ORIOLES' SHOWALTER OUTPERFORMING EXPECTATIONS
Robin Ventura has had a terrific first half. He's dealt with injury and subpar performances from John Danks and Philip Humber. He's shown confidence in two different rookie closers. He's gotten great performances from veterans Jake Peavy and A.J. Pierzynski.
But the top American League manager of the first half has to be Baltimore's Buck Showalter. It's all about expectations. Playing in baseball's toughest division, the Orioles won just 69 games in 2011. Their big offseason move was trading staff ace Jeremy Guthrie for Jason Hammel, a guy with a lesser track record. Everyone picked the Orioles to finish last. Everyone.
Instead, they're 45-40 and tied for second place. They've hung in there despite three starters possessing an ERA over 5.00, despite a season-ending neck injury to Opening Day left fielder Nolan Reimold and another major injury to right fielder Nick Markakis. While Ventura at least has the ability to write down Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn and Pierzynski every day in the lineup (and now Kevin Youkilis), Showalter has had only Adam Jones as a consistently reliable bat in the lineup.
Seriously, run down that roster: Jake Arrieta is 3-9 with a 6.13 ERA; Brian Matusz is 5-10 with a 5.42 ERA; Tommy Hunter is 3-4 with a 6.11 ERA. How has Showalter helped the Orioles remain over .500? He's done a terrific job handling the bullpen. The Orioles lead the AL in bullpen ERA and Showalter has managed to keep his relievers pitching well without overusing any of them. The one thing a manager has most control over is the bullpen and that's where Showalter has shined.
Considering the White Sox were a respectable 79-83 in 2011, the Orioles' improvement is the bigger surprise. And isn't that who usually wins manager of the year honors?
David Schoenfield writes the SweetSpot blog for ESPN.com.
ROBIN HAS THE WHITE SOX ROCKING
Of the 50 ESPN baseball experts who predicted the 2012 season's divisional and wild-card winners, not one picked the Chicago White Sox. The American League Central was supposed to be an open-and-shut case. All 50 experts selected the Detroit Tigers to win the American League Central, and no other AL Central team was predicted to reach the playoffs.
Most 2012 record projections had the White Sox losing anywhere from 85 to 95 games. They were coming off a rocky 2011 season, which they finished 79-83. Everyone saw that they needed so many variables to go just right to be successful. They also lost a veteran manager and replaced him with someone who had no managerial experience.
But here we stand at the All-Star break with more than half of the season already played, and it's the White Sox, not the Tigers or anyone else, who lead the AL Central, and it's been that way most of the season.
Adam Dunn's, Alex Rios' and Jake Peavy's bounce-back seasons deserve credit for that. Veterans A.J. Pierzynski and Paul Konerko have continued to play at a high level. All the young pitchers -- including Chris Sale, Addison Reed, Jose Quintana, Nate Jones -- deserve credit, too.
But most of all, first-year manager Robin Ventura deserves props. As of right now, he should be the American League manager of the year because the White Sox have surpassed everyone's expectations.
What the White Sox have done would be remarkable for any manager, but especially for a rookie one. He may be a novice at managing, but he knows baseball and has brought a much-needed calm presence to the White Sox's clubhouse. He's the opposite of the often-opinionated and talkative Ozzie Guillen, and that appears to be exactly what the White Sox needed. It's all business with the team this season.
It's impossible to gauge whether the White Sox would be having this same success if Guillen were still the manager. Both sides can be argued, but the facts remain: The White Sox are nine games over .500, hold a three-game lead on the Cleveland Indians and a 3½-game lead on the Tigers, and will enter the second half of the season as the team everyone is chasing in the AL Central. That's all been accomplished with Ventura as their manager.