"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Observations From Cooperstown: Girardi, The Roster, and Gehrig

In what is likely a sign of the times, Joe Girardi has become a lightning rod for debate in these parts. Even in the midst of a 100-plus win season and a guarantee of the best regular season record in baseball, Girardi still has his share of critics. They say he bunts too much, brings too much tension to the dugout, doesn’t tell the truth about injuries, mishandles the bullpen, etc, etc, etc.

Such is life in the age of the Internet and talk radio. Every manager, no matter how successful, is severely criticized by a percentage of his team’s fan base. Every manager fails at handling the bullpen, an inevitable gripe when a manager has six or seven fulltime relievers. If you listen to the criticism long enough, you’ll soon believe that every manager is the reincarnation of the village idiot.

So what is the reality? In the case of Girardi, his biggest weakness is probably an over reliance on the sacrifice bunt. If that’s his Achilles heel as a manager, then he grades out pretty well. Girardi has done a very good job in 2009, as indicated by the team’s total of 102 wins, with the potential of three more wins this weekend. When I looked at this Yankee team in the spring, I tried to assess the club objectively. Weighing the strengths of a tough schedule and a difficult division, along with the absence of the team’s best player for six weeks, I considered the Yankees a 95-win team. So at this point, Girardi has guided the Yankees to at least seven more wins than I originally projected. In my mind, that is significant overachievement, which is worthy of praise, not derision.

Girardi has succeeded in relaxing the atmosphere in 2009, compared to the general tension he created last year. He doesn’t make major mistakes with his lineup, uses his improved bench sufficiently, and distributes the workload in the bullpen evenly. In terms of preparation and reviewing scouting reports, I don’t know of a manager who puts in more hours or works any harder. Girardi’s high level work ethic is unquestionable.

If you don’t believe me, consider some of the other precincts registering votes. After the Yankees clinched the AL East on Sunday, reporters asked Alex Rodriguez who should be considered the team’s MVP. Rodriguez listed the accomplishments of several teammates, but then ultimately answered “Girardi.” And when the results of the AL Manager of the Year award are announced, do not be surprised if Girardi receives a few votes and finishes third, behind only Ron Washington and Mike Scioscia. Joe Girardi, with his smarts, toughness, and willingness to work, is a keeper.


Everyone has an opinion on which 25 players the Yankees should carry for the Division Series, so let me offer a few suggestions of my own. First off, the Yankees seem to have come to their senses on the size of the pitching staff. No longer obsessed with a 12-man staff—a ludicrous proposition for a series that could go a maximum of five games—the Yankees are currently debating whether to carry 10 or 11 pitchers. The givens are Sabathia, Burnett, Pettitte, Chamberlain (in some role), Marte, Coke, Aceves, Robertson, Hughes, and Rivera. Do they go beyond that and carry either Brian Bruney or Chad Gaudin? It’s a tough call, but I’ll vote for a three-man starting rotation (which rules out Gaudin) and go with Bruney, who has pitched well in recent outings and has postseason experience. When Bruney is hot, he can be close to unhittable, and could be valuable in the sixth or seventh innings of a close game. He would also offer protection against Robertson’s arm coming up sore again.

With 11 pitchers, that leaves the Yankees with 14 position players. The givens are Posada and Molina at catcher, Teixeira, Cano, Jeter, A-Rod and Hairston on the infield, and Damon, Cabrera, Gardner, Swisher, Hinske, and Matsui in the outfield-DH category. That leaves one opening, which should go to pinch-running specialist Freddy Guzman. Here’s why. The Yankees are likely to face the Tigers, who are loaded with right-handed pitching. That makes Brett “The Jet” Gardner more likely to start one or two games. If that happens, the Yankees will still have another dangerous pinch-running option in Guzman, who could take Matsui or Posada’s place on the basepaths in the late innings. Having that speed off the bench will be more valuable than a third catcher or a second utility infielder, two positions that are made moot in a short postseason series.


Lou Gehrig’s name became fashionable this summer as Derek Jeter pursued and eventually surpassed his franchise record for most career hits. In doing some research about Gehrig, I was amazed by the number of nicknames that various people tried to attach to the Yankee legend during his short life. The nicknames never came from himself (he was no Deion Sanders) but almost always from teammates and the media. Maybe they felt a need to bestow nicknames on him because of Lou’s general separation from controversy.

