Phillies' Latest Postseason Trip is a Masterstroke by Leadership Artists
Phillies owner John Middleton’s flip flops were so soggy from beer and champagne, that he abandoned them and stood barefoot, watching his team enjoy their fifth locker room celebration in the past 12 months.
He had a knowing smile on his face. One that was certainly creating an inner monologue where he was reminding himself why spending the way he has is worth it. He was likely telling himself it will continue to be worth it for several more years to come as well.
How long, though? Five years? Ten? Fifteen?
“I would hope I’m not that arrogant to answer your question, ‘Yes’,” Middleton said when those numbers were thrown his way. “But I think the minor league system, between Brian Barber’s drafting and Preston Mattingly’s development is as good as we’ve ever had it in the history of the Phillies. There’s some guys down there that are just spectacular. (Justin) Crawford is mind-blowingly good. We’ll see how Orion (Kerkering) handles the next week or so, but he looked spectacular in his debut. We have a lot of talent down there. Dave (Dombrowski) has done a tremendous job of rebuilding the organization.”
John Middleton in celebration mode pic.twitter.com/0mqXpAPuco
— Scott Lauber (@ScottLauber) September 27, 2023
Which is why the Phillies are where they are today – back in the playoffs for a successive season for just the fourth time in franchise history. The previous three were 1976-78, 1980-81, and 2007-2011. That’s it.
The interesting thing with that is each of those eras supplied the Phillies with a World Championship. There’s no doubt Middleton sees this era as the third chance to bring that trophy back to Philadelphia, and he’s trying to seize that opportunity.
It has to start at the top.
Middleton has proven, time and again, that he’s willing to spend to win. But, aside from his dollars, the most important job he has as the principal owner is to ensure he hires the right people to lead the baseball operation so he can get his damn trophy back.
It wasn’t until he brought in Dombrowski that the right pieces were in place throughout the organization.
It wasn’t just about creating a culture in the clubhouse, and paying for superstar talent. It was always about sustainability.
While 1993 will always be a memorable year in the history of the franchise, it was a bit of a flash in the pan. Too many guys had career years and never could replicate them again.
Those that could weren’t able to handle the lift of carrying a team for a full season on their shoulders, and were shipped elsewhere, while the development of the next generation of players never came to pass.
Between falling two games short in the 1993 series to the Blue Jays and the arrival of Pat Burrell and Jimmy Rollins to the major league roster in the 2000 season, the top five homegrown players to debut for the Phillies based on career WAR were:
- Scott Rolen (70.1)
- Randy Wolf (22.3)
- Mike Lieberthal (15.3)
- Marlon Anderson (7.3)
- Ricky Bottalico (6.1)
A Hall of Famer who didn’t want to be here at the time because the team wasn’t committed to winning, a middle of the rotation starter, an above average, at best, catcher, a utility infielder, and a hot and cold reliever.
There could never be that sustainability that teams need. There was never a window for that group.
And there was some worry that last year the Phillies had a similar run. That they backed into the playoffs after a subpar September and only because the Milwaukee Brewers collapsed down the stretch to let them in. They then got hot in October and went on a magical run that, like 1993, came up two games short.
When this year’s Phillies got off to the same slow start and found themselves in last place on June 2, the cacophonous chortle from the masses was that this team was no different.
But that’s where what Middleton said, both publicly and to himself, started to show it’s importance.
It was May 24th when manager Rob Thomson went on the WIP Morning show and said the Phillies were a 95-win team.
This morning @SportsRadioWIP #Phillies Mgr Rob Thomson said he thinks Phils can win 95 games this year. That’s would have to be 73-41rest of season. But he clarified that statement. pic.twitter.com/5NU0pMavv8
— Howard Eskin (@howardeskin) May 24, 2023
He sounded completely off his rocker, as the Phillies had just lost their second straight game to probable Wild Card opponent Arizona and fell to 22-26 for the season. It seemed even more ridiculous 10 days later when the Phillies fell to a season-worst seven games under .500 after a loss to Washington.
Since then, they’re 63-37 in the last 100 games. That’s a .630 win percentage. Know what that translates to over a 162-game season?
