A little more than two months ago the Philadelphia Phillies were at a crossroads. The Phillies have the National League's longest postseason drought and they entered June with a 21-29 record. They were six games behind the third and final wild-card spot with five teams ahead of them in the standings. An 11th straight postseason-less season looked like a real possibility.
So, on June 2, St. Louis Cardinals replaced Mike Matheny with Mike Shildt in July 2018. The Phillies went 132-141 (.484) in parts of three seasons under Girardi, one of which was cut short by the pandemic. Bench coach Rob Thomson was named interim manager.. It was the first in-season managerial change since the
"It has been a frustrating season for us up until this point, as we feel that our club has not played up to its capabilities,". "While all of us share the responsibility for the shortcomings, I felt that a change was needed and that a new voice in the clubhouse would give us the best chance to turn things around. I believe we have a talented group that can get back on track, and I am confident that Rob, with his experience and familiarity with our club, is the right man to lead us going forward."
Girardi's intensity can wear on a team and it appears Thomson, who was on Girardi's coaching staff with the New York Yankees all those years, has reenergized the clubhouse. The Phillies were 22-29 with a plus-1 run differential under Girardi. Under Thomson, they are 42-22 with a nice plus-69 run differential. Here are the top of the MLB standings since the Phillies fired Girardi:
- Los Angeles Dodgers: 46-17
- Atlanta Braves: 46-19 (1 GB)
- Philadelphia Phillies: 41-22 (5 GB)
- Houston Astros: 42-23 (5 GB)
- New York Mets: 40-23 (6 GB)
"I feel like for the most part we are a different team right now," outfielder Matt Vierling told MLB.com this past weekend. "We're jelling together a lot better and we're starting to come into our own as a team."
Most impressively, the Phillies have made this huge turnaround mostly without reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper, who has not played since an errant pitch broke his thumb on June 25. That was Thomson's 22nd game as interim manager. Harper had the pins removed from his thumb on Aug. 1 and the hope is he can resume hitting soon, and rejoin the lineup sometime in September.
Two other teams have fired their managers since the Phillies replaced Girardi -- the Los Angeles Angels replaced Joe Maddon with Phil Nevin, and the Toronto Blue Jays replaced Charlie Montoyo with John Schneider -- and neither has experienced the same kind of immediate turnaround as the Phillies. Thomson has helped, surely, but there's more to this than a new manager.
Here are five reasons other than Thomson the Phillies have turned their season around and are currently sitting in a wild-card spot.
1. The defense has improved
I still wouldn't say Philadelphia's defense is good, but it is improved. Earlier this season the team defense was a total disaster, making costly mistakes (plural) seemingly every night. It's hard enough to win in this game. It's even harder when you have to beat the other team and overcome your own sloppy play. The Phillies have cut down on that sloppy play a bit. Some numbers:
- With Girardi: .693 defensive efficiency
- Post-Girardi: .721 defensive efficiency
Defensive efficiency is imperfect, though it works as a quick and dirty measure of team defense. Those numbers tells us the Phillies converted only 69.3 percent of balls in play into outs during the Girardi era. Since then, the number is 72.1 percent, which is a substantial improvement. The league average is 69.9 percent.
"I'm not surprised at all," third baseman Alec Bohm told the Philadelphia Inquirer about the team's defensive improvement. "I think the whole time the guys knew we could do it, right? But collectively, as a team, we weren't where we wanted to be. Knowing that we weren't that great, it was a mentality thing. And when you get punched in the mouth, you want to punch back."
There are tangible reasons to buy into the defensive improvement too. Bryson Stott has replaced Didi Gregorius at shortstop and Brandon Marsh has replaced Vierling in center field. Also, there are better defenders on the bench now too (Vierling over Odúbel Herrera, plus Nick Maton and Edmundo Sosa). Most notably, Bohm has gone from being arguably the worst defensive player in baseball to playable. Not great, mind you, but playable.
The Athletic recently detailed Bohm's defensive improvements, which were made possible by some tough love from infield coach Bobby Dickerson:
"Maybe you're not a major-league third baseman," Dickerson said to Bohm. "The bottom line is, as long as you stress about it, then we will never know. Right? As long as you put your work in, and you present yourself the best opportunity to stay here and play here, then you can go home and live with it no matter what happens."
