Among Major League Baseball's major awards, the National League and American League Manager of the Year honors are usually easily predictable distinctions. If a skipper overachieves with a poor team or qualifies for the postseason in the face of many obstacles and adversity, a victory in the voting is considered academic.
In 2013, the distinction should be given more thought, especially in a league that consists of parity due to a second wild-card entry. Degree of difficulty, outperforming expectations and overachieving must be placed alongside total victories and an appearance in October when a ballot is filled out to signify the best of the 2013 season.
Amidst a slew of excellent managerial performances, two skippers stood out from a crowd that included finalists such as Terry Francona, Bob Melvin, Don Mattingly and Fredi Gonzalez.
Here is why they deserve the 2013 Manager of the Year Awards.
National League: Clint Hurdle, Pittsburgh Pirates
Amazingly, 2013 represented the second 15-win improvement during Clint Hurdle's impressive Pittsburgh tenure. When the former Rockies manager accepted the Pirates job prior to the 2011 season, the club had just posted a 57-105 record in 2010. In the process, it was outscored by 279 runs and looked doomed to occupy last place in the NL Central for years.
When Hurdle's 2011 club won 72 games, the narrative focused on a first-place team in July that collapsed when the pressure mounted during an August pennant race. The 15-win improvement was lost on many who missed the bigger picture: Hurdle had set the foundation for improvement.
That foundation was built upon in 2013. After a 79-win campaign in 2012, Hurdle's Pirates made another 15-win leap, this time landing at 94-68 and in the National League postseason bracket for the first time since Barry Bonds manned left field in Three Rivers Stadium.
In the big picture, Hurdle's ability to change a culture in Pittsburgh is good enough to put him in contention for this award, but the job he did within the boundaries of the 2013 season may be even more impressive.
On Opening Day, Pittsburgh carried four starting pitchers on the roster: A.J. Burnett, James McDonald, Wandy Rodriguez and Jonathan Sanchez. The final three would end up with a grand total of 22 starts. Three of Hurdle's best four starters were non-factors in the Pirates' rise to prominence.
By the time the National League Division Series opened, Hurdle's four starters were Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton. When A.J. Burnett is the linchpin in a postseason rotation, the man in charge deserves an immense amount of credit.
Outside of a calming influence that allowed the team to overcome a complete rotation overhaul, Hurdle excelled by accepting the information he was afforded from a bright, hard-working front office.
When the Pittsburgh Pirates hired former Baseball Prospectus writer Dan Fox to join their organization in 2008, they brought in a mind that could change the way the team played defense on the field.
In order to use Fox's research and data on defense and shifts, Hurdle had to buy in. Players would not listen to front-office executives if the men in uniform didn't subscribe to the same philosophy. As Hurdle told Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in September, he had to reinvent the way he looked at the game in order to understand and implement the data given to him:
It was definitely a transformation in understanding the game. It has been for me for the last 10 years, especially the last five years. You have to get involved in the information. You've got to read. You've got to study. You can't just stick your head in the sand and just say, "It doesn't exist. It doesn't count. It doesn't make sense."
Due to Hurdle's willingness to change from his days in Colorado, Pittsburgh bought into the philosophy as a team, changing everything from defensive positioning to how pitchers attacked opposing batters. The team finished the season with 68 defensive runs saved, according to FanGraphs.
In the big picture, Hurdle changed the mindset from losing to winning. In 2013, he oversaw a complete starting-rotation overhaul and embraced a theory that was foreign to him less than five years ago.
By adapting, Hurdle thrived on the way to deserving the NL Manager of the Year Award.
American League: John Farrell, Boston Red Sox
Fairly or not, October clouds the reality of the regular season. After guiding the Red Sox to a World Series title, considering anyone else for this award would seem foolish.
Yet during the regular season, Farrell had company when considering candidates for this honor. From Oakland's Bob Melvin to Cleveland's Terry Francona (both finalists) to New York's Joe Girardi (a snub on the list of finalists), there was no shortage of excellent managerial performances in the American League this past season.
Farrell will likely win the award based on 97 victories and a worst-to-first story that secures this particular Red Sox team in Boston sports lore for decades, but he earned the award for one particular aspect of his job: turning around the Red Sox pitching staff.
To be fair, Farrell, the ex-Red Sox pitching coach, didn't have much to do with an offense that went from scoring 734 runs in 2012 to 853 in 2013. That improvement had much more to do with the offseason moves by general manager Ben Cherington to bring in free-agent bats (Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino) and full, healthy seasons from David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia.
The pitching, however, was the least talked-about turnaround in New England during the summer of 2013. Sure, cleansing the clubhouse of Bobby Valentine's personality helped. The offense returning to the relentless nature that was prominent during World Series runs in 2004 and 2007 was key. Farrell's approach of grinding through the season became a team-wide mantra, setting the stage for a battle every night for the opposing team.
Yet nothing changed the Red Sox from 93 losses to 97 wins as much as Farrell's work with the pitching staff.
Farrell's best work came with a pitching staff that rebounded from a 4.70 ERA in 2012 to post a 3.79 team mark in 2013. Koji Uehara, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz all experienced rebound seasons or major leaps in performance, but don't forget the former pitching coach who guided them there.
|Red Sox Pitching: 2012 vs. 2013|
When the season opened in April, Lester was a pitcher in decline after a 9-14, 4.82 ERA season in 2012. By the end of the World Series, he'd restored his long-term future as Boston's ace due to a rebound season and a dominant run through October.
Despite battling continued health problems, Clay Buchholz established himself as nearly unbeatable (12-1, 1.74 ERA) during the regular season. In 2012, the right-hander posted a 4.56 ERA and looked nothing like the pitcher that was once supposed to team with Lester atop the Red Sox rotation. Although Buchholz missed the middle of the season due to neck issues, Farrell's work helped turn him into one of the most dominant arms in the game (when he was healthy).
Lester and Buchholz are major parts of Farrell's 2013 body of work, but the ability to navigate through injury issues to two closers, per Gordon Edes of ESPN Boston, led Farrell to the pitcher that changed the fate of a franchise: Koji Uehara.
After the 38-year-old became baseball's new Mariano Rivera, it's easy to wonder why Farrell didn't see the talent before midseason and hand him the closer job earlier. In spite of that, give credit where credit is due: Farrell eventually saw the stuff Uehara had and gave him the job. If he didn't trust him, the Red Sox easily could have attempted a summer trade for a proven closer.
Farrell will win the AL Manager of the Year Award because he turned a last-place team into champions, but he ultimately deserves the honor because his area of expertise, pitching, ignited a transformation.
Agree? Disagree? Who deserves the AL and NL Manager of the Year Awards?