The two managers who each guided a team to the best record in its respective league won the Manager of the Year honors presented by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America on MLB Network on Tuesday night.
But of course, it’s not that simple.
Kevin Cash became just the second skipper in history to win this honor in consecutive years by leading a 100-win Rays team that had only a fraction of the pitching staff that had helped Tampa Bay claim the American League pennant in 2020. And Gabe Kapler earned the National League honor by taking a Giants team that virtually nobody picked to reach October and leading it to the highest win total (107) in franchise history.
So Cash, who received 19 of a possible 30 first-place votes in balloting that took place at the conclusion of the regular season, and Kapler, who received 28, both did this the hard way.
“Pretty rewarding,” said Cash, who beat out fellow finalists Scott Servais of the Mariners (second place, five first-place votes) and Dusty Baker of the Astros (third place, two first-place votes), as well as two others receiving first-place votes in the Blue Jays’ Charlie Montoyo (three) and Boston’s Alex Cora (one).
Said Kapler: “Obviously, even though these awards and acknowledgements are absolutely organizational awards and there are so many contributors -- including our excellent coaching staff, our front office, our travel team, our clubhouse staff, everyone -- it certainly feels good to be recognized for good work.”
Kapler was widely expected to win this award, and he finished ahead of second-place finalist Craig Counsell, who guided the Brewers to the NL Central title, and third-place finalist Mike Shildt, who took the Cardinals to the NL Wild Card Game before being relieved of his duties. Counsell and Shildt received one first-place vote apiece. Brian Snitker of the World Series champion Braves finished fourth.
What was not expected, at the beginning of the season, was for Kapler’s Giants to be in contention. They were projected to win just 75 games by Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system and given just a 5.7% chance of reaching the playoffs by FanGraphs’ forecast. Instead, they wound up with their best winning percentage (.660) since 1913.
Kapler characterized the 2021 Giants as a selfless squad that fed off the desire of veteran players like Brandon Crawford, Evan Longoria, Brandon Belt, Kevin Gausman and the recently retired Buster Posey.
“Those guys set the tone [in Spring Training] and said, ‘We want to win the National League West; we have no interest in trying to sneak into the postseason via the Wild Card,’” Kapler said. “At that point, I felt we had the right kind of winning, unselfish mindset. I think we just started to support it at that point and throw all our resources behind supporting that vision that those guys had.”
Though it would be a different story in the NL Division Series, San Francisco ended the Dodgers’ dominant run of eight straight NL West titles. It was the Giants’ first division crown since 2012, and it was in large measure a testament to Kapler’s management of the oldest position-player group in MLB and a pitching staff that, as a product of injury and design, required a lot of mixing and matching.
After a brief and unfulfilling two-year tenure in Philadelphia, Kapler was not a popular pick to succeed the esteemed Bruce Bochy, who had guided the Giants to three World Series titles, in this role. But in winning this award, Kapler has done something even Bochy did not do. Prior to Kapler, the only person to win Manager of the Year with the Giants was Baker, in 1993, ‘97 and 2000.
And in a fun twist, it was the legendary Bochy himself who announced Kapler as the winner on the MLB Network broadcast. Kapler said that meant a lot to him.
“Coming to San Francisco, where Bruce Bochy is deservedly acknowledged as a star manager and somebody this city respects at the highest possible level, it’s impossible to fill Bruce Bochy’s shoes,” Kapler said. “My goal is to … create an environment for players to grow and develop and for staff members to grow and develop. Those things are happening as my main focus, rather than what is truly impossible -- to replace somebody as successful as Bruce.”
Cash’s award win was a bit more surprising, given that back-to-back winners are so unusual. The only other manager to do it was Hall of Famer Bobby Cox, in 2004 and ’05 with the Braves.
“As far as being in the same sentence or paragraph or statement as Bobby Cox, that’s wrong, I shouldn’t be,” Cash said. “But saying that, it’s incredibly humbling. When you think about greats in our game, Bobby Cox is right there. To be able to share something really small with him is really special.”
Typically, the Manager of the Year Award goes to a skipper whose squad exceeds expectations, and so a reigning pennant-winner like Tampa Bay is not necessarily fertile ground for such recognition.
But Cash’s club experienced the notable offseason departures of Blake Snell and Charlie Morton, as well as the in-season loss of ace Tyler Glasnow. With a predominantly young and unproven rotation, a revolving door in the bullpen and a midseason change in shortstops (Willy Adames was traded to the Brewers in May, and top prospect Wander Franco arrived about a month later), the Rays nabbed the AL’s top seed with the first 100-win season in franchise history.
Cash’s roster utilized 61 different players and 158 different batting orders, but the constants through it all were his relaxed demeanor and communication skills.
“We make it work,” Cash said, emphasizing the “we” in that sentence. “It’s a tremendous staff that I have the opportunity of working with on a daily basis. Tremendous front office and tremendous player development. It speaks volumes that two of our players were on the show last night in Randy [Arozarena, the 2021 AL Rookie of the Year] and Wander.
“[There's] more coming, and more to be excited about. But ultimately, it comes down to the players and their mentality. We can scout athleticism and talent, but we’re also scouting people to bridge that gap and contribute to what we’re trying to accomplish here.”
Like Joe Maddon before him (2008 and 2011), Cash is a two-time winner of this award with the Rays because of his ability to maximize the capabilities of a cost-conscious club in a notoriously difficult division.
“It was pretty remarkable, what these guys accomplished this season,” Cash said, “with our division and the amount of quality and the way these pitchers came up and posted on a nightly basis for us.”