San Diego Padres manager Bob Melvin concluded that he had made a mistake with right-hander Yu Darvish in a key moment.
During a recent game at Busch Stadium, the Padres trailed the St. Louis Cardinals by two runs with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning. Perennial All-Star slugger Nolan Arenado, who already had two hits on the day against Darvish, came to bat with a runner on second base, with first base open, and rookie Juan Yepez on deck. With a relief option standing by, Melvin walked from the third-base dugout to the mound. Darvish, whose pitch count was into the low 90s but had gone well beyond that in his two previous starts, put up his defenses. He didn't want to yield to San Diego's bullpen.
Padres catcher Austin Nola said Darvish gave Melvin no easy opportunity to make a change.
“I don't think there was much bargaining there,” Nola told Bally Sports. “Yu really wanted it.”
Melvin went into the conversation open-minded. He listened to his starter and stayed with Darvish, a five-time All-Star in 10 major-league seasons. Two pitches later, Arenado smartly avoided the Padres’ defensive shift by lining an RBI single to right field on a cut fastball that Darvish threw middle-away. Melvin came back out to remove Darvish, the Cardinals added another run against the bullpen and the San Diego offense couldn't make good on a ninth-inning, bases-loaded rally. Robinson Canó made the last out on a fly ball to the warning track in left. Melvin's Padres lost 5-2.
Afterward, Melvin owned up to not walking Arenado intentionally with the open base and having Darvish face Yepez instead. For his own part, Darvish lamented not considering that Arenado might try to beat San Diego's shift by going to the opposite field. If given another chance, he would throw a different pitch. Regardless, he appreciated that Melvin listened to him and gave him a chance at all.
"It means a lot," Darvish said with the assistance of a Japanese interpreter. "I'm grateful for a veteran manager like Bob coming out to the mound and asking if you can go or not. It does mean a lot. I'm thankful for that.”
The Padres didn't get results against the Cardinals, who picked up a series sweep. But looking at the bigger picture, the Melvin-Darvish conversation seemed like a winning moment for San Diego.
"Whoa, it was phenomenal," Nola said. "The pitchers respect that. We all respect that. It's showing confidence in each other. It's one of those things that goes a long way."
The MLB season also has a long way to go, but the Padres have performed well under Melvin in his first season as skipper after the Oakland Athletics let him go. Entering Tuesday’s games, San Diego owns a 45-30 record and stand 1 1/2 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers for first place in the National League West. Only the New York Yankees, New York Mets, Houston Astros and the Dodgers have better records. And that's with the Padres playing considerably short of a full complement. They have been without star shortstop Fernando Tatís all season as he recovers from a fractured left wrist, and third baseman Manny Machado had his NL MVP campaign halted by a sprained ankle that's caused him to miss the last seven games.
Tatís has been around the team a lot and has been paying attention to what's happening while on the sidelines. "It's been really hard just watching," he said. "But we've been doing what a good team does when it doesn't have everything going for it."
Having confidence in the manager was a good starting point.
"I've been around them a little, and I can see that Bob is someone you can rely on. And that comes with his experience," Tatis said. "You try hard to be on his good side."
As a whole, the offense is in the middle of the pack in runs scored (even if the lineup has been inconsistent). The bullpen has been middling overall but strong in the late innings with left-hander Taylor Rogers. The starting pitching, led again by Darvish and fellow right-hander Joe Musgrove, has been excellent, collectively working deeper into games than any other team. The defense ranks among the very best in the league, particularly on the infield.
And the Padres have Melvin, whose decisions don't work out every time — like any manager — but whose moves usually are met with respect and trust. It's not only because Melvin has been there and done that with success as a big-league manager for 19 seasons. It’s also because of how he has treated the players in the short time he's been in charge — with clarity, honesty, understanding and fairness. He’s not the only MLB manager with those qualities, but the 60-year-old goes about all of it in a way that’s personal and unique to him.
"The mental aspect, the way he instills confidence in each of us, is really a special thing for a manager," said Nola, who's in his fourth season overall and third with San Diego. "It's why he's been doing it for so long, because he has a great feel for the game."
Melvin's ability to project serenity over a season that can seem interminable and monotonous in one breath and stormy with sharp emotions in the next is probably his greatest asset, right-hander Mike Clevinger said.
"Let us be the ones who ride the emotional roller coaster, and let the manager try to keep an even keel in the front seat," said Clevinger, who previously played for Terry Francona in Cleveland. "Bob is a super players' manager (like) Tito (Francona) — they're very similar temperaments, very even keeled. But when they're hot, they're hot."
