A baseball manager is not a head football coach. He cannot treat an MLB Sunday loss in April like an NFL Sunday loss in September, not when he has to lead his team on a grueling, 162-game journey that isn’t best served by the dramatic mood swings that define pro football.
The adjustments are not as extreme, and the reprimands are not as explosive. But right now, with Tampa Bay’s series sweep leaving his Yankees at 5-10, Aaron Boone is starting to look like one of those nice-guy NFL coaches whose teams rarely look ready to play.
Why did the image of Pat Shurmur just flash through my mind?
We quickly transition to the necessary disclaimers in your prototypical negative early-season baseball column: Boone’s 2019 Yankees did start 6-9 and did finish with 103 wins. The manager did put together back-back-back seasons of 100-plus victories. Not only has Boone proven that he knows what he’s doing, and that he can handle New York’s rougher edges with relative ease, he’s also proven that his form of leadership makes room for the human touch Brian Cashman wanted in Joe Girardi’s replacement. Exhibit A: Boone’s support of Aaron Hicks’ decision to sit a game after another police shooting of an unarmed black man in Minnesota.
Oh yeah, and the former third baseman was resilient enough to hit one of the biggest home runs in Yankee Stadium history.
But all that matters today is that there are 29 other teams in major league baseball, and the Yankees have a worse record than 28 of them. Despite a payroll about $134 million fatter than Tampa Bay’s, the Yankees have allowed the Rays to take up permanent residence in their big-market heads. The Rays have taken six straight series from the Yanks, and have won 15 of their last 18 regular-season meetings, and eight of their last nine in The Bronx. If they see each other again in the postseason, a year after the Yanks were bounced from the ALDS, the Rays will feel all but invincible walking into that series.
Kevin Cash will surely feel that he owns the not-so-intangible edge in the dugout.
Boone could not even be rescued by his $324 million ace in the hole, Gerrit Cole, whose 10 strikeouts over 6 ¹/₃ innings left him with 39 for the year, more than any Yankee ever after four starts. Cole was Cole, and still that wasn’t good enough to prevent his team from losing its fifth in a row.
Boone even got a pregame assist from Jay Bruce, who suddenly announced his retirement and got everyone in the building — the players, the manager, the media — talking about another nice guy with a record of meritorious service to the game. In other words, talking about something other than just the godforsaken state of Bruce’s last team.
That didn’t help, either. The Yankees entered this game 23rd in the majors in on-base percentage, 24th in runs, 25th in total bases and 28th in OPS, and they responded with a grand total of two runs on three hits in the 4-2 defeat. “When we get a pitch to hammer,” Boone said, “you’ve got to take advantage of it. … And we’re not doing that enough right now.”
Worse yet, the Yankees’ amateur-hour play in the outfield did nothing to support the idea that Boone’s team was mentally prepared to compete at the highest level. Hicks, the expert golfer, committed a double bogey on one play and a bogey on another, costing his starting pitcher, while Clint Frazier once inexplicably threw the ball to Cole instead of to second base. That’s why most of the 10,606 fans in the stands booed loudly after the final out was made. They weren’t just unhappy with the loss, but with the way the home team carried itself during the loss.
“We’re getting punched in the mouth right now,” Boone said. He’s got a day off Monday to figure out how to persuade his players to start punching back.
Boone said he will consider “shaking some things up.” The most obvious move is getting Hicks out of the three-hole, no matter what the analytics say about keeping him there. His 0-for-4 dropped his batting average to .160 and his OBP to .236, and the numbers — coupled with his defensive breakdowns — have earned the demotion.
But if Boone decides to keep his lineup intact and merely replay for his team Bruce’s inspiring words about what it meant to wear the pinstripes (however briefly), he should go to the videotape.
Either way, Boone has to understand that this horror film of a start is not only on Yanks’ stumbling, bumbling stars.
This is very much on the man paid to make sure those stars play up to their billing.
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