The Coaching Staff [2016 Season Review]

Thomson and Girardi. (Presswire)
Thomson and Girardi. (Presswire)

It’s time to do the impossible with our season review series: evaluate coaches. It can’t be done from where we sit. We can try, but ultimately we never do anything more than project player performance onto the coaching staff, and that’s sorta dumb. The offense isn’t clicking? Time to get a new hitting coach. The pitchers stink? New pitching coach. Same old story, year after year, all around the league.

These guys are coaches, not miracle workers. Almost all of their work takes place behind the scenes, and for every little mechanical adjustment that generates headlines, there are dozens that go unreported. Teams have far more insight into what their coaches do or do not do well. As fans, all we can do is speculate. Evaluating coaches from here is basically impossible. That won’t stop us though. Let’s review the year that was with the coaching staff.

Bench Coach: Rob Thomson

Gosh, Thomson has been with the Yankees a long time. He originally joined the organization back in 1990 as a minor league coach. Since then he’s held all sorts of roles, including director of player development and vice president of minor league development before joining the Major League coaching staff. Thomson spent the 2008 season as Joe Girardi‘s bench coach and the 2009-14 seasons as the third base coach before resuming his role as bench coach last year.

As the bench coach, Thomson is Girardi’s right hand man, who from what I understand has a lot of responsibility communicating with players before and after games. I know a lot of folks think the bench coach is supposed to whisper sweet nothings into the manager’s ear and help him make strategic decisions, but that’s only part of the job. I have no real opinion of Thomson as the bench coach. He’s been at it a very long time and I have no doubt he has an awful lot to offer the team. Boring review is boring.

Pitching Coach: Larry Rothschild

Rothschild and Dellin. (Presswire)
Rothschild and Dellin. (Presswire)

This was somehow Rothschild’s sixth season as the Yankees’ pitching coach. Geez, does time fly or what? Rothschild came under more criticism this year than any other season with the Yankees, mostly because Michael Pineda continued to be frustrating as hell and Luis Severino went backwards. “Who has he improved?” was a popular refrain, as if that could ever be answered with some level of certainty.

In 2016, CC Sabathia reinvented himself as a cutter pitcher and had his best season in four years. Masahiro Tanaka transitioned from four-seam fastball pitcher to sinker pitcher (and back to four-seam fastball pitcher) to combat his home run woes. Severino took a massive step back, first with his command and then with the disappearance of his changeup. Chad Green learned a cutter and that was cool. Bryan Mitchell (walks) and Luis Cessa (homers) had good superficial stats but worrisome trends under the hood.

Overall, New York’s pitching staff was ninth in baseball with +18.2 fWAR this year despite being 15th in ERA (4.16) and 27th in innings (1428.1). That’s because their team strikeout and walk rates were, once again, excellent. They were fifth in baseball with a 23.1% strikeout rate and fourth with a 7.4% walk rate. During Rothschild’s six years as pitching coach, the Yankees are third in strikeout rate (21.5%), third in walk rate (7.3%), and third in fWAR (+115.2).

How much of the credit or blame goes to Rothschild? Beats me. All I know he’s highly regarded around baseball — “Larry is a master of psychology with big arm guys. He gets them to believe in their secondary pitches,” said a scout to Andrew Marchand and Wally Matthews last year — and he will be back next season, like it or not. The Yankees gave Rothschild a new one-year contract after the season.

Hitting Coaches: Alan Cockrell & Marcus Thames

For the third straight year, the Yankees had a new hitting coaching coach in 2016. In 2014 it was still Kevin Long. Last year it was Jeff Pentland with Cockrell as his assistant. This year it was Cockrell with Thames as his assistant. It appears the revolving door of hitting coaches will stop with Cockrell and Thames. If one or both was going to be replaced, they’d be gone already.

Cockrell. (Presswire)
Cockrell. (Presswire)

In 2016 the Yankees ranked 22nd in runs (680), 19th in home runs (183), 20th in AVG (.252), 25th in OBP (.314), 21st in SLG (.405), and 21st in wRC+ (92). (wRC+ is park adjusted, so it accounts for hitter friendly Yankee Stadium.) Below-average by any measure. That is partly due to Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez giving the Yankees 681 plate appearances of nothing, which I have a hard time blaming on the hitting coaches. Old players got old. News at 11.

“Good and bad. I’ll leave it at that,” said Cockrell to Brendan Kuty when asked to evaluate his season. “You always reflected on what you did or didn’t do or would do differently. In all honesty, I’ve done some of those things already. I’ve looked at some of those things and when it comes to our three, four, and five hole guys … We’ve been looking for offense in a lot of different ways. It’s a tough league, man. It’s been a grind.”

