There is a lot of uncertainty over how much a baseball manager can actually impact his team’s chances of winning. Compiling player anecdotes about their managers can provide a glimpse at how well they do as “leader of men”. However, it is impossible to calculate how many wins this is worth. Also, everyone can see -and argue with- the moves a manager makes during a game but their effect is hard to quantify and judge. The experts at Baseball Prospectus performed a study that revealed all managers were employing tactics (sacrifice bunting) that were detrimental to the team but, on the whole, managers couldn’t impact the game outcome as much as fans tend to think.
Economist J.C. Bradbury went a step further and calculated how many more strikes a manager was able to steal for his pitchers (and balls for his hitters) than the average manager through arguing, reputation, etc. He largely found not much of a difference among managers and this form of “rent seeking” wasn’t worth it. More studies suggest that lineup construction doesn’t make much of a difference over the course of a year because it all evens out. Most managers are ordering hitters sub-optimally, but not so bad that they are giving their teams the worst possible chance to score runs (actually far from it). Overwhelming evidence suggests that managers don’t matter as much in-game as we might like to think. This does not mean that their role should be discounted altogether because an extra win can be the difference between the playoffs and the off-season in the parity-filled Major League Baseball.
In 6 seasons at the helm, Joe Girardi has a 564-408 record while winning the World Series in 2009. As with any manager it is very hard to tease out the quality of players and luck from what the manager actually contributes. After all, Casey Stengel opined, “Managing is getting paid for home runs someone else hits.” However, after watching Girardi’s in-game moves (insert binder joke here) these past 6 years, I’m comfortable saying he is closer to Joe Maddon than Ron Washington on the scale of tactical managing ability. The current roster will give Girardi an exceptional chance (more-so than in previous seasons) to prove the quality of his tactical decision-making in a few ways:
1. Get creative with bullpen management- Tony LaRussa designed the way the modern bullpen looks and operates way back in the 70s and created a path for Dennis Eckersley to become a Hall of Famer. The method has largely stuck to this day with some minor variations, but it is not the best way to run a bullpen. For instance, bullpens should be limited to 6 (or even 5) pitchers, relievers should go more than 1 inning, and the best pitcher (capital-C Closer) should not be limited to 9th inning work. I don’t expect the Yankees to go from 7 relievers to 6 for this year, but the first team that does that to get another bench player will be ahead of the curve. I do think that they can buck the trend on the other 2 inefficiencies, though.
Assuming no further big-money reliever acquisitions are made, Girardi should have a little leeway to deploy some of the younger relievers in ways that he wants since their limited service time and earnings diminishes their personal need to have a designated role. This means asking the loser of the 5th starter spot (maybe David Phelps or Adam Warren) to record 6 or 9 outs rather than just pitch a single inning. They would be able to turn over a lineup multiple times because of their time as starters and ability to utilize more than just 2 pitches to get both righties and lefties out. It also saves other guys from pitching that night and gives the manager bullpen flexibility for the following few games. I’d rather have 2 guys account for 4 innings than use 5 guys for those same 4 innings and risk running into one on an off-night while limiting their usability in subsequent days. Now, I’m not promoting a Joe Torre-Scott Proctor Part II, but relief pitchers were able to go multiple innings 40 years ago, so there’s no reason they can’t do that now. An ancillary benefit is that this 2-3 inning model for these younger pitchers helps (or at least doesn’t halt) their development. Warming up in the bullpen and then airing it out for only 12-15 pitches is what destroyed Neftali Feliz and partially contributed to Joba Chamberlain‘s demise.
For the “closer” usage (and this would never happen, but it would be cool) Girardi could use David Robertson as a true fireman. I can understand pitching Mariano Rivera when Jerome Holtzman says he can pitch because that’s what he was accustomed to doing after all of those years. However, Robertson has never closed for an extended period of games and this would be an opportune time to break the closer-centric bullpen model. Robertson would be called on to pitch in the highest leverage situation between innings 6 through 9, whenever it arises. Here’s a potential situation: Masahiro Tanaka gives up back to back singles after 7.1 strong innings and departs with the Yankees up 1 and Dustin Pedroia striding to the plate. The bullpen doors swing open and…. David Robertson comes out. This is likely the highest leverage situation (a win expectancy chart would pin a number on it) in the game and the Yankees’ best pitcher must be in at that moment. Going to a lesser pitcher would be a mistake in that scenario. The save statistic has caused teams to lose games with their best relief (or even 2nd and 3rd best) pitcher failing to enter the game or coming in after his team relinquished a lead and it’s too late. Girardi could break that trend with Robertson.
2. Don’t sacrifice bunt- This really goes for all managers in the game. They all seem to be stuck in a time before run expectancy charts existed. Sacrifice bunting as outlined in the book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball is almost always a bad decision because it decreases run expectancy. There are very few times where a sac bunt is warranted (For instance: lefty-lefty matchup, good bunter, decent speed on 1st or 2nd, no outs, good hitter on deck, late innings of tie game). An outcry of “you only get 27 outs” and “you play for 1 you only get 1 and sometimes you get none” occurs whenever a manager calls for an ill-advised bunt. There were specific times the past few years where the Yankees inexplicably sacrifice bunted. One especially egregious example was Curtis Granderson. Granderson was in Yankee Stadium as a lefty (high offense park that plays to his advantage). He is a fly ball guy with decent speed (small double play probability) and has had 40+ homer seasons. Finally, he was hitting second so there were great hitters (Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira) hitting behind him. First base is scoring position for that group of players and there is a strong chance of starting a rally. A bunt in that situation is uncalled for. It is always hard to say if the player was “on his own” or if it was called from the dugout but Girardi needs to eliminate close to all sacrifice bunting because it’s only hurting his team’s chances of scoring runs and winning games.
3. Less Jeter at shortstop- This is probably more of a Derek Jeter must check his ego at the door thing, but Girardi needs to be making the decisions here. Jeter was a bad defensive shortstop when he was healthy and 25-years-old. It could get ugly at 40-years of age coming off a severe ankle injury. The first-step quickness and range just aren’t there. It’s entirely possible that there is a 40-run gap on defense between Derek Jeter and Brendan Ryan for this coming season. The Yankees would maximize their ability to turn balls in play into outs with Brendan Ryan playing every inning at shortstop. Obviously that is not feasible for various reasons, so Girardi needs to figure out the optimal percentage of innings each should see at shortstop. The constraints would include (but not be limited to) the fact that the Yankees have at least 3 ground-ball heavy pitchers (Kuroda, Nova, and presumably Tanaka with the splitter), Jeter is a poor fielder, Ryan is a poor hitter, Jeter is better against lefty pitchers, Jeter likely can’t play many consecutive games in the field, and if Jeter is relegated to DH then one of the following good hitters, Carlos Beltran and Alfonso Soriano, must sit on the bench. Unfortunately, Girardi can’t plug all of those variables into Microsoft Excel’s solver, but he must keep all of these issues in mind when writing the lineup card out for each day’s game and when looking at situations involved in future games such as the Yankees’ probable pitcher, infield surface (balls get through turf infield faster), etc.
From an outsider’s perspective, it appears that the players really respect Girardi and he is able to diffuse the tension that comes with playing in New York similar to the way Joe Torre did. He handled the Alex Rodriguez situation exceptionally well, treats veterans and rookies equally, and quells the media onslaught with ease. This season will be a different sort of test for Girardi as he doesn’t have an all star at every position and the plug-and-play lineups the Yankees usually feature. His ability to effectively put his players in the best position to succeed will prove vital for the Yankees’ playoff hopes.