If you subscribe to the notion that smart, analytically savvy front offices determine a team's success and the manager is little more than an appendage clad in cap and spikes, chances are you haven't spent much time following the National League West.
Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Dave Stewart pinpointed his team's biggest obstacle during Major League Baseball's GM meetings in November. "You know the challenge with beating the Giants?'' Stewart said. "It's Bruce Bochy. He's the key to that team. We would need him to be kidnapped and taken away someplace for us to have an opportunity.''
None of Stewart's peers would ever endorse team-on-skipper crime as a way of leveling the playing field. But they're almost universally in accord with his scouting report.
ESPN.com surveyed 50 scouts, front-office executives, big league coaches and media analysts and asked them to select the game's best managers in a multitude of categories. The overall winner: Bochy, whose three world championships in five seasons have put him on a Hall of Fame track and raised him above the crowd.
Given the rampant turnover in the profession -- four skippers have already been fired or resigned this season -- many managers are still settling into the job and need time to build their résumés. Paul Molitor has the Minnesota Twins playing unexpectedly well in his first year on the job, and Jeff Banister has made a big early impression in Texas. And Detroit's Brad Ausmus, Houston's A.J. Hinch and Tampa Bay's Kevin Cash are among the young managers with all the attributes to achieve long-term success.
But survey respondents clearly valued longevity, rings and the leadership qualities that prompt some teams to spend millions on a manager. Buck Showalter finished a close second behind Bochy, with Joe Maddon and Terry Francona on the next rung. Clint Hurdle, Bob Melvin and Mike Scioscia were among the other managers who ranked high in several departments, and Mike Matheny is on his way to cracking the upper echelon as he leads St. Louis toward a likely fourth consecutive postseason appearance. (Matheny might have ranked higher if much of the survey hadn't been done in April and May, before the Cardinals stood so far above the crowd as baseball's dominant team.)
Interestingly enough, former San Diego manager Bud Black also polled well in multiple categories before the Padres pulled the plug on him two weeks ago. He remains part of the voting even though he's no longer employed.
Here are the results of the survey, with the percentage breakdowns in each category:
A National League executive on Bochy: "His players play hard and buy into what's best for the team. He's a great strategist, and he's able to use young players and castoffs with confidence. He has a calm demeanor, but he knows when to create urgency and play the hot hand.''
An NL scout on Showalter: "He has his detractors, but he has the ability to create structure and discipline, as well as the intellect to put players in a position to succeed. What he has done in the AL East the past few years is impressive. I have him second because he knows how to win and has proven he can do it at every stop.''
An NL executive on Hurdle: "He's similar to Joe Maddon. A great communicator. He has adapted and uses his strong personality, but he is willing to borrow ideas from others. He's the perfect manager for the Pirates, as they've shown the patience to overcome their 21-year [postseason] drought and tried ahead-of-the-curve stuff from a strategic/analytics standpoint.''
An American League talent evaluator on Melvin: "He does a great job of putting it together [in Oakland], including dealing with the people above him. He works for Billy Beane, so I think he gets a lot of advice. You wonder what the hell they were thinking when they got rid of him in Arizona.''
An NL executive on Scioscia: "He had a lot of success early, and he hasn't had a lot of success since. I think guys find out that Los Angeles is a hard place to play, because if [Scioscia's] not signing off on you, you're not playing there. He has a lot of control. And when you've got that much control and you're not a playoff team and you're spending that kind of money, the bloom comes off the rose.''
An AL scout on Girardi: "I don't care what anybody says: It's hard to manage [in New York]. It's a zoo. You couldn't pay me enough to manage there. I don't know if he's a top-five manager. But Girardi doesn't get enough credit for the job he does.''
Sure, Bochy has had the luxury of working with such talented pitchers as Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum during his tenure with the Giants. But he rarely pulls a pitcher too early or stays with him too long, and he also knows when to back off during a long season. Several of Bochy's bullpen staples -- e.g. Santiago Casilla, Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez -- achieved more success in San Francisco than during any other career stops. And Bochy's signature decision, to let it ride with Bumgarner for five innings in Game 7 of the World Series, reflects his ability to go with his gut and make the right call on the biggest stage.
As several survey participants pointed out, Bochy has one of the best pitching coaches in baseball in Dave Righetti, who has played an enormous, and at times, unheralded role in the franchise's success.
"Santiago Casilla is no star, but he has a comfort zone with Bochy, and Bochy isn't afraid to use him,'' said one analyst. "A lot of people looked at Yusmeiro Petit and saw a 250-pound guy who wasn't exactly a finely tuned athlete. Bochy looked past that and saw a guy who could go once or twice around the lineup in long relief. You see lots of managers go left-right, left-right all year long, and you look up in September and everybody is shot. The best guys have a gut feel and they don't deplete their bullpens unnecessarily.''
