Joe Torre, Manager: Good, Great or Lucky?

In 1996-2000, my friend Moishe was fond of Joe Torre. Since the Yankees were winning and everything was going right, Torre was Midas. Every call he made was the right one. And when things didn’t go right, nobody blamed him, because he’d earned the reputation as a great manager. He was thought to have taken managerial advantage of everyone from Mike Hargrove to Bobby Cox.

Now, I wonder.

When EDS says this, “…is as lost as Joe Torre without Don Zimmer at his side.”

And The Sports Guy says this, “I know it hurts to say it, but the Yankees wouldn’t keep pitching to Big Papi with guys on base if Joe Torre was still alive. (Wait, he’s still alive? Are we sure? He’s in the dugout? Really?)

within a day of each other, then you know something’s up.

So what’s up? Is Joe Torre a good manager, or was he the product of circumstance?

Keep in mind, EDS is as big a Yankee fan as they come. For him to question Joe Torre would be like the pope questioning Jesus. Seriously, it’s a big deal. And still, he recognizes some important facts:

1) Joe Torre’s success came when he had a brilliant old baseball mind, who was a successful manager (Zimmer) by his side. He’s not won squat without him.

2) A monkey with a line-up card could have won championships with the Yankee teams of 1996-2000.

3) Managing comes down to execution. You can make the consensus right call (let’s say, bringing in the lefty to face the lefty) and he might still get a hit. Or you can make the wrong call (bringing in a crappy lefty just because he’s a lefty to face the lefty) and he might make out.

4) Joe Torre’s flaws as a manager have always been there. They are just exacerbated when the Yanks can’t cover his flaws with superstar players who more often than not execute, even if the signs coming in aren’t the right ones.

For instance, maybe bunting is the right play. It’s the safe call, and the best way to play baseball. But Torre doesn’t insist that his pampered superstars bunt. So he let’s them swing away. But because this was Paul O’Neill and Tino Martinez and Bernie before he sucked, eventually someone would come up with the big hit, and bail out Torre. Even if the right play would have been to bunt, and then tie the game on the next out, and not need the big hit.

But now, Pauly, Tino and Bernie have been replaced with A-Fraud (What’s the score? 10-1? OK, Now I’ll homer), Giambi and…Bernie. Now, more often than not they won’t come up with the big hit. Now, not bunting means the Yankees are leaving the tying runs on base more and more often, and losing games because of it.

Or the pitching staff. Back when the Yanks had a dominant bullpen, he could bring in whoever, and trust that he could get the outs. Didn’t matter that maybe there was somone else in the ‘pen with better numbers against this particular hitter, or maybe pitching around some guy was the best call. Nelson, Stanton, Rivera, Wetteland…those guys would get the outs.

Now, he actually has to manage. He has to decide which of Sturtze, Proctor, Villone or Myers is the best guy to bring in. He has to know that not a single one of them could get Ortiz out with a two-strike head start and a machine gun. He has to know that taking starters out because they give up a single with two outs in the seventh isn’t an option with this bullpen. (Seriosuly, what’s with his crazy quick-hook? He doesn’t have the bullpen for it!) He actually has to manage. And that’s biting him in the ass.

Moishe used to say that Torre made Bobby Cox look like a fool. Well, Mike Scoscia returned the favor. Twice-over.

Maybe it’s sacreligious to say, but I don’t think Torre was ever a good manager. And now it’s showing. He has 217 ex-managers on his staff, and a rookie with no coaching experience in the only job that matters (pitching coach). He doesn’t have a right-hand man who’s got management success (but was one of his cronies in the post-success not-so-old days; Lee Mazzili is no Don Zimmer. He’s not even Jose Cardenal).

I think the Yankees would be better off with Larry Bowa managing. Or Joe Girardi.

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10 responses to “Joe Torre, Manager: Good, Great or Lucky?

