It’s too early for coronations. Though well on their way, the Yanks have still not locked up anything yet. And if an epic collapse means that they don’t, then, well, this Joe’s Juggernaut post will be replaced by another titled Joe’s Jalopy, or Krueg’s Obituary, or something like that. But the Yankees are into September with a commanding division lead and are 37 games above .500 for the first time in five years. How much credit should their tightly-wound (but-trying-to-be-less-so) manager get for their performance to-date?
In general, managers get more blame for things going wrong then they do credit for things going right. And when it comes to the Yankees manager, there will always be those who argue that it is relatively easy to manage the league’s biggest-budget team, especially for Girardi who – unlike his previous 14 predecessors (with some repeats) – has not had to deal with George Steinbrenner calling the shots, or issuing them through the press.
But in considering the pressures on Girardi it is worth remembering that the expectations to win it all are as high in New York as they are anywhere. Girardi himself embraced them when he chose his jersey number – #27. And entering the ‘09 season he had to contend with the fact that his inaugural season as manager was the first in 14 years that the Yankees missed out on October ball. There was also this new stadium you may have heard about which – thanks to the brilliant pricing scheme devised by the Yankee front office – was going to be impossible to fill with a winning team let alone with an underperforming one.
But whatever your position on the relevance of a manager to a team’s performance generally or your view on the peculiar advantages and disadvantages of being the Yankees manager, it is worth pausing to consider and debate the following four points and Girardi’s hand in each:
1. Defense. Expected to be a major liability for the aging team coming into the season, the Yankees have one of the most improved team defenses in the league judging change from 2008 (when their team UZR of -44.5 ranked second-to-last in the AL ahead of Texas) to 2009 (at -12.9 they are only middle of the pack, but a huge improvement nonetheless). And if you (understandably) don’t like year-to-year defensive stats, just watch the games. This is a good defense. Not great – but good. Now some of this is clearly due to the replacement of the black hole known as Jason Giambi by Mark Teixeira at 1B and the play-time given to Brett Gadner whose UZR of 8.3 ranks him 4th among AL CFs. But there has also been an inarguable improvement among those who have been around for awhile, most notably, Derek Jeter. Of the SS’s who have played at least 100 games this year, the 35-year old Jeter’s UZR/150 of 6.8 ranks fourth behind 20-year old Elvis Andrus (Rangers), 26-year old JJ Hardy (Brewers) and 33-year old Marco Scutaro (Blue Jays). Does Girardi deserve credit for any of this? Bryan Hoch at mlb.com credits Yankees strength and conditioning coach Dana Cavalea for working with Jeter on his lateral movement and infield coach Mick Kelleher for improving his positioning. As with all the Yankees, Jeter is living under a new strength and conditioning regime instituted when Girardi arrived and Cashman gained greater authority over the team. Whatever the specifics, Jeter has jumped from a UZR of -15.3 in 2007 to 5.8 so far this year. Girardi and his staff certainly deserve some credit for markedly improving the defensive play of an aging star and a generally-aging-team.
2. Pitching, especially relief. The addition of CC and AJ and the return of a healthy Pettitte are clearly the main reasons that the Yankee pitching has been solid in ’09 (though – like the defense – not spectacular). But the biggest pitching difference between the pre-Girardi and post-Girardi eras has been the management and performance of the bullpen. First, consider bullpen management as measured by distribution of workload: Joe Torre was the master of the 3-man bullpen (Mo + 2 and hope they all survive). A brief glimpse at the list of most-used relievers in the two pre-Girardi years:
– in 2006 that list featured Scott Procter (who topped the list of all relievers with 102.1 IP), Ron Villone (10th most used at 80.1 IP), and Mo (24th with 75.0 IP).
– in 2007 Proctor came in 7th (86.1 IP), Luis Vizcaino came in 29th (75.1), and Mo 39th (71.1).
Now look at the two years under Girardi:
– in 2008 no Yankee reliever appeared in the 65 most used relievers other than Mo (# 36 at 70.2 IP).
– So far in 2009, only Alfredo Aceves (#15 at 64.0 IP) appears in the 50 most used relievers.