Showalter is regarded as a master at running the bullpen, in part because of his farsightedness and restraint over a 162-game season. Like Jim Leyland, he's not afraid to lose a game today if it means keeping an important arm fresh for the long haul.
"Buck puts guys in situations where they can be successful. He won't put them in spots where they're over their heads,'' said Orioles closer Zach Britton. "And rarely do you warm up and not go into a game. I think that was kind of eye-opening for Andrew Miller and other guys who've come here from different organizations. It's not always the innings or the games; some managers make you warm up two or three or four times a day and not go in. If I'm a free agent [reliever] and I'm thinking about going somewhere, that's an important thing to think about, right?''
Joe Sheehan, a longtime baseball analyst and founding member of Baseball Prospectus, calls Showalter "the best X's and O's manager since Davey Johnson,'' and most survey respondents agreed.
Showalter's success stems in large part from his obsessive attention to detail. How many managers take the time to read the biographies of umpires or study up on their ball-strike calling tendencies before every game? Showalter is constantly thinking several innings or even days ahead, and if he makes a move that doesn't work, it won't be because he hasn't weighed all the ramifications beforehand.
"Buck understands that statistics have a role, but it's only a role,'' said an NL scout. "It's another tool for him -- like a stopwatch is for a scout.''
An NL exec who voted for Showalter as the best overall manager said: "You look at the Orioles' roster from 1 through 9 and it's not like you say, 'Oh my god, they're loaded with unbelievable talent.' Showalter never puts his team in a position to lose, and he massages a bullpen really well. Every time you play against Showalter, you're not going to just get by unless you're on your toes.''
Francona's ability to monitor the pulse of his clubhouse and keep the players engaged is a tribute to his personality and his priorities. He's a master at self-deprecation, and he rarely misses an opportunity to poke fun at himself for his lack of hair, or his prominent nose, or his 10-year playing career as one of the last guys off the bench. He takes his job very seriously. But he doesn't take himself too seriously, and his common touch resonates with his players.
"Communication with the players is [priority] No. 1, 2 and 3,'' Francona said during a spring training interview. "It can't all be about 3-2 hit-and-runs. Building the relationships is by far the most important thing. Players may not all be Ivy League guys, but they can tell when you genuinely have interest and when you're bulls----ing them. They're really good at it. You have to stay true to your personality. Because if you don't, they can see right through that.''
"Your stars are your stars,'' said an AL personnel exec. "What do you need to tell Evan Longoria -- go out and get three hits today and win the game for us? It's those five guys on the end of the bench who make the difference in the clubhouse. If they're griping and bitching about playing time and everything else, that kind of permeates the clubhouse. If you can figure out a way to keep them involved, you're doing a pretty good job."
National League managers typically stand out in this category because the absence of the DH affords so much more opportunity to use a bench. So Showalter's presence at the top of the list is a testament to his ability to get the most out of back-end-of-the-roster guys. Showalter has gotten a lot of mileage out of players like Robert Andino, Ryan Flaherty, Delmon Young, Steve Pearce and Jimmy Paredes in Baltimore in recent years.
In Oakland, Melvin does an adept job of implementing the organization's platoon-heavy philosophy and getting significant contributions from guys like Sam Fuld and Nick Punto. "He mixes and matches as good as anybody in the game,'' said an AL personnel man. "He's also consistent, and that means a lot to the players. When they come to the park, they know there's a pretty good chance that they're going to play. He doesn't throw any curveballs at them.''
The managers deemed best in this category had undistinguished playing résumés, to various degrees. Maddon never played above Class A ball, while Showalter topped out in Triple-A with the Yankees' organization. Bochy hit .239 over nine seasons as a backup catcher with San Diego, Houston and the Mets, while Melvin hit .233 as a reserve catcher for San Francisco, Boston and five other clubs. Hurdle broke in as a Sports Illustrated cover boy in Kansas City, but got a big dose of humble over 10 seasons as a backup player. They all know what it's like to be overlooked or an "extra'' guy.
Creativity can manifest itself in a lot of ways, and Maddon ran the gamut during his nine seasons in Tampa Bay.
He was into defensive shifts before they became common practice, and he wasn't afraid to go with two outfielders and five infielders in late-game situations. He took a page from the Don Zimmer playbook and made the safety squeeze a staple of his offense with runners on first and third, and bucked conventional wisdom by hitting Evan Longoria, Matt Joyce and Carlos Pena in the leadoff spot to help extricate them from slumps.
Maddon thought batting practice was overrated and conceived the idea of "American Legion week'' in late August. Players would arrive at the park a couple of hours before game time and just went out and played -- the same way they did in Legion ball.
