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Why Fire A Winning Manager?

Photo credit: Eric Christian Smith/AP

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?

Perhaps the easiest way to answer that question is to consider how many such hypothetical managers have ever even existed in modern baseball. There’s Bruce Bochy, I guess? One of the things that makes running a baseball franchise so hard, and thus makes Baker and Girardi’s firings so confusing, is that it’s extremely hard to evaluate managers. Ned Yost was a moronic disaster until he was a wizard of bullpen management. Joe Maddon was a brain genius until he was an old coot making all the wrong decisions and complaining about the soda tax. Joe Torre was an unimaginative retread until he was the man who couldn’t lose in October. On paper, Bobby Valentine has everything you’d want in a manager—he’s a brilliant tactician with a proven track record of getting more than he has any right to get out of dubious collections of talent. In practice, he’s unfit for major-league work.

Maybe Baker and Girardi had lost their respective locker rooms (though you have to wonder how badly they could possibly have lost them, given the results). Maybe they both got caught taking a dump in their GM’s desk drawer. Maybe both teams are simply fixated on getting a fresh-faced drone who will manage off the back of a probabilities card the front office has printed up and helpfully provided them. There are all sorts of scenarios that could reasonably explain both of these firings, but if the Nationals and Yankees only made these moves because they hope to find better managers elsewhere, they’re going to have to hope they get pretty lucky. It’s becoming increasingly clear that nobody really knows what the hell “better” even means when it comes to managers, and that the best sign you are is that you have been. In that case, firing two guys who have done nothing but win a lot of games for a long time seems ill-advised.

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