Is Joe Girardi the Problem?

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Phillies fans are justifiably upset about the team’s middling first month of the season, and many are asking: is Joe Girardi the problem? The offense has been very hot and cold, and it’s taken the rotation longer than expected to get on track. The bullpen has been its usual self, making the late innings much more exciting than fans would like. However, one issue that people keep bringing up is the manager.

The Phillies have had a hard time finding a good clubhouse leader since the end of the Charlie Manuel era. After Manuel’s firing in 2013 the team transitioned to Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg, and things didn’t go too well. After Sandberg rage quit in mid-2015, baseball lifer Pete Mackanin was thrust into the role, and held the reins through the end of the 2017 campaign. While Mackanin did yeoman’s work with a woefully inept squad, General Manager Matt Klentak decided it was time for a change in 2018, hiring the analytically-minded Gabe Kapler. Kapler’s tenure is where things really start to get interesting, as the early-40’s hunk was supposed to usher in a new era of Phillies baseball.

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A World Series champion outfielder, Kapler’s post-playing career was quite impressive, as he shot up through the ranks of the Dodgers’ front office, rising to the role of Director of Player Development. He also had coached for Team Israel in the 2013 World Baseball Classic qualifiers, giving him a bit of dugout experience. Still, the 42-year-old was a completely untested skipper. 2018 was a rocky trial run, as Kapler and the Phils ultimately went 80-82. However, 2019 was supposed to be the big year, as the franchise reeled in Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto over the offseason. Once again, the team was unnervingly mediocre, finishing one game better at 81-81. The city blamed Kapler for the team’s struggles. Some said he was too inexperienced. Others claimed he was too soft. Some even believed that he cared more about his own looks than the team’s success. In the eyes of Phillies fans, the culture needed to be changed. Enter Joe Girardi.

Girardi is an old-school baseball man through and through. He’s a 15-year big league veteran who made a living by being a tough-as-nails catcher. He may not have been an outstanding hitter, but he could call a great game and handle a pitching staff. A three-time world champion with the Yankees, Girardi transitioned into the coaching ranks after retiring in 2003, and took the helm of the then-Florida Marlins in 2006. After getting his feet wet for a year in Florida, Girardi was hired to pilot the Bronx Bombers in 2008, and found himself on top of the world the next year, beating our beloved Phillies in the 2009 fall classic. Girardi’s Yanks would ultimately put up a 910-710 record under his tutelage, never finishing with a losing record. However, Girardi’s bulldog attitude began to wear on New Yorkers after a while, and he was shown the door after the 2017 season in favor of mild-mannered Aaron Boone

It’s this same piss and vinegar disposition that made Philadelphians think that Girardi was the man for the job. If Gabe Kapler was too soft, then Joe Girardi must be the answer. Unfortunately, it looks like they have yet to find their middle bowl of porridge. In his first season at the helm, Girardi led the Phils to a 28-32 finish in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, just missing out on one of the expanded playoff spots. His first full campaign in 2021 was more of the same, as the team finished 82-80, despite Bryce Harper taking home an MVP Award and Zack Wheeler finishing second in NL Cy Young voting.

Phillies ownership made a statement this past winter by bringing in marquee free agents Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos. The message was clear: now is the time to win. With an upgraded offense and an overhauled bullpen, the Phillies looked poised to have a very strong 2022 season, and they still very well could. But, they’ve struggled out of the gates. As of today the team sits at third place in the NL East with an 11-13 record. The offense has been incredibly volatile, and the pitching staff has been prone to a few too many blow ups. However, it’s early and there’s still plenty of time to turn it around. No one’s giving up on Kyle Schwarber or Jean Segura after a rough first month. But, many people are calling for Joe Girardi’s head.

