Ban the shift? That’s a solution to a problem that might not even exist

The Dodgers used this shift back in 2014.
The Dodgers used this shift back in 2014.

Two nights ago Nathan Eovaldi lost a no-hitter in the seventh inning on a ground ball single to the shortstop position. The Yankees, as they often do, had an infield shift employed, so the shortstop was standing somewhere else. The ball scooted on through and the no-hit bid was over. So it goes.

Prior to last night’s game Joe Girardi was asked about the infield shift in general, and, to my surprise, he said he would like to get rid of them. Here’s what he said, via Dan Martin:

“It’s illegal defense, just like basketball,” he said. “Guard your man. Guard your spot. If I were commissioner, they’d be illegal. As long as it’s legal, I’m gonna play it.”

“I just think the field was built this way for a reason,” Girardi said. “Two on one side, two on the other.”

Girardi is entitled to his opinion and he’s certainly not the only person who would look to see shifts outlawed. I’m sure Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann would be in favor of them going away too. Lots and lots of left-handed batters have lost hits and batting average points and, by extension, dollars in their pocket because of the shift.

The rulebook says that with exception of the pitcher and catcher, defenders can position themselves anywhere in fair territory. Eliminating the shift would be a relatively easy fix. Second base creates a nice boundary, so MLB and the MLBPA could change the rules and force teams to play two infielders on each side of the bag. Boom. Problem solved.

I respectfully disagree with Girardi here. I’m not a fan of eliminating the shift. I’m not a fan of any rule change that would limit creativity within the game. Baseball, like everything else, is survival of the fittest. Players have to adapt to stay in the league and those who can’t get left behind. The game went through a seismic shift when breaking balls were first introduced because only a few players could hit them. After some time, hitters caught up.

Offense is down around the league these days for many reasons, and the shift is surely one of them. It is worth noting the league wide batting average on balls in play has not changed much over the years. The league has a .297 BABIP this year. It was .299 in 2015, .297 in 2010, .295 in 2005, and .300 in 2001. Since the strike in 1994, only once has the league BABIP fallen outside the .296-.303 range (.293 in 2012). The overall impact of the shift is overstated.

The shift has been around for years and yet it is still a relatively new phenomenon. Every team uses them to some extent, though a few holdouts have not fully bought in just yet. Teams haven’t yet had time to try to develop a generation of hitters to be shift beaters. The shift is still a baby. It’s still a little too early to be re-writing the rulebook for something that may fizzle out on its own in due time.

Creativity and innovation are good. I want teams to try to outsmart each other and come up with new ways to gain an advantage. It makes the game more competitive and more interesting, I think. We shouldn’t push aside something new because it goes against the way the game has been played for the last 150 years. Baseball is too old fashioned as it is. It could use some fresh ideas.

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.

Joe Girardi’s Spring Press Conference: Chapman, Tanaka, Castro, Gardner, Ellsbury, More

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Pitchers and catchers reported to Tampa for Spring Training today, meaning the first steps of the marathon that is the 2016 season have been taken. Joe Girardi met with reporters for his annual start-of-spring press conference this morning, and of course he was asked about all aspects of the team.

“Pretty much (quiet). I think it was evidence in the amount of time it took someone to ask a question this morning,” said Girardi when asked about this being a normal camp because they’re no huge stories. “We haven’t had the big story and that’s nice … It is a pretty regular Spring Training. I hope that doesn’t make it a boring Spring Training, but it is regular.”

Normal spring or not, Aroldis Chapman dominated this morning’s press conference, with questions about his pending suspension, the domestic dispute incident, and his role as closer. You can watch Girardi’s press conference right here (it’s chopped up into smaller clips.) Here’s a recap of the important stuff with some thoughts thrown in.

