HOUSTON – Whatever shock the Yankees’ dismissal of Joe Girardi produced emanated from an outdated paradigm. How dare a team essentially fire the manager of a playoff team that won more than 90 games? But if you’ve been paying attention to the modern game, you know that’s four such successful managers in the past two years who have been canned: Don Mattingly by the Dodgers, John Farrell by the Red Sox, Dusty Baker by the Nationals and now Girardi.
Girardi, 53, reached the end of his contract and learned this week he would not get another. New York general manager Brian Cashman was not going to re-sign him just because of Girardi’s won-lost record, not any more than Farrell’s won-lost record could save him in Boston, where president Dave Dombrowski said “no level of success would have prevented” the firing.
Dombrowski dismissed Farrell, 55, in favor of Alex Cora, who is 13 years younger, a trend that is happening all around baseball.
Here’s what matters now:
“The game belongs to young players now more than ever,” said one young manager. “As a manager today you’d better be able to relate to them, to speak their language, to have the personality to connect with them.”
That’s not all: You better be fluent in analytics—not just to have a working knowledge with them, but such a deep belief in them that communicating actionable intelligence from the stat wizards in the front office to the players themselves is genuine and seamless.
Look no further than this World Series, where Dave Roberts, 45, of the Dodgers and A.J. Hinch, 43, of the Astros, fit the modern template. These are the shiny new Teslas every GM wants in his driveway now.
The three oldest managers in baseball all lost their jobs this month: Terry Collins, 68, Baker, 68, and Pete Mackanin, 66, of the Phillies, who have yet to hire a replacement but have been looking at Dusty Wathan, 44, and Gabe Kapler, 42. The Mets replaced Collins with Mickey Callaway, 42. The Nationals’ job remains open
The change in what makes a modern manager is the Fourth Wave of a data-based upheaval in baseball. It started with the hiring of young, whip-smart general managers, a trend that took off with the 2004 Boston Red Sox championship under 30-year-old Theo Epstein. As more teams hired young intellect, those executives, having grown up comfortable with data, created and beefed up analytic units. And as this brainpower crunched more numbers to better understand value, the younger player—cheaper, healthier and with bigger up side—gained prominence in the game. Clubhouses changed.
As those trends matured, the re-defining of the manager was the last piece toward full integration.
So with Girardi’s contract expiring, Cashman, sitting on a team and an organization loaded with young talent, had to ask himself: what kind of manager do I want that best fits this team for the next five to 10 years?
It’s the same question Epstein faced in Chicago with the Cubs when he already had a good manager in Rick Renteria, that Andrew Friedman faced after Mattingly had brought the Dodgers to three straight division titles, and that Dombrowski faced when he had the only manager to win consecutive division titles with the Red Sox. It’s a question that is answered differently today than it would have been a decade ago. Remember, Epstein passed on hiring Joe Maddon in Boston in 2004 because he prioritized experience, which is how he wound up with Terry Francona instead.
Eleven years later, Epstein hired Maddon with the Cubs principally because he was sitting on a lode of young talent and admired the way Maddon connected with young players, allowing them to thrive in the comfortable, relaxed environment he created.
The top priorities in hiring a manager had changed. Now here are the two most important ones:
1. Force of personality: a catch-all phrase for the ability to connect and communicate with young players and to represent the team’s image and brand on a daily basis in front of the media.
2. Fluency in analytics: the belief in data-based decision-making deep enough to serve as an efficient conduit between the front office and the players.
Running a game? The wizards in the front office can help you with that.
Set aside Girardi’s won-lost record (910–710) and playoff appearances (six in 10 years) and judge him only on the requirements of today’s manager, not those from when he was hired a decade ago. That’s what Cashman did. And when he did he found someone who was not the ideal manager for his team at this time.
Girardi’s connection to his players is minimal. He’s an old soul, an engineer at heart, and someone who has eaten the same breakfast (egg whites and toast) for three decades. Reliable? Absolutely. It’s a Girardi strength. Relatable to a young player? Not as much.
Girardi did buy into analytics, but almost in the matter of taking a Berlitz course. Mostly he did what Cashman and his deep analytics department wanted done, but it was a learned belief that did not translate easily.
Cashman had to know for some time that Girardi wasn’t coming back, if only because he has to take a long-range view rather than be swayed by a playoff series. The key question is whether Cashman had a specific replacement in mind when he let Girardi go or whether he is working off the archetype with some possibilities in mind. The latter is most likely the case.
Some of the best of those possibilities, to continue a trend, are all younger than Girardi: Jay Bell, 51, Class A Tampa Yankees manager and Florida State League manager of the year; former Mets and Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long, 50; vice president of baseball operations Tim Naehring, 50; Yankees catching instructor Josh Paul, 42; former big leaguer Mark DeRosa, 42; and Yankees organizational hitting instructor Reggie Willits, 36.
The recent young, dynamic hires in the game have succeeded or been well received almost without fault: Andy Green, 40, Callaway, 42, Cora, 42, Hinch, 43, Roberts, 45, Mike Matheny, 47, Craig Counsell, 47, Scott Servais, 50, and Torey Lovullo, 52, who is close to Girardi in age but is a more dynamic personality.
It’s easy to think that Girardi deserved a better fate, based on his success. But in his time as Yankees manager the game went through a drastic change. Cashman saw it all around him, and knew that what made for a good manager 10 years ago didn’t make for the best one now.
Ten years ago, Cashman and Joe Torre diverged on the growing emphasis on analytics, then an immature business practice in hindsight. “Never forget the heartbeat,” Torre would tell Cashman. And Cashman would tell people, “I’ll never hire a manager who likes to manage with his gut.” The Yankees are a very insular organization, with top decision-makers with deeply entrenched roots. The last time the job opened Cashman looked within the Yankee family to Girardi and Mattingly to replace Torre. Girardi, with experience that Mattingly did not have, won out.
This time, will Cashman venture outside the organization to find his Dave Roberts, his A.J. Hinch? He must at least consider it, which is how the Dodgers found Roberts and the Astros found Hinch. Dodgers assistant GM Josh Byrnes recommended both managers to their respective clubs because he knew them from their experiences in San Diego. When Houston GM Jeff Luhnow hired Hinch, he could not stop talking about the communication skills of Hinch, then only 40.
Luhnow referenced “a lot of the research that I did about A.J.’s communication skills with players, his ability to connect with players and staff, and I felt very good about what I was hearing. So I think that, combined with our communication, is going to put him in a position to be very successful.”
Girardi served the Yankees well with his steady hand, as solid in getting the team from Point A to B as a combustion engine. Times and priorities of the job changed. Cashman knows what is state of the art. He wants one of those shiny new Teslas to call his own.