Manager of the Year: Who are most deserving AL, NL award winners?

Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash sits in the dugout before a baseball game. (Steve Nesius/AP)

How much influence does a manager have in baseball? That probably depends on the team — and it definitely depends on who you ask.

Each club has a unique set of expectations based on attributes such as payroll and talent. Managers of teams that most notably outperform pre-season projections often find themselves shortlisted for Manager of the Year honours.

Then again, as you’ll see here, fulfilling high expectations can be award-worthy as well. Here’s a quick look at each Manager of the Year candidate for 2021:

AL Manager of the Year candidates

Dusty Baker — Houston Astros

Record: 95-67, Won AL pennant (lost in World Series)

Prior to the 2020 season, Baker was given the unenviable job of leading the Astros out of their sign-stealing scandal. He was 70, the oldest manager in the sport, and presumed by some to be a one-year stopgap for a team in the heart of its contention window.

But the Astros exercised their 2021 club option on Baker during the first week of the pandemic-shortened season, and now — fresh off an AL pennant — they’re bringing him back again. It might have something to do with the fact the Astros spent 118-straight days atop the AL West this year.

With a Manager of the Year win, Baker would join elite company (Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox) as a four-time recipient. Baker previously won the award in 1993, 1997 and 2000 with the Giants.

Kevin Cash — Tampa Bay Rays

Record: 100-62, Won AL East (lost in ALDS)

Having led the Rays to consecutive division titles and AL-best regular season records, Cash will now try to go back-to-back in his own regard as Manager of the Year.

At 43, the Tampa native is already the second-longest-tenured skipper in the majors (seven seasons), behind only Terry Francona with Cleveland (nine seasons). It’s a high-turnover industry, but Cash is well positioned as a manager who has guided his group to abundant success in recent years.

With the Rays, garnering success is rarely conventional. Tampa Bay had the fewest sac bunts in baseball this season (six, after having zero last year), and 15 pitchers made at least one start. Cash balanced a low-budget, data-driven team and kept it in the championship conversation all season.

Scott Servais — Seattle Mariners

Record: 90-72, Missed playoffs

Math be damned, the Seattle Mariners had a genuine shot at the playoffs right down to Game 162. Seattle finished with a minus-51 run differential, which was 40 runs worse than any other team with a winning record.

On that note, Servais had one of the best quips of the year when he suggested his team was more focused on its “fun differential.”

And you know what? Going 33-19 (.635) in one-run games was probably pretty fun. Hitting the 90-win mark — a first for Seattle since 2003 — seems like a good time, too. Yes, the Mariners fell short of the post-season, but it was a good ride nonetheless.

NL Manager of the Year candidates

Gabe Kapler — San Francisco Giants

Record: 107-55, Won NL West (lost in NLDS)

Pre-season predictions are far from perfect, but the Giants are a special case of how wrong we can be. FanGraphs’ ZiPS projections estimated a 75-87 record for the Giants, with a better chance that they’d nab the No. 1 pick in next June’s draft (0.7 per cent) than win their division (0.0 per cent).

Six months and a franchise-best 107 wins later, San Francisco had the ultimate “I-told-you-so” season. And Kapler was right in the middle of it.

With the oldest average position player age (30.6 years), veterans like Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford stacked one renaissance season on top of another to return to their early-2010s glory. A division-series date with the 106-win Dodgers ended their campaign prematurely, but Kapler still led his team much further than we thought they’d go.

Craig Counsell — Milwaukee Brewers

Record: 95-67, Won NL Central (lost in NLDS)

What a four-year run this has been for Counsell: a .565 win percentage, three Manager of the Year nominations (was the runner-up in 2018 and 2019) and four post-season berths.

From the NL Central’s mass of mediocrity, the Brewers emerged with a division title thanks in large part to an epically deep starting rotation. Six Brewers made 20-plus starts in 2021, and five of them finished with a 130 ERA+ or better.

Counsell is now second in franchise history in wins (529, behind Phil Garner’s 563). The team’s steady results in recent seasons suggests he could be around well after he breaks that record.

Mike Shildt — St. Louis Cardinals

Record: 90-72, Lost in Wild Card round

Well, this could be awkward.

Citing “philosophical differences,” the Cardinals fired Shildt eight days after their Wild Card loss to the Dodgers. Shildt had worked for the Cardinals since 2003, when he was brought in as a scout, before helping the team to a .559 win percentage in three-plus seasons as the skipper.

The Cardinals stunned everybody in September by going on a 17-game win streak, vaulting themselves into post-season position (they began their streak at 71-69, 3 ½ games out).

St. Louis reached the playoffs in each of Shildt’s three full seasons at the helm, and he won Manager of the Year in 2019. For job-hunting purposes, winning again probably wouldn’t be the worst thing.

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