All Things Aroldis

  • On an appropriate punishment: “I think that’s up to the commissioner to decide. That’s not my job. Obviously I wasn’t in the room when they put the (domestic violence) policy together. I have not reviewed the cases … I know it’s very serious and we have to take it very serious. To me, it’s very important when there’s an issue, it’s taken care of.”
  • On behavioral concerns: “Obviously you look at behavioral patterns to see if guys are maturing … We’ve all probably done things in our lives we wish we could do a little differently. I want to get to know him before I really form an opinion about his character. It’s unfortunate sometimes players get labeled before you a chance to know him.”
  • On conduct: “I think there’s an expectation of conduct and how you’re supposed to handle things. The court of law is different than the court of MLB or the MLBPA (or) the public’s opinion. I think we have a responsibility as athletes with the way we present ourselves on and off the field, and I’m okay with that.”
  • On Chapman’s decision to appeal any suspension: “I think it tells you he wants to question the suspension … Does it tell me maybe he (doesn’t think he did) something wrong? I don’t think it says that.”
  • On getting to know Chapman: “I think it’s really hard to form a really good opinion by talking on the phone. There’s some language issues there … He’s very thankful to be here … But until I really get around him it’s really hard to form an opinion.
  • On making Chapman the closer: “He’s been a closer most of his career. It’s (a role) he’s probably most comfortable with. Andrew Miller did a tremendous job … Andrew has been a reliever most of his career — setup guy, seventh inning guy, lefty specialist — I thought it would be (easier for him) to adjust to it better than Chapman.”
  • On the trade itself: “His name was brought up, then it kinda died, then it happened really fast. I had some information about it (but) I was not given much information.”

Girardi danced around any questions regarding Chapman’s domestic dispute incident, which was to be expected. Technically MLB’s investigation is still ongoing and he wasn’t going to say anything remotely controversial. Girardi deflected everything with “that’s up to MLB” and “I have to get to know him,” basically.

I hope commissioner Rob Manfred announces the suspension soon, however long it may be, so Chapman can file his appeal and go through the process. The longer this goes on, the more of a distraction it will be. Let’s rip the band-aid off, so to speak. The sooner we can begin focusing on nothing but baseball, the better. During the press conference you could tell Girardi felt the same way.

The Rotation

  • On Masahiro Tanaka‘s elbow: “We will watch him closely to see where he’s at … We’ll make sure that we put him in a situation where he’s ready to go pitch before he gets into a game. If it takes a little longer, it takes a little longer.”
  • On the fifth starter spot: “I think you have to let things work their way out in Spring Training. I know (CC Sabathia‘s) name has been brought up in that conversation, as well as Ivan Nova. Sometimes things have just a way of working out. The competition just goes way. A lot of times, unfortunately, that comes down to health … The big thing is that we have five healthy starters when we leave Spring Training. That’s my goal. We’ll take the five best starters.”
  • On managing workloads: “I thought putting an extra starter in there helped them … I think just watching them physically and watching their innings (is important). You have to be sensitive to your bullpen that it doesn’t get overworked. I think we were able to manage that because (the young relievers) were able to come up and be interchangeable.”
  • On Luis Severino‘s workload: “I think he’s a guy that can handle 200 innings.”

There were surprisingly few questions about the rotation. I guess that’s what happens when you have five pretty clearly established starters plus a sixth starter who’s been around the block. I don’t buy Sabathia being involved in any kind of fifth starter competition though. If he’s healthy, he’s going to be in the rotation. We all know that. As for Severino throwing 200 innings … we’ll see. I’d bet against it.

