Hurdle's defensive moves lead to award win

How do you evaluate a manager's performance? It's one aspect of baseball that sabermetrics hasn't figured out exactly how to tackle, in part because much of a manager's duties are the behind the scenes: keeping a positive clubhouse culture, keeping players happy, making sure everyone is on the same page, getting the most out of a rookie or a veteran in decline, or making sure the veterans aren't feeding too much fried food to the rookies.

When we discuss managers during the season, we focus for the most part on strategical decisions, batting orders and bullpen usage. But those things are maybe the least important aspect of a manager's job, because in this era most managers take the same approach to in-game managing. Teams carry so many pitchers that pinch-hitting and bench options are relatively limited and most managers don't abuse the bunt.

So the manager of the year balloting tends to throw all that out the window and instead come to an easier process: Which team surprised the most or improved the most?

Thus it was no surprise that Clint Hurdle of the Pirates was a landslide winner for National League Manager of the Year, outpolling Don Mattingly of the Dodgers and Fredi Gonzalez of the Braves. The Pirates improved from 79 to 94 wins, finishing over .500 and making the playoffs for the first time since 1992. Hurdle did a terrific job with the bullpen and then working rookie Gerrit Cole into the rotation, but maybe the most important move he made was buying into advanced defensive metrics.

The Pirates dramatically increased the number of defensive shifts they employed and improved from 24th to third in the majors in defensive runs saved (minus-25 to plus-68). The Pirates actually scored 17 fewer runs than in 2012; but they allowed 97 fewer -- almost the exact improvement in their DRS (93 runs). You can argue that the improvement came from Francisco Liriano and the pitching staff, but the strikeout and walk rates were basically the same as 2012 (they did allow fewer home runs). Most of the defensive improvement for the Pirates did come from the defense, and for that Hurdle deserves some of the credit.

Mike Matheny didn't finish in the top three, but I thought he deserved as much recognition as Mattingly and Gonzalez, both of whom showed in the postseason why they've come under some fire for some in-game decision-making. The Cardinals were expected to do well, but Matheny did a great job with a roster with so many rookies.

In the American League balloting, you could have made a good argument for any of the three finalists -- Terry Francona of the Indians, John Farrell of the Red Sox and Bob Melvin of the A's -- plus perennial contender Joe Maddon of the Rays and even Joe Girardi of the Yankees. Francona, who didn't receive a first-place vote the two seasons he led the Red Sox to World Series titles, edged out Farrell in first-place votes, 16 to 12.

I would have gone for Melvin, mostly because I thought he had to do the most managing -- the A’s platooned more than any other AL club, he had to work through the early loss of Opening Day starter Brett Anderson and a drop in production from Yoenis Cespedes. But Francona is a deserving winner, as Farrell would have been.