Girardi manages to turn around Yankees

On May 12, following a 5-1 loss to Toronto, the New York Yankees found themselves 6½ games out of first place. They were a few losses from a tabloid calling for the head of manager Joe Girardi. He was the easy fall guy. In the George Steinbrenner era, this wouldn’t have even been an issue. He would’ve fired Girardi after the Yankees missed the playoffs last year.

Photo Joe Girardi knows the Yankees are judged on a different scale than other MLB teams.
(Getty Images)

Still, the anti-Girardi sentiment was bubbling. A week earlier, Joel Sherman wrote in the New York Post: “Joe Girardi is on the clock now. … Girardi has put himself at extreme risk.” Even though hyperbole encompasses all things Yankees, this was the blunt truth: Another season like 2008, and Girardi was done.

Funny, huh? Since that loss, the Yankees are 67-31. No team in baseball has gone on such a stretch in three years. The Yankees haven’t since 2004, when they won 101 games and … well, let’s not mention that postseason.

It would minimize the Yankees playing .684 baseball, and the point here is to give Girardi the equal and opposite of what he’d get if the Yankees were struggling. Managers tend to swallow a heap of blame when their teams lose and don’t get the credit they deserve for winning. It is true: The job of a manager isn’t that of a football or basketball coach diagramming plays. It is more nuanced: a substitution here, a pitching change there and keeping the peace among millionaires – or, in Girardi’s case, $200 million of egos.

General managers are the real power brokers in baseball, assembling the pieces that win World Series or lose meaningless dog-day games. So as the calendar turns to the final full month, let’s give due to the manager – around whom not just the baseball world but every game revolves – and start with the best this season.

1. Not always does that come from the top team, either, but Joe Girardi does deserve such recognition in 2009. He handled with grace the Alex Rodriguez(notes) steroid debacle. He survived the five weeks sans a recovering A-Rod. He never panicked or complained about Yankee Stadium’s home run tendency. (Probably because it behooved him, but still.) He shifted Phil Hughes(notes) to the eighth inning, a maneuver that stabilized the Yankees’ season. He didn’t chafe at the Joba Rules as many other managers would have. He integrated Jerry Hairston Jr.(notes) and Eric Hinske(notes) seamlessly.

More recently, he put to bed any questions of a rift between Jorge Posada(notes) and A.J. Burnett(notes). It was, in fact, something straight out of Joe Torre’s book: squash any perception of a truth before lingering questions turn it into one. Girardi is learning very quickly, and if the Yankees continue winning at this pace, by season’s end he’ll have a better winning percentage than …

2. The American League’s leader, Angels manager Mike Scioscia. His .554 clip is third in the major leagues, behind Atlanta’s Bobby Cox (.556) and Milwaukee’s Ken Macha (.555), and he commands the respect around the game Cox does.

The Angels didn’t blindly extend Scioscia through the 2018 season. He turned a generally inept franchise with 15 straight postseason misses into a juggernaut: five playoff appearances in seven years – and a likely sixth this year, one of his best jobs. The Angels for so long have been a team built around pitching that to watch his staff devolve into a 4.88-ERA mess would have balded another manager. Scioscia shrugged his shoulders, unleashed the game’s best lineup and rode it to the second-best record in baseball.

Scioscia may be among the newer breed of managers, but management knows better than to try emasculating him. He embodies the name of his job: manager, not just of lineup and strategy but of people and personnel. Scioscia wields significant power, and few managers …

Management skills

A look at the career winning percentages of the best and worst managers in MLB today (through Saturday’s games):

Top five
Bobby Cox .556
Ken Macha .555
Mike Scioscia .554
Joe Girardi .547
Charlie Manuel .547
Bottom five
A.J. Hinch .455
Jim Riggleman .445
Trey Hillman .426
Dave Trembley .419
John Russell .415

3. Not named Tony La Russa can say that. The St. Louis manager earned his cachet through excellence and time. In mid-September, he’ll pass Hall of Famer John McGraw for second on the all-time games-managed list, with upward of 4,800. La Russa, 65 in October, isn’t likely to pass Connie Mack’s 7,755 games anytime soon. Say that to La Russa, of course, and he might just try.

The Cardinals should fork over every penny that La Russa wants this offseason, when his contract expires. Someone will. La Russa has no problem bouncing around, and if Dusty Baker gets canned in Cincinnati, he could reunite with his old general manager in St. Louis, Walt Jocketty.

Certainly Cardinals GM John Mozeliak knows that a quick and strong offer is necessary. La Russa is the master at turning slights – imagined though many are – into motivation. Look at the 2009 Cardinals. He took a questionable group and built it into a confident machine, with a playoff-built rotation and a trade-bolstered lineup that no longer comes off as Albert Pujols(notes) and the Eight Dwarfs.

“St. Louis worries us more than the Dodgers,” said one player in August, and he didn’t say it very loud, because …

4. His manager, Charlie Manuel, was within earshot. Manuel doesn’t want to hear such nonsense. His Phillies are the defending champions, and for their troubles this year – mainly in the bullpen, and particularly with closer Brad Lidge(notes), who is balancing his perfection of last season with a similar amount of misery this year – they might be a better team.

