Thursday, September 22, 2011

Joe Girardi For Manager of the Year

When you are the manager of the most famous franchise in sports it's a blessing and a curse. The blessing comes in undeniable wealth in which your franchise can obtain talent to put at your disposal. The curse is the largeness of the media presence that watches your every move. Joe Girardi is mostly skewered on a nightly basis on Twitter and that's to be expected when you manage the most loved and hated team on the planet. But it's hard to ignore that preseason predictions didn't give the Yankees any chance to win the division this season. Forty-five ESPN contributors predicted the Red Sox to win the division (for example) and none picked the Yankees. But here the Yankees are as they clinched the division title last night.

The Yankees have the biggest run differential in baseball. As such, they are four games behind their Pythagorean win-loss projection. That's how this writer usually rates managers and their performance. But using a single tool can hardly be excused by anyone considering players or managers for awards after the season. If that was the case, Ryan Howard would win the MVP for his RBIs. Statistics tells us a lot, but beyond the black and white of numbers is this ugly thing we call intangibles. You can't quantify them and you can't talk about them intelligently. The observation here is that the Yankees have won the division because of their run differential. But Joe Girardi has gone a bit beyond that black and white to give New York yet another division title.

Consider first the Yankees starting rotation. One of the reasons that nobody predicted the Yankees to win the division was because they had Sabathia and then who? Credit many for finding and utilizing Freddie Garcia and Bartolo Colon. But it was Girardi that employed them and he seemed deft at milking these two pitchers for all he could get out of them. Girardi seemed to always have a finger on the pulse of when to keep them in the game and when to rescue them when their stuff wasn't there. You can't blame Girardi for the A.J. Burnett mess. Tied with an enormous contract, Burnett is going to pitch whether that becomes a circus or not. But Girardi rarely left Burnett in the game long enough to put games beyond the reach of the team coming back to win the games Burnett started. Girardi, from this observer's perspective handled that situation about as well as you can. He defended his player admirably and yet never gave Burnett a very long leash to bury the team. Credit Girardi for his belief in Ivan Nova which paid huge dividends down the stretch.

Girardi is hardly the first manager to rely on the back end of his bullpen to seal ball games. He played for years under Joe Torre as Torre won championships riding Rivera and companies. But unlike Torre, Girardi kept his bullpen fresh, never overworked them and for the most part kept them effective all season. This writer thinks his handling of Rafael Soriano was brilliant and now that reliever is a big part of the bullpen's success. Simply look at the amount of appearances of the Yankees' key bullpen performers compared to teams like the Braves. The argument can be made (in all fairness) that the Braves played ten more one-run games than the Yankees did (54 to 44) and those ten more close games meant ten more appearances for big-time relievers. Fair point. But even so, Girardi used his bullpen well.

Girardi also handled the Jorge Posada thing extremely well. He was straight up with his aging veteran and told him exactly where he stood and then found places for Posada to contribute. That Posada clinched the division with a clutch hit is as much a reflection on Girardi as it is for Posada.

Posada is yet another example in the fact that the Yankees rely on some older veterans. Girardi might not be the pioneer of the DH has a resting place for his older players, but he's used the strategy to great success and got the most of his older players when he really needed them. Many say that he stubbornly stuck with Derek Jeter when Brett Gardner was the more logical choice for the top of the order. But Jeter's second half proved him right as Jeter has a higher on base percentage than Gardner when all is said and done. Girardi has rested Jeter and A-Rod, Teixeira and Swisher at appropriate points in the season and it seems to have been a deft strategy. 

Girardi also stuck with Russell Martin as his primary catcher. Martin had a rough stretch at the plate and in the field in the middle of the season, but Martin has been a terrific catcher for the Yankees and is a big part of their pitching success. It's really the first time the Yankees have had a competent catcher behind the plate since...well...since Girardi. Martin is certainly not a great offensive player. But he's no Jeff Mathis either.

The other thing you have to like about Joe Girardi's season as manager is his use of young players to add to his veterans. Brett Gardner has become one of the best left-fielders in baseball. Cory Wade added 35 big appearances to the bullpen. We've already talked about Nova. Phil Hughes was given every chance to get his season back. Eduardo Nunez has had some rough patches but has been a decent fifth infielder. Hector Noesi, Nova and the young David Roberston and Boone Logan combination have been played with more than mild success (understatement). Jesus Montero got a nice taste of Major League Baseball at the end of the season. But probably the biggest thing Girardi did was what he didn't do. He rarely put young players in position to fail. When push came to shove, he leaned on his established players when appropriate to get the job done.

You also have to take into account things like Mark Teixeira calling Joe Girardi the best manager he's ever played for. The team seems so lacking in internal bickering and strife that you have to give some of that to Girardi. This seems to be a tight-knit group and one that plays together well. The manager of your ball club has to foster that environment and Girardi seems to do that very well.

Many wondered what would become of the Yankees after Joe Torre was allowed to walk away. You can't argue with Torre's success as the Yankee skipper. But this brand of Yankee baseball is Girardi's baseball and it's different in slight ways if you watch closely enough. Girardi has become just as good as his predecessor and perhaps could be even better. You can find fault at times with Girardi's game management and question some of the in-game moves he makes. But it's hard to argue with the bottom line, isn't it?

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