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Brett Borzelli

Joe Girardi: Why the Yankees Made a Big Mistake Letting Him Go

Following a heartbreaking LCS exit, the Yankees opted to not renew Joe Girardi’s contract. That’s a shame considering he was the best qualified for the job.

Joe Girardi was hired to manage the New York Yankees following the 2007 season. His predecessor, Joe Torre, had restored the proud franchise to dominance. The club made the playoffs in each of his twelve years at the helm. They won 10 American League East titles, six pennants, and four World Series championships. But the dynasty sputtered with three straight Division Series exits and not a single world title in seven years. The front office was anxious to see New York on top again. Girardi was the choice to lead the Yankees back to the promised land.

He managed the storied ballclub to its 27th championship in 2009, after failing to qualify for the postseason during his freshman campaign. The attempt at a repeat failed with a defeat in the League Championship Series. The Yankees were eliminated in the 2011 ALDS and swept in the ALCS the following season. They missed the playoffs entirely in three of the next four years, with the lone exception being a loss in the one-and-done Wild Card Game in 2015. The Game Seven defeat by Houston in the 2017 ALCS was the Yankees’ deepest run into the postseason since their 2009 championship.

New York’s six playoff appearances under Girardi were the most in the American League over that span. Across Major League Baseball, only the Dodgers had more with seven.

The Bronx Bombers also won a league-best 28 postseason games. The rest of the AL East won 46 playoff games combined. The Red Sox won 18, the Rays won 12, the Blue Jays won 10, and the Orioles won 6.

During Girardi’s decade-long run as manager, the Yankees won more games than any other team in baseball. At 910-710, they were 200 games over .500. That’s a .562 winning percentage. It’s also an average of 91 wins per year. They didn’t win fewer than 84 games in a season. Even in years that they failed to make the playoffs, they stayed in contention until the end.

Empire in Transition

Under Girardi, the team was clearly the cream of the division and the league. The consistency is astounding, considering all the changes that occurred.

Entering this year’s postseason, CC Sabathia, Brett Gardner, and David Robertson were the last remaining players with rings from the 2009 championship. Only 11 players from the 2015 Wild Card Game roster were still with the organization.

Every member of the Core Four retired on Girardi’s watch. He was forced to navigate the team through the farewell tours of Mariano Rivera in 2013 and Derek Jeter the following year. The team did not make the playoffs in either season.

The organization let homegrown All-Star Robinson Cano depart via free agency, choosing instead to sign Jacoby Ellsbury from the rival Red Sox. Ellsbury displaced fan-favorite Brett Gardner in center field, while the Yankees struggled for two years trying to find even a replacement-level player to fill the void left at second base. Run production suffered mightily because of the loss of his middle-of-the-order bat. This contributed significantly to the team’s near-misses in the pennant chases that followed.

Girardi endured the entire Alex Rodriguez circus, from the accusations and denials to the suspension and lawsuits. Rodriguez finally returned in 2015, and was a major factor in the club’s playoff push. But the former three-time MVP was no longer able to play a defensive position. Girardi had to bench him the next year, once it became clear that the slugger could no longer contribute on offense either. A-Rod was four home runs shy of 700 when he was released by the Yankees.

Shortest Rebuild in History

At the 2016 trade deadline, the Yankees did the unthinkable. Rather than taking up their traditional position as buyers, they sold. Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, Carlos Beltran, and Ivan Nova were all traded away for a treasure trove of prospects. Pricey free agent acquisition Brian McCann was benched and subsequently traded in the offseason.

These moves, along with the retirement of Mark Teixeira and release of A-Rod, cleared a path for the next wave of future pinstripe heroes to get playing time. The Yankees were in full rebuild mode, under the watchful eye of Joe Girardi.

McCann was a seven-time All-Star, six-time Silver Slugger, and received MVP votes the previous year. Yet, Girardi benched him and named Gary Sanchez starting catcher.

The 23-year-old was a highly-touted prospect, but he had only two big league plate appearances prior to being called up that August. Still, Girardi put his trust in Sanchez. The young catcher came through, in a big way.

The 20 home runs he belted in his first 51 games tied an 86-year-old major league record. In his abbreviated rookie campaign, he drove in 42 runs, scored 34 times, and slashed .299/.376/.657. He surpassed Hall of Famer Willie McCovey’s 1959 Rookie of the Year Award winning production, long considered to be the gold standard for second-half call-ups. Sanchez finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting behind pitcher Michael Fulmer, who started 26 games.

