Did Doug Mientkiewicz get Joe Torre fired?
October 19, 2007 15 Comments
In what was the second least convincing lie told yesteday (the first being the Indians use of Josh Beckett’s ex-girlfriend to sing the National Anthem before Game 5 of the ALCS being… ready?… an “incredible coincidence!”), the Yankees attempted to make it look like they wanted Joe Torre to stick around. It’s just that they offered him a one year deal with a 33% paycut and, just to make sure that he got the message, there was a second option year that would only have vested had Torre and the Yankees made it to the World Series.
I have to be honest here. I hate the New York Yankees. The two greatest days of the year in baseball (and by extension, the year in general) are Opening Day and the Day The Yankees Are Eliminated. It’s nothing against the individual players. It’s the principle of the thing. I shouldn’t speak ill of evil empires, since my wife was born in Moscow, but well, maybe this will convince you. Despite my general dislike for anyone wearing a Yankees cap who wasn’t born within the New York metropolitan area (oh, hi LeBron), I felt insulted for Joe Torre.
I’m assuming that since Joe wasn’t fired after any of the previous dozen seasons, he must have committed his unforgivable error sometime in the last 12 months. I suppose that in Yankee-land, not winning the World Series this year (or for the past… gasp!… 7 years) is unforgiveable enough. Especially since the World Series trophy actually belongs to the Yankees and is just leased to the rest of baseball whenever the Bronx Bombers are feeling generous. Well, let’s try to find this egregious mis-step.
A manager has three jobs. He is the team’s spokesman to the media, and by extension, the public. He’s in charge of keeping the players happy, in essence being the psychologist-in-chief. He makes the in-game strategic decisions. On the first matter, dealing with the New York media is an impossible job. New Yorkers are convinced that they are the most important people in the world. They’re like Americans on steroids. (Was that perhaps the wrong way to phrase that?) I’m amazed that after 12 years of that part of the job alone, Torre didn’t quit. As to keeping the players happy, we’ll never know. We don’t know what went on in the locker room. I suppose if the team was running off the rails in that direction, it would be OK to fire Torre, but I haven’t heard any indications that it had.
So, the in-game decisions. Let’s first point out some of the things that the manager does not do. He does not assemble the roster, for the most part. I have to believe that the manager gets some say in player-personnel decisions, particularly those in-season moves like whether to send Player X down to AAA and whom to bring up when Player Y gets hurt. But those are usually minor moves involving the 22nd through 25th spots on the roster. The big-ticket items are usually provided to him by the general manager. While the manager does set the starting rotation in the spring, the rotation generally runs itself. He also doesn’t hit, pitch, or run in the game.
There are a few correct decisions that Torre made for which he gets absolutely no credit, nor does he deserve any. One job of the manager is to apportion playing time. Torre, every day, was faced with a key decision. Whom should he start at third base? Looking over his options (A-Rod, Miguel Cairo, Wilson Betemit), he picked A-Rod on a consistent basis. Not exactly rocket science. In fact, among the Yankee regulars, Posada, Cano, Jeter, A-Rod, and Abreu were all in the top 10 at their respective positions in VORP leaguewide. (Hideki Matsui was the 11th best LF. )
In this area, the only place where Torre had to make a decision was figuring out who would play first base (options, Doug Mientkiewicz, Josh Pehlps, a hobbled Jason Giambi, Andy Phillips, or hilariously enough, Miguel Cairo). The job was split between Phillips (who functioned at replacement level and was a slightly below average fielder) and Doug M. (who functioned slightly above replacement level and was a slightly above average fielder). Phillips and Cairo got most of their reps because Mientkiewicz was hurt for part of the year. In other words, Torre was dealt a bad hand at first base. Then, there was the matter of moving Melky Cabrera to center field and Johnny Damon to left. RZR shows that Damon was actually the better left fielder and the better center fielder last year (both players logged a good amount of time at both positions), despite the general perception that Cabrera is the better fielder. Hideki Matsui was actually a better left fielder than both of them, but was injured toward the end of the year.