Cliff Lee(notes) is a legitimate No. 1 starter, if one can be such a thing without an inning of playoff experience. Chase Utley(notes) epitomizes silent brilliance. Ryan Howard(notes) remains dangerous, and putting Raul Ibanez(notes) and Jayson Werth(notes) in the No. 5 hole this year has meant only three intentional walks. Manuel plugs along in his ol’ Cholly manner, seemingly oblivious, realistically attentive and ever unintelligible, second only to …

Photo Ozzie Guillen has a mouthful of complaints about his struggling White Sox.
(Getty Images)

5. Ozzie Guillen, and at least he’s got an excuse: English isn’t his first language. Damn if it isn’t his best. While the rant Guillen unleashed following a loss to the Yankees on Saturday wasn’t an all-timer – he insulted no ethnicities, sexualities or proclivities – it illustrated what he does best.

By running down his White Sox players (and, to an extent, himself) in such dramatic, over-the-top, soap-opera-monologue fashion, Guillen turned himself into the story. This served two purposes: He really does love being the center of attention, though more important is stealing the burden to address ineptitude from the players.

On occasion, it backfires. The White Sox lost again Sunday. They’re in third place. Jake Peavy’s(notes) return this season is in doubt. Guillen has reason to panic. This may not be his last implosion. Better he do it than …

6. Someone who isn’t equipped, like Boston manager Terry Francona, a calm, nurturing sort, the polar opposite of Guillen in technique though a peer in success. Now, Francona isn’t having the best year. His $100 million pitcher from Japan’s serial insubordination came to a head. His star slugger turned into a popgun for the season’s first two months, then got outed as a steroid user. Injuries piled up. The Yankees dominated. Bad times altogether.

And still, Francona surged through the mess with dignity. The Red Sox have won 10 of 13 and swept Toronto over the weekend. They lead Texas by 3½ games for the wild-card berth. With Jon Lester(notes) and Josh Beckett(notes) heading their rotation and the best bullpen in baseball, they frighten every team, Yankees included. Considering who they have managing them, that, too, is understandable. Anybody who wins two championships in his first five years with a team gets that respect, just as …

7. Anyone with two winning seasons in seven years should be fired. What, you didn’t realize Eric Wedge has been managing Cleveland that long? He is the fifth-most-tenured manager in baseball. The first four – Cox, Scioscia, La Russa and Minnesota’s Ron Gardenhire – have the respective winning percentages with their current teams: .557, .554, .545 and .543.

Wedge is at .503. He rode two excellent seasons to a 554-548 career record, and it could careen under .500 by season’s end. No matter how many votes of confidence GM Mark Shapiro offers, something must give. The Indians have too much talent to cannibalize their season two straight years with bad starts. Soon after the Indians hit the Panic Number – and to all the Indians backers who said you can’t read anything from seven games … perhaps not, but history sure does – Shapiro could’ve made a move. It might’ve salvaged Cleveland’s season. It might not have. Either way, it would’ve been something to save Cleveland …

Photo
Bochy

8. From having to see his plus-sized head, though let’s be honest: It’s a pea compared to that of Giants manager Bruce Bochy, whose team swept Colorado over the weekend and now is tied for the NL wild-card lead. Bochy’s head size can’t be understated – know how some things have great expectations and live up to them, like the Seven Wonders of the World … well, Bochy’s head is even bigger than you can imagine, like a mature watermelon, full of delicious baseball knowledge – nor can his work with the Giants this season.

Despite a middling offense, they enter a five-week-long race even with the Rockies and ahead of the Braves and Marlins. It’s enough to earn Bochy his job next season, the same of which can’t be said for …

9. Trey Hillman, who oughta fork over some of the $100,000 Sam Mellinger suggests the Royals give to Zack Greinke(notes) in case he doesn’t win the Cy Young award. The point is good: Should Greinke – who threw a one-hit shutout Sunday, by the way – not win the award and the bonus that accompanies it in his contract, his poor, pathetic teammates who lost so many games owe him.

Hillman, too, should chip in, because without Greinke the Royals would be so unbearably bad they’d have to fire him. As is, they stink like pig-dissection week in biology class. When an authority on Royals ineptitude such as Joe Posnanski calls this the worst Kansas City team he has ever seen, that isn’t just bad. It’s an indictment.

The Hillman Era has been a mess from his first spring training, when he tore into the team following an exhibition game and lost any respect that came on account of title alone. He’s done little to regain it. Following an 18-11 start, the Royals have been the anti-Yankees: 32-69, the worst 101-game stretch in five years. Not even the worst Royals teams went through such a bad run.

And to think …

10. When Joe Torre left New York, the Yankees actually bandied about Hillman’s name during initial talks about candidates. It went instead to Joe Girardi, and even his most ardent detractors have little to say this year outside of here-and-there nitpicks.

Girardi has a long way to go to full-on satiate the masses. Making the playoffs is a start. It’s not enough alone. The standards for the Yankees really are different, and he knew that when he took the job. Torre won four championships in five years. When he could no longer do that, he got booted.

The 2009 Yankees have the look and feel of a championship team, the kind, really, that hasn’t existed since the middle of the decade. Girardi’s grip on the reins is tight. He knows to hold on, too. October is an awfully bumpy ride.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Aug 31, 2009