What Went Right: Joe Girardi

Prospect Profile: Aaron Judge
A-Rod: "I walked out and will not participate any further in this farce."

When a team expects to win and fails, the players are typically at fault. They are, after all, the ones who take the field every day and therefore control the team’s fate. But as the old saying goes, you can’t fire all the players.* As an alternative, teams often opt to fire the manager. Leaders make for good scapegoats, even if they do not directly participate. It’s also easier to get rid of one man and one contract (coaches typically go year-to-year) than to publicly identify the players at fault and get rid of them.

* Unless you’re the Red Sox, who fired three highly paid players and the manager. It’s almost as if winning the World Series was a reward for that decision.

It would have been easy to blame the Yankees’ 2013 season on the manager. The team was expected to win and it did not. The Yankees could have walked away from Girardi cleanly, too, since his contract expired after the season. Instead they signed him to a new four-year deal that exceeds his previous three-year contract. It shows just what upper management thinks of the on-field boss. If anything, 2013 further solidified Girardi as one of the game’s top skippers.

Many fans disagree with that sentiment, but certain fans will always hate the manager for one reason or another. It’s just the nature of baseball. A few close friends of mine dislike Girardi.* They have their criticisms, and while I disagree they do deserve fair trial.

* One of them dislikes Girardi, but likes Big Bang Theory, so I think it’s fair to call his judgment into question.

They don’t like his bullpen management

Pardon me if I don’t pay this critique much credence. While there are managers who handle their bullpens poorly, it seems that vocal, if not large, groups of fans from every team bemoan the manager’s pitching changes. All managers could be wrong, and fans could be right, about bullpen management tactics — in theory. In theory Communism works. In theory.

Three main factors are at play here. First is the now-tired, but still relevant, trope that managers possess far more information than fans. Girardi, we learned early in his tenure, keeps track of not only when his relievers get into games, but also when they warm up in the pen. You might not have seen David Robertson for a few days, but if he pitched two days in a row and then warmed up in each of the next two, he might not be available. This information gap also extends to Girardi’s knowledge of the individual player. Perhaps he doesn’t feel a particular player, on a particular day, is well-suited for a particular situation. We can criticize that, but it doesn’t hold much water if we don’t know the players and the circumstances.

Second is negativity bias. We tend to remember the bad decisions, because they result in agita and, in many instances, losses. Losing sucks, so that feeling sticks in our craws far longer than, say, the time when Girardi brought in David Robertson in the third inning after Andy Pettitte, who left with an injury, put two on with one out and had three balls on the batter. We might not remember that Robertson got out of the bases loaded, one out situation unscathed, which kept the game close at hand for when the Yanks exploded for seven runs and won.

The third is general discontent with managers. Moe Szyslak aptly sums up the sentiment: “The only thing I know about strategy is that whatever the manager does, it’s wrong. Unless it works, in which case he’s a button pusher.”

They don’t like how he deals with the media

I find this gripe odd. Why do fans care if the manager gets testy when the media asks its typically dumb questions? In many instances it comes off as endearing. There are good reporters who ask thoughtful questions, and they certainly deserve a respectful answer. So far as I have seen, Girardi has done just that. There are other reporters who ask the same pointless questions, or cliched and meaningless questions, all the time.* There comes a point where it’s reasonable to lose patience with them. We saw Girardi get a little angry in those situations in 2013.

* At a game I was covering in 2010, Girardi was giving his pre-game press talk. Javy Vazquez had pitched the previous night, and Phil Hughes was on the mound that night. The reporter asked a random question about A.J. Burnett — something asinine, too, along the lines of, “how would you characterize your confidence in A.J. Burnett?”

Honestly, I appreciate it when players and personnel take an attitude with the media. Yes, the reporters are just doing their jobs, but the good ones recognize that asking dumb, repetitive questions don’t help their causes. I miss the days when Mike Mussina scoffed at reporters. In 2013 I missed Derek Jeter poking fun at Kim Jones’s generic questions. It sure beats hearing players give the same boring responses to the same boring questions.

