Last Thursday, Jon Heyman of Fancred sports reported that Joe Girardi is interested in the St. Louis Cardinals managerial position, currently occupied by interim manager Mike Shildt. Heyman’s sources were Girardi’s unnamed “friends,” but Girardi is on record as wanting to manage again, and given that the Cardinals gig is one of the better jobs in baseball and isn’t vacant all that often, I think we can stipulate that Heyman’s reporting is on point.
So what do we make of this? First, Girardi’s name in relation to this job is nothing new. In the aftermath of Girardi’s firing in late-October 2017, when he took the Yankees to within one game of the World Series, his name was bounced around by some daydreaming of a regime change in St. Louis. This was reignited a few weeks ago when the Cardinals finally fired Mike Matheny during his seventh season on the job.
To some, Girardi is an exciting candidate. He has name recognition. He has the requisite experience and has been quite successful. And he’s not only a local guy, but growing up in Peoria, Illinois, means he understands the Cardinals – Cubs rivalry as well as anyone. Does that last part matter a whole lot? Eh, probably not. But it certainly looks better on a resume as compared to a candidate with no ties to the area.
Plenty of others, however, think Girardi would be a mistake. He’s a tried-and-used candidate who has already been fired by two teams. He can’t connect with young players. He’s too old school. He’s basically Mike Matheny 2.0, they say.
Let’s start with the first part, how Girardi has already been fired a couple of times. It’s easy to forget, but Girardi managed the then-Florida Marlins for a single season in 2006, going a semi-respectable 78-84 with young talent like Miguel Cabrera and Hanley Ramírez. It was enough to win Girardi the kind of meaningless Manager of the Year Award, but he was fired anyway because he didn’t get along with Jeff Loria. If you’re compiling a list of good reasons to get fired, “not getting along with Jeff Loria” should probably be near the top so I see no issues there.
Girardi was hired by the Yankees in 2008, where he managed for ten very successful seasons, which included the 2009 World Series and the sixth most wins (910) in franchise history. He was fired at the end of last season, which, according to owner Hal Steinbrenner, would have happened even had the Yankees won the World Series. The reason cited was Girardi’s inability to connect and communicate with players, most notably Yankees young catcher Gary Sánchez.
This is a legitimate concern amid reports of Matheny’s strained relationship with Dexter Fowler, his tone-deaf role in the Bud Norris-Jordan Hicks situation, and indications that he possibly lost Yadier Molina a long time ago. Managing a bullpen, filling out an optimal lineup, etc, the ideal manager should excel here, but arguably more important is the ability to motivate and properly communicate with a team of 25 men over the course of 162 games. Matheny lost the ability to do that – or never did it effectively in the first place – and paid the price. Hiring someone who was recently fired for that same reason doesn’t feel like a step forward.
But I would hesitate to draw any firm conclusions from how Girardi’s time ended in the Bronx. Rosters are different. Human beings are different. If Girardi had issues with Sánchez, that doesn’t necessarily say much of his ability to get along with Fowler, Hicks, or Molina. The Athletic recently ran a poll of the MLB players and Joe Maddon received the highest number of votes for the manager they would most want to play for. Want to know who finished in second for the manager they would least like to play for? Joe Maddon. In fact, he got twice as many votes as Matheny. What works in some places might not work well in others.
As for the “Girardi is too old school” rap, some of this is earned. When Girardi managed the Marlins in 2006 he started a regrettable “no facial hair” policy (something that was resurrected under Don Mattingly). When he went to the Yankees he didn’t have to worry about such a thing because the rule had already been put in place long ago (although he was fine with CC Sabathia missing a few shaves). This rule is silly, serves no purpose as I can tell other than to say “I’m the boss here,” and I’d be less than enthused if it was ever a part of the Cardinals clubhouse. Personally, I don’t think it ever would be, even with Girardi at the helm. I don’t see him taking over the reigns of an established and esteemed franchise like this one and then immediately telling Matt Carpenter it’s time to shave. Maybe I’m wrong.
More to the old school point though, what’s mostly associated with this term when heard in relation to baseball managers is a reluctance to adopt or rely on advanced stats. And even though he was on record as wanting to ban the shift as recently as 2016, this type of characterization of Girardi probably misses the mark. In fact, he’s been criticized in the past for being too reliant on numbers and not placing enough emphasis on the human element.
Furthermore, I reached out to Andrew Gargano, a writer at Baseball Prospectus’ local Yankees site, to get his thoughts on not just the old school issue but also Girardi’s relationship with the players. Here’s what he had to say:
I generally think those reports are overblown, but I can’t dismiss it entirely because the Yankees did let him go after he took them to Game 7 of the ALCS – so clearly they thought a change was needed. He handed the keys to [Aaron] Judge and the young guys pretty quickly, so I don’t think he has a problem with that. It might have been a personal thing between him and Sánchez, or maybe he was extra hard on Sánchez because Girardi was a catcher himself? Regardless, I think he’d be a massive upgrade over Matheny…he’s very saber-friendly (Binder Joe was the running joke for years because of how often he referred to his binder of stats) and he’s thoughtful about his moves and explanations.
He may lean more authoritarian in the clubhouse, but I don’t at all view him as a hard-headed, old school guy.
There are degrees to which a manager can be sabermetrically inclined, but saying that Girardi is opposed or not forward thinking on analytics is not an argument that can be made in good faith.
Finally, Girardi is absolutely not Matheny 2.0. Let’s show some respect here, there’s only one Michael Scott Matheny. This is not personal as I certainly appreciate the time Matheny put in with this franchise and I think he’s an all-around decent person. But when Matheny was hired in 2011, he had previously been an instructor at spring training but had never managed above little league. He showed little ability to adapt or was often too slow to do so during his entire tenure. He was infamous when it came to mismanaging the bullpen. And, as we’ve learned recently, he was not the player’s coach, or leader of men he had been made out to be.
While Girardi hadn’t exactly paid his dues in the minor leagues before getting the call to manage the Marlins, he had spent a season as a bench coach with the Yankees. For whatever complaints there were about Girardi as a manager in Miami and New York, his teams won and he was generally considered a good tactician. And to that point and contrary to Matheny, Girardi is very good at managing a bullpen.
Plus, Girardi knows why he was fired. Like the rest of us, he knows why Mike Matheny was fired. He knows that to be considered a legitimate candidate for this job he can’t come across as another Matheny, he has to show that he’s willing to adapt, possibly change. And that’s especially true when it comes to connecting with the players. Based on the evidence we have (or don’t have), I think it is a mistake to just assume he can’t do that.
Does any of this mean Girardi would be a better candidate than Shildt, or Stubby Clapp, or any other manager currently on the marketplace? No, I don’t necessarily think so. But he comes with the right experience and an impressive track record. It’s unfairly dismissive to think he’d be just like Matheny, and he should be considered a credible option.