New Stars Rising

This season, Sanchez made the All-Star team in his first year on the ballot. His 33 home runs broke the franchise record for catchers, which had been shared by Yogi Berra and Jorge Posada. The phenom is already in lofty company, and he’s just getting started.

Aaron Judge was called up a few weeks after Sanchez. He excited the crowd at Yankee Stadium by hitting a tremendous home run in his first major league plate appearance. The critics soon dismissed him as a near-miss when he began striking out a lot. But not Joe Girardi.

During spring training, Girardi held a competition between Judge and Aaron Hicks to determine the starting right fielder. Girardi heard it from all sides. Some said Judge would never amount to anything, while others said the same about Hicks. But Girardi stuck to his guns, and hit the jackpot with both players.

Judge won the starting nod in right, while Hicks soon took over in center to replace an injured Jacoby Ellsbury. By the time Hicks got hurt around mid-season, he was second in the league in OPS behind Judge.

Number ninety-nine turned in a rookie campaign for the ages. He broke Mark McGwire’s 30-year-old rookie home record by blasting 52. In the process, Judge became only the fifth Yankee ever to hit 50 or more homers in a season. He joined a pantheon of Yankees legends. Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Alex Rodriguez are the only others to accomplish the feat.

All Rise led the All-Star voting in the AL, second overall behind Bryce Harper. The right fielder became the third Yankees position player to be selected to start the All-Star Game in his rookie year, following Joe DiMaggio and Hideki Matsui.

The young superstar broke Ted Williams’ rookie walk record. Judge was at or near the top in all three Triple Crown categories for the first half of the season. He is certain to win the Rookie of the Year Award, very likely unanimously. He is also a serious contender to win the MVP Award, although he faces stiff competition from Mike Trout and Jose Altuve. Regardless of the outcome, Judge will be a top-three finisher at the very least.

If there was such a vote, Judge would most certainly be named the team’s postseason MVP. He led the Yankees with four home runs and eleven runs batted in. Through the LCS, only Altuve hit more dingers (5), and only Justin Turner drove in more runs (12). Judge scored nine times, bested only by Altuve’s ten.

Judge was clutch, knocking in runs in five of the Yankees’ seven postseason wins. His two-run shot in the Wild Card Game gave the Yankees a 7-4 lead. His double off Trevor Bauer in Game Four of the ALDS plated two and gave the Yankees a 4-0 lead. It turned out to be the game winner, as New York went on to a 7-3 victory.

He had key hits in each of New York’s three ALCS wins as well. His three-run blast in Game Three gave the Yankees a commanding 8-0 lead. His dramatic two-run double to tie the score in Game Four was one of the most important hits of the year. Finally, Judge’s RBI double in Game Five gave the Yankees a 2-0 lead and provided Masahiro Tanaka some breathing room.

As he did all year long, Judge also impressed with his defense. He made a running, leaping catch to rob Yuli Gurriel of a home run in the second inning of ALCS Game Seven. Had the Yankees gone on to win that game by a run, everyone would be describing the play as a series saver. Judge was named a Gold Glove finalist for his handiwork in the field this season.

All the Right Moves

During this time of transition, many decisions needed to be made. Girardi seemed to make all the right moves, particularly this year.

Multiple pitchers competed in Spring Training for the final two spots in the Yankees rotation. While the battle for the fifth spot raged beyond Opening Day, Luis Severino was named fourth starter before camp broke. Other contenders had better numbers than Sevy’s 3.95 ERA, 16 strikeouts, and five walks over 13 plus innings. But Girardi gave the young right-hander a big vote of confidence.

Over the prior two seasons, Severino had struggled. He flashed potential as a starter, but really shined pitching out of the bullpen. There was a loud chorus from the peanut gallery calling for him to be used as a reliever. But Girardi was committed to developing Severino into an effective starter. He was given an offseason assignment to work on his changeup. Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez assisted the youngster.

Girardi made the right call. Severino turned in one of the best seasons in the league by a starter. His rate stats were third best across the board behind Corey Kluber and Chris Sale. Sevy will be a top finisher in the AL Cy Young Award voting.

Despite stiff competition from Chad Green, Girardi named Jordan Montgomery fifth starter. The 24-year-old left-hander responded by surpassing any expectations you could possibly have.

Montgomery made 29 starts for the Yankees, going 9-7 with a 3.88 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. His .684 OPS against was second best among Yankees starters behind Severino. Of all the AL pitchers who hurled at least 150 innings, Montgomery had the 13th lowest ERA. The lefty outperformed top-of-the-rotation guys for numerous teams in the league. He will be a top finisher for Rookie of the Year. In a season without Aaron Judge, Monty may have won the award outright.