Going forward, the Yankees are going to give Cockrell and Thames much more young talent to work with, players whose best years are still ahead of them (hopefully). There’s Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge, Tyler Austin and Greg Bird, Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro. Don’t forget about Clint Frazier either. Thames, who has a history with many of these guys from his days as a minor league hitting coach, and Cockrell will be in charge of helping these players become impact big leaguers.

First & Third Base Coaches: Tony Pena & Joe Espada

The Yankees had a 77% success rate stealing bases this season, fifth highest in baseball, which I guess means Pena did his job as first base coach? He’s out there with the stopwatch timing the pitcher’s delivery and the catcher’s pop time, determining whether his runners can steal second. There’s more to it, of course, and besides, Pena’s primary focus is working with the catchers. He’s going to put Sanchez through a full year of catching boot camp in 2017.

Espada is … well … not very popular as third base coach. Are any third base coaches popular? I don’t think so. At best, they’re overlooked because they’re not making mistakes. The Yankees had only 12 runners thrown out at the plate this year, tied for the second fewest in baseball, but gosh, more than a few of those 12 were egregious. Remember this?

Lordy. Rob Refsnyder tells you everything you need to know there. He slowed up rounding third because he did not expect to be sent home on a hard-hit single to Kevin Kiermaier, but Espada sent him, and Refsnyder had to pick up the pace. We’ve seen a few of those “why did he send him, geez?” sends the last two seasons.

Espada is generally conservative when it comes to sending runners home — he waved 55% of runners home from second on a single and first from a double, below the 68% league average — which is out of necessity more than anything. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury are the only above-average runners on the roster. Espada’s not going to send guys like Sanchez and Bird home too often. They’re just not fast. Even with the conservative approach, there are still too many obviously bad sends for my liking. It’s bad. Bad bad bad.

Bullpen Coach: Mike Harkey

Harkey rejoined the Yankees this season after the team parted ways with Gary Tuck, who reportedly had some run-ins with the front office about their use of analytics. Harvey was New York’s bullpen coach from 2008-13 before leaving to join the Diamondbacks as their pitching coach. Arizona let him go after last season, so back to the Yankees he came.

The bullpen coach is effectively a second pitching coach, though during games, he stands out in the bullpen and answers the phone. The most memorable part of Harkey’s season came on September 26th, when Girardi and Rothschild were ejected following Severino’s hit-by-pitch war with the Blue Jays. Harkey had to go to the dugout to take over as pitching coach.

With no coach in the bullpen, Tyler Clippard took over as the bullpen coach for the remainder of the game because he is the team’s most veteran reliever. It was Clippard’s job to answer the phone and wave his hat at the dugout to let them know the reliever was ready:

tyler-clippard-bullpen-coach

Out of all the GIFs I’ve made for this stupid site, that might be my favorite. How ridiculous. This has been, rather easily, the most exciting bullpen coach season review in RAB history.

Year Nine of the Joe Girardi Era [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Joe Girardi‘s ninth season as manager of the Yankees — only Miller Huggins (1918-29), Joe McCarthy (1931-46), Casey Stengel (1949-60), and Joe Torre (1996-2007) had longer continuous stints managing the team — was unlike any of his previous eight seasons at the helm. From 2008-15, it was win win win, even when perhaps it shouldn’t have been.

In 2016, the objective changed. The goal coming into this season was to win and the goal remained the same until the trade deadline, when the roster dynamic changed. The Yankees sold veterans for prospects at the trade deadline, and while they feigned contention in August and September, the transition had begun. Girardi’s mission became developing the young players the Yankees added to the roster.

Evaluating a manager is basically impossible from where we sit as outsiders. It’s not nearly as simple as comparing the team’s actual record to their expected record based on run differential — the Yankees went 84-78 this year despite a 79-83 expected record based on their -22 run differential — for what I think are obvious reasons. There’s randomness at play and the run differential/expected record theory isn’t perfect.

Only so much of what the manager does is visible. He builds the lineup and makes pitching changes, and occasionally calls for a bunt and a hit-and-run, things like that. Most of the manager’s work happens behind the scenes, where he has to manage and motivate 25+ alpha males for more than seven months a year. That happens in the clubhouse, on the team plane, at the hotel, on the phone, and at home.

Effort level has never really been an issue for the Yankees under Girardi, based on what I’ve seen. Every team looks lethargic when they have problems scoring runs and the Yankees are no different. That’s not what I’m talking about. The players play hard deep into the season and the mental mistakes are generally kept a minimum. Believe me, there are a lot of teams out there that are completely checked out mentally come September.

When it comes to on-field decisions, Girardi is as predictable as it gets. He puts his players in specific roles and sticks with them until it’s no longer possible. I’m sure the players appreciate that. They all like knowing their role. Let’s attempt to break down Girardi’s on-field decision making this past season.

