Baseball’s 2012 season was the year of the turnaround. Six playoff entrants missed the postseason the in 2011, signaling good work by the managers presiding over such year-to-year improvements.
Oakland’s Bob Melvin edged out Baltimore’s Buck Showalter for the American League Manager of the Year award, and Washington’s Davey Johnson received 23 first-place votes in the National League for bringing the postseason to the nation’s capitol for the first time since 1933.
I’ll start with analysis of the NL race, as I was one of the 32 BBWAA voters for that award. None of the four NL teams that won 94 or more games in 2012 made the playoffs the previous year, turnarounds that are, in part, a testament to the fine work of their managers.
That winnowed my pool of NL Manager of the Year candidates pretty quickly, which is more a reflection of the limitations of the ballot (only thre managers can be named) than of the number of quality candidates. Certainly this ballot would have looked considerably different had the postseason been taken into account — when the Giants’ Bruce Bochy offered a master course on in-game strategy while leading his team to the World Series title — but all votes were due at the end of the regular season.
1. Davey Johnson, Nationals
Before 2012 the Nationals had never posted a winning record in their seven seasons in Washington, and not once in their 43-year joint history with the Expos had the franchise won more than 95 games. Under Johnson this year, the Nationals blew by most of those benchmarks, leading the NL with 98 victories.
Johnson, who previously oversaw quick improvements in his gigs with the Mets, Reds, Orioles and Dodgers, deserved some credit for instilling a winning culture in the clubhouse; for helping the team withstand significant injuries to several starters (rightfielder Jayson Werth, leftfielder Michael Morse and catcher Wilson Ramos); for deftly managing an ever-changing bullpen both with his middle relievers and with his closers, of whom he used four, including delicately phasing Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard in and out; and for winning with the youngest team in the NL. In fact, Washington had the majors’ youngest pitching staff and fourth-youngest lineup (behind only the Royals, Astros and Mariners, none of which won more than 75 games).
Management imposed strict rules on how to use ace Stephen Strasburg, and Johnson handled it the best he could in a difficult spot. Similarly, he showed confidence in playing 19-year-old Bryce Harper nearly every day while still sending messages to his young player by giving him days off at opportune times — thrice in nine days during a slump, including once after Harper argued with the umpire and missed a cutoff man in a key spot. Harper responded well, winning NL Rookie of the Year honors.
2. Dusty Baker, Reds
Before the end of April, Baker had lost newly signed closer Ryan Madson and two of his most reliable relievers, Bill Bray and Nick Masset, for what would prove to be the rest of the season. In July franchise first baseman Joey Votto, on track at the time for an MVP season, had knee surgery and missed six weeks.
Under Baker’s guidance, however, Cincinnati improved its record by 18 games from 2011, won the NL Central by nine games and even kept winning at a furious rate in Votto’s absence. Baker found new ways to get Todd Frazier, a Rookie of the Year finalist, into his lineup. He showed some flexibility in the order he used his relievers to maximize matchups. He also trusted Aroldis Chapman, who a year ago was the majors’ wildest pitcher, to be his closer (and Chapman rewarded him with an excellent season: 38 saves and a 1.51 ERA).
3. Fredi Gonzalez, Braves
The Braves and Red Sox each suffered historically harrowing collapses at the end of 2011. Boston only continued its downward spiral in 2012. Atlanta rallied for an even better season, winning five more games and wrapping up a wild card berth with time to spare. The Braves — who tied the Giants for the league’s third-best record — did so with essentially an unchanged roster from the year before.
To do that required leadership from the bench, and Gonzalez refocused his players’ attention early in spring training by telling them, “Stop looking at the rearview mirror. Start looking at the windshield and move forward.”
Gonzalez had challenges in the rotation: he lost his best pitcher (Brandon Beachy) to a season-ending injury after 13 starts; he endured a meltdown from an All-Star starter the previous year (Jair Jurrjens); and he deftly handled Kris Medlen’s transition from middle reliever to starter as the righthander returned from Tommy John surgery. Gonzalez also deployed his end-of-game relievers (Craig Kimbrel, Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters) more judiciously and to great success.
Also receiving consideration: Bruce Bochy, Giants
I agonized over the decision about whom to leave out. As noted above, if I could re-vote after the playoffs, the question would not have been if Bochy belonged on the ballot but where would he put his new trophy.
Instead, without an ability to include a fourth manager, I eventually left off Bochy, and his omission wasn’t intended as a slight to the job he did this season — winning the NL West by eight games while dealing with the suspension of Melky Cabrera and the struggles of Tim Lincecum, to name two — but rather was simply my assessment that the other three men were more deserving in 2012.
Of course, compared to the AL, my vote was easy. The selection between Showalter and Melvin may have been decided by 16 heads versus 12 tails, as a coin flip was among the more equitable ways of deciding between two men with outstanding credentials — both rank among the best managerial seasons in recent history. It was appropriate to see, therefore, that both men received first- or second-place votes on all 28 ballots, with Melvin winning thanks to 16 firsts and 12 seconds.
Showalter and Melvin both guided their clubs to one-year improvements of at least 20 wins while using at least 10 starting pitchers and at least 50 players with an average age younger than 28. Showalter made his mark by leading the Orioles to an all-time best 29-9 record in one-run games and a 16-2 mark in extra-inning games; Melvin, on the other hand, made his by keeping the A’s happy and winning despite four daily position platoons and a season-ending rotation of five rookies. The difference may simply have been that Melvin’s A’s won their division while the Orioles settled for the wild card.