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October 22, 2007
You Could Look It Up
Joe Torre in a Box
In 1984, looking to find a way to characterize managers beyond the then-meager statistical record, Bill James introduced the "manager in a box" questionnaire. Assuming one answers the questions accurately, James's list of questions remains a good way of making visible those aspects of a manager's background and habits that he may not carry on his sleeve, but nonetheless influence the way games in his charge play out.
James later used an expanded version of his manager in a box questionnaire as the basis of his 1997 book Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers. At that time, Torre had yet to become a historically important manager and the owner of four World Series titles, so James didn't bother to profile him. The book was never updated, possibly due to lack of interest (there was no paperback release, and if I recall correctly a quick remainder on the hardcover). I first tried my hand at correcting for the book's timing several years ago, but the Torre era in New York still had a way to run. Now that it's over, we can attempt a more definitive profile.
YEAR OF BIRTH: 1940
OTHERS BY WHOM HE WAS INFLUENCED: Older brother Frank Torre, a part-time major league first baseman for seven years. He also looked up to the intense Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, who was his teammate from 1969 to 1974, and later his pitching coach with the Mets, Braves, and Cardinals. It's also likely that Torre defined himself in opposition to his father, "a volatile New York City police detective who slapped the Torre kids around every chance he got," in the words of Maury Allen. Torre was anything but volatile, and it's probable that whatever George Steinbrenner tried to do to bully Torre, he had already seen worse. If there was a negative side to this, it's that Torre was sometimes patient to the point of passivity. Torre often spoke admiringly of the UCLA coach John Wooden, who wrote, "Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming." Peace of mind loomed large in Torre's outlook as a manager.
CHARACTERISTICS AS A PLAYER: Torre was one of the best-hitting catchers of all time, a .297/.365/.452 hitter (.298 EqA) with excellent power playing in a pitcher's era. A nine-time All-Star, he won the 1965 Gold Glove, although his defensive reputation was not good. After being picked up by the Cardinals in trade (for Orlando Cepeda) before the start of the 1969 season, he was moved to first base so that they could play Tim McCarver (and later Ted Simmons). Negatives included a lack of speed and a tendency to be a bit heavy until the early 1970s, when the Cards politely suggested he try a diet prior to moving to third base. He took off the weight, won the NL MVP award in 1971 (hitting .363/.421/.555), and has stayed on the trim side down to the present day. Torre had a catcher's speed, so that plus the extra weight he carried made him a constant double play threat. He led the NL three times, hit into 20 or more twin killings six times, and ranks twelfth on the all-time list with 284.
WHAT HE BRINGS TO THE BALLCLUB
IS HE AN INTENSE MANAGER OR MORE OF AN EASY-TO-GET-ALONG-WITH TYPE? The latter, though he was capable of asserting himself if he felt a player was in need of correction or the team's focus was starting to drift. He tried to be a parental, father-knows-best type with the Yankees. With the exception of an ill-considered contribution to a 2006 Sports Illustrated article on Alex Rodriguez, he never aired out a player in public.
IS HE MORE OF AN EMOTIONAL LEADER OR A DECISION MAKER? The former. Torre cared about winning, but sometimes seemed to place as much emphasis on making a good effort as results.
IS HE MORE OR AN OPTIMIST OR MORE OF A PROBLEM SOLVER? An optimist. Torre was willing to use a non-productive player for quite a long time if he thought there might be a breakthrough down the line. In 2001 he endured a .250/.339/.351 season from Chuck Knoblauch, always hoping that the little guy would remember how to hit. He constantly threatened to bench him, but after a couple of days off, Knoblauch would always be back in the leadoff spot. In 1997 he stuck with Cecil Fielder as his designated hitter despite a .410 slugging percentage. In 2004, Ruben Sierra had a hot May and this earned him regular playing time the rest of the way, even though he hit .213/.271/.420 from then on. Torre thought he could get something out of Tony Womack in 2005, moving him to the outfield to keep his bat in the lineup after Robinson Cano came along. With the Cardinals he had three second basemen, and he kept hoping that one of them would seize the job and make the decision for him; none of them ever did. Paul O'Neill's bat slipped three years before his retirement, but Torre seemed not to notice, keeping O'Neill in the third spot in the batting order until well into 2001. He was only slightly more aggressive in phasing out Bernie Williams, but his reluctance there was more damaging because Williams played a key defensive position. In his farewell press conference, he said he would miss the "trial and error" of solving lineup problems.