Bullpen Usage

Girardi has a reputation for being a strong bullpen manager, and while I agree he is, that reputation has become a bit outsized in recent years. Dellin Betances has worn down the last few years, and Girardi’s late-inning bullpen management is paint by numbers. Closer pitches the ninth inning. Eighth inning guy pitches the eighth inning. Seventh inning pitches the seventh inning. At least one 2016 Yankee thinks that approach is questionable.

“I know when (Aroldis) Chapman came back to us for the Yankees this year, Dellin and I were kind if up in the air about what order we would pitch,” said Andrew Miller to Jon Heyman a few weeks ago. “And in some instances it created a mess because we were both warming up next to each other … I’ve been lucky to have (managers) that really handled the bullpen well. But you hate to have two guys warming up at the same time. It seems wasteful in a sense.”

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Once Chapman returned from his suspension, Girardi was like a kid on Christmas morning. He didn’t know which toy to play with. There were multiple instances in which Betances would warm up in the seventh in case the starter got into trouble, but when he didn’t, Dellin would sit down and Miller would pitch the eighth. Rather than use Betances in the eighth because he was already warm, Girardi ended up warming up two pitchers. Wasteful, as Miller said.

Friend of RAB Eno Sarris attempted to develop an analytical method to evaluate managers — almost like a manager version of WAR — and one of his components was bullpen optimization. His analysis found Girardi was 12th best among all managers in optimizing his bullpen in 2016 — his best relievers faced the other team’s best hitters, etc. — but was also in the bottom third in rigidity, meaning he didn’t deviate much from assigned innings.

It goes without saying this analysis is far from perfect — it doesn’t account for all sorts of variables, like the days a reliever wasn’t available because he was puking his brains out in the clubhouse — though as a big picture look, it passes the sniff test. The results make sense to me. Girardi is flexible enough to use Betances outside his assigned inning under certain circumstances. Otherwise everyone pitches in specific situations.

Platoon Advantage

The Yankees have consistently ranked among the best teams when it comes to getting the platoon advantage offensively. Here are the top three teams in percent of plate appearances with the platoon advantage in 2016:

  1. Indians — 70%
  2. Yankees — 68%
  3. Mariners — 68%

No other team was over 64%. The Yankees were helped out by having a bunch of switch-hitters — Carlos Beltran, Chase Headley, Aaron Hicks, and Mark Teixeira combined for 1,715 plate appearances, or 28% of the team’s total — but Girardi also does a good job with platoon bats. When Austin Romine started, it was usually against a lefty. When Rob Refsnyder found his way into the lineup, it was usually against a lefty.

There are times Girardi goes overboard — remember Brendan Ryan, Platoon Bat? — and sometimes he seems completely unable to anticipate the other team’s move. There were a few instances in September when Girardi would pinch-hit Brian McCann for Billy Butler against a right reliever, only to have the other team counter with a lefty reliever. He’d choose McCann against a lefty over Butler against a righty even though the numbers said it was the wrong choice. Nitpicky? Yes. Doesn’t make it any less true though.

Instant Replay

This was the third season of the instant replay system, and for the third straight year, the Yankees had one of the highest success rates in baseball. The call was overturned on 68% of their challenges. Only the Royals were better. They were at 69%. The Yankees had the highest success rate in 2014 (82%) and 2015 (75%) as well. Video review man Brett Weber is nails.

There’s also this: the Yankees were dead last with only 28 challenges this year. Last year they had the ninth fewest challenges. The year before they had they fifth fewest. Once is a fluke, twice is a coincidence, three times is a trend. Girardi is conservative with his replay challenges. We have three years’ worth of data telling us that. He only uses them for sure things. He’s not one to roll the dice. Remember this?

That’s a potential leadoff triple in the seventh inning of a game the Yankees were trailing by three runs. Replays sure made it look bang-bang. The throw was there but Headley kinda sorta swim-moved around it. And yet, no challenge. The Yankees challenged zero plays that game. Their replay challenge went unused that night, like the vast majority of them.

I said this the last two years and I’m sticking to it: I’d like to see Girardi be more aggressive with his challenges. So his success rate will take a hit. Who cares? They don’t give out a trophy for that. I get the argument that if you blow your challenge early in the game, you might not have it later when you need it. That’s the risk you take. Girardi challenges so few plays as it is. The odds of that happening are small.

I’m not saying the Yankees and Girardi should challenge every close play, but surely they can do better than 28 challenges in 162 games, right? Did really only that few blown calls go against the Yankees (for the third straight season)? No, of course not. Come on. Girardi’s (and Weber’s!) success rate is high. Consistently one of the best in baseball. It’d be nice if they were a little more liberal with the challenges rather than leaving so many unused.