They mock the binder

Heaven forbid the manager has material at hand to inform his decision. For some reason, the media started mocking Girardi for consulting this binder in 2008, and fans followed in kind. This I will never understand. You mock a guy who makes poor “gut” decisions, but also mock a guy who employs data when making those same decisions? It’s senseless, and it goes right back to what Moe said.

Friend of RAB R.J. Anderson wrote about this issue at the time of Girardi’s previous extension:

Pretend for a moment that Girardi’s binder contains information about platoon splits and the basic rundown of data that a manager should be equipped with for in-game decisions. Whether this is the case or not is unbeknown to outsiders, but just pretend. Is there any downside to a manager having the information on hand with which to consult? Perhaps if the information itself is trivial or useless (i.e. how batters fared versus lefties over the last week or on Sundays), then Girardi is hurting the club, otherwise it’s hard to think of a downside.

Assuming that is not the case, the mocking of Girardi’s binder highlights the weird juxtaposition of the media’s treatment toward baseball managers who use information and prep work and their football counterparts who absorb film and schemes. Using numbers does not make Girardi a great manager, but it also does not make him a nincompoop. If he acknowledges that his gut and experience in the game does not hold all of the game’s answers, then he might be more self-aware and conscious than quite a few of his managing counterparts.

The binder contains information that can help balance data and gut feelings. It can influence better decisions. I’m sure that if he kept all the data in an iPad (which, as far as I can tell, isn’t allowed in an MLB dugout), fans and media wouldn’t say a word.

There are, to be sure, a number of other reasons why fans dislike Girardi, and I encourage detractors to elaborate in the comments. For our current purposes, I’ll list the one reason, above all others, I like Joe Girardi and think that he’s a great fit for the Yankees:

He protects his players

When the media asks questions of his players, he refocuses the conversation to himself. In other contexts that might sound egotistical, but in the case of a baseball manager it’s a virtue. Fans lauded Joe Torre his ability to manage the media, and Girardi is in many ways growing into that role (though he’s quite a bit surlier than his predecessor). Girardi never speaks even a drop of ill about his players, even when they deserve it.

If you stick up for your players, you can earn their respect. It does seem that Girardi has the team’s respect, which is all you can really ask of a manager. What effect did that have on the team? Well, they did outperform their Pythagorean record by six wins and their third-order wins by more than 10. Not all of that was due to Girardi’s influence, but if even one of those wins stemmed from something intangible he brings to the table it speaks well of his clubhouse presence.

In terms of the 2013 season, Girardi took an impossible situation, which started with shaky roster construction and continued with key injuries, and did a good a job as you can expect from anyone in that position. What could he done to further tip the scales in his team’s favor? From this perspective, little to nothing. The four-year deal he just signed signals the Yankees feel the same way.

Prospect Profile: Aaron Judge
A-Rod: "I walked out and will not participate any further in this farce."
  • blake

    say what you want about Joe (he drives me nuts sometimes too) but the team has overachieved the last 2 seasons. They won 95 games and made it to the ALCS in 2012 with a very one dimensional offense and shaky back end rotation and in 2013 they somehow won 85 with the Astros offense 2/3 of the year and Sabathia having a 5 ERA.

    Girardi has done a great job

    • Chip

      This is exactly right. Look at one of the lineups they ran out there in July


      Would anybody except Cano be a starter in the Red Sox lineup? It’s very difficult to directly compete with another team who is obviously better than you at every position. Now, I obviously picked a day when Gardner didn’t start but he would probably be a platoon player on the Red Sox due to the fact that they were so deep this year in the outfield.

      • Robinson Tilapia

        In 2012, a whole lot of them would have started in the Sox lineup. Just sayin.

        • I’m One

          And how well did those 2012 Red Sox do? Seems that Girardi may have had some influence on how the team performed. The Yankees could certainly do worse.

  • TWTR

    I think the bottom line with most managers is do they help the team more than hurt it. With Girardi, it’s unequivocally, yes. He has a conscience about blowing out pitchers’ arms, and he’s at least neutral from strategic point of view.

    If, in fact, they start to actually attempt to develop more position players, it will be interesting to see how he handles that.

  • Kramerica Industries

    This is why it’s so nice to see Joe and Ben around a little more once again.

