Manager of the Year Is an Impossible Award to Judge – Just Ask a Manager

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this month, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde stood in the visiting dugout at Chase Field and cast a furtive glance toward the warning track where his players began to warm. “I haven’t seen a baseball thrown today and it’s already 3:15,” he said. Even here, three time zones away from the comfortable climes of Camden Yards, the duties of a big league manager had pulled him in every direction. So many people had popped into his office – front office members, coaches, reporters, players – he’d barely found time to shed his street clothes and don his uniform.

At the helm of the team with the best record in the American League, Hyde is a clear frontrunner to be named AL Manager of the Year, an award for which he was the runner-up last season. His candidacy, then and now, bears many hallmarks of a winner. As the leader of a long-dormant team now in the postseason hunt, he makes for a good narrative. That the Orioles lead baseball’s toughest division, despite a young and inexperienced roster and a mediocre pitching staff, would seem to attest to Hyde’s managerial skill. If he wins, it will be hard to say he doesn’t deserve it.

It will also be almost impossible to say, definitively and concretely, that he does.

That’s not a slight against Hyde as much as an admission of a systemic blind spot, one so large that it obscures most of the criteria required for a thorough evaluation. Like the major player awards – Most Valuable Player, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year – Manager of the Year is voted upon by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. And that body’s view is inevitably blinkered. Most writers only follow one team closely, and have but a limited understanding of what goes on behind the scenes with that team. The daily demands on Hyde’s time highlight the problem: behind the scenes is where most of a manager’s job happens.

“You guys only see like five percent of what we do,” Hyde said.

Hyde was responding to a question put to several current and former managers for this piece: What metrics should Manager of the Year voters, limited as their perspectives are, prioritize when deciding the award? “I’ve never even thought about that. No idea. Let me think about it,” Hyde answered. After a few moments, he highlighted a few important factors – wins, player improvement and, most of all, style of play.

“The bottom line for me,” he said, “is effort on the field.”

His peers tend to agree. To former Rangers manager and current Diamondbacks bench coach Jeff Banister, any Manager of the Year should lead a team that displays “consistent effort, execution, preparation and energy.” The top manager should also, you know, win – “I don’t think a Manager of the Year can win 72 games, right?” asked Arizona manager Torey Lovullo, who won the award in 2017 – but also relevant is the context of that on-field success. Who dealt with injuries? A low payroll? An unproven roster? “The first thing I’d look at,” said former Padres manager Andy Green, now bench coach with the Cubs, “is who overcame a great measure of adversity to be in the thick of the race.”

These suggestions, as you might have noticed, are fairly open to interpretation. How does one measure effort? How does one quantify adversity, or a team’s ability to transcend it? Even taken at face value, notions like “effort level” and “surviving adversity” are at best roundabout ways of gauging the same unknowable thing – how a team is responding to its manager. And as managers will tell you, there’s no way of really knowing that from afar.

“It’s so subjective,” said Rangers skipper Bruce Bochy. “You don’t know a lot of things going on.”

Bochy won the NL award with the Padres in 1996, and figures to be a strong candidate for the AL honor this year. Not once, though, was he named top manager during his storied run with the Giants. In hindsight, that seems ridiculous, the type of oversight at which seasoned managers would scoff. Except for one thing: the managers vote for their own version of the award under the imprimatur of The Sporting News, and they also ignored Bochy during his tenure in San Francisco.

Even managers, it appears, find it impossible to evaluate managers.

They’ll admit as much. “It’s incredibly difficult,” said Green. Trying to do so, even with the benefit of one’s own managerial experience, is like picking an Oscar winner based on the trailer. Roughly 75 percent of the job, several managers said, consists of all the stuff that doesn’t happen between the first pitch and final out of each game. Anyone who has managed knows what that 75 percent entails – media briefings, heart-to-heart talks with players, strategy sessions with executives – but only broadly. They can’t look at the opposing dugout and know what specifically is making their counterpart’s job harder.

They might be more informed than the writers – players talk, sharing both complaints and plaudits about the boss – but it’s still far from a full picture. “Most of the stuff that’s really challenging,” said former Reds manager Bryan Price, “is stuff that’s internal. What’s the relationship between the manager and the general manager? What high-maintenance players do you have on your roster who are making the job of managing your team more challenging?” Price knew what specific tests he faced as a manager, but he’d be only guessing at anybody else’s.

“No one is denied the pleasure of all the off-field challenges you have when managing a team,” Price said. “But they’re also typically well-hidden. If you’re hearing too much about it, typically that manager is not going to be winning the Manager of the Year award.”

