April 12. Approximately 4:45 p.m. Fenway Park.
Mark this down as a milestone of sorts in the 2018 season for rookie manager Aaron Boone, who was asked for the first time, during his daily media briefing with reporters, if he planned to have a team meeting with his somewhat battered (record-wise) and bruised (ego-wise) Yankees.
This was coming off Wednesday night’s 10-7 victory over the Red Sox, a game that won’t be remembered for the final score, but for the two benches-clearing episodes, the second resulting in Tyler Austin trading punches with Sox reliever Joe Kelly. Also, there was Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton pushing the entire Boston roster nearly to the ledge of the home dugout during the melee, as well as Sox manager Alex Cora later antagonizing Yankees’ third-base coach Phil Nevin from his top-step perch.
Throw in the Yankees’ rather tepid 6-6 record at the time, along with a handful of unsettling injuries, and Boone, by mid-April, had a lot on his plate. For any manager, never mind one with no previous coaching experience, at any level, other than the knowledge gleaned from his dad, Bob, a two-time big-league manager himself with the Royals and Reds.
As for the proposed meeting, Boone said probably not. He didn’t see the need for any cool-down conversation with his club as a whole. But later in the conversation, Boone also drew the line when pressed on the interaction between Cora and his coach — Nevin called Cora’s behavior “unprofessional” — and it was the first time since taking over as manager that he seemed to search for the right tack to take in the public forum.
Away from the media, Boone had to be thinking, what else could possibly happen? With Stanton’s early struggles (.220 average, 25 strikeouts through Friday) and an underachieving bullpen (4.71 ERA) — dragged down by Dellin Betances — everything has been hard. Even Friday’s victory over the Tigers, which midway through was a laugher, turned into an 8-6 stomach-churner.
“Yeah, I’d like it to be a little easier,” Boone said after Friday’s game. “But that’s part of it. That’s part of the competition. I think it can build resolve knowing that it’s not always going to be easy.”
That statement also applies to his first two-plus weeks as a whole. Everything has been a grind for the new manager, and it seems that every decision — even to put Betances in Friday with the safety net of a five-run lead — is a nerve-wracking test.
Now put Boone’s travails side-by-side with what’s been going on over at Citi Field, where another rookie manager, Mickey Callaway, has displayed a Midas touch that is reminding people of his mentor, the Indians’ Terry Francona, widely considered one of the top five managers in the game. Comparisons are bound to be made between Boone and Callaway, only because they were hired at the same time and manage teams in the same city, just nine miles apart. Fundamentally, they came on board as players’ managers, with solid analytical backgrounds and a willingness to operate hand-in-glove with a greater influence from the front office, a standard trend throughout the game.
Unlike Boone, however, Callaway didn’t start with World Series expectations, or at least that pressure from the outside. While many predicted the Yankees to make another deep playoff run after losing last year’s Game 7 loss to the Astros in the ALCS — before adding National League MVP Stanton — the Mets are coming off a 70-win season, one in which the team was dismantled over the final two months. Maybe general manager Sandy Alderson thought he could get the Mets back to the playoffs for the third time in four years with an active winter that included Callaway, but there weren’t many believers outside Flushing.
After an 11-1 start and Callaway showing a cool hand at the wheel, the Mets now are filling their bandwagon with converts. While Callaway has had a much more enjoyable ride to this point, it’s important to note a key difference between him and Boone. His experience as a pitching coach for a perennial contender like the Indians, alongside a two-time champion strategist like Francona, is not to be underestimated. As Callaway noted, “It makes me feel a little more at ease that I can identify with a pitcher a little bit.”
Is it luck that some of his more creative lineup configurations have worked and that Callaway’s inclination to push Jeurys Familia beyond three outs multiple times has paid off? How do we split the praise between Callaway and the front office? Is Callaway reaping the rewards of a winning formula that Alderson calculated during the offseason?
Regardless of how the credit is divided, Callaway is the one piloting the roster, so he’s doing his part and otherwise not screwing up the rest. Last Sunday in Washington, D.C., before the Mets completed their three-game sweep of the NL East-favorite Nationals, we asked Alderson to evaluate the job Callaway had done so far.
“I’m not complaining,” said a grinning Alderson.
The GM also pointed out the great relationship between Callaway and his pitching coach, Dave Eiland. Putting these two together felt like a seminal moment in the Mets’ interminable efforts to squeeze the potential from their pitching staff, and at this stage, it seems to be headed in that direction. The Mets’ 1.57 bullpen ERA through Friday ranked second in the majors — with a big assist from converted starters Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman — while their rotation ERA (3.32) was ninth and K/9 rate (9.83) was fourth.
That’s without Jason Vargas, the supposed fifth starter, who is recovering from hand surgery and has yet to throw a regular-season pitch since signing his two-year, $16-million deal. Alderson’s major relief investment over the winter, $16-million man Anthony Swarzak, lasted only two games before going on the DL with a strained left oblique muscle.
Factor in that Callaway lost both of his catchers this past week — Travis d’Arnaud (Tommy John surgery) for the season, Kevin Plawecki (fractured hand) for up to three weeks — and you realize that his job, like Boone’s, can hinge on any number of team-altering developments. It was interesting to note, however, that when we asked Callaway what was the most difficult part of being a new manager, he gave an answer we wouldn’t have guessed.
“It’s something that I’ve never thought about — when to run guys,” he said. “Especially in 3-2 counts, nobody out, things like that. That’s probably the thing that perplexed me throughout spring training, and I continue to lean on [bench coach] Gary DiSarcina for that, on a daily basis. That’s probably the hardest thing for me so far.”
Surely, there will be bigger bumps in the road for Callaway, and along with Boone, more boxes to check during their rookie seasons. The scripts might be flipped to this point, but the plot lines are still developing.