The welcome evolution of Mike Scioscia

Earlier today, I wrote a sort of ode to Buck Showalter. Within, I suggested that winning the World Series this year might get him into the Hall of Fame … while also suggesting that he might have already done enough.

Well, now I suspect that’s not true. Showalter’s never managed a World Series-winning team, and in fact he’s never managed in a World Series at all. That makes it really tough. I don’t believe there’s a modern Hall of Fame manager without a World Championship, and I don’t believe there will be one for a long while, and I don’t believe Showalter will be the first. So I take back that part.

I’ll stick with what I said about Mike Scioscia and Bruce Bochy, though. If they win the Serious this year, they’re in. And they might be already. For the moment, though, I’d just like to focus on Scioscia’s 2014 so far, as I was impressed while reading Pedro Moura’s Orange County Register column this morning. According to Moura, among the reasons for the Angels’ surprisingly good season is Scioscia’s evolution, as recounted by general manager Jerry Dipoto …

So, what did he do?

First, Scioscia agreed to almost double the instances in which the Angels shift on defense. That helped turn the team from 24 runs below average defensively to 8.4 runs above and counting, with little other turnover to explain it.

“I would say the most notable and the easiest to see with the eye is the defensive shift,” Dipoto said. “It’s something we did a lot more this year than we have in the past.”

Baseball managers, it is known, do not have as much of an on-field impact as basketball coaches or football head coaches. They can affect only so much – they can only manage.

But not many managers would have batted right fielder Kole Calhoun, with 218 career at-bats to his name, atop the opening day order. And, even though the numbers show it’s the right thing to do, even fewer would have left 34-homer hitting Mike Trout second in the order all year long, because power guys are supposed to bat third or fourth.

Not many would have been willing to slot Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar fourth and fifth for a good portion of the year. Almost nobody would have agreed to start a reliever every fifth day for a month, as the Angels have with Cory Rasmus.

Dipoto endorsed Scioscia for Manager of the Year, and he will surely get consideration.

I do think Scioscia deserves credit for batting Trout second, with Kendrick and Aybar in the middle of the order. I mean, assuming that it actually makes sense. But everything we know about lineup construction suggests the Angels would score almost exactly as many runs if this were reversed; if Kendrick and Aybar batted one-two, and Calhoun and Trout four-five. I’m impressed that Scioscia seems to have kept an open mind, but this isn’t a game-changer at all.

Cory Rasmus has made exactly four starts, and totaled a dozen innings in those starts. These were basically Johnny Wholestaff games. The Angels won three of them, despite being outscored 21-19 (thanks to a 13-2 blowout loss). Again, hardly a game-changer.

In terms of actual wins and losses, the real change here is the infield shifts. Last year the Angels finished 24th in the majors in park-adjusted defensive efficiency; that is, the percentage of batted balls they turned into outs. This year, with many of the same fielders, they’re fourth in the majors. That’s impressive, and might be at least partly attributed to more shifting. For which Scioscia absolutely deserves some credit, as these things just don’t work without the manager’s buy-in.

Of course, this is year-old news in Pittsburgh, where Clint Hurdle embraced extreme shifts last season.

I do think Scioscia’s heading for the Hall of Fame. Unlike Showalter, he’s already won a World Series. In 15 seasons, Scioscia’s managed 11 winning teams and first-place teams. None of his teams have ever finished lower than third. He checks all the boxes, and the only thing missing at this point is either one more World Championship or a few more good seasons. I do think Scioscia’s done everything this season a manager’s supposed to do. Sure, we had projections, before the season showing the Angels as the best team in the American League West. But we didn’t have projections for a team with all these injuries winning something like 100 games in a pretty good division.

So in some years, Mike Scioscia would be a tremendous Manager of the Year candidate. Probably not this year, though.