The Position Players

  • On Brett Gardner playing hurt: “He actually got hit (in the wrist) in April. This was something he dealt with all year long, and if you remember his July, it was an MVP type of month. Sometimes it’s hard to predict. Was it fatigue? Was it the wrist? Did he just get in a bad way? … Everyone plays beat up, that’s the bottom line. That’s what happens in our game … You hope players are honest enough with you that when it becomes too much, they come to you. He never felt it was too much and we didn’t either.”
  • On expecting veterans to produce again: “I think you can expect it. You have to manage them physically and their workload in a sense to make sure they’re strong at the end of the season. And that’s something when you’re fighting for that spot to get into the playoffs, it gets harder to manage that workload … I think the versatility of our club should help that.”
  • On mending fences with Jacoby Ellsbury: “I have talked to him over the winter … I had a tough decision. Brett Gardner has been pretty successful here too. Maybe he wasn’t as big a free agent signee as Jacoby Ellsbury, but Brett Gardner has been extremely productive in his career. That was a hard decision. I was going to disappoint someone immensely. I did what I thought was best for the team.”
  • On Starlin Castro at third base: “It’s something that I need to talk to him about to see where he is. I have not talked to him. I want to talk to him face-to-face about the possibility of what do we do if we need to give (Chase Headley) a day off. That’s something that will be important when we get to Spring Training to talk about.”
  • On A-Rod: “He is our DH and we expect him to be productive … He’ll be ready.”

I though the Ellsbury question was pretty funny. Girardi was asked about saying he had to mend the fences with Ellsbury but quickly pointed out he never said that. He was asked whether he had to mend the fences at the end of last year, that’s it. He never thought much of it. Girardi spoke to Ellsbury this offseason and this seems like a whole bunch of nothing.

Girardi again made it clear the Yankees want to rest their veteran players as much as possible this season, and he indicated the Castro and Aaron Hicks pickups will allow them to do that. (He also said Castro and Didi Gregorius are young and don’t need as much rest.) He didn’t name names and didn’t explain how he intends to rest these guys, but I think we all have a pretty good idea. We’ll find out soon enough.

Miscellany

  • On goals for 2016: “Our goal is to win the World Series. Bottom line. I appreciate how hard our guys played all year, how they never gave up last year, but you know what? We didn’t get to where we wanted. We lost in the first round of the playoffs … Our goal is to win the World Series. That’s why we come to Spring Training.”
  • On getting over 2015: “It’s never easy … I really don’t get over it until baseball ends. Completely ends. There’s an emptiness inside that you should be there. You try to avoid that one-game playoff and be a division winner. Our first goal is win the division this year.”
  • On biggest spring concerns: “There’s some competition here. When you look at some spots in our bullpen, I think we have to iron that out. And I always have concerns about players trying to do too much. I will let them know you’re not going to impress me in your sides, you’re not going to impress me in the first week of games.”
  • On some new additions: “We added Castro, who gives us an everyday second baseman that has been productive in his career. (This) is a young man that has almost 1,000 hits and is only 25 years old … We added a switch-hitter as an outfielder, which gives us more of an opportunity to rest maybe our two left-handers out there against left-handers more often, in a sense. I think we’re deeper.”
  • On young players contributing again: “You might be a non-roster player, you might be in Double-A when you get sent down, but you may have a chance to contribute … That wasn’t an easy job for the relievers — I was honest with them, I told them what was going to happen — but be the guy what when we make another move, is throwing well … Anything can happen. If you’re in uniform, anything can happen, so give everything you’ve got.”
  • Are the Yankees better than last year? “I think so. I think on paper we are better. Paper doesn’t really mean anything until you go out and compete … I think there’s more depth. I think our younger players in the minor league system have gotten a taste (and are eager to contribute).”

There wasn’t as much talk about young players contributing this year. There’s been a lot of that the last few years. I guess that after last season — Girardi mentioned Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, and Rob Refsnyder (among others) by name when asked about who impressed him last season — and an offseason in which the Yankees signed zero big league free agents, it’s common knowledge they’re going to rely on young players again. That’s pretty cool. And kinda scary.

Joe Girardi: Some Questionable Second Half Decisions In An Otherwise Strong Season [2015 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Evaluating a manager is a very difficult. First and foremost, the most important part of the job happens behind closed doors, in the clubhouse, where 25+ personalities are managed. Secondly, front offices are getting more and more involved in day-to-day decision making. Lineup construction, bullpen usage, stuff like that. Sometimes it can be hard to tell who is really calling the shots.

