This past Monday, New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman told reporters via a teleconference that Joe Girardi, the club’s outgoing manager, was not enough of a play- er’s coach. “I made the recommendation based on over a number of years now,” Cashman explained, “some experiences that I was able to validate—whether it was directly or indirectly—about the connectivity and the communication level of the players in the clubhouse” (NY Daily News, “Brian Cashman explains why Yankees moved on from manager Joe Girardi”, 11.06.2017).
From an outsider’s perspective, the notion that Girardi does not relate with his players seems plausible. To look into the team dugout is to see Girardi standing on the first step alone, his arms carefully crossed, his steely gaze directed forward.
It is hard to dispute the former catcher’s coaching record, though. Girardi presided over the Yan- kees 27th World Series Championship in 2009, and he recorded a 910-710 regular season record. This record is all the more impressive because he has been at the helm during a major transition period in which several key players retired or saw their performance fall off precipitously.
There are some holdovers from the early 2000s Yankees that Girardi inherited, but the story this fall has been that of the “Baby Bombers,” a new core of young promising players coming through the minor league ranks to take up starring roles. Pitcher Luis Severino established himself as the squad’s ace, catcher Gary Sanchez reaffirmed his dangerous power bat in the middle of the order and, out of nowhere, gargantuan rookie rightfield- er Aaron Judge took the league by storm with over 50 homers. Judge will likely be rewarded with, at the least, a top-three finish in Most Valuable Player voting to go with his Rookie of the Year plaque.
One could argue that this influx of millennial youth may have influenced Cashman to look for a less stoic, more “new-school” manager. The two similarly young and burgeoning teams that competed for the World Series Championship this past October, the Dodgers and the champion Astros, were indeed helmed by young, forward-looking managers. Perhaps Cashman saw something of a blueprint in those clubs’ managerial decisions.
The other aspect of hiring a less-seasoned manager is that these younger candidates tend to be more open to incorporating the latest baseball analytics into their decision making.
If you have been tuning into baseball games this fall for the first time in a while, then you were probably shocked to see the second baseman playing in right field and the third baseman playing in the shortstop hole. Major League front offices are now filled with quantitative types who rummage through huge amounts of data to derive, often with advanced mathematics, competitive advantages for their ballclub. The example of grouping infielders on one side of the diamond against hitters who pull the ball very often is, of course, not an example of advanced mathematics in any sense, but it is emblematic of the way in which data-driven decision making has quickly become in vogue at the expense of a conventional wisdom approach.
Girardi never seemed vehemently anti-analytics. He embraced changes like extreme infield shifting and what I’d call “bullpen carouseling,” or using throngs of relief pitchers in single games to set up favorable hitter matchups.
But it has been well documented that Girardi took issue with the front office over an analytics-driven mandate to continue playing first baseman Chris Carter early in the season. When MLB. com’s Yankees reporter Bryan Hoch asked Girardi about the possibility of replacing Carter, he replied that it had been an “organizational decision” to keep Carter in the lineup (Twitter, 06.21.2017). Carter’s batting average was comfortably below .200, and his broad, sluggish presence in the field certainly wasn’t keeping him in the lineup.
The current analytics-driven thinking, though, is that a player like Carter does, after all, give his team net positive value. This is informed by the widespread analytical approach of statistically deriving player value by relativizing the impact of player production on the likelihood of their team winning with the help of linear weights.
Carter, for example, had a positive Wins Above Replacement (WAR) result in each of the five seasons prior to his miserable Yankees stint. The first baseman was ultimately released, as he nev- er seemed to find his bat, but it probably wasn’t entirely unreasonable to expect that Carter might turn it around and give the Yankees front office the production they would have expected based on the precedent of the past half-decade.
Girardi probably lost his job over an imprecise mix of the player relations and the analytics-balk- ing factors, but the Yankees will be hard-pressed to find a new manager with half as much success.
Perhaps, though, these are the rules of engagement in an increasingly data-driven baseball era. Keep up with the curve or fall beneath it to opponents who are constantly pushing its boundaries. This seems to be Brian Cashman’s thinking.