I’m sure you’ve heard by now that the Phillies fired their manager on Friday, which drew some attention in Yankees Universe because it was former Yankees manager Joe Girardi. Let’s dig a little deeper into Joe’s managerial history and see if we can learn anything from all this, beyond the obvious “hot takes”.
To properly frame this conversation, we need to go back in time a little bit. Specifically almost exactly five years ago to the day – June 5th, 2017. The Yankees were playing in Toronto against the Blue Jays, with the game tied at two runs apiece, heading into the bottom of the eighth.
Then Yankees manager Joe Girardi decided to deploy his bullpen, which in 2017, had considerable resources. Adam Warren was having a very good season, Aroldis Chapman was prime Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances kayed 38 percent of the batters he faced, and Chad Green was the best AL reliever not named Craig Kimbrel or Andrew Miller.
Betances may have been ruled out because he was used the night before, as Girardi decided to use the four-time All-Star and strikeout machine to close out a seven-run lead. No, that’s not a misprint. With a 7-0 lead in the ninth inning, Girardi didn’t go to Jonathan Holder or Bryan Mitchell, he decided to use an elephant gun on an ant, and used one of the best relievers in the AL for mop-up duty.
So on this night, when he found his team in a tight spot, Joey Bullpen didn’t use any of the aforementioned solid options and decided instead to go with Tyler Clippard. (No disrespect to Clippard, he’s had a good career, but he could never be confused with any of the above pitchers.) Rather predictably – to Yankees fans anyway – Clippard allowed a leadoff home run to Josh Donaldson of all people, and the Yankees would go on to lose the game 3-2.
As I’ve written previously, I always get to my point even if I don’t use the interstate to get there, so if you’re wondering why I’m mentioning one managerial decision in one game five years ago, here’s why:
That was not an isolated incident. With Joe Girardi, the absolute nonsense of going to the back end of the bullpen in a tight spot instead of using your big guns was a regular occurrence, and it cost the team dearly. You may remember that the 2017 Yankees came within one game of the World Series, so you might be thinking it couldn’t have been that bad.
The 2017 Yankees went 91-71 during the regular season, but their run differential suggested their record could (should?) have been 100-62. As someone who pays attention to this stuff let me assure you that’s an unusually large discrepancy between an actual record and the Pythagorean record. It’s also significant in the sense that the Yankees lost the AL East to Boston by only two games, forcing them to play a coin flip Wild Card Game against the Twins.
A big part of the issue of underperforming in the W/L column is that the Yankees were an eyebrow-raising 18-26 in one-run games. If like me, you’re thinking that a team with a lockdown bullpen* shouldn’t be eight games below five hundred in close games, you’d be correct. Let this be a lesson kids, that bypassing your best relievers in tie games to use the back end of your bullpen is a very poor strategy – but that was Joey Bullpen.
(*As good as the bullpen was, it got even better midway through the season when Clippard went to Chicago as part of a trade that brought Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson to New York. The Yankees bullpen went from great to downright scary and still finished 18-26 in one-run games on the season. Joe Girardi is to a great bullpen what a 140-pound jockey is to a racehorse.)
Aroldis Chapman was dominant in 2017 and yet in 44 percent of his appearances he entered with the Yankees either leading or trailing by three runs or more – heck, he was used 13 times in games with the Yankees leading or trailing by four runs or more. 41 percent of the appearances of Betances – the four-time All-Star – came in games in which the Yankees were leading or trailing by three runs or more.
Girardi’s M.O. was simple: When it’s a tied or a one-run game, use either an unproven or proven to be a mediocre reliever, and save the proven racehorses for garbage time. That was a predictably awful use of good pitchers and it cost the Yankees, regardless of their postseason run. I’ve been a longtime vocal critic of Yankees GM Brian Cashman but I can say (and I did at the time) that he was 100 percent correct when deciding to move on from Girardi.
Let’s flash forward to the present day. The Phillies’ record this season was 22-29 under Girardi with a run differential based Pythagorean record of 26-25, (Sound familiar?) Overall, after inheriting an 81-81 team he led the Phils to a 135-141 record. Was the roster flawed? Of course. But to be fair, his predecessor didn’t have Zack Wheeler, Dan Castellanos, or Kyle Schwarber.
If you want to talk about his previous successes, like winning the Manager of the Year in 2006 with the Marlins or the 2009 title with the Yankees, I’m not impressed. He won 78 games with a team that won 83 the season before in Florida, and the ’09 Yankees’ ring was purchased for him. (The ’08 Yankees won 89 games and got dusted by Tampa Bay in the AL East standings. Then they signed C.C. Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and A.J. Burnett who combined for 16 WAR in ’09 and won 103 games – if you think Girardi is what helped push that team to and over the top I have bad news for you.)
What can we learn from this as Yankees fans? Not too much, other than Aaron Boone – who had no previous managerial experience – has been a better manager than Joe Girardi, despite what most Yankee fans were saying last October. (I get it’s not the only measurement, but Boone’s actual managerial record with the Yankees over five seasons is 10 wins better than their expected win total based on run differential.)
From a league-wide perspective, it’s a reminder that we should believe who managers are when they first show us. Cases like Joe Torre – 894 wins, 1,003 losses with three teams before becoming a good manager – are the overwhelming exception. More importantly, it’s also a reminder that it’s OK to go in a new direction when looking for a manager. There are people (like Boone) with no previous experience who will do well, and there are people who are not middle-aged white guys who are great candidates who will do well too.
Girardi is clearly a bright person and seems like a good dude, so I don’t want to pile on – I wish him well. That said, his most recent ending was easily foreseeable to those of us who were paying attention. Please don’t be that fan who thinks your favorite team would benefit from Girardi taking over.
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