Joe Girardi just completed his eighth season as Yankees manager — can you believe it’s been eight seasons already? — so by now we’ve been able to pick up on some tendencies. He likes having a designated eighth inning reliever and, when possible, a designated seventh inning reliever too. Having the platoon advantage is important. He goes to great lengths to rest his players, particularly the veteran everyday position players.

Since we’re not in the clubhouse, all we can do is evaluate Girardi’s on-field performance, and even that is tough. He doesn’t swing a bat and he doesn’t throw any pitches. In the end, it’s up to the players to execute. All Girardi can do is put them in the best possible position to succeed. This is baseball. Sometimes you do everything right and it still doesn’t work out. Let’s review the on-field aspect of Girardi’s performance in 2015.

Bullpen Usage

Girardi likes to have designated seventh and eighth inning guys, but has shown he will be flexible when necessary. Dellin Betances appeared in 74 games this season and on 19 occasions he was brought into the game in the seventh inning to put out a fire. Andrew Miller missed a month due to injury and still had four saves of at least four outs, fifth most in baseball.

Here’s a really quick graph plotting Leverage Index against FIP for relievers who threw at least 30 innings in 2015. There were 205 of them. Generally speaking, the best relievers have the lowest FIP, and you want them pitching the most important innings, so they should have a high LI.

2015 Reliever UsageGirardi was very good at using his best relievers — specifically Miller, Betances, and Justin Wilson — in the most important situations this past season. At same time, he used his worst reliever (Esmil Rogers) in the least important innings. That’s how it should work.

Reliever usage is tough to evaluate — we often have no idea who is and who isn’t available on a specific day — but there is evidence Girardi is among the best managers in the game at running a bullpen. Every manager makes questionable decisions from time to time, but Girardi does seem to make less than most. He’s good at using the right guy in the right spot.

Rest, Rest, Rest

The Yankees were the only team in baseball to not use a reliever three days in a row this past season. Two days in a row happened all the time, it has to in this day and age, but not a single Yankees reliever pitched three consecutive days at any point in 2015. Not even down the stretch when the team was fighting for a postseason spot..

“It’s the thought process from the beginning (of the year),” said Girardi to reporters in early September. “I don’t throw guys three days in a row. If they’ve thrown three out of four, I don’t throw them another. That’s thought, I think, really hard about that, how we use our relievers and how you keep them healthy during the course of the year.”

Resting relievers is obviously important, and for years Girardi has done an excellent job making sure he doesn’t overwork guys. The only glaring exception is Betances — he’s thrown 18.2 innings more than any reliever the last two seasons — and it’s possible his late-season control problems were the result of all those high-stress innings. Then again, Dellin has a history of control problems, so it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary either.

I think we can all agree Girardi is very good at giving his relievers the appropriate rest. Whether it leads to improved performance — or simply sustained performance later in the season — is another matter. There’s no real way to know that. Girardi is also pretty good at resting his position players, so much so that it might be overkill at times. Then again, he has a veteran team, and they need more rest.

Here’s a stat that blew my mind (that maybe shouldn’t have): the longest streak of consecutive games started in the field by a Yankee this year was 12 by Chase Headley, spanning July 23rd to August 4th. Twelve! Carlos Beltran and Jacoby Ellsbury each started eleven straight games in the field at one point, though Beltran’s streak had an off-day mixed in. (Headley’s streak was 12 starts in 12 days.) No other Yankee started more than nine (!) straight games in the field.

Isn’t that wild? The Red Sox were the only other team in baseball who didn’t have a player start at least 15 straight games in the field at some point this season. (Mookie Betts was their leader at 13.) Part of this is platoons, which we’ll talk about a little more soon, but a lot of this is Girardi’s tendency to rest his regulars. If not once a week, then close to it. Did it help? It’s easy to say no considering the second half offensive collapse, but who’s to say the collapse wouldn’t have started in June without the rest?