"There's a big risk, right?" Dickerson said. "But, for myself, it was perfect timing. He's at a point where his career could be ending as a third baseman. It's a perfect risk, right? A lot of times as a coach, you don't want to get the best player because all you can do is mess him up. When you have a guy that's trying to find his way, there's nothing but opportunity. He felt my passion. I think I have a way of getting on him and all my players. But there's no condescension because I know this game is very, very hard. I never take that lightly."
"As professional athletes, we are all wired a little bit differently," Bohm said. "So when you get challenged like that, I'm sure for some people, it brings out the better in them. Some people go into a shell. But I think the way he challenged me, it brought more out of me."
Bohm made seven errors in 43 games at third base under Girardi,. In 52 games at third since Girardi was fired, he's made only two errors. Errors aren't the be-all, end-all, but in Bohm's case so much of his defensive trouble was tied up in botching routine plays. Cutting down on errors is significant. The routine plays have become much more routine now.
Bad defense alone isn't enough to sink a season but it can hurt teams in many ways. Fewer outs are made, forcing pitchers to throw more pitches, and more pitches means the bullpen becomes a larger factor. On and on it goes. Again, Philadelphia's defense still isn't good -- Marsh has a lot of ground to cover between Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos -- but it is improved, and it has led to a few more wins in the standings.
2. Domínguez and Robertson have steadied the late innings
For the first time since the days of Jonathan Papelbon and Ken Giles, the Phillies have two legitimate closer-caliber relievers in the bullpen: Seranthony Domínguez and David Robertson. Dominguez is in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery and he has been electric, throwing 42 1/3 innings with 51 strikeouts and a 1.49 ERA.
To date 126 relievers have thrown at least 40 innings this season. Among those 126 pitchers Domínguez ranks:
- 10th in ERA (1.49)
- 8th in WHIP (0.87)
- 20th in strikeout rate (31.7 percent)
- 35th in swinging strike rate (14.2 percent)
- 16th in average fastball velocity (97.4 mph)
Domínguez has legitimately been one of the 10-15 best relievers in baseball this season, and although he gets save opportunities more often than not these days, Thomson has not married him to the ninth inning. Domínguez is in play as early as the seventh inning depending on the matchups (i.e. he faces the other team's best hitters), and he's excelled as a fireman.
Robertson came over at the trade deadline (he's thrown only four innings with the Phillies) and is the perfect modern reliever. He's effective against righties and lefties, he still misses a ton of bats, he can pitch in any inning and in any role, and he's passed every big market/postseason pressure test you could throw at a player. Robertson is the ideal 1B to Domínguez's 1A.
"It's a little different, but it's an adjustment that I've had to make over the years with the way that managers manage games," Robertson told the Philadelphia Inquirer about pitching in different roles. "It's a lot like 2017, going back to New York and I was not the closer and kind of mixed in in all different spots and tried to contribute any way I could. This is a very similar situation."
The rest of the bullpen deserves props too. Domínguez has done most of the heavy lifting this season and Robertson has already taken on some high-leverage responsibilities, but other relievers have stepped up their game too. Hard-throwing José Alvarado has looked untouchable at times and Connor Brogdon's recent return has helped as well. The bullpen numbers:
4.15 (21st in MLB)
Strikeout rate (K%)
Walk rate (BB%)
Home run rate (HR/9)
Win probability added
"Shutdowns" and "meltdowns" are a neat little win probability metric. Shutdowns are relief appearances that improve the team's win probability at least six percent, and meltdowns are the opposite. They're relief appearances that decrease the team's win probability at least six percent. Under Girardi, the Phillies had 33 shutdowns (third fewest) and 32 meltdowns (fifth most). Since Girardi was fired, it's 57 shutdowns (16th most) and 28 meltdowns (fifth fewest). The bullpen has been better from top to bottom.
"We've got a good club and our bullpen has really performed," Thomson told the Philadelphia Inquirer last week. "That was one of the things that we didn't have in the past. We had a lot of letdowns because of our bullpen. But our bullpen has been really good, and it has been really good for a while now. I have confidence in that. We're winning games at the end of games that in the last four years we've lost. When you have a bullpen that's performing the way ours is, you always feel like you're either going to win the game or get back in the game."