In a sense, the nicknames gave them a way to add some color to Gehrig’s inoffensive persona. Let’s begin with an early nickname, one that came shortly after he joined the Yankees. He became “Columbia Lou,” a reference to his matriculation at Columbia University, which he attended on a football scholarship. Then came one of my favorite nicknames, which also became a favorite among his teammates. Other Yankees called Gehrig “Biscuit Paints” because of his unusually thick legs and low-to-the-ground running style, which may have been a remnant of his days as a running back in college. Gehrig churned those thick legs into a few extra bases; a surprisingly fast runner, Lou still holds the Yankee record for most career triples.

Perhaps the oddest nickname for Gehrig was used exclusively by the media in the twenties and thirties. Writers often called him “Larrupin’ Lou,” a label that sometimes made its way into newspaper and periodical headlines. And what in the world does “larrupin’” mean? Well, it’s a shortening of the word “larruping,” an adjective used in describing the delivery of a blow, especially one executed with great force. Though hardly a common word in the lexicon, it certainly fit Gehrig’s hitting style.

Even so, there were other nicknames. Gehrig’s beloved wife Eleanor called him “Luke.” Others referred to him as “Buster.” A few people even called him “Little Joe,” a rather obscure reference to his uniform number 4 and the old parlor game of Parcheesi. If you rolled a ‘4’ in Parcheesi, it was called a Little Joe.

As amusing as many of these nicknames were, none of them provided as much insight into Gehrig as his most famous nickname. As Gehrig played day after day at first base, on his way to setting an imposing record for longevity, he became known to media members and fans as the “Iron Horse.” The phrase was originally the nickname that Native Americans gave to the steam locomotives of the 1880s. The power and durability of the locomotive trains greatly impressed Native Americans; the media transferred the same nickname to Gehrig, whose own levels of strength and endurance made him among the game’s elite.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

Categories:  Bronx Banter  Bruce Markusen

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1 RIYank   ~  Oct 2, 2009 11:19 am

I agree both that (i) Girardi calls for bunts too much, and that (ii) if that's his biggest weakness then he's an awfully good manager. (I'm not sure that it's his biggest weakness, though.)
The Yankees sacrificed on bunts 31 times this year. The Red Sox did it 19 times. I think Francona is right on this one, so that would mean a dozen extraneous sacs for the pinstripes. However, when I've looked into it (not incredibly thoroughly but still seriously) it's looked like the incorrect decisions only give away a percentage point of win expectancy, or anyway on that order. So all the wrong decisions together add up to a smallish fraction of a win. There must be more serious things to complain about!

The Rangers bunted 48 times. Twins 38, Angels 43, Tigers 51. This correlates well with my opinions of their managers. (But the White Sox only bunted 31 times, so this measure does not confirm my extremely low opinion of their manager.)

2 The Hawk   ~  Oct 2, 2009 11:23 am

Using the internet to express the opinion that the internet is full of unreasonable opinions is a funny (yet remarkably common) way to go. "All these internet nuts and their Girardi-phobia .... Let me tell you what's really going on ..."

The reality is this team should win 90+ games, no matter the manager. The manager just needs to stay out of the way for the most part and I'm not even convinced that Girardi has done that. Who knows, maybe they would have won 120 games.


Why is Chamberlain a "given" for the ALDS? I hope this isn't really the case but just another wacky internet opinion ; ) Because right now he's a bad starting pitcher and an unproven reliever.

3 a.O   ~  Oct 2, 2009 11:31 am

[2] Saying Joba is unproven as a reliever is one of the wackiest things I've ever read on the Internet. Were you watching baseball last year?

4 ms october   ~  Oct 2, 2009 11:43 am

[1] riyank i think you and i are close to the same place on girardi, and i agree with you that i don't think the bunting is his biggest weakness.

as far as the criticsms of girrardi, there is obviously the girrardi is keeping this team from reaching what it is/could be and he should be fired camp and the camp that has became more vocal of late - they have the best record, the criticism of girrardi is unwarranted, we are lucky to have him. believe it or not there is some nunace to this spectrum. i think girardi has done a solid number of good things, but i think some of his pen decisions are questionable (centered mostly around under-using hughes, and over-exposing cokey), when he chooses to bunt and with whom have occasionaly been questionable, occasionally he has pulled the hook too soon or too late on a starter, and it is hard to get over seeing cody ransom at 1b.
now i don't think any of these criticisms are federal crimes, but there was sometimes a better decision to be made - and i don't think it is a big deal for these criticisms to be brought out.
as have been said in the last few weeks, the playoffs will be a big test for girrardi when decisions are so magnified in the context of a playoff series.