The Farewell Tours

Girardi, who is fond of saying he’s not here to manage farewell tours, had to manage two farewell tours this past season. First came Alex Rodriguez‘s in August, then came Teixeira’s at the end of the season. Teixeira’s went far smoother than A-Rod‘s. Girardi helped create some of the A-Rod awkwardness.

“If he wants to play in every game, I’ll find a way,” said the skipper after A-Rod’s forced retirement was announced. Then, of course, Rodriguez didn’t play. The Yankees were in Boston, where A-Rod played his first career game, and he was denied the opportunity to play.

“I came to the stadium really excited, hoping I would play all three games or maybe two out of three,” said Alex after finding out he would ride the bench in the first game of the series. “He just said, ‘We’re trying to win games.’ It was surprising and shocking.”

“I’m aware of what my quotes were,” said Girardi. “That there would be conversations and I would try to get him in every game, I said that. But what I’m saying is, I made a mistake. And I’m admitting that. And I’m admitting that to everyone who’s watching because I have a responsibility and I’m trying to take care of my responsibility.”

The Yankees had sold at the deadline the week prior, and while the goal should always be to win, Girardi’s words sounded hollow. Especially since A-Rod sat for long stretches of time, but when he did play, he batted third or fourth. It made no sense. It was the Derek Jeter farewell tour but more convoluted.

Rodriguez’s final night with the Yankees was incredible. His final week was not Girardi’s finest moment. He said one thing and did another, and it just didn’t come off well. He’s in charge of the clubhouse and trust is important, yet he went back on his word with the most veteran and one of the most respected guys in the clubhouse. Eh.

Outlook for 2017

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Given the direction of the franchise, the Yankees have to decide whether Girardi is the right manager to lead them through this rebuild transition. Managing a team designed to win right now is much different than managing a team built around a bunch of young players trying to find their footing in the show. Girardi had a team like that with the 2006 Marlins, so it’s not a completely new experience, but it will be very different.

Girardi’s contract expires after the 2017 season and it’s important to note Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner love him. If I had to bet right now, I’d bet on Girardi getting a new deal next winter. I also think the chances of a managerial change next year — as in after 2017, when his contract expires — are higher than they’ve ever been before. The Yankees haven’t played a postseason series in a while and that will only be tolerated so long, even with the youth movement underway.

Personally, I think Girardi’s a good but not a great manager in terms of on-field strategy. He’s not going to do anything that revolutionizes the game. He’s going to stick to the same approach because he’s stuck to that approach since the day the arrived in New York. A-Rod’s farewell tour notwithstanding, Girardi seems to do well in the clubhouse, and that’s the most important part of his job.

Yankees re-sign Larry Rothschild to one-year deal

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees have re-signed pitching coach Larry Rothschild to a one-year contract, the team announced yesterday. Next season will be his 43rd in professional baseball as either a player or instructor, which is pretty nuts. No word on Rothschild’s salary. No one seems to care about coach’s salaries anyway.

Rothschild, 62, was essentially a free agent; his contract expired following the season. Brian Cashman indicated earlier this week the Yankees wanted to bring him back. “(The coaches are) signed except for Larry Rothchild. His contract expires and I will meet with Larry today … I don’t have interest in recommending changes,” said the GM.

The Yankees hired Rothschild away from the Cubs following the 2010 season, and since then they lead the AL in WAR and strikeout-to-walk ratio. They’ve also set a new franchise single-season strikeout record in each of the last three seasons. Of course, there’s more to life than WAR and K/BB. The next good statistical way to evaluate coaches I see will be the first.

With Rothschild re-signed, the Yankees will return the entire coaching staff next season. I thought maybe the team would make a change at third base coach, but apparently not. The manager and coaches are all accounted for already. Now it’s time to make some upgrades to the player personnel.

Wednesday Links: Rothschild, CBA, Steinbrenner, YES

(Presswire)
Rothschild. (Presswire)

At noon today, Brian Cashman will hold his annual end-of-season State of the Yankees press conference. These things rarely bring major news — usually the only announcements are coaching changes — but Cashman is very candid by GM standards, so it’ll be interesting to hear what he has to say about the 2016 season and the team going forward. Until then, here are some links and bits of news to check out.

Rothschild hopes to return in 2017

The contract of pitching coach Larry Rothschild expired after the season, and he told Dan Martin he hopes to return in 2017. “We’ll see what happens,” said Rothschild. This is probably one of the things Cashman will discuss at today’s press conference. Rothschild has been New York’s pitching coach since the 2011 season, and since then the Yankees lead all AL teams in pitching WAR. They’re third among all 30 clubs.

Of course, evaluating a pitching coach (or any coach) is not nearly as simple as looking at WAR. I said what I had to say about Rothschild last month. I think the vast majority of the team’s pitching issues stem from their obsession with raw stuff over command and refinement. The Yankees have now missed the playoffs three times in the last four years, and they’ve replacing their hitting coach each of the last two offseasons. It wouldn’t surprise me if Rothschild is let go in a scapegoat move. We’ll see.

