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Salk: The 5 reasons Mariners’ Scott Servais has been AL’s best manager

Aug 25, 2021, 12:22 AM | Updated: Sep 14, 2021, 10:48 am
Mariners Scott Servais J.P. Crawford...
Scott Servais' Mariners have the most one-run wins in baseball this season. (Getty)
(Getty)

The Mariners’ Scott Servais should be the American League Manager of the Year. He deserves it.

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He won’t win, of course. The baseball world is centered in the northeast, and while the voters might occasionally be forced to consider a player with eye-popping stats west of the Mississippi, getting them to recognize a vague and unscientific accomplishment like managing the heck out of an undermanned team is probably just too much to ask. Heck, I’d be shocked if Jon Heyman didn’t spell his name “S-E-R-V-I-C-E!”

But Servais deserves the honor for a number of reasons:

1. His team has legitimately exceeded all expectations. No one expected the Mariners (69-58) to be good this year, and that was before they lost James Paxton for the season and Kyle Lewis for most of it. While this formula doesn’t quite guarantee the Manager of the Year award the way it does the NFL’s Coach of the Year, it should be considered. When a group of players exceeds not only their potential on paper but also their Pythagorean winning percentage (based on run differential), you have to look for reasons. And the manager should be at the top of that list.

2. The Mariners have dominated close games. They are 26-14 in one-run games, giving them the most one-run wins in baseball. There isn’t any one reason for that but it shows that the manager is making the right moves when he has the chance.

3. His bullpen usage has been progressive and darn near flawless. The Mariners have one of the best bullpens in baseball but don’t have a closer. I can’t tell you how much I love writing that sentence. Servais has done a masterful job of using his best relievers in the situation that is optimal for that player at the time. He gets the matchups he wants. He uses his best pitchers in the highest-leverage spots. And because of it, a bunch of spare parts have become his greatest weapon.

Yes, you can argue that this is more organizational philosophy than management. But remember, the argument against what was then called “closer by committee” was that no one could get the pitchers to buy in. Supposedly, major league relievers would mentally fall to pieces if they didn’t know exactly which inning they would pitch. Well, Servais has found a way to make these supposed basket cases comfortable – perhaps by (gasp!) telling them which part of the order to prepare for rather than just the inning.

4. His team plays clean baseball. We often expect young teams to struggle with the mental and defensive parts of the game, but that has not been the case here. The Mariners are sixth in baseball in fielding percentage, make relatively few unforced errors on the basepaths, and they do not throw the ball around. They appear mentally sharp even when they don’t always have the most talented team on the field. That comes from strong leadership.

5. He has brought a team together despite some very real challenges. This season began under the pallor of former Mariners president Kevin Mather’s horrific comments and the very real fear that he had alienated the very players that his organization counted upon. It continued through vaccinations and COVID-related absences that could have torn the clubhouse apart. Later, veterans publicly (yet anonymously) voiced their displeasure at the team’s trade deadline moves, even questioning the organization’s commitment to winning. Throughout it all, Servais has kept them playing clean, sharp, gritty baseball. He’s kept this group together, playing for each other and not just with each other.

All of this led to a scene I can’t recall in baseball, nor in any major sport: a manager becoming emotional after a dramatic August win over a last-place team.

Yes, it was an incredible game, full of twists and turns. But other than off-field tragedy, I can’t remember any manager or coach choked up after a midseason win.

I loved it. I spent my early years in this business covering then-Red Sox manager Terry Francona, who was among the first of the “new age” managers to treat his players with great respect. “Tito” would often tell stories of his time as a young player, terrified of his manager, Dick Williams. He showed that being a caring, invested leader of men could be just as successful as a cold, demanding taskmaster. And Servais has taken that style and pushed it farther.

Servais is often accused of having “dad energy,” and I believe that is true – in all the right ways. As a father myself who often finds it impossible to get through an animated movie without tearing up, I can see where he’s coming from.

The dad energy is working as the proverbial kids keep winning. And while the best dads don’t look for credit, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t receive it. In this case, a national award would be a good start – though I have a feeling he’d trade it for a much bigger trophy handed out each October.

Follow Mike Salk on Twitter.

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Salk: The 5 reasons Mariners’ Scott Servais has been AL’s best manager