Joe Girardi Gets a Fresh Start in a Shifting NL East

The NL East: A division that, if it had ever been noble, would be referred to here as “once noble” now.

That’s a bit unfair; there was some nobility to Atlanta wailing on this Senior Circuit subset for a decade and a half. But these days, it’s been a harbor for a few disappointing Nationals squads (this year’s a notable exception), a weird Mets run, and some airtight regular season Braves teams. Ronald Acuña Jr., Juan Soto, Pete Alonso; some of the game’s most prolific young hitters are bedeviling pitching in the East, and now the division’s newest manager, Joe Girardi, will be strategizing against them.

Announced as the Phillies’ 55th manager last Thursday, Girardi takes over for his beaten-down and very tan predecessor, Gabe Kapler, inheriting team the closest it has been to a winner since 2011 but also one that has continuously found ways to not win. As stories have squeaked out about the team’s 2019 season, it has become apparent that a little structure and a little experience might go a long way in straightening things out in South Philly. There’s star power in Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto, as well as promise in Scott Kingery and Adam Haseley, and Aaron Nola can still be expected to anchor the rotation. And though there are plenty of spots to fill in the months ahead, the Phillies nabbed one of the most popular names on the managerial market, one who is already impacting the division just by accepting the job.

The ebb and flow of managerial hires across baseball is always apparent, if not obvious. There are trends. There are trials. Sometimes everybody’s starting over at once. Sometimes, Bobby Valentine sounds like a great idea. Right now, everybody wants one of those early-40s ex-players ready to be dazzled by a spreadsheet. The Phillies just tried one of those in 2017. Now they’re ready to try something else.

Back when Girardi first joined the NL East in 2006, he was something of an outlier as the only first-year, first-time major league manager in baseball. Sure, Joe Maddon was starting his managerial journey as well, but he’d managed 51 total games for the Angels in 1996 and 1999; the early ideas for his t-shirt empire were already forming. Girardi’s record was completely clean, though he had been the bench coach for the Yankees, so he at least knew how the bullpen phone worked (turns out: like a normal phone). This is sometimes not easy, as Girardi’s new team knows.

The hot young managing prospect was replacing grizzled veteran skipper Jack McKeon, who was 74 in 2004 and had 13 years of experience behind him with five different teams. He was a man who valued a diligent effort, and whose temperament was considered compassionate and gentle; at least when compared to, say, Larry Bowa, who had preceded him in San Diego.

“He’s willing to give players a chance,” wrote The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1998, “and if they prove themselves, he’s reluctant to take away the job they earned.”

But by the end of 2005, the Marlins had shifted into a rebuild and McKeon wasn’t going to be a part of it. They went with Girardi, a 41-year-old with the haircut and the forearms of a guy you wouldn’t honk at for cutting you off.

Girardi was a trend-making selection, interviewing two times each for jobs with the Marlins and Devil Rays (the job that went to Maddon). Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria took a moment away from being weaselly about something to say say he felt “in his gut” that Girardi was the man for the job and, “In the gut is where most great baseball decisions begin,” Palm Beach Post columnist Dave George reminded us.

Ah, the gut; the calculator of the stomach. But, as the season wore on, Loria’s gut started to tell him other things. Like that Girardi, despite keeping the Fish in Wild Card contention despite the lowest payroll in baseball, needed to be replaced; that, despite Girardi getting NL Manager of the Year chatter, the Marlins should get in touch with Fredi Gonzalez and have a deal in place for him to manage the team before they’d even fired Girardi.

Sometimes guts are wrong.

“Joe is not returning because he was not a good fit,” Marlins GM Larry Beinfest told reporters. Six weeks later, Girardi was named NL Manager of the Year by two different entities: Once by the BBWAA and once by the Sporting News.

Sometimes guts are wrong twice.

Now, Girardi returns to the NL East at 55 years old, taking on the role of the grizzled veteran, rather than the fresh-faced rookie, in a reversal of the circumstances that played out last time in Florida: A manager with a decade of experience is replacing a manager who had none when he started in Philadelphia, but in both cases, ownership thought Girardi was the man for the job.