Manfred hopeful new CBA will be done soon

While speaking to reporters over the weekend, commissioner Rob Manfred said he is hopeful MLB and the MLBPA will finalize the new Collective Bargaining Agreement soon after the end of the postseason, according to Bob Nightengale and Ben Nicholson-Smith. “Both parties still have significant issues on the table,” said Manfred, who added this is not a “rip the agreement up, start over type of negotiation.”

I’m not in any way worried about a work stoppage — revenue is at an all-time high and both sides have too much to lose — though I am curious to see how the new CBA changes free agent compensation, the draft, and international free agency. My guess is the IFA system is changed pretty drastically. I don’t think MLB likes teams making a mockery of the system, like the Yankees did with their 2014-15 signing spree. Either way, change is on the horizon.

Steinbrenner among ten on Today’s Game Era ballot

Earlier this week, the Hall of Fame announced the ten-person Today’s Game Era ballot, according to the Associated Press. Among the ten are former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. The Boss was previously up for Hall of Fame election through the Expansion Era committee, though he didn’t receive enough votes. The Today’s Game committee will announce their voting results during the Winter Meetings in December. Twelve of 16 votes are needed for induction.

The Hall of Fame restructured their voting committees recently — the Veterans and Expansion Era committees are no more, and have been replaced by the Today’s Game (1988-present), Modern Baseball (1970-87), Golden Days (1950-69), and Early Baseball (1871-1949) committees — and the new ones meet every few years. Steinbrenner, who I think should be in the Hall of Fame, is on the Today’s Game ballot with Mark McGwire, Harold Baines, Albert Belle, Will Clark, Orel Hershiser, Davey Johnson, Lou Piniella, John Schuerholz, and Bud Selig.

YES ratings down in 2016

Surprise surprise: YES Network ratings were down this past season, according to Eben Novy-Williams. YES averaged approximately 218,000 viewers per game in 2016, down from roughly 233,000 per game last year, as best I can tell. Part of that is the squabble with Comcast; Comcast stopped carrying YES this year because they didn’t want to pay the rights fee. There are 900,000 or so Comcast subscribers in the Tri-State Area and I’m sure more than a few are Yankees fans.

From 2002-11, the first decade of the YES era, the network averaged about 400,000 viewers per game. Interest has waned in recent years thanks to some retirements (Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, etc.) and non-playoff seasons. Novy-Williams says SNY had higher ratings than YES for the first time ever this season — SNY averaged a little less than 264,000 viewers per game in 2016 — which isn’t surprising given the Comcast issue and the fact the Mets went to the World Series a year ago.

Saturday Links: A-Rod, Rowson, Braves, Gardner

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Later this afternoon the Yankees and Rays will continue their four-game series with the third game at Yankee Stadium. First pitch isn’t until 4pm ET, so here are some miscellaneous links to help you pass the time.

A-Rod expected to appear at Instructs

According to Brendan Kuty, Alex Rodriguez is expected to make an appearance at Instructional League later this month. As a special instructor, of course. Not as a player. “I’m very pleased to have somebody with Alex’s experience and time in the game to be able to share those experiences with our young players. Our best young players are all going to be part of Instructional League,” said farm system head Gary Denbo.

This year’s Instructs roster hasn’t been released yet but it’ll come out soon enough. It’s usually a collection of top prospects, recent draftees, and players who missed time due to injury. Greg Bird will face live pitching for the first time since shoulder surgery in Instructional League, for example. My guess is A-Rod will wind up spending a bunch of time with the team’s small army of middle infield prospects, specifically Gleyber Torres and Jorge Mateo.

Rowson joins Yankees

Minor league hitting coordinator James Rowson joined the Yankees earlier this week and has been with the team since, reports Dan Martin. Rowson has worked with Aaron Judge a ton over the years. “He’s trying to get comfortable here. Everything is new to him and he’s had his battles before and made the adjustments,” said Rowson. “He’s been through rough times, especially with the punch outs and he’s always come out on the other side. So I feel like he’s going to do that again.”

This is not all that uncommon, really. A handful of minor league coaches will join the big league team for a homestand in September pretty much every year. Every single one of the Yankees’ full season minor league affiliates qualified for the postseason this year though, so those coaches and instructors haven’t had a chance to come up yet. This isn’t Rowson’s first stint with the big league team and it won’t be his last. Chances are he didn’t join the team specifically to work with Judge.

Update: Minor league pitching coordinator Danny Borrell is with the Yankees as well, reports Chad Jennings.

