What Went Right: Joe GirardiBy
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.