Oakland’s Bob Melvin and Atlanta’s Brian Snitker were named managers of the year in the American League and National League on Tuesday, with voters from the Baseball Writers' Association of America clinging to tradition by choosing the architects of the biggest year-over-year surprises in either league. Both the Athletics and Braves were picked to finish near the bottom of their divisions in 2018, but made the playoffs.
Did that mean Melvin did a better job than Alex Cora, who as a rookie manager guided the Boston Red Sox to the most wins of any team in 17 years, or that Snitker outmanaged Milwaukee’s Craig Counsell, who showed uncommon creativity in piloting the Brewers to the NL Central title?
To a majority of voters it did, with Melvin receiving 18 of a possible 30 first-place votes in the AL balloting, and Snitker taking 17 out of 30 in the NL vote.
But manager of the year is a notoriously difficult award to gauge, and it is almost impossible, for example, to weigh what Melvin did with baseball’s smallest payroll, in an atmosphere almost devoid of pressure, versus what Cora did with the largest payroll, in a high-pressure media market — particularly when voters are only considering regular season records, thus giving no weight to the World Series title Cora’s Red Sox delivered for Boston.
Melvin, a 15-year veteran on the bench, won the award for the third time, having previous won for Arizona in 2007 and for Oakland in 2012. Only Hall of Famers Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox, with four apiece, have claimed the award, which debuted in 1983, more times.
Cora was runner-up in the balloting, with seven first-place votes, and Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash was third with five first-place votes.
Coming off three straight last-place finishes, Melvin’s Athletics began losing starting pitchers in spring training in an uncanny rash of injuries that by the season’s end had forced the A’s to use 15 different starters, many of them claimed off baseball’s scrap heap. By September, the A’s were deploying an “opener” — a reliever pressed into starting duty, then giving way after an inning or two — at least twice each trip through their rotation.
“At the beginning we were a little bit taken aback that we lost so many guys early on,” Melvin said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday night. “But after that it was almost a badge of honor. Someone goes down, and we had to still have the expectation to win. It was [a mentality of] next man up.”
Despite the obstacles, Melvin guided the A’s to 97 wins, getting within 2½ games of the Houston Astros’ lead in the AL West in mid-September before settling for the second wild card. Lacking better options, the A’s tried to “bullpen” the wild-card game but fell to the New York Yankees, 7-2.
In the context of an award without firm criteria, and that typically honors the manager of the team that exceeds expectations by the largest degree, Cora’s candidacy was more difficult to process. He inherited a Red Sox team that won AL East titles in 2016 and 2017, signed designated hitter J.D. Martinez over the winter and boasted by far the game’s highest payroll.
But by the end of a remarkable, 108-win season — the most victories in franchise history — Cora was revealed to have been the Red Sox’s missing ingredient, with his communication skills, upbeat personality and embrace of analytics drawing raves throughout the clubhouse.
Voters were required to submit their ballots before the start of the postseason, which means the Red Sox’s 11-2 march through October, culminating in a five-game vanquishing of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, had no bearing on Cora’s candidacy.
Like the A’s in the AL, the Braves outperformed expectations more than any other team in the NL, winning 90 games and running away with the NL East title, and much of the success was attributed to Snitker’s relentless positivity and calm demeanor in guiding the team’s youthful roster.
Viewed within the industry as a future powerhouse that would arrive by 2020, if not 2019 — thanks to a farm system overflowing with top prospects — the Braves, led by 20-year-old outfielder and NL rookie of the year Ronald Acuna Jr., instead showed up early, capitalizing upon the Washington Nationals’ collapse and winning the division by eight games.
In the process, Snitker, who has spent four decades in the organization, including as a player, coach and minor league manager, secured a bright future for himself. Once viewed as a company man and placeholder until the Braves decided they were close enough to contending to hire an established manager, Snitker was signed to a two-year contract extension in October.
“In my wildest dreams,” Snitker said on MLB Network, “I never thought I’d be sitting here . . . with this recognition.”
Counsell had a strong runner-up showing, earning 11 first-place votes, while Colorado’s Bud Black and the Chicago Cubs’ Joe Maddon each received one.
Counsell’s Brewers were considered a playoff contender from Day 1, especially after adding outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich (the latter a favorite for NL MVP) over the winter. But Counsell did an admirable job deploying a roster in which all the pieces didn’t always fit — they either had too many outfielders, too many infielders and/or not enough starting pitchers — and guiding it to 96 wins.
A win over the Chicago Cubs in a Game No. 163 tiebreaker gave the Brewers the NL Central title, and they went on to push the Los Angeles Dodgers to seven games in the NL Championship Series before bowing out. Along the way, Counsell demonstrated a knack for creativity, whether in his deployment of relievers or his shuffling of position players to distribute at-bats.
But since the Brewers had won 86 games and come within a game of a wild card berth in 2017, their success in 2018 wasn’t as much a surprise as the Braves’. And thus Counsell’s performance, at least in the eyes of a majority of award-voters, wasn’t deemed as good as that of Snitker.