CHICAGO -- Given the reputation that Craig Counsell has built over the better part of the last decade, it would be fair to assume he already had a Manager of the Year Award on his mantel. Steadiness, however, has tended to lose out to one-season surprises in the yearly voting.
That held true on Tuesday, when Counsell finished as the runner-up to Marlins manager Skip Schumaker in balloting for the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s National League Manager of the Year Award for 2023. Nonetheless, Counsell’s track record of consistently outperforming expectations led to the Cubs aggressively pursuing him for their managerial job this offseason.
“It's hard to rank managers,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “But very clearly he's at the very top of the game.”
The 53-year-old Counsell -- a finalist for the annual award alongside Schumaker and Brian Snitker of the Braves -- also finished as the runner-up for the trophy in the 2018, ‘19 and ‘21 seasons. This time around, Counsell garnered five first-place votes, seven second-place tallies and another five for third.
During this past season, the Brewers held off a red-hot Cubs team that collapsed in September, while weathering a mid-season push by the surprising Reds squad. Chicago pulled within 1 1/2 games of Milwaukee on Sept. 6, but then faded away as Milwaukee cruised to a nine-game cushion in the Central standings by the end.
“He should have multiple of them,” Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich said in September of the Manager of the Year Award. “He probably doesn’t care, but he should.”
The Brewers finished with 92 wins, which was six more than FanGraphs’ preseason projected total (86) and two more than Milwaukee’s Pythagorean record (90 wins), which is based on run differential. It was just the latest example of Counsell getting more than expected out of his roster, even amid injuries and setbacks throughout the summer.
The Brewers’ 646 wins across the ‘16-23 campaigns -- Counsell’s eight full seasons at the helm -- are 55 more wins than the combined wins projected by FanGraphs at the start of each year. That’s nearly seven more wins than projected each season. In that same span, which includes a rebuilding year in ‘16, Milwaukee’s .541 winning percentage trails only the Dodgers (.630) and Braves (.549) in the NL.
“I watch how he handles the bullpen, handles the roster,” Hoyer said. “He's had teams with really good pitching and bad offense. He's had some teams with really good offense and bad pitching. It seems like he's always able to find a way to get through the length of the season and to win. That takes a lot.”
During the 2023 season, the Brewers had only two qualified players finish above average offensively in terms of OPS+ (William Contreras and Yelich). Milwaukee’s offense ranked 22nd overall in OPS+ (93) in MLB. The Brewers’ .385 slugging percentage as a team ranked 25th in baseball and only the Rockies, Pirates and Nationals had fewer home runs in the NL.
And while the Brewers led the Majors in team ERA (3.71), they did so while navigating through injuries and other issues. The rotation -- a perceived strength -- turned into Counsell’s chief challenge all year.
Milwaukee had only 11 starts from co-ace Brandon Woodruff during an injury-plagued season, and got little all year from previously productive lefty Eric Lauer. At one point in May, starters Woodruff, Lauer, Aaron Ashby and Wade Miley were all on the injured list at the same time. Journeyman Colin Rea wound up finishing third on the team in innings pitched.
“When you look year in, year out,” Hoyer said, “I think he's been able to maximize the talent on his roster. He's done that really consistently as well as any manager in the game.”
It helps explain why the Cubs lured Counsell to Wrigleyville with a record five-year, $40 million contract. It is reminiscent of when the North Siders hired Joe Maddon ahead of the 2015 season as the franchise was on an upswing to multiple years of contention.
Counsell left his hometown Brewers as the franchise’s all-time managerial leader in regular-season wins (707) and games (1,332). He guided them to five postseason berths and three division titles -- all within the past six years -- in one of the great eras of Brewers history.
“I’m very proud of what happened in Milwaukee,” Counsell said at his introductory press conference with the Cubs on Monday. “I think time will look favorably on what was accomplished in those nine years that I was a manager there.”