5 RagingTartabull   ~  Oct 2, 2009 11:45 am

My whole feeling on Girardi is that if people choose to criticize him when he, oh lets just say, tells Nick Swisher to bunt in an RBI situation...then they should give him at the very least a proverbial "pat on the back" for overseeing a team with 100+ wins and the best overall record in the sport.

If you want to find the manager who you agree with 100% of the time you're just going end up driving yourself crazy, they all have their glaring weaknesses. You just hope that you find the guy who is the right fit for that particular team, and I think we have that in Girardi.

Of course all that changes if 2 weeks from now we're talking about a first round exit...such is New York.

6 ms october   ~  Oct 2, 2009 11:53 am

[3] a.O i consider myself a joba backer, but it is hard to think much less know if he could be the same pitcher in relief this year as he was last year. both his velocity and control are not what they were last year.

7 RIYank   ~  Oct 2, 2009 11:58 am

Oh, hey, Happy Month, Ms. October! (I thought of it yesterday, but we had the day off, you know.)

8 ms october   ~  Oct 2, 2009 12:04 pm

[7] thanks!!

"October, that's when they pay off for playing ball."

9 RIYank   ~  Oct 2, 2009 12:07 pm

Since I have a few minutes before a dreaded meeting, I'll chime in on what Ms. Oct. and Raging T. just said.
First, I do think Girardi's mistakes are real but often overstated. Most of the time when there's a Right Move and a Wrong Move, the fact is that each of the moves is apt to work out well some times and badly other times. What makes the Right one Right is that it's apt to work out well more often. But fans tend to notice and remember when the Wrong Move works out badly, and the times it works out well are easily written off (well, he got lucky this time). This means we'll overestimate how costly the Wrong Moves are. We count against Girardi the Wrong Moves that cost runs or games, but discount the ones that actually work out better. So in sum, I think Girardi does mis-handle the bullpen (by overmanaging) and bunts too much (again overmanaging), but that the cost to the team is small.
Second, Raging's main point is a separate one. We really can't tell from the outside how effective Girardi is in the clubhouse, and how much this matters. The players seem to give him high marks on that score... but even if they're right, how important is it to the team's success? I suppose this is the old question: does chemistry lead to winning, or does winning lead to chemistry? I modestly decline to hazard a guess.

10 Shaun P.   ~  Oct 2, 2009 12:14 pm

[9] When chemistry happens, it comes from winning. However winning does not guarantee chemistry (see 1978 Yankees, 1978 Red Sox, etc).

[3] [6] Joba's general crappiness in the first inning of his starts this year also suggests that using him as a short reliever might be a terrible mistake.

[1] RIYank, I'm curious why you're down on Ozzie G in Chicago as a manager. I haven't follow them closely enough to see if he's small balling too much - the sac bunts say probably not - and IIRC, when he was supposedly doing that in 2005, he most definitely was not - but his handling of his bullpen and pitching staff seem outstanding to me, and have been for years. Some of that credit has to go to Don Cooper, but the bulk, I believe, is Ozzie's.

11 The Hawk   ~  Oct 2, 2009 1:05 pm

[3] This year, I'm talking about unproven this year. I don't consider him a lock at all to go back to his dominant ways. It would be nice though.

12 Bama Yankee   ~  Oct 2, 2009 1:10 pm

I'm not sure that the stats show that Girardi bunts too much. There are only four teams with fewer sac bunts and only one of those teams is a playoff team (Boston). I guess its all we have to measure bunting, but it would seem like those stats don't tell the whole story. Did some of the players bunt on their own? How many times did Girardi call for the bunt and it did not result in a sacrifice? I guess if there was a stat that measured "bunts called per opportunities to bunt" (opportunities based on when the traditional "book" says to bunt) then maybe we could evaluate each manager's bunting decisions. Otherwise it would seem like the bunt criticism of Girardi is anecdotal at best. Unless, of course, you think that all bunting is bad and therefore the 31 sacs this year would be infinitely bad... ;-)

13 williamnyy23   ~  Oct 2, 2009 1:32 pm

"Girardi has done a very good job in 2009, as indicated by the team’s total of 102 wins"

Needless to say, the statement above, which seems to be the basis of the first part of this post, is extremely flawed. Quite simply, the end does not justify the means. Girardi's biggest weakness is not something as simple as bunting too much (actually, if so, it would be bunting in the wrong situations), but overall poor game management. It's easy to look at the 102 wins (my prediction was for over 100 wins) and conclude that the manager must be doing a good job, but this team is so talented that it is able to overcome most of Girardi's game management errors (or make the game so one-sided that game management isn't needed). Otherwise, we'd all have to agree that Joe Torre was a great game manager for 10+ years.

