Above Average Joe

The Subtle Genius of Torre's Yankee Reign

Could we have seen it coming? No. His handling of Ozzie Smith's decline was one of the contributing factors— along with lots of losses— to his dismissal in St. Louis.

  • The Shuffling of the Bullpen: Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. Entering the '96 season, Mariano Rivera had exactly one save in professional baseball— it came five years and one arm operation earlier in A-ball— and his most notable regular season performance was pitching a rain-shorted, five-inning no-hitter. And he didn't impress his manager much, either. "Mariano Rivera, who I heard had a live arm, showed me an average fastball that was very straight. I knew other teams wanted Rivera and I told the front office to listen to any deals for him," recalls Torre in his 1997 bio, Chasing the Dream. Fortunately, Bob Watson didn't listen.

    But Torre has always believed in a structured bullpen. In '96 John Wetteland was his closer. Period. And instead of succumbing to the temptation to put Rivera back into the rotation— remember, Jack McDowell was in Cleveland and David Cone on the operating table— he deeded the seventh and eighth to the young fireballer. The result? Rivera smoked hitters in innings that Steve Howe, Bob Wickman, and the rest of the bullpen-by-committee had so deftly soaked in lighter fluid the year before.

    Torre, Torre, Torre: Joe Cool
    AP/Wide World
    Torre, Torre, Torre: Joe Cool

    Could we have seen it coming? Torre was actually one of the pioneers of the closer-in-the-ninth philosophy, getting Lee Smith a then-NL record 47 saves in '91.

  • Catching On, Finally. Granted, the Yankees' mess behind the plate in '98 was a problem of Torre's own creation. But he slowly recognized that Joe Girardi was the out-eater of the lineup, and his defensive work— he only threw out 20 percent of would-be base stealers— was slipping, too. So without ever saying so, Torre handed the job to Jorge Posada, who responded by catching a perfect game and passing Girardi in career home runs this spring, despite Joe's seven-year head start. At the same time, he convinced Steinbrenner to re-sign Girardi as a backup, giving him a $3.4 million sort-of going-away present. This kind of goodwill goes a long way around the clubhouse.

    Could we have seen it coming? Loyalty to his players, albeit sometimes misguided, has always been a big Torre strong point.

  • Not Screwing Things Up: This is probably the most important thing Torre did. He inherited a good team— the Yankees were on pace to win 100 and 88 games respectively in strike-shortened 1994 and '95— and he quickly grasped what made them tick. This was a team built around taking pitches, drawing walks, and making the other team's hurlers throw 100 pitches by the fifth inning. It's easy to mess this up. To try to be more aggressive on the bases. To try to hit more home runs. To attempt to just be more entertaining— because walks aren't nearly as fun as upper deck dingers. But, to his credit, Torre understood the pitfalls in this. He stuck with the club's strengths, and the team got, well, stronger. Over the last three seasons the Yankees' on-base percentage has actually gone up, both in absolute terms and relative to the league.

    Could we have seen it coming? No. His teams in St. Louis and Atlanta were always middle of the packers in walks and OBP.

    So, is Joe Torre a genius? Well, no, but then again Stephen Hawking can't figure out when to hit and run. But as LaRussa and Leyland have shown, you can win without horses. You just can't win championships. On the other hand, Torre's proven he's no Joe Altobelli either. You can luck into one World Series but not two. What's the verdict on Torre? Against all odds, and with a little luck, he took a good team and made it great. Can you really ask anything more from a manager?

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