Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Managing to Win

There has been a lot of talk about possible post-season awards for the Twins this year. As was discussed yesterday, Johan Santana is neck-and-neck with Roy Halladay for the AL Cy Young award. Despite his injury, Francisco Liriano may still have a shot at winning Rookie of the Year. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are fringe MVP candidates. Mauer and Santana both have a good shot at winning Gold Gloves. Well, I've got one Twins' post-season award candidate that not many people have been looking at, and that's Ron Gardenhire for AL Manager of the Year.

For pretty much the entire season, the baseball world has viewed Detroit skipper Jim Leyland as the runaway favorite for the Manager of the Year award. However, the Tigers are have struggled of late. Even after beating the White Sox last night, they have still lost 9 of their last 13 games and have seen their lead in the AL Central shrink to 5.5 games. Now, that's still a fairly sizable lead and I think it's early to be making doomsday statements, but the possibility that the Tigers could miss the playoffs is becoming more and more realistic. Kenny Rogers has fallen apart (1-3, 5.97 since the All-Star break) and Justin Verlander's arm is fatigued. The team is reeling, and if they fail to make the playoffs, it would be difficult to see Leyland being rewarded as the league's best manager.

Meanwhile, Gardenhire has done some very good things this year. We frequently get after him on this blog, and by no means has his decision-making been spotless, but it's hard to argue with the job he's done. The team has pieced together one of the great turnarounds in baseball history, while numerous young players are breaking out in a big way and a few veterans are having by far the best seasons of their previously mediocre careers. When so many players are doing this well, some credit has to be given to the coaching staff. And although I sometimes feel that he underuses Joe Nathan by restricting most of his appearances to ninth-inning save situations, it is clear that Gardy has handled the bullpen extremely well and is getting the most out his relievers.

Gardenhire has also seemingly gained the respect of not only his own players, but other players and coaches around the league. In a recent Chicago Sun-Times article about another Ozzie Guillen tirade, Guillen gave the following quote about Gardy:
"That's why I love the guy next door,'' Guillen continued Saturday, pointing to the Twins' dugout and manager Ron Gardenhire. ''He doesn't give a [expletive]. He doesn't worry about this and that. You win, you kicked our butt. When they clinched in 2004, I was the first one to go over there and congratulate them because they beat us."
In a Pioneer Press article in late July, Charley Walters had the following Leyland quote:
"This has been no surprise to us at all," Leyland said of the Twins' remarkable comeback since early June. "We knew they would be back. They've got baseball players who play the game the way they're supposed to play, they've got great pitching and they've got a hell of a manager. This is going to be a three-team race, and next year, with Cleveland, it will be a four-team race."
Back in February, I wrote that the 2006 season would put Gardenhire on the spot more than ever before. I noted that "my opinion of the man will be greatly shaped by what he does in the upcoming season." Well, after a poor start, I have been mostly impressed by the job Gardy has done and I think he deserves a lot of credit for what this team has accomplished.

Despite a rash of critical injuries, an inconsistent back of the rotation that has turned into a revolving door for minor league pitchers, and a roster comprised of numerous young and inexperienced players, this manager is somehow managing to win. I think Gardy deserves some recognition for that. He has finished near the top in the Manager of the Year voting three times in his four-year tenure as the Twins' skipper (third in 2002, second in 2003, second in 2004) and it is entirely possible that this may be the year he captures the award once and for all.

15 comments:

zooomx said...

Wow... Nick... two months ago I would say you were crazy to post such a thought. However, yesterday, I was commenting that the Twins were due for an injury or two to keep the team hot. This led into a discussion about Gardenhire's lack of mention in the manager of the year honors. I think if the Twins catch the Tigers, he is the no-brainer. If we make the wild card, he will take third after Leyland and (ouch) Joe Torre

Anonymous said...

