There was once a time, not in my lifetime at least, when the Yankees flipped managers nearly every season. In a 23-year period under owner George Steinbrenner, the Yankees changed managers 20 times, so much so that former publicist Harvey Greene said in 1999 that, "The first time George fires you, it's very traumatic. The three or four times after that, it's like, Great! I've got the rest of the day off."
This is in fact just the third manager change of my lifetime, and only the second I can coherently remember. The last go-around was a sheer embarrassment, although maybe long overdue, when Hal Steinbrenner offered Joe Torre an incentive-laden contract he was bound to decline.
Since then the team has had only one manager, Joe Girardi, who led the Yankees to a 910-710 record, six playoff appearances, and one world championship. Now that it’s over, and more abruptly and coldly than we even realized it would be, I think it would be wise to sit back and reflect on the quality of Girardi’s tenure, both in the context of team history and how it fits into the future of the organization.
In terms of sheer wins and losses, Girardi sits at sixth all-time among Yankees—only Joe McCarthy, Joe Torre, Casey Stengel, Ralph Houk, and Miller Huggins have more wins. From that perspective, there’s no way Girardi doen’t work his way into the conversation of one of the more decorated managers in Yankees history.
You also can’t talk about the quality of a manager without talking about longevity. From that lens, he ranks sixth in games managed. He also proved one of the best at navigating the intricacies of being a manager in New York and staying in management’s good graces. He continued an era of coaching consistency that is nearly unmatched in professional sports.
When talking about actual performance, this is where the discussion gets tricky, so I’ll try to be as objective as possible. On challenges, a newer addition to the sport that he adopted to, he was one of the best in baseball, and the best of the current managers in the postseason:
Maybe Dusty was let go because, like Farrell, he's lousy at challenges? Career challenge records of 2017 playoff managers pic.twitter.com/IPGqknFheq— TOOTBLAN Tracker (@TOOTBLANTime) October 20, 2017
Insofar as managing starting pitcher workloads, he was one of more steadfast and disciplined at making sure starters didn’t burn out. He adapted to a new era in that regard; as pitcher injuries became more common, pitch counts became paramount. In the past four seasons, he never used a starter for more than 120 pitches in the regular season, and his average in that span was 92 pitches.
The bullpen was the essence of both his praise and his criticism. Some credit the fact that the Yankees outplayed their Pythagorean record by 12 games over the course of his career. That includes a critical five or so games in each of 2013 and 2014, an over-performance so crucial that it kept an otherwise sputtering rebuilding team in the playoff hunt until the last month of each year.
Some thought this was because of his ability to manage the bullpen, and based on limited analytics on this, it’s probably true. In this year’s Baseball Prospectus Annual, Rian Watt and Rob Arthur created the wRM+ metric, scaled to 100, to determine expected runs based on deserved run average and leverage index. It essentially quantified whether a manager used the best pitcher in the best spot. Coming into this season, Girardi scored a 105.3, about 5% higher than the average manager.
This year I would say it blew back in his face, and was part of his downfall. The Yankees lost critical games throughout the season because of an over-utilization of Tyler Clippard, an under-utilization of Chad Green, and constantly finagling with his circle of trust until it settled just in time for the postseason. The Yankees under-performed their Pythagorean record this year by nine games, and you can see where the concern came in. Girardi slipped as bullpen roles evolved.
In the clubhouse Girardi was always incredibly well-respected, at least from what we understood. The only real complaints in the immediate wake of his departure was that players felt he was a bit cold, that he needed more of a “human touch.” There were also cracks in the facade regarding his relationship with Gary Sanchez and how vocal his criticism was to the media. The Yankees are betting the latter will be more important to the team over the next decade.
You couldn’t say Girardi didn’t care and fight for his players, though. You saw that on a daily basis. I grew up watching the stoic stasis of Joe Torre, and I was bewildered to find that Girardi was prone to fits of rage, storming out to an umpire and thrashing his arms, wiping dirt, and waving his hat emphatically. He was emotional, fiery, and I think his players appreciated that. He was at times a spark, taking on the let’s-get-’em-boys attitude of a player and not a straight-laced manager.
That may have been his downfall in the end, unfortunately. Joel Sherman describes this from a source that “He wears his tension on his face after all these years of managing, and it is too long a season for that style all the time.” In the end his “full furnace blast” of an attitude, as Sherman describes it, enveloped him entirely.
Ultimately all managers fail, because none can physically manage forever. They become more distant from the players they coach, more distant from the style they once played, more distant from the analytics of the day. Assessing the aftermath forces an observer to come to grips with why that was, and what made him more distant from the craft he so recently had mastered.
What really matters is what kept him there to begin with. We saw that in parts of the ALDS and ALCS, when he rallied a nearly decrepit squad back from the dead and to victory (and near victory). I would have liked him to get one more shot at a title, but so it goes. Girardi was one of the better managers in franchise history. He may not fit the future of the club, but for the better part of a decade he was, in his own words, what you want.