By Faraz T. Toor
Seriously, he deserved more love than two first-place ballots in the voting for American League Manager of the Year.
Jeff Banister and A.J. Hinch, the top two vote-getters, respectively, had managerial seasons this year that merited praise, but no AL team was a more improbable winner than Molitor’s Minnesota Twins.
Aside from simply lacking star power, the Twins were average or below average in almost every phase. They were last in the league in on-base percentage (.305), posted a .399 slugging percentage, and only hit 156 home runs. Minnesota was eighth in the AL in runs scored, but Molitor had to put out a seriously pedestrian lineup every day; only one of his regular hitters, Miguel Sano, recorded an OPS+ above 105.
Molitor barely had any better pitchers to command. The Twins’ ERA+ somehow came out to 102, but that staff sported a canvas of blemishes. Glen Perkins’ ERA ballooned over two runs after the All-Star break, Ervin Santana missed half of the season due to his performance-enhancing drug suspension, and most of Molitor’s starters had Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) around 4. Pair that with a defense that was middle-of-the-pack, with a -0.2 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), and it’s a wonder that Minnesota only had a -4 run differential.
Yet despite all these inhibitors, the Hall-of-Famer kept his team in a postseason race until the penultimate day of the season, along a path riddled with obstacles. The AL Wild Card race was far more packed than the National league one. Perhaps the only contending club that wielded less talent than the Twins was the Tampa Bay Rays. Every other team was more primed to win.
But Minnesota finished ahead of all but three of these teams. That degree of difficulty was exceptionally high. It’s not improbable for a manager to have his team ride a hot streak through the first month or two of a season; luck can drive a team through the early parts of the year.
But a club’s talent or lack of it will usually hinder it once there is a significant sample size. Pitchers see the hot hitters enough to see their strike zone holes, hitters figure out the pitchers’ location tendencies—a team usually can’t ride good fortune until September.
So the Twins rode Molitor instead. They never were more than five games under .500 and didn’t have a losing streak longer than five. Molitor has his club constantly towards the top of the AL Wild Card standings despite contending with clubs that he knew would amp up as the season progressed.
Minnesota General Manager Terry Ryan didn’t make one or two big splash moves to embolden his team and give it a major peg on which to rely, like Toronto Blue Jays’ GM Alex Anthopoulos did with the David Price and Troy Tulowitzki trades. Ryan didn’t even pull off a string of trades to address the club’s struggles, like Sandy Alderson did with the New York Mets. The only enforcements the front office bequeathed Molitor were call-ups Sano and Byron Buxton, and Buxton missed games and didn’t even play well while he was around.
Yet, Minnesota went from a last place or next-to-last place team in the previous four years to one that was second to the eventual World Series champions, the Kansas City Royals.
Some probably argue that Molitor did not do a good enough job, because they finished 12 games back of the Royals in the AL Central, but there’s no legitimate reason to depreciate a great season by a manager just because he couldn’t get his team to catch a much more talented ball club. A manager does not need his team to finish in first place to win the award; it’s more about a skipper excelling with what he is provided.
That’s why the best team’s manager doesn’t win the award every year. Voters and fans have already created the precedent and dialogue that the award winner should be the manager who did the best in difficult circumstances, or most exceeded expectations. Molitor’s Twins did that, as they blew past expectations more than any other team; prior to the season, many analysts predicted they would have one of the worst records in the league.
Not even Banister or Hinch surged past expectations as well as Molitor did in 2015. The Texas Rangers seemed to be an improbable story, but it’s not a surprise that they were this good in 2015. Injuries decimated what was a strong Rangers’ roster last year. Prince Fielder, Shin-Soo Choo, Derek Holland, and Yu Darvish were just some of the major names who spent time on the disabled list for a team that had more than 60 players on its roster over the course of the 2014 season.
Sure, the Rangers were not healthy in 2015 either, so give Banister credit for that, but they were much closer to complete—closer to the team that many experts predicted to win the AL West the previous year. Should Texas have been good enough to win the division this year based on preseason or in-season predictions? No, but it had the roster at the start of the season to compete for a wild card berth.
Hinch’s job as the Houston Astros’ manager may have been more stunning than Banister’s. The Astros were ahead of schedule this season, as they still have prospects in the pipeline like Mark Appel, Michael Feliz, and Colin Moran. Houston’s payback year for its bottom-of-MLB finishes was supposed to be 2016 or later.
But the Astros also had more talent at the start of the year than for which people gave them credit. They were going to score thanks to all the home run talent they had since opening day—Evan Gattis and Chris Carter, to name a few Astros who had established themselves as mashers before 2015.
Instead, Houston exceeded expectations thanks to its strong pitching. Point to Hinch there, although you would have to give an assist to GM Jeff Luhnow for calling up Lance McCullers. But Hinch did not have to utilize devoid of stars.
So the AL team that made the most with the least? Molitor’s Twins. The AL team that was most ahead of schedule? Molitor’s Twins. The AL team that won the most games ahead of projections? Yep, Molitor’s Twins. Where’s the love for that?