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What Went Right: Joe Girardi

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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.

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Late last night, word came down from Hal Steinbrenner that the Yankees will not be making any changes to their player development system this winter. No major personnel changes, anyway. Damon Oppenheimer will remain amateur scouting director, Mark Newman will remain VP of Baseball Ops, and Pat Roessler will remain director of player development. This comes after nearly three months of auditing the farm system and trying to figure out why it was so unproductive this past season and has been over the last several years.

“Yeah, we have. We’ve made some changes,” said Hal to Andy McCullough yesterday when asked about the development staff. “The vast majority of the changes will be procedural. We’ve changed a few coaches, and we’ve brought in a few people. But [Brian Cashman] spent a lot of time, a good two months, looking at process: How we do things, how people communicate with each other. And we found some things that we were not happy with. So we changed them.”

“Procedural” changes. They’re going to change the way they communicate. They’re going to rearrange some furniture, slap some lipstick on the organizational pig, and go about business as usual. The problems were big enough to swap out some coaches and improve communication but not make wholesale changes. The guys in charge are on the right path, they just need to tweak some things and everything will be good. Change some procedures and ¯\_(:-/)_/¯. That’s one way to take that quote.

Now, let’s be serious for a second. Over the last few years, the Yankees have seen many prospects either stall out or go down with a major injury, especially pitchers. The last top pitching prospect, a “hey this guy could be really special” guy, to not blow out his arm in the minors was Joba Chamberlain in 2007. Andrew Brackman blew out his arm, Dellin Betances blew out his arm, Manny Banuelos blew out his arm, Alan Horne blew out his arm, Jose Campos blew out his arm, and Christian Garcia blew out his arm twice. Ty Hensley blew out his hip, so I guess he’s the exception right now.

There are always going to injuries (especially to pitchers) and there will always be some level of attrition. It’s completely unavoidable. But I think we’re beyond the point of blaming it on attrition or bad luck. The Yankees admitted to feeling the same way when Hal launched his investigation into the team’s farm system a few months ago. That was an admission on his part that something is going wrong somewhere, that things are not turning out the way they should be. Simply put, New York has not been able to turn their prospects into productive big leaguers. They fart out some relievers every so often but so does every other club, they aren’t anything special in that regard.

Now here’s the thing: I think the Yankees actually do a pretty good job of acquiring high-end talent, both internationally (before the spending restrictions were put into place, anyway) and in the draft. Yes, it could be better (it could always be better), they have made some questionable high picks in recent years (Cito Culver and Dante Bichette Jr., most notably), but they still walked away with top shelf guys like Tyler Austin, Mason Williams, and Greg Bird in the later rounds, for example. Williams has underperformed, Bird has dealt with injury, and Austin has battled both. The talent is there, they just can’t get these guys over the developmental hump.

As an outsider, evaluating a farm system and a development system is close to impossible because so much of it happens away from cameras and reporters. All we see is the results and, let’s be real here, the results stink. They’ve stunk for a few years now. The Yankees are in the middle of this weird transitional period where payroll is coming down and the last remnants of the dynasty years are fading away, so support from homegrown young players is vital. They haven’t been getting it though, the results are obvious. In the five years since Brett Gardner and David Robertson came up, the team’s best homegrown player has been Ivan Nova (104 ERA+ in 504 innings), and that’s just not good enough.

“It’s really easy to say, ‘Get rid of this guy. Get rid of this guy. And get rid of that guy,’” said Steinbrenner. “But that doesn’t always solve the problem. Sometimes it’s procedural or process, the way scouts influence each other because they’re talking too much to each other — somebody has a preconception about a player they haven’t even seen yet because they’ve talked to two scouts about them and they go in to go see the player with those preconceptions. So those are the kind of things we’re working on, communication. We’re teaching the scouts. We’re going to teach them to look for different things, maybe things they haven’t looked at before.”

I was being a jerk and downplaying the value of procedural changes before but they are important. Something had to change and something did. We don’t know the scope or extent of those changes but something is being done behind the scenes unless Hal is lying. It’s possible these adjustments will fix everything, get the position players on track and stop the top pitchers from visiting Dr. Andrews once a year. But I think the track record of developmental failure is too long to only make procedural changes. New sets of eyes and new voices could help the club crack the player development riddle no one in the organization seems to be able to solve. The Yankees had a chance to make meaningful changes to their farm system these last few weeks, but they opted for the half-measure instead.

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Nov. 12th: Hal Steinbrenner told reporters the team will make no changes to the player development staff, so Newman will remain in his current role. They are making changes to their player development system that Hal called “procedural.” So nothing. They’re doing nothing, basically.

Oct. 26th: Via Mark Feinsand: Amateur scouting director Damon Oppenheimer will remain with the team in that role. He was rumored to be one of executives in danger of being replaced due to the team’s recent farm system failures. Oppenheimer has been the team’s scouting director since the 2005-2006 offseason and he’s been considered for a handful of GM jobs over the years.

Meanwhile, Feinsand says other changes are expected to be made in the baseball operations department. Long-time VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman was rumored to be on the hot seat alongside Oppenheimer, so he might be the one to take the fall for the unproductive farm system. The Yankees have been essentially auditing their player development staff in recent weeks and I’m glad to hear some changes are coming. Too much has gone wrong — top prospects keep stalling out and pretty much every pitching prospect worth a damn gets hurt — to maintain status quo.

