Maybe Buck Showalter called it without even realizing it Tuesday afternoon.
When he was interviewed on MLB Network before the National League Manager of the Year winner was announced, Showalter noted, “Quite frankly, they give it to the one who surprises the most, in most cases.”
Yes, voters love those out-of-nowhere stories. Enough of them put Showalter on enough NL Manager of the Year ballots to nudge him past the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts, and maybe it’s time to think a little harder about this “surprise” theory. (Or at least the out-of-nowhere theory, because I’m sure New Yorkers delight at that characterization.)
The only area in which the Mets could be considered an underdog was their positioning when Showalter came in last winter to replace Luis Rojas, so from that standpoint the award makes perfect sense. The Mets were 24 games better than the year before and won 101 games, though the Atlanta Braves caught them in the final weekend and bumped them into the Wild Card Series, where they were knocked out by the Padres in three games.
But in many ways “surprises” in baseball generally are evaluated in terms of payroll. The Mets were No. 1 in baseball from Opening Day ($228.4 million for their 26-man roster) to now ($246.7 million for competitive balance tax purposes), according to Cot’s Contracts.
Surely, then, Atlanta’s Brian Snitker was worthy of that plucky underdog role, right? Nope. the Braves were fourth in Opening Day payroll ($192.5 million) and third in CBT calculation ($222.6 million).
The Dodgers? The common wisdom is that they spend a lot and are supposed to win. The reality in 2022: Sixth in Opening Day payroll ($189.9 million), fifth in CBT payroll ($217.9 million). So maybe their manager should have been the financial underdog.
Roberts won the Manager of the Year award after his first season as Dodgers manager (2016), with a team that won one fewer game than the one managed by Don Mattingly the year before. Since then he has finished second, sixth, fourth, fifth – after the pandemic-shortened season in 2020 when the Dodgers won 43 of 60 games (a .717 percentage) en route to a World Series title – and fifth again in 2021 before Tuesday’s second-place finish.
In seven seasons he has a .632 winning percentage, the best among active managers and fourth on the all-time list compiled by Baseball-Reference.com. The three men ahead of him are Negro League managers Bullet Rogan, Vic Harris and Rube Foster. His teams have won 653 games in seven seasons, 92 more than the closest pursuer in that span. And this season’s 111 victories tied for the third-best total in baseball history.
So is it going to turn out that the 2016 Manager of the Year award will be a career achievement honor before the fact?
And yes, I can hear the shouts of disapproval now. Playoffs … bullpens … analytics … third time through the order … I get it. Each time a great regular season is followed by a playoff failure – and as we’ve said previously, falling to the Padres in the Division Series last month was an organizational failure – the noise from the fan base grows louder and more insistent.
But what if the alternative was a manager – or multiple managers – who got your team into the postseason only once in a while, rather than annually? How comforting do you think Gabe Kapler’s 2021 Manager of the Year award was to San Francisco Giants fans this year?
Managing is harder to evaluate than it looks, mainly because most of the job involves what we don’t see – dealing with people and getting the most out of them, as opposed to lineups and strategy and all the second-guessable parts of the job that play out before our eyes.
Even with 111 victories, 2022 featured some particularly unique challenges. Roberts didn’t have Dustin May for the first half of the season, nor did he have Walker Buehler after June 10. Blake Treinen only pitched five games because of a shoulder issue that as we know now was far more serious than anyone let on.
The contributions of Tony Gonsolin and Tyler Anderson turned out to be vital. And with Anderson now headed across the county line after agreeing to a three-year contract with the Angels, adding pitching has to be a priority this offseason, doesn’t it?
The other challenges concerned everyday players Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy and Justin Turner, all of whom struggled mightily at the plate for a good portion of the season. Muncy and Turner came alive in the second half, but Bellinger’s two-season slump continued, his defense keeping him in the lineup.
“I don’t like to talk about myself, but I do think this is probably the best work I’ve done as far as managing players,” Roberts said in an MLB Network interview Tuesday. “I think Max Muncy and I became very close this year because of his struggles and knowing that the manager is going to be with him when he’s struggling. And Cody Bellinger the same thing, Justin, a few years back, he struggled and I stuck with him and he (made) me look very good. And the same thing happened again this year where he was the best hitter on the planet for the last three months.
“So players are going to struggle, but I really definitely try to focus on the guys that sort of need your help and know that you’re sticking with them and sticking by their side because ultimately, you know what makes a good manager? Good players. And you got to have good players playing well and having confidence.”
Players make the manager, true. But it also can work the other way.