Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ron Gardenhire: AL Manager of the Year?

There are two general points of view when it comes to Ron Gardenhire.

Most people outside of Minnesota seem to feel that he's one of the game's best managers, a man who consistently gets the very most out of his players and puts the Twins in a position to contend year in and year out. When a Twins game is nationally broadcast, you almost always hear the announcers fawning over Gardenhire. Fellow managers and baseball people across the league consistently speak very highly of him. Joe Posnanski -- who I think is one of the very sharpest baseball minds in the country -- has repeatedly opined that the Twins' manager is the best in the game. Gardenhire had placed among the top three finishers in the Manager of the Year voting five times in his seven years as a manager entering this season.

Many people within Minnesota who follow the Twins closely, on the other hand, seem to feel that Gardenhire is a terrible manager who holds the team back year in and year out. Fans rail on him for his bullpen management. Bloggers rip him for his stubborn loyalty to bad players. It seems that every week during the baseball season there are multiple columns in the local newspapers in which scribes question Gardy's tactical decision-making.

Logically, it would seem that the group that follows the team closely and gets an intimate perspective of how the manager operates would provide the most accurate portrayal of that manager's job aptitude. However, I don't think that's the case here. I feel as though many hardcore Twins fans get so worked up over Gardenhire's flaws that they are unable to fully appreciate the man's full body of work -- an eight-year tenure which now includes seven winning records and five division championships.

The most recent of those AL Central titles stands as perhaps the most impressive, all things considered. By mid-September this year, the Twins sat several games out of first place with numerous key players on the shelf. The starting first baseman -- who had been a crucial contributor during a first half in which he'd posted MVP-caliber numbers -- was done for the year with a back injury, as was the team's slick-gloved, power-hitting third baseman. Three-fifths of the season-opening rotation had lost their starting jobs, due to either injury or ineffectiveness (or both). The team was relying largely on mediocre minor-leaguers and relatively underwhelming trade acquisitions to scrape by. Most fans had given up on the club, and it would have been tough to blame the players themselves for packing it in and beginning to concentrate on next year.

But, they didn't. The Twins rallied to win 16 of their final 20 regular-season games to draw even with the first-place Tigers and force a one-game tiebreaker at the Metrodome. There, in a hard-fought extra-innings battle, the Twins emerged victorious, capping off one of the most improbable late-season comebacks in franchise history. Plenty of credit rightfully goes to the players who stepped up and carried the team during this impressive late stretch, but it's tough to overlook the man who piloted the ship.

Without a doubt, Gardenhire has his flaws. As a person who has watched the team regularly during his entire tenure, I'm not ignorant to those flaws. But what people around here don't seem to realize is that every manager has flaws. Yes, Gardenhire is too stringently adherent to traditional closer usage when it comes to utilizing Joe Nathan. Yes, he's too stubbornly fixated on having a middle infielder batting in the second spot in the order, regardless of whether that player's offensive proficiency qualifies them for such an important duty. Yes, he's overly loyal to the players he deems "scrappy." Yes, he lets his obsession with veteran presence put younger and more talented players at an often unfair disadvantage. But these are flaws that plague many of the game's managers. We've seen the skipper of each team in the playoffs this year make questionable decisions. There's no denying that Gardy is largely able to succeed in spite of his downfalls.

For whatever reason, people around here seem quick to criticize Gardenhire but hesitant to credit him for the things he does well. During almost every game I hear people complaining about the way he operates the bullpen, but the Twins finished fourth in the the league in bullpen ERA and sixth in WHIP this year despite sporting a corps of relievers that -- early in the season -- looked like it was going to be a complete disaster. In fact, Gardenhire's bullpens consistently rank among the league's best, and I would argue that managing relievers is actually one of his greatest strengths. It's easy to play the "coulda shoulda woulda" game during the season and point out individual instances where Gardy perhaps could have more effectively utilized his bullpen arms, but again I encourage you to step back and consider the overall results.

Gardenhire is also liked and respected by his players, which is no small thing. He keeps the clubhouse loose and and avoids infighting. It's worth noting that, despite his troubled past, Delmon Young has had essentially zero publicized negative incidents since coming to Minnesota. Orlando Cabrera, who was reportedly run out of Chicago last year after run-ins with his White Sox teammates and manager, was praised as a clubhouse staple here after coming over. Players enjoy playing for Gardy and they seem to stay motivated and focused.

A manager's effect on the outcomes of ballgames tends to be overrated. Gardenhire made some tactical decisions that helped the team this year and some that hurt it. But, in the end, his players came together for him and made a huge push, winning game after game late in the season to capture the division title.

I don't know if Gardenhire excelled more than any other American League manager this year -- Mike Scoscia and Ron Washington both did excellent work -- but he certainly deserves to be one of the front-runners for the Manager of the Year award. Even if local fans are too blinded by his downfalls to admit it.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Winning 16 out of 20 against flawed AL Central teams puts Gardy in the running of MOY?

The work of Mauer and Cuddyer were the difference over the last month of the season IMO.

lookatthosetwins said...

Good article. People seem to be way too far one way or the other with Gardy. The only things we can really see as fans are the tacticle decisions, so I can see how people would complain. I am about as far on the statistical side of things as someone can be, but I've also played baseball, and understand how important being loose and comfortable is. I can't imagine playing baseball with Jim Leyland staring you down after all your mistakes.

