It’s official: Kirk Gibson has won the National League Manager of the Year award. He beat out third-place three-time winner Tony LaRussa, who earned a more exciting piece of hardware anyway, and second-place Ron Roenicke, a fellow freshman skipper who piloted the former Pilots to the post season. What narrative should we choose to enter into the annals of history alongside Gibson’s first full season of managing?
The obvious storyline comes from the Diamondbacks worst-to-first move under his stewardship. But upper management had a lot to do with the resurgence as well. Zach Duke, Juan Miranda, Henry Blanco, Melvin Mora, Joe Paterson, Russell Branyan, David Hernandez were brought on board, and really only Mark Reynolds and Adam LaRoche left town. Well, looking at that list, maybe the manager did have a lot to do with the turnaround?
Or maybe there’s a name missing from the list above, on purpose. J.J. Putz was also signed to help shore up the bullpen. It might seem a little much to point to a near-two-win player as an important reason for such a turnaround, but the Diamondbacks bullpen was the worst in the major leagues in 2010. By a long shot. Their 5.74 ERA was a full run worse than the Cubs, and their 5.09 FIP was a half-run worse than the Red Sox, who play in a more difficult league. They were worth a whopping -2.1 wins ‘above’ replacement.
Along with Hernandez and in-season acquisition Brad Ziegler, Putz helped make the Arizona pen much better in 2011. Their ERA and FIP were both in the middle of the pack, and that’s quite the one year turnaround. In fact, since they managed 3.4 WAR, they helped explain 5.5 wins of the turnaround. 23.5 more wins to explain.
Internal replacements helped make a difference, too. The team’s starters managed 9.6 WAR in 2010, and that number jumped to 12.5 in 2011. Newcomer Josh Collmenter was worth two of those wins, and Ian Kennedy improved 2.5 wins from 2010 to 2011. What you have there is a little natural improvement in younger players. It’s up to debate if all those gains will hold, particularly with the funky Collmenter, but their 2011 seasons are in the books. Twenty more wins to explain.
The 2010 Diamondback position players were worth 28.2 WAR. This year, they managed 31.5 WAR. Some of that came on the back, once again, of some young players improving as they moved into their peak years. Justin Upton, Miguel Montero and Chris Young went from 9.4 wins to 15.3 and made up for some of the missing work from Kelly Johnson, Stephen Drew, and Mark Reynolds.
The Diamondbacks went 28-16 in one-run games in 2011. That was on par with the Phillies (28-19) and Brewers (30-18), and was a large part of the team’s success. It’s also a great turnaround from their 19-23 record in 2010, which was on par with the cellar-dwelling Pirates (20-24) and Nationals (20-28). The bullpen has a lot to do with this, as does luck.
How about that luck as a storyline? Arizona was probably not as bad as they appeared in 2010. Their pythagorean record was 68-94 that year, slightly better than their real-life 65-97. They might not have been as good as they appeared in 2011. Their pythagorean record last season was 89-73 compared to their real-life 94-68. There go another eight wins? Still a lot of unexplained work left.
Still, this analysis has brought us to about eight wins unaccounted for. A simple perusal of manager salaries will confirm that no manager is worth eight wins. How many we can give Gibson exactly is a matter of ongoing debate, but we can point to the things that he did directly have a hand in.
It’s clear that Gibson was a strong hire for the Diamondbacks. Upon being given the role as a full-time manager, he instituted new rules for the clubhouse. During last year’s winter meetings, he said it was time for the team to act like professionals and that there would be no video games in the clubhouse. His no-nonsense approach might have helped the young team act more professional.
Gibson also took a team that bunted less than any team in the NL in 2009 to a team… that bunted less than any team in the NL in 2011. The 2009 Diamondbacks issued the second-fewest intentional walks in the NL and his team the fewest in the league. His starters went 6.19 innings per start, the 2009 starters went 5.96. His relievers went .94 innings per appearance, the 2009 relievers went .99 innings each time out. Maybe he made some incremental improvements here, or maybe he just continued to implement the team’s philosophies in those matters.
We still aren’t sure exactly how much credit we can give Gibson for his work. We aren’t even sure how to dole out the team’s improvement among the players on the field. But the players, and Gibson, deserve accolades for their improvement. Congratulations to the entire Diamondbacks organization for this award. That’s the story worth sticking to.
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