In his time in the Bronx, Joe Torre earned the affection of Yankees fans. His steady hand built the foundation for some of the team’s most thrilling experiences in memory. Throughout the Yankees dynasty of the late 1990s, he won the respect and trust of his players, and handled the spotlight of the New York media with grace.
From 1996 through 2007, Torre steered the Yankees to 10 division crowns, six American League pennants, and four World Series wins, including three consecutive titles from 1998-2000. He finished with a winning percentage of .605, and never failed to qualify for postseason play.
But beyond the numbers, the memories, and the heartwarming tears Torre spilled after big moments, there lies a secret about the Hall-of-Famer’s tenure as the Yankees’s skipper: he’s the greatest manager the team has ever had.
At first glance, Torre might seem outclassed. Casey Stengel, who managed the club from 1949 through 1960 — 12 seasons, just like Torre — guided the Yankees to an eye-popping .623 winning percentage and 10 pennants, earning seven World Series victories, five of which came consecutively. He remains the only manager to have snagged five in a row.
Joe McCarthy, a predecessor to Stengel who occupied the Yankees dugout from 1931 through 1945 and part of 1946, is another candidate for the top of the list. Like Stengel, McCarthy hauled in seven World Series wins, though he garnered “only” eight AL pennants. Amazingly, he actually won at a higher rate than Stengel, registering a .627 winning percentage on the way to a franchise-record 1,460 wins.
However, both men dominated less competitive landscapes than those Torre faced, bolstered by less player movement and a more direct route to the World Series. They fielded monumentally talented teams that faced only seven other AL clubs for a ticket to the World Series.
For example, in 1936 McCarthy’s Bombers began a run in which they not only captured seven of eight pennants, but routinely bested the AL runners-up in the standings by double-digit margins. They were miles better than their closest competition.
Stengel and McCarthy essentially did what they were expected to do, at least by one measure: Bill James’ Pythagorean Theorem of Baseball, which uses a team’s run differential to model a win-loss record that reflects its level of play more accurately than the actual standings.
The Pythagorean Theorem is based on the idea that margin of victory better indicates a team’s quality than its ability to win close games, which could be attributed to luck. It’s certainly not a perfect tool, but if its estimates are consistently off in one direction, it could be driven by managerial decision making.
Over the course of his Yankees career Joe McCarthy’s record as skipper matched Pythagorean expectations exactly, meaning his teams won precisely as many games as their run differential suggested they would. Stengel’s Yankees were slightly better, coming in a total of eight wins above their Pythagorean in 12 seasons.
Torre’s squads, on the other hand, were a whopping +41 versus the Pythagorean Theorem. This isn’t to say that the wins amassed by McCarthy and Stengel weren’t impressive, but teams under Torre’s command seem to have earned some of their victories against the odds. As talented as all these historic Yankees clubs were, only Torre’s consistently outperformed their run totals.
And he didn’t just take the stacked 1990s teams from great to greater; he also guided flawed rosters to impressive heights. In 2004, the Yankees’ run differential was that of an 89-win team, a number that would have left them watching the postseason from home. Instead, they ended the regular season with a monster 101 wins, and came a few agonizing outs away from another World Series appearance.
The very next year, the team produced the run differential of a 90-win club, but instead finished with 95 wins and a division title. A couple large variations like these don’t make a trend. But years of variations tilting in a positive direction suggest Torre had a knack for pulling the right levers when making lineups, handling the bullpen, and other decisions.
Perhaps much of this can be ascribed to the longstanding brilliance of Mariano Rivera, whose presence throughout Torre’s tenure helped him eke out narrow victories. After all, Torre never found the same degree of success in his managerial stints with the Mets, Cardinals, Braves, or Dodgers, and his Pythagorean magic was much more of a mixed bag with those teams. The real influence of a manager can be opaque and hard to quantify, which is part of the fun of assessing their performances.
Ultimately, you couldn’t go wrong naming either Stengel or McCarthy as your greatest Yankees manager — they’re both Hall-of-Famers with unique postseason achievements. But in time, Torre’s triumphs will also grow in stature.
In the two decades since his Yankees won back-to-back-to-back, there hasn’t been a repeat World Series winner, the longest such stretch in MLB history. The parity and competition within the league seems to be growing ever more fierce, and the Yankees might not see another dynasty any time soon.
Aaron Boone will seek to change that, of course. And while he has started out on the right foot — cracking 100 wins in his first two seasons and racking up a .627 winning percentage — Boone is a (really, really) long way away from joining this discussion.
Which is all the more reason to celebrate Mr. Torre, not just as a leader of great Yankees teams gone by, but as the standard by which Boone and all future managers will be measured.