While many questioned Chad Green’s value to the team, Girardi saw something special. He gradually moved Green into his bullpen circle of trust. The second-year player responded by turning in one of the best seasons by a reliever in history. Green will receive down-ballot Cy Young Award votes as a result of his outstanding year.

Girardi Knows Best

Sometimes the best moves are the ones you don’t make. Both CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka struggled early in the year, but Girardi stuck with them. Sabathia responded by becoming the team’s stopper. CC was 10-0 in games following a Yankees’ loss, including the playoffs.

Meanwhile, Tanaka pitched through his troubles and posted solid numbers after the All-Star break. He really came through for the team in the playoffs.

With the Yankees facing elimination in Game Three of the ALDS, the right-hander threw seven scoreless innings of three-hit ball to earn the win. Tanaka didn’t stop there. He hurled another seven-inning shutout in Game Five of the ALCS, which put the Yankees within one win of the World Series.

Of the nine pitchers who made at least three starts during the 2017 postseason through the LCS, Tanaka had the best overall numbers. He gave up only two earned runs on 10 hits in 20 innings. That’s good for a microscopic 0.90 ERA, 0.65 WHIP, and .369 OPS against.

A Player’s Manager

Through numerous injuries and an early-season slump, Greg Bird stayed on Girardi’s radar. After missing considerable time, the young left-handed hitter returned to the team in September. Chase Headley was entrenched at first, but Girardi started Bird there every game in the postseason.

He led the team with a .938 OPS in the playoffs, hitting three homers and driving in six runs. Bird was clutch, getting the game winning RBI in three of the Yankees seven postseason victories.

His solo home run off Andrew Miller in ALDS Game Three was one of the most important hits of the entire year. It was the only run of the game, with New York nine outs and one run away from elimination. It was the turning point of the series, which the Yankees came back to win.

Bird came through again in Game Five of the LCS. With the series tied at two games apiece, Tanaka was once again engaged in a potential pitching duel. Bird hit a RBI single in the second inning to break through against Dallas Keuchel to give the Yankees a 1-0 lead. It turned out to be the game winner.

With Judge mired in a terrible post All-Star Game slump, the screams grew loudly for Girardi to bench him or drop him in the batting order. But the Yankees manager kept the rookie in the two-hole. Judge had a great September, and an even better October.

Judge’s .422 on-base percentage was third best in all of baseball behind Joey Votto’s .454 and Mike Trout’s .442. Joe was right. The naysayers were wrong. You want your best on-base guy batting second in the lineup. The best managers know this.

Patience Pays

The defensive woes of Gary Sanchez have been well-documented. Many called for him to be used as the team’s primary designated hitter and have Austin Romine replace him at catcher. Wisely, Girardi refrained from being so impulsive and short-sighted. He knows that the young men entrusted to his care will only improve at the major league level if they play regularly. He is also experienced enough to recognize a generational talent when he sees one.

Didi Gregorius struggled when he first came over from Arizona following Jeter’s retirement. Gregorius had big shoes to fill, and the New York media reminded him of that every single day. He’s a lefty who had trouble hitting lefties, but he kept working at it. He gradually got better. In the process, he became a more complete hitter.

This season, Girardi hit him cleanup for most of the year. In the playoffs, Didi sometimes batted third to break up righties Sanchez and Judge. On a roster loaded with both veterans and highly-touted young hitters, the 27-year-old has quietly become a trusted middle-of-the-order bat. His 25 homers this year broke the single-season Yankee record by a shortstop.

These young players have worked hard to get where they are. A less patient manager might not have given them a chance to develop. We’ve all seen that happen. Joe Girardi was the right manager at the right time for this team. As a result, the Yankees are going to have Judge, Gregorius, Sanchez, and Bird forming the heart of an explosive batting order for years to come.

With all this talent, New York’s 28th championship is imminent. It’s a shame that Girardi won’t be around to take them the rest of the way. He successfully presided over the end of one dynasty and the beginning of another.

Girardi has won the sixth most games by a manager in Yankees history. Four of the five men ahead of him on the list are enshrined in the Hall of Fame. He will most certainly be a top finisher for the Manager of the Year Award. He deserves it.

The Yankees just let one of the best managers in baseball go. As the organization searches for his replacement, they are likely to find that Joe Girardi is the man best qualified for the job.

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Brett Borzelli writes about the New York Yankees on Pinstripe Alley and Baseknock MLB. He is a member of the IBWAA. You may peruse his Baseknock MLB articles by clicking here.

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