My issues with Girardi have been laid out in detail in the game threads (the best way to truly evaluate a manager). Sometimes I can go overboard, but I most of the times there aren't many rebuttals. My main argument all season is the Yankees can definitely get away with it during the regular season, but one lost game due to a manager's poor decision could be death in the post season.

Having said all that, I do believe Girardi deserves credit for helping to foster a sense of chemistry on this team, not the least of which is related to his willingness to keep most of the 25-man roster involved (a serious flaw of Torre’s). I also concede that Girardi is probably no worse a game manager than half the other managers in the league. But, why should that be acceptable to the Yankees? With $200mn spent in players, I would like to think the Yankees would seek the very best manager they could possibly find. Regardless of what happens this post season, I hope they do not extend Girardi’s contract unless he improves markedly on his game management ability during next season.

14 williamnyy23   ~  Oct 2, 2009 1:41 pm

[12] To expound on the bunting, I don't think Girardi bunts too much...I just think he bunts at the wrong times (and doesn't bunt when he should). The Swisher attempt is the classic example, but the Damon bunt attempts against the Mets and Red Sox also fit. On the flip side, Girardi seems unwilling to use the bunt with hitters like Gardner and Molina, both of whom should lay one down more frequently. The Friday game in Seattle was a glaring example of that. With runners on 1st and 3rd and one out, a squeeze (safety or suicide) with Molina seemed like the perfect idea. Instead, he lets him swing away and Molina hits into a DP.

I know these are isolated examples, but if one was to comb through the game threads, I think what'd you find is not criticism of how often Girardi bunts, but when and with whom he decides to do it.

15 rbj   ~  Oct 2, 2009 1:59 pm

Having home field advantage throughout the playoffs is great. I do not see why there's a need for 120+ wins. Yankees clinched early enough to have time to get rest for the regulars and set up the rotation for the playoffs. To me, that is a good job for the regular season.

As for when to bunt, I view some of those situations as basically trying out things -- can Swisher get the bunt down now, so I can have it as an option, or at least make the other manager have to take into account the bunt, for the post season.

Players should be playing to win today, but managers need to take the whole season and postseason into account.

16 RagingTartabull   ~  Oct 2, 2009 2:46 pm

I think if you wanted to give Girardi a grade for his overall body of work so far it would have to be a solid "B+" with the understanding that a lot of his final mark goes into what happens over the next few days/weeks.

I understand the sentiment that the Yankees shouldn't accept anything but an excellent game manager, but at what cost?

If you want to find someone who is an excellent (and I mean inarguably excellent) game manager AND knows how to handle a clubhouse full of high profile superstars AND knows how to deal with the NY press corps AND gets winning results...well then good luck with the search.

17 Eddie Lee Whitson KO   ~  Oct 2, 2009 5:06 pm

Biscuit pants will remain one of my favorite nicknames for anyone.

As for Joe G and his merits, his use of the bullpen is so far superior to his predecessor (who is currently killing arms on the west coast), that I can only be happy with how it's turned out. Can you imagine what Torre would've done to Phil Hughes' arm? Best not think about it.....

As for the bunts, yes they are sometimes frustrating, but I agree with others that this is a small issue in the grand scheme. It might become more relevant in the post-season when we face more better pitching and need to get small sometimes, can we agree that the worst thing to do is to ask hitters to bunt, when they suck at it?

Lastly, think Joe has managed to rest veterans all season to get great value out of them (look at our 35+ players and their results, damn impressive. Much credit goes to them, but much back to the manager who gives them a breather or two along the way). Consider the A-Rod regime at 3b, duelling CFs (and no apparent strife), LF, C, etc. Nice work to keep the players fresh, and (apparently) happy about playing time.

The one gripe (and not sure it's his issue), is the Joba situation. This kid (admittedly with a, ahem, delicate psyche) has been jerked around and is notwpublic enemy #1. Was it all that long ago that he was lights out and the toast of the town. Methinks it all went pear-shaped when he stopped throwing at Kevin Useless.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
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