2011 Season Preview: Joe Girardi & Co.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Two years ago, it all clicked. The rebuilt starting rotation was one of the league’s most effective units, the offense was devastating, and the bullpen corps was deep and effective. Joe Girardi didn’t have to do much managing and his coaching staff didn’t have to do much coaching, they just rode their talent to the World Championship. It’s easy to look good when you have that team playing for you.

Last year was a little different. The rotation, stronger on paper than it was going into the 2009 season, fell apart at the seams down the stretch. The offense still led the world in on-base percentage and (not coincidentally) runs scored, but several notable players had down years. That the Yankees still won 95 games and were two wins away from the World Series is pretty remarkable. After the season, the Yankees rewarded both Girardi and hitting coach Kevin Long with new three-year contracts. Pitching coaching Dave Eiland was replaced with Larry Rothschild, but the rest of the staff came back intact.

Ben put best when he previewed Girardi last year, so allow me to excerpt…

In that sense, Girardi is a fairly average manager. He changes pitchers as we would expect; he bunts a little less than we might expect him to; he doesn’t need pinch hitters and doesn’t use them often at all. Yet, he has gotten a handle on the media, and he knows what it takes — a trope really — to win in New York. He has made nice with the sportswriters who cover the team after a rough first year, and he has commanded the respect of his players, including the four with whom he was teammates not too long ago.

On the flip side, though, Joe Girardi doesn’t need to do much to manage the Yankees. He has the pieces to make up a great team, and it doesn’t take an expert strategist to know that A-Rod should bat clean-up, that Derek Jeter should leadoff, that CC Sabathia should be the ace, that Mariano Rivera will close games. It’s the Joe Torre argument all over again: All Girardi has to do is make sure everyone gets along well and no pitcher is overworked.

All of that applies again in 2011, though perhaps the decision to bat Jeter leadoff isn’t as obvious as it was twelve months ago. Penciling Andruw Jones‘ name into the lineup against left-handers and properly deploying not one, but two lefty relief specialists is the extent of the strategic managing Girardi has to do. Given all of the information we don’t know (who’s banged up, etc.), quibbling with those decisions is a fruitless endeavor. Girardi is no longer a lame duck manager and in reality he never really was. He was hand-picked for the job by Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner three years ago, and his job is secure as ever. All he has to do is not screw it up, and the last three seasons suggest he won’t.

(AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

Long has drawn rave reviews for his work with pretty much every hitter in the lineup, most notably Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson, though Jeter is his latest project. They haven’t revamped his swing, just shortened his stride, and the early returns in Spring Training are promising. Eiland spent a month away from the team last summer for undisclosed personal reasons, an issue that may or may not have led to his departure. “He knows why [he wasn’t brought back],” said Cashman. “He was given conditions that needed to be followed. So he knows why.”

Rothschild, the bullpen coach for the 1990 World Champion Reds and pitching coach for the 1997 World Champion Marlins, came over from the Cubs after spending seven years on Chicago’s north side. During his tenure, the Cubbies had the third best overall pitching staff (4.18 FIP) in the National League, and their starting rotation (4.15 FIP) was the the best in the league and third in all of baseball, behind the Red Sox (4.11) and Yankees (4.12). He has a reputation as a guy that helps his pitchers maximize strikeouts and reduce walks, two very welcome traits for a pitching staff that was just middle-of-the-pack with a 2.14 K/BB ratio last year.

His biggest project in 2011 will be getting A.J. Burnett back on track following a dreadful season. The two met at Burnett’s home over the winter, and so far Rothschild has him working on being more compact in his delivery and direct to the plate, modifications that have been on display in camp. Beyond A.J., he’ll have to coax quality innings out of Bartolo Colon and/or Freddy Garcia until a more suitable pitcher(s) is acquired. That may take a minor miracle, but Colon has thrown the snot out of the ball in camp so far.

