What’s a baseball manager worth?
It’s not an easy question to answer.
They don’t navigate intricate schemes the way football coaches do. They don’t have the ego-management duties of basketball coaches, who have to make sure the ball is properly shared.
It’s likely that many of the most heralded managers in MLB history would have been forgotten had their rosters been short on talent. But here’s what I know: Scott Servais is doing something right.
The Seattle Mariners skipper has been a rock for a team expected to do little, if anything, this year. He has been the backbone of a squad dismissed before the season began and doubted all along the way. This was supposed to be Year 3 of the “step back” – another 162-game formality before the prospects prosper and the real competition begins. But we’re 80 percent through the 2021 slate, and the M’s are still contending.
It’s almost impossible to know who the best manager in the big leagues is. But assuming the Mariners keep this pace, it would be shocking if Servais doesn’t get American League Manager of the Year votes. Shoot, he might be the favorite to win it. If exceeding expectations is the criteria – who has done it better?
Long-suffering Mariners fans probably thought they were going to fold in the middle of May when they dropped to five games under .500. Given their talent level, staging a postseason run seemed damn near impossible. But now they’re 69-58 and three games back of the Red Sox in the AL wild-card race. Fangraphs.com still gives them just a 4.1 percent chance to make the playoffs. But do people watching this team still think its hopes are that remote?
Perhaps the most important component of an MLB manager’s job is to maintain morale when things seem most tenuous. This can be during a game or in the midst of a losing streak. This season might very well be the 20th in a row in which the Mariners miss the playoffs. But one thing you can’t say is that they ever gave up.
For starters, there are the one-run wins. The Mariners are 25-14 in games decided by one run this season. Some might call that luck. Maybe it is. Even Servais said that every team that has made the playoffs or won the World Series has had good fortune on their side. But for them to repeatedly pull out the close ones has to say something about team confidence.
That’s equally reflected in their 11-4 record in extra-inning games. This season, in many ways, has been defined by comebacks and walk-offs. Do you credit a manager for that directly? Probably not. But it’s hard to question this team’s belief.
Second, there’s been the in-season bounce-backs. A few situations stand out.
In May, the M’s were 21-26 after having lost six in a row. It seemed reminiscent of the 2019 season, when they started 13-2 and ended up 68-94. But the response this year was entirely different. After the aforementioned losing streak, they ended up winning six of their next seven to climb back over .500. By the All-Star break, they were 48-43.
Even so, there have been times where it seemed the pixie dust was eventually going to wash off. For instance, the Kendall Graveman trade. Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto sending the team’s closer to Houston caused demonstrable tension in the clubhouse. The M’s lost their next two games – including an 11-4 bashing – and seemed destined for irrelevance. Not so. They have been three games over .500 since that two-game skid.
There were also the two humiliations at the hands of the Astros last week. First, a 12-3 loss Friday. Then, a 15-1 defeat the next day. It is games like these that have the given the Mariners an astonishing minus-56 run differential despite their record. Their response? Three straight wins.
As my colleague, Larry Stone, wrote Tuesday, this team isn’t going anywhere. You can scoff at what seems to be lackluster talent (Ty France has the Mariners’ highest WAR at 3.1, whereas every other team in the AL West has a player with a WAR of at least 4.2), but they have found ways to win.
Surely Servais deserves some credit, no?
Baseball is one of the hardest sports to predict a team’s success. The best teams win 60 percent of the time, the worst 40. There are infinite variables that go into winning or losing.
But if this keeps up, it’s tough to say anyone has done a better job managing than Scott Servais this year. He deserves his due recognition.