Gut decisions play a big factor in Girardi’s new role with the Phillies; namely in the perception that Kapler hadn’t done enough managing with his. The Phillies, rushing to catch up with the modern sport, has an analytics department putting out useful numbers, but the numbers are only as useful as the person using them. Kapler was a rookie, plucked from his previous role as the Dodgers’ director of player development. Managing the Phillies was his first in-game managerial experience, outside of a season at Single-A, and it remains to be seen whether or not he’ll get to capitalize on it with a job elsewhere.

Girardi and Kapler were both about the same age when they got their first managing jobs. But Girardi, whose hiring was once the product of gut instinct, is now being hired because he is able to make them himself: He is viewed as a stabilizing force and a steadying hand, whose experience — which is what we actually mean when we say “gut” — has already been established. It’s not difficult to see that this is the Phillies trying to balance the output of their analytics department by bringing in an in-game strategist who has converted numbers into success.

Girardi’s hire has impacted a division with teams ready for change, but not always ready to change. The Mets were at one point linked to the former Yankees skipper to fill their managerial vacancy, and their fans buzzed at the idea of Girardi, a stately figure of championship New York baseball, sitting there, totally available. But by seemingly not taking their own pursuit of him very seriously, the Mets sent a message; the same message they’ve been sending for years: This is not a managing job for which we want a manager. We want a collaborator. We want, as the New York Post put it, a “cheap puppet.”

Regardless, with a hurried wave from the window of a speeding car, Girardi is back in the NL East. He has spent more time beating the teams in it than coaching them, going 51-39 against the division as the manager of the Yankees from 2008-17, and 31-21 against the Mets specifically. He enters a division that has produced four World Series champions since realignment in 1994, the last being over 10 years ago. In that same time span, it has featured 14 teams that have lost 95 games or more, and five 100-loss squads. It is not a parade of champions.

At the start of 2018, the NL East had three rookie managers: One is now playing in the World Series, two have been (or will be) replaced. The definition of a good manager will always change. You can be the Manager of the Year and they’ll fire you; you can give somebody a gut feeling and they’ll hire you. Girardi was brought into the Phillies to manage from experience. Here’s hoping he’s learned from his, because in the NL East — his new home — they don’t always do that.

Justin has contributed to FanGraphs and is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.

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2 years ago

I feel like even a Phillies fan should have more journalist integrity than to echo catchphrases from the NY Post like “Cheap Puppet”. Collaboration does actually seem important, and fit is important in any job. Vaccaro’s clickbait turd of a column was custom-engineered to rile up the fans who already thought that there was no acceptable alternative to Girardi. I won’t be surprised if Girardi does well in Philly, but the fact that the Mets chose to keep looking at other options after meeting with him twice is not, in and of itself, the indictment a lot of people want it to be.

2 years ago

I agree that not hiring Girardi is not a huge problem. The problem is that the Wilpons have been cheap for years now. They have one final ~$12m payment for the Madoff scheme due next year:

That means they are probably going cheap again. Being cheap doesn’t necessarily mean bad. And having a manager who works well with (or under) a smart GM is how most teams are trying to do things now. But Van Wagenen is not a smart GM. So with a bad GM and a manager that is likely to take his orders from said GM, that’s a bad combination.

Mookie Wilson
2 years ago
Reply to  dl80

“”””I agree that not hiring Girardi is not a huge problem. The problem is that the Wilpons have been cheap for years now.””””

The Mets have the 13th highest revenue, and the 10th highest payroll (6th if you rank them by luxury tax assessment — $195M)

They have spent roughly $500M on new contracts since 2017. Not always on good things (sometimes great deals like deGrom, other times dumb ones), but that’s a separate issue from supposedly not spending money. Continuing to call them “cheap” is just a dumb, tired meme at this point.

