The Yankees declined to re-sign Joe Girardi Thursday, ending a decade’s worth of managing the team capped off by a totally improbable run that went all the way to game seven of the ALCS. This offseason, he’s not alone in looking for a job after successful years with a successful team.
Ten Years of Criticisms and Accomplishment
I don’t think I really need to re-hash all of the gnashing of teeth about Girardi’s tenure with the Yankees. People complained about the rigid innings assignments for relief pitchers. The high bar of entry to the Circle of Trust for leverage innings and the seeming long leash for more favored members of it. His sometimes-baffling adherence to The Binder. He seemed to think Chasen Shreve was a LOOGY. But he won, he’s leaving with a .562 winning pct, a World Series ring, and a history of overperforming projections. The Yankees didn’t have a losing season under his guidance, which wasn’t always so obviously going to happen on a given Opening Day.
Personally, I think that his rigidity in assigned innings was at times infuriating, but overall Girardi’s pitching management did a good job of balancing the immediate needs of the game with the longer view of the series and season. His lineup construction was generally inoffensive, and he was willing to see guys through slumps. I certainly wasn’t clamoring for him to be gone, and I don’t want this to come off a some kind of post-facto hit piece.
The Modern Man(ager)
Today, Ben Lindbergh at The Ringer and Jeff Passan at Yahoo each wrote about how the release of Girardi, Dusty Baker, and John Farrell pointed to the rise and supremacy of the FO, and more specifically, the GM. Both articles seem to posit that this rise is an unbalancing of the system, and that the loss of power for the manager means a negative change for baseball.
Passan notes that “the manager used to be the fulcrum of an organization, the decision maker whose compass guided the GM,” a power balance that has clearly been reversed (well, not in Anaheim I guess.) Lindbergh more evenly states that the “primacy of the manager’s role has eroded in the modern game.”
But is this really surprising? And further, is this really even a bad thing? Ben notes that “an accelerated rebuild like the Yankees’, or a sustained stretch of success like those of the Red Sox and Nationals, stems from smart drafting, player development, and interteam transactions, most of which happens outside of the manager’s view.” The entire culture of how a baseball team is structured has changed massively in the past couple of decades, and the process of how that structure is put to use has changed with it. The GM is the compass for the entire baseball operations side of the business, not the guy in the dugout anymore.
The obvious way to state things is a difference between tactics and strategy. No GM or quant pool or entire front office is going to be able to predict the outcome of every play and every possible combination of fielder, hitter, pitcher, etc. That team goes 162-0. But they are, or at least should be, able to come up with a high-level plan for how the roster fits together, and the overall disposition of the team. Brian Cashman put Aaron Judge on the Yankees 25-man at the beginning of the season so he could play right field, not to be left on the bench because he might not hit. The long view was for Judge to…well, for him to do what he ended up doing this year. It ended up being a pretty easy choice since he started off so hot, but what if he hadn’t?
I feel like I hate to commit a cardinal sin of being a baseball nerd and cite not just Moneyball, but the movie.
What if Judge hadn’t gotten off to a hot start? What if he played every fourth game in deference to Aaron Hicks? (This hypothetical breaks down a bit given how scorching Hicks was for a lot of the season.) If Cashman and the FO saw this as a year for Judge to get major league ABs and learn to hit at this level, but if Girardi wasn’t willing to give them to him, the FO has to take what could be a rash step to force his hand. The devolution of power to set a lineup might help the team win day-to-day, but not in the long term.
The Obvious Examples
We can even cite a couple of examples of friction between Girardi and the direction that Cashman seemingly wanted to push the roster.
The most obvious this year was between Gary Sanchez and Austin Romine. Clearly, there was no question of who the starting catcher was (99 v 58 games started, even around a month-long DL stint,) but Girardi had more faith in Romine’s defensive ability than any objective measure would give you. The first real incident came when Sanchez was benched following a particularly noticeable string of passed balls. But really what might be the most egregious example of a relationship breakdown was in the ALDS, when Girardi refused to challenge the Lonnie Chisenhall hit-by-pitch-that-wasn’t even though Sanchez was adamant that the ball had hit his bat.
In previous years, the name that most Yankees fans will float with equal parts sadness and disappointment would be Rob Refsnyder. He was something of a household name among followers of the rather barren Yankees farm system, and finally got his big league debut in July of 2015, where he was called upon to play second base over Stephen Drew. Even in 2014 there was a clamoring for him to come up and take over for Brian Roberts. The Yankees weren’t exactly lighting up the middle infield. Refsnyder came up, played in 16 games, got 47 plate appearances and hit .302/.348/.512 with a pair of home runs. We all know that everybody was overboard with the hype for Refs (a reflection of the state of the farm system more than anything else) but his competition was, again, Stephen Drew and Brian Roberts. Girardi never seemed to want him there, despite his bat playing and his defense not costing the team.
The Real Problem
Of course, criticism of any manager who isn’t egregiously bad at their job is an exercise in guessing. Joel Sherman wrote in the NY Post about the personality traits that caused him to grate. I believe the overall image he gives, Girardi definitely seemed like a guy who would be described in the parlance as “tight” most of the time, but that’s about all the facts we’ve got, Jack.
I’m guessing that the FO wanted Refsnyder to play more, and relented when Girardi didn’t want him in the lineup. I’m guessing about any acrimony with Sanchez beyond the short (and honestly, defensible for more than one reason) benching that he got. We’re all just guessing at who could come in to replace Girardi for next year.
But there’s a difference between the tactics and strategy of a team, there’s a difference between the issue of specifically letting go of Girardi and the more general move towards managers being “conduits” for the FO. And the trend doesn’t look to be reversing, nor should we necessarily want it to.