Yankees to open SunTrust Park

(Braves)
(Braves)

The Yankees and Braves will open the brand new SunTrust Park with an exhibition game on Friday, March 31st next year, the Braves announced. Apparently only “A List Members” (season ticket holders) will be allowed to attend. Lame. Atlanta is moving into their new 41,500 seat ballpark just 20 years after moving into Turner Field. The Yankees and Braves opened Turner Field with an exhibition game in 1996 as well.

This year the Yankees closed out Spring Training with a pair of exhibition games at Marlins Park. Last year they played two at Nationals Park. The Cubs came to New York for two exhibition games in 2009, when the new Yankee Stadium opened. They do this stuff every year. Also, the fact this exhibition game is scheduled for March 31st suggests the 2017 regular season will begin on Monday, April 3rd. Next year’s schedule should be announced soon. Possibly next week.

Gardner nominated for Roberto Clemente Award

Brett Gardner is the Yankees’ nominee for the 2016 Roberto Clemente Award, MLB announced. Here are the nominees from each team. The award is given each year to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.” Three Yankees have won the award: Derek Jeter (2009), Don Baylor (1985), and Ron Guidry (1984).

Amazingly, MLB turned an award recognizing community involvement — and an award named after an iconic player and a great humanitarian — into a popularity contest. Each nominee has an official hashtag and the player who receives the most votes on Twitter and Facebook will win. Incredible. MLB really knocked this one out of the park, eh? I’m sure fans will recognize each player’s off-the-field work and definitely not vote for their favorite player. No way.

The Yankees should evaluate more than just their young players down the stretch

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Moreso than at any point in the last 20 years, the Yankees are in the middle of a youth movement. Aaron Judge is playing right field every day, and, most notably, Gary Sanchez has taken over as the starting catcher. That’s a big deal because Brian McCann is still on the roster. Judge is replacing the traded Carlos Beltran, so it’s an easy. McCann’s role has been reduced to make room for Sanchez. The Yankees are going all-in on the kids.

Beyond Judge and Sanchez, the Yankees have also called up Tyler Austin to take at-bats away from Mark Teixeira. Alex Rodriguez has been released too. Chad Green and Luis Cessa are in the rotation, though that’s more out of necessity than anything. Once rosters expand we’ll see Ben Gamel and Rob Refsnyder again, probably Luis Severino and others as well. Ben Heller will be back too. He was up last week but did not appear in a game.

The Yankees are making these moves and decisions because this season is close to a lost cause. Yeah, they’re technically still in the wildcard race, but it is a long shot. They admitted as much when they traded away arguably their three best players at the trade deadline. The Yankees are looking ahead to the future and allowing their top young players, the guys they intend build around doing forward, to get their feet wet now.

So far everything is going pretty well. Judge and especially Sanchez have produced right away, and while the instant success is good, how do they handle the inevitable failure? That matters too. The young players are front and center, and the Yankees will evaluate them the rest of the season. They’re not the only people the Yankees have to evaluate though. There’s also Joe Girardi. Is he the right man to lead the team through what they’re calling a “transition?”

I’m not here to criticize Girardi or call him a bad manager to anything like that. This is a legitimate question. The Yankees are trying to mold Sanchez and Judge and everyone else into the core of the next great Yankees team, and you want to have the right person leading them. This is important stuff. Managers don’t just fill out lineup cards and change pitchers. There’s a lot more that goes on behind the scenes. Here’s what we know about Girardi’s experience managing young players.

1. The Yankees have never asked Girardi to do something like this. Since hiring Girardi during the 2007-08 offseason, the Yankees have been a win-now team. That was the case even coming into this season. Things didn’t work out that way, so the team shifted gears at the trade deadline and now the emphasis is on young players. There’s been a Brett Gardner here and an Ivan Nova there over the years, but that’s pretty much it. The front office is now dropping a bunch of kids in Girardi’s lap, all at once. They’ve never done this before. The closest thing to this is when they started the 2008 season with both Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes in the rotation, and that lasted barely a month.

2. Girardi did manage a lot of rookies with the Marlins. Thanks to one of the team’s trademark fire sales, Girardi had to manage an incredible 22 rookies (!) with the 2006 Marlins. Heck, Girardi was a rookie himself. That was his first season as a big league skipper. He had a rookie middle infield (Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla), a rookie outfield (Josh Willingham, Reggie Abercrombie, Jeremy Hermida), four rookie starters (Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez, Scott Olsen) and more. That was an entire team of young players.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Managing a bunch of rookies with a Marlins team that has zero expectations and is under no microscope is a much different animal than managing rookies with the Yankees. Girardi had no choice but to play those guys in Florida. Hanley and Uggla were going to be his middle infield, the same way Didi Gregorius was going to be his shortstop last year. The difficult part is when you have a veteran like McCann and need to play a rookie like Sanchez. That can be tough and uncomfortable.