I don't think it is unreasonable to assume that Leyland will win MotY even if the Tigers fail to make the playoffs entirely. After all, Tony Pena won it in 2003 and Buck Showalter in 2004 for turning around previously horrible teams and each team finished 83-79. Granted the situation is different because the Tigers have raised the expectations so high with their play over the first three-quarters of 2006, but in both of the above-mentioned cases the managers brought young teams into contention and then fell off at the end of the year as young teams are wont to do.

Nick M. said...

I think Leyland basically has the award in the bag. Its true that Gardy has helped with a historical turnaround, but things that happen in the middle of the year don't always get as much press.

Its just like the player who hits .400 in the first two months versus the guy who does in June and July. Does anyone talk about Nick Markakis like they did Chris Shelton in April or Brian Roberts last year? Obviously not, but the point is the Tigers had a huge turnaround and I doubt voters will forget about their first half.

Also, its apparent that most writers buy into Leyland's influence. I'm not doubting it, but a good example would be his tirade in late April after an ugly loss. Leyland clearly has changed the culture in Detroit and helped turn that franchise around after over a decade of awful play. That tends to garner more accolades even though Gardy has also done a great job. Having said that, I'll be happy if either gets the award but upset if its anyone else.

BD said...

Congrats for giving Gardy his due.

Ryan & Gardy started the year with a particular plan and then, when it became clear it wasn't getting them anywhere (we can debate later whether they should have realized that earlier), the abandoned it and retooled the team on the fly.

Not only have their retooling decisions worked out, they've even managed to maintain success in the face of injuries which most folks believed could not be survived.

Our #1 isn't 100% (blisters & split fingernail).

Our #1a is out injured.

Our #1b isn't 100% (arm held on by a thread).

Our #4 is inconsistent (at best).

We have open auditions for our #5.

The kid we expected to be our #3 or #4 this year is in Triple-A.

We lost our regular CF for a while & he's still far from 100% in the field.

The kid we hoped would win the LF job now has two bum wheels - he's at the point where he might score from third on a triple.

Yet this bunch has been winning, what, 75% of its games since June 8th?

The manager & his coaching staff had to have something to do with that. They deserve some credit for a job well done.

SBG said...

Did you ever notice that things turned around once the manager's hands were pretty much tied? He basically has no options but to put the team out there that he has.

Point to something that he's done -- other than jettisoning the absolute busts that were the Cubanistas -- that wasn't pretty much dictated to him by the course of events.

The manager in April: Cuddyer can't play every day. Reality: Forced into playing every day, he's the best every day player not named Mauer or Morneau.

The manager in April: Bartlett needs to work on being more vocal in the infield. Reality: Forced into playing every day, he's been a revelation at shortstop.

The manager for years: Shannon Stewart is our left fielder. Reality: Anyone else is better defensively.

Now look at the current situation. One change could be made to improve this team. Play Tyner in center and move Hunter to DH (preferrably) or left field. Guess who's going to be in center field tonight.

The one thing that I really like about Gardy is how he protects the pitching staff overall. Guys don't get abused. That's an admirable trait, but I'm at a loss to see what he's done with the lineup to improve it. Pretty much every move was dictated to him. And changing out short and third was just correcting atrocious mistakes that just about everyone else could see were bad ideas at the time that they were made.

That's just my opinion. :)

Rhubarb_Runner said...

I agree with SBG. In addition, Gardy rubberstamps his lineup cards, won't DH his catcher (much) because a losing his DH for a game scares him too much or something, and a lot of little things which, when added together are stifling even greater things for the Twins. He has his positives, but a lot of what he does doesn't come across as too smart to me.

Nick N. said...

Whew... a lot of great comments today. Let me try to get to everything.

In response to the people who feel Leyland is still the heavy favorite, I'm not disagreeing with you. Don't get me wrong, I still fully believe that Detroit is going to win this division, and if they do, the award is his and deservedly so. However, if they do miss the playoffs, it would have to be seen as a complete collapse considering how far ahead they were at one point, and I'm really not sure the voters would be inclined to reward the manager of a team that fell apart like that.

