The first two games of the Yankees’ season-opening series against the Rays have played out like the American League Championship Series. There has been so much unorthodox strategy employed, it’s almost as if the two managers are working backwards from the end of the year instead of easing into the start.
On one side, Rays’ manager Joe Maddon has dramatically shuffled his lineups, employed a host of exaggerated shifts on defense, and managed his bullpen as if Spring Training was extended by a week. Not to be outdone, Joe Girardi has issued a first inning intentional walk, juggled his batting order, including giving Derek Jeter an immediate “half day off” at DH, and tried out his ultra lefty specialist (Clay Rapada, 1.183 OPS vs. right handers) on All Star right handed batters like Evan Longoria. So far, it’s advantage Maddon.
During his six years as manager of the Rays, Maddon has developed a reputation for being somewhat of a mad genius. In fact, his machinations over the first two games of the series are really nothing out of the ordinary. However, Maddon’s emphatic strategic flair isn’t really about personal embellishment (that’s what his new age philosophical method of communication is for). Rather, they are necessary devices being utilized by a manager who knows he doesn’t have nearly as much talent as his competition.
The same is not true of Joe Girardi. Once again, the Yankees enter the year with arguably the most talented roster in baseball. The lineup is dotted up and down with All Stars, the rotation has the potential to go seven deep by the start of May, and the bullpen boasts three relievers who are closer material. In other words, the Yankees’ don’t need a manager with a bag of tricks. They just need a steady hand who can manage egos in the clubhouse and then get out of the way once the umpire yells “Play Ball”.
Joe Girardi is often criticized for being heavy handed when it comes to strategy, but his level of involvement during the first two games seems greater than normal. Is that the sign of a more pro-active approach to come? Or, maybe, his actions, and over-reactions, have been dictated by the manager in the opposing dugout? Pitchers often talk about trying to add a mile per hour or two to their fastball when facing a notorious fire-baller, so maybe Girardi has been seduced into trying to match wits with Maddon? After all, managers have egos too.
You can’t determine tendencies based on two games, but so far, Joe Girardi’s involvement in the first two games has played a significant role in each loss (the IBB in game one led to four runs; Eduardo Nunez’ error and Rapada’s ill-conceived matchup with Longoria each allowed two runs). Like players, managers need time to get their footing once the season begins, so hopefully, the Yankees’ skipper will quickly get his sea legs and realize he is the captain of a state-of-the-art luxury liner and only needs to steer clear of the rocks.