ST. PETERSBURG — The job is not thankless. It’s just largely misunderstood.
You see, we tend to think of baseball managers only in times of crisis. When there’s a lead to protect and the guy on the mound looks shaky. Or when there are runners on base, and the guy due to hit hasn’t made solid contact in a week. Maybe even when an umpire deserves a shot across the bow.
That’s where the geniuses and the tough guys make their reputations. Those are the managers who are prominent in your memory, like an Earl Weaver or a Tony La Russa or a Billy Martin. The skippers who unapologetically ruled the dugout from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. every night.
But the game has evolved, and the job has too. Gut instincts matter, but not as much as data. Game-time decisions are still a manager’s prerogative, but the general strategy is often plotted far in advance with the help of analysis from the front office.
These days, a manager’s best work is almost always unseen. It’s in clubhouse, in the batting cage, on the charter flight. It’s knowing which player needs a word of encouragement, and which player needs the hard truth. It’s getting dozens of players to understand that the scoreboard is more important than their statistics, even when there are contracts and endorsements and tens of millions of dollars potentially at stake.
This is where Kevin Cash is, if you’ll excuse the pun, money.
The Rays manager is one of three finalists for the American League Manager of the Year award scheduled to be announced Tuesday, and it would be seriously disheartening if he fails to win.
It isn’t just that the Rays won 96 games while sporting the lowest payroll in the majors, although that is incredible. And it isn’t just that they reached the postseason despite three-fifths of their starting rotation missing huge chunks of the season, although that is impressive.
It’s the way Cash handled a roster that had players coming and going from Triple-A Durham on a near-daily basis while veteran major-leaguers were asked to accept platoon roles and even unfamiliar positions for the greater good of the team.
“The in-game strategy is the part that is most scrutinized but I think, by far, the most challenging job that a manager has is keeping a group motivated and focused day in and day out over the course of a season,” said Rays general manager Erik Neander.
“I think because he’s authentic, his intentions are to win games and he’s consistent in his approach of doing that. And the more the players see that that is the ultimate goal — and they believe that — the more they are understanding of why they are being asked to do whatever it is that they may be doing."
And in Tampa Bay, they are asked to sacrifice plenty. Avisail Garcia was in the walk year of his contract and never barked about sharing time. Mike Zunino was brought in to be the No. 1 catcher and never complained when Travis d’Arnaud took his at-bats. An entire bullpen was ripped apart and reconfigured without egos being bruised.
Every day meant another conversation or another text message to explain why a player was being told to sit down or tackle another position or hop a flight to Durham. Of the nine positions in the lineup, including designated hitter, only three saw the same player start at least 100 games. (Willy Adames 145 at shortstop, Tommy Pham 123 in leftfield and Kevin Kiermaier 117 in center.)
“We’re fortunate, we’ve got a bunch of really bright guys in our front office and I’ve learned so much from them over the years," Cash said. “There’s all those quirky things and head scratching things that maybe go on (with people) outside saying “This is never going to work.’ We’ve got enough information that is telling us if we stick to these things that we’re going to benefit from it."
Cash, meanwhile, is the one who takes the daily jabs and questions and he does it all drama-free.
There is none of the talk show host glib of Joe Maddon, or the pedal-to-the-metal intensity of Lou Piniella. And that’s not a dig at those guys. Both have won a World Series elsewhere and have credentials worthy of Hall of Fame consideration.
It’s just that Cash has a different approach. More understated. Less showy. As he explains to the players, everyone has their own role.
In Tampa Bay, his role is to manage a roster. And I don’t think anyone in the American League did a better job in 2019.
“To me, he has a rare blend of confidence and humility," said Neander. “Typically, you see a heavy dose of one or the other, but it’s difficult to find both in authentic form."
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes