Fixing the vote

The Manager of the Year award is broken, but how can we fix it?

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Ned Yost has never gotten a first-place vote for manager of the year. There is a plain reason for this: Most people do not think he’s a good manager.

Yes, people will acknowledge, he took over a fiasco of a Milwaukee Brewers team and over his few years the Brewers got better and better until they made the playoffs, albeit without Yost who was fired two weeks before that season ended and with his team in free fall. People will also acknowledge that Yost took over a fiasco of a Kansas City Royals team and over his few years the Royals got better and better until they won a pennant and, this year, won the World Series.

But do these things make him a good manager? Well, the fact he’s never gotten a first-place vote for manager of the year suggests that the voters think not. The reason? Yost is pretty famous for periodically making strategic moves that confuse and bewilder the mind. And his explanations for such moves only make things a bit more confusing and bewildering.

Few have written more “Ned Yost baffles me” columns than I have. Still, I have to admit that when I look at the voting for Manager of the Year this year, I’m every bit as baffled as I am by any Yost decision. The first-place votes went to:

Jeff Banister: 17
A.J. Hinch: 8
Paul Molitor: 2
Joe Girardi: 2
John Gibbons: 1

All of these managers had teams with worse records than Yost’s Kansas City Royals. Paul Molitor’s Twins, in particular, finished 12 games behind the Royals and never once threatened in the division. Did these guys really do a better managing job than Yost? If positions were swapped, would all of these managers have led the Royals to the American League’s best record and a World Series championship?

It led me to think about … baseball statistics.

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You know that statistics have a powerful affect on how we watch baseball. Take the save. Please. If you think about it, the save is an entirely invented statistic in the same way that the reuben is an entirely invented sandwich. That is to say: Jerome Holtzman, the inventor of the save, just made up the rules for it. He wasn’t COUNTING anything, like strikeouts or doubles. He simply decided that a pitcher could get a save by finishing off a game and pitching just one inning (with a lead of three runs or less). He could just as easily have decided the minimum was two innings. Or he could have decided that a pitcher could get a save in the seventh or eighth inning, if they got out of the decisive jam. He could have decided a lot of things.

But he crafted the save as he did, and the save has altered baseball. The now ubiquitous one-inning closer is almost certainly a direct effect of Holtzman’s save rule. Closers throughout baseball should put aside some of their gigantic paychecks to a Jerome Holtzman fund; he is a big reason why they are getting paid the big bucks.

The save also altered award voting. Before Holtzman’s rule, every single pitcher who won a Cy Young or MVP Award — with the lone exception of Jim Konstanty in 1950 — was a starting pitcher. There had been good relief pitchers before, even great ones like Hoyt Wilhelm or Dick Radatz, but nobody really cared. There was no statistic to define them.

Once the save became an official statistic in 1969, whoa, look out, relief pitchers started winning awards like crazy. Mike Marshall won the Cy Young in 1974. Sparky Lyle won it in 1977. Bruce Sutter won it in 1979.

And as save totals started going up, mere Cy Youngs didn’t seem good enough to reward these brave firemen. Rollie Fingers swept the Cy Young and MVP awards in 1981. Willie Hernandez did the same in 1984. Dennis Eckersley swept the major awards in 1992. All the while, Cy Young Awards were going to Steve Bedrosian and Mark Davis and Eric Gagne. Everybody bow to the save!

In time, many people realized that the save is kind of a shaky statistic. Does a pitcher really deserve a prize for preserving a three-run lead in the ninth inning? As the save lost favor, the closers stopped winning awards. And now you look back at some of those earlier decisions and realize they’re bonkers. Dennis Eckersley in 1992 pitched 80 innings all year. EIGHTY INNINGS. How can you possibly be the best pitcher AND the most valuable player in baseball pitching 80 innings? It’s lunacy.

Put it this way: You compare Eckersley to Roger Clemens that same year:

Eckersley threw 80 innings, struck out 93, walked 11, gave up five home runs and had a 1.91 ERA.

Clemens threw 90 innings, struck out 80, walked 17, gave up two home runs and had a 1.60 ERA.

So that’s pretty close, right? For Clemens, though, those are just his FIRST TWO MONTHS. He then pitched brilliantly for four more months.

The point is that when it comes to awards, voters are constantly looking for something steady to hold onto. It’s all well and good to say that people consider hard-to-quantify things like leadership or will — they do. But in the end, the numbers come first. The win leader often wins the Cy Young Award. The RBI leader — or the RBI leader on a winning team — often wins the MVP award. And so on.

All of which brings us full circle: To managers. We just don’t have good statistics to work with when it comes to managers. All we have are wins and our own expectations. And that’s why, for 30-plus years, we in the Baseball Writers’ Association of America have been TERRIBLE at picking Manager of the Year.

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OK, how terrible have we been at picking Manager of the Year?

Well, let me give you a statistic that will blow your mind:

Since 1983, there have been 67 Managers of the Year — it’s an odd numbers because there was a tie one year. When you eliminate the busted 1994 season (as you always should do — that season was a complete waste) you are down to 65 managers of the year.

OK, here’s the stat — how many of those 65 managers got ZERO VOTES for manager of the year the following season? I’m not talking about zero first-place votes. I’m talking zero votes, none, nada, not even a third-place vote from a hometown scribe.

You ready for it?

