Joe Girardi's Firing Won't Fix All of Lifeless Phillies' ProblemsJune 3, 2022
The knives had been out for Philadelphia Phillies manager Joe Girardi, and it was frankly hard to come up with reasons for why he shouldn't be fired.
It was no great surprise, then, when the Phillies decided to do exactly that on Friday:
Philadelphia Phillies @Phillies
The Phillies have relieved Joe Girardi of his duties as manager today. Bench coach Rob Thomson has been named interim manager for the club through the end of the 2022 season. In addition, coaching assistant Bobby Meacham was also relieved of his duties. <a href="https://t.co/lVL60RrSnJ">pic.twitter.com/lVL60RrSnJ</a>
Yet this alone isn't going to get the Phillies to where they want to be. Namely, back in the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
Girardi was on the hot seat precisely because this is looking like a long shot as of now. At 22-29, the Phillies are 12 games behind the New York Mets in the National League East. And the ship has only been taking on more and more water of late, with the Phillies having lost 12 of their last 17 games.
This alone was arguably good enough grounds for Girardi's dismissal. When the Phillies hired the former New York Yankees skipper in October 2019, he was supposed to be the guy to get the team over the hump after back-to-back .500ish seasons under Gabe Kapler. Instead, it went 110-112 under his watch in 2020 and 2021 even before the disastrous start to this year.
Of perhaps equal concern is that the Phillies' clubhouse culture under Girardi had become headline fodder. If it's looked like the team just isn't playing with much energy, that may be because that's actually the case.
“[Nick] Castellanos had a family member who said the same thing,” veteran starter Kyle Gibson said to Alex Coffey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Why does it not look like we’re having fun?”
To take things even one step further, the Phillies' Pythagorean record—which is based on their positive run differential—is a relatively respectable 26-25. That lends credence to the notion that they're a good team that's been held back by an ineffective manager.
But even if said manager is now out of the picture, to conclude that the Phillies are now free to be the good team that they truly are misses the mark. This team's problems extend well beyond its management, and the big ones aren't exactly cloaked in mystery.
A New Manager Isn't Fixing This Defense
Just how bad is the Phillies defense in 2022? Oh, about as bad as pretty much everyone expected it to be during spring training.
Granted, that cohort didn't include Girardi, who said in March that he expected the team's glovework to be "just fine." Most other people, though, looked at the Phillies and saw what was already a defensively challenged team whose biggest offseason additions were two notorious bat-first, glove-distant-second players: Kyle Schwarber and Castellanos.
Cut to now, and the Phillies defense has its (sorry about this) defenders. Howard Megdal of FiveThirtyEight, for example, made a decent case for why it might be "good enough."
Its rankings in key metrics, however, tend to disagree:
These don't scream "good enough." They don't even scream "really bad." They just scream.
If Girardi's firing is going to lead to any positive changes on the defensive front, perhaps the hopefully improved energy level would result in fewer plays like this one, in which the flatulence in Jeurys Familia's brain short-circuited his instincts to cover first base:
Trouble is, there's plenty of data that underscores how the major malfunctions in the Phillies defense aren't related to fundamentals.
With Schwarber and Castellanos playing on either side of center fielder Odubel Herrera, range is unsurprisingly a problem for the Phillies outfield. They also have a leaky infield, with only the Washington Nationals having allowed a higher batting average on ground balls.
Now, it is possible for a team to go from bad to good in the field throughout the course of the season. A recent example would be Cleveland in 2015, which went from having perhaps the worst defense in the league early in the year to one of the best by the end of it.
Alas, these Phillies don't have a Francisco Lindor to call up to play shortstop. And unlike Cleveland in '15, they also can't just ditch their outfield for a new one. Schwarber and Castellanos are simply too good in the batter's box to move to the pine, and Bryce Harper can't relieve either of them until the torn UCL in his right elbow heals to a point where he can throw the ball.
On the infield, one possible solution is more frequent infield shifts. Phillies infielders are shifted on only 34.8 percent of the pitches thrown by the team's hurlers, which ranks 16th in Major League Baseball.
