As the MLB regular season winds down, debates about annual awards ramp up. From MVP to Cy Young to Manager of the Year, there is no shortage of deserving candidates – in either league. We can debate MVP and Cy Young – and I’m still deliberating about who I would choose – but to me, the NL Manager of the Year award has already been decided.
It’s Atlanta’s Brian Snitker.
Now, if you think I’m picking Brian because I’ve known him for 35 years or because he’s been a member of the Braves’ organization for more than a decade – you’re right, that’s certainly part of it. While I try to be unbiased, I can also be honest – both with myself and you, the reader.
But the main reason I think Brian should be NL Manager of the Year is because I think he’s been the best manager in baseball this season.
The Braves were projected to win 74-75 games this year; midway through September, they’ve already won 82. They were projected to finish fourth in the NL East; entering Sept. 13, they have a 7.5-game lead in the division. This team is exceeded expectations in every way possible – and Brian is the main reason why.
Some Braves fans, I’m sure, will say I’m crazy, as Brian is frequently second-guessed for his in-game strategy. From lineup decisions to bullpen management – you name it, he’s been criticized for it.
To those fans, I submit the following quote from Bobby Cox, a four-time Manager of the Year winner: “I’d put him (Brian) up against anybody as far as strategy goes and in terms of how much the players love him and are willing to play for him. Anybody.”
Those words, especially coming from Bobby Cox, mean something. Whether you agree or disagree with Brian’s in-game strategy, the Braves absolutely love playing for him – and it’s not an accident.
What makes Brian a good manager? The same thing that makes any manager a good manger: the ability to motivate players. How does a manager – or any leader – motivate? One word. Seven letters.
To me, respect is the single most important component of motivational leadership. Players have to respect the manager, yes, but a manager must first respect his players. It’s a simple concept, in theory. In practice, though, is where things can get dicey, especially with so many egos and Type-A personalities.
Baseball is tricky. It’s unlike any other professional sport because, well, you play so many games. There’s a lot of pressure to win every night. You have 162 opportunities to make the playoffs, but you also have 162 opportunities to mess up. Win or lose, mistakes are made, and the manager must be held accountable.
Every. Single. Night.
How a manager answers questions, especially after a loss, will tell you exactly what he thinks of his players. For Brian, it’s clear that he loves his players and that they love him. When Jose Urena plunked Ronald Acuna in August, Brian stood up for Acuna in the moment and after the game, saying, “I’ll be honest with you: I’ve never felt like that in a baseball uniform.” That reaction – and those words – endear a manager to his players.
But with Brian, it’s usually not about what he says; it’s about what he doesn’t say. He’s extremely reluctant to criticize his players. Sometimes that comes across as bland. Sometimes fans get frustrated because they want more details about what happened or what’s happening.
Brian, however, is acutely aware of how much a manager’s words matter, especially in today’s social-media world. What he says – or doesn’t say – is the ultimate sign of respect for a player. When a player is struggling or having a tough time, a good manager will uplift him. He’ll downplay his performance – or lack thereof. He doesn’t go into specifics. He doesn’t make it personal.
That’s how Bobby Cox was. He communicated openly with players. Whether it was one-on-one or in a group, he was clear, concise, and honest. But he never threw anyone under the bus.
Brian is the same way.
When a player messes up, he knows he messed up. He doesn’t need the manager to tell him – at least not every single time. If bad habits start to develop, that’s one thing. But if a player strikes out or bobbles a ball, he doesn’t need the manager to say, “Hey, you struck out,” or “Hey, you bobbled that ball.” The player knows that. The manager doesn’t like when you mess up, but he doesn’t need to remind you about it, either.
That’s important. In sports and in life, some people are very willing – and very quick – to pass the buck. They’ll criticize others to protect themselves. Brian doesn’t do that. He could dissect every player’s mistakes and tear them apart for it. But he doesn’t. He always puts a positive spin on it. I like where he’s going. I like the direction he’s headed.
The impact that has on a player cannot be understated. It makes players respect the manager, and when the player shows up to the ball park the next day, he’s ready to go. There’s newfound energy and urgency. He stepped up for me yesterday, so I’m going to step up for him today.
It’s a powerful feeling.
I’m always stunned when managers or players publicly criticize their team – or teammates. Some people say that speaking up is a sign of good leadership. It can be, but if you want to talk to a player or teammate, do so privately. Don’t send a message through the media for the entire world to see and hear.
Bobby Valentine made that mistake a couple of years ago when he questioned Kevin Youkilis’ commitment to the game. That didn’t go over well in the locker room. Bobby was a great manager, no doubt. But I’m sure that’s one interview he’d like to have back.
Managers have to walk a tight rope. It’s a long season, and you have to keep guys motivated to want to come to the ball park every day and play – even when they’re struggling. A manager might be able to use anger or fear to motivate a player for one game or in a certain situation. But that won’t work consistently over 162. The most consistent and powerful motivator in any relationship – both in and out of baseball – is respect. It’s that simple.
That, more than anything, is why Brian always protects his players. He understands that it’s not about what happened today; it’s about what happens tomorrow. Today already happened. A manager has to build for tomorrow. A manager needs players to be present and motivated. How a manager responds to adversity will affect how his players respond to adversity.
For many people, this is an acquired skill – because it’s not natural. The natural thing is to lash out, to blame, to point fingers, and criticize – especially when your job is on the line. But if Brian has a problem with a player, he’ll talk to him one-on-one. He may be critical, but he’ll be critical in private. That’s important. No player wants to be called out on the field or during a postgame interview.
Some people might say, “Come on, these guys are pros! They make so much money! Deal with it!” Well, they may be pros and they may make a lot of money, but they’re also human beings. They have thoughts, feelings, concerns, worries. They want – and need – a leader who respects them.
The Braves have that in Brian. There’s a reason that Freddie Freeman and several other Braves approached the front office last September and told them they wanted Brian back as manager despite a subpar year.
That reason? They love him.
This year, the Braves have exceeded expectations. They’ve gotten great performances from Acuna, Freeman, Nick Markakis and so many others. But I am convinced that this team wouldn’t be where it is with Brian Snitker. He’s provided a steady hand since Opening Day and navigated the inevitable ups and downs that arise during any season. His love for his players is apparent, and so is their love for him.
For those reasons and more, I believe Brian Snitker should be named Manager of the Year.
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