2011 Season Preview: Joe Girardi & Co.

Hughes reintroduces a slider
The one-two hitter platoon
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Two years ago, it all clicked. The rebuilt starting rotation was one of the league’s most effective units, the offense was devastating, and the bullpen corps was deep and effective. Joe Girardi didn’t have to do much managing and his coaching staff didn’t have to do much coaching, they just rode their talent to the World Championship. It’s easy to look good when you have that team playing for you.

Last year was a little different. The rotation, stronger on paper than it was going into the 2009 season, fell apart at the seams down the stretch. The offense still led the world in on-base percentage and (not coincidentally) runs scored, but several notable players had down years. That the Yankees still won 95 games and were two wins away from the World Series is pretty remarkable. After the season, the Yankees rewarded both Girardi and hitting coach Kevin Long with new three-year contracts. Pitching coaching Dave Eiland was replaced with Larry Rothschild, but the rest of the staff came back intact.

Ben put best when he previewed Girardi last year, so allow me to excerpt…

In that sense, Girardi is a fairly average manager. He changes pitchers as we would expect; he bunts a little less than we might expect him to; he doesn’t need pinch hitters and doesn’t use them often at all. Yet, he has gotten a handle on the media, and he knows what it takes — a trope really — to win in New York. He has made nice with the sportswriters who cover the team after a rough first year, and he has commanded the respect of his players, including the four with whom he was teammates not too long ago.

On the flip side, though, Joe Girardi doesn’t need to do much to manage the Yankees. He has the pieces to make up a great team, and it doesn’t take an expert strategist to know that A-Rod should bat clean-up, that Derek Jeter should leadoff, that CC Sabathia should be the ace, that Mariano Rivera will close games. It’s the Joe Torre argument all over again: All Girardi has to do is make sure everyone gets along well and no pitcher is overworked.

All of that applies again in 2011, though perhaps the decision to bat Jeter leadoff isn’t as obvious as it was twelve months ago. Penciling Andruw Jones‘ name into the lineup against left-handers and properly deploying not one, but two lefty relief specialists is the extent of the strategic managing Girardi has to do. Given all of the information we don’t know (who’s banged up, etc.), quibbling with those decisions is a fruitless endeavor. Girardi is no longer a lame duck manager and in reality he never really was. He was hand-picked for the job by Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner three years ago, and his job is secure as ever. All he has to do is not screw it up, and the last three seasons suggest he won’t.

(AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

Long has drawn rave reviews for his work with pretty much every hitter in the lineup, most notably Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson, though Jeter is his latest project. They haven’t revamped his swing, just shortened his stride, and the early returns in Spring Training are promising. Eiland spent a month away from the team last summer for undisclosed personal reasons, an issue that may or may not have led to his departure. “He knows why [he wasn’t brought back],” said Cashman. “He was given conditions that needed to be followed. So he knows why.”

Rothschild, the bullpen coach for the 1990 World Champion Reds and pitching coach for the 1997 World Champion Marlins, came over from the Cubs after spending seven years on Chicago’s north side. During his tenure, the Cubbies had the third best overall pitching staff (4.18 FIP) in the National League, and their starting rotation (4.15 FIP) was the the best in the league and third in all of baseball, behind the Red Sox (4.11) and Yankees (4.12). He has a reputation as a guy that helps his pitchers maximize strikeouts and reduce walks, two very welcome traits for a pitching staff that was just middle-of-the-pack with a 2.14 K/BB ratio last year.

His biggest project in 2011 will be getting A.J. Burnett back on track following a dreadful season. The two met at Burnett’s home over the winter, and so far Rothschild has him working on being more compact in his delivery and direct to the plate, modifications that have been on display in camp. Beyond A.J., he’ll have to coax quality innings out of Bartolo Colon and/or Freddy Garcia until a more suitable pitcher(s) is acquired. That may take a minor miracle, but Colon has thrown the snot out of the ball in camp so far.

By all accounts, the Yankees’ clubhouse is an upbeat and welcoming environment, something that wasn’t necessarily true a few years ago. Sabathia and Nick Swisher helped change that, certainly, but the it all starts at the top with Girardi and his coaching staff. It’s always tough to evaluate those guys because so much of their work happens behind the scenes, but given the team’s success over the last two years, it’s tough to think they’re not up to the challenge of another run at the World Series.

Hughes reintroduces a slider
The one-two hitter platoon
  • pete

    In most senses I tend to agree that Girardi is an average manager; he is hesitant to defy convention and plays smallball a little more than he should, but generally not to an egregious extent. The worst moves I can remember him making (if we can even be sure it was him) were having Granderson bunt in front of Colin Curtis last year against the Rays and taking out an electric Robertson to have Aceves face Mathis in the ’09 ALCS. For the most part, though, he doesn’t seem to be a genius or a drag on the team.

    Where he is a well-above average manager, though, is in his handling of the bullpen. Where Torre had a tendency to run his best pitchers out there to protect every lead, no matter what, Girardi has the prescience to take a more long-term approach (although he is often accused of micro-managing) with the bullpen, getting the most out of his pitchers over the course of the season by pitching them regularly and in matchups that are favorable to them (it’s not just small samples of statistics that he uses to determine matchups – scouting reports play a huge role in that part (or any part where large samples of data are absent) of the game). He also has the sack to keep throwing a guy out there even when he’s not performing well to get him back to his usual levels of effectiveness (see Joba last year – hell, he even got solid seasons out of Jose Veras and Edwar Ramirez in 2008). It can be maddening on a game-by-game basis, but over the long term, Girardi does a fantastic job managing the bullpen.

  • king of fruitless hypotheticals

    i love that photo!



    • Monteroisdinero

      Alternate caption:

      Tony, I know these ST games are boring but cover your mouth when you yawn.

  • Plank

    I could do Girardi’s job at 50% effectiveness for 10% the salary.

    Cashman, call me.

    • MannyGeee

      yeah, but all those guys in your MLB 11 The Show Leagues would miss you terribly…

      • http://twitter.com/steveh_MandAura Steve H

        golf clap

      • Plank

        I don’t get the reference, but I presume it was an insult. I was paying Girardi a compliment.

  • bakekrukow412

    I love it how people usually say it doesn’t take much to manage the Yankees, but during the season there is at least one move every game Girardi makes that everyone fusses over. Obviously it’s not as easy as batting Alex cleanup and Mo closing games.

    • king of fruitless hypotheticals

      Bat Jeter 9th opening day, lose, and watch the death threats roll in…

  • Ted Nelson

    Definitely tough to evaluate coaches and managers. I do think the bar is often set too high because he has a great roster to work with… anything wrong is his fault, but anything right is just him not screwing up. I’d say that not crediting him for moving Jeter to the lead-off spot while calling it an obvious move is an example of this.

    I still don’t see why there is a continual insistence that it would take a miracle for Garcia to throw quality innings after what he’s given the White Sox since August of 2009.

  • dkidd

    dominant line-up + shaky rotation + stacked bullpen

    joe girardi 2011 = sparky anderson 1975-1976

    • Greg

      The Reds pitching wasnt that shaky: Don Gullett, Jack Billingham and Gary Nolan were good. All of their starters had at least 10 wins

      • http://danielslifka.wordpress.com Jerome S.

        You’d have ten wins, too, with Joe Morgan and company on your team.

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