Is this the year for Brewers' Counsell to win NL MOY?

September 30th, 2023

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MILWAUKEE -- Is this the year the National League’s longest-tenured skipper finally adds a Manager of the Year Award to his resume?

Craig Counsell’s players hope so.

“He should have multiple of them,” Christian Yelich said. “He probably doesn’t care, but he should.”

Of the major awards bestowed annually by the Baseball Writers' Association of America -- MVP Awards, Cy Young Awards, Rookie of the Year Awards and Manager of the Year Awards -- the manager honor is the most difficult for voters. There are only a handful of statistics to consider beyond wins and losses, so it often becomes a “Manager of the Most Surprising Team Award.”

In that case, the Reds’ David Bell or Marlins first-year manager Skip Schumaker are contenders. D-backs manager Torey Lovullo also has done a great job. Lovullo previously won NL Manager of the Year in 2017.

Counsell has come close, finishing second in 2018 and ‘21. What’s the common thread between those seasons? The Brewers won the division, just like they did this year.

It’s their third division title in the past six years, and their fifth postseason appearance -- a stretch of success unprecedented in franchise history. During Counsell’s eight full seasons as manager, including rebuilding years in 2016 and ‘17, the only NL clubs with better regular-season winning percentages are the Dodgers and Braves.

“The question that always comes up is, ‘OK, if Counsell wasn’t the manager, would we have done that? How much say has he had in that?’” said Corbin Burnes, who is lined up to start Game 1 of the NL Wild Card Series on Tuesday at American Family Field. “I would say a lot. We always get rated as a middle-of-the-pack or bottom-half team, and we’re making the postseason year in and year out.”

The numbers support Burnes’ hypothesis. Counsell’s clubs have almost always beaten projections, whether from FanGraphs, which runs tens of thousands of computer simulations based on projected statistics and strength of schedule to project a club’s win-loss record, or by Pythagorean record, which projects a club’s record based on run differential.

By FanGraphs’ preseason projections, only twice in Counsell’s eight full seasons as manager have the Brewers underperformed. The first was in 2020, when everything was skewed by the shortened schedule. The other was 2022, when the Brewers wilted after the Josh Hader trade. In three other seasons, Counsell’s club outplayed the projection by double-digit wins.

This year, the Brewers reached their projected win total (86) with 10 regular season games to go.

They have also consistently outplayed their Pythagorean won-loss record. Only once, in 2016 during the rebuild at the start of Counsell’s tenure, have the Brewers missed that mark. It was by one win.

This year, they were outplaying their Pythagorean won-loss record by two games entering the final series of the regular season.

Here’s another measure, first raised earlier this season by reporter and commentator Tom Verducci, who noted the Brewers’ uncanny annual success in one-run games. At the time in mid-August, the Brewers were 24-10 in one-run games and Counsell had pushed a hair ahead of Earl Weaver for the best winning percentage of all time in such games among skippers who had managed at least 300 one-run games.

The Brewers have since slipped to 27-18 in one-run games, but that’s still third-best in the Majors this season behind the Marlins and Orioles.

“His ability to just see around corners is something that's really unique, and it helps our front office and helps get in front of issues with any players, coaches, anything,” Brewers GM Matt Arnold said. “He sees ahead in ways that we might not be able to.”

Arnold wasn’t aware that Counsell had never won a Manager of the Year Award.

“He should have been credited with that honor years ago,” Arnold said.

Said Yelich: “I don’t even know if it will be fully appreciated until we’re pretty far removed from this stretch. And who knows? Hopefully this stretch gets extended out and we keep being good, but that’s so hard to do.”

Adding to the intrigue this year is that it could be Counsell’s last with the Brewers. His contract expires on Oct. 31, and he’s elected to defer any talks about an extension until after the Brewers’ season is over. Arnold and Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio have both made clear they want Counsell to stay, with Attanasio most recently broaching the topic in August.

Counsell, though, wants to wait. It’s created intense speculation about what is next, with national reports suggesting alternatively that he will manage elsewhere in 2023, perhaps following former Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns to his new post with the big-market Mets, or that Counsell won’t manage at all next year.

Arnold and Attanasio both said this week that they don’t know what Counsell will do.

“He’s at the pinnacle of all managers -- and probably the pinnacle of all front office people, managers, coaches,” Burnes said. “He’s going to be the guy that everyone wants.”

Including the Brewers.

“Of course we can’t imagine him not being here, but he’s got to decide,” Attanasio said. “He’s got two kids playing college baseball, he’s got two girls in high school playing sports. And he’s going to have a lot of teams at the end of the year who are interested in talking to him. He gets to decide.”

And Attanasio is OK with giving Counsell the space to choose what’s next.

“Nobody deserves it more,” Attanasio said amid this week’s division-clinch celebration. “We think it’s special here, and part of the reason it’s special here is him. And so, I’m going to try to keep it all together.”