Platoon Advantages

According to Baseball Reference, the Yankees had the platoon advantage in 73% of their plate appearances this season, easily the most in baseball. The Indians were second at 71% and no other team was over 67%. This is no fluke either. The Yankees were third in MLB last season (70%), 14th in 2013 (55%), fifth in 2012 (64%), and second in 2011 (65%).

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Roster construction plays a significant role in this, but ranking top five in plate appearances with the platoon advantage four times in the last five years indicates Girardi is putting his hitters in position to succeed. That’s all he can do. Put guys in spots that optimize their skills. He certainly does that offensively.

On the pitching side, the Yankees had the platoon advantage in 47% of their plate appearances, 12th most in MLB. The league average was 46%, so the Yankees were basically middle of the pack. Last season it was 45% and the year before it was 40%, again right around the league average. I wish there were a way to separate starters from relievers, but there’s not. That would be more instructive.

Anecdotally, Girardi does seem to understand which relievers can face which hitters. Miller and Betances can face anyone, and Wilson and Chasen Shreve were not pigeonholed into left-on-left work. Girardi knew they could get righties out. Maybe Girardi doesn’t deserve much credit here because the Yankees haven’t had a regular reliever with a massive platoon split since Clay Rapada a few years ago. Offensively though, Girardi really maximizes those platoons.

Questionable Decisions in the Second Half

For the most part, the 2015 season was a pretty typical Girardi season from a decision-making standpoint. He did, however, make some curious move down the stretch. Two stand out the most to me. First, Girardi left a struggling Ivan Nova in to face Justin Smoak with the bases loaded and one out in the sixth inning on August 8th. Nova’s pitch count was over 100 and the game was scoreless.

Adam Warren was warming in the bullpen the entire inning and yet Nova was left in to load the bases and give up the grand slam. Two of the first three base-runners reached on walks, including a four-pitch walk to Edwin Encarnacion immediately prior to the grand slam. It was obvious Nova was fatigued, yet Girardi stuck with him even though Warren was ready. Maybe it doesn’t matter in the end, but geez, that was an obviously bad decision at the time.

Then, on September 23rd, Girardi attempted to use James Pazos, Caleb Cotham, and Andrew Bailey to navigate the middle of Toronto’s lineup in the sixth and seventh innings of a scoreless game. It went from 0-0 to 4-0 Blue Jays in the span of nine batters. Wilson and Betances were left sitting in the bullpen waiting for the eighth and ninth innings, which proved to be meaningless. (Miller was unavailable that day.)

That September 23rd game was more or less New York’s last chance to stay in the AL East race. The Yankees went into that game 2.5 games back of Toronto with 12 games to play. A win would have brought them to within 1.5 games of the division, but instead a bunch of September call-ups relievers gave the game away and created a 3.5-game deficit. Girardi didn’t show a whole lot of urgency there.

Those two moments in particular stand out as glaring mistakes and they contributed to the Yankees losing the division, though every manager makes major blunders throughout the season. Girardi has his moments like everyone else. I think he’s a net positive on the field through his bullpen usage and platoon work, and the same was true in 2015. September wasn’t the best month of his Yankees career, but the season overall was strong.

Jeff Banister named 2015 AL Manager of the Year; Girardi finishes fifth in voting

(Christian Petersen/Getty)
(Christian Petersen/Getty)

Tuesday night, MLB and the BBWAA announced Rangers skipper Jeff Banister has won the 2015 AL Manager of the Year award. Astros manager A.J. Hinch finished second and Twins manager Paul Molitor finished third. All three guys were in their first seasons on the job. Cubs manager Joe Maddon was named NL Manager of the Year.

Joe Girardi finished fifth in the voting, receiving two first place votes and two third place votes. He was behind Banister, Hinch, Molitor, and Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. Girardi, who won the 2006 NL Manager of the Year award with the Marlins, has received at least one Manager of the Year vote every year since 2009.

