Yankees fans, don’t fault Aaron Boone for positivity

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 01: Clint Frazier #77 of the New York Yankees is congratulated by manager Aaron Boone after Frazier hit a two run home run to win the game at Yankee Stadium on June 01, 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York City.The New York Yankees defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 5-3 in 11 innings. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 01: Clint Frazier #77 of the New York Yankees is congratulated by manager Aaron Boone after Frazier hit a two run home run to win the game at Yankee Stadium on June 01, 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York City.The New York Yankees defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 5-3 in 11 innings. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

One of the Yankee sources I follow is Steve Contursi’s Reflections on Baseball. A former site expert for Yanks Go Yard, Contursi writes regular analysis on the performance of both the Yankees and Mets, and I find his “biting editorials” help me balance my own relentlessly optimistic perspective.

That all said, a recent piece of Contursi’s has inspired my fierce disagreement.

In Contursi’s eyes, Yankees manager Aaron Boone is making a fool of himself, because he “insists the cup is half full when Yankees fans of all ages and sexes” can see otherwise.

“Derek Jeter never relied on Joe Torre to defend him when he had a terrible day, and it would never occur to Torre to do so,” Contursi argues. “Ditto Joe Girardi, who had no problem taking Gary Sánchez to task for not hustling to block nasty sliders in the dirt from Luis Severino – in full view of YES cameras! That’s what is called accountability, and it can be confronting and ugly, but it’s the job of any boss, no matter what company they are working for.”

There’s a lot I disagree with in Contursi’s statement, but let’s start with the pedantic. The way I see it, the glass is half full: the Yankees, as I write this, are floating around .500. It would be one thing if Boone was saying the Yankees are an amazing team that has been struck with intense bad luck; he hasn’t. He’s simply said that things have been rough and offered observations as to why he believes things can be turned around.

More importantly, it would seem Contursi is making a mistake in equating the Girardi and Torre eras.

Yankees: How Boone (and Torre) Get Sports Psychology Right

Back in 2015, Forbes published an analysis on Joe Torre’s managerial style. It read:

1) Ditch the Group Motivational Speeches in Favor of 1:1 Coaching

2) Be Intense But Not Tense

3) Everyone Must Feel Useful

4) Don’t Punish Failure

5) Manage Contrary to the Pressure

One could argue that Boone does not live up to the standard set by Point No. 2, but when it comes to points 3-5, Torre did exactly what Boone is criticized for.

And there’s good reason why Boone and Torre have the managerial styles that they do. Many psychologists, including the famed B.F. Skinner, have argued that reward is a more effective educational tool than punishment. A recent study out of Leiden University explained, “Learning from mistakes is more complex than carrying on in the same way as before. You have to ask yourself what precisely went wrong and how it was possible.”

Another difference between reward and punishment is that while reward strictly creates an incentive for someone to reach new heights in their field, punishment essentially incentivizes two different outcomes: one of them is the actual goal, but the other is staying out of trouble.

Gary Sánchez has made a number of outs on the base paths in recent games, including one where he made a rudimentary blunder, running from third third to second when a ball was hit to right-side. Rather than castigating the mistake in a post-game press conference, Boone pointed out that, from Sanchez’s vantage point, the placement of the ball was far more ambiguous.

For some, this defense no-doubt came across as coddling. And Sánchez is already a player, more than any other, who has been singled out for being coddled.

But Boone’s handling of the situation was the correct one. Gary Sánchez is a slow-base runner, and as a result, he never seems to have taken seriously the idea that he should always hustle.

On April 17, Boone was reported to display a rare burst of anger in the dugout and the lack of hustle was one of the main problems he indicated. Since then, I have noticed players like Sánchez and Clint Frazier sprinting on the base paths, and Boone has clearly noticed this progress too.

Were Boone to humiliate Sanchez over his bad base running, it might have sent the message that all this hustling is more trouble than its worth. But because Boone, like Torre before him, knows the difference between an actual baseball character flaw, and an honest, spur-of-the-moment mistake, he is able to strategically employ his “glass half full” rhetoric, being strict with his players only in the rare cases where it makes sense to do so.

But the Viewers are Still Frustrated

This is not to say that there is nothing to be frustrated with in Boone’s press-conferences. Unlike Torre or Girardi, Boone was hired in the Sabremetrics era. His job as manager is not so much to strategize about the use of his roster, but to apply a strategy created by upper management and sell it to his players and the media alike.

As such, when Boone speaks to the media, he’s not doing so with the same vulnerability or freedom as Girardi and Torre did. He is, for all intents and purposes, the Yankees’ Press Secretary. So while I disagree with the critiques of his optimistic, player-supportive answers, I can understand why some might find his sunny rhetoric (especially when it comes to Yankee injuries) to be a little phony and propagandistic.

I recently compared the Yankees’ underperforming, yet talented, roster to teams fielded by my favorite English soccer team Everton in the mid-2010s. Those Everton teams were managed by a coach named Roberto Martinez, who like Aaron Boone had a tendency to focus on the bright side after his team lost. Martinez, like Boone, aggravated the fan base with his softness and lost his job after only three years at Everton.

Martinez was subsequently hired to manage the Belgian national team. He has held that job for six years. Belgium is currently the No. 1-ranked team in the world.

The question of who is and isn’t a great manager is a hard one to quantify. Aaron Boone may or may not be a great manager, but our assessment of that question should not come down to a sports cliché. Let’s not make the mistake of dismissing Boone as a motivator just because he “makes excuses.”