There is no great mystery to the job of managing a baseball team. You have to be blessed with certain talents – a high baseball IQ, a dash of fearlessness, a plentiful helping of intellect, an ability to relate with an eclectic assortment of personalities – and then you have to work at it. A lot. You need reps. You need a lot of reps.
Back in Joe Torre’s salad days with the Yankees, much was made about how he seemed to know, inherently, instinctively, just what to do: whom to start, and whom to bench; which pitcher to trust (famously David Cone, Game 3 of the ’96 World Series) and whom to dismiss (famously Denny Neagle, Game 4 of the 2000 Series). More often than not, stuff worked out for Torre.
Of course, by the time a team managed by Torre actually won a playoff series – Oct. 5, 1996, Yankees 6, Rangers 4 to wrap up the ALDS – Torre had managed 2,067 games in the major leagues. That’s a lot of time as a Met, getting out-flanked in August, a lot of time in Atlanta getting outmaneuvered in April, a lot of time in St. Louis getting outsmarted in June.
Aaron Boone’s first four playoff games were the 163rd, 164th, 165th and 166th of his managing career. Aaron won 101 of his first 163 games last year, including the AL wild card game and made the job look as easy as breathing. But managing in the regular season and doing it in the postseason are completely different tasks, so games 164th, 165, 166 and 167 in the ALDS were something else. And you don’t really learn that until … well, until you learn it.
“Experience is so valuable,” Boone said Wednesday, the second of what will be four equally valuable off days between the ALDS and ALCS as he and his players await the winner of the Houston-Tampa series.
“I don’t know if I looked specifically at it that way, but I’ve been trying to have constant growth. That has never stopped on this job, whether it’s last year putting a staff together, going through spring training, the regular season, the playoffs and the offseason. You’re trying to always grow on the job and learn from the successes and failures you have along the way.”
Boone didn’t do his best work in last October’s ALDS loss to the Red Sox. Mostly, he was guilty of not understanding the urgency of October, the need to move boldly and forcefully when your best-laid plans lay instead in tatters.
He stayed way too long with Luis Severino in Game 3, in what became a 16-1 Sox rout, then waited too long to replace CC Sabathia in Game 4, as Sabathia allowed three runs while getting only nine outs; the Yankees lost that one 4-3 when a ninth-inning rally fell just short.
We saw this week that this is not unique to Boone, that all green skippers can fall victim. Minnesota’s Rocco Baldelli reacted slowly in both Game 1 and Game 2, and when he did go to his bullpen in a tie game in Game 1 it wasn’t one of his front-line relievers but a tertiary one (at best), Zack Littell. In May, such caution and deliberateness may be a prudent course; in October it can be lethal.
But we also saw this week how profoundly Boone learned his lessons: in all three games of the Yankees’ ALDS sweep of the Twins, Boone took full advantage of his team’s strongest, deepest unit: the bullpen. That was an option for him last year, too (and last year’s pen still had Dellin Betances) but this time there was zero hesitation. When James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka and Severino hinted at weakening, they were out.
So the Yankees wound up getting 41 outs from their starters and 40 from their relievers, and it was exactly what they needed. Boone was decisive and he was quick to maneuver, and it will be fascinating to see if he can stick to that plan against a feistier foe, which either the Astros or Rays promise to be.
Part of why he took so much heat last year was because Alex Cora was himself a rookie manager, but as Cora learned this year, there are other pitfalls and pratfalls that can fell a young manager. Boone’s just happened to come when the most eyes were on him, and when the most money was on the table.
But he clearly learned a lesson.
“You’re a year further along, and that greater understanding hopefully puts me in a better position to make quality decisions,” he said. “Ultimately that’s what I need to do here, not just foster a good culture but make good decisions. And that’s an ongoing thing.”
Now, Boone gets a crack at the ALCS. Last time he was here, as a player, 2003, it ended for him in the most spectacular way possible. Boone the manager can never approach the glory of that moment for Boone the player. But he can enjoy similar satisfaction. One good decision at a time.