Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

‘Philly Rob’ has made all the difference for the Phillies, and history shows it’s a remarkable feat

In-season managerial changes can (sometimes) work. The last interim manager to lead his team to the playoffs credits Rob Thomson with making the most of his chance.

Through Thursday, the Phillies were 51-29 under interim manager Rob Thomson.
Through Thursday, the Phillies were 51-29 under interim manager Rob Thomson.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

SAN FRANCISCO — Rob Thomson isn’t much of an interior decorator. The walls of his office in Citizens Bank Park are mostly bare. But there is one picture, framed and hanging up behind his desk, that captures the impact of the most extreme move the Phillies made this season.

It’s a team photo, taken on June 19 — Father’s Day — on a tarmac in Washington before a flight to Dallas. The players are decked out in designer suits and ties, more formal attire than usual, but a tribute to Thomson, who wears a suit on road trips as an homage to his late father. Everyone is smiling. Everyone seems happy.

» READ MORE: Phillies’ playoff push: Biggest questions, X-factor and what to expect from Bryce Harper

Sixteen days earlier, they were miserable. Amid a 22-29 start, the mood was tense, the season slipping away. So the Phillies fired Joe Girardi and elevated Thomson from bench coach to interim manager. Nobody knew if it would make a difference. Surely it couldn’t hurt.

It’s clear now that it has made all the difference.

Through Thursday, the Phillies were 51-29 under Thomson. They went from the fifth-worst record in the National League to the fifth-best and possession of the NL’s second wild-card spot. Thomson, 59, had a calming effect on the clubhouse. The players responded, with more than the suits-and-ties gesture and the “I Ride With Philly Rob” T-shirts that Bryce Harper and others began wearing this week.

“A little bit of the air got let out of the room there when Girardi was fired and Topper came in,” pitcher Kyle Gibson said. “He just reaffirmed his confidence in our club, and I think it was something that we needed to hear.”

Said star catcher J.T. Realmuto: “Thoms is great. He’s been around a long time. We’ve all had a lot of respect for him since the day he stepped foot in this clubhouse. He’s just a really easy guy to play for.”

Here’s the thing: It almost never happens like this.

» READ MORE: MLB preview: Phillies vs. Giants odds, prediction and picks

When president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski let Girardi go, he said the Phillies needed “a different voice,” the baseball executive equivalent of “it’s not you, it’s me.” And it usually isn’t the manager. Entering this year, 60 teams changed managers with at least 20 games left in a season since the dawn of the wild-card era in 1995. Only 11 finished with a winning record; only five made the playoffs, including the 1999 Houston Astros and 1996 Los Angeles Dodgers, both of whom made a switch because of a medical issue, not poor play.

If the Phillies and Blue Jays hold on to wild-card spots, they will be the first teams in 13 years to make the playoffs after an in-season managerial change. Thomson and Toronto interim manager John Schneider would join Jim Tracy (2009 Colorado Rockies), Phil Garner (2004 Astros), and Jack McKeon (2003 Florida Marlins) as the only managers in the last 27 years to take over a team for non-health reasons and steer it into the postseason.

» READ MORE: How dreaded September stacks up for the Phillies in their bid to snap their playoff drought

“For something like this to occur, you have to look around the clubhouse and say, ‘You know something, there’s some really good pieces in here that are capable of a little bit more than we’re currently seeing,’” Tracy said by phone from his home in Ohio. “Sometimes it works, and other times it just flatlines, if you will, and it’s no better.

“And then other times it ends up happening like it happened for us in 2009 and it’s happening for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2022.”

It just isn’t easy to see it coming.

‘I don’t know if we’re this bad’

Dombrowski sat beside Thomson at the changing-of-the-guard news conference on June 3 and made a declaration: “We’re going to turn this around.”

Prophetic? Maybe. But what else could he say with 111 games left to play?

Privately, Dombrowski must have felt a little like then-Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd when he sat in the living room of Tracy’s rented apartment in Denver on May 29, 2009, stated his intention of firing manager Clint Hurdle, and asked if Tracy wanted to take the reins.

» READ MORE: How Rob Thomson’s communication style has helped Phillies' 'day care' flourish

“The way Danny put it to me, he said, ‘I don’t know if we’re this bad. I don’t know if we’re capable of playing any better,’” Tracy recalled. “He said, ‘I’d just like to know what kind of team is this team that I put together.’”

The situations were strikingly similar. The 2009 Rockies were 18-28 heading into Memorial Day weekend; the 2022 Phillies were a season-worst seven games below .500 the Friday after Memorial Day. If either team was going to turn things around, it had to happen immediately. Could a managerial change be the defibrillator to revive the clubhouse?

Tracy wasn’t sure he even wanted the gig. Unlike Thomson, a longtime coach who hadn’t managed in the majors, Tracy helmed the Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates and craved another opportunity. But what if the Rockies couldn’t be helped? Would it be his last shot? He had also gotten close to Hurdle, who brought him on as the bench coach in the offseason. The whole thing made him “uneasy,” as he put it.

