Go ahead and blame Joe Girardi for the Phillies’ disappointing start. But Girardi’s bosses aren’t. Not yet, at least, and probably not until the end of the season.
It’s the nature of the managerial fishbowl that sirens begin to sound, never louder than on social media and talk radio, when a team’s performance doesn’t align with expectations. But president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said in spring training that he would decide on Girardi’s 2023 option after the season, and it appears nothing has changed.
Dombrowski, who has complete autonomy from ownership on baseball-related matters, doesn’t do public assessments of the manager, be it votes of confidence or otherwise. Never has. And the Phillies did turn up Girardi’s seat-heater last winter by choosing to hold off on picking up the option.
But paving Girardi’s path to the guillotine hasn’t come up in the halls of 1 Citizens Bank Way, according to multiple high-ranking sources, and almost certainly won’t during the season.
“It’s not Joe’s fault that we’ve been shut out or scored one run seven times,” said Dombrowski, who hasn’t fired a manager in midseason since 2002 with the Detroit Tigers. “We’re a club that, he’s been in charge as far as handling situations. We’re prepared to play. We go out there on a day-in, day-out basis. We battle. I know Joe’s disappointed with our record. We’re all disappointed.”
Dombrowski is nevertheless projecting calm. It’s too soon, he said, to draw sweeping conclusions about the roster. He’s right. Twenty-six games represent 16% of a major-league season, roughly equivalent to the fourth quarter of Week 3 in an NFL schedule. There’s a long way to go.
But there’s also no denying a month’s worth of underachievement. Two months ago, Dombrowski stepped into John Middleton’s Florida office and said he could build a super-offense that would literally smash a decadelong playoff drought if the owner would push the payroll beyond the luxury-tax threshold. And through 26 games, all Middleton had to show for his $240 million were a .726 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and 11 stinkin’ wins.
“We just haven’t played very well overall,” Dombrowski said by phone Friday, still feeling the sting from the previous night’s seven-run ninth-inning meltdown against the New York Mets. “I’m not at all pleased with what our record is. It’s been a challenge for us. But I also think we have the capabilities and abilities to play much better and win a bunch of games.
“I think we’re better than this.”
Proving it is another matter. The Phillies don’t get the benefit of anyone’s doubts around here. Not with one winning season since 2011 or a 202-208 record since they plunked down $330 million for Bryce Harper and said the rebuilding was over.
Although Dombrowski usually travels with the team, he’s skipping this week’s West Coast trip to check in on a few minor-league affiliates, as he often does in May. As dismaying as the Phillies’ start has been, it hardly seems to be activating the Defcon meter.
But they were already seven games behind the Mets entering the weekend. And with 24 of the next 31 games against teams with winning records (the Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Angels, and Milwaukee Brewers) and four games against the World Series champion Atlanta Braves, the alarms may sound soon enough.
For now, Dombrowski’s focus is on unleashing the full force of his pricy lineup of hitters.
After adding Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber to Harper, J.T. Realmuto, and Rhys Hoskins, it seemed the Phillies built an offense that would threaten the franchise’s single-season home run mark. Instead, they got no-hit April 29 in New York, shut out three times in April, and held to fewer than two runs in seven games.
“I think sometimes they try to do too much, which is not unusual early in the season before you get into the flow,” Dombrowski said. “Rather than just kind of, ‘OK, get my base hit and drive in a run,’ sometimes they try to hit the three-run homer. I just don’t think we’ve reached our stride by any means.”
Here’s the thing: Entering the weekend, the Phillies ranked second in the league in OPS, third in slugging (.409) and total bases (350), fourth in homers (28), and even fifth in runs (118).
And still, they were producing at a fraction of what was expected.
Offense is down all across baseball. Like many of his players, Dombrowski is inclined to blame the chilly spring weather. The ball doesn’t tend to fly as far in April and May as it does on those humid nights in July and August.
But Major League Baseball also made changes to the actual balls this season that are designed to cause them to not carry as far in any weather. Dombrowski allowed for the possibility of that being the case but also said he “can’t draw that summation at the end of April.”
Is he concerned that, if homers are being suppressed, this may not have been the year to build a team around slugging?
“No,” Dombrowski said. “I’m not concerned about that for the simple fact that we have guys that can hit home runs, but we’re a club built on having good hitters, and good hitters hit the ball in the gaps. I’m a person, I’ve said this for 25 years, I’d much rather lead the league in doubles than I would home runs.”
Through Friday, the Phillies were third in the NL with 47 doubles. That, along with their league-leading hard-hit rate (43.7%, according to Statcast), has Dombrowski optimistic.
“You take the home runs, by all means, and love to have them,” he said. “But usually if you lead the league in doubles, that means you’re keeping the right approach because you’re using the whole field. That’s what we preach. That’s what [hitting coach] Kevin Long preaches.
“We hit the ball harder than almost any club in baseball. If you hit the ball hard enough, you’re in a position where eventually, if you keep doing it, they eventually fall in. It’s how it usually goes. Over a 162-game season, I think we have a good club and we’ll play much better. But we just haven’t done that right now.”
There’s urgency to start doing so. Patience is in short supply.