HOW HE USES HIS PERSONNEL
DOES HE FAVOR A SET LINEUP OR A ROTATION SYSTEM? Torre preferred a set lineup. He would shuffle the lineup to get a player out of a key role if he was slumping, but otherwise he found something that worked for him and stuck with it. This applied not only to individual seasons, but year to year. The Yankees often looked for leadoff hitters because Torre had decided that Derek Jeter was a #2 hitter regardless of the team's needs. Torre would sometimes relent, but only after another player had failed or gotten hurt. In the playoffs he was more proactive, benching Tino Martinez, Alfonso Soriano, and Jason Giambi, and famously dropping Alex Rodriguez in the batting order last year.
DOES HE LIKE TO PLATOON? Only when forced to do so. When neither Ricky Ledee nor Shane Spencer took control of the Yankees left field job in 1999, he platooned them. He selectively platooned Bobby Abreu with Shelley Duncan in the second half of 2007, and half-heartedly tried a Mientkiewicz/Josh Phelps platoon in the first half of the season. When Torre lacked a regular at a position he tried to let someone get hot and play themselves into a job rather than try to patch something together.
DOES HE TRY TO SOLVE HIS PROBLEMS WITH PROVEN PLAYERS OR WITH YOUNGSTERS WHO STILL HAVE SOMETHING TO PROVE? Veterans. Two of Torre's most notable rookies, Derek Jeter and Alfonso Soriano, got their jobs through fluke circumstances where there was no choice other than to play them; in the former case it was a combination of an organizational decision that predated Torre's hiring and Tony Fernandez's spring training injury, while in in the latter, throwing problems forced Knoblauch off of second base. It's mostly forgotten now, but in the spring of 1996 it was reported that Torre was a bit uncomfortable with the idea of having a rookie at shortstop. As in the previously cited cases of Knoblauch and Bernie Williams, Torre would give long-term Yankees every chance to keep their jobs. In 2006 he fell in love with Terrence Long for about two minutes, talking up his experience. In part, his preference for old men was able to assert itself so strongly during the later Yankees years because the farm system didn't give him great alternatives. If there was a problem, he was usually in the position of picking between players like Aaron Guiel and Kevin Thompson, not Aaron Guiel and Chris Young.
HOW MANY PLAYERS HAS HE MADE REGULARS OUT OF WHO WERE NOT REGULARS BEFORE, AND WHO WERE THEY? Steve Henderson, Joel Youngblood, John Stearns, Alex Trevino, Mookie Wilson, Hubie Brooks, Brett Butler, Randy Johnson (the third baseman), Gerald Perry, Brad Komminsk, Ray Lankford, Bernard Gilkey, Geronimo Pena, Tom Pagnozzi, Brian Jordan, John Mabry, Derek Jeter, Ricky Ledee, Shane Spencer, Jorge Posada, Alfonso Soriano, Nick Johnson, Andy Phillips, Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera. Hideki Matsui probably shouldn't count, but we'll list him here.
DOES HE PREFER TO GO WITH GOOD OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OR DOES HE LIKE THE GLOVE MEN? Glove men, particularly behind the plate. He has something against catchers who can hit. With the Braves, he kept Bruce Benedict in the lineup, even though Benedict couldn't hit at all. In St. Louis, he moved Todd Zeile, who was a good hitter but a poor receiver, to third base and kept Tom Pagnozzi behind the plate. One of Torre's first moves on coming to the Yankees was to chase Mike Stanley out of town in favor of Joe Girardi (a move based on a Don Zimmer recommendation), then kept Girardi in the lineup long after it was clear that Posada would thrash him offensively because he preferred Girardi's defense. Reserve catchers were always hitless catch-and-throw guys, climaxing with Wil Nieves in the first half of 2007. Torre always seemed to be looking for a catcher who was the exact opposite kind of player that he was.
This extended to the infield as well. Torre keep Scott Brosius in the lineup in 1999 and 2000 despite batting performances that were enormously hurtful to the Yankees. Similarly, in the early years he deemphasized Wade Boggs for Charlie Hayes. He seemed to agonize over Jason Giambi's defense at first (though any manager might have done so), and gave crazy amounts of playing time to Miguel Cairo, Enrique Wilson, and Doug Mientkiewicz, who sure as heck weren't in the lineup for their bats. Curiously, Torre's concern with defense did not extend to the outfield, where he seemed to be incapable of seeing the defensive problems of an aging Bernie Williams, Hideki Matsui, and others.