Forty-five of the 65  — that’s 69 percent if you are scoring at home — got zero votes the next year. Those include both of 2014’s Managers of the Year — neither Baltimore’s Buck Showalter nor Washington’s Matt Williams got a single vote this year. In Williams’ case, that’s obvious since he was canned at the end of the year.

What does this tell us? Well, like I said, it tells us that we are absolutely awful at picking Managers of the Year. How good a job could we be doing if more than two out of three managers we pick are DREADFUL at their jobs the very next year? Does anyone NOW believe that Matt Williams was a great manager in 2014?

Sure, you will hear people say: Yeah, but sometimes MVPs and Cy Young winners follow up with poor years. This is true, but there are two problems with that:

(1) Cy Young winners and MVPs are rarely TERRIBLE the next year. Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout were pretty good players this year. Cy Young winner Corey Kluber did have a lesser year (he led the American League in losses) but he was still pretty darned good (third in WHIP, second in strikeout-to-walk ratio, sixth in WAR).

(2) Unlike with managers, we have CONCRETE NUMBERS to show just how good those MVP and Cy Young winners were. If Bryce Harper wins the MVP this year, it’s because we KNOW how good he was — we see his on-base percentage, his slugging percentage, we can count his extra-base hits, we have defensive metrics to look at, we can break him down decimal point by decimal point.

But with managers, we don’t have concrete numbers. As mentioned: We have wins and we have our expectations. We keep putting those together — naming the manager whose team most outperforms our expectations — in a formula that, year after year, chooses managers who are much more likely to get fired than win the award again.

And, to be honest, we don’t always even use that formula. Take the Yost vs. Molitor debate. When the season began, PECOTA, that cheeky projection system, projected that both the Royals and Twins would lose 90 games. When the knowledgeable staff of Baseball Prospectus predicted which team would win the American League Central, the Royals and the Twins were the only two teams to get zero votes. When most people picked their playoff teams — including a pair of amateur podcasters I know — the Royals and Twins were left out.

So the expectations for those two teams weren’t all that different. The Royals promptly swept away the American League, leading wire to wire, finishing with the league’s best record, then going on to sweep through the playoffs and win the World Series.

The Twins finished a mildly surprising 83-79.

Molitor got more Manager of the Year votes than Yost. Why? I can only assume it’s because his team improved by more games (13 wins to 6) and because voters thought the Twins were more than 12 games worse than the Royals by talent and because Ned Yost has a reputation as an inferior manager.

Do any of these reasons really make sense? No, not really. But that’s the award.

There are so many easy ways to improve it. I’ll list off just three:

1. Vote on the Manager of the Year AFTER the playoffs. This seems so obvious, it’s hard to believe that it needs to be said. The Baseball Writers in the olden days started voting for their awards before the playoffs because … there were no playoffs. There was only a World Series, and that was considered separate from the rest of the game. Voting at the end of the regular season made some sense then.

But now, the playoffs are the whole game. The 162-game season is secondary. Ten out of 30 teams make the postseason, and greatness is defined in October. Bruce Bochy has not won the Manager of the Year award for the Giants because the award is voted for BEFORE he led three teams to World Series titles. This is pure lunacy.

2. Vote on Manager of the Year every two years. We talk about small sample sizes a lot in baseball. Well, with managers, one season is just too small a sample size. In 2003, for instance, Kansas City’s Tony Pena won Manager of the Year, and that included my vote. Hey, I thought he did an AMAZING job inspiring a spectacularly limited team. They were somehow in first place for four months.

But four months is … just not very long in baseball terms. The Royals fell apart toward the end of the year, and they were horrendous the next year, and Pena quit early the following year, and as much fun as that 2003 season was, let’s be honest, Tony Pena was not Manager of the Year. He might have won Manager of the Month a couple of times.

If this year’s vote had been over the two years, we could have avoided that Matt Williams award in 2014 along with some of the other unfortunate choices, like Tony Pena.

3. Try to open our minds about managers. Right now, we tend to look at managers one way, and only one way. We grade them by the strategic moves they make. But managers have different skills. This has always been true.

Look at some of the best over the last 40 years — how many of them were strategic geniuses?

Earl Weaver, yeah, he was a strategic genius.

Tony La Russa? Yeah, he was a strategist first, I suppose.

Sparky Anderson? Not a strategic genius. He was more like a general who delegated to his best players and was exceedingly hard on everyone else.

Tommy Lasorda? DEFINITELY not a strategic genius. He was the constant energy in the clubhouse and the show off the field.

Bobby Cox? No. He instilled a certain composure and a deep loyalty. With Cox, the team really did stay on a straight line, never too high, never too low, as cliche as it sounds it led to many, many division championships.

Joe Torre? No. He was the consummate professional who handled the Steinbrenner stuff and took the hits for his players and understood, in a way others missed, that in October you have to forget about tomorrow and just win today.

Bruce Bochy? No. I mean, like the rest, he’s sound enough strategically, but there’s an honesty to the way he manages, a directness, and it’s something that his players respect and admire and are drawn to.

So many different ways to do the job well. We as a group need to stop trying to put them all in the same box. Ned Yost does some things very, very well. Young players respond to him. Terrible teams get better under his management. His playoff record is now 23-8. He twice ran one of the great bullpens in baseball history.

The end result goes like this: Texas’ Jeff Banister won 88 games in the mediocre West, and somehow we’re sure he is the best manager in the league. Ned Yost’s teams won back-to-back pennants but somehow we’re sure he didn’t do a very good job. Maybe “managing” doesn’t mean what we think it means.