Not with the players, although Melvin lost his cool the night before against the Cardinals and got ejected trying to defend Machado after a disagreement with the home plate umpire. He can get fired up when the occasion calls for it, but mostly the Padres are happy to deal with “Calm Bob” simply because it’s a long season.
San Diego’s performance, confidence and attitude have been 180 degrees from the frustrating nadir of a maddening 2021 season, when the Padres went 12-34 down the stretch and finished four games under .500 after contending for a playoff spot for 4 1/2 months. The dismal results cost second-year manager Jayce Tingler his job and cast plenty of doubt from the outside on the future prospects of a team built with optimism by club president A.J. Preller.
One of only six teams having a payroll north of $200 million this season, San Diego still came into 2022 sporting a lot of holes. It also seems like the Padres picked the right manager to help patch them.
‘A winning person’
Within his reputation is Melvin's tendency to let go of bad results and not dwell on failures which already are baked into the sport. In that vein, when Melvin joined the Padres, he didn't expressly address the team’s collapse last season. Infielder Jake Cronenworth was among those who said the players themselves buried it before spring training opened. It was a good call on Melvin's part to let it stay buried, Nola said, in comments echoed by teammates.
"He knows how much we care," Nola said. "I don't think he needed to. There was not much to be said."
Outfielder Wil Myers, who played for Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay as a rookie before coming to San Diego in 2015, has played under seven different managers (including a pair of interim ones) with the Padres. Melvin alone managed the Athletics for 11 years. Having stability in the manager's chair means something to Myers.
"Being calm is an enormous deal, but Bob also demands a lot of respect because he earned it before he even got here," Myers said. "Good big-league players have a healthy fear of the manager. Not a literal fear of the person, but you don't want to disappoint the manager. You want to play hard for him. You want to have a manager that you respect a ton."
Myers was among several Padres who said that Melvin's method of empowering the players to be responsible on their own makes for a better operation. After all, it's the players who are most responsible for whether a team wins or loses.
"I was very fortunate to be around Don Zimmer," Myers said of the legendary baseball figure who coached with the Rays under Maddon. "We got to talking about managers once and I asked him, ‘What makes a good big-league manager?' Obviously, he's got tons of experience. I asked him and he waited for a second and he said, ‘Good players.' And at the end of the day, it doesn't matter who's managing the team if you don't have the talent to win. That's just the way it is."
Not that Melvin goes totally laissez faire. He's just far removed from being a micromanager. Reliever Craig Stammen, in his sixth season with the Padres and 13th overall after starting out with the Washington Nationals, noted that Melvin makes sure to empower his coaches.
"He's led the coaching staff in a way that allows them to be leaders amongst the players," said Stammen, who has played for nine managers, including Davey Johnson with Washington and Francona (in spring training) with Cleveland. "He trusts their expertise and lets them use it to do their job."
The players have agency; the coaches do too. And yet, as Stammen said: "You know, when you've talked to Bob, that it's where the buck stops."
That’s the kind of dugout leadership he provided the A’s, who made the postseason six times with Melvin as manager despite not getting a full commitment from ownership to spend on payroll like the best teams typically do. John Fisher became owner in 2016, but Oakland has never been higher than 23rd in player salaries since 2008.
In addition to slicing about $42 million in payroll this offseason because they didn’t want to give raises to Matt Olson, Matt Chapman, Sean Manaea and others in their free-agent years, the A’s also let Melvin out of his contract to allow him to join the Padres. It’s been a traumatic deconstruction in Oakland for fans (and the players left behind), even for a club known for inevitable rebuilding.
Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker coached Melvin in the ‘80s when he played as a catcher for the San Francisco Giants. He likes Melvin as a person and respects him as a manager, to the point that he’s happy his colleague got out of Oakland when he did.
“It couldn’t have been easy on him, them all saying goodbye every time a player reached a certain salary,” Baker said. “He has a reputation for coming to his players using truth and honesty, and they play for him. He’s a winning person and he gets the most out of his players. I love BoMel. He’s one of the best.”
Baker, along with former Astros outfielder George Springer (now with the Toronto Blue Jays), both appreciated as division rivals how prepared the A’s always played when facing Houston.
“You knew that every situation was going to be accounted for,” Springer said. “You knew you were going up against a game plan with Bob Melvin. He was going to find the right guy in the right situation. If something went off script, he was going to find a way to get his guys to be calm. I don’t think he was ever unprepared.”