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Girardi has been making some strange choices of late. In fact, he looks very much like a manager who’s desperate to hang onto his job. After spending the entirety of spring training raving about how Kyle Schwarber is the team’s ideal leadoff hitter, Girardi moved him down to the six hole after two weeks. And now, a month into the season, Schwarber is back at the top of the order. Young third baseman Alec Bohm has been in and out of the starting lineup, as Girardi has been giving loads of playing time to veteran backup Johan Camargo. Camargo has performed admirably to start the year, but the bigger question lies with Bohm. How is a 25-year-old former top prospect supposed to develop if he can’t get regular playing time? The same goes for Bryson Stott, the heralded shortstop prospect who made the club’s Opening Day roster after tearing the cover off the ball in March, only to see himself ride the bench after his first week in the big leagues. Admittedly, Stott did look a bit overmatched at the plate, but the larger concern is that the 24-year-old was only given nine games to prove his worth before finding himself in the manager’s doghouse. Stott has since been optioned to Triple-A, where he’ll benefit from regular playing time, but there still remains a feeling that he was judged too quickly at the major league level.

All of these issues are real concerns, and Joe Girardi should be taken to task for them. But there was one thing that flew under the radar during last night’s loss to the Rangers that really made me stop and think if Joe Girardi is the right man for the job. Heading into the bottom of the ninth the Phillies found themselves down 6-4. As all baseball fans know, a bloop and a blast ties the game. The Phils have the eight, nine and one spots in the order coming to the plate against Rangers closer Joe Barlow. Roman Quinn popped out on a bunt attempt to begin the inning. Then, for the second plate appearance, Odúbel Herrera pinch hit for Matt Vierling, striking out. The game ended on a flyout to center field by Kyle Schwarber. 

Did you catch it? It was subtle, but important. Girardi had one decent left-handed hitter to use off the bench in Herrera, and he had two outfielders that were candidates to be pinch hit for. Girardi decided to substitute Herrera for Vierling. This sums up all of the qualms I have with Joe Girardi and his managerial style. Matt Vierling is a relatively unknown quantity. The 25-year-old rookie burst onto the scene last year, slashing .324/.364/.479 over 77 plate appearances. He’s struggled mightily over his first 20 games this year, batting .190/.271/.238 across 48 trips to the plate. Is Vierling the .300 hitter we saw in 2021, or the sub-Mendoza Line guy from 2022? The real answer probably lies somewhere in between as he posted averages of .321, .232 and .276 in his three minor league campaigns. I don’t know how good Matt Vierling truly is, and I don’t think anyone knows that answer. But the important thing is that there’s a question there. Given a fair shot this season Vierling could turn things around and be a net positive at the plate for the Phillies. Here’s where this comes back to Girardi: Roman Quinn is a bad hitter.

Roman Quinn can be a useful baseball player. He’s a marvelous defender in center field with blazing speed. Those attributes have allowed him to hang around on the Phillies’ roster for the past few years. One facet of the game that Quinn definitively does not excel at is hitting. The soon-to-be 29-year-old has put up a .229/.307/.354 slash line over 520 career big league plate appearances. That gives him a subterranean .661 OPS. I like Roman Quinn. I think it was a decent move for the Phillies to bring him back this season as an outfield depth option. And I have no problem with Quinn being given a chance to start last night in the wake of Nick Castellanos’ wife going into labor, and Odúbel Herrera feeling under the weather. However, when the game is on the line and the Phillies REALLY need someone to reach base, who is the better bet? Roman Quinn, who is just plain bad at hitting baseballs and struggles to get bunts down? Or Matt Vierling, who has scuffled through the first month, but has shown much more offensive upside? To me, the choice is clear.

Did Girardi’s decision lose the Phillies the game? Probably not. Will this make or break their playoff chances? I doubt it. But, this is a microcosm of a larger issue for the franchise. There are serious questions about the manager’s on-field decision making that need to be answered, and I think that Joe Girardi is one of the Phillies’ problems. I’m not saying that I could do a better job of managing the Phillies than Joe Girardi, but I’m fairly certain there’s someone out there that can.

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