The more that I go through life, the more that I think that its fundamental animating force is a desire for control. Evolution has programmed each of us with a need to feel some sense of mastery over our environments. The more things feel outside of our control, the more paralyzed we feel. In the absence of obvious solutions, we often invent devices that allow us to believe that self-determination is closer than it seems. This is the plight of Phillies fans. This is why we blame the manager.
If an alien landed in the Delaware Valley and turned on the radio, and waded through the comments, and scrolled through the social media accounts, he/she/it would emerge on the other side as an alien who, 1) Badly needed therapy, and, 2) Was convinced that some fellow named Joe Girardi was responsible for a considerable amount of the local baseball team’s misfortunes.
Last week, Girardi was the one who turned a win into a tie when he tried to get four-out save from a guy who walks or hits one out of every four batters he faces, and then tried to rescue himself with a guy whose fastball exists in name only. On June 30, Girardi was the one who left Aaron Nola in too long, and then tried to save himself by inserting a guy whose only other major-league appearance since 2017 had come two days earlier, when he’d allowed three of the six batters he faced to score. All of this followed a week that had served as an infinite blooper reel of Girardi’s penchant for putting the wrong guy in the game. Between June 23-26, five different Phillies relievers blew saves on Girardi’s watch, resulting in three Phillies losses in a five-game stretch.
Now, if this alien possessed a basic understanding of mathematics, it might begin to wonder whether any of this mayhem was really the manager’s fault at all. If five of a team’s nine available relievers ended up blowing saves, and three of the ones who didn’t were guys with ERAs of 7.04, 5.60, and 5.17, the alien might conclude that the manager’s only feasible option is to run Connor Brogdon out there three times a game and 500 times per season. The alien would then review the rules of baseball and begin to short-circuit. Beep, bop, beep, bop. Nanu, nanu. Does not compute.
Reality is, if our alien was an actual intelligent life form, it would quickly reach the conclusion that we humans are something less than that. He’d be wrong, of course. We’re smart. We’re just so smart that we are capable of tricking ourselves into thinking that solutions exist for problems like the 2021 Phillies.
It’s funny. We’re at the stage of the season when we’re supposed to ask ourselves whether the Phillies should be buyers or sellers. But any suggestion that they should be sellers is a suggestion that they have goods that people want to buy. For the ninth straight season, we’re left to wrestle with the reality that the Phillies simply are not a good baseball team, and that they have little hope of positioning themselves as something more than that. That’s true in the short term. It’s true in the long term, and it’s true no matter who the manager happens to be.
None of this is meant as a defense of Girardi as much as it is a condemnation of the notion that any major-league manager can have a material impact on a team’s fortunes that exceeds the talent at his disposal. Managers matter at the margins, no doubt. Bruce Bochy mattered in the 2010 National League Championship Series. Charlie Manuel mattered throughout the 2008-11 regular seasons. Managers can make a good team great. They can make a bad team abysmal. They can win a series that might otherwise be lost. But they can’t do any of the things that people are expecting of Girardi. They can’t rescue a team that has a designated hitter at first base, and a first baseman at third base, and five center fielders who can’t hit. They can’t rescue a bullpen that is more than a few tubs of Sticky Stuff short of full shed.
This isn’t a column about Girardi as much as it is about the guys who came before him. Manuel. Ryne Sandberg. Gabe Kapler. Kapler, especially, should offer a strong rebuke to anybody who has convinced themselves that the manager has played a significant role in the Phillies’ ineptitude.
Back in 2019, Kapler was a guy who most believed had more in common with our hypothetical alien than a competent major-league manager. He was a self-help huckster masquerading as a leader. He was reinventing a wheel that was round for a reason. He was exhibit A in the case against Matt Klentak, general manager.
Three years later, Kapler is the manager of a team that entered Wednesday with the best record in baseball. At 53-32, the Giants have the third-best bullpen in the National League. They have a lineup full of aging veterans that is averaging 4.9 runs per game. They are where the Phillies thought they’d never be as long as Kapler was in charge.
There isn’t much more that needs to be said. The Phillies’ problems preexisted Kapler. They’re the same problems that Girardi is now struggling to win with. An ill-fitting lineup. A patched-together bullpen. A farm system that continues to suffer from a generation of neglect.
“I went into Philly understanding there were some great baseball people who had started building a foundation, and I was confident I could contribute to make it better,” Kapler told The Inquirer’s Scott Lauber in an April interview. “I think we took good steps towards the vision many of us had when I came in. But it wasn’t enough. We just didn’t win enough. It was disappointing to not be able to see it through, but that’s part of baseball. There isn’t always a direct line for a rebuild, and bumps along the way are inevitable.”
Eight years ago, the Phillies fired Manuel, and they got worse. Sandberg walked away, and they got worse. They spent a bunch of money, fired Pete Mackanin, and things got better, but not nearly good enough. Now, things are what they have been for four straight seasons, through two managers. The issues are the same. So are the solutions: nonexistent.