So, Joe Torre’s biggest mistake this year was giving too much playing time to Andy Phillips and Miguel Cairo, when their would-be replacement, Doug M. wasn’t all that terrific either. (And not believing in the fielding prowess of Johnny Damon.) Torre’s fascination with Mientkiewicz is well-known and completely inexplicable. Why they kept him around as “the answer” at first base baffles me. It’s not like the Yankees were trying to keep costs low. I have to wonder if Torre didn’t say something to keep the Yankees from pushing harder for Mark Teixeira (or somebody… anybody… who could play a more-than-replacement level first base!) mid-year because of his “belief” in Doug M.
The manager also takes care of bullpen management. Ideally, the best relievers should pitch to the most hitters, right? Looking at Yankee relievers who logged at least 100 batters faced in relief, we get the following list, ranked by batters faced.
- Luis Vizcaino (334)
- Mariano Rivera (295)
- Kyle Farnsworth (266)
- Scott Proctor (245)
- Brian Bruney (228)
- Sean Henn/Ron Villone/Mike Myers (175-181 each)
- Edwar Ramirez (103)
How could Joe not have Mariano face the most hitters, since he is the clearly the best of the bunch? Well, maybe Joe’s not as dumb as you think. (Now do you understand why Joba Chamberlain went to the bullpen, instead of the rotation?) Take a look at the average leverage that each pitcher faced in each of his plate appearances. Mariano checks in at 1.76. Vizcaino has an average of 1.00. An average situation has a leverage of 1.00. That means that the average situation that Vizcaino faced was exactly average compared to all other possible situations. Rivera, on the other hand, faced situatons that were, on average, one and three-quarters times as important as the average plate appearance. Let’s multiply each pitcher’s batters faced by his average leverage index and see what happens to that list.
- Mariano Rivera (519.2)
- Luis Vizcaino (334)
- Kyle Farnsworth (282.0)
- Scott Proctor (264.6)
- Henn/Villone/Myers (106.8, 68.6, 87.5)
Looks like Joe got that right. Rivera faced situations that were, all told, as important as 519 average plate appearances. He pitched the more difficult situations. Anyone can pitch garbage time. You want the good guy in there when it’s crunch time.
The manager also does things like give the steal sign. 70% is considered break-even, and the Yankees stole 123 bases and were caught 40 times for a success rate north of 75%. The manager also puts in pinch hitters, although Joe didn’t really pinch hit that much this past year. Damon, Posada, and Giambi all pinch hit more than ten times each, and all had an average leverage at insertion of more than 1.3. The bit players who pinch hit, usually did so in low-leverage situations. Those were probably blow-out garbage time pinch hits. The only weird exception was Dougie M. He pinch hit 7 times in an average leverage of 1.79. Why, I have no idea.
The one thing that Joe obviously did wrong this year was not win the ALDS against Cleveland. He was criticized for his handling of the pitching (hard to handle a staff when you have only two men in the bullpen whom you can trust), although he put his two best starters out for Games 1 and 2 and they just outright got beat. Bringing back Chien-Ming Wang on three days rest was stupid, but in some ways defensible. The other criticism he took was not using Jason Giambi at first, but instead sticking with… Doug Mientkiewicz. All of Torre’s foibles seem to go back to that one man.
But what else did Joe Torre do wrong? Did he give the “take” sign too often? Did he call for too many pitchouts? What was it? And how exactly would another manager have done things differently?
Joe Torre is being blamed for 7 years of no championships in Yankee Stadium and that’s not fair. I could go back into previous years and calculate the same sort of numbers, but look at what Baseball Prospectus said about the Yankees’ odds of winning the World Series this year. About 10%. They weren’t even favored to win the Division Series. The playoffs really are a crapshoot. Even if a team is so good that the would win 60% of their playoff games if playoff series were a million games long, there’s still a 1 in 3 chance of losing a best-of-five series, and the Yankees haven’t been that good in a long time. The Yankees have no divine right to the World Series trophy, and there’s not a whole lot that the manager can do on the field to affect his team’s chances of winning that Joe Torre wasn’t already doing.
About the only thing of which Joe Torre is guilty is having too high an opinion of Doug Mientkiewicz. Maybe that’s what got him fired.