John Middleton was in the Spectrum Field clubhouse down in Clearwater, Fla. watching Family Feud. The role of Richard Dawson and Steve Harvey, however, was being played live by Joe Girardi, the manager the Phillies hired in October to replace Gabe Kapler.
“You weren’t allowed to form your own team,” said Middleton, the most visible of the Phillies owners. “Joe and the coaches formed the teams for them. Best friends were not allowed on the same team. Joe wanted guys who didn’t know each other to get to know each other, so you’d have guys who weren’t on the 25-man roster with one of the top players. It was a team-building exercise. Guys were laughing and having a really good time.”
It was one of the many sides of Girardi that Middleton grew to love during the Phillies’ four-week stay in spring training before COVID-19 brought baseball and much of the country to an excruciating halt.
Middleton had arrived in Clearwater eager to see his new manager as well as pitching coach Bryan Price and hitting instructor Joe Dillon at work. He believed the Phillies had upgraded their roster for a second straight season by signing former New York Mets rival Zack Wheeler to a five-year deal worth $118 million and former New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius to a one-year deal worth $14 million. But he also thought that Girardi, Price, and Dillon were equally valuable additions.
“We added Didi and we added Zack, and they’re huge additions,” Middleton said. “But I think Joe and the coaches kind of account for another player factor in our offseason. I think all three are going to prove to be significant additions.”
It’s an interesting take on things because here in baseball’s analytics age, there are some observers who believe the role of the manager and his coaches has been stifled in favor of front-office decisions based on crunched numbers. That theory is supported by the declining salaries of managers.
Middleton, by his own assertion, is the driving force behind the Phillies’ deep dive into the analytics pool, but he also believes the manager and coaching staff still play a vital role, which ultimately is why he decided Kapler needed to be replaced.
“I think Matt, Andy, and I came to the conclusion independently that if we were going to make a change that what we wanted to do was add someone who had a clear winning pedigree,” Middleton said, referring to general manager Matt Klentak and team president Andy MacPhail. “I think obviously all three candidates we interviewed had that. It was a hard decision just because they all were so good.”
Girardi, however, had some advantages. He is 16 years younger than Dusty Baker and nine years younger than Buck Showalter. He is also more in tune with the analytics age.
“First of all, he’s a very smart guy,” Middleton said. “He’s an engineering major from Northwestern. That’s a very, very smart human being. Joe is a guy who understood numbers for the last 40 years of his life. He had the nickname “Binder Joe” in New York. He was kind of doing analytics before anybody else was doing analytics.”
And yet, that was not Middleton’s overwhelming attraction to his new manager. As much as the Phillies’ owner cares about the numbers, he is not so naïve to think that you can simply look at the numbers and proceed.
“It’s one thing to be able to run and have reams of data … to the point where things almost become silly with the level of detail,” Middleton said. “But you still have to look at the events of the moment.
“If you have 10,000 events to look at, what the analytics say to do might be the right answer on a vast majority of occasions, but on one particular night in one particular game they might be wrong, and what Joe has is the ability to know the analytics but also to bring in the judgment about what to do in the moment based on everything you know about the players.”
Middleton is convinced his new manager has a brilliant mind and the kind of engaging personality that made former Phillies manager Charlie Manuel a success.
“I think Joe has the ability to balance,” Middleton said. “I think he reads the players the way Charlie did and I know he can think analytically, but he brings his own judgment and experience into it and it allows him to make better decisions.
“The job of the manager is never going to be just about pushing buttons, and the best managers understand that. They know their players and they understand what is going on in their lives. In 2006 I asked [former Phillies general manager] Pat Gillick what he thought of Charlie and he looked at me and said, ‘John, Charlie is the best manager in the clubhouse I have ever seen in my life.’ That’s high praise coming from Pat Gillick. Charlie understood people and that’s what great managers do.”
Great managers also surround themselves with great people, and Middleton believes Girardi’s coaching choices will also pay dividends this season. He admits his admiration for Price as pitching coach was influenced by an endorsement from Gillick.
“I talked to Pat a lot and Pat had input into everything we were doing this offseason,” Middleton said.
“I talked to him about the managers and I talked to him about the coaches, and when it came to Bryan Price … Pat called and said I think Bryan is going to be available. I said, ‘I think he’s tied up with Baseball USA.’ Pat said, ‘I wouldn’t take that at face value. You ought to call him.’ I said, ‘You like this guy? Is that why you want me to call him?’ He kind of paused and then said, ‘You know John, there aren’t a lot of difference makers in this game – Bryan Price is a difference maker. I had him in Seattle and this is a guy who can make a difference.’ That’s a really good endorsement.”
Hitting instructor Joe Dillon’s endorsement came from Kevin Long, the Washington hitting instructor who worked under Girardi for seven years with the Yankees.
“I think if he would have been available [Girardi] would have went after him hard,” Middleton said. “But he also trusts [Long] a lot and he raved about Joe Dillon. He called him the best assistant hitting coach in the game and a guy who has really earned the right to be a hitting instructor. And when I talked to the hitters about Joe in spring training and about some of the drills they were using … they told me he was doing things they had never done before that made so much sense. They said he has really great ideas about pitch recognition.”
Middleton also was thrilled that the Phillies kept bench coach Rob Thomson, who had been a trusted lieutenant to Girardi with the Yankees.
How much difference can a good manager and coaching staff really make? We are about to find out, but Middleton thinks he already knows that answer.
“I certainly think the best managers with the same group of people win more games than less talented managers,” Middleton said. “I think if you asked anybody on that 2008 team if they would have won the World Series with a different manager than Charlie, I would be surprised if any of them would look at you and say, ‘Of course we would have. You could put anybody in that seat and we were just that good and playing that well and anybody could have managed us to victory.’ "