  1. The only manager in recent memory who I thought made such shrewd decisions that he actually won games for his team was Bobby V. I think Torre was a good manager for the 1996-2000 Yankees precisely because they were so good and he could just leave them alone and let them play (as you said). And, yes, a monkey with slightly better than average media skills could have done the same job. I will give Torre credit for something though – I thought he played hunches a lot, not just strictly by the book. (I don’t watch the Yankees so much anymore, but judging by Noy G’s post it seems he’s going more with the book now and less with hunches.) Bobby V. was great as an NL manager because he really could maneuver his way to getting favorable matchups late in games. I remember him doing things like pulling pitchers with 2-0 counts just to bring in a lefty – then have that lefty throw two intentional balls to finish the AB – so that when the next batter came up, the Mets would have the advantage in deciding what the matchup would be (as opposed to having a choice between a tired righty and a fresh lefty, now it would be a fresh lefty and fresh righty). I’m pretty sure I remember him doing that with Dennis Cook and Turk Wendell. I think Bobby Cox might have responded by pulling his power hitting lefty out of the game (Klesko maybe?) in favor of a right-handed batter, only to then have Wendell then come in to face the righty. Then Cox pulled the righty and brought in a lefty batter. So the Braves took out the power hitter, used a bench player who didn’t get an AB, and then brought in a weaker lefty to face Wendell who all along was going to be coming into the game anyway (even if he was facing Klesko).

  2. I agree. Larry Bowa would be good. I think he would even be good just as a bench coach with Torre.

    Torre is a great manager of people… He knows how to handle the athletes and how to treat them. He simply is not a great baseball manager. Zim was clearly the baseball brain on the bench. They were a perfect combo.

    Torre is lost out there. Seriously, would YOU throw a pitch to Ortiz? You have to be half-retarded to even consider it. He hurts them every time. Does Torre seriously sit there and say to himself, “yeah, I think we can get him THIS time”…? If he does, he’s out of his freaking mind.

  3. “If we don’t take Iran’s bellicose rhetoric seriously now, we will be forced to take its nuclear aggression seriously later.”

    — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

    Ah, like I always say – the best fear mongering arguments always have a mushroom cloud…

  4. This may be sacreligious but Managers are as good as their teams with a few exceptions on both ends of the spectrum. The top ten percent may be special and the bottom ten percent may be horrible and cost a team a few games but in general the 80% in the middle are as good as their teams. I have not looked at this mathematically it’s just my take on it as a casual baseball fan. How else do you explain Torre’s horrific years with the Mets or Bobby Valentine’s sub 500 years in Texas. BTW, I also liked Bobby V. a lot b/c he had great people skills and b/c he made great game decisions, but he can’t and no manager can, make an average team great or vice versa. Motivating the players is what’s most important and I think he did a good job at that.

    I also think this is true of hockey goalies (an opinion I developed from Rabbi Schiller). The top 4-5 goalies in the league can carry their respective teams and the bottom 3-4 will regularly cost their teams games but everyone else in the middle will have good games and bad games and could be interchangeable with one another in my opinion.

    Rob

  5. I think Art Howe lost games for the Mets. I think he also used his bullpen in ways that lost future games for them. He never ever managed with a long term view.

    I think Willie Randolph sometimes makes decisions that are baffling.

  6. I disagree with Rob. When the yanks do something like pitch to Ortiz with first base open and two outs in the late innings of a close game with men on base, that’s Joe Torre losing the game for them.

    The directive has to be “nothing near the plate. If he swings, wonderful, but nothing near the plate.” The Yankees do not have a single pitcher capable of going one-on-one power baseball with Ortiz. If they insist on it, he will consistently beat them. Knowing that, and managing around it is Torre’s job.

    And Adam’s comment about Howe and the bullpen can easily be applied to Torre.

  7. Let me start out by saying that this quote caught be by surprise – Thanks to Adam for giving me the head’s up.

    I don’t recall being any more fond of Joe Torre b/w 96-00 than my friend and fellow yankee fan Noam, but since I have been pegged as the Torre aficionado, allow me to play devil’s advocate:

    1) Let’s be fair. Do you really think Zim made all the managerial decisions? What does it prove that Torre hasn’t won without Zim? Have the starting pitching staffs of the post-Zimmer era been nearly as good as those from the pre-Zimmer era? Is this a fair comparison?