SBG/rhubarb, no one is denying that lineup construction remains one of Gardenhire's major weaknesses. A lot of the decisions that he's made (Punto to third, Bartlett to short, Tyner to left) have been forced because of injuries or incompetence. Either way, the offense has gone from being one of the worst in the league to being one of the best (at least avg/OBP-wise), so clearly his lineups aren't killing them too much.

And yes, Gardy and Ryan continue to show too little faith in their talented youth and too much faith in overpriced vets and Scrubinis, but that's hardly unique among major league managers and GMs. Take a look around our own division. During the off-season, the Indians saw fit to go out and sign the crappy Jason Johnson rather than handing a spot in the rotation to the talented youngster Jeremy Sowers in the first place. The White Sox traded an elite outfield prospect to get Javier Vazquez rather than trusting Brandon McCarthy. At least Ryan and Gardy were able to swallow their pride in May and June and let the young guys run free, and it has paid off big.

I don't mean to claim that Gardy is an amazing manager by any means, and I certainly would agree with the flaws that folks have listed above. All I'm saying is I think he's doing a much better job this year than he has in the past and he deserves some credit for the incredible season this team is ahving.

Banjo said...

Your resident Gardenhire apologist checking in. My thoughts as to what Gardenhire's done right in '06:

1.)He learned from his mistakes in '05 and has done a better job not messing stuff up in the press this year. He was also a pretty cool cucumber even in the dregs of the slump.

2.)Before Stewart was re-injured and Kubel was healthy he made a solid committment to Kubel in the field over Stewart and then decided to allocate his talent appropriately by DH'ing him and putting him in the line-up in the 7 hole despite Stewart's public griping. Gardenhire gets some heat for the way he handles veterans, but it would be naive to think that some deference shouldn't be paid to veterans. If he's abusive to veterans it simply makes it harder for the organization to veteran players who'd rather not play for a certain manager. * I do think that's also an "organizational" trait.

3.)Gleeman's irritation's aside with his Mauer platooning - I think in addtion to his pitchers he's got a good sense of trying to get guys rest and managing over a 162 game season. I think he also tries to keep the role players sharp by not having them rot on the bench.

4.) He saw somthing in Punto that nobody could see on a stat sheet and made it work.

5.) Granted, the information was from Sid's column, but Morneau was quoted as saying his sit-down with Gardenhire in '05 had an impact on how he approached the game.

6.) He never wanted Tony Batista and his "they tell me he can hit" was a great quote - yet Gardenhire and Ryan seem to work well in tandem which is still overall healthy for the organization - even if they make an ocassional boneheaded move.

7.) He stuck with Crain even when Crain looked awful and he has shown good faith in Neshek who has been pretty darned good.

8.) Winning helps - but the team looks like it is truly having fun. It takes a good people manager to create that type of atmosphere in any organization.

SBG said...

Lew Ford at DH. Torii Hunter in CF.

brianS said...

Dang, Nick. What did you do, blow up SBG's server for all the Cuddy cracks? [he's down, down, down at 11 pm pacific, so it's either a server problem or he's in a drunken stupor over the Jackal's game of Crazy Pepe]

Nick N. said...

That actually happened to me last night when I tried to go to SBG's site as well. I dunno what the deal is. Perhaps Nick Punto hacked his server.

SBG said...

My server watched the game last night and decided to go on vacation, too.

Rhubarb_Runner said...

Either way, the offense has gone from being one of the worst in the league to being one of the best (at least avg/OBP-wise), so clearly his lineups aren't killing them too much.

That "too much" might be the one win that would have gotten us into the post season.

And yes, Gardy's hesitancy to want to play Batista goes in his favor, but if Ryan hadn't traded Castro, Gardy would still be putting him out at SS.

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