Joe Girardi just completed his 10th season as Yankees manager. By any measure, New York's 2017 campaign was a resounding success. Still, the organization let him go following the team's Game Seven loss in the American League Championship Series.
The Bronx Bombers finished 91-71, two games behind the Boston Red Sox in the AL East. The Yankees earned the league's top Wild Card berth. Overall, they finished with the eighth best record in baseball.
Statistically, New York fared better. The Yankees' 100 Pythagorean wins were third behind the Dodgers (102) and Indians (108). The Bombers hit the most home runs in baseball (241), finished second in runs scored (858) behind the Astros (896), and compiled the third best OPS (.785) after Cleveland (.788) and Houston (.785).
On the pitching side, the Yankees were fifth in ERA (3.72), third in WHIP (1.21), third in OPS against (.680), and fourth in strikeouts (1,460). New York's +198 run differential was second behind Cleveland (+254).
Let's take a look at some of Girardi's decisions which impacted the Yankees' season, presented more or less chronologically:
Girardi's best decisions
1. Naming Luis Severino fourth starter
A spring training competition was held to determine the final two spots in the Yankees rotation. While the battle for the fifth spot raged beyond Opening Day, Severino was named fourth starter much sooner. This, despite posting rather pedestrian numbers at the time the decision was announced (3.95 ERA, 16 strikeouts, five walks over 13 2/3 innings). Other contenders had better numbers, but Girardi gave the young righty a big vote of confidence.
Severino responded by turning in one of the best seasons in the league by a starter. His rate stats were third best across the board behind Corey Kluber and Chris Sale. Severino will be a top finisher in the AL Cy Young Award voting.
2. Naming Aaron Judge right fielder
Aaron Judge was a late-season call-up in 2016. He wowed the crowd at Yankee Stadium by hitting a towering home run in his first major league at-bat. Naturally, the critics soon dismissed him as a near-miss when he began striking out a lot. But not Joe Girardi.
The Yankees manager held a competition between Judge and Aaron Hicks during spring training to determine the starting right fielder. Girardi heard it from both sides, with some saying Judge would never amount to anything, while an equally loud chorus said the same about Hicks. But Girardi somehow got lightning to strike twice in the same place.
Judge won the starting nod in right field, and went on to turn in a rookie campaign for the ages. He broke Mark McGwire's 30-year-old rookie home record by swatting 52. In doing so, Judge became only the fifth Yankee ever to hit 50 or more homers in a season. Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Alex Rodriguez are the only others to accomplish the feat.
Number ninety-nine was the leading All-Star vote-getter in the American League, and second overall behind Bryce Harper. The right fielder became the third Yankees position player to be selected to start the All-Star Game in his rookie season, following legends Joe DiMaggio and Hideki Matsui.
The young superstar broke Ted Williams' rookie walk record. Judge was at or near the top in all three Triple Crown categories for the first half of the season. He is certain to win the Rookie of the Year Award, likely unanimously. He is also a serious candidate to win the MVP Award, although he faces serious competition from Jose Altuve and Mike Trout. Regardless of the final vote outcome, Judge will be a top-three finisher at the very least.
If a vote were held, Judge would probably be the team's postseason MVP. He led the Yankees with four home runs and eleven runs batted in. Through the LCS, only Houston's Jose Altuve hit more bombs (5), and only the Dodger's Justin Turner drove home more runs (12). Judge also scored nine times, which was second only to Altuve's ten.
All Rise was clutch, knocking in runs in five of the Yankees' seven postseason wins. His two-run shot in the Wild Card Game gave the Yankees a 7-4 lead. His two-run double off Trevor Bauer in Game 4 of the ALDS gave the Yankees a 4-0 lead. It turned out to be the game winner, as New York went on to a 7-3 victory.
He had key hits in each of New York's three ALCS wins as well. His three-run dinger in Game 3 gave the Yankees a commanding 8-0 lead. His dramatic two-run double to tie the score in Game 4 was one of the most important hits of the year. Finally, Judge's double in Game 5 gave the Yankees a 2-0 lead and provided Tanaka with some breathing room.
