With the end of the 2017 season, Yankees ownership has some decisions to make, perhaps none bigger than what to do about the General Manager and manager. Both Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi’s contracts expire after this year, and the question is should either of them be offered the chance to stay in Pinstripes.
I don’t think anyone can reasonably argue that Yankees ownership would be suicidal to cut Brian Cashman loose. Since the Steinbrenner’s gave him full control over personnel decisions, the Yankees have become a markedly improved team. Shrewd trades and free agent signings have turned around the club in the Bronx. By keeping an eye towards the future as well as the present, Cashman also has the Yankees set up to make a major splash in the international free agent market this offseason and major league free agent market after the upcoming season, while getting the team’s payroll below the dreaded luxury tax threshold.
Several years ago, Cashman made improving the team’s minor league farm system a priority, which he’s done. Most baseball evaluators rank the system as one of the five best in the game, with several placing it in the top three. Even before trading for prospects such as Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier, the system was developing major league caliber talent, with this season’s youngsters of note (Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Luis Severino, Dellin Betances and Aaron Judge) all having been drafted and developed by the Yankees.
A general manager’s job is to put a contending team on the field, while ensuring payroll is kept manageable enough that ownership can be comfortable. Cashman has the team on the right track. Releasing him would be mistake.
Joe Girardi, like Cashman, is also on an expiring contract. Unlike Cashman, Girardi’s case isn’t as cut and dried.
A major league team’s manager can have differing responsibilities, based on the front office’s expectations. Some teams ask the manager to teach a young team to play at a major league. Others ask the manager to maintain clubhouse order and make a team of cast-offs and never-were’s respectable. Still others want their manager to get their team to the playoffs.
For the New York Yankees, the manager always has one job, and one job only: win. And winning means, win the World Series. Anything less is considered a failure.
This is Girardi’s 10th season as Yankee manager. In that time, his teams have been to the World Series once. Over that same period, the Giants have been three times, the Phillies twice, the Rangers twice and the Royals twice. That the team hasn’t been as successful on the field during his ten years isn’t entirely Girardi’s fault, though. But there is a case to be made that this season might qualify as his worst at the helm.
Most baseball fans have probably heard of “WAR,” even if they don’t fully understand it. It represents a player’s value above that of a typical “replacement” level player. (Fangraphs has a detailed and easy to understand explanation here.) A team full of 0 WAR players would be expected to only win 48 games (which would set a record for futility) but the idea is that if you can cobble together a roster worth 52 WAR, you should win 100 games. It can be argued that if a team wins more games than their cumulative WAR, then the manager positively influenced the final record. The same goes for the converse.
Another way of evaluating a manager’s effectiveness is by using a little known statistic called Pythagorean Won/Loss. It measures the numbers of runs a team scored and the number it allowed, and comes up with an expected win total. (When Bill James came up with this, it sparked a firestorm which still rages in sabermetric circles).
In 2017, the Yankees aggregate team WAR was 55.1, which would equate to a 103-59 record.
In 2017, the Yankees Pythagorean W/L record was 100-62.
In 2017, the Yankees actual record was 91-71.
Throughout the previous 9 years of his tenure, Girardi had been worth between 3 and 8 wins to his team; which is to say, the Yankees typically won 3 to 8 games more per year than they statistically should have. In 2016, he was worth around 5 wins to the Yankees. So it’s fair to ask, why did this year’s squad so badly underperform their stats?
I think there are some clues in Girardi’s postseason performance. Everyone is well versed in how badly he botched Game 2 of the division series against the Indians. But there were some decisions in the ALCS, especially regarding his handling of the pitching staff, that are head scratchers. Over the years, Girardi has earned a reputation as a manager who perhaps overly relies on statistical analysis, and not enough on what his eyes see happening on the field. The fans have even coined the nickname “Binder Joe” because of this tendency. And so we had an exhausted Tommy Kahnle trying to get out hitters with his fourth best pitch in Game 7 and a spent David Robertson left in to get pounded in Game 6. We watched a tired Luis Severino lose the strike zone in Game 6. We watched as the Yankees best reliever, Aroldis Chapman, was left in the bullpen in critical junctures of both games – and never get used at all.
It is entirely possible that while he relates to his players on a personal level (the way the team rallied around the manager in the LDS is testament to that), too many of the Yankees players in 2017 were too unfamiliar to their manager for him to properly gauge how best to deploy them during the season. The youth movement underway in the Bronx certainly revealed some of the young talents shortcomings, from Gary Sanchez’s defensive failings, to Betances’ mechanical woes and Judge’s prodigious strike-out totals. Girardi never seemed to be able to address those problems, or even willing to at times.
Those would all be reasons to dismiss Girardi, but I don’t think the Yankees should -or will. Removing Girardi because of one bad year would be shortsighted, I think, especially when over the course of his career he’s proven to be one the 5 best major league managers in the game. I do think, in light of the youth movement underway (I fully expect to see at least another 4 or 5 of the Baby Bombers in Pinstripes next season), Girardi will need to step up his game and leave the binders in his office once the game starts.
Dismissing Girardi also begs the question: who would you replace him with? As I said above, his history says he is one the 5 best managers in the game today. The Yankees are on the cusp of many playoff appearances and potential world championships to come. It’s not the time to gamble on an untested commodity, and I doubt the Yankees will be able to pry Tito Francona or Joe Maddon away from their respective teams.
So, for now, I think the Yankees will stand pat with their managerial personnel. They’ve brought the team this far. MIght as well give them the chance to finish the job.