First Half Review: Coaching Staff

At 51-37, with the third best record in baseball, leading the Wild Card and just three games back in the AL East, the Yankees had a fine first half. Yet it was a tumultuous three months, wrought with streaks and injuries and strange trends, causing mass panic at times among Yankees fans. Over the extended All-Star Break, we’ll go over each position to see what went right, what went wrong, and how things look for the second half. We already looked at the starting pitchers, relievers, corner infielders, catchers, middle infielders, outfielders and designated hitter, and now it’s time to discuss the coaching staff.

The expectations

After a somewhat rocky first season in New York, we were all looking for manager Joe Girardi to be a bit more honest and forthright when it came to discussing team matters. His in-game strategy was mostly fine, save his sometimes LaRussaian dedication to platoon matchups and the occasional boneheaded move that every manager is guilty of. It would have been nice to see a little evolution out of the manager in those regards, but I don’t think anyone was expecting it.

Pitching coach Dave Eiland was given over $240M worth of new toys this year and was expected to continue working with all the young arms on the pitching staff. Hitting coach Kevin Long was expected to get Robbie Cano back on track, and to also get Melky Cabrera back to being a respectable big leaguer. Organizational do-it-all guy Rob Thompson moved from bench coach to third base coach, replacing the sendtastic Bobby Meacham. Tony Pena went from first base coach to bench coach, and Mick Kelleher was the new guy brought in to take over first. Pena was moved basically to act like a second manager, giving Girardi a wingman in the dugout.

The results

It’s tough to say what falls under the cover of the coaching staff and what doesn’t. Girardi has been better with the media and Rob Thompson is doing a good job simply because no one is complaining about him. The pitching staff isn’t performing up to expectations, and the blame is being put on Eiland more and more with each passing day. Despite some ugly slumps, the Yanks offense has been good and there are few complaints about the job Long has done. Overall, the staff has done well, but let’s break it down individually.

Joe Girardi

Girardi vowed to improve his media relations over the winter and he’s delivered. While what he says isn’t much of a concern, it’s expected that the people running the team be truthful. If someone’s hurt and they don’t know how long they’ll be out, he says it, whereas last year he would try to play it off as minor and say it’ll just be a few days. Choosing words a little more carefully has gone a long way.

On the field, Girardi is basically the same guy as last year. There’s the occasional head scratcher but nothing extreme. If anything, I think we would like to see him a little less platoon crazy, maybe let Eric Hinske play third against a lefty when A-Rod needs a day off, things like that. Oh, and no more bunting before the seventh inning. Just don’t do it.

Tony Pena

Pena’s very respected around the game and is fine as Girardi’s right hand man, but his real value comes in his work with young catchers. Jorge Posada‘s defense has improved considerably since Pena joined the team, and he helped nurture straight outta Double-A Frankie Cervelli into not just a passable Major League catcher, but a very good one defensively. In the unlikely scenario that Girardi gets pink-slipped midseason, Pena makes for a damn fine interim manager and would be in consideration as a long-term solution.

Kevin Long & Dave Eiland

The Yankees as a team are leading the planet in OBP (.358), SLG (.471), and (naturally) runs scored (495). There’s very little complaint about the offense, but it would be nice to see the nine-figure first baseman not suffer through prolonged slumps (which he’s already done twice this year) and to see Robinson Cano get back to his early season plate discipline. Something tells me that last part might be akin to asking him to squeeze water out of a rock.

The pitching staff as a whole has been a disappointment, especially when they’ve issued more walks than all but one other AL team. They’ve thrown just 48.2% of their pitches in the strike zone and have one of the worst first pitch strike percentages (57.8%) in the league. Joba Chamberlain hasn’t taken to any recent instruction and it’s Eiland’s job to get him right. If the pitching staff continues to flounder and if it leads to another early postseason exit, Eiland is the member of the coaching staff most likely to get the axe.

Rob Thompson & Mick Kelleher

Thompson has been an upgrade over the departed Meacham simply because we haven’t seen a runner thrown out at the plate seemingly every game. The Yankees boast a mediocre 70.9% success rate on stolen base attempts (the break-even point is around 72%), but I don’t think we can attribute that to Kelleher not being able to read pitcher’s moves or anything like that. He’s done wonders working with the infielders, with Derek Jeter enjoying his best defensive season ever and Cano rebounding well with the glove.

I’m not really sure what bullpen coach Mike Harkey does other than answer the phone and occasionally stand in the batters box when guys are warming up before the game, so I can’t really say anything about the job he’s done.

Expectations for the second half

The biggest expectations for the coaching staff the rest of the year fall on the shoulders of Dave Eiland, as we all want to see the pitching staff start performing up to its capabilities. There’s only one starter on the team that needs to nibble on the corners to survive, yet for some reason everyone’s doing it. Eiland has to correct that — his job depends on it.

Meanwhile, it would be nice to see Girardi employ Phil Hughes as a multi-inning relief ace, but that seems like just a pipe dream and I’m not expecting it. The team has looked lethargic at times (they had one foot in the batter’s box and one foot on the beach in Anahiem over the weekend), so Girardi does need to get on them a bit and make them realize that every game counts. One thing we know for sure: if the team falls short again, the coaching staff is the one that will feel the pain.

Get your very own Manager of the Year Award

In 2003, Tony Peña, the Yanks’ current bench coach, won Manager of the Year when his Kansas City Royals finished with a winning record for the first time since 1994. This week, Peña seemingly auctioned off his trophy on eBay. It seems that the winning bid was for a whopping $200. So clearly Tony wasn’t after the big bucks. I do wonder though what the backstory is.