As he did all year, Judge also impressed with his defense. His running, leaping catch to rob Yuli Gurriel of a home run to lead off the second inning of ALCS Game 7 was one of the best plays you'll ever see. Had the Yankees gone on to win that game by a run, it's a play that everyone would be talking about and would likely be regarded as the series saver. Judge in a finalist for the Gold Glove Award.
3. Naming Jordan Montgomery fifth starter
Despite stiff competition from Chad Green, Girardi named Jordan Montgomery fifth starter. The 24-year-old left-hander surpassed any expectations you could possibly have.
He made 29 starts for the Yankees, going 9-7 with a 3.88 ERA and 1.23 WHIP over 155 1/3 innings. His .684 OPS against was second best among Yankees starters behind Severino. Among AL pitchers hurling at least 150 innings, Montgomery had the 13th lowest ERA. The rookie fifth starter outperformed top-of-the-rotation guys for numerous teams in the league.
Montgomery will be a top finisher for Rookie of the Year. In a season without Aaron Judge, the lefty might have won the award outright.
4. Sticking with Greg Bird
Through numerous injuries and an early-season slump, Girardi stuck with Greg Bird. He proved once again during the postseason why he will be the Yankees first baseman for years to come.
Following injuries that caused him to miss considerable time, Bird returned to the team in September. He hadn't seen much playing time and Chase Headley was entrenched at first. Despite this, Girardi not only added Bird to the postseason roster, but had him start every game. Once again, Bird came through.
He led the team with a .938 OPS in the playoffs. He hit three homers and drove in six runs. He turned in a great overall performance by any measure, but it was the timing of his hits that really makes him stand out. Bird had the game winning RBI in three of the Yankees seven postseason wins.
His solo home run off Andrew Miller in Game 3 of the ALDS was easily one of the biggest hits of the entire season. It was the only run of the game, with the Yankees literally nine outs and one run away from elimination. It was the turning point of the series, which the Bombers came back to win.
Bird came up clutch again in Game Five of the LCS. With the series tied at two games apiece, and Tanaka once again engaged in a potential pitching duel, Bird's RBI single in the second to break through against Dallas Keuchel gave the Yankees a 1-0 lead. It turned out to be the game winner, as Tanaka and the bullpen shut out Houston.
5. Sticking with CC Sabathia
Sabathia struggled early in the year, causing many to question his value and future with the team. But Girardi stuck with the veteran team leader. The lefty responded by becoming the team's stopper. CC was 10-0 in games following a Yankees' loss, including the playoffs.
6. Sticking with Masahiro Tanaka
Tanaka also struggled early in the year, even more so than Sabathia. But Girardi kept running him out there every fifth day. The right-hander posted traditional Tanaka numbers in the second half, and he really came through for the team in the playoffs.
After opening the ALDS with a pair of less-than-stellar games by New York's pitching staff, Tanaka completely changed the dynamic. With the Yankees facing elimination in Game Three, the right-hander threw seven scoreless innings of three-hit ball to earn the win, keeping the team alive in the process. Tanaka wasn't done, though. He hurled another shutout in Game Five of the ALCS, which put the Yankees within one win of the World Series.
Of the nine pitchers who made at least three starts during this year's postseason through the LCS, Tanaka has the numbers. He gave up two earned runs on ten hits in 20 innings. That's good for a microscopic 0.90 ERA, 0.65 WHIP, and .369 OPS against. His stats weren't just the best among the Yankees, they were the best overall.
Tanaka's other postseason start was the ALCS opener against Dallas Keuchel and the Houston Astros. If the Yankees had just gotten a few lucky bounces in that game, they might have won that series and Tanaka could very well have been named MVP.
7. Elevating Aaron Hicks over Jacoby Ellsbury
After Judge won the starting nod in right field, Hicks soon took over in center to replace the injured Ellsbury. By the time Hicks got injured around mid-season, he was second in the league in OPS behind Judge. Hicks returned in time to help the Bombers clinch their playoff spot and had a so-so showing in the postseason. But with his overall effort on the year, he likely solidified his spot as starting center fielder heading into next season.
