Joe’s (?) Juggernaut

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.

22 comments… add one

  • This was a fantastic read, except for one thing:
    > wrong side of 35
    Hey now!

    attackgerbil September 3, 2009, 1:48 pm
  • Agreed on the Jeter/Damon swap in the lineup; seems like such a minor tweak at first glance, but brilliant in its result.

    attackgerbil September 3, 2009, 1:50 pm
  • Nice post IH. Its remarkable how good this team has been over the last 3 months. If they hadnt stumbled out of the gate for april and part of may, we may have been talking about them chasing the 1998 team and the 2000 mariners in the win column. Its a nice balanced attack on both sides of the ball with basically the whole roster contributing. I just hope they keep it up for October.
    I totally agree with the point about the pen…its been a real breath of fresh air to have solid pen management this year and last. Hopefully, we will continue to reap its benefits in October as they will be more ready to go than they ever were under Torre.
    I think alot of credit for this team also needs to go to Cashman as well…Im not talking about the 3 big signings per se but his job making some nice in season moves to strengthen the bench, trust his farm to staff the pen, and create enough payroll flexibility for the big name free agents.

    sam-YF September 3, 2009, 2:23 pm
  • Just as soon as i post about balance, Pete Abe has this post up….
    http://yankees.lhblogs.com/2009/09/03/better-balance-than-mary-lou-retton/
    A-Rod has quietly put together quite a year for himself too. The fact that like half of his RBI have put the yanks ahead or tied the game is amazing. I cant wait til his detractors start talking about how unclutch he is in unclutch situations!

    sam-YF September 3, 2009, 2:26 pm
  • and for those who can’t stand UZR, because of its inherent whatever it is…
    The Yankees rank 9th in Defensive Efficiency (the sox are a woeful 28th) in all of MLB

    dw (sf) September 3, 2009, 2:46 pm
  • I agree with you sam re: Cash – and I think the credit to him goes even further. Girardi has been – since his arrival – deferential to Cashman on a range of decisions that reflect Cashman’s increased role in the organization. Even things or which Joe gets credit (the Jeter/Damon swap for instance) would not at all surprise me if they were more Cashman ideas than Girardi ones. It’s impossible to know which of them pulls which strings no matter how much we parse public statements, but yeah – I think Cash gets credits for the big acquisitions, inseason moves, and more.

    IronHorse September 3, 2009, 3:03 pm
  • Great stuff IH; as a SF I haven’t followed the Yankees as closely as some, so it’s nice to get a catch-me-up post like this.
    Also, what’s with the “sign in with” options? I tried signing in with Facebook but nothing happened.

    Anonymous September 3, 2009, 3:07 pm
  • Oh, I see, it doesn’t really work at all with Facebook… so I gotta do it with Typepad.

    Atheose - SF September 3, 2009, 3:08 pm
  • Yeah, I agree with Ath — nice post, IH!

    stuck working September 3, 2009, 4:14 pm
  • > Oh, I see, it doesn’t really work at all with Facebook
    It’s great to know I have many more ways for sign-in to not work.

    attackgerbil September 3, 2009, 4:23 pm
  • Killer post, mostly because I got a shout out but I digress…
    Joe and Cash have to get a lot of credit at this point BUT we still have a long way to go. If this team goes on a run? Then let the coronation begin for Joe 2.0, Cash, ARod, etc. but I think that Cash had a plan in his mind, including getting Girardi, that has played out perfectly. I was SCREAMING for Johan, Cash did the right thing. He paid CC and didn’t have to give up any of the youngsters. Joe has seemed a more laid back manager this year, as IH alluded, and that clubhouse has gone from ER to an Acid Test Freakout all in a few months…
    This team is fun to watch and they don’t seem to be letting up, here’s to hoping there are some coronations in a few months, until then…WE SUCK AND WILL WIN NOTHING!!! ;)

    krueg reincarnate September 3, 2009, 5:18 pm
  • I knew that would put a smile on your face krueg. We all owe you a few hundred for the nightly entertainment you provide us.

    IronHorse September 3, 2009, 5:44 pm
  • Ah IH…big a big krueg bear hug for you bro!

    krueg reincarnate September 3, 2009, 6:25 pm
  • Good read, IH.
    I’ve warmed to Girardi, who frankly I never much liked when he broadcasted games. I found him too prickly and a bit of a tight wad. Because there are so many blowhards in broadcast booths today who try to draw attention to themselves, conservative quiet types are often given to much credit. Girardi was an amazingly dull announcer. So is John Flaherty, who routinely offers up the dull cliche masked as understated brilliant insight. Anyway, Girardi’s broadcasting career did not inspire in me the confidence that he would be a creative, flexible manager. But it seems he’s willing to learn from mistakes, as one can see in the way he’s approached the media this year and has lightened the mood of the clubhouse. IH is correct. Girardi’s bullpen management is much better than Torre’s Trusted Guy method. And you have to wonder how much help he’s given to Jeter on the fielding side of things.
    Another observation: The Yanks’ recent success against Josh Beckett seemed to be the result, in part, to a strong game plan to attack his earlier pitches. On other words, the team seemed to have done very good scouting for the match-up, something that seemed to be missing in recent years.