    That Communism bit was great.

    • Havok9120

      Yes it is and yes it was.

      Well done JoePawl.

  • Coloyank

    I think less than 10% of what a manager does is visible, ie, in-game moves. The other 90%-plus occurs during the other 21 hours of each day. The way this club has played under Girardi shows that he excels at his job.

  • whozat

    I thought the Dempster/ARod thing was a great example of Joe standing up for his players. We know that ARod isn’t popular in that clubhouse, and it seems likely that Joe has to be at least exasperated with the situation, if not Alex himself. And yet, Joe not only stood up for his guy, but was obviously angry after the game about what had gone on. It showed not only that he has everyone’s back, but that he really believes that every one of his players deserves his protection — even the most unpopular PITA in the room.

    • TWTR

      Good call. I think that was his finest moment as Yankee manager because, as you suggest, he didn’t have to do it.

    • Havok9120

      Agreed, I really loved that response from Joe.

      It helps that he so rarely gets truly worked up. So when he does, it helps make a statement.

  • LarryM Fl

    I will make this a short response. I like Joe G. because he does a good job. It is true as Coloyank indicated that 90% of the manager’s job is not viewed by the public/fans.

    Sure I scratch my head at times with his moves. But he has a few more World Series rings and few games behind the plate than I do.

  • mitch

    Glad you called out the binder whiners. Some people just need to complain about everything.

  • Kiko Jones

    You mock a guy who makes poor “gut” decisions, but also mock a guy who employs data when making those same decisions?

    No, it’s when he employs one when he should be utilizing the other. Sometimes, there are moves that even Stevie Wonder can see are necessary; Joe often opts for his binder under these circumstances. THAT drives folks crazy.

    But I like Joe G, overall. And his defense of A-Rod in the Dumpster situation won me over big time.

    • Havok9120

      Yeah, but the vast majority of such circumstances won’t be clear until after they’d happened. And many of the people who complain when he does that would complain just as hard if he went the other way and it failed.

      It is not uncommon for people to complain he is both using his gut too much and sticking too closely to the data in the same Game Thread. At a certain point, that just starts to look like pure hindsight-based angst.

  • David

    Great piece, one gripe: Did anyone really expect the 2013 Yankees to win?

    • I’m One

      Had Teix, Granderson, Jeter and A-Rod been healthy (by mid-season in A-Rod’s case)? Yes, I think there were plenty of people that expected that team to be fighting for the AL East title.

    • Havok9120

      Before Tex and Granderson got hurt and before CC opened the season looking totally lost and never recovered?

      Yes, I can confirm there were plenty of people thinking the team would be contending for the division unless everything went wrong for the Yanks (as it quite nearly did) and everything went right for another team (as it quite nearly did).

    • lee

      good point — consensus of the major projection systems was for the Yankees to finish with 85 wins, third in the East, and out of the playoffs. which is exactly where they finished. so this whole idea of firing Girardi because of the Yankees’ “poor” season is nonsense. they ended up doing exactly what they were projected to do. and that in spite of the injuries. for that, kudos to Girardi.

  • brian

    Girardi did a good job in 2013, no question about it…

    It ain’t easy being the manager of the Yankees… Joe Torre had a brilliant 12 year run here and is only now, 6 years after his departure, getting the universal accolades he so clearly deserves

    Here’s the one problem I see for Girardi,,, he resigned to a 4 year deal, meaning at the end of it he will have managed this team for ten years… he HAS to get one more championship under his belt or he’ll be remembered as a failure… not fair, but thats the way it is

  • Robinson Tilapia

    Thank you, both Joes.

    And thank you, Joe P., for taking on my least favroite meme of all time, the binder. In other industries, you don’t get mocked for relying on a best practices model.

  • Nick

    What’s wrong with Big Bang Theory?

    • Steve

      Nothing. BBT is a funny show with pretty creative writers. It’s very popularity makes it uncool for people that think they’re above the hoi polloi. I have a friend that loves to say shows have jumped the shark after 2 seasons when they clearly haven’t. These type of people like to thing their non-conformity makes them cool. Sorry Joe it doesn’t.

