Worthy Hurdle, Francona fit subjective formula
Pirates, Indians overachieved to shed losing ways, reach postseason
Increasingly, the Manager of the Year Award has taken on Comeback Player of the Year-type criteria. Your best chance of winning it is if your team stunk last year and/or was expected to stink this year.
Really, the job of the manager is almost impossible to judge quantitatively by anything other than the won-loss record. So the voters look at those won-loss totals relative to what was, subjectively, the anticipated won-loss total and celebrate or criticize accordingly, with the notable caveat that those that vastly exceeded expectations but didn't at least cross the .500 threshold probably shouldn't wait for the phone to ring.
In the 30 years they've been handing out the Manager of the Year Award, only one guy -- Bobby Cox, in 2004 and '05 with Atlanta -- has won it in consecutive years. And only one guy -- Joe Girardi, in 2006 -- has won it with a losing record (and Girardi won it while looking for a new job, because the Marlins had fired him six weeks prior).
2013 MANAGERS OF THE YEAR
The 2013 Manager of the Year announcements followed right in line with this unstoppable train of thought. A pair of Rust Belt franchises were resuscitated, and their managers -- Pittsburgh's Clint Hurdle and Cleveland's Terry Francona -- were celebrated accordingly.
The Hurdle pick was a no-brainer; the Francona-over-John-Farrell choice was a little more surprising but, ultimately, entirely acceptable. After all, if you're going to have a narrative-driven award, Hurdle and Francona offered two truly compelling narratives.
The only surprise in the National League was that Hurdle wasn't a unanimous choice. Sure, Los Angeles' Don Mattingly, Atlanta's Fredi Gonzalez and St. Louis' Mike Matheny all did admirable jobs in leading their clubs to division titles, but we had at least an inkling that those clubs were all pretty good (regardless of how disastrous the first two months might have been for Mattingly's Dodgers).
Hurdle, meanwhile, oversaw the Pirates' first postseason push in 21 years. Lead the Pirates to the playoffs, and you're not only a lock to be honored by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, you might wind up on the National Association for Search and Rescue's awards radar, too.
Hurdle's booming voice has been preaching optimism ever since his 2011 arrival to PNC Park, and his players responded and avoided the second-half collapses that plagued them in the first two years of his tenure. Their ability to avoid it despite an at-times-overloaded bullpen was a credit to Hurdle's savvy about when to ride and when to rest his arms, and he also employed a whopping 494 defensive shifts to great effect. Though not unanimous, Hurdle was still a landslide winner of the NL honor, receiving 25 of 30 first-place votes, and deservedly so.
The American League field was similarly easy to whittle down, but the voters had a tough choice among the top two.
Bob Melvin, the Premier of Platoons, arguably did as good or better with this 2013 A's team than he did with the 2012 club that also won the West. But the A's surprise rise of '12 had already netted him his hardware. Girardi worked wonders with a Yankees roster besieged by injuries (his most frequent Nos. 4 and 5 hitters? Travis Hafner and Vernon Wells ), but the Yanks finished 12 games back in the East. Only four times in the history of the award has a manager won it after finishing in third or fourth, so Girardi's chances were always considered slim, at best.
The intrigue was whether the AL voters would side with Francona or Farrell. They were both in their first season with their respective clubs, and they both comfortably fit the comeback mold. Farrell's Red Sox lost 93 games a year ago and finished first in the East this season, while Francona's Indians lost 94 in '12 and wound up winning the top Wild Card spot in '13.
So that made this one kind of a coin-flip, frankly.
Farrell was utterly instrumental in the improvement of the Red Sox pitching staff he used to coach. He was more hands-on than the average skipper in terms of providing direction influenced by the advance work done by his staff and the scouts. The Red Sox had to represent a city shaken by the terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon, had to navigate their way through their share of injuries -- notably, to Clay Buchholz at the top of the rotation and to Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey in the back of the bullpen -- and, of course, had to deal with the difficulties of living in one of baseball's deepest divisions. They went from worst to first, and, after the BBWAA ballots were cast, won the World Series, and the improved clubhouse culture that Farrell helped instill played no small part in the rise.
Then again, you could easily argue that Francona did more with less. The Indians didn't have the championship core that Boston had with Buchholz and Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury and the others. The Indians had a payroll in the bottom 10, not the top four. They didn't have so much as a 15-game winner or a .300-hitter or a 100-RBI producer. Francona made no secret that he thought the MVP of his club was Jason Giambi, the 42-year-old DH who hit .183 in 71 games.
Yeah, it was that kind of team -- the ol' "greater than the sum of its parts" routine.
The knock on Francona's Indians was that they benefitted from a soft schedule down the stretch. For the season, they had a .757 winning percentage against teams with losing records vs. a .304 percentage against eventual playoff teams and a .524 percentage against the rest of the above-.500 field. In the final month, they played just 10 of 27 against winning teams.
Give credit where it's due, though: The Indians wouldn't have wound up where they did if they would have lost even one of their last 10 regular-season games. They won them all.
In the end, enough voters were swept up in that end-of-season surge by Tito and the Tribe to net Francona an award he never claimed in his eight seasons in Boston.
It's hard to imagine we'll ever have a way to truly assess how many wins or losses a manager added to the bottom line (if they even add or subtract any at all). So in absence of analytical, the voters turn to the subjective and award those who simply did much better than expected.
Francona and Hurdle both fit the formula and are worthy of this praise.
I just hope they're not expecting to repeat.