By Sam Bush
The Phillies are a veteran team with a veteran new manager, Joe Girardi.
They struggled down the stretch in each of the last two seasons under Gabe Kapler, finishing 80-82 in 2018 after leading the National League East as late as Aug. 12 and 81-81 in 2019.
General Manager Matt Klentak wanted to keep Kapler, but the owner, John Middleton, said he was concerned about the late-season collapses and wanted a more experienced leader.
Kapler, who now manages the San Francisco Giants, was in his first major-league managing job with the Phillies and relied heavily on modern metrics. The Phillies had been late to baseball’s data revolution, then seemed to embrace it too tightly. In Girardi, Middleton sees a better balance.
“We talked very intelligently about how analytics tells you what happens over a thousand or 10,000 events, but it doesn’t mean that on a Tuesday night in July in the bottom of the seventh inning — this player against this pitcher, with their thousands of data points — something’s not going on that should push you in another direction,” Middleton said.
“Because that decision on a Tuesday night in July, it’s about that particular moment, and what’s going on with that game and that player. Has he been hitting well, or is he scuffling? Has that pitcher been throwing lights-out for the last two weeks? That gets lost in the thousand data points of analytics, and you have to be smart enough to understand that.”
Middleton has authorized lucrative free-agent deals in each of the last three off-seasons, with outfielder Bryce Harper and starting pitchers Jake Arrieta and Zack Wheeler all averaging more than $23 million per season. The former Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius signed for one year and $14 million this winter, and left fielder Andrew McCutchen enters the second season of a three-year, $50 million deal.
McCutchen hopes to be ready by opening day after his debut season was cut short by a torn anterior cruciate ligament. His presence at the top of the order, with Harper, catcher J.T. Realmuto and infielder Jean Segura, could give Girardi a dynamic offense.
“Having a veteran leader who’s got some experience, a guy who’s won a World Series, it’s good to have that in this clubhouse,” McCutchen said. “When we get hit in the mouth, he knows what to do, he knows what to say, he knows how to assist us in getting us through it. Having Joe here is going to help us.”
A more reliable pitching staff could help even more, and for the Phillies to compete in a rugged N.L. East, Girardi must find better answers among the 38 pitchers in camp. Managing the bullpen was a strong suit for Girardi in New York, where he generally stuck to rules geared at keeping relievers healthy.
“It’s just nice to know that you’re not going to get exhausted throughout the season,” said Phillies reliever David Robertson, who played for Girardi in New York and hopes to return by midseason from Tommy John surgery last August. “You’re not going to get worn down to the point where you can’t pitch come October. That’s his thing: he wants everybody ready in October.”
The Phillies have not reached the postseason since 2011, their last year with a winning record. They have a new pitching coach (Bryan Price) and hitting coach (Joe Dillon) to go with Girardi, and Middleton’s directive is clear.
“If our players stay healthy and play up to their abilities, I think we’re going to be playing in October,” he said. “Last year we weren’t healthy and we had players, particularly in the second half, who weren’t playing up to their ability.”
Girardi won his World Series as a manager against the Phillies in 2009, an experience that gives him instant credibility in a demanding town. He is planning to live in the city and said he had noticed the way its pro teams support one another with an us-against-the-world kind of brotherhood.
“There’s an edge in Philadelphia that I like,” Girardi said. “I love when fans have an edge, because I think it keeps players accountable and it drives people.”
As for the edge the Astros used against his Yankees in 2017, Girardi refuses to feel like a victim. That would not help the Phillies, and that is his only concern.
“It’s always ‘what’s next’ as opposed to ‘what if?’” Girardi said. “How do I protect the signs our players have so it doesn’t happen to us here? That’s kind of my thought process: what’s next in life?”