The full voting results are available at the BBWAA’s site. The Manager of the Year has morphed into the “manager whose team most exceeds expectations” award, and, well, the Yankees are always expected to win. Joe Torre in 1996 and 1998 is the last New York manager to win the award.

The Rookie of the Year was announced Monday. The Cy Young will be announced Wednesday and the MVP follows Thursday. The Yankees do not have any finalists this year but I’m sure some players received down-ballot votes. They always do.

Reliever usage data shows Joe Girardi is among very best at running a bullpen

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

Over the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to branch out beyond RAB and get an opportunity to write about all of baseball. That’s exposed me to all 30 fanbases through comment sections and Twitter and whatnot. Based on that exposure, I’ve come to three conclusions that apply to all fanbases:

  1. They all think their offense sucks at hitting with runners in scoring position.
  2. They all think their ace isn’t really an ace whenever he loses a random game.
  3. They all think their manager is a dolt based on his bullpen usage.

We’ve all seen remarks like that before, especially if you lurk in the RAB comments. Like every other manager, Joe Girardi has made baffling bullpen moves over the years — remember Andrew Bailey facing the middle of the Blue Jays order last month in what was essentially the Yankees’ last chance to stay in the AL East race? — but he’s generally been very good at running at bullpen.

Quantifying that is tough. Brian Cashman & Co. have given Girardi some pretty good relievers over the years — they’ve had at least two elite relievers every year since 2011 thanks to Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, Rafael Soriano, Dellin Betances, and Andrew Miller — which makes it easier to be successful, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. After all, even with two elite relievers, there are still five other relievers ready to be brought in at inopportune times.

In a piece at Grantland yesterday, Ben Lindbergh reintroduced an older stat called BMAR (Bullpen Management Above Random), which essentially tells you how well a manager used his bullpen based on leverage data. I recommend reading the piece for the gory details, but, in a nutshell, Lindbergh explains BMAR helps answer this question: “In light of the bullpen he had, how much better (in wOBA points allowed) were the relievers he did choose than the relievers he could’ve chosen at random?”

BMAR shows Girardi had the second best bullpen usage in baseball this season, behind only ex-Padres manager Bud Black, who was fired at midseason. Removing Black because of his small sample, Girardi was the best in the game at leveraging his relievers. His optimal usage was 37.2% compared to the league average of 18.2%. (So yes, based on BMAR, managers used the “correct” reliever less than 20% of the time on average, though BMAR assumes every reliever is available every game, which we know isn’t true.)

Lindbergh explains BMAR isn’t all that predictive year-to-year. It tends to fluctuate. However, Girardi is one of a handful of managers who have consistently ranked near the top of the BMAR leaderboard in recent seasons, along with Angels manager Mike Scioscia and Giants manager Bruce Bochy. Here is the top of the BMAR leaderboard from 2012-15:

BMAR 2012-15

Girardi was the very best in baseball at leveraging his relievers both in terms of wOBA advantage gained — that is, on average, how much better the reliever used is than everyone else in the bullpen — and percent of optimal usage. I know 28.8% optimal usage doesn’t sound like much, but no other manager who managed two full seasons from 2012-15 was above 25.7%. The league average from 2012-15 was 18.9%.

By no means is BMAR perfect. Like I said, it doesn’t adjust for who is and who isn’t available on a given day, and I’m not even sure if it’s possible to do that anyway. Relievers are unavailable all the time for reasons that are never made public. BMAR is a good overview stat that helps us quantify bullpen usage. The data matches up with what I’ve felt watching games over the years — Girardi and Bochy are very good, Terry Collins and Mike Matheny are very bad, etc. — so I feel it is at least on the right track.

The Yankees used their bullpen a ton this season and it was by design. Girardi tried to avoid letting his starters go through a lineup three times, and the Triple-A shuttle always gave him a fresh arm. I don’t think they can lean on their bullpen quite as much next year — asking the ‘pen to get 10-12 outs a night all summer doesn’t strike me as a sustainable strategy — but if they do, BMAR shows Girardi is as good as any manager in the game at using the right reliever in the right situation.