By all accounts, the Yankees’ clubhouse is an upbeat and welcoming environment, something that wasn’t necessarily true a few years ago. Sabathia and Nick Swisher helped change that, certainly, but the it all starts at the top with Girardi and his coaching staff. It’s always tough to evaluate those guys because so much of their work happens behind the scenes, but given the team’s success over the last two years, it’s tough to think they’re not up to the challenge of another run at the World Series.

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Rothschild to meet with Burnett in coming weeks

Via Buster Olney, new pitching coach Larry Rothschild is expected to fly down to Maryland to visit with A.J. Burnett in the coming weeks. A.J. called Rothschild as soon as he was hired, and the two are expected to talk about mechanics and whatnot at the upcoming pow-wow. I’m sure the cynics among us will say this should have happened weeks ago, but these guys can’t focus on baseball all year long. It’s 162 games plus Spring Training plus the playoffs, and everyone needs time to unwind and clear their head.

Larry Rothschild’s effect on pitchers

When the Yankees hired Larry Rothschild away from the Cubs to be their new pitching coach yesterday, Ben noted that his staffs tend to boast high strikeout rates. Earlier this summer a poster on the FanGraphs Community blog looked at exactly that, and found out that pitchers did in fact improve their strikeout rates with Rothschild, close to 2.5% as a group. But what about walks? Another Cubs Blog tackled that a few days later and found that yep, pitchers improved their unintentional walk rate with Rothschild as well. More strikeouts and fewer walks is a great recipe for success.

The Yanks as a group struck out 0.62 fewer batters and walked 0.19 more (per nine innings pitched) in 2010 than in 2009, with CC Sabathia‘s rates taking a hit in particular. With any luck, Rothschild will help get the staff back into strikeout mode, which would be a tremendous help.

Larry Rothschild named new Yankee pitching coach

Larry Rothschild, the new Yankee pitching coach, signals the start of the Cubs Spring Training in 2010. (AP Photo/Paul Connors)

Updated (5:20 p.m.): The Yankees have signed 37-year Major League vet Larry Rothschild to serve as the club’s pitching coach. Rothschild, who most recently had served as the Cubs’ pitching coach from 2002-2010, served as a coach on two World Series teams: the 1990 Reds where he served as the bullpen coach and the 1997 Marlins where he worked as the pitching coach.

“Larry will be a welcome addition to our pitching staff. He comes with an impressive resume as a former Major League manager and a world champion pitching coach. He has a great reputation with his players, who know they can trust him and rely on him to put them in a position to succeed,” said Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman.

Rothschild, 56, seems to be a strike out-oriented coach. His Cubs clubs led the majors with 11,604 strike outs over the last nine seasons, and set a Major League record with 1404 K’s in 2003. He signed with the Reds as a non-drafted free agent in 1975 and spent 11 years in the minors. He made just seven career relief appearances with Detroit in 1981 and 1982 and allowed 5 earned runs on 8 hits and 8 walks while striking out just one in 8.1 innings. His coaching career has been far more successful.

His first job on the bench came with the Reds where he served as a roving minor league instructor for four seasons before he joined the club in Cincinnat as the bullpen coach. He was a Reds pitching coach from 1992-1993, worked with the Marlins in the same capacity from 1995-1997 and managed the Tampa Bay Devil Rays from their inaugural season in 1998 through April 18, 2001.

“Larry brings a wealth of invaluable experience to our team and to our pitching staff,” Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said. “He’s a championship pitching coach, and I’m excited to add Larry’s abilities to our staff. He is above all else an excellent teacher, who brings a professional attitude and a keen sense of preparation to his craft. I’m very much looking forward to working with him moving forward.”

Rothschild: A.J. can still be ‘very effective’

During an press conference with reporters shortly after the announcement, Rothschild spoke about the hiring process and his views on the Yanks’ pitching staff. Cashman put the candidates through a rigorous interview process which included approximately eight hours of video including two A.J. Burnett appearances and a CC Sabathia and a Phil Hughes appearance.

Rothschild spoke specifically of the need to straighten out Burnett. “I think he can be a very effective Major League pitcher,” the new pitching coach said. He certainly has his work cut out for him in that regard.