In trying to sympathize with his plight, Paul Molitor joked last winter, “Everyone tells me they look at our roster and don’t see a 103-loss team.” Just one problem, Molitor liked to point out: “Well, that doesn’t really reflect very well on the manager.”
One year later, Molitor is more than willing to identify with his Twins. They won 85 games in 2017, became the 13th team ever to follow a 100-loss season with a winning record, and the first in history to qualify for the postseason. And on Tuesday, Molitor was rewarded by being named the American League Manager of the Year, as voted by a 30-member committee of Baseball Writers of America members.
“It’s humbling, really,” Molitor said upon learning of the honor during an MLB Network telecast. “An award like this, it’s certainly a reflection of the organization — the work that my coaches and the players put in. … This award is a lot more about everybody that contributed to the Twins having a turnaround season.”
The 61-year-old Molitor is the third Twins manager, and third in a row, to win the award, following Tom Kelly in 1991 and Ron Gardenhire, whom he succeeded three years ago, in 2010.
He’s also just the second Hall of Fame player, along with Baltimore’s Frank Robinson in 1989, to be honored for his managerial skill with the BBWAA award, which was created in 1983.
“It’s pretty special. Most people who have had a chance to play the game and then go on to managerial roles will tell you there’s nothing like playing,” he said. “But when you put in the work in this particular role, and to have success — that night in Cleveland, when we had a chance to celebrate [their wild-card berth], was pretty special.”
The St. Paul native was chosen as the league’s top manager over two other finalists, each of whom led their teams to 100-win seasons: Cleveland’s Terry Francona, a two-time winner, and Houston’s A.J. Hinch, who helped the Astros win the World Series championship earlier this month. Molitor received 18 first-place votes, six second-place votes and four for third, for a total of 112 points from the 30 voters, two representing each AL city. Francona, a teammate of Molitor’s on the 1989 Brewers, received 11 first-place votes and 90 points overall to finish runner-up, and Hinch received the other first-place vote and 56 points to finish third. New York’s Joe Girardi, fired last month after the Yankees’ loss in the AL Championship Series, was fourth with 12 points.
Molitor’s 85 victories are the second-fewest ever by an AL manager of the year winner, ahead of only the 83 wins recorded by the Royals’ Tony Pena in 2003. But so was the Twins’ perceived talent level, making his accomplishment — an MLB-best 26-game improvement and an AL wild-card berth — stand out. He helped develop a young roster of position players into an offense that scored 815 runs, the fourth-highest total in the league and fifth highest in Twins history.
And he fashioned a winning record despite a pitching staff roiled by injuries and ineffectiveness; 36 different players took the mound during the season.
“Maybe there’s some strategy in lowering the expectations last year,” Molitor joked. “When you lose 103 games, it’s humbling, whether you’re a player or coach or manager. I had to do a lot of self-evaluation of things I thought I could have done better throughout the  season.”
His greatest achievement, though, may have been to rally the Twins to a 20-11 record in August, on the heels of trades that removed closer Brandon Kintzler and recently acquired starter Jaime Garcia from the roster, moves interpreted in the clubhouse as a surrender.
Molitor addressed the team a day after the trades, and challenged his players to overcome them.
“We tried to make these guys believe,” he said. “I still had a lot of optimism that we could continue [to contend]. Part of your job is to try to know what players are feeling. There was nothing magical; it was just something people needed to hear.”
That Molitor was even in the Twins’ dugout might have been due to the support of owner Jim Pohlad, who made retaining the manager for the 2017 season a condition of hiring new executives to run the team, chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine. The new leaders validated Pohlad’s confidence by rewarding Molitor with a three-year contract extension in October.
“I’m not ready to stop working,” Molitor said at the time. “I still feel driven. I still feel there’s more to accomplish.”