DOES HE LIKE AN OFFENSE BASED ON POWER, SPEED, OR HIGH AVERAGES? Even though the Yankees often had a power-hitting lineup, Torre liked speed. His Yankees clubs were more interested in the stolen base than any non-Rickey Henderson Yankees teams of the modern era. This extended to leading off Alfonso Soriano for two years though he was the most impatient hitter on the club, putting Womack in the lineup, keeping Johnny Damon in the leadoff spot despite a rough year in 2007, experimenting with Kenny Lofton in 2004, and the continual non-benching of a fading Knoblauch. Torre was also fanatical about the hit and run and starting the runners to stay out of the double play.
DOES HE USE THE ENTIRE ROSTER OR DOES HE KEEP PEOPLE SITTING ON THE BENCH? Other than resting his catcher once a week, Torre stayed with his starters. If a player has a nagging injury, Torre would sit him for a few days rather than let him play through it, even if the player insisted he was okay (this particularly applied to Jeter), and he sometimes tried the same tactic with a slumping player. Torre often had at least one player on the bench for all or most of the year who saw extremely limited usage, a role filled by Homer Bush, Clay Bellinger, Luis Sojo, and Bubba Crosby; he had similar players in his other managerial stops.
DOES HE BUILD HIS BENCH AROUND YOUNG PLAYERS WHO CAN STEP INTO A BREACH IF NEED BE OR AROUND VETERAN ROLE-PLAYERS WHO HAVE THEIR OWN FUNCTIONS WITHIN A GAME? Mostly vets. It was preferable for a youngster to be in the minors playing every day, even when some of the "youngsters" the Yankees brought up were pushing 30. In addition to Sojo and Bellinger, Torre's New York benches featured Darryl Strawberry, Tim Raines, Jim Leyritz, Dale Sveum, Charlie Hayes, Mark Whiten, Luis Polonia, Gerald Williams, Todd Zeile, Miguel Cairo, Enrique Wilson, Ruben Sierra, Rey Sanchez, Nick Green, Sal Fasano, and Wilson Betemit. Torre also tried to bring in a few of his former Cardinals--Gerald Perry, Tom Pagnozzi, and Felix Jose--but they failed to catch on.
GAME MANAGING AND USE OF STRATEGIES
DOES HE GO FOR THE BIG-INNING OFFENSE OR DOES HE LIKE TO USE THE ONE-RUN STRATEGIES? In his first season with the Yankees, Torre billed himself as a "National League manager." This mostly displayed itself in the frequent use of the hit-and-run, though that year Torre also called more bunts and squeeze plays than he would in any other season. He rapidly cut back on bunting and squeezing, and with his powerhouse teams of the late 1990s, he mostly stayed out of their way. Post-2001 he was a little more active with the one-run strategies, but was never fanatical about it. This was one of Torre's best qualities as a manager: he recognized the kind of team he had and didn't try to play a style of offense unsuited to the roster.
DOES HE PINCH-HIT MUCH, AND IF SO, WHEN? He's about average in this regard. On the nights an Enrique Wilson or Doug Mientkiewicz got into the lineup, or Posada sat for a substitute, Torre would pinch-hit if trailing late. With designated pinch-hitters, such as Bob Watson in Atlanta, Gerald Perry in St. Louis, and Strawberry, Sierra, and Shelley Duncan in New York, Torre persisted in dedicating a roster spot to a player whose sole role was to hit far longer than most managers, especially given the growing dedication of every available roster spots to extra pitchers in recent years.
IS THERE ANYTHING UNUSUAL ABOUT HIS LINEUP SELECTION? Other than the aforementioned preference for defense-only catchers and his Bernie Williams blinders, not really. He tended to build a conventional batting order.
DOES HE USE THE SAC BUNT OFTEN? Not exceptionally often in New York, and none of his Mets, Braves, or Cardinals teams were prolific bunters. This was always a strategic tool to him, not a fetish.
DOES HE LIKE TO USE THE RUNNING GAME? He always tried to incorporate some basestealing into his program, but he wasn't Whitey Herzog. As with bunting, he was more of a pragmatist.
IN WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES WILL HE ISSUE AN INTENTIONAL WALK? With the Yankees he was generally towards the bottom of the league in this category, though he was a little more willing to pass a hitter with his weaker post-2003 staffs.
DOES HE HIT AND RUN VERY OFTEN? Constantly. He actually peaked in this regard in 2007. His Cards teams also liked to send the runners whenever possible.
