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PHILADELPHIA – The best thing to do when you find yourself aboard a sinking ship is to locate and plug the leak or leaks. Perhaps the second best thing to do is anything at all.
Two things can be true simultaneously: The Phillies are playing better now that Joe Girardi has been fired in favor of bench coach Rob Thomson, currently serving as interim manager; and that Joe Girardi wasn’t the biggest problem the Phillies had.
It remains to be seen whether and for how long the former will hold true, but that is immaterial to the latter.
This is even more relevant because baseball teams are not ships that float until they spring a discrete, identifiable leak. They are an alchemy. Even in an increasingly homogenous sport, there are many ways to win — for instance, defense can be a core tenet of a successful team, but so can a team overcome with poor defense if they score enough runs. (You can even have two recent MVPs at the heart of your lineup and still find a way to lose.)
How a manager factors in is not an exact science and difficult to discern from the outside. In the simplest sense, everyone on the team from owner John Middleton down through Dave Dombrowski and Sam Fuld to Girardi and onto each player, factors into every win and every loss — a perpetual butterfly effect in action. If someone somewhere along the line had done something better, perhaps the results would have been different.
In this way, you can understand and even defend the decision to fire Girardi. Sure, the defense was at least as awful as everyone saw coming, and the umpteenth iteration of a Philly bullpen still couldn’t hold a lead, and the farm system is a mess, which doesn’t technically affect the big league club’s record but is pretty worrying when you zoom out. But even the stuff that was supposed to be a strength wasn’t working — or wasn’t working well enough — and maybe that’s because Girardi didn’t click with the clubhouse or didn’t trust his young players enough to give them consistent at-bats.
Girardi lost his job because that’s what happens to the fall guy when the team with one of the highest payrolls and longest postseason droughts is 22-29 after Memorial Day. And because something had to give.
On Friday, hours after Thomson took the reins, the Phillies beat the sinking Los Angeles Angels 10-0. By Saturday, they seemed like they were having fun. On a beautiful day under blue skies, batting practice seemed loose, or at least unbothered. Thomson talked about his father’s aphoristic wisdom and the mountain of unread messages congratulating the baseball lifer on a well-earned opportunity. And then a crowd of over 36,000 watched the Phillies win again, 7-2. Hope springs eternal in South Philly.
As for the fun? “I think the kids bring that. [Nick] Maton, [Mickey] Moniak, [Bryson] Stott,” Thomson said postgame. “They’ve got energy. They run around. It’s fun.”
Sunday morning, Thomson turned right toward the coaches’ office before remembering he’s supposed to now make a left, into the manager’s office. He still had about 100 well-wishes to reply to.
“It’s not really normal yet,” he said, “but it’s getting there.”
In the fourth inning, the Angels scored five runs, the last one coming on an error. Bryce Harper would later tie it with a grand slam — the absolute most he can do while a small UCL tear keeps him from playing the field. In the ninth, the bullpen gave up the lead, in part because of a defensive miscue, because even a kick in the butt or a more encouraging skipper doesn’t fix the deep intrinsic flaws in the Phillies this year. But then. Bottom of the ninth, two on, two out, Stott came up to bat.
On a 3-2 count the rookie batting .157 hit his second home run of the season to walk it off, 9-7. Make it a clean sweep since Girardi was ousted.
The flaws were still there, but something else was different — and for a glorious weekend that was enough.
Maybe they’re winning because they’re having fun and they’re having fun because they have a new manager. Or maybe they’re just having fun because they’re winning and they’re winning because the $233 million team is stacked with talent and plenty capable of playing at a middling pace.
“That’s a good question,” offseason addition Nick Castellanos said of whether the fun or the winning came first.
“But, sure, I'd say overall, it does feel a little bit lighter of an atmosphere.”
How Jeff McNeil learned to beat the shift
A month ago, New York Mets multi-positional star Jeff McNeil conducted a brief interview with SNY in which he clearly outlined his approach this year, after finishing 2021 with an average below .300 for the first time in his career.
“I think I’m just trying to hit it where they’re not,” he told Steve Gelbs. “That’s really all it is.”
In 2019, opponents shifted against McNeil in just 19.6% of his at-bats. It ended up being his best offensive season, with an All-Star nod and a .318 average. (Batting average is a retro stat, admittedly, but it’s useful for these purposes. His OPS+ was 143, also the highest of his career.)