His idea of a dress code was, "If you think you look hot, wear it.'' And the "theme road trip'' was a staple of his regime. The Rays and their spouses wore pajamas on one charter flight, and the players dressed up like Johnny Cash, the Beach Boys and Urban Cowboys during other trips.
On any given day, the Tampa players would walk into the clubhouse and find a merengue band, a pair of penguins or a 20-foot python in their midst to help lighten the mood. Lo and behold, when the Cubs pulled into New York this week with a five-game losing streak, Maddon invited Simon the magician into the clubhouse to help ease the emotional burden.
"Joe does some crazy stuff, but he enjoys himself,'' said an AL executive. "Win or lose, he mixes things up and makes it enjoyable for players to come to the park every day.''
An NL advance scout on Collins: "His teams always play hard, which is big for me. Even when they're bad, they play hard.''
An NL scout on Matheny: "He's so solid, and he's perfect with that club. He understands the Cardinals' philosophy very well, and he was never a great player, so he understands the importance of incorporating an entire roster into a season. Not just a game, but a season. The players know they can go to him and he'll keep the private stuff private. They're not going to read about it in the [media].''
An AL executive on Yost: "He's just so patient. He believes in those kids, and he kept putting them in the lineup even when everybody was doubting them. That's a really difficult thing for a manager to do, and it's kind of a selfless thing to do when he knows his job is on the line.''
Best at media relations
No, it's not the most important aspect of a manager's job. But it consumes a lot of time, and it's the primary vehicle through which a manager explains decisions and interacts with fans.
In this category, we surveyed a dozen national baseball writers and media personalities for their takes. The most valued attributes for managers included: accessibility, quotability, an even temperament, a thick skin, a sense of humor and the patience to explain in-game moves. Managers routinely have to strike a balance between candor and protecting their players, amid pressure from above not to share too much information with the press. It can be a delicate balancing act.
The following managers all received multiple mentions for their media-friendliness: Maddon, Showalter, Francona, Terry Collins, Fredi Gonzalez, Black, John Gibbons, Clint Hurdle, Bob Melvin and Don Mattingly. Others who received mentions: Lloyd McClendon, Robin Ventura, Bochy, Ausmus, Farrell and Hinch.
Mike Ferrin of SiriusXM radio on Maddon: "Some managers are great storytellers and they can fill up your recorder or notebook with tons of stories, but not all of them can take as deep a dive into baseball as Joe can. Whether it be analytics, player development strategies or sports psychology, he's really the best at giving you good stories and good information if you're willing to dig.''
Scott Miller of Bleacher Report on Gonzalez: "It's like talking baseball with your neighbor at the mailbox. No airs. He's engaging and curious about everything going on around him.''
Tyler Kepner of the New York Times on Toronto's John Gibbons: "He's the most down-to-earth guy in the business. He's happy-go-lucky, always makes time for you, and he's comfortable one-on-one. He gives good insights, and he's honest about his team and others. He's one of the few real 'characters' left in the manager's chair.''
USA Today's Bob Nightengale on Clint Hurdle: "It's like interviewing a motivational speaker. You walk away feeling better about yourself."
Miller on Don Mattingly: "Who doesn't love Donnie Baseball? Pure Hoosier, Midwestern nice.''
Kepner on Terry Collins: "He's engaging, energetic, personable, frank, and he always has time. He looks you in the eye, and I've never met anyone in baseball who uses first names as often as Terry does.''
John Perrotto of the Sports Xchange on Ausmus: "Much better in his second year. He has become more comfortable dealing with the media and has let his intellect and wit start coming through.''
Ferrin on McClendon: "I absolutely love Lloyd because: (1) You always know where you stand; and (2) he doesn't suffer fools. He can say more in six words than a lot of guys in 60 seconds. There's no bulls--- with him at all, and I find that admirable. He's gruff but still has a sentimentality. It kinda reminds me of his old boss in Detroit, Jim Leyland.''
The common denominator among these guys: As the tension mounts, they find a way to lower the temperature and remind the players that the world isn't about to end just because they lost a game today. Of course, it helps that the more established managers have a lot of money in the bank and don't have to deal with the daily speculation that they might be fired.
Hurdle is an interesting case. He has an outsized personality, and he's fond of homilies and inspirational sayings that he dispenses in a daily email missive. It's natural to wonder if he might wear out a clubhouse over time, but a veteran AL scout insists that he's genuine.
"There are people in life that you run into and you say, 'Oh my gosh: He's too much,'" the scout said. "I've heard people say that about Rex Hudler. But after a while you realize, 'That's him. That's legitimately him. He's not trying to be somebody else.' I think it's the same way with Clint. The people around him know that's the guy he really is.''