A few days before the season’s mathematical halfway point seemed like an appropriate time to take a look at the five rookie managers, a group linked by the growing emphasis on nurturing player relationships and analytical decision-making.
The results, so far, have been mostly positive, with the Mets’ Mickey Callaway the lone exception, as Flushing braces for another sell-off this season. The four others — Aaron Boone (Yankees), Dave Martinez (Nationals), Alex Cora (Red Sox) and Gabe Kapler (Phillies) — are piloting teams that are all in position to either win their division or claim a wild-card spot.
Of course, three of those teams were in the playoffs a year ago, with only the Yankees advancing past the first round, so the pressure to perform in some places was there from the outset. Though it’s always been difficult to determine precisely how much a manager affects on-field performance, in this era of increased front-office interloping — based on the game’s data explosion — the line separating the two has become even more blurred.
These days, the manager is more like an executive-in-uniform, but also has to have a soft touch with the players, along with the ability to plug them into the best spots to succeed. They’re more protective than ever, and often more placid, at least when it comes to the media spotlight. The front offices want a cooler, predictable hand on the wheel — in addition to winning — and that’s what this crew has mostly delivered.
With this criteria in mind, we rated the rookie managers, in order.
— Records and standings through Friday, June 22
1. Aaron Boone, Yankees. Record: 50-23. 1st AL East.
Obviously, Boone had the great fortune of inheriting a Yankees team that came within one game of the World Series last October, so he’s not asked to perform any miracles in the Bronx. But when a manager is placed in such an enviable position — especially a rookie skipper — there’s only one Golden Rule he has has to follow: just don’t get in the way. The affable Boone has followed that mantra, weathering a bumpy 9-9 start by staying cool and rolling with those early punches to help steer his club to the game’s best record. The Yankees lead MLB in many of the top offensive categories, but the greatest benefit to Boone is a nearly invincible bullpen — nothing makes a manager’s job easier than that. The last time a Yankee won Manager of the Year was 1998, and Joe Torre had to win 114 games to do it. Boone is on track to win 111.
2. Alex Cora, Red Sox. Record: 51-26. 2nd, AL East.
John Farrell, in his first season as Red Sox manager in 2013, led them to a third World Series title in 10 years. He was the pitching coach for Boston’s ’07 championship. Yet Farrell still seemed to be a dead manager walking by the middle of last season, with Cora later tapped as his replacement coming off his stint as bench coach for the world champion Astros. Cora’s appeal is linked to being the anti-Farrell, who had lost the Sox clubhouse, and he appears to have won over both the players and a perpetually cranky Boston media corps. Cora has been critical of players on occasion, but he unfailingly goes to bat for David Price, who’s always under fire up there for one reason or another. Managing in Boston can be an impossible task, based on the relentless scrutiny from every corner of New England, but Cora’s confidence shines through, just as it did during his playing days. Taunting Yankees third-base coach Phil Nevin wasn’t managerial behavior, but emotions were high during that benches-clearing brawl, so we’ll give him a pass on that.
3. Gabe Kapler, Phillies. Record: 40-33. 2nd, NL East.
A controversial hire from the jump, based on his predilection for shirtless photos and extreme thoughts on developing players, Kapler has helped turn Philly’s presumptive rebuilding season into a contending one by driving the analytics bus on Broad Street. Initially, it seemed Kapler wouldn’t last a week after forgetting to warm up a relief pitcher before bringing him in, then getting booed at the home opener. But Kapler not only stabilized things from that volatile beginning, he’s motivated the fresh Phillies — their 26.4 average age is tied with the Pirates for MLB’s youngest — to thrive in what has become a very competitive race atop the division. “I’m going to be even and work a very strong process,” Kapler said last month, “no matter which direction the tide is going.” The reason to believe in Kapler is his ability to learn from his early mistakes. The underlying concern will be how he handles the increased pressure of a pennant chase later in the season, based on his previously combustible nature, and a Philly market that enjoys spraying lighter fluid.
4. Dave Martinez, Nationals. Record: 40-34. 3rd NL East.
The Nationals fired Dusty Baker after losing their five-game playoff series to the Cubs, as the manager apparently was beloved everywhere but inside the D.C. ballpark. And using the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em approach,” GM Mike Rizzo tabbed Martinez — the Cubs bench coach under Joe Maddon — to follow the 69-year-old Baker. Like Boone, Martinez also took over a loaded roster, but also a franchise that has never advanced past the first round of the playoffs in four tries over the past six years. Then it got worse with the prolonged absences of Daniel Murphy (knee surgery), Adam Eaton (ankle), Ryan Zimmerman (oblique), Anthony Rendon (toe) and Howie Kendrick (Achilles). Mix in the unusual season of Byrce Harper (.214, 19 HRs) and Martinez has dealt wth a number of obstacles, but the Nats are surviving the storm so far. His 10 years experience as a bench coach — starting with Maddon in Tampa Bay — has been an asset, along with 16 years as a player, giving him insight that should help avoid the dysfunction that tends to creep up in D.C.
5. Mickey Callaway, Mets. Record: 31-42. 4th, NL East.
You can argue the order of the top four, but Callaway is the undeniable No. 5 on this list, and that’s something we didn’t see coming. In fact, Callaway at first seemed to be the best hire of the bunch, a pitching-schooled coach who learned the ropes of managing at the side of the Indians’ Terry Francona, widely considered to be among the top of the profession. But once the season began, the flaws began to show, and Callaway’s AL background, combined with a lack of overall vision due to inexperience, turned out to be a serious liability in navigating the NL game. Even with the Mets’ 11-1 start, Callaway got away with a number of in-game blunders, and now during their freefall, it seems that every move turns out to be the wrong one. The Mets, as usual, have suffered a number of key injuries — most notably to the ever-vanishing Yoenis Cespedes — but Callaway also has struggled in the public eye, too often delivering seemingly tone-deaf responses to the Mets’ problems.