Yet this is less of a manager problem and more of a challenge for the front office. It's also another place where the club's athleticism issue is visible. With a standard infield alignment, the Phillies are allowing the fourth-highest average on ground balls. When shifted, they're also allowing the fourth-highest average on ground balls.
What makes all this that much more painful is that this is a bad year to be struggling defensively. Strikeouts, walks and home runs are all down from 2021. That means more frequent balls in play, which means defensive deficiencies are that much harder to hide.
A New Manager (Probably) Isn't Fixing This Bullpen
The Phillies bullpen ranked dead-last in ERA in 2020. It then climbed to 25th in 2021 and has taken still another step forward in 2022. At 4.15, it currently has the 21st-best ERA in MLB.
The general sense of disappointment around the Phillies bullpen, however, is justified.
It's the one area of the team that got a thorough makeover during the winter, as only three of its nine members are holdovers from 2021. And one of those is Seranthony Dominguez, whose recovery from Tommy John surgery limited him to all of one appearance last year.
Complaints about Girardi's bullpen management weren't hard to spot if you spent more than a few seconds on social media during any given Phillies game or in a comment section under any Phillies-related article at any time. It's not easy to quantify how much merit they have, but Girardi's use of Corey Knebel is equal parts telling and damning.
He's ostensibly the team's closer, so it's hypothetically a good thing that he's tied for second in the league with 20 games finished. Yet he only has nine saves, which traces in part to how his usage is split nearly evenly between save situations (12) and non-save situations (10).
Other closers atop the games finished leaderboard simply haven't been used like that. To wit, here's how many batters they've faced in non-save situations all season:
- Jordan Romano, TOR (21 GF): 12
- Corey Knebel, PHI (20 GF): 39
- Taylor Rogers, SDP (20 GF): 10
- Edwin Diaz, NYM (19 GF): 26
- Liam Hendriks, CHW (19 GF): 20
Between this and Girardi's refusal to use relievers more than two days in a row, what should be Knebel's job has too often been outsourced to other pitchers. Apart from him, nine different Phillies have pitched in such situations.
Like with the defense, though, this is another facet of the game with which another manager would be challenged to do better.
There are more foundational problems at play in the Phillies bullpen, including the highest rate of walks per nine in the majors and the fourth-highest rate of hard contact. And apart from Dominguez and Brad Hand, nobody has done particularly well in high-leverage spots.
Put simply: Girardi's management wasn't good, but it's not his fault that even the Phillies' new-look bullpen still looks and performs like crud.
Where There Is Hope
As they're now in their fifth year of trying to contend after five years in rebuilding, we may not be far off from a conversation about whether said rebuild has failed and, by extension, whether the Phillies need to blow it up and start again from scratch.
It's not time to go there just yet, though.
Even if the NL East crown is likely out of reach, the Phillies can still look at the broader National League playoff picture and see a route to October through the newly expanded wild-card field. They could nab one of the NL's three wild cards if they so much as finish with the sixth-best record. That's only one spot better than where they finished last season.
As far as what's going to propel this team forward, its starting rotation and offense make for two obvious rocket boosters.
The former only has a 4.02 ERA, yet it ranks second in fWAR. The latter is going to miss Jean Segura while he's out 10 to 12 weeks with a broken finger, but not as much if Schwarber and Castellanos get their numbers closer in line to the aggregate .934 OPS that they had in 2021. Meanwhile, it's a comfort that Harper's elbow isn't keeping him from putting up numbers (i.e., a .943 OPS and 10 HR) worthy of last year's MVP-winning effort.
In the short run, the Phillies don't have a ton to lose by axing Girardi. In the long run, though, the front office might consider taking a lesson from last year's World Series champions.
When the trade deadline comes, don't just sit there. Do something.
Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski typically doesn't need to be goaded into making impact trades, but we'll suggest a few anyway. If the Boston Red Sox continue to lag behind in the AL East, Enrique Hernandez would look mighty good out in center field at Citizens Bank Park. Bullpen-wise, whoever can pry David Bednar from the Pittsburgh Pirates will be getting the league's most underrated closer.
It is, of course, a lot to ask of a team that it not only change its manager but also dramatically remake its roster in the middle of the season. But if the Phillies want to finally break from their cycle of mediocrity, nothing less will do.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.