ARE THERE ANY UNIQUE OR IDIOSYNCHRATIC STRATEGIES THAT HE PARTICULARLY LIKES? Nothing obvious. Torre was all about preparation, professionalism, and giving a good effort. In-game, he was unassertive; no one would mistake him for John McGraw. If the Giants had been made to play through a blizzard of insects, McGraw would have burned down the stadium; Torre stayed in the dugout.
HANDLING THE PITCHING STAFF
DOES HE LIKE POWER PITCHERS OR PREFER TO GO WITH PEOPLE WHO PUT THE BALL IN PLAY? He was pretty flexible. This is a guy who managed Phil Niekro, Pascual Perez, Bob Tewksbury, Orlando Hernandez, and Chien-Ming Wang, as disparate a group as you'll find. His Cardinals staffs never walked anyone, but they never got any strikeouts either. His Yankees teams through 2003 had more power pitchers. After that it was mix and match, every season. He certainly didn't fear pitch-to-contact guys.
DOES HE STAY WITH THE STARTER OR GO TO THE BULLPEN QUICKLY? This is one of the ways you can really mark the decline of Yankees pitching after 2003. To that point, Torre would stay with his starters as long as any manager in baseball. Afterwards, he learned to be a quicker hook. Here are the total number of starts of over 120 pitches for Yankees starters, 1996-2007:
Year >120 1996 16 1997 19 1998 22 1999 27 2000 29 2001 10 2002 10 2003 12 2004 2 2005 8 2006 1 2007 0
DOES HE USE THE ENTIRE STAFF OR DOES HE GET FIVE OR SIX PEOPLE TO DO MOST OF THE WORK? Again, it's useful to draw a dividing line between the early and later Yankees years. When he had Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton, he used the whole staff in tightly defined roles. There were five starters, a middle reliever/swing man (Ramiro Mendoza at first), a spot lefty, a couple of eighth-inning guys, and the closer. That left room for one reliever who you generally only see in blowouts and another who rarely pitches at all, usually a second lefty or a marginal righty up from Columbus--Mike Buddie or Colter Bean or someone like that. After that bullpen aged, the Yankees front office could never give Torre more than one quality middle reliever a year, so he would pick someone like Tom Gordon and ride them until they couldn't pitch anymore. The upshot was that in both the 2004 and 2005 postseasons, Gordon looked like a man who desperately needed a vacation. The starting rotation also became less predictable at that point, as Torre was always patching for injuries or poor performances. In 2006, the Yankees used 12 starters; in 2007, another 14.
IS THERE ANYTHING UNIQUE ABOUT HIS HANDLING OF HIS PITCHERS? Torre took several young pitchers and turned them into an exceptionally good set-up relievers. With the Mets, rookie Jeff Reardon was used as a bridge to closer Neil Allen. In Atlanta, rookie Steve Bedrosian, previously a starter, was used in front of Gene Garber. With the Cardinals he found another rookie, Mike Perez, to set up Lee Smith. In 1996, he got a Cy Young-quality season from Mariano Rivera, who set up John Wetteland. Like Bedrosian, Rivera had been a starter to that point (though Torre had a big clue, which was the way Rivera had pitched in the 1995 postseason). It seemed like Rivera might be the last of the group, but in the second half of 2007 rookie Joba Chamberlain, a starter in the minors, helped turn the team around as Rivera's setup man. Reardon, Bedrosian, and Rivera went on to become noted closers.
Torre also hated to use his closer in a tie game on the road, thinking he had to save him to protect a lead he might never get. This led directly to the disastrous decision to use Jeff Weaver instead of Mariano Rivera in Game Four of the 2003 World Series (a move Torre never regretted). Despite this, Torre's Yankees record in extra-inning road games (40-30) was actually better than his extra-inning record at home (33-35).
WHAT IS HIS STRONGEST POINT AS A MANAGER: His patience and unflappability. As Torre often told his staff, if you took George Steinbrenner's money, you had to take his abuse too. Billy Martin's tantrums made great fodder for "The Bronx is Burning" miniseries, but they never changed where the team's ultimate authority resided; in contrast, Torre almost never got into counterproductive public flaps with the owner. That, combined with his success and great charm, disarmed Steinbrenner. For a long time before Torre, the team's focus was on internecine squabbling, not winning. Torre changed that.
IF THERE WERE NO PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL, WHAT WOULD HE PROBABLY BE DOING? High school guidance counselor, the one who makes you feel positive about your 2.5 GPA.