    2) I think the number one quality Torre brings to the table as Yankee manager is how he handles things off the field (not necessarily on the field). I think this is very important in one of the two most “pressure-cooker” environments in baseball, particularly, when trying to win championships. I refer to how he deals with his players, how he apparently stifles out controversy (am I to believe that in all those years, there haven’t been locker room problems like on other teams?), and how he has a way of reforming players who had less than stellar reputations on other clubs into good soldiers.

    3) Obviously, execution is crucial. But all other things being equal, managerial decisions can and do effect the outcome of games. And there’s more to it than in-game decisions – for instance, which pitcher to start or which player to dress. Torre has done a pretty good job with the hunches, which brings me to…

    4) Dressing Ricky Ledee for a WS game and having him produce – you can’t attribute that to taking advantage of the superstars on your roster. He’s always had a great hunch when it came to personnel. Furthermore, one can argue that Torre has had more superstars available to him now versus in 96-00, when, other than Rivera, it was the solid/good (Brosius, Girardi) and good/very good (Tino, Bernie, O’neil) types that were responsible for their wins – not the superstars (again – except Rivera). Now, with A-rod and RJ, Giambi & whomever, where are the championships? Clearly, there are other factors at play other than superstars. One of these is the manager.

    It’s interesting that you bring up the bunting scenario. If there is one area that I have been critical of Torre in the past couple of years, it has been his handling of the stars on the roster. In towing the line between how to best nurse his players psychologically (in an effort to bring out the best in them on the field) and making decisions from a purely objective baseball point of view, I feel he has been erring recently. Example: Never giving Matsui a day off, because of the stupid streak, when he obviously needed one. I was always upset about that. Example: The RJ/Flaherty deal last yr. Why has he not been able to handle these situations as he did earlier? Not sure. Perhaps he has to deal with more stars now than he did in the early years, and that has had a detrimental effect on his decision making process.

    I did say that he made Bobby Cox look like a fool. I was referring to a particular game, where I personally witnessed him undress Cox managerially: 96 WS game 4 @ Fulton County. If you don’t recall, or don’t believe me, I suggest you read Joel Sherman’s Birth of a Dynasty (or purchase the abstract published in the POST http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/nypost/access/1031940401.html?dids=1031940401:1031940401&FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS:FT&date=May+4%2C+2006&author=Joel+Sherman&pub=New+York+Post&edition=&startpage=100&desc=YANK+COMEBACK+A+REAL+CRUSHER+-+PIVOTAL+GAME+4+RALLY+SPARKED+BRONX+BOMBERS+TO+SERIES+TITLE)

    Torre has made some clever in-game decisions, but he has also made mistakes. For example, in that aweful Yankee/Red Sox ALCS (II), I believed he had a rough series (his handling of rivera, not running on a wild wakefield in extras with Varitek catching, etc…). But I definitely believe his good decisions have outnumbered his poor ones.

    It is not sacrilegious of you to say it, but I never recall you saying that you thought Torre was not a good manager during his first 7-8 years managing the team. Was he a good manager then, but now he is a bad one?

    And here’s another thing, in my opinion, you don’t win 4 WS in 5 years, manage the Yankees for 10 years, and win 1000 games managing the team in 10 years, if you are a bad manager. You have to at least be a good manager overall. (If you were a bad manager, you would not even be around to long enough to try).

    Bottom line: I think Joe is definitely an above average manager when it comes to in-game managerial decisions, and I think that by and large, he is excellent at the off the field stuff – which I happen to think is really important for a Yankee manager. I certainly will be sad when he is no longer managing my team.

    (Sorry, I am posting without proofing this, because I don’t have the time. I did want to get something out there, so I hope it makes sense).

  8. Well, I was going to respond but Moishe said it all. Good post!

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