8. Sticking with Aaron Judge
With Judge mired in a mid-season slump, the screams grew loudly for Girardi to bench him or at least drop him in the batting order. But the skipper stuck with star in the two-hole. Judge had a great September, and an even better October.
Judge’s .422 on-base percentage was third best in all of baseball behind Joey Votto (.454) and Mike Trout (.442). That’s exactly what you want from the man you have batting second in the lineup.
9. Sticking with Gary Sanchez
The defensive woes of Gary Sanchez caused many to call for him to be moved to DH and replaced by Austin Romine at catcher. Fortunately, Girardi refrained from being so impulsive and short-sighted. He is wise enough to know that players will only improve at the major league level if they play regularly. He is also experienced enough to recognize a generational talent when he sees one.
10. Moving Chad Green to the bullpen
While the Monday-morning quarterbacks say this move should have been made sooner, there were many more at the time who questioned Green's value to the team at all. But Girardi saw something special, gradually moving Green into his bullpen circle of trust. The youngster responded by turning in one of the best seasons by a reliever in history. Green will receive down-ballot Cy Young Award votes as a result his outstanding year.
11. Chase Headley at first, Todd Frazier at third
Headley's move to first base seems to have jump-started his offense. He hit eight home runs, drove in 25, scored 41 times and had a .300/.366/.455 triple slash line in the second half. He also played very solid defense.
Meanwhile, the Yankees got a first-rate defender at third base in Todd Frazier. His offensive production also picked up after coming over in the trade-deadline deal from the White Sox.
12. Starting Greg Bird at first base in the playoffs
While Headley did very well at first base for his stint there during the regular season, Girardi was right when he started Bird there in the postseason. Bird is a Gold Glove caliber defender, and we already discussed his spectacular offensive contributions.
Girardi's most controversial decisions
1. Chris Carter
While many bemoaned Chris Carter's longevity at first base, Girardi really didn't have any other options at the time. Once he did, he utilized them. First, by playing Garrett Cooper when he came over in the trade from Pittsburgh. Then, by moving Headley there until Bird was healthy.
2. Handling of the Bullpen
Tyler Clippard, Aroldis Chapman, and Dellin Betances all had mid-season struggles. It's a long season, and just about everyone has ups and downs. Betances is a four-time All-Star, while Chapman has been one of the best closers in the game for a long period of time. Even though some games were lost, Girardi was right for being patient and allowing these guys some room to get back into form.
To his credit, Girardi also showed more flexibility as the season wound down and the team geared up for the playoffs. Tommy Kahnle and Green rose on the depth chart, with both coming up big in the postseason. The Yankee skipper mostly played the hot hand in October, an approach which largely paid off. While less than perfect in results, the Yankees' pen still outperformed their competitors overall.
3. Handling of Gary Sanchez
Girardi probably shouldn't have publicly acknowledged that Sanchez "needed to get better" on defense. Although he would have been portrayed by the press as "clueless," Joe should have just stood up for his player publicly and handled the coaching privately. Of the many decisions that Girardi made this season, this is the only one that I really have an issue with.
4. Use of replay review
His failure to call for a reply review on the hit-by-pitch in ALDS Game Two has been decried as a veritable crime of the century. It wasn't. The Yankees won the series anyway. Besides, as my PSA colleague Matt Provenzano recently reported, Girardi actually has the top mark in baseball when it comes to replay reviews.
Aside from the World Series championship in 2009, this year was the Yankees' deepest run into the postseason of Girardi's tenure. It was also further than the team had gone in the final three years under Joe Torre's stewardship.
Joe Girardi will most certainly be a top finisher for the Manager of the Year Award. He deserves it. The Yankees just let one of the best managers in baseball go. As the organization searches for his replacement, they will likely find that Joe Girardi is the person best qualified for the job.