Mike Scioscia and Buck Showalter did great jobs this year as AL managers of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Baltimore Orioles, respectively. But some of the odds were on them before March 31. Scioscia has had a plethora of dollar-bill-laced talent on his team, and we saw that the Angels were due for a standings boost this year. Showalter has been particularly impressive, overcoming Matt Wieters’s and Manny Machado’s season-ending injuries, but, hey, did you see all the slugging beasts on his team on Opening Day? Sure, give him props for surprises out of the rotation and bullpen down the stretch, but he had a lot of help from a horrendous AL East division. Guess who didn’t get a helping hand? Yep, Lloyd McClendon and Joe Girardi. Hey, hey, hey, don’t immediately guffaw and blow your computer monitor a raspberry. I’m well aware that Girardi’s New York Yankees didn’t make the postseason and McClendon’s Seattle Mariners are a deadly nudge away from joining the sad corral, but making the postseason isn’t a prerequisite of the award. And remember how Lloyd and Joe kept their clubs in the race up until the end despite thorny disadvantages? Precisely why McClendon’s M’s are one of the biggest Major League Baseball surprises this year. Recall where the Mariners were throughout 2014. As spring training opened, they were heading into a division that had two teams that looked primed to crush their way into the playoffs and beyond, the Oakland Athletics and the Texas Rangers, along with an Angels team filled with stars. Robinson Cano’s and Fernando Rodney’s more colorful blue digs still didn’t put enough of a new shine on a club that lost 91 games in 2013. The bullpen looked shameful for a team that played in one of the most unabashedly pitcher’s ballparks in MLB; only Yoervis Medina had an earned run average under 3.74. The rotation wasn’t much better. Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma were true aces, but the rest of the starting five was, gasp, Joe Saunders, Aaron Harang, and a dash of Brandon Maurer and Erasmo Ramirez. Not a single starter outside of Hernandez and Iwakuma had ERA-plus over 75. Turn the clock ahead a few months later, and the A’s and the Angels were surging ahead even better than anyone thought…along with the Mariners. In the toughest division in baseball, McClendon was able to have Seattle fight—hell, even dominate—until the waning days of the season. The M’s have the sixth-best run differential in MLB. That’s fairly remarkable considering how yuck their lineup has been. Despite more than 30 games against two of the best offensive teams in baseball, Oakland and the Angels, McClendon found a way to tweak his Mariners’ pitching staff into a downright opposing force. He got King Felix to have his best season nearly a decade into his career. He steered Chris Young into pitching like he could be an ace for months. And he guided a young James Paxton to dominant quality late in the year when someone needed to step up on the mound. At the same time, McClendon made his team into a true pitching threat by getting strong years out of, well, just about everyone in the bullpen. Rodney, Danny Farquhar, Tom Wilhelmsen, Dominic Leone, Medina, and Joe Beimel—ugh, it’s too hard to name so many good Seattle relief arms. With the rotation and bullpen, McClendon’s staff commanded the third-best ERA this year (3.23). All of that still counts, even if the Mariners don’t see the light of October baseball. How many teams do you see within one game of a postseason berth with one game to go despite having the equivalent of a puppy dog MLB lineup? It took a great managerial job to guide a team with what seemed to be average talent overall, to being one of the better teams in the game. And that’s exactly how McClendon earns his money. The Mariners aren’t the Yankees or the Red Sox or the Cardinals that are expected to win and have the experience doing it. This is an M’s team mostly made up of players with little of either. It’s arduous to maintain an underdog team on the route to premier status. McClendon had to inject more confidence into the team, make them believe that they belonged close to the top of the standings for six months with the A’s, Angels, Tigers, and company. Give more credit to Mariners General Manager Jack Zduriencik for picking up the parts for this statistically strong club, but McClendon should get plenty of love too. Just probably not as much as the 2006 National League Manager of the Year. Girardi likely deserves even more admiration for getting a Yankee team that had no business being in contention, to stay alive until the last two weeks of the season. Sure, their hopes weren’t great, but they still had a legitimate shot until mid-September.
The drove of drawbacks Girardi contended with this season was substantial. From the very beginning of the season, it looked like it would be a contentious road to the postseason. The AL East looked stacked before play began, and the Yankees appeared to need every bit of their roster to make it back to the playoffs after missing it in 2013. But then the maladies piled up. Ivan Nova went out for the year with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in April, CC Sabathia’s knee went out on him and took him out of the picture in July, and Michael Pineda’s suffered a back injury in late-April. Three-fifths of the Yankees’ Opening Day rotation were gone less than halfway into the season. Yet Girardi kept New York in the race. Masahiro Tanaka was the definition of a game changer, completely carrying his team with his dominant starting pitching, but in games he didn’t have the Japanese flamethrower slated to start, Girardi found a way to win enough to keep the Yankees in pace. So…how did he survive once Tanaka partially tore his UCL? Managerial magic, it seems. Somehow, Girardi willed his team past an injury that took out their best player by a mile and got quality starts from Brandon McCarthy, Chris Capuano, and Shane Greene. After an ERA over 4.50 with the Diamondbacks, McCarthy suddenly found his Oakland form, posting ERA’s of 2.67, 2.95, and 3.12 in the final three months of the season; Capuano was stellar in July (two earned runs allowed), immediately after Sabathia’s injury; and Greene was strong in July and August, posting ERA’s of 3.33 and 2.93, respectively. In the key months of the season, when the Yankees lost what seemed to be their last hope of making the playoffs, yes, Girardi managed to get three substitute starters to keep the team afloat. Combine that with the skipper having to contend with a horrid lineup that got on base at a clip of .306 and a bullpen that didn’t have great middle depth, and it’s a wonder how the Yankees managed to have a winning record. GM Brian Cashman may have had a good eye for McCarthy, Capuano, and Greene, but it’s on Girardi to keep this team competitive when two-thirds of his team are liabilities. It’s odd to praise managers so much and give them hardware for jobs that sometimes take credit that belongs to the GM’s that make the trades and signings. It’s odd to throw acclaim on managers for a team doing well when the players do the work and it’s hard to measure the skipper’s worth. A manager’s job is so subjective and unseen. What to say to players in an 0-30 slump, when to take a pitcher out of a ballgame, when to push your team when they’ve played more than 130 games—no one sees half the work the managers put in, and no one knows if they are the real tides when the products hit the field. But the same rings true for 28 other big league managers. It may not be clear if McClendon and Girardi were the beneficiaries of other, more prevalent variables, but among similar confusion when it comes to 28 other teams, they stand out on top.