At the start of each baseball season "hope springs eternal," and the realities of a grueling 162-game schedule are still just hypothetical. It's when they materialize that managers have to navigate choppy waters to achieve the goals set out in Spring Training. At the end of each season, we look back and see teams that surprised and teams that overcame a rash of injuries or other adversity to reach the postseason in the face of long odds.
The 2019 season was no exception, and from guiding a team with a record number of injuries to within two victories of the World Series, to losing the reigning league MVP at the most critical juncture of the season and still reaching the playoffs, the finalists for the American League and National League Manager of the Year Awards each have a strong case. Here's a look at each one heading into the announcement of the winners tonight at 6 ET on MLB Network.
Aaron Boone, Yankees
Boone became the first manager in history to guide a club to 100 victories in each of his first two seasons, with his Yankees overcoming a Major League-record 30 players on the injured list (39 stints) to secure 103 wins and the franchise’s first American League East title since 2012. His 203 career managerial wins trail only Ralph Houk (205) for the most by any manager over his first two seasons. One of the skipper’s arguments with a home-plate umpire, during which he declared that his players are “savages in the box,” became a rallying cry for the season. -- Bryan Hoch
Kevin Cash, Rays
There are a lot of deserving managers in the AL, but nobody did more with less than Kevin Cash. The Rays battled injuries all season, including to three of their five starting pitchers. Tampa Bay loves to do creative things in order to gain an advantage, and Cash wasn’t afraid to think outside the box throughout all the injuries. The Rays used a franchise-record 57 players and 33 pitchers in 2019, but the clubhouse never lost a beat, which is a credit to Cash’s leadership. Cash is a finalist for the second consecutive season, and while Minnesota's Rocco Baldelli is deserving as a first-year manager, and Aaron Boone dealt with similar injuries, Cash led his club to 96 wins despite the Rays starting the season with the lowest payroll in the Majors. -- Juan Toribio
Rocco Baldelli, Twins
Let’s first state the obvious: Baldelli guided what had been a 78-win team in 2018 to 101 victories in ‘19, a surge that pushed Minnesota to an AL Central championship and an appearance in the Division Series for the first time since 2010. He was the seventh rookie manager in Major League history to win at least 100 games, and despite his relative inexperience, Baldelli made meaningful adjustments to the Twins’ operations that contributed directly to that success.
Baldelli maintained an intense focus on rest and recovery, giving his players a plethora of short days at the stadium and carefully distributing the workload in his bullpen and catchers in particular. As a result, in September, Twins relievers said they had never before felt so fresh that late in the season, while catcher Mitch Garver broke out with a historic Silver Slugger Award-winning campaign despite -- or maybe due to -- making only 73 starts behind the plate.
Baldelli blended everything the Twins could have asked for from a young manager -- analytics, reasoned decision-making, strong clubhouse culture, educated player usage, empowered players and coaches -- and showed it all off in an impressive first season at the helm. -- Do-Hyoung Park
Brian Snitker, Braves
Following a surprise season, the Braves once again silenced their doubters en route to a second straight NL East title. Picked by many to finish third or fourth, Atlanta overcame a slow start, began rolling near the middle of May and never relinquished sole possession of first place after gaining it on June 12. Snitker’s club won 11 of the last 16 games played against the division-rival Nationals, who ultimately won the World Series.
One of Snitker’s key decisions was to amend his decision to move Ronald Acuña Jr. back to the leadoff spot on May 10. His decision to initially put Acuña in the cleanup spot was influenced by Josh Donaldson’s desire to bat second. Snitker’s ability to quickly develop a strong bond with Donaldson influenced the veteran third baseman’s willingness to move to the cleanup spot, where he thrived and re-established himself as one of the game’s top players.
Snitker guided the Braves to 97 wins despite using five closers during this past season. After the Braves acquired Mark Melancon and Shane Greene on July 31, he quickly flip-flopped their initial roles, allowing Melancon to create much-needed stability in the closer role.
Snitker would join his mentor Bobby Cox (2004 and ’05) as the only Braves managers to win consecutive Manager of the Year Awards. -- Mark Bowman
Craig Counsell, Brewers
Manager of the Year Awards sometimes feel like “manager of the most surprising team” awards, but not this year, when all three candidates helmed teams with high expectations. Counsell emerged with a case similar to last year's, when he finished runner-up to Brian Snitker in this category after the Brewers won 19 of their final 25 regular season games to take the NL Central, thanks in no small part to Counsell’s deft handling of an expanded pitching staff.
In 2019, Counsell and the Brewers did it again -- this time despite down years for core hitters like Lorenzo Cain, Travis Shaw and Jesus Aguilar, and losing MVP candidate Christian Yelich to a season-ending knee injury with about three weeks to go. The Brewers won 21 of their final 28 games beginning in Chicago on Aug. 31, when Counsell approached his starter that day, Zach Davies, and told him he intended to manage like it was the postseason.
“He told me, ‘Don’t leave anything out there. Don’t save anything,’” Davies said.
Counsell managed the pitching that way the rest of the year. A pitching staff that ranked 12th in the NL through the end of August was best in baseball in September with a 3.01 ERA, thanks to an all-hands-on-deck strategy. The Brewers’ postseason odds were about six percent on the morning of Sept. 7, but they climbed back into contention by winning 18 of their next 20 games and surging into the postseason for the second straight year, something the franchise hadn’t done since 1981-82, when Counsell was a kid in the stands at County Stadium. -- Adam McCalvy
Mike Shildt, Cardinals
Since Shildt took over as the interim manager on July 15, 2018, the Cardinals are 132-99. In his first full year at the helm, St. Louis reclaimed the NL Central title for the first time since 2015, along the way all but knocking out the Cubs with a four-game sweep at Wrigley Field in late September, the first time the Cardinals had done that since 1921.
Shildt’s first goal this season, back in Spring Training, was to make the defense better. The result: The Cardinals became the first Major League team in history to go from the worst defense (133 errors) to the best (66 errors) in back-to-back seasons. Baserunning went through a similar makeover.
Shildt managed an offense that did not meet its expectations -- it ranked in the bottom 10 in average (.245) and slugging (.415) -- to a division title. He managed a bullpen that lost closer Jordan Hicks in the middle of the season, and never had former top prospect Alex Reyes, turning to former starter Carlos Martínez and unearthed a slew of young talent that made the relief corps one of the most efficient in the Majors -- it ranked fifth in ERA (3.82) and first in saves (52). -- Anne Rogers