseman and converted to the mound), Dan Straily, and A.J. Griffin. The A’s drafts since Moneyball have been mediocre at best and terrible at worst, so bad that Grady Fuson—along with Howe, one of the old-school “villains” in Moneyball—was brought back to the organization as special assistant to the GM.

The hidden truth about the draft is that the boss of the organization probably pays attention to the first 8-10 rounds at most. After that, it’s the scouts and cross-checkers who make the decisions and any player taken past the 10th round who becomes a success is a matter of being lucky with late development, a position switch, a quirky pitch, or some other unquantifiable factor. Beane’s “new age” picks like Brown, Steve Stanley, and Ben Fritz, didn’t make it. The conventional selections Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton did make it, were paid normal bonuses of over $1 million, in line with what other players drafted in their slot area received. Brown received $350,000 as the 35th pick in the first round and his signing was contingent on accepting it.

Beane “fleeced” other clubs in trades

In retrospect, he took advantage of the Red Sox desperation to have a “proven” closer, Andrew Bailey, to replace the departed Jonathan Papelbon. Bailey got hurt and, last night, showed why it wasn’t his injury that ruined the Red Sox season. He’s not particularly good. Josh Reddick has 32 homers—power and inexpensive youthful exuberance the Red Sox could have used in 2012.

The other deals he made last winter? They were of mutual benefit. The A’s were looking to restart their rebuild and slash salary waiting out the decision on whether they’re going to get permission to build a new park in San Jose. They sent their erstwhile ace Trevor Cahill to the Diamondbacks for a large package of young talent with Collin Cowgill, Ryan Cook, and Jarrod Parker. They also traded Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals for even more young talent including Tommy Milone and Derek Norris. The Diamondbacks got 200 innings and good work (that hasn’t shown up in his 13-12 record) from Cahill and are also-rans; the Nationals got brilliance from Gonzalez and won their division. The A’s slashed payroll and their young players, as the article says, developed rapidly.

Sometimes it works as it did with this series of trades, sometimes it doesn’t as with the failed return on the Hudson trade to the Braves in 2004.

They found undervalued talent

Yes. We know that Moneyball wasn’t strictly about on-base percentage. It was about “undervalued talent” and opportunity due to holes in the market. That argument has come and gone. Was Yoenis Cespedes “undervalued”? He was paid like a free agent and joined the A’s because they offered the most money and the longest contract. He was a supremely gifted risk whose raw skills have helped the A’s greatly and bode well for a bright future. The other signings/trades—Jonny Gomes, Bartolo Colon, Seth Smith, Brandon Inge, Brandon Moss—were prayerful maneuvers based on what was available for money the A’s could afford. They contributed to this club on and off the field.

Grant Balfour was signed before 2011 because the A’s again thought they were ready to contend and all they needed was to bolster the bullpen. They’d also signed Brian Fuentes to close. Fuentes was an expensive disaster whom they released earlier this year; Balfour was inconsistent, lost his closer’s job, wanted to be traded, regained the job, and is pitching well.

The manager is an irrelevant figurehead

Howe was slandered in Moneyball the book as an incompetent buffoon along for the ride and slaughtered in the movie as an arrogant, insubordinate jerk. What’s ironic is that the manager hired at mid-season 2011, Bob Melvin, is essentially the same personality as Howe!!! An experienced manager who’d had success in his past, Melvin replaced the overmatched Bob Geren, who just so happened to be one of Beane’s closest friends and was fired, according to Beane, not because of poor results, managing and communication skills, but because speculation about his job security had become a distraction.

Melvin and Howe share the common trait of a laid back, easygoing personality that won’t scare young players into making mistakes. Melvin’s calm demeanor and solid skills of handling players and game situations was exactly what the A’s needed and precisely what Moneyball said was meaningless.

The 2012 Athletics are a great story; Moneyball was an interesting story, but they only intersect when Beane’s “genius” from the book and movie melds with this season’s confluence of events and produces another convenient storyline that, in fact, has nothing at all to do with reality.

The A’s are going to the playoffs and might win the division over the Rangers and Angels, two teams that spent a combined $170 million more in player salaries than the A’s did. It’s a terrific life-lesson that it’s not always about money, but it has zero to do with Moneyball and Michael Lewis is an unwanted interloper as the Beane chronicler since he knows nothing about baseball and is a callous opportunist who took advantage of a situation for his own benefit.

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