First, do no harm. That’s in the Hippocratic Oath for doctors, but it’s also good advice for Joe Girardi to pound into his overactive brain as he attempts to win a 27th World Series for the New York Yankees.
So far, it’s not clear that Girardi understands this concept. During the ALCS against the Angels, he showed a distressing penchant for prescribing medicine for his team that it didn’t need. Time and again, situations came up that called for aspirin, and Girardi instead performed organ transplants.
Sometimes, Girardi’s patient was feeling fit as a Stradivarius, but that hasn’t stopped Girardi from trying to fix it. He’s taken out pitchers who were dominating in favor of ones who weren’t, and left in other pitchers who were ready for the fork. He’s sent in a lollipop-hitting pinch-runner for one of his fastest runners and his best hitter, Alex Rodriguez. He even managed to lose both his DH and his best pitcher — closer Mariano Rivera — all in one blindingly brilliant spasm of substitution.
The syndrome is called over-managing, and it’s what can happen to a naturally clever fellow who arrives at a critical juncture in life that holds the potential for making history. In this case, it’s a chance to win a World Series for the Yankees, something the most stories franchise in sports hasn’t done since 2000.
Girardi’s been awfully successful this year. He pushed the buttons that resulted in 103 wins, the most in baseball. Granted, he was starting with the highest payroll and the best roster in baseball, so the buttons he had to push were the big, red “easy” buttons and not the tiny ones most other managers have to deal with.
Still, Girardi got it right a lot more often than he got it wrong. And he did it without attempting to prove that he was smarter than Stephen Hawking. Not that it’s that hard to manage the Yankees. Fill in the line-up with some of the best players in the game and figure out which pitchers to use to get to the ninth inning and Rivera. While you’re doing it, don’t wear out Rivera.
That’s pretty much it. It’s true that Joe Torre, Girardi’s predecessor and the winner of four titles, first invented that formula and then mucked it up. Torre’s sin, repeated like an annoying habit for the last five or six years of his reign, was to overuse Rivera.
Year after year, by the time the playoffs arrived, Torre had worn out the one player he needed to win a championship. For good measure, Torre burned out any other reliever he had laying around who made the mistake of pitching too well for too long.
Rivera is 39 years old, less than a month away from 40. All year, Girardi resisted the urge to overdose on Rivera. In addition to preserving his closer, that also infused his set-up men with the idea that their manager believed in them.
But once the playoffs started, Girardi lost all perspective. He’s right to think that the games are bigger now and every move is magnified. But he’s been wrong to think that means he has to elevate his game, kick it up a notch, take it to another level.
During the ALCS, the TV cameras repeatedly caught Girardi running to a huge book of stats, similar in size to a Gutenberg Bible, that the manager keeps in the dugout. The book lists the probabilities of pitcher against hitter and hitter against pitcher. It lists tendencies. It lists everything in the game that can be broken down into a number.
The problem is, it’s not a recipe for success. Nothing works 100 percent of the time in baseball. Most things don’t work 30 percent of the time. So savvy managers know how to mix in their gut feeling for what they’re watching live in front of them with the cold numbers.
It’s like being a weatherman. Sometimes, stepping outside is worth hours of staring at radar rolls and forecast charts. Sometimes, the question isn’t is it going to rain in ten minutes, but is it raining right now?
Girardi didn’t inflict his genius on the clinching Game 6 win as he had in losses in Games 3 and 5. He did thumb his nose at his bullpen and go to Rivera for the last six outs. Since Rivera got them, the move won’t be questioned. If he hadn’t and the world’s greatest closer had been unavailable — or, worse, ineffective — for a Game 7, it would be an issue.
On Wednesday, the Series starts, and in the visiting dugout will be the defending champion Phillies. They’re a terrific team, capable of beating anyone, including the Pinstripes. Girardi’s job is to do what he did all year — manage with calm confidence.
But first, to do no harm.