While he probably could adjust to being on a new team under any circumstances, Manaea said he appreciated the bonus of being reunited with Melvin after the Padres acquired him just before Opening Day. Melvin has called the left-hander the best teammate he’s ever seen. Some of that is Melvin’s own doing.
“Bob lets me be myself,” said Manaea, who has a 3.87 ERA in 13 starts this season. “I’ve never known him to be a guy who tells players that they ‘have to do things this way or that way.’ I have the ultimate respect for BoMel.”
Manaea said Melvin’s ability to listen and adapt, work with different personalities and manage games in a consistent manner are keys to his success. He doesn’t spring too many surprises. Melvin is imperfect, though.
“He’s forgotten birthdays on occasion,” Manaea said in a deadpan manner. “But he eventually remembers.”
It all starts with communication. Conversations happening in the manager’s office with the door shut “where you feel like you’re in trouble” are rare, Stammen said. Melvin doesn’t “sugarcoat” things or stack sympathetic platitudes, Myers said. Players want the manager to hit them with facts and be direct. They appreciate Melvin’s ability to tactfully and deftly deliver news they might not want to hear — no matter if it’s about them as individuals or collectively.
Chapman recalled early in 2018 when the Athletics optioned right-hander Kendall Graveman to the minors after a difficult series of appearances pushed his ERA near 8.00. The disappointment of being demoted was set amid a series of injuries and other setbacks that dotted Graveman’s early MLB career.
“He was one of the leaders on our team, and somebody we all cared about,” Chapman said. “All of us were kind of at a loss when we lost him, but Bob is the kind of guy that would call everyone into the locker room and say, ‘Hey, he’s still one of us, and we’ll see him again, whenever that may be, but we still need to continue to keep our focus.’
“He was always able to turn a bad situation into something better.”
Melvin doesn’t make many impassioned speeches of any sort, but his timing can be amazing, according to Manaea.
“I think it was ‘17, and we had gotten our butts kicked by Houston for like the 13th time in a row,” Manaea recalled. “It was one of those group conversations where we discussed how ‘we were better than this,’ and that kind of set things in motion. It was around the time Olson and Chapman and Chad Pinder were called up — guys who were the building blocks — and we realized soon that we could compete with the Astros.”
Oakland did play better after that point in 2017, notably with a four-game sweep of the Astros the next time the A’s saw them. They weren’t better than Houston the following season, but they did win 97 games and returned to the playoffs. The influx of talent made Oakland contenders but, Chapman asserted, it was Melvin who enabled the talent to be the best version of themselves.
“He knows who he is, and he makes communication very clear,” Chapman said. “Everybody understands their role, everybody understands what our team's goals are, everybody understands where they stand. So there’s really no questions. Bob created a culture in Oakland that makes it very clear how we operate at the ballpark every day and what we expect from each other.”
Chapman called Melvin “an extreme competitor,” someone who beat everybody to the clubhouse in the morning, no matter the time of year.
“He’d be in his office at 11 a.m. for a freaking 7 o’clock game,” Chapman said. “In spring training, when I’d get there at six in the morning, he’d be there by 4:30. And you should see his lineup cards; he’s got all this writing all over them, taking notes on everything. Incredible preparation and attention to detail. It’s why he’s won multiple Manager of the Year awards.”
Melvin set a tough example to follow for a work ethic, Chapman said, but he also realized his players were human beings first.
“He really cared about the guys. He wanted to make sure everybody knew that he knew how everybody was doing,” Chapman said. “He’d call me in and let me update him on what guys on the team thought we needed and how we were all feeling.”
They’re not working for the same team anymore, but Chapman says he still talks to Melvin regularly. He certainly wanted to check in around the time Melvin had prostate surgery in May. “Just to make sure he’s OK,” Chapman added.
He and Chapman have the kind of relationship that Melvin, who turns 61 in October, is just starting to build with the Padres. Winning a World Series might or might not result this October, but it’s fair to say the Padres probably won’t fall short because of details that Melvin overlooked or because he wasn’t sensitive enough with his players.
Championship or not, the Padres are likely to win a lot of games with Melvin in the manager’s seat.
“I heard it from so many friends and former teammates who had Bob as a manager,” Stammen said. “And not one person said even a remotely bad thing about him. When you have that kind of reputation … If we can't win with Bob, who can we win with?”