Last week was not Girardi’s finest week with the Yankees. He said last Sunday he would play A-Rod as much as he wanted during his final week, then it didn’t happen. That’s not a good look. Anything that could potentially compromise the players’ trust in the manager is bad. That also seemed to be an isolated incident, and I’m not entirely convinced Girardi wasn’t under orders from above to keep A-Rod on the bench. It’s not like that was part of a pattern. Quite the opposite, really.

Girardi generally defends his players tooth and nail and does what he can to take the heat off them. He’s not above calling players out when they make a mistake, but it is rare. He’s going to protect his players and I see that as quality you want in a manager in charge of a rebuild. The kids are going to make mistakes. They’re unavoidable. They’re going to throw to the wrong base, they’re going to slump, they’re going to do all of that. Being a young player trying to cut your teeth in the show can be overwhelming, especially in New York, and you want a manager who will guide the player through the tough times, not just pat him on the back when things go well.

At the same time, I’m a big believer in managers having a shelf life. Eventually things get stale and it’s time for a new voice and fresh ideas. Every manager is different, so sometimes getting stale happens after three years, or five years, or 15 years. Is Girardi approaching his shelf life? Eh, that’s tough to say. That’s something for the players to decide. It does seem like we’ve seen more careless mistakes (baserunning, etc.) from the Yankees this year than in the past, and fair or not, that reflects poorly on the coaching staff and manager.

I don’t think there’s any chance the Yankees will fire Girardi after the season, so this is all probably a moot point. Trading away veterans at the trade deadline took all the heat off him as far as missing the postseason. The people above him too responsibility for that. Brian Cashman and, more importantly, Hal Steinbrenner seem to like Girardi, so I think he’s safe. There’s two years left on his contract too. Like it or not, all signs point to Joe being back in 2017.

With that in mind, I am curious to see how Girardi handles the young kids the rest of the year, and not just the playing time. I’m curious to see how he helps them deal with the media when they struggle, and also how he helps them learn and become better players. The objective has changed. For most of Girardi’s time here it’s been all about winning. Now it’s about developing these young players into the next great Yankees, and the team wants to make sure they have the right man in charge to do that.

The Coaching Staff [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Once again, the Yankees made some changes to their coaching staff this past offseason. Not huge changes, but changes nonetheless. Two years ago Gary Tuck replaced Mike Harkey as bullpen coach. Last year the duo of Jeff Pentland and Alan Cockrell replaced Kevin Long at hitting coach, and Joe Espada took over as third base coach with Rob Thomson moving to bench coach and Tony Pena moving to first base coach.

This past offseason the Yankees replaced Tuck with Harkey — Tuck was reportedly let go due to a disagreement with the front office about the use of analytics — and promoted Triple-A Scranton hitting coach Marcus Thames to replace Pentland. Well, technically Cockrell was promoted to replace Pentland as the main hitting coach, with Thames replacing Cockrell as the assistant. Got all that?

It’s tough to preview or review the coaching staff because so much of what they do happens behind the scenes. Sometimes we can see the results of their work — Thames helped Ben Gamel add a leg kick last year, for example — but oftentimes we’re talking about adjustments the untrained eye won’t see. So rather than provide a rigorous analysis of the coaching staff, here is a more casual preview of the upcoming season.

The Manager

Can you believe this will be Joe Girardi‘s ninth season as manager? The Yankees have had two managers over the last two decades. They had eleven managers in the two decades before that, not counting the guys who were hired multiple times. I was still very young when George Steinbrenner was in his hiring and firing heyday, so I can’t really appreciate the continuity the Yankees have had the last 20 years.

Anyway, I have long believed the manager’s most important work takes place is in the clubhouse, where he has to manage 25 personalities (way more than that, really) day in and day out for eight months a year. That can’t be easy. The Yankees seem to have a very cohesive clubhouse — Alex Rodriguez referred to the veteran players as the “Board of Trustees” because of the way they oversee things — and that surely helps Girardi. Over the last few seasons the team has been largely distraction free and that’s a good thing. Girardi keeps the chaos to a minimum.

On the field, I think Girardi has two key responsibilities this year. One, don’t screw up the laughably great bullpen he’s been given. And he won’t. Girardi’s very good with his relievers. Yes, he makes moves that sometime backfire. That makes him like every other manager. We now have eight years worth of data telling us Girardi is good at a) turning marginal relievers into assets by putting them in good positions to succeed, and b) keeping his bullpeners fresh.

Managing this bullpen with the lead will be easy. Are the Yankees up in the late innings? Bring in Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, or Aroldis Chapman. Any of three will do. That’s the easy part of managing this bullpen. The tough part is all the other innings, when you’re trailing or deep into extra innings and the three big guys have been used. The Yankees are going to shuttle relievers in and out all year again, and it’ll be up to Girardi to get the most out of them.