The Stories to Come

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Despite my background as an English teacher, something that I don’t usually care for in sports is the narrative thereof. As someone who deals with and has dealt with novels, short stories, and the like professionally for a while now, you’d think I’d dig stories and how they unfold over a long period of time, but as any of my students of recent vintage could tell you, plots are far less engaging and important than characters are. Still, they’re unavoidable and, without them, the other stuff can’t, won’t, and doesn’t happen. With the season (unfortunately) over for the Yankees, there won’t be the “characters” and their actions–their play on the field–to distract us from the storylines that will emerge over the next few baseball-less months. These, like all things baseball, will lead to copious (if not repetitive) arguments amongst fans, so let’s try to preview what they’ll be to better prepare ourselves.

The general flow of offseason narratives is obviously dictated by when your team is eliminated from the playoffs, and with that time upon the Yankees, we’ve already seen the first part of the narrative cycle. Joe Girardi had his end-of-season conference and discussed many things, among them, possible changes for next year. Given that the Yankees–or any team for that matter–can’t really get into actual changes with the playoffs still on-going, we have to speculate about what changes will come internally before any roster changes are made. That story starts with the departure of Billy Eppler, long-time Yankee assistant GM, who’ll be taking over GM duties for the Angels. Will he take any staffers with him? Will he try to trade for some pet-players in the farm system? How will this affect the Yankees’ general approach to free-agency? More broadly to that last point, who will or won’t the Yankees sign in the offseason?

The team we saw in 2015 was flawed, but good enough up until the last two months of the season. There is room for improvement, but where will the Yankees find that room? Second base is probably the only spot where an offseason upgrade can occur, given the blockages at just about every other position on the field. Will they roll with a Dustin Ackley/Rob Refsnyder platoon until one of them forces the other out? Will they make a run at Ben Zobrist since he won’t have draft pick compensation attached to him since he was traded mid-season? We know Brian Cashman tried to acquire Zobrist from the A’s before the A’s got him, but Cash didn’t like the cost. The outfield could use some improvement–as the second halves of Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury could tell you–but where is that upgrade coming from? Both Gardner and Ellsbury are locked into contracts, and I’m not sure either is very tradeable right now. Ellsbury certainly isn’t because of his salary and the remaining years on his contract. And though Brett Gardner’s contract is reasonable, a team would really have to love him to make a trade for him. Gardner’s a good player, don’t get me wrong, but he’s probably more valuable to the Yankees now than whatever piece they’d get back in the present (this is mitigated if the Yankees sign a big OF like Justin Upton or Jayson Heyward and flip Gardner for pennies on the dollar).

Of course, there’s also the rotation. David Price is obviously the big target and in prior years, I don’t think there’d be any doubt about the Yankees blowing him out of the water with an offer. However, it’s very possible (even likely?) that the Yankees will view a Price contract as the second-coming of the CC Sabathia contract. Will they try for Jordan Zimmerman as a less flashy option? Will they try for Jeff Samardzija on a pillow contract? This will all go down between November and February before we get into the next phase of narratives: the Spring Training phase.

Who will be invited to Spring Training, both on the veteran side and on the prospect side? Are we going to get another Raul Ibanez or Marcus Thames? Who’s going to headline the new crop of prospects we all dream about? And once all that’s done, the “provisional” roster set, we’ll get to argue about Spring Training battles. This will depend on whom the Yankees sign, but the two biggest ones on the horizon are the aforementioned Ackely/Refsnyder and the rotation, particularly what will happen if Ivan Nova is tendered a contract, how the team plans on using Adam Warren, and what happens with (a hopefully healthy and recovering) CC Sabathia.

While we’re all staring out the window waiting for spring, we’ll definitely have plenty to talk about. What forms do you think the Yankee narratives will take? Who’ll be in or out? What will surprise us most? What will be so obvious we should’ve seen it coming?