News just broke that the New York Yankees, a team that well exceeded expectations this season and made it to Game 7 of the ALCS, have fired manager Joe Girardi. Based on a statement Girardi gave to WFAN, this does not appear to be a mutual parting.
Girardi managed the Yankees for 10 seasons, and he’ll finish up his career in New York with a .562 career winning percentage and a World Series title. This season may have been his most impressive yet; after going 84-78 in 2016, Girardi shepherded a squad of young players and watched them develop into legitimate stars. This was supposed to be something of a developmental year for the Yankees—they never truly rebuild—and yet they finished with 91 wins and were a game away from the World Series.
Girardi is the second long-successful manager to get tossed into the bin this month. After watching him lead his team to consecutive 95- and 97-win seasons, the Washington Nationals decided to get rid of Dusty Baker. It’s not yet clear who they intend to hire in place of the guy with 22 managerial seasons and a career .532 win percentage under his belt. (With the exception of Gene Mauch, everyone ahead of Baker on the career wins list is in the Hall of Fame.)
So what gives? If big, successful teams like the Nationals and Yankees don’t want experienced, successful managers like Joe Girardi and Dusty Baker, then who do they want? Which available manager has a proven ability to run a team up to or above the level of the talent he’s given and is guaranteed to pull all the right levers in the postseason?
Girardi’s record has been outstanding, which doesn’t in in itself mean that firing him is wrong — all but the very greatest managers and coaches lose effectiveness over time. But to do it after a year in which the team exceeded any reasonable expectation is pretty odd. They’re certainly more likely to get a worse manager than a better one. I feel the same way about the Nationals firing Dusty based on the results of a 5-game series that could have gone either way, although if they replace him with Girardi it will work out for them. As I said earlier this month, I sure hope the Mariners are interested.
The analogy isn’t precise because the effect of an MLB manager, while underrated by some analytical types, is less than that of an NFL coach. But I’m reminded of one of the dumbest moves a North American sports organization has made this century, the Chargers firing Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-2 season because of an fluky playoff loss (to Brady and Belichick!) that would have been a win without an unconscionably stupid decision to return a late interception that led to a fumble. San Diego wasn’t the first team to find out that firing Marty certainly solves your “outstanding team has a disappointing playoff loss” problem, although not in the way you might prefer. I’m not saying it will work out this badly for the Yankees or Nats, but I they’d better have better options than the MLB equivalent of Norv Turner lined up.*
*Incidentally, one quasi-defense of the Chargers is that the problem wasn’t so much firing Marty as not having a better option than Norv lined up. But this defense collapses pretty quickly when you look at the lemon grove of coaches who were hired in 2007 — Everybody Beats the Whis, a college coach whose NFL tenure makes Nick Saban’s look like Tom Landry’s, a head coach who is an outstanding defensive coordinator, the walking punchline Saban fired before a bowl game so Steve Sarkasian could run his offense, and Cam “1-15!” Cameron. In other words, every other major candidate, with the exception of Tomlin (who almost certainly was never going to San Diego), was bad-to-catastrophic, in most cases much worse than the mediocre-minus Norv. Again, the analogy isn’t fully applicable — it’s easier to find a competent MLB manager than NFL coach — but when you’re getting rid of a successful coach you’d better have a clear idea of what option B is.