Every October, managers inevitably get criticized for their tactical maneuvers. It’s easy to second-guess managerial decisions from the couch, because they just seem so simple. We can convince ourselves that we could make managerial choices. We can’t hit the ball like Aaron Judge or throw Dellin Betances’ curveball, but we totally feel we could pull a starting pitcher who has nothing.
The prevailing story of the Yankees’ demise was manager Aaron Boone’s inaction. We’ve covered Boone’s mistakes at length already. He clearly seemed to leave Luis Severino in too long in Game Three of the ALDS, letting him start a fateful fourth inning, and then had Lance Lynn, of all people, lined up to relieve Severino. Then, in Game Four, Boone let CC Sabathia, who had been hit hard in the first two innings, navigate nearly the entire Boston lineup in the third inning, allowing three crucial runs.
The most startling thing about Boone’s blunders was how similar they were. Games Three and Four couldn’t have played out more differently in terms of score, but somehow, the themes of the game were exactly the same; the Yankees’ starter was struggling against an excellent Boston offense, and Boone was simply slow with the hook, too deliberate in deploying one of the greatest bullpens ever assembled.
I think Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs summed up here exactly why managerial missteps can feel so frustrating. Sullivan argues that it all stems from the concept of an unforced error. There are some things you can’t control in a baseball game, like Gary Sanchez’s sacrifice fly in the ninth inning of Game Four falling just short of the wall, or Christian Vazquez’s solo homer barely clearing the right field fence. When the manager fails to take care of things he can control, however, such as being prepared and decisive when it comes time to pull a flailing starter in the playoffs, it’s excruciating.
Boone screwed up, he should be criticized for it, and he has. Yet in spite of all that, Boone’s October failings should not at all be reason for his firing. In fact, such mistakes don’t even come close to reasonable grounds for his dismissal.
This isn’t to say that Boone definitively shouldn’t be fired, just that there are a variety of different facets to the manager’s job, especially in New York. Many of those facets cannot be judged from the outside. Tactics are a small aspect of a manager’s role, but they are the most visible. Just because Boone recently failed at the most observable part of his job doesn’t mean he should be fired.
As manager, Boone has a wealth of responsibilities. He must deal with the media. He must carefully manage the personalities of elite athletes. He must ensure his players are both comfortable and motivated through a long season. He must do this all in the cauldron of New York, while acting as a liaison between the players and one of baseball's most analytically savvy front offices. He also must make tactical decisions, and he failed at that in postseason.
Yet his failure in that final part of his job does not mean he has failed at all other aspects of it. Only those inside the organization can know for sure just how Boone has fared with managing his players, how he's fended off the media, and how he has brought the front office's analyses to the clubhouse.
The team has a much better feel for these things than we do. If they feel Boone has struggled in those areas and struggled in the playoffs, then they would surely have reason to think about Boone's future.
From the outside, there's little reason to believe Boone has had trouble with those areas of his occupation. He has seemed secure with the media, to be expected after spending a decade as a media member. By all accounts, the Yankees have an open, happy, progressive clubhouse that welcomes rookies and veterans alike. That clubhouse has come to fruition under Boone's watch, and he deserves credit for that.
Not only that, but the areas in which Boone failed are the ones which can be most easily taught. It can be hard to teach a manager to be more personable with the media and to connect with players, but it shouldn't be impossible to teach a manager to use his relievers more aggressively in elimination games.
Should Boone combine improved tactical skills with savvy media and personality management in the future, the Yankees would actually have one hell of a manager on their hands. Surely, the Yankees hope Boone can eventually morph into the ideal modern manager, one who works well with the media and his players, one who can weigh both intangibles and the analytics provided by the front office, and one who can thrive tactically on a night-to-night basis.
Boone clearly has work to do when it comes to making decisions in the pressure-cooker of the playoffs, but that alone is not a basis for his firing. Only the Yankees have all the cards, and we shall see exactly how they decide to move forward. Odds are, after a season with a frustrating end but one that saw over 100 wins overall, they will move forward with Boone, hoping he continues to grow along with the young team around him.