Major League Baseball reverted back to a 162-game regular season after the 60-game 2020 campaign, and managers had to find ways to keep their players fresh and healthy amid the increased workload, all while dealing with the usual challenges and responsibilities that come with running a big league ballclub.
Six skippers did a particularly strong job guiding their teams this season and were nominated as finalists for the American League and National League Manager of the Year Awards.
Here's a look at the case for each of the six candidates before the winners are announced Tuesday on MLB Network at 6 p.m. ET.
Dusty Baker, Astros
Baker, in his second year as the Astros' manager, led them to a 95-win season and their fourth AL West title in the past five years. He became the first manager in Major League history to win division titles with five different teams (Astros, Nationals, Reds, Cubs and Giants), and the division title was the eighth of his career.
The Astros were ravaged by injuries this year, losing ace pitcher Justin Verlander for the entire season following Tommy John surgery and missing third baseman Alex Bregman for 59 games with a strained quad. Starting pitchers José Urquidy, Jake Odorizzi, Lance McCullers Jr. and Zack Greinke also had IL stints.
Baker also provided a calming voice and even tone publicly for a team that was booed relentlessly on the road for the role some of the players had in the sign-stealing scandal of the 2017 season. Plus, the roster was constantly in flux -- players regularly went on and off the COVID IL, the Astros traded away their starting center fielder at the Trade Deadline and they acquired four relievers, overhauling the back end of the bullpen into a strength ahead of the playoffs.
Baker, who was National League Manager of the Year with the Giants in 1993, 1997 and 2000, has 1,987 wins, which are 12th most all-time. Ten of the 11 managers who have more wins are in the Hall of Fame. Baker has also managed the Giants (1993-2002), Cubs (2003-06), Reds (2008-13) and Nationals (2016-17). -- Brian McTaggart
Kevin Cash, Rays
Often, this award goes to the manager of a team that outperformed preseason expectations and projections. So the fact that Cash is a finalist again the year after winning the 2020 award speaks to both the challenges that the Rays face and how well he handles them.
By the middle of June, the Rays were without their top three starting pitchers from last year’s AL championship club: Charlie Morton (option declined), Blake Snell (traded) and Tyler Glasnow (injured). They spent nearly the entire season without their top returning reliever, Nick Anderson, and traded fellow high-leverage arm Diego Castillo prior to the Trade Deadline. They faced a litany of injuries on the pitching side, navigated through various offensive slumps by some of their best players and traded a key part of their clubhouse culture (shortstop Willy Adames) in late May.
None of it mattered. The Rays put together the best regular season in franchise history by winning 100 games and the rugged AL East division, and it is simply impossible to ignore the impact Cash and his coaching staff had in leading the club that finished the season with the AL’s best record.
Cash sets the tone by creating a positive, relaxed atmosphere that allows players to feel comfortable being themselves. He deftly manages a roster built on depth and flexibility more than star power, utilizing 61 players (including 38 pitchers) and 158 different batting orders throughout the season. He’s a skilled in-game manager, putting players in position to succeed and getting them to buy in on their roles (even if they aren’t always traditional) while sticking with them through the occasional slump.
As Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander put it: “Can’t imagine someone doing a better job than what he's done here.” Is there a stronger case than that? -- Adam Berry
Scott Servais, Mariners
What stood out most about Servais’ managing last season, beyond his status as the anchor of an incredibly loyal clubhouse, was his pitching management, especially with a revamped bullpen that emerged as one of the game’s best. Much of the relief corps’ credit goes to the Mariners’ front office for accumulating under-the-radar talent, but it was on Servais’ shoulders to effectively call on the right relievers in the most fitting situations. The Mariners only once used a reliever three days in a row.
Seattle opened the season with a six-man rotation to govern its young starters’ workloads, but the club quickly suffered significant injuries that forced Servais to deploy by-design bullpen games each turn through the rotation in May and June. And though the results of those games weren’t glowing, Servais navigated his relief staff without completely taxing it with overuse. And he was mostly working with a new-look group, one that transformed from the AL’s worst to the Majors’ fourth best by wins above replacement, per FanGraphs. Overseeing the bullpen effectively was a huge factor in the Mariners overcoming a minus-51 run differential to win 90 games.
Intangibly, Servais also weathered difficult off-the-field challenges that impacted the clubhouse, notably the resignation of team president and CEO Kevin Mather at the onset of Spring Training and the polarizing trade of clubhouse leader Kendall Graveman ahead of the Trade Deadline. One of the more endearing components of this Mariners team was its relentless determination to win in spite of those moments. -- Daniel Kramer
Craig Counsell, Brewers
Counsell’s imprint on the Brewers’ 95 victories was not limited to managing the pitching successfully while navigating the jump from 60 regular-season games in 2020 to 162 games in '21. The team employed a total of 61 players during the regular season, eight more than any other year in franchise history as the Brewers were forced to overcome an early-season spate of injuries that saw as many as 18 players on the injured list at one point in May, and a season-long funk for star outfielder Christian Yelich. The Brewers began their surge during the second half of that month, ultimately building a club-record 14-game lead over the rest of the division before holding off the second-place Cardinals, who won 17 games in a row late in the year and still finished five games back of Milwaukee in the NL Central.
“He's very capable and very skilled at using the players on his roster to the best of their ability to put together wins,” Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns said. “That's certainly been no different this year. We've had a few more guys filter through that clubhouse than we do in a normal year but the skills that Craig is using to help these guys and to put our team in the best position are the same skills he's used since he got the job here.”
A Brewers skipper has never been named BBWAA Manager of the Year, but Counsell is a perennial contender. After finishing fourth in the 2017 balloting, he has been a top-three finalist in ’18, ’19 and now in ’21. -- Adam McCalvy
Gabe Kapler, Giants
Kapler had big shoes to fill when he was hired to replace Bruce Bochy as the Giants’ manager in November 2019. The move wasn’t well received by Giants fans, but president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi defended the hire and made it clear that he was willing to put his own reputation on the line by making Kapler his choice to lead the club.
Two years later, it’s hard to argue with the results. After posting a 29-31 record in his first year at the helm, Kapler guided the 2021 Giants to a franchise-record 107 wins and their first National League West title since 2012 -- a remarkable feat considering they were forecasted to win 75 games at the outset of the season by Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections. -- Maria Guardado
Mike Shildt, Cardinals
Whereas Braves manager Brian Snitker received a trio of starting outfielders at the Trade Deadline for the Braves' ultimate turnaround and World Series run, Shildt received merely modest upgrades on the pitching side. What did he accomplish with that? Well, only the longest win streak in franchise history -- 17 games in September -- to vault St. Louis into the postseason, his third in as many years at the helm.
Though Shildt was dismissed after the Cardinals' NL Wild Card Game exit, he earned rave reviews from his clubhouse for having a firm grasp on the club's heartbeat and pressing the right buttons to keep the club from losing focus through its June pitfalls. What's more, the fact that the Cardinals had an MLB-record five Gold Glove Award winners is as much a testament to Shildt as any of the individual players, with his dedication to the details this past season as apparent as they've ever been in Cardinals history. -- Zachary Silver