Before the 2011 season began, most analysts had written off the Tampa Bay Rays. Sure, they had a good run in 2008 and 2010, but the Rays had just lost a large number of their star players via free agency and trades. Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, Matt Garza, Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Dan Wheeler, Jason Bartlett - the list went on and on. The Rays had completely rebuilt their bullpen, and most people weren't expecting them to come anywhere close to competing.
Yet come October, somehow the Rays were in the postseason for the third time in the last four seasons. Their outperformed nearly everyone's assumptions, and as a result, Joe Maddon has just been named the AL Manager of the Year by the Baseball Writers of America.
|Joe Maddon, Tampa Bay Rays||26||1||133|
|Jim Leyland, Detroit Tigers||1||13||10||54|
|Ron Washington, Texas Rangers||1||7||5||31|
|Manny Acta, Cleveland Indians||3||7||16|
|Joe Girardi, New York Yankees||3||5||14|
|Mike Scioscia, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim||1||1||4|
Make no mistake: Maddon deserves this award. But it's not for the reason most people assume.
The common thought-process behind the Manager of the Year award goes like so: Team X outperformed their expectations or thrived despite large amounts of adversity, so the manager gets credited with the team's success. That logic isn't entirely fair, though, because if you were paying attention, the Rays were a much better team going into 2011 than thought.
Despite all their losses, the Rays had a competitive roster full of young players, and projection systems suggested they were around an 87-88 win team...plus or minus a few. With some lucky breaks, it seemed possible in the preseason that the Rays could crack 90 wins and compete for a playoff spot. It wasn't necessarily a likely scenario, but it was certainly possible. Given that the Rays won 91 games and made the playoffs over the Red Sox, the Rays performed about as good as could possibly have been hoped considering their roster and talent.
And that's why Joe Maddon deserves the Manager of the Year award. Not because the Rays were actually a competitive team -- this shouldn't have come as such a surprise -- but because he managed to eek every ounce of talent out of his roster. The Rays didn't necessarily have good luck this past season. Manny Ramirez retired within the first week of the season, hurting the Rays' offense and projections, and Evan Longoria missed a month with an injury. Their rebuilt bullpen didn't start to come together until the final two months of the season, and their first options at first base and shortstop both flopped hard (Dan Johnson and Reid Brignac). At times, it felt like Maddon had to cobble together a lineup with shoestrings and duct tape.
Joe Maddon is one of the best managers in baseball, and he's one of the most free thinking, outside-the-box managers in the game today. He platoons players all the time, puts on defensive shifts that riddle opposing hitters, and he isn't afraid to be unconventional if it means it gives the Rays a better chance of winning.
Congratulations to Maddon for this well-deserved honor. May his glass of wine runneth over, and his hipster glasses never break.