I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the impacts managers have on the outcomes of baseball games. I can't profess to know the intricacies of these impacts, but I am fairly certain that they are vastly overrated by the majority of people.
Managers make several decisions throughout the course of the a ball game. Of those decisions, only a small percentage reflect a unique philosophy held be that particular skipper. There are certain things I don't like about the way Ron Gardenhire tends to manage -- his deployment of "small ball" tactics, his over-reliance on veteran players, his strict adherence to traditional closer usage, to name a few.
These tendencies understandably frustrate fans, but what those fans don't seem to understand is that basically all managers across the league make the same types of decisions. Most people in Minnesota don't get the opportunity to watch opposing managers under the same type of microscope, so there's a "grass is always greener" mentality that can take hold. At least until you watch Ron Washington, leader of the AL Champs and second-place finisher in this year's Manager of the Year voting, allow his bullpen to implode repeatedly in the playoffs while his best reliever sat on the bench.
Usually it's been Gardenhire finding himself as the runner-up in baseball's annual award for the league's best manager. He finished second in the voting five times in his first eight years at Minnesota's helm. Yesterday, finally, Gardenhire was named American League Manager of the Year for the 2010 season.
I sometimes get painted as a Gardy devotee because I've written pieces defending him against criticism and highlighting his positives more frequently than just about any other person covering the team.
I wouldn't say that's an accurate depiction of my stance. I've criticized Gardenhire for plenty of his decisions in the past. He typifies the "old-school" approach to baseball that can often drive me nuts; wasting outs on sacrifice bunts, batting a middle infielder second in the lineup regardless of his competence, emphasizing hustle and the mystical trait known as scrappiness over pure talent (i.e. Nick Punto).
But, to me, it seems flat-out ignorant to sit here and say that those traits -- however annoying -- have been significant detractors from the team's overall success. Gardenhire is the first manager in league history to capture division titles in six of his first nine seasons. He's often done so while overseeing teams with huge payroll handicaps and lesser talent.
This year, for the first time, he could claim neither of those disadvantages. The Twins entered the 2010 season with monumentally high expectations thanks to an aggressive offseason and unprecedented fan interest. Those expectations were met in the regular season, undeniably. The Twins won 94 games, dominated their division and became the first team in all of baseball to clinch a playoff spot.
They did this despite a great deal of adversity. Joe Nathan, one of the league's best relievers, suffered a season-ending injury in spring training. Justin Morneau, one of the league's best hitters, had his season end in early July. Many other players battled through injuries that caused them to miss time and affected their on-field performance.
Through all of that, 94 wins.
This isn't a sport like basketball or football where the head coach and his staff develop a game plan, draw up plays and manage timeouts. Ultimately, games are won by hitters coming up with big hits, pitchers making good pitches and fielders catching the ball. I do believe that Gardenhire's tactical decisions sometimes hurt the team. But far more, I think he does things that help breed success.
Given his results, that's awfully hard to argue.
Yes, there's the brutal postseason track record. Scapegoating the manager for those struggles seems like an easy way out, though. If Gardenhire's management is so deeply flawed, why has he been so successful in the regular season? If he is responsible for his team "playing scared" when things get tough, how has he led them back from seemingly insurmountable odds to win division titles in 2006 and 2009? The Twins haven't been able to move past the ALDS since 2002 because the players just haven't delivered very good performances, and I can't find it in me to blame anyone but those players themselves for the consistently disappointing outcomes.
The team's lack of postseason success during Gardenhire's tenure should make us feel sorry for the man, not castigate him. I suspect that he wishes more than anyone that this team could find a way to win in the playoffs and bring home a World Series title. The individual honor he received yesterday is certainly not an adequate substitute, but it has been a long time coming.