Every sports fan has an opinion on the head coach of their team. In Tuscaloosa, Nick Saban is held in higher regard than the Judeo-Christian God, and in Toronto, the hiring of Mike Babcock was the biggest news story of the summer of 2015. Conversely, there are cities and teams whose fans can’t wait to run the coaching staff out of town.
Joe Girardi, the longtime manager of the New York Yankees, straddles the line between extremes almost exactly. There are fans who believe Girardi is among the best managers in baseball, and others who seethe at the idea of an upcoming extension. Girardi is quite the polarizing figure.
The one area where the manager can absolutely escape criticism, though, is the value of his patience to the 2017 team. The coming out parties of Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino and others can be directly tied to Girardi’s faith in their talent, and plugging them into important spots regardless of public opinion. Without him, those success stories wouldn’t be as evident.
Now turn back the clocks back to spring training. Severino is coming off an ineffective 2016 and the struggles Judge faced during his cup of coffee were well documented. It would have been well within a veteran manager’s rights to keep the status quo, and leave Severino in the bullpen and Judge as a part-time player until he better established himself.
Instead, we all know what really happened. Severino was in the rotation and Judge in the starting lineup from day one, and with a week to go in the 2017 season, both will finish in the top 3 in Cy Young and AL MVP voting, respectively. They have combined for more than thirteen wins for the playoff-bound Yankees. It hasn’t been quite as simple as riding them all season, though.
After setting the baseball world on fire leading up to the All-Star break, Judge fell off the map. Many have speculated as to why this slump happened, but the facts are that he couldn’t make hard contact and his strikeout rate spiked. We all saw the struggle Judge was going through, and members of the media and fans clamored for Judge to be sat, sent to AAA, or at least moved down in the order. Instead, day after day, Girardi penciled him into the top of the lineup.
We’re seeing the payoff of that patience right now. Judge’s September has been his best month yet, and overall his second half has yielded a 134 wRC+, far from the crater that many think it’s been. It’s no overstatement to say that Judge’s 2017 has delivered the Yankees to the playoffs after a lackluster 2016. Not only has Girardi’s patience allowed Judge to recover, but the managerial decision to let Aaron work himself out of his struggle is more valuable than any lesson learned sitting on the bench.
Sanchez is another beneficiary of Girardi’s patience. The superstar catcher has been everything the Yankees wanted in 2017, being worth five wins and solidifying his status as the best backstop in the American League. Like Judge, though, there have been points in Sanchez’s game - his plate discipline and blocking, notably - that have drawn the ire of the New York media. Calls have been made that Sanchez should serve as the designated hitter or move to first, and they’ve fallen on Girardi’s deaf ears. Sanchez has been the starter all year, and like all young players, has shown improvement in his game. He’s had only four passed balls since August 1st, after all.
Finally, there’s Bird. We all know the trouble he’s had getting on the field in the past two years, but there’s also all that potential in his plate discipline and sweet left-handed swing. He struggled at the beginning of his return, which shouldn’t be surprising given he hadn’t played regularly at full strength in two years.
There’s trend at work here. Young player struggles and the calls come out for him to sit on the bench. There was a legitimate push for Bird to be left off the postseason roster entirely! Fortunately for all involved, Girardi’s patience won out again. Bird has been the starter at first in recent weeks, and equally as important been left in the game in lefty on lefty relief matchups. The results and adjustments have been predictably excellent, with a 113 wRC+ for Bird since returning.
For all the fire Girardi comes under, his biggest asset is the faith he shows in the true talent level of his players. Trusting a struggling youngster to rebound and adjust has delivered a better 2017 than any rational Yankees fan could have expected. For Girardi, patience isn’t just a virtue; it’s been the key to making the playoffs.