Keidel: Girardi Is No Ordinary Joe

By Jason Keidel
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You can tell me if it’s laudable or laughable, but there’s a simmering sentiment that Joe Girardi has been the American League’s best manager this year.

Girardi, like most former catchers, is supposed to specialize in handling his pitchers. And a juggling job he has done – a kind of cut-and-paste with a starting staff that was supposed to have Cliff Lee and Andy Pettitte. He had neither, instead stuffing his rotation with two graybeards (Garcia and Colon), an injury-prone prodigy (Hughes), a clear head case (Burnett), and still lead his club to the best record in the AL. If a starting staff is as strong as its weakest link, Girardi has moved and welded his all year with aplomb.

When a skipper can trot six or so All-Stars onto the diamond on any night, his job is largely done for him in the field and the batter’s box. Or is it? Between slumps, age, and injuries – even Mark Teixiera lost a lot of his groove this year – nothing is assured in the quirky cauldron of baseball.

A successful skipper’s serendipity is easily measured, too. In this case it came in the form of Ivan Nova, a rookie who’s 16-4 (plus 8-0 since the All-Star break), and David Robertson, who went from good to great in (forgive the cliché) a New York minute.  Robertson’s numbers are something out of an Xbox season – 1.09 ERA, 66 IP, 99 SO, 1.14 WHIP, living up to his handle, Houdini.

The lone starter who kept Girardi from gobbling antacids all season was CC Sabathia, who plays the lone position where being branded a horse is a compliment And it doesn’t hurt to have the immortal Mariano Rivera, the laconic, iconic closer whose job seems to be equal portions saving games, saying grace, and assuring us he’s human. The man turns 42 in a month and somehow still pitches with glee and gratitude, like a tyke fresh from a game of catch with his dad.

Since the All-Star break, Freddy Garcia (4.45 ERA) and Bartolo Colon (2-6, 5.06 ERA) have inched closer to their ages than the ephemeral fountains of youth they found for the first half of the year. Burnett has been, well, Burnett: a brownout from the jump, despite his recent, decent start against Boston. Has $82 million even been more poorly or sorely spent?

Plus, Girardi has had to learn on the fly when to coddle and cajole, something his predecessor (Joe Torre) mastered. He’s got an aging club, including a few Hall of Famers, one of whom (Derek Jeter) has sipped some elixir, making those of us who called for his funeral look somewhat silly. Rafael Soriano, who looked and pitched like quintessential roadkill the first half of the year, has been exponentially better (2.31 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, not including last night) since. No doubt there’s a physical component to the reliever’s improvement, but Girardi should get some credit for the metaphysical healing. Soriano started the year as though the lights were way too bright for a man used to a freckling of fans in his old stadium.

The Joba and Hughes Rules were grotesque failures. One hurler is hurt all the time, while the other had Tommy John, perhaps proving that this correlation between pitch counts and long-term health needs to be recalibrated. Even if Girardi and his GM (Brian Cashman) get the blame for pampering young pitchers, he should also get a nod for finding the band-aids to slap on the holes they left behind.

In a sense, managing the Yankees is a thankless job because most of you reasonably assert that if you toss $200 million against the wall, something must stick. And no one will feel sorry for a squad that can flex its checkbook and buy the best players. So if Girardi fails it’s because (in recent corporate parlance) the Yankees are too big to fail. If Girardi wins, well, what else do you expect from a titanic bankroll, $2,500 regular-season seats behind the dish, and your own television network?

Joe Girardi is an interesting man. He’s clearly smart, has an engineering degree from Northwestern, yet he’s often ornery to the point of paranoia.  He speaks with an odd affectation, nodding three times after answering a question, as if to assure the questioner that he’s provided the proper answer. He reacted hysterically when reasonably asked about his tete-a-tete with Burnett when he pulled the pitcher from that game in Minnesota. And Girardi pulled off the impossible exacta of getting fired from Florida while winning Manager of the Year during his rookie stint with the Marlins.

