In the age of analytics, it is very hard to quantify leadership.
There are some who vehemently downplay its importance and influence on winning games. When considering this context, there is a certain level of irony in the Aaron Boone hire.
The Yankees are one of the more data reliant teams in the league. They operate with the precision of their many algorithms. Yet, their managerial search focused on human attributes like character, positive reinforcement and respectful interaction. Simply put, they were looking for a leader to guide their up and coming team. They seemingly took a risk with Boone, but the gamble has paid off with flying colors.
In a brief moment this season, Boone’s importance to the New York Yankees was perfectly captured. There was a vulnerability on display we rarely get to see as fans. That moment happened during the locker room celebration after the Yankees finished the sweep of the Minnesota Twins in the ALDS:
Obviously, there is a ton of excitement after winning a huge playoff series. But this interaction with Boone and his players felt different. There is a visceral joy on public display. This felt like a genuine moment of appreciation not just for accomplishing a goal, but for the man who has led them to this point. This act of affection feels even more important when you consider how far Boone has come in just a year.
In full disclosure, I wanted Bam Bam Meulens to get the job in the winter of 2017. In my mind, it was time for the Yankees to move on from Joe Girardi. I also thought it was important to bring someone in with firsthand coaching experience. The Boone hire wasn’t a question of aptitude or pedigree, but rather if he carried the innate ability to get the absolute best of out a very talented group of young men. There was no public reference to rely upon to answer that question. Yankees fans were left with blind faith in an organization that admittedly nailed their last two managerial hires. Boone’s first year was filled with triumphs, but also a lot of bumps and bruises.
Depending on your perspective, 2018 was either a failure or a success. The team won 1oo games and made the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since the early 2010s. They prevailed in a stressful wild card game against the A’s. On the flip side, they were handled pretty well by the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS. It is a series where the Yankees were outplayed and severely outcoached. We all remember Boone’s awful bullpen management. It was a clear issue all of last year. It felt like he was unwavering in his commitment to the pre-game plan. Boone could read the locker room, but seemingly couldn’t read the in game action. This weakness directly impacted the fate of the 2018 Yankees.
Despite his strategic limitations in 2018, Boone did a fantastic job of building a culture that put people first. For Boone, culture was a very integral ingredient in a winning formula. The team wouldn’t be in a good place if the people wearing the uniform weren’t in a good space. This is a very telling quote in this great piece on Boone from Rustin Dodd:
New York kind of makes you accountable. So there’s a lot of things you don’t have to do here that maybe you do somewhere else to keep guys motivated and in line. New York will motivate you and keep you on your Ps and Qs.Aaron Boone
I want this to be a place where, whether a guy is going through a tough time, a tough year, a tough portion of his career, or whether he’s in the midst of the best season he’s ever going to have, this is a place that you look forward to being.
It was this mission to create a sanctuary in the locker room that saved the Yankees 2019 season. The 2019 Yankees played in an atmosphere built to thrive in adversity. This isn’t by accident. When you create team culture that values people beyond their talents, players have a tendency to respond. They are emboldened to be their best. This is how you get Gio Urshela and Mike Tauchman and Cameron Maybin and Mike Ford. There is a belief and expectation that every player wearing the pinstripes will put their best forward regardless of how they made it to the big club.
It also doesn’t hurt to learn from your past mistakes. Boone’s growth as a tactical manager is impressive. Now, he allows himself room to deviate from the pre-game strategy. The game guides some of his decisions. He’s no longer afraid to let his pitcher dictate his next few moves. His commitment to rest players, despite frustrations from fans (especially me), allowed the “next man up” slogan to play out in real time. His bullpen management in the ALDS was aggressive and proactive. Boone demanded the best from his players and he gave them the same in return.
That celebration in the Twins locker room doesn’t happen without Aaron Boone. We don’t get the privilege of experiencing that moment of joy between a manager and his players without Boone’s relentless commitment to positivity. There were a lot of people questioning his ability to lead the Yankees to greener pastures. In a season where 29 other teams likely fold to the unprecedented run of injuries, Boone embraced the chaos and brought order to it. He is the perfect person to lead this Yankees team. Here is to Boone finishing the job in 2019.