The Phlying Phillies

Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper launches his seventh-inning blast off the Miller Park scoreboard behind the center field fence Thursday. Would you have predicted a seven-game winning streak for the Phillies  including six straight since Joe Girardi’s execution?

Don’t look now, but that’s a seven-game winning streak the Phillies have now posted, six of which—including Thursday’s 8-3 demolition of the Brewers in Milwaukee—have happened since Joe Girardi was thrown off the bridge in favour of his bench coach and longtime associate Rob Thomson.

From the moment they took down the Giants in what proved Girardi’s final game on the bridge, the Phillies’ thought-formidable offense went from sputtering to out-scoring the opposition 53-19. Living up at last to their preseason billing as a threshing machine at the plate, they posted an .877 team OPS entering Thursday’s game largely by way of hitting eighteen home runs during the streak.

They’ve also pitched above and beyond enough to make it matter. Entering Thursday, the Phillie streak showed a team 3.00 ERA and—better, yet, by far enough—a 2.38 team fielding-independent pitching (FIP) rate.

They even helped take another manager down while they were at it, sweeping the Angels last weekend and thus putting Joe Maddon into a guillotine that may have been built for him before the season began. Sweeping the National League Central-leading Brewers doesn’t measure their skipper Craig Counsell for beheading just yet. But still.

Before they beat the Giants last week the Phillies looked so lost, so unable to shake the late-inning deflations and bullpen arsons, that calling them by their ancient Phutile Phillies nickname seemed more than an exercise in phutility. Since beating those Giants, it looks as though it’s phun to be a Phillie again.

Even being out-hit by the Brewers 11-9 on Thursday, and opening by Brewers starter/defending Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes striking them out in order, the Phillies still found a way to turn a measly one-run lead after six full innings into a five-run margin of triumph.

It only began with Bryce Harper, whose UCL injury limits him to designated hitting, leading off the Philadelphia seventh with a parabolic home run banging off the scoreboard well behind the center field fence. Giving him three bombs in his past four games.

Then with outfielder Mickey Moniak aboard on a two-out walk in the top of the eighth, Kyle Schwarber hit a hanging 2-1 sinker 432 feet over the right center field fence. And in the top of the ninth, Harper set the table with a first-pitch base hit to right center and Odubel Herrera dined on a hovering changeup—after fouling off four straight—to prove practise makes perfect, sending it into the right field seats.

A first-inning blast from former Ray Willy Adames and a leadoff bomb in the sixth by Hunter Renfroe were the only damage the Brewers could do until former Phillie (and former longtime Pirate standout) Andrew McCutcheon singled Christian Yelich home with two outs, before Phillies reliever James Norwood got the game-ending ground out from Brewers third baseman Jace Peterson.

“Someone put the fear of God into them,” says a lady of my acquaintance regarding the suddenly Phlying Phillies. Considering Girardi’s reputation as a by-the-book, nuclear-intense martinet, perhaps it was more as though someone removed the fear of God from them. Most of it, anyway.

When they finished sweeping the Angels this past Sunday, the big blows were Harper’s grand slam and rookie third baseman Bryson Stott, Stott walking it off with a three-run blast against the Angels’ own wavering bullpen arsonists. Harper was almost beside himself over Stott’s blast.

“I’m so happy for the kid, man,” the defending National League Most Valuable Player crowed after that 9-7 win.

What an at-bat. What a situation for him. Being able to put our trust in our young guys the last couple days, and really let them just play . . . it’s been great. And it paid off today. The thing about Bryson is he’s got to play. He’s used to playing every day. From high school, to college, to minor league baseball, to now. He’s used to playing every day, and that’s what we’ve got to do for our young guys . . .

Our young guys have got to play. When you want your young guys to have success, they have to play everyday. And when they have those opportunities, I think they’re going to take full advantage of that. If that’s Bryson, if that’s [Nick] Maton, if that’s [Alec] Bohm-er or anybody else . . .

From Girardi’s difficulty in trusting his youth to Thomson’s apparent fearlessness in trusting the young guys to just play. There were those taking Harper’s commentary as a veiled shot at Girardi, and you can understand why to a small extent. On the other hand . . .

“We needed to get going,” Harper said after the Phillies finished sweeping the Brewers. “Everybody knew that. It’s just a different vibe. I think we’re just playing good ball right now.”

Maybe a change of managers doesn’t always ramp up into immediate winning streaks. But remember the 2009 Rockies pinking Clint Hurdle and installing former Dodger manager Jim Tracy on the bridge. Tracy took the gig with the Rockies when they were 18-28. They started 2-4 under him but then hit an eleven-game winning streak that turned into fourteen of fifteen and launched them toward the National League wild-card game.

Ironically enough, Hurdle took the Rockies bridge after Buddy Bell was executed in 2002 . . . and they won six straight to begin the Hurdle era. And, 107 years ago, Pat Moran took the Phillies bridge to open the season, went 8-0 out of the chute, and ended up in the World Series, where they lost to the Red Sox who featured a kid pitcher named Babe Ruth.

On the other hand, there were 81 mid-season manager switches from 1987-2010, eighty of which came courtesy of executions. Only nineteen of those teams changing skippers mid-season finished those seasons with .500 or better records for the year, and out of those nineteen only five—Tracy’s Rockies, the 2004 Astros, the 2003 Marlins, the 1989 Blue Jays, and the 1988 Red Sox—reached the postseason, with one (the ’03 Fish) going all the way to win the World Series.

Nobody wants to spoil the Phillies’ party now. But the precedents don’t favour them entirely, either. Savour it while you have it, Phillieppine Island. For however long it proves to last. And if the currently Phlying Phillies manage to make the postseason at all, count your blessings and your miracles. They don’t happen as often as we’d like.

The Phillies throw out the first manager

Joe Girardi

Girardi’s Philadelphia nightmare ends with his execution Friday morning.

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.