The second key on-field responsibility this season is resting the regulars. Girardi and the Yankees seem to be all-in on this. They’ve been talking about it since the end of last season. They want to rest the veterans and try to avoid another second half offensive collapse. The versatile Aaron Hicks will make resting the outfielders easy. He can play any outfield position and he’s a switch-hitter. Hooray for that. The infield? Eh, things are a little up in the air there. Either way, keeping players fresh and productive will be very important in 2016.

Beyond all that, I’d like to see Girardi try a few more Hail Mary instant replay challenges this summer, which I discussed a few months ago. The team’s replay success rate may dip, but who cares? They don’t give out a prize for that. Girardi has to navigate this weird transition period as the “get younger and trim payroll but remain competitive” thing continues. I don’t think his job will be (or should be) in jeopardy if they miss the postseason, but who knows. After eight years, it’s pretty clear Girardi is an asset and one of the game’s better managers.

Cockrell and Thames (and Reggie). (Presswire)
Cockrell and Thames (and Reggie). (Presswire)

The Hitting Coaches

The Yankees are on their third hitting coach(es) in three years. They scored the second most runs in baseball last season, and outside of Chase Headley and Jacoby Ellsbury, pretty much everyone in the lineup met or exceeded expectations. That seems to be the criteria by which fans judge hitting coaches. Did the team score a lot of runs? Did the players meet expectations? If the answers are yes, the hitting coach is doing a good job.

This summer the Cockrell/Thames tandem will be tasked not so much with keeping the veterans productive, though that’s obviously important. Given the team’s direction, the more important goal is helping the young players, specifically guys like Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro. We could also lump Hicks and Gary Sanchez in there as well. The Yankee have put aside the present for the future, that couldn’t be any more clear, which is why the young guys are the priority. That’s … pretty much all I have to say about the hitting coaches. Go team.

The Pitching Coach

This year the Yankees did not give Larry Rothschild a project. Last season they dropped a shiny new Nathan Eovaldi into his lap and told Rothschild to turn him into a better pitcher. And he did! Rothschild taught Eovaldi a splitter and he was way more effective with that pitch. Based on that, the project was successful in the short-term. We’ll see what happens in the long-term.

In 2016, Rothschild’s pet project will be Luis Severino and perhaps Bryan Mitchell, assuming he’s in the Opening Day bullpen. Severino is very refined for a kid his age, but the Yankees do need to monitor his workload, and Rothschild is in charge of mapping that out. Mitchell has to improve his control and command and gosh, that’s a tough one. Rothschild can only do so much there. Baseball history is full of live arms who washed out because they couldn’t locate.

Rothschild is about to begin his sixth season as pitching coach — how the hell did that happen? didn’t they just hire him? — and in those five years the Yankees have had plenty of pitchers exceed expectations, and I’m talking about both veterans (Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Hiroki Kuroda) and young pitchers (Betances, Adam Warren, even Ivan Nova). Most of their pitching failures have been injury related. How much credit does Rothschild deserve? We can’t say, exactly. After five years, I feel pretty good with him running the show.

The Other Coaches

Harkey left the Yankees two years ago to take over as the Diamondbacks pitching coach. Arizona canned him at the end of last season, which was inevitable. He was a holdover from the previous regime and it was only a matter of time until GM Dave Stewart and head baseball operations hocho Tony La Russa brought in their own guy. They gave Harkey a year, then moved on, so now he’s back with the Yankees as bullpen coach. It’s like he never left.

Thompson returns as bench coach and I have no opinion about that whatsoever. Pena returns as first base coach — his is Pena’s 11th season on the coaching staff, by the way — and I also have no opinion about that. Both guys have been around forever and they wouldn’t continue to be around if they weren’t quality baseball minds. All bench and first base coaches are cool with me because I’m don’t really know what they do or how much influence they have. Pena works with the catchers. I know that much.

Third base coaches generally get a bad rap. They’re either hated or unnoticed. Espada was conservative sending runners last year and at least part of that was out of necessity. The Yankees are not a fast team aside from Ellsbury and Brett Gardner. Also, the Yankees scored a lot of runs last year, and when you can hit for power like they did, it makes sense to hold a runner if you think there may be a play at the plate. Teams that struggle to score runs have to really push it. The Yankees aren’t one of those teams.

That said, Espada did appear to be overly conservative at times, perhaps due to poor reads or not knowing the scouting reports on the outfielder’s arm. (Guessing it was the former, not the latter.) That’s something that has to be cleaned up. Espada’s not a rookie third base coach — he was the Marlins third base coach from 2010-13 — so he has experience. Hopefully his second year in New York goes a bit more smoothly now that he’s seen the league and is more familiar with his personnel.