    Nick-YF September 4, 2009, 12:36 am
  • Love your middle-of-our-night/middle-of-your-day comments Nick. So are you getting to catch any games out there on mlb.com or otherwise??

    IronHorse September 4, 2009, 12:52 am
  • IH. about to head to KL for a weekend jaunt, but, actually today I caught a few innings of live ESPN Yanks baseball. It was the YES feed. When they play live baseball, they play the Yanks! Guess NY still has the Asia market!

    Nick-YF September 4, 2009, 12:57 am
  • For all this talk about the Yankees being a a juggernaut, wouldn’t it be that much more disappointing for YFs if the Yankees are summarily dispatched from the playoffs by the Angels again?
    That would be a real crying shame.

    SoxFan September 4, 2009, 5:23 am
  • Yes it would SoxFan. Though at this rate it looks like the Yanks would face the AL Central winner while it would be the sox -if they beat out texas for the wc that is – that would play the Angels.
    Incidentally, if you read the last line of the post, you’ll see that your October point was already made. But regardless, glad you share yfs’ hopes for our team’s October.

    IronHorse September 4, 2009, 7:36 am
  • maybe it’s time to have the discussion about how easy it is to hit homeruns in other ballparks…
    the yankees lead the majors in hrs, but only tex has more than 30, and he’s not the league leader, by a lot…
    the yankees hit 242 homeruns in 2004, without any help from the mythical, magical windstreams we keep hearing about, so what they’re doing is not unprecendented…so far in 2009 they have 210…117 of those at home [56%]…not outlandish at all…some teams play better at home…
    here’s some other interesting stats from the espn site:
    AVG R OBP SLG OPS SB
    .282 773 .361 .483 .844 84
    2nd 1st 1st 1st 1st 7th
    [rank in am league]
    actually, the yankees lead the majors in ops, by a lot, so maybe it’s time to acknowledge that this team can hit [get on base, leading majors in walks too], is balanced, and the success they’re enjoying to this point is not simply the result of some perhaps imaginary wind tunnel from home plate to right field that is somehow only in play when the yankees are up to bat…if the tunnel does exist, and i’m willing to concede that it might be more than just some jealous fantasy, they must be taking it on the road with them…how would you pack something like that?…

    dc September 4, 2009, 9:17 am
  • Girardi is, overall, a solid manager. I’d give him a B+.
    I love the Jeter/Damon swap (I’d be arguing for it for ~2 years on blogs myself…)
    I love the distribution of bullpen work.
    I get irritated by bunting, but an honest appraisal will show that they really hardly ever bunt, and most of it is Jeter doing it on his own (grrr).

    The defense: note also Swisher > Abreu (or rather 2009 Swisher >> 2008 Abreu). That’s covered for ARod’s understandable dropoff at 3B and Damon’s dropoff in LF. The credit for that goes to Cashman (and Nady for getting hurt).
    I do think the Yanks are positioning their fielders a bit better (I think that’s part of Jeter’s improvement), and for that I’ll happily credit the coaching staff.

    Rob in CT September 4, 2009, 10:14 am
  • Good points dc. And I don’t have time to look it up right now but I believe the Yanks also lead the league in HRs on the road – further evidence to your point that it is not really about the NYS.
    I do believe it is generally acknowleged that the short porch in RF has been extended further into CF in the NYS by the flat auxiliary scoreboard and that this has helped hitters like Damon squeak a few over the fence.
    In discussing the slightly cozier dimensions of center-right Damon himself said of his HRs, “I feel like there were five that I felt might have been home runs, five were iffy. The rest were no-doubters.”
    But as you point out, the visiting team plays the same dimensions – as evidenced by Pedroia hitting what he called “the first opposite field home run in my life” there.

    IronHorse September 4, 2009, 10:21 am
  • thanks IH…mostly my comments were tongue-in-cheek…trying to zing the zingers back…new and old ys have a deserved reputation for allowing some cheapo hr’s to right field…as you say, the short porch was extended further into right center in the new stadium…that has more to do with it than any mystical boost the ball may get from the way the concourse was engineered…i agree with damon that there have been a handful of “iffy” hr’s to right field, but it’s not the big deal that so many have struggled to make it…there have been a whole lot more hr’s [anecdotally, through observation] that have been “no-doubters”, out in any ballpark, short porch and wind having no impact…the fact that just over half of the yankee hr’s were hit at home suggests that there’s not a big difference…they’re hitting more homers, period…that’s why i tossed in the stat from ’04 at the old stadium…different group of players, but that’s the point…this particular group is playing some great OVERALL offensive baseball, at home and on the road, and not just hitting cheap dingers at home…

    dc September 4, 2009, 11:54 am

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