“How long do I have to think about this?” Tracy asked.

“You’ve got about 60 minutes — and not 61,” O’Dowd said. “I need a manager in the dugout tonight.”

Tracy talked it over with his wife. A few hours later, he was back in the Rockies’ clubhouse — out of respect for Hurdle, he didn’t use the manager’s office until the next homestand — addressing the players about taking over.

“I remember the conversation not being very long,” Tracy said. “There was no rah-rah speech or anything like that. Because the players are sitting there and they’re going to take measure of you in those first few games and feel you out and say, ‘What’s this guy all about?’ My message to them was, ‘I’m asking that you give me a chance.’”

» READ MORE: Revisiting the only other time Rob Thomson was a manager — with the 1995 Oneonta Yankees

The Rockies won two out of three at home against the San Diego Padres, dropped three straight in Houston to open a road trip, then ripped off 11 wins in a row and 17 out of 18.

O’Dowd had his answer. The Rockies were good.

“What’s interesting,” Tracy said, “is there are similarities to what Robby inherited and the veteran players I had back in 2009. With Bryce, Rhys Hoskins, Kyle Schwarber, [Nick] Castellanos, J.T. Realmuto, those are some very, very solid veteran-type players.”

A superstar core led the Rockies back to contention. Troy Tulowitzki bashed 32 homers and finished fifth in the MVP balloting; Todd Helton was fourth in the batting race with a .325 average; Brad Hawpe hit 23 homers and was an All-Star.

But Tracy pointed to two factors in the Rockies’ rise: the emergence of several young players and the improvement of the bullpen.

Sound familiar?

What a relief

Nothing raises a manager’s blood pressure or kills the morale of a clubhouse quite like bullpen meltdowns, which occurred regularly for the Phillies under Girardi. His fate may have been sealed May 24, when Nick Nelson was left to blow a one-run lead in the ninth inning in Atlanta because closer Corey Knebel had worked the previous two days and other late-inning options were unavailable.

Thomson deflects credit for the Phillies’ turnaround by dishing it out to players and staff. The bullpen is a frequent recipient. And while he rightly gives kudos to the relievers’ performances, his deployment of them based on matchups rather than by assigning specific innings has been a change for the better, too.

Tracy remembers adjustments to bullpen usage playing a similar part in the 2009 Rockies’ revival.

» READ MORE: As Rob Thomson makes Canadian baseball history, his roots are firmly in his home country

“There was somewhat of a restructuring of the bullpen to take the people that were down there and match them up in situations that made the most sense for their abilities in relation to who the opposition was running up there to hit,” Tracy said. “It was their strengths against this group of hitters.”

O’Dowd also reinforced the roster with deadline trades for relievers Rafael Betancourt and Joe Beimel and the August addition of slugger Jason Giambi, just as Dombrowski dealt for infielder Edmundo Sosa, center fielder Brandon Marsh, reliever David Robertson, and starter Noah Syndergaard.

And Tracy trusted the Rockies’ young players, empowering them to be positive contributors. He stuck with Carlos Gonzalez through early struggles, and the 23-year-old left fielder slashed .320/.384/.608 with 12 homers after the All-Star break. Third baseman Ian Stewart hit 18 of his 25 homers after Memorial Day; rookie center fielder Dexter Fowler had an .822 OPS after July 1.

The Phillies have witnessed similar growth from third baseman Alec Bohm and rookie shortstop Bryson Stott. Darick Hall got called up from triple A to play against primarily right-handed pitchers, a situation in which he could thrive. Harper and other veterans credit Thomson’s patience and low-key demeanor with taking pressure off the young players.

“I felt it was my job to give my players, especially a young player, the best chance to succeed by matching up their abilities in a situation that, if they fail, nobody’s going to look around and say, ‘I wonder why that guy was involved in that scenario there,’” Tracy said. “I took pride in that, and the players, they felt like they were being given the chance to individually succeed.”

» READ MORE: How Rob Thomson’s unconventional strategy has helped turn around the Phillies’ bullpen

Add it up, and Colorado went 74-42 under Tracy and claimed a wild-card spot before losing to the Phillies in the divisional round. After the Rockies lifted the interim tag from Tracy’s title, they went 83-79 and missed the playoffs in 2010.

But the 2009 Rockies have stood for 13 years as a reminder that managerial changes do work. Occasionally.

“I have a hell of a lot of respect for Rob Thomson because I’m very appreciative of the way that he has gone about his career,” Tracy said. “This was not a situation for him like, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do?’ No, he was ready for this opportunity when it came about. He’s got a calm about him. He’s got his way of doing things. And look at the results he’s gotten.”

» READ MORE: Phillies add pitcher Vinny Nittoli and catcher Donny Sands for September roster expansion