Girardi has placed trust in guys that Torre never would have, understanding that the bridge to Mo is not a narrow 2-man span, but a wide land-bridge to which multiple relievers must contribute throughout the season. Has his confidence-building faith paid off in terms of results? Well the Yankees went from having the 16th and 22nd overall rated bullpens (by ERA) in ’06 and ’07 to having the 7th ranked pen in ’08. This year they are down to 19th again, but they have been 2nd only to Texas in the AL since the All-Star Break. And their pen ranks 1st in the AL over the entire ’09 season in terms of BAA (.234). Girardi deserves credit for managing the workload and getting strong performances out of multiple different relievers.
3. Offense. The Yankees offense ranks first in runs scored (763), second to the Angels in BA (.282), and first in OBP (.361). Then again, the Yankees ranked first or second in all of these categories in ’06 and ’07 as well. And Girardi and the Yanks have benefited hugely in this regard by the addition of Mark Teixeira, who has been fantastic, especially since A-Rod returned to the line-up. But one of the most important moves has been the flipping of Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon at the top of the lineup. Each has experienced an offensive resurgence this year and are setting the table for the meat of the order as well as any 1-2 punch in the league.
Jeter is batting .332 with .399 OBP, .478 SLG, and 23 SB. Now these numbers aren’t much better than his ’06 numbers and only marginally better than ‘07, but the guy is on the wrong side of 35 now and maintaining that kind of offensive production – which places him in the top 4 of SSs in every one of those categories – is great. As for Damon, he is slugging above .500 for the first time in his career. Is some of that due to the friendly RF dimensions of the NYS? Probably. All the more reason that batting him second behind a guy with a .399 OBP seems a smart move. And the fact that Damon and Teixeira have hit more single-season back-to-back HRs than any other duo in Yankee history (still can’t believe this) is further argument that placing him between Jeter and Teix was a good move. Kudos to Joe for this swap.
4. Head-scratchers. Does everything Girardi touches turn to gold? Hardly. Headlining the confounding decisions this season has to be the still-inconceivable fact that coming off hip surgery with explicit doctor’s orders to rest regularly, A-Rod was trotted out to play in 38 straight games until his slumping performance forced a re-think. Even since then, A-Rod has very rarely gotten a true break (i.e. with no fielding AND no DH’ing). Hopefully he will hold up just fine through October regardless.
Moreover, the handling of Joba has been sloppy. Despite Girardi and the Yanks putting on a public face stating the contrary, it has at times seemed that they have not had much of a plan at all – at least not until last week. To wit, after a sub-par outing against the Mariners on August 16 that followed much public confusion around whether or not he was starting, Joba made clear that the confusion wasn’t only public: “I didn’t think I was going to start, and you kind of shut it down mentally”. Say what you want about Joba – he should have been ready regardless, he's not the sharpest tool in the shed, etc, etc. - but if it is true that he did not know he was starting (publically we had heard all the way up to gameday that this particualr start was to be skipped and he’d next start the following Wednesday), then that's a problem. And it makes it seem that what Girardi has always maintained is a very well-thought through but top-secret plan for managing Joba’s load is more like a make-it-up-as-you-go-along fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants deal.
5. Morale. Finally there is a point which I hesitate to raise but on which several Yankee players have commented regarding Joe’s relative relaxation and the positive impact it has had. From Spring Training on he has tried to cede the highly competitive position he held last year as most-tightly-wound-man-in-NY. His change in demeanor may very well have had some positive impact in the clubhouse, but so too has Nick Swisher's…and the chicken-and-egg nature of winning and clubhouse morale/chemistry/etc. is a debate that doesn’t need rehashing here. Regardless, it does seem that this team is more relaxed and seems to enjoy playing and winning more than a Yankee team has in a long time. And Joe's in-game decision-making, which would require another post to analyze, reflects well on his temperment. If he is still tense as a drum, it doesn't seem to show in over-managing the games.
In sum, Joe deserves credit for managing the Yankees to what it – by a fairly wide margin – the best record in baseball. It won't mean much if the team's performance doesn't take them deep into October, but he is at least staying out of their way – and I believe, much more – and that is something.