There’s a catch-22 there. If managers are doing the interpersonal part of the job well – putting out fires before they rage out of control, making everyone feel important, wearing wins steadily and losses stoically – almost no one will know. Is that duck resting calmly on the pond, or is it paddling furiously below the surface? Who has it easy, and who’s making it look easier than it is? The best managers may be doing the job so well that they never get the credit.

There’s always more going on than most people realize. As an example, Lovullo shared the outlines of a recent conversation with a player. “I had to call in a player and basically call him out for being a selfish f–k. Like, ‘You’re never going to make it in this organization if you continue that,’” the Diamondbacks manager said. “That had been eating at me for three or four days.” The talk finished with a hug, and a crisis was averted. That no word of the brewing issue leaked at the time – and that even after the fact, it’s difficult to identify which player required the lecture – is a testament to Lovullo’s deft hand with his players.

It’s those “hidden things that should drive the award,” Price said, but without them, it’s easy to fall back on narrative. Often, the title of Manager of the Year goes to the guy whose club exceeded preseason expectations. Gabe Kapler got the nod in 2021 as the Giants dethroned the mighty Dodgers in the NL West. Kevin Cash has won it twice as the crafty Rays have thrived despite a meager payroll, and Lovullo won it in 2017 as a rookie manager after leading the Diamondbacks to their first playoff berth in six years. But overlooked, some managers think, are those who don’t fit that surprise-success mold.

Banister points out the irony of his Manager of the Year award in 2015. Coming off a 95-loss season, that Texas squad had overcome a slow start to win the division. They did it again in 2016, playing more consistent baseball and winning seven more games in the process. Banister was runner-up for the award that year, but it’s that 2016 season he’d have atop his managerial resume.

Sustained excellence certainly seems to have punished Dave Roberts, who won the award in his first season with the Dodgers in 2016 but has yet to win another. No manager has won more games since, but plenty of others have done far less with similar resources. “There are some really good teams in baseball right now that have some of the best players,” said Lovullo, “but for one reason or another, it’s just not working.” (Padres! Mets! Cough cough.) There’s more work in consistent winning than meets the eye. Sometimes, the opposite is true – there’s no slog like a hopeless season.

Mark Kotsay for Oakland, for example,” Bochy said. “Those are the tough ones to manage and keep everybody going.”

For all their expertise, managers don’t operate from much more of an advantage than the writers do. When it comes to honoring their peers, the managers’ selections have been different from the writers in only three of 10 instances – once for the NL award, twice for the AL – over the last five years. Any illusion of consensus is more than counterbalanced by how many winners quickly find themselves out of work. Six times since 2012, a former Manager of the Year has been fired by the team with whom he won the award. Matt Williams and Paul Molitor were canned after the very next season. Mike Shildt was fired immediately after leading the Cardinals to 90 wins and a playoff berth.

Banister has felt that kind of whiplash. Three years after winning the award in his first season as manager, and two years after what he felt was a superior effort, the Rangers cut him loose. He doesn’t take it personally, in good times or bad. “That’s an organizational award, in my opinion,” he said. Attempting to disentangle his contribution from those of the scouts, analysts and general manager – much less the players – is a fool’s errand. Even for the managers themselves.

Voters must take what information they can get and do their best. To fill the gap, clubhouse personnel aren’t above a little politicking. One day earlier at Chase Field, as visitors flitted in and out of Hyde’s office, his bench coach lavished him with praise. “His leadership is amazing,” Fredi González expounded, sounding a bit like a “For Your Consideration” advertisement. Take his endorsement for what it’s worth. As a five-time vote-getter, González knows good managing. Then again, as a zero-time winner, he knows something else: If it’s impossible to get the award 100% right, the opposite is also true.

“I don’t think you can get it wrong,” González said. “I really don’t.”

Zach Buchanan has covered baseball for more than a decade. He has been a beat writer covering the Diamondbacks and Reds, and more recently covered prospects for The Athletic. He lives in Arizona.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
7 months ago

Probably even tougher to evaluate than Front Office Executive of the Year or whatever it’s called. It inevitably defaults to a narrative, which is fine if that’s all it can be

7 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Especially since the work of the front office is done over several years. It gets awarded (sort of) because “hey, look, that team has a lot of good players all of a sudden!” But it didn’t happen all of a sudden, it took a long time to acquire and develop those players.

7 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Nor is it shocking that the writers default to a narrative! It is what it is and, yeah, that’s fine.