The league adapted, and by last year, opponents shifted against him 42.7% of the time, resulting in his only subpar offensive season and a .251 average.
“And I think if you look at my numbers, my numbers were actually really good last year — my exit velo was up, my hard-hit percentage was up — but it was going right into three defenders,” McNeil said. “So it kinda sucked.”
So now he comes to the plate with a new plan.
“If they're shifting me, I don’t care if I hit it 40 mph if it goes to the left side and gets through,” McNeil said.
A nice idea and all, but the point is: It’s working.
McNeil’s best tool is his bat-to-ball ability. At a time when the league-wide strikeout rate is 22.3%, his is just half that. More interestingly, opponents aren't helping themselves in that respect. When defenders play him straight up, McNeil has a .269 average with a .407 slugging percentage and a 13.6% strikeout rate. When they shift against him — which is literally done to neutralize a batter’s most successful tendencies — he does even better. By “just trying to hit it where they’re not” his K rate drops nearly 40%, to 8.5% of plate appearances, and he's hitting .373 against the shift, best among all big leaguers shifted on at least 300 pitches this year.
Opposing teams have started to notice — shifts against him are down to 32.5% — but are still regularly shifting on him, to their detriment.
Last week, the Mets swept the Washington Nationals for a lot of reasons. But in one particular game, McNeil beat the shift three times with hits the other way. After the loss, Nats manager Dave Martinez acknowledged their failure to adjust to his new approach.
“We're gonna pay more attention to that because if we're gonna keep throwing the ball out there, he's gonna take his hits,” Martinez said. “His slug is middle-in, we all know that. But we got to pay attention to what's happening. He's a pretty smart hitter. And that's why he's hitting .300.”
Adley Rutschman’s learning curve
When Baltimore Orioles top prospect Adley Rutschman made his debut on May 21, he had started just 109 games as a catcher in professional baseball since being taken first overall in the 2019 draft. The loss of a minor league season in 2020 and a shortened season in 2021 had cost him valuable innings behind the plate.
At 24, he’s already older than some of the most electric talent in the league, but his lack of experience is notable specifically because of the position he plays. A week after his debut, I talked to the Orioles catching coordinator Tim Cossins about Rutschman’s introduction to big league baseball — and all that it entails for the modern catcher.
“Players don't spend as long at the minor league [level] as traditionally now. It's kind of a rocket ride for players,” he said. “The hope is that you get the athlete physically able to perform and the rest of it can be expedited.”
The rest can be particularly daunting for backstops who have to adjust not only to a new level of competition but also all the responsibility that comes with calling a game.
“What people don't see is the behind-the-scenes studying of hitters’ weaknesses and tendencies and strengths of pitchers, and all that stuff. And that comes through just sitting down and studying,” Cossins said. “So his learning curve is going to be bigger than it's been because there's a lot more players he's learning”
On the day of his debut, Rutschman met with the starting pitcher, analysts and pitching coaches. He had to learn the team’s signs as well as how to use PitchCom. (“That was another doozy.” Before that he had seen only the picture they sent him.) All before finally meeting with Cossins himself.
And even Kyle Bradish — a fellow rookie and Rutschman’s battery mate who has known him since they played together in a college summer league — had to admit that catchers “probably have the toughest job.”
The influx of available information on arsenals and swing planes has heightened the expectations of young catchers, who would have previously learned largely through repetition.
“You had to experience all of the things that you were going to retain,” Cossins said. “Now with all of the information that we have and all the things that are built and all the programs are built, it speeds that up.”
Cossins is confident, though, that Rutschman is up to the task: “He's got great intuition. And he's got unbelievable recall for everything that happens on the field.”
Yankees' Higgy plays Worldle
And finally, a little more on the intellectual pursuits of successful catchers. The Yankees’ starting rotation has powered the Bronx Bombers to the best record in baseball, but their manager says to save some credit for the pair of catchers calling the pitches that have resulted in the fewest runs allowed.
Jose Trevino and Kyle Higashioka have managed a staff of competing aces with aplomb thanks in part to their research and preparation. But Higashioka spends his time in the Yankees clubhouse studying at least one other subject: geography. He’s got a world map hanging next to his locker for the explicit purpose of improving at Worldle. Not wordle — the New York Times' newly purchased word game that has swept the nation — but one of the many unaffiliated spinoffs. Every day, he tries to identify a country based solely on its silhouette.
He’s improving, too. Recently he got “Nepal” without having to check the map.