Joe Girardi woke up early Friday, as usual. He was out before 8 a.m. There were errands to run. That was when he got the text message to drop by Citizens Bank Park.
He didn’t stay long.
The Phillies are a desperate team, and desperate teams tend to do extreme things. So, with a 22-29 record, a 12-game deficit in the National League East, and a decade-long playoff drought, they fired Girardi, their manager since the 2020 season, and replaced him on an interim basis with bench coach Rob Thomson.
Will it work? Who knows? In-season managerial changes rarely do. But Dave Dombrowski, who has complete autonomy on baseball personnel matters, felt something needed to be done to shock the Frankenstein’s monster of a roster that he created — with a club-record $238 million payroll, no less — back to life.
“I’m disappointed,” Dombrowski, the team’s president of baseball operations, said before the Phillies opened a three-game series with the Los Angeles Angels. “I put the club together. I think we’re better than we’ve played. But to me, the most important part is we’re going to turn this around. I think we still have the capability to do it. I think we need a different voice in the clubhouse.”
The move came as a surprise to several players, many of whom found out through a group text that informed them when to report to the ballpark for a 2:30 p.m. meeting with Thomson.
“There’s just not blame on Joe,” star slugger Bryce Harper said. “We haven’t played to the best of our ability. We haven’t done the things to be the team that we should be.”
Said right fielder Nick Castellanos: “It’s a big move. Unfortunately, it’s what happens when teams that are supposed to win don’t win. Sad things, like people lose their jobs.”
It marked the first time since 2015, when Ryne Sandberg stepped down after 74 games, that the Phillies changed managers in the middle of a season. They haven’t fired a manager midway through a season since Charlie Manuel in 2013. Dombrowski hasn’t done so since 2002, when he replaced Phil Garner after only six games with the Detroit Tigers.
The last team to fire its manager in midseason and rally to make the playoffs was the 2009 Colorado Rockies, who started 18-28 under Clint Hurdle and went 74-42 under Jim Tracy. The Phillies famously did it in 1983, when general manager Paul Owens took the reins from Pat Corrales and led the team to the pennant.
“Oh, I think we can make the playoffs,” Dombrowski said. “I think we’re in a position where we can battle back to do that. I do believe that. We’re going to have to play better.”
But the same flaws plagued the roster throughout Girardi’s tenure. Since he got hired, the Phillies rank last in baseball with 110 fewer defensive runs saved than average. The next-worst team is the Tigers, with 53 fewer defensive runs saved. The Phillies also had a 5.00 bullpen ERA under Girardi. Only the Rockies (5.38) are worse.
It’s little wonder Dombrowski said Girardi “was in a much more relieved state” by the time he left the ballpark Friday.
Because porous defense and a flammable bullpen are systemic Phillies issues, and unless they somehow improve, it’s difficult to see anything changing for Thomson, the 58-year-old longtime coach under Girardi who will get an overdue opportunity to manage.
“We’re not a strong defensive club,” Dombrowski said, a concession he has made for two years. “But we also can be a fundamentally good defensive club. There’s a difference. But I do think, too, that the one thing you constantly need to look at, we need to be a good hitting club. That’s how we’re put together.”
The Phillies hired Girardi over Buck Showalter and Dusty Baker after the 2019 season to replace the deposed Gabe Kapler. At the time, owner John Middleton hailed Girardi’s track record, including a World Series championship with the New York Yankees in 2009, and his reputation for blending old-school feel with the use of analytics and data.
But the Phillies went 28-32 under Girardi in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and 82-80 last season, missing the playoffs both times. Overall, he led them to a 132-141 record.
Expectations were ratcheted up this year after ownership decided to push the payroll beyond the $230 million luxury-tax threshold. But the Phillies haven’t won more than four games in a row or been more than two games above .500.
“I think there’s a number of reasons we didn’t win,” Girardi said in a scheduled weekly appearance on Sirius XM’s MLB Network Radio. “We gave too many extra outs that probably cost us four or five games, maybe even more. At times, our bullpen struggled. We had some guys that I think have much better stuff than the potential that they pitched to.
“And I think some guys got off to some slow starts offensively. And that happens, right? I think you can overcome sometimes one thing, maybe even two. But sometimes when it’s more than that, it can be somewhat difficult.”
After last season and again in spring training, Dombrowski said the Phillies would hold off on picking up the 2023 option on Girardi’s contract, preferring instead to reevaluate his status after the season. Last month, a high-ranking team official said Dombrowski hadn’t wavered from that stance.
Then the Phillies went 10-18 in May, including 2-5 on a recent road trip to Atlanta and New York. The heat may have been turned up on Girardi after a May 24 loss to the Braves, when he stuck to his policy of not using relievers on three consecutive days and sent Nick Nelson back out for the ninth inning rather than turning to closer Corey Knebel. The Phillies lost, 6-5, after Harper had given them a lead with a homer in the top of the ninth.
The Phillies returned home and lost Monday and Tuesday to the San Francisco Giants. Dombrowski said he didn’t consult players or coaches, but by Tuesday night, he informed Middleton that he was thinking of making a managerial change, a decision he reached a good night’s sleep Thursday and an hourlong jog Friday morning.
“John said basically, ‘It’s your decision. Whatever you feel you need to do I support you,’” Dombrowski said. “We haven’t played well for a while. In your own mind, you’re thinking [about] what makes you better for an extended period. Then when I looked at the schedule, OK, if we’re going to make a move, what timeframe makes sense?”
The Phillies just ended a stretch of 26 out of 31 games against contending teams, including the division-leading New York Mets, the powerhouse Los Angeles Dodgers, the San Diego Padres, and the reigning World Series champion Braves. The schedule softens considerably in June, with 13 consecutive games against Arizona, Miami, Washington, and Texas.
If the Phillies are going to make a move, now is the time. They’re desperate, and Girardi took the fall. Coaching assistant Bobby Meacham, a longtime Girardi confidante, also was let go. Quality assurance coach Mike Calitri will take over as bench coach.
“I can look back at this last week when we were 3-7, and I think realistically, we probably should have been 7-3,” Girardi said in his radio interview. “Well, that’s going to fall on me, because we weren’t, and I understand that. I just pray that they get better. And they get to the playoffs.”