    • lee

      yeah, WTF was that comment all about?

  • jim p

    There might be one or three managers who could do better, but Joe’s pretty good. Two things I don’t like: Ichiro is career, and 2013, better against lefthanders than right. But he’d sit him against lefties.

    The other: not every pitcher is going to be on every day. I’d do a lot less bullpen shuffling than Joe. If a guy comes out, throws 6 pitches, gets two out to end the inning, there’s going to be someone else out there next inning. I wish he’d stick with the hot hand a bit more. That said, he’s soooo much better than Torre with the bullpen, better than most managers, and has been his whole tenure.

  • WayneD

    Thank you, Joe, for a thorough, intelligent, and perceptive analysis of Joe Girardi’s considerable skills as a manager. You were right on target on every point you raised. I’ve often defended Girardi’s managerial abilities in arguments with less knowledgeable Yankee fans, so it was refreshing to hear similar views expressed in such a coherent and intelligent manner.

    In answer to the grippers, I say only this: do you actually believe there has been any manager in baseball history who went an entire career or even an entire season without making a mistake? Come on, guys, be realistic.

    And while we’re at it, spare me the praise about Jore Torre’s managerial skills. He was an excellent rapport with most of his players, he was excellent at dealing with the NY press, and he’s a hell of a nice guy. But he was a sub-500 manager before inheriting a star-studded line-up, and he was no better than an average in-game manager, as indicated by how many times he was totally out managed by Mike Scioscia.

    Furthermore, Joe Torre was responsible for possibly The Dumbest Move in Baseball History when he failed to demand that a playoff game in Cleveland be suspended while about 100 bugs were darting about Joba’s face and landing in his eyes while he was attempting to pitch in a crucial situation. If Girardi had done something that inexplicably stupid, his detractors would have gone nuts on him. So, spare me the BS that Joe Torre was so much better than Girardi: Girardi is a significantly better in-game manager than Torre, and he’s far more adept at handling a bullpen.

    We’re very fortunate to have Girardi; he’s one of the best in the game, and he did a brilliant job this year keeping a decimated team in the pennant race. They failed to make the playoff because of two things: injuries and ownership’s penny-pinching last season, neither of which were Girardi’s fault.

  • Ian

    I have to push back a bit on both the article and most of the commentary. Its not that I necessarily think Girardi is bad or below average, I just think that in the absence of much evidence any way, he gets the benefit of the doubt because the team was a bit lucky this year (i.e. they outperformed their run differential).

    I also think people gloss over the fact that he continued to give at bats to metaphysical zeros like Wells, Ichiro, and (grinding teeth) Chris Stewart. It is easy enough to say, “What is the alternative?” and that’s fine to a point, but given that all three were at or below replacement, I think it would have been preferable to give AAA bodies a shot. Maybe my gripe really comes down to Stewart’s inexplicable playing time.

    Finally, its not the binder that aggravates. Its my sense that Girardi doesn’t really understand things like sample size. Granted, this is weak anecdotal analysis on my part, but I feel as though he makes too much of either dated or SSS data when crafting matchups. He’s fine, but is there really an empirical case to call him one of the best managers in baseball?

  • Improbable Island’s Dirty Midget Whores (formerly RRR)

    You think Pettitte is better than Whitey Ford and don’t like the Big Bang Theory.

    I don’t even know you.

  • Improbable Island’s Dirty Midget Whores (formerly RRR)

    Can we really look at results here? The Yankees were projected to win pretty much exactly as many games as they won. Well, congrats. Girardi did fine.

    Sure, they outdid their pythag, but then they outperformed it by SO much that I think it’s fair to say that it’s something like the 2012 Orioles’ record in one run games – a useful one season statistical quirk but probably not related to any actual, repeatable skill.

    Girardi did fine. He handled the media very well. I thought his normally excellent handling of the bullpen fell off a bit this year, but then the bullpen collapsed like a house of cards, so I won’t hold it against him.

    In the end, Girardi brought the team to 85 wins. He was expected to bring the team to 85 wins. He did fine. Not great, not bad, but solid. Good on ya, Joe.