“”””They have one final ~$12m payment for the Madoff scheme due next year:””””

They had a 12M payment for the Madoff restitution fund (not a “scheme” as they were victims themselves), and still spent an enormous amount in the offseason (~100M on Cano, plus whatever Diaz winds up getting in arb raises, ~150M on deGrom, ~25M on Ramos, ~30M on Familia).

On what planet do you think a $12M payment owed, would preclude them from spending 6M a year on a freaking manager if that was the guy they wanted?

There’s no other word for it, it’s outright dumb to think the Mets passed on Girardi because they’re “cheap”.

“”””But Van Wagenen is not a smart GM””””

Way too early to say that. They had a phenomenal draft this past June, they wisely called up Alonso at the start of the season and didn’t Super-Two him, they overhauled the training and coaching staffs to great effect, and they managed the 40-man roster very effectively. He made a steal trade for JD Davis. I know people hate the Diaz/Cano trade, but the jury is still out on that for me as Cano had a monster second half, and Diaz is way too talented to write him off for juiced ball home-run-itis.

You have already concluded that the new manager will be a “puppet” based on dumbass “newspaper” rumors and tweets, based on one incident where the GM supposedly told the manager to take a guy out of a game once. Your entire post is just a mashup of tired Mets memes and you should reconsider all of it.

2 years ago
Reply to  dl80

The whole “cheap” narrative may be true historically, but it feels inaccurate at the time being, honestly. Davidoff had an article yesterday where he compared the Mets and Nationals luxury tax payroll ($193M vs 200M) to their active player payroll ($104M vs $156M). His conclusion from that seems to be that the Mets need to spend more, but my takeaway was that they actually had a healthy amount tied up in salary- but they weren’t getting any return on what they were paying to guys like Wright, Cespedes, and Lowrie. People argue that you can reinvest what you get back from insurance, and I agree- but there is still a limit to what they can reinvest without exceeding the tax threshold. I’m not trying to be an apologist- I’ll be happy if they decide to exceed the tax threshold this year since they have a lot coming off the books after 2020– but I do feel like I can understand where they’re coming from.

I’m not entirely certain VW is not smart; I think he is clearly a gambler, and several of his gambles did not work. I’m bummed about the outcome of the Diaz/Kelenic trade, but I understand that there are many alternate universes where Diaz does not regress and Kelenic is Fernando Martinez. We have Diaz for 3 more years, and we may still see things trend in that direction.

Regarding managers taking orders from GMs: front offices and analytics departments have so much more information than any single person could possibly digest. The Mets have spent the past year building up their stable of advisers. I have to believe- for the sake of my own sanity– that they are doing that because they want their decision-making to be more data-driven, and that suggestions are made based on consultation and consensus. If that makes the manager a puppet, at least I want to believe that a lot of smart people are talking about which strings to pull.

Mookie Wilson
2 years ago

Wow, a sensible, stable, non-derogatory statement about the Mets in an online comments section? Did I stumble into an alternate universe, and how many Oscars does Adam Sandler have here?

2 years ago
Reply to  Mookie Wilson

The problem with the “cano” trade was and will always be the process. That the result has so far been awful was not a given but Cano was clearly a huge negative asset. The Mets shed some negative assets in the trade themselves -namely jay Bruce – but the trade should always have been the Mets taking on the Cano contract and Diaz being the sweetener to do so. Maybe a marginal contract or prospect being swapped as well. The Mets throwing in 2 of their top 3, 5? Prospects at the time will always be insane with just a clear lack of understanding of player value.

2 years ago

This sounds more like a story where some people are concerned that the Mets don’t have anyone who knows what they’re doing, so they want someone like Girardi who has shown he is competent and maybe help “manage up.” To me, this is mistaken. It’s not that obvious (yet) that the front office is incompetent, and if they were, it doesn’t matter who the manager is.

All that aside, they probably should hire someone who has actually coached before. It generally seems like a bad idea to hire someone without any coaching experience to a top position like that, and that goes double in the chaotic environment that characterizes the New York Mets.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

The owner is definitely incompetent. I happen to believe the GM is, if not fully incompetent, not especially good. I agree that it doesn’t matter who the manager is in that situation.