Categories : Asides, Front Office
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9:00pm: Joel Sherman reports the D’Backs also have interest in Triple-A Scranton pitching coach Scott Aldred for their pitching coach job. He’s been the pitching coach at various levels of New York’s farm system since 2007. Sherman says Arizona will ask for permission to interview both Harkey and Aldred, and the Yankees will grant it because they’re seeking promotions.

5:35pm: Via Ken Rosenthal: The Diamondbacks are interested in Yankees bullpen coach Mike Harkey for their vacant pitching coach position. It’s unclear if he’s interviewed yet. Arizona GM Kevin Towers is surely familiar with him after spending the 2010 season with New York. Harkey, who is one of Joe Girardi‘s closest friends and confidants, signed a new contract with the team last week along with the rest of the coaching staff. I assume the club wouldn’t block him from making an upward move if the opportunity comes along, however.

Categories : Asides, Coaching Staff
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Via Juan Rodriguez: The Yankees have hired Marlins third base coach Joe Espada as a special assistant to Brian Cashman. The team approached him about a pro scouting position recently. “It took me a couple of days to make the decision [because] I enjoy being on the field, but there’s stuff I need to learn,” he said. “I listened to their ideas and their plans, and was very interested to see more and be part of a winning organization.”

Espada, 38, had been with the Marlins since 2006 and had served as their third base coach since 2010. He was reassigned after the season and named the manager of their High-A affiliate in Jupiter. Espada was a second round pick in the 1996 draft and he bounced around the minors for ten seasons as an infielder before calling it a (playing) career. Don Wakamatsu, who joined the Yankees as an assistant to Cashman last winter, left the team to join the Royals’ coaching staff recently. I assume Espada is filling Wakamatsu’s role now.

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The Yankees have re-signed their entire coaching staff for 2014, the team announced. That includes Tony Pena (bench coach), Larry Rothschild (pitching coach), Kevin Long (hitting coach), Mick Kelleher (first base coach), Rob Thomson (third base coach), and Mike Harkey (bullpen coach). All of their contracts had expired on October 31st. Not surprising news.

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Via George King: Brian Cashman confirmed there is still no update on the status of Joe Girardi‘s coaching staff. Girardi signed a new deal a few weeks ago, but all of his coaches’ contracts expire at midnight tonight. “I wouldn’t say [what's going to happen], once the deals are done we will put out a release. I won’t say until it’s done,” said the GM.

The Yankees reportedly agreed to a new contract with pitching coach Larry Rothschild two weeks ago, but there haven’t been any updates and nothing has been made official. It’s been rumored that hitting coach Kevin Long could leave to join close friend Don Mattingly, either with the Dodgers or elsewhere if he winds up with another team. Third base coach Rob Thomson and Tony Pena seem to interview for managerial openings every winter (Thomson has already been connected to the Mariners). Bullpen coach Mike Harkey is one of Girardi’s closest friends and confidants, and he’s expected to return. Have to think this stuff will be taken care of relatively soon.

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Cavalea won't be back next year. Maybe not A-Rod either. (AP)

Cavalea won’t be back next year. Maybe not A-Rod either. (AP)

Some updates on the coaching staff and whatnot, courtesy of Mark Feinsand, Joel Sherman, and Jeff Wilson:

  • Brian Cashman reached out to the coaching staff last week to discuss new contracts. Their deals all expire on October 31st. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild has reportedly agreed to a new contract and bullpen coach Mike Harkey — Joe Girardi‘s closest confidant — is expected to return as well.
  • There’s a chance hitting coach Kevin Long will leave the team to join Don Mattingly, either with the Dodgers if he gets a contract extension or with a new team if he is let go and winds up elsewhere. The two grew close in 2007, when they were both on New York’s coaching staff.
  • Strength and conditioning coach Dana Cavalea will not be brought back when his contract expires next week. He had been with the team since 2007. The Yankees told Cavalea they plan to go “in a different direction with the position.”
  • Pro scout Don Wakamatsu recently interviewed for the Rangers’ bench coach job. They hired Tim Bogar away from the Angels instead. The Yankees brought Wakamatsu on board last winter and I assume he’s still with the team.
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Via Nick Cafardo: The Yankees appear to be “on the verge” of making changes to their scouting and player development departments. The team has been reviewing their farm system operations these last few weeks, starting with a staff meeting held by Hal Steinbrenner in August. “It’s something we’re going to be looking at. I have no problem dealing with reality,” said Brian Cashman when asked about the team’s lack of near MLB ready prospects last month.

There’s no word on what changes may be coming, but VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman and amateur scouting director Damon Oppenheimer are reportedly the most likely to get the axe. I would think Pat Roessler, the team’s director of player development since 2005, is on the chopping block as well. The barrage of unproductive high draft picks and stalled out top prospects has left the team in a dire situation at a time when payroll is coming down and free agent spending is going up around the league. The Yankees can’t sit around and act like this is acceptable any longer.

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Via Mark Feinsand: The Yankees have agreed to terms on a new contract with pitching coach Larry Rothschild. We first heard a new deal was in the works last week and an official announcement is expected shortly. Terms of the contract are unknown, but Rothschild signed a three-year deal when he first joined the team. There is “nothing to report” about the status of the rest of the coaching staff, according to Brian Cashman. The coaches’ contracts all expire on October 31st.

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