3. Realmuto has caught fire
It is not uncommon for catchers, particularly catchers with big career workloads, to begin to decline around ages 30-31, and earlier this year it looked like the 31-year-old JT Realmuto had begun to decline. Most notably, Realmuto wasn't hitting the ball nearly as hard as in the past, which is a common symptom of a slowing bat. He wasn't bad, but he wasn't a difference-maker either.
Whatever the reason for the slow start, Realmuto has caught fire lately, authoring a .302/.356/.613 batting line since July 1 with eight home runs and a 92.5-mph average exit velocity, which is quite a bit above his career 89.1-mph rate. Prior to July 1, Realmuto hit .239/.317/.360 with five homers and an 87.7-mph average exit velocity.
"Nothing necessarily clicked, I just got back to what I'd done well in the past," Realmuto told MLB.com last week. "I went back to the drawing board and really just trusted my approach that's worked for me, really, since I've been in the big leagues."
Realmuto still contributed defensively earlier this season, but the Phillies signed him to a five-year contract worth $115.5 million last year so he could impact the game both at the plate and behind it, and it wasn't happening earlier this year. It took a little longer for Realmuto to get going -- perhaps the shortened spring training is to blame? -- but now he's rolling, and putting up big offensive numbers in addition to his typically stellar work behind the plate.
4. Stott is beginning to settle in
One of the biggest knocks against Girardi -- this dates back to his time as Yankees manager -- is he doesn't always trust rookies, and often defers to veterans.and he made the Opening Day roster, though he started only 22 of the team's first 51 games, and was sent back to Triple-A for a 12-day stint. Once Girardi was let go, Thomson put Stott in the everyday lineup and he's stayed there, starting 56 of the team's last 63 games.
"He just needs to play," Harper told NBC Sports Philadelphia after Stott hit a walk-off homer in Thomson's third game as manager. "From high school to college to minor-league baseball to now, he's used to playing every day and that's what we've got to do for our young guys. They've got to play. If you want your young guys to have success, they have to play every day. And when they have those opportunities, I think they're going to take full advantage of that, whether that's Bryson or Maton or anybody else. We need our young guys to come in each day and be ready to play and know we have the faith in them to go out there and do their job."
Stott's .219/.281/.337 season batting line is objectively terrible. However, he hit .143/.195/.169 as a spare part under Girardi and is hitting .248/.312/.401 as a full-time player under Thomson, including .300/.340/.470 in his last 27 games. And in those 27 games Stott was struck out only 11 times in 99 plate appearances. This is extremely encouraging:
Gregorius was having a miserable season, he was legitimately one of the worst players in baseball before being released earlier this month, and Stott has proven to be a significant upgrade on both sides of the ball. He's provided athleticism and energy, better defense, and his at-bats are improving as well. Stott's ceiling isn't sky high -- he's regarded as a future very good regular more than a future star -- but he's already solid, and letting him play is paying dividends.
5. They've taken advantage of a favorable schedule
You can only play the schedule you're given and the Phillies have enjoyed a favorable schedule in the post-Girardi era. They have played 36 of their 63 post-Girardi games (57 percent) against the Angels, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Marlins, Nationals, Pirates, and Rangers. Those seven teams have a combined .417 winning percentage, which is a 68-win pace in a 162-game season.
And in those 36 games, Philadelphia is 26-10. They are an acceptable 15-12 against all other teams post-Girardi (mostly the Braves, Cardinals, Dodgers, and Mets). Beating up on bad teams and holding your own against good teams is a tried and true formula to get to the postseason, and I reckon that will only be more true now, in the 12-team postseason field era. The favorable schedule is not the reason the Phillies have turned their season around, but it hasn't hurt.
The Phillies enter Monday 11 1/2 games behind the Mets in the NL East and six games behind the Braves for the top wild-card spot. They're 1 1/2 games up on a wild-card spot in general and SportsLine puts their postseason odds at 82.9 percent. FanGraphs is a bit south of that at 74.3 percent. They still have 48 games to play, but Philadelphia has put itself in position to return to the postseason for the first time since 2011.
Realistically, the Phillies are not going to catch the Mets in the NL East. The focus should be on catching the Braves for the top wild-card spot, and thus home-field advantage throughout the Wild Card Series. The Phillies and Braves still have two series (seven games) remaining and those series are now meaningful because Philadelphia has turned its season around. The defense and bullpen are better, Realmuto is back on track, and Stott is breaking out. Plus the clubhouse vibes seem to be better as well.