Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A front office builds a team with money no object and no other cohesive object in mind. They front-load the team with sluggers, leaving little room for defensive fortification, overtaxing a fine starting rotation, and discover they can’t out-slug the wasted defensive outs or the bullpen’s arson.
All of which leaves their third-year manager half lost for finding ways to prevent late-inning collapses, early-inning slaughters, and solving the riddle of how he could have been handed what amounts to a desperation roster built with no forward thinking and not even a nod toward replenishing the farm or delivering mid-season fortification.
Then, seeing that uncohesive, porous mess deliver a 22-29 season-opening record, they reach into their heart of hearts, pray hard, and decide it’s time answer all the last fortnight’s speculation and throw out the first manager of the season.
Ladies and gentlemen, your 2022 Phillies. Sitting twelve games behind the division-leading Mets in the National League East. Unlikely to improve even to a shot at one of the NL’s wild cards unless their fielders patch up the holes in their gloves and their defensive routes and their bullpen discovers more than just bull.
For openers. It’s not that Joe Girardi is any sort of managerial genius. He’s been a fairly overrated manager in his entire skippering career. But this one’s on that front office, led by Dave Dombrowski, an executive with a too-well-known tendency to sacrifice a future for a today that doesn’t always strike platinum. Not to mention the classic mealymouthed style of explaining why Girardi should have become the sacrificial lamb.
It has been a frustrating season for us up until this point, as we feel that our club has not played up to its capabilities. While all of us share the responsibility for the shortcomings, I felt that a change was needed and that a new voice in the clubhouse would give us the best chance to turn things around. I believe we have a talented group that can get back on track, and I am confident that [interim manager] Rob [Thomson], with his experience and familiarity with our club, is the right man to lead us going forward.
Translation: We still thought this team could slug more than enough to out-fly fielders who might as well be scrubwomen wearing oven mitts and save the asses of relief pitchers who forget to check the gasoline cans at the gates. And if you think we’re going to execute the people responsible for building that mess in the first place, you don’t know us vewwy well, do you?
Except that four of the Phillies’s sluggers (Nick Castellanos, Rhys Hoskins, J.T. Realmuto, and Kyle Schwarber) haven’t been slugging quite to the extent they were expected to slug, even if three of them dialed long distance during that ten-inning fall to the Giants last Monday.
The slugger who’s been hitting like the defending MVP he is and who just so happens to be their best defender, Bryce Harper, has a torn UCL in his throwing elbow that’s limited him to a DH role for long enough now. He’s been around the league average in right field when he played before the injury; he’s posting a .943 OPS/.166 OPS+ so far that are not too far under the numbers (1.044/181) with which he led the entire Show last year.
The Phillies have achieved the surrealistic feat of outscoring their opposition yet awakening this morning seven games below .500. The big reasons, as ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle reminds us, are a 4-10 record in one-run games and a fourth-highest-in-Show fourteen losses in games during which they held a lead at one or another point.
“Measures such as these are never wholly on the manager,” Doolittle writes, “but they are certainly not data points in his favor. The best embodiment of Girardi’s struggles is probably an early-May loss to the Mets in which Philadelphia blew a 7-1 lead it carried into the ninth inning. It sure seems the heat under his seat kept rising after that game.”
The Phillies also continued leaning upon Corey Knebel to close out games—but why? He spent May picking up four nebulous saves and earning very nebulous credit for one win during which he surrendered the game-tying run in the top of the ninth and was bailed out in the bottom by a two-run infield error.
Meanwhile, Seranthony Domínguez has been an assassin out of the pen through today: he has a 1.83 ERA and a 1.92 fielding-independent pitching rate in 19.2 innings’ work thus far. Knebel: 3.27 ERA/4.01 FIP. You tell me who should be getting the work when the games are squarely on the line—and screw the “save situations,” the real moments when a game needs saving aren’t limited to the ninth inning.
So maybe continuing to assign “roles” to his dubious-enough pen instead of training his eyes upon the best of the group falls on Girardi. He’s hardly the only manager who might still believe in “roles” instead of what the game moment and the records as they are tell him. Maybe his long-time associate Thomson will pay closer attention and move accordingly, even with the continuing dubious straitjacket of the three-batter minimum for relievers.
But everyone with eyes to see looked upon the stockpile of designated hitter-types Dombrowski and company assembled when the lockout ended and that hurry-up spring training began and said, with no sarcasm intended, just what Jayson Stark asked aloud in The Athletic: “Can a team as defensively challenged as the Phillies win anything?”
In one way Dombrowski did work with a hand tied behind his back. Last winter’s free agency market—rudely interrupted by the ridiculous owners’ lockout—offered him little enough chance to fix a dead-last defense (the 2021 Phillies were the Show’s worst for defensive runs saved) at all, never mind in one grand sweep. But there remains the sense that he didn’t have to go all the way the wrong way.
Fair play: There have been teams who could and did hit their way to even the World Series despite having defenses helpless even against a division of babies in carriages. Just ask the 2015 Mets, whose porous defense enabled them to lose a World Series in five games despite taking leads into the ninth inning in three of their four losses.
Maybe these Phillies have done their notoriously negative-think fan base a big favour. (Remember the Philadelphia wedding. Clergyman to the happy couple: I now pronounce you husband and wife. Clergyman to the gathering: You may now boo the bride.) Not by firing Girardi but by collapsing early and often under the weight of their slug-now/defend later construction. They’re not likely to make the postseason even as an outside entrant in the expanded wild card picture. They won’t be able to break the hearts the 2015 Mets broke.
But Girardi isn’t exactly innocent. Another Athletic writer, Britt Ghiroli, isolates the point. Again, stop me if you’ve heard this before, as in when his days managing the Yankees came to a halt, but make note of where Ghiroli places the core responsibility:
Two things seem to have sunk Girardi: recent bullpen-management moves that came under fire and players telling The Philadelphia Inquirer that it didn’t look like they were having any fun on the field. (They aren’t very fun to watch on the couch, either.) Girardi is known as a no-nonsense guy, and although clubhouse culture can be overrated, once players start mentioning it, it almost always spells doom for the manager. This is still a mess Dombrowski created, a defense far worse than anyone envisioned and a bullpen problem that just never seems to go away. Firing Girardi doesn’t make the Phillies a playoff team, or even a competitive unit. But it does quell the masses, at least temporarily.
The only thing missing now is Dombrowski saying, “I didn’t fire Joe. The players did.” The questions now include just how long before the Phillies’s administration gets what previous team regimes finally got and sends Dombrowski on his not-so-merry way, too, in favour of a builder whose materials aren’t limited to collapsible shelves.