Kirk Gibson, NL Manager of the Year

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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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.


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Greg H
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Greg H
4 years 7 months ago

I’m going with good luck to solve the Mystery of the Hidden WAR. When the D-Backs fall back to earth in 2012, just like their alter ego the San Diego Padres did in 2011, Kirk Gibson will cease being a genius.

I do think Gibson is great, however. I appreciate his disdain for the sacrifice bunt and the intentional walk. I think Gibson’s managerial philosophy is heavily influenced by Sparky Anderson and Tommy Lasorda. Gibson plays for the big inning and relies on his bullpen the way Anderson did, eschews the intentional walk and the sacrifice bunt, but values aggressive baserunning (also like Sparky). But he seems to integrate his bench similar to the way Lasorda did. Anderson and Lasorda are pretty good models to emulate.

Detroit Michael
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Detroit Michael
4 years 7 months ago

Sparky Anderson tended to issue a lot of intentional walks, if I recall correctly.

Greg H
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Greg H
4 years 7 months ago

He generally issued intentional walks to exploit the platoon advantage. He generally used them late in the game, so his bullpen issued a lot more intentional walks than his starters. He made comments to reporters about how he hated issuing intentional walks, because he knew the possible consequences of putting another runner on base. But Sparky hated pitchers more, and never trusted them to pitch around hitters.

Jim McLennan
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4 years 7 months ago

Of course, the Padres’ collapse this year was all “luck”. Absolutely nothing to do with them trading *easily* their best player to the Red Sox…

The Giants were even “luckier” than the D-backs this year, getting outscored by the opposition. If that happens again next year, they’ll probably be below .500.

Moneyfire
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Moneyfire
4 years 7 months ago

Perhaps this can be explained to me, is it totally unreasonable to look at the Upton/Montero/Young improvement and attribute it partly to Gibson? Granted some of their improvement should be attributed to improvements based solely on age and experience but at the same time shouldn’t we also be seeing (or at least tolerating the notion that) the managerial improvement that Gibson may bring in the players’ WAR as well?

Greg H
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Greg H
4 years 7 months ago

I’m not buying into that. All three players are progressing the way one would expect given their age and experience. Upton is 24, and Young and Montero are 28.

Upton had arguably a better year in 2009 before Gibson became the manager. Upton’s defense and baserunning were much poorer in 2011 than in 2009. Chris Young had a slightly worse season than in 2010, and Montero was very good in 2009 – every bit as good as in 2011. Montero’s 2010 off year was marred by a knee injury that required surgery.

Jon L.
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Jon L.
4 years 7 months ago

Moneyfire: I’m not sure anyone on this site knows more about your question than anyone else.

dudley
Member
Member
dudley
4 years 7 months ago

I’m no huge Gibson fan, but I’m not sure your methodology is sound. If you reduce everything to 1) increased WAR + 2) “luck,” I’m not sure there will ever be any space left over for managerial effects.

Isn’t it possible that the coaching staff helped coax some of the increased WAR out of their players, particularly the pitchers, by handling them properly and putting them in situations that played to their strengths? Isn’t it also possible that at least some of the success in one-run games was attributable to good managerial moves?

Again, I don’t think Gibson’s a very good tactician, but I also don’t think you necessarily made your case using these tools.

TSF
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TSF
4 years 7 months ago

The 2011 Padres, Giants and ultimately Rockies were dramatically weaker than the 2010 clubs that thrashed the Diamondbacks. The Diamondbacks improved tremendously, but at least a few of those wins had to come from regression by the other teams.

Anon
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Anon
4 years 7 months ago

Gibson CLEARLY decided his team needed to be more aggressive than they had been. Almost across the board, DBacks’ hitters had lower K% and BB% than they had as Gibson had them swinging earlier in the count. The DBacks were among the most aggressive teams in the league on the basepaths. Also, I don’t know of any way to look up swings, but the DBacks put the most balls in play on 3-0 counts this year (and flat raked on them BTW).

We can debate whether that’s good but it seems obvious that he was pressing the gas pedal

CircleChange11
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CircleChange11
4 years 7 months ago

GM Josh Towers, SD in 10, ARZ in 11, deserves a lot of credit as well. We tend to think of bullpens as a crapshoot, but here’s a GM that had good turnaround season in consecutive years by repairing the bullpen.

ARZ also took a lot of flack for getting rid of high K players.

Colleen
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Colleen
4 years 7 months ago

I refuse to believe the 2010 Arizona bullpen was only -2.1 WAR. I don’t care what the numbers say. I watched that team. I know how many games the bullpen blew. It just seems impossible to me that this year’s bullpen is only 5.5 games better. I understand the math, but….. seriously? I don’t know the exact 2011 bullpen ERA, but it has to be over 1 run less. That has to be worth more than 5.5 wins, right??? Sorry, I normally trust math, but… if you saw the 2010 bullpen vs the 2011 bullpen you’d find it hard to believe it was only worth a 5.5 game turnaround. Middle of the league never felt so good.

Antonio Bananas
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Antonio Bananas
4 years 7 months ago

I know this is fangraphs and “lol @ emotions and feelings” but are there any studies that show an improved bullpen helping out starters? I just have a feeling (lol feelings, this is fangraphs) that if you know that if you get in trouble in the 6th, you have guys to bail you out, you may pitch better. Also, obviously, the manager will pull you instead of allowing you to give up a 3 run jack or something awful.

Also, I’ve heard that “an out is an out” is generally preached by Saberists (if I’m wrong and it’s changed please tell me), but isn’t a strikeout a lot less productive? So getting rid of Reynolds could have helped. If you have 2 guys with identical averages and obp and slugging, but when one gets out, he flies out most of the time and the other strikes out, it’s entirely conceivable that the guy who flies out a lot would advance more runners and thus, increase the chance of scoring. Especially if you’re comparing him to a guy like Reynolds.

All that said, how many more wins did the D’Backs have against the pocket-without-a-posey Giants and the back to earth and without Adrian Gonzalez Padres? Or even the “Ubaldo isn’t Bob Gibson” Rockies?

My guess is the extra wins is partly the bullpen meaning the pitchers are better used (and maturing), partly the young offensive core growing up, partly Gibson’s magic, and partly the rest of the West getting worse.

Antonio Bananas
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Antonio Bananas
4 years 7 months ago

I forgot, likewise with the good bullpen, can a bad bullpen hurt SP. Let’s say a starter is left in 20 more pitches a game because the pen sucks. Over the course of the season, he’s going to suck more too isn’t he?

gus
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gus
4 years 7 months ago

One of the things I think people underestimate as a contribution of managers to teams is continuity (I realize there’s circularity in this argument). Perhaps a perpetuity of a style of play with an emphasis on certain (likely overlapping) elements of the game (you play only your regulars or you platoon a lot, say) and a lack of video games in the clubhouse ARE what managers do. I totally agree with you, Eno, that this probably does not make a huge difference in single year performance, and a steady thoughtful manager probably doesn’t directly account for a lot of wins or losses (and when they do they probably get fired), but strong organizations (whether baseball or otherwise) maintain internal consistency through coaching (and the front office, who should be considered attached to management in many respects), and we assume they do so for a reason. Thus I think an annual award for best manager is not appropriate if one of the important skills of a manager is to guide a team through personnel changes, through seasons of loss, and fatigue. Those are facets of the job that may be encountered both within and among years.

Husker
Guest
Husker
4 years 7 months ago

There is, as of yet, no way to measure the contribution of the manager to the team’s success, and there may never be, but Gibson was still a good choice. Outlawing video games in the clubhouse would put him on my ballot.

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