We’re all pulsing with paradoxes, and managing a team in a town like New York City would infect most sane men. But it’s clear that Girardi gets a little better at things each year. But is it enough? Is he Manager of the Year? To wit, would he be fired for being bounced in the first round of this year’s playoffs?

It’s not a silly question. Billy Martin was fired in 1978 after winning the World Series in ’77. Bob Lemom was fired in 1982 after reaching the World Series in ’81. And Torre was shown the door after 12-straight trips to the playoffs (including those six World Series appearances, winning four).  A Steinbrenner still owns this team, and even if the son (Hal) doesn’t share his old man’s temper, the maddening mandate of a World Series every season produces its own theater.

Yet after dissecting G.I. Joe’s job – which has been admirable by any reasonable measure – I vote for Joe Maddon, who loses Crawford, Pena, Soriano, etc., works with a fraction of the payroll ($41 million, according to USA Today) of his peers, and still has his team wiping their cleats on October’s doormat.

A penurious place like Tampa is a turnstile for free agents who make their bones in an empty ballpark. And unless they sign (or trick) studs like Longoria to long-term deals, the bulk of their best players understandably leave for the luxury (see: money) and more complimentary climes of wealthier teams. Maddon runs his squad with the steadfastness of a surgeon, and the equanimity of a professor, clad in his black-rimmed glasses and quirky platitudes, riding a bicycle to work, meditating on odd mantras while somehow connecting with players young enough to be his grandchildren.

Baseball bubbles with fun debates. Would Billy Beane be a genius if he had New York’s payroll? Would Maddon be as magical with A-Rod and Cano in his lineup? It makes you wonder whether men tethered to certain circumstances thrive because of their limitations, not despite them. We don’t really know. But we do know Maddon prospers in a place where most men would perish. He can run my club any day.

Feel free to email me:

  • Ron

    Last night’s season finale was as dreadful a performance by a manager as i’ve ever seen. Jolted Joe was simply awful — over managing, substituting pitchers like a mad man, leaving an anemic offensive unit out there at the end of the game incapable of scoring, leaving the cupboard bare of pitching (especially in case the game had gone 14 or 15 innings!), underusing pitchers. Putting Burnett in for one batter made no sense at all. He should have just stuck with 3-4 pitchers and left it at that. If the Yanks play TB in the ALCS they will surely lose because Joe Maddon is a much better manager than Jolted Joe. And I haven’t mentioned Proctor yet! Getting Proctor back was the dumbest thing the Yanks did all year. Putting them out to end the Sunday night Boston game and the final TB game assured defeat. Jolted Joe surrenders games far too readily! Jolted Joe and Cashman both need to go. The Yanks won in spite of them in a weakened AL this year. Kudos to the players! But none to Cash and Jolted Joe.

    • Jonas A-K

      Um… “Joltin’ Joe” was the nickname for Joe DiMaggio. Maybe that’s who you were thinking of with that nickname. “Jolted Joe” doesn’t even make sense.

      Before I get into the rest of your argument, though, let me just point out that Cashman can’t and shouldn’t be blamed for anything, as almost every bad move the Yanks have made has come straight from George, Hank and Hal. Cashman’s just a figurehead.

    • Jonas A-K

      Aside from that, though, sure, if the Rays go on to beat the Yankees in the ALCS, everyone will look to last night’s game and think, “wow, he should’ve just put ’em away when he still could’ve.” Did he over-manage? Maybe a little. But he said before the game that he wouldn’t use any pitcher that would pitch in the postseason and he stuck by that. Honestly, who could blame him? For seven innings the Yankees were winning 7-0 and even after it went to 7-6, Girardi backed off his plan and brought in Cory Wade, who pitched pretty well this year and (if I’m not mistaken) is going to pitch in the postseason. And you know what? Wade got two outs and two strikes into the ninth before he gave up that home run, so you can’t fault Girardi there. Once the game went into extras, what’s the point of tiring out your bullpen when you’ve got the ALDS on Friday?