Anyway, its clear from watching the playoffs this year that even on tacticle matters, there are a lot worse managers out there. I've never really been a fan of the Manager of the Year award, as I don't feel we can accurately rate how a manager did, and it really becomes the "surprise team award." A guy like Terry Francona would never win it, whether he was the best manager in baseball or not. (I'm not saying that he IS the best manager in baseball, just that if he WAS, he still wouldn't win it).

Anonymous said...

There are indidividual moments when we can throw stones - WHY pull Guerrier after the 1-2-3 8th -but one of these years Gardenhire deserves MOTY. '03, '06, and '09 were probably his best efforts. His teams never quit.

There were probably only 25 people in Minnesota who had not written the Twins off in early September. And they all resided in the clubhouse. Credit to the manager there (and Cuddyer, Kubel, and yes even Delmon Young - 10 RBI in 3 games!). Now we just need the manager to convince his players they can win in October ... this 2-16 stretch is abysmal.

BTW, Nick, your blog continues to impress. It is more useful than either the Star Trib or Pioneer Press. One of those papers should hire you, and pay you for the good work.

David said...

Good post. My opinion on Gardenhire has been that he's above-average, but not as great as his best supporters argue. While playing Monday Morning Quarterback is often unfair to coaches and managers, I think it's fair to say that batting Matt Tolbert in front of Joe Mauer is borderline insane. At the same time, you can't ignore the run of success. A lot of people will say, "Well they play in a bad division!" Well, Cleveland was still a dangerous team in 2002, 2003 and 2004 were pretty weak, 2006 featured ridiculously strong Tiger and White Sox teams, in 2007 the Indians nearly made the World Series, and for the last two years, all teams have been flawed - including the Twins. Overall I'd say it's an impressive run for Gardy. It's a testament to how well he manages personalities and how he gets a LOT out of his players. If he'd fix his in-game flaws, he could be a great manager.

BTW, Nick, your blog continues to impress. It is more useful than either the Star Trib or Pioneer Press. One of those papers should hire you, and pay you for the good work. Agreed.

Anonymous said...

I like how when Gardenhire makes a decision the blogging community disagrees with (even though they don't have all the information the coaching staff has), it's labeled a mistake or a flaw.

So change that to "he makes decisions many fans disagree with" and I agree with everything you said.

Nick N. said...

So change that to "he makes decisions many fans disagree with" and I agree with everything you said.

There's no amount of information that could ever convince me that batting a guy with a .300 OBP in front of the best hitter in the league is a well founded decision. Sometimes people are too quick to second-guess Gardenhire on decisions that contain shades of gray, but sometimes he's just blatantly wrong.

That happens with all managers, though.

Anonymous said...

Since when does winning 87 games in the worst division in baseball and pulling out the division cause of a epic meltdown by the Tigers warrent a MOY award?

Nick N. said...

Since when does winning 87 games in the worst division in baseball and pulling out the division cause of a epic meltdown by the Tigers warrent a MOY award?

Given the hand he was dealt, Gardenhire did fairly well. It's important to look at things in context.

Anonymous said...

I'm a loyal Twins fan, and I think Gardy overall is a very, very good manager. I wouldn't say he's the best in the game, I wouldn't give him MOY, but he's better than most.

There is a surprisingly large anti-Gardy contingency here, thought I have found that most of their arguments are emotional, not rational.

Does he make questionanble decisions at times? Sure, but what manager doesn't?

Baseball has a long season, a manager is required to make literally thousands of decisions over the course of 162 games. Even if he's right 80 or 90 percent of the time, that's still hundreds of times he was wrong. The anti-Gardy crowd likes to focus on the times Gardy's bad decisions and ignore his good ones.

So the Strib is filled with FIRE GARDY comments all summer.

I'd like to hear from these people who could do better. To me, you make a managerial change when 1) your manager is making bad decisions that cost your team games and/or 2) he has lost the players and they aren't playing for him anymore. Neither of these is remotely true with Gardy. He makes far more good than bad decisions, and there is no quit in his players.

Anonymous said...

I tend to go along with Posnanski. Besides, I remember several torrid hot streaks the twins have had in the last 6 or 7 years. He does really well with the cards he's dealt.

Anonymous said...

I think a true test of a good manager is how their team performs under adverse conditions and/or with a less than ideal lineup. Gardy has proven time and again that he can get wins under these conditions, which is impressive. Even though I don't agree with everything he does, I think he's a great manager.

In contrast, you look at a team like the Yankees, and you could have Donald Duck as manager, and the results would have been pretty much the same.

Some people think the Twins should get someone like LaRussa as manager, but how did his team do in the playoffs this year?

VicLady said...

He is definitely in the running. Really hard to give it to Girardi given the payroll and the postseason hasn't done him any favors. I can't think of anyone more deserving than Gardy.

Pseudofool said...

I'm sure Gardenhire leads the league in wins per dollar spent over the past eight years. As Nick points out, fastidious examination of any manager will provide a plethora of specific missteps. Gardenhire's best assets as a manager come before the first pitch--and that's hard for fans, esp. stat-heads (who don't believe in things they can't quantify) to wrap their heads around.

No team in the history of baseball has comeback from the deficits this Twins team did to win the division. It was historic; and it's amazing given the injuries to key players. Gardenhire should be a shoe in.

Leon said...

If you see Gardy please tell him that I think the Twins infield is just fine as it is right now. He has defense strength, speed on basepaths with Punto (my favorite) Tolberg, Hardy and Harris. They can be the table setters for Mauer, Morneau, Thome, Cuddy, and Kubel. I think the infeilders are gonna have a banner year this year. Leave them alone and lets go Twins.

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