Grading Aaron Boone’s performance in 2020 is a near-impossible task, because very few know exactly what a manager’s job entails. Traditionally, a manager gets the last say when setting the lineup, choosing the starting pitcher, and making in-game decisions including pitching changes, pinch hitting/running, and defensive substitutions. In the modern era of analytics, these lines become blurred, and team strategy becomes a groupthink effort. The most we have been told about Boone’s role on the team comes from Brian Cashman’s year-end press conference:
“I know there’s that narrative... about the manager being a puppet... none of that’s true. I’ve never ordered a manager to do anything specifically. And Aaron would be able to testify to that as will Joe Girardi and Joe Torre, they’ve never been directed at any time by me or our front office to do something that they didn’t want to do... simple as that. People want to believe whatever they want to believe, so I just know we have a good strong healthy sound process and one that we’re proud of.”
The Yankees’ GM later reiterated that decisions such as setting the lineup card and deciding which relievers to use ultimately was the manager’s responsibility. Therefore, the task of evaluating Boone’s performance depends on the extent to which one believes Cashman’s comments.
If I were to take Cashman’s insistence that Boone is the final authority at face value, then I would have to say Boone was unsatisfactory. He made his fair share of both smart choices and blunders, but ultimately it was the blunders that helped sink the Yankees’ season. Before we get to those, it is only fair to give Boone credit for his successful decisions.
Boone started Brett Gardner over Clint Frazier against the Rays, and it paid off. This decision flew in the face of metrics that favored Frazier to start, with Boone instead playing the hot hand - Gardner having finished the regular season on a torrid pace while Frazier ended with a mini-slump. Gardner rewarded the decision by turning in one of the best ALDS performances of any player on the team.
Boone also stuck with Kyle Higashioka as the starting catcher over Gary Sánchez. Higgy displayed some brilliant glovework behind the plate, blocking pitches the Sánchez has struggled with in the past. He also put up decent enough numbers at the plate to justify his continued inclusion in the lineup.
Unfortunately for Boone, the clunky decisions are what most fans will remember. The obvious place to start is the Game Two debacle. The gamble to open with Deivi García followed by J.A. Happ as the bulk reliever was shaky from the start. Regardless of the result, the decision effectively burned two starting pitchers from an already depleted staff. Boone compounded the problem by bringing Jonathan Loáisiga and Adam Ottavino on in relief. They combined to give up two runs, the amount by which the Yankees would ultimately lose.
There is plenty to question about the pitching decisions in Game Five as well. Should Boone have left Gerrit Cole in for longer? (Maybe). Was it unwise to expect Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman to handle the final 3.2 innings after combining to throw three innings the previous night? Perhaps. I cannot get too upset in this case, as it was ultimately the disappearance of the bats, and not a failure by the pitchers, that ended the Yankees’ season.
Some decisions on the offensive side are fair to question as well. Leaving Miguel Andújar off the postseason roster was puzzling to some and understandable to others. Pinch-hitting Mike Ford in two high leverage situations after he floundered all season is a less defensible decision.
If we are to assume that Boone is merely a figurehead for the analytics department, with much if not all of the decision making taken out of his hands... well one is justified in wondering what he’s even there for. In this scenario, his job centers around communication. He would be responsible for translating findings from the analytics department into a digestible message for the players. He would act as the mediator in the clubhouse and the liaison to the public. Most importantly, the onus would fall on Boone to make sure every player fully buys into the decision coming down from on high.
Even in this regard, Boone had his share of blemishes. Going back to Game Two, it sure sounds like Happ was far from on board with the strategy. Boone dissembled about Aaron Judge’s injury in the regular season, and it sure appears that Judge suffered a setback after Boone allowed himself to be convinced that Judge was healthy when he was not.
Many of the Yankees’ struggles - particularly in the playoffs - are due to factors outside of the skipper’s control. Injuries to star players robbed the Yankees of their A-plus lineup for long stretches in the regular season. Injuries similarly hamstrung the starting rotation, such that the Yankees entered the 2020 postseason with only two trusted starters, one of whom failed to deliver on the promise of previous success.
In the end, there is no precise way to assign a grade to Aaron Boone, because there is no way to know what we are grading. The rosters that he has been given have consistently made the playoffs, but relative to the opponents that have eliminated the Yankees, Boone has been dealing from an incomplete deck. Ultimately, the players need to perform, and time after time they have failed to do so.