    • Jonas A-K

      As for Proctor, I don’t see why you’re so mad. They picked him up late and he was a September callup. It’s not like they were counting on him to help them in the postseason or anything; even if they wanted him to, he couldn’t, since he wasn’t on the roster before Sept. 1. He was what we call a “reclamation project” – something quite common in baseball, in which a team picks up a once-successful player, usually a pitcher, in the hopes that he can be successful again for them in the future. You may have heard of a couple of guys names Freddy and Bartolo – they were reclamation projects for the Yankees this year who were really invaluable to them for the first four months of the season.

    • Jonas A-K

      So case in point, I don’t know what you’re complaining about. Seriously. It’s not like the Yankees missed the playoffs because of this, and you can’t blame Cashman or Girardi for the Rays making the playoffs.

      One last thought – Joe Torre could be nicknamed “Jilted Joe” after what the Yanks did at the end of 2007. But I know you weren’t thinking of that either.

  • Jonas A-K

    Girardi has done a pretty decent job this year and has managed to coax the most out of his team. Breakout seasons from Granderson, Nova and Robertson, and of course the rock solid Rivera, have allowed Girardi to get to 97 wins despite a sizable group of underachievers (A.J., Posada, A-Rod, Soriano, Jeter for the first half, even Tex to an extent), geriatrics (Garcia, Colon, Posada again) and injured youngsters (do I even need to list them?). Is he manager of the year, though? I say no.

    Setting aside the obvious miracle that Joe Maddon has been able to conjure up in Tampa after a devastating offseason, consider this: how many times this year have we questioned Joe Girardi’s ability to handle the pressure of being the Yankees manager? Highlighted by his battle to the death with the media defending A.J.’s pitiful performances and his early refusal to shift Jeter out of the leadoff spot during the first half of the year, he’s been questioned more often than praised in 2011. Honestly, there were points where it looked like the pressure had taken a physical toll on Girardi, and you can bet that once the Yankees clinched the division, Joe was just as relieved as he was proud.

    I guess, more than anything, my point is this: with their players, Girardi’s Yankees darn well ought to have won 97 games. With that in mind, it shouldn’t have seemed like such a struggle to get there as it did for Girardi.

  • JK

    Heh. There he goes again…

    Now we’re Red Sox fans because I say Joe Girardi did a fine job, just not quite as fine as Madden’s job.

  • Kurt Spitzner


    • JK

      I think Collins did a great job, bud, considering the cauldron of cutting payroll, sagging attendance, and Madoff.

    • Victor Cruz

      YES,YES !! SHOUT IT OUT MAN !!!!!!!!! SCREAM TO THE HEAVENS !!!!!!!!!!!!!! G.I. JOE IS MY MOFO !!!!

      • JK


        • Victor Cruz

          Why ’77? Shouldn’t it have been since ’78 with your catastrophic 14 game lead meltdown. BUCKY DENT !!!!!!!!!!

          • JK

            If you honestly think we’re Red Sox fans, Victor, then you’ve clearly missed your meds for the day.

  • Robert Richardson

    As a Yankee fan, I have to disagree with you. I have a love hate relationship with Joe Girardi. Yes, he has a great lineup to work with. His pitching decisions can be just schizophrenic (pardon the political incorrectness) as his hurler’s performances …. OMG, I just realized you’re right! I would rather have Joe Madden, point taken.

    • JK

      Thank you, sir. I must take the man who leads $41 million into the playoffs over the obscenely rich, $200 million man – even if Girardi has done a fine job.

      • Victor Cruz

        you two call yourself Yankee fans? Fans like you make me sick!! Either you are with us or against us. YANKEES rule forever !! All you BoSox fans out there can “choke” on it …. no pun intended

        • Jonas A-K

          Guys like you, Victor, are the reason I am not friends with many Yankees fans. You only know how to root for the Yankees but have absolutely no understanding of the game of baseball. You could call it blissful ignorance, but I just call it unbelievable.

          • JK

            He’s an odd bird, Jonas. I beg him to show me where I morphed into a Red Sox fan.

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