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Making a Case for A.J. Hinch as Manager of the Year

2019 once again will not be the year for the Astros’ skipper to finally win, but given the strangeness of the award, maybe it should have been

MLB: ALCS-Workouts Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Following the announcements of the three finalists per category last Tuesday, this week marks MLB’s big 2019 Awards festivities. Rookies of the Year will come on Monday, Managers on Tuesday, Cy Young winners the day after, and finally the MVPs on Thursday.

And it’s not much of a surprise the Astros are well represented, between Alex Bregman among the MVP finalists, Yordan Álvarez looking like the favorite in the AL Rookie of the Year race, and both Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander landing in the Cy Young top three. It’s hard to feel slighted, given all of that.

Still…maybe it’s because I’m biased, but it feels like A.J. Hinch deserved a spot in the Manager of the Year running as well. I don’t really have anything against Rocco Baldelli (Twins), Aaron Boone (Yankees), or Kevin Cash (Rays), the other three finalists. But it does feel frustrating that, year after year, Hinch’s great work goes unrecognized; he still hasn’t won the award, despite all of the success his teams have had recently. And it definitely highlights the absurdity of how the Manager of the Year award operates.

See, for those who aren’t aware, parsing out the value of a manager is really hard, especially over the course of a single season. So, what usually ends up happening is that instead, the voters just settle into picking the best narrative, giving the honors to the manager of whichever team most exceeded expectations during the year.

It’s…consistent, if nothing else. But it’s also hard not to notice that it has some funny outcomes in the grand scheme of things, beyond just snubbing A.J. For instance, one of my favorite bits of trivia relates to Terry Francona. The future Hall of Fame manager has won two World Series in his lifetime, as well as two Manager of the Year awards. Both World Series came from his tenure in Boston, but both Manager of the Year awards came from his time in Cleveland. And sure, on the one hand, voting takes place before the postseason, but on the other hand, this is in spite of his overall higher winning percentage with the Red Sox. Plus, even the year in Cleveland where the Indians led the AL in wins (2017) wound up not being one of his two winning years.

And yeah, sometimes stuff like that ends up making sense when you look at it knowing how the award is picked; for instance, one of Francona’s wins was his first year in Cleveland, when the team improved 24 games and won a Wild Card slot. But then again, it also leads to some more unfortunate results; for instance, three of the last five AL Manager of the Year winners are no longer employed; it feels like there should be a little more distance between “best at the job” to “utterly replaceable”.

The NL award winners look marginally better, since the last three winners all still have their jobs (although there was some speculation that Dave Roberts might get the axe following the Dodgers getting upset in the Division Series), but everyone before those three is gone, and nothing on the AL side looked as embarrassing as quickly as “2014 NL Manager of the Year Matt Williams”. On the flip side, 2019 retiree and future Hall of Fame manager Bruce Bochy hasn’t won since 1996, despite four pennants and three championships in the meantime.

So where does this leave us with A.J. Hinch? The simplest argument would be that the Astros this year were really good, with their 107 regular season wins more than all but a dozen teams in history have accomplished. The managed this despite Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Jose Altuve (among others) all missing significant time to injury, Yordan Álvarez’s late call-up leaving the DH slot open for a lot of the year, a bottom half of the rotation that took a while to settle, notable playing time going to bench players, and so on.

And some of his case undoubtedly relies on his larger history; this was the third straight year of the Astros’ winning 100 games, something only five other teams have accomplished, and the Astros have only improved their win total each of the three seasons. Only Earl Weaver has amassed more wins in three seasons than A.J. has the past three years. He’s generally respected as a leader, and the Astros are clearly happy with his reign, as he’s now tied with Kevin Cash for the third-longest tenured manager in baseball (only Francona and Bob Melvin of the A’s have been at their current posts longer). And while the voting couldn’t take playoff performance into account, Hinch has shown himself to be generally competent in that regard between the team’s recent playoff runs.

Sure, using the longer history for a yearly award feels a little weird, but on the other hand, voting on something as uncertain as manager quality with only one year of data is how you get things like “Manager of the Year Matt Williams”. But even if that wasn’t enough to sway the voters, it seemed like maybe this year’s field was open enough that he might be able to sneak in.

Like I said, I have nothing against Cash, Boone, or Baldelli, but each of them has aspects to their narrative that make me question how well their narratives hold up, even accepting that that’s the primary method voters chose the Manager of the Year. For instance, on the one hand, it’s kind of surprising that the Rays won a Wild Card slot…but on the other hand, that surprise was more from the Red Sox falling apart than the Rays’ being good. They were a 90-win team last year, and added several big pieces, most notably Cy Young finalist Charlie Morton, who was worth 5-6 WAR by himself this year (depending on your preferred version), which by itself almost brings them to this year’s 96-win mark. Cash was the third-place finisher last year, though, so it’s not like his vote total this year terribly out of line with that, if nothing else.

Boone is another one where you can see the argument: the Yankees had a lot of injuries, even more than the Astros, and still won three more games than last year. On the other hand, the Yankees are such a resource-rich team that it feels difficult to pin down how much of that was on Boone’s handling. Like, for all of their injuries, the Yankees still spent last winter acquiring the best starting pitcher on the trade market, a recent batting title winner, the two best free agent relievers, and another solid starter that didn’t even make the postseason roster.

They were deep enough that, even with their ace injured most of the year, they could just outright release Gio Gonzalez, who went on to be a solid mid-rotation starter for a playoff team, without him even throwing an inning in pinstripes. Even when injuries looked like they might be too much, they just went out and added a DH who was twenty homers into his eighth-straight 30-homer season. Maybe I’m just overly-skeptical of Boone, though, since he stepped into an ALCS team last year and that makes it extra tough to evaluate what he specifically brings to the table.

Baldelli also has his good aspects, with the Twins coming back from 78 wins in 2018 to winning the Central and 101 games in 2019. On the other hand, the devil’s advocate case is that this was a team that was in the Wild Card game just two years ago, and they were still the clear second-best team in the Central last year. With the biggest difference between the historically-awful 2018 AL Central and this year being the Indians playing chicken with their payroll to see how low they could go and still take it, it seemed like the prime time for Minnesota to make their move.

But even more, his position (through no fault of his own) represents how badly the “most improved or surprising” method of voting can fall apart at times. As mentioned, this is a team that won the Wild Card in 2017, which in turn won Baldelli’s predecessor Paul Molitor the Manager of the Year award. But he got that for improving on the 59-win 2016 team that he managed the year before. The year before that disaster, in his debut season, he finished third in MotY voting for taking the 70-win Twins to 83 wins…just two fewer than they’d win in his Manager of the Year campaign two years later. After another drop in success (this time just 7 games) in 2018, and suddenly, the man who entered the year as the reigning Best Manager in the AL was now deemed expendable, if not part of the problem. Maybe Baldelli is the difference, but then again, this was a team that also looked like it was on an upward trajectory like this under the last guy as well. Maybe its not the manager, just luck?

I wish there were more objective measures to use here. Shoot, maybe the best manager was actually Bob Melvin for their second-straight dark horse run, or maybe it was Terry Francona for the Indians almost pulling off the playoff run despite their payroll cuts (there’s a reason they’ve been around this long, after all). But in the absence of Managerial WAR or something, I do think the case for A.J. Hinch as Manager of the Year is pretty strong, between the Astros’ leading the league in wins and his longer history. And given the somewhat questionable track record picking the “surprising” team has recently, maybe A.J.’s case should have gotten more of a hearing. Hopefully, one day, he’ll finally get his due.