And all that has happened despite:
- Rhys Hoskins missing the season
- Bryce Harper hitting five home runs total between May 2 and August 5
- Aaron Nola having a disappointing season overall
- Jose Alvarado spending not one, but two stints on the I.L. with elbow issues
- Seranthony Dominguez never quite getting on track
- Kyle Schwarber batting .197
- Trea Turner being a shell of himself – until August
- Going with a black hole in the No. 5 spot in the rotation until Cristopher Sanchez asserted himself
Which speaks to the team resilience, yes, but more accurately speaks to the way they are run by Thomson and his coaching staff.
Those folks were put in place by Dombrowski, with Middleton’s blessing.
Dave Dombrowski is ready to party. pic.twitter.com/UsXpUUKlLU
— David Grzybowski (@DavidGrzyTV) October 4, 2022
It’s interesting to point out Sanchez, who prior to this season, never seemed like more than just a fill-in guy.
Now, his change up is so good it’s being called one of the best in the sport and he’s going to be an integral part of what the Phillies do going forward.
It’s that kind of development, which falls under Dombrowski’s leadership and Mattingly’s plan for the minor leagues, that Middleton was talking about when it comes to sustainability.
Another part of sustainability is finding the pieces on the fringes that can make a difference for a team as well.
Sanchez is part of that fringe – as he’s been better than probably every No. 5 starter in the sport. But he’s not alone.
All told, there are eight players who were on the active roster when the Phillies clinched a playoff spot that weren’t on the Opening Day roster. And a ninth, Jake Cave, spent the majority of the season at Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
Middleton was proud to point out that in the clinching game, it was Jeff Hoffman who held the Pirates scoreless in the top of the 10th, Cristian Pache who scored the winning run, and Johan Rojas who delivered the walk-off single – all guys who were added after Opening Day.
“It’s the evolution of a baseball team over the course of a season,” Middleton said. “It was something we used to see here with Pat Gillick with guys he would pick up during the season or acquire at the trade deadline. Those are the guys who can make a difference when you are pursuing a championship.”
With the exception of Rodolfo Castro, who remains an intriguing guy for the future, but hasn’t really had an opportunity to play since being acquired via trade on August 1, the other eight have delivered, when asked.
Pache was hitting lefties with fervor before a couple injuries interrupted his season, but he’s still available to provide elite outfield defense and he’s a solid baserunner. Dylan Covey was a brunt of a lot of jokes when he was pulled off the waiver wire, but the Phillies worked with him and the guy has filled his role of long-reliever nicely. Cave has had a few big hits for the Phillies and had a stretch where he was red hot in August. Kerkering is still a new toy who the team is incredibly excited about and could be a big part of the playoff bullpen. Sanchez’s contributions have been well-documented and, of course, Michael Lorenzen had the magical no-hitter.
But Rojas and Hoffman are the most interesting stories.
Johan Rojas’ first walk-off hit in the big leagues is a big one. pic.twitter.com/VYMGH9qZoH
— Todd Zolecki (@ToddZolecki) September 27, 2023
Rojas was called up to replace Pache when he was on the injured list and has done nothing but impress. It all started with his incredible catch in centerfield, crashing into the wall on his first chance at the Major League level. He has continued to thrive, and he has hit better than anyone in the organization would have expected.
Getting the walk-off hit to send the Phillies to the playoffs, while it may not be a name most people would have thought of in such a crucial spot, it didn’t surprise the Phillies.
And frankly, it doesn’t surprise Rojas, either. He wanted to be on this stage. He saw it play out last season and was jonesing for a chance to experience it himself this season.
“I watched every single game from home,” Rojas said through a team interpreter. “And all I could really think was, next year, I really want to be here. I really, really want to be a part of the team.”
While he feels very much a part of this team now, he wasn’t on the radar earlier this season – at least not in terms of 2023.
The Phillies knew he could play center, and likely better than most major league centerfielders. But they didn’t think his bat was Major League-ready.
It still may not be, but he has hit enough to be considered a regular in the lineup. His .304 batting average is a little deceiving because he’s had some good luck on balls in the infield (His BABIP is .417, which is .120 above the league average and unsustainable). A few sacrifice attempts that went awry and turned into hits, and a couple of balls that he barely made contact but went into no man’s land, or took a Baltimore chop bounce allowing him to beat it out at first. His hard hit rate is only 28.2% (League average is 39.6%) but frankly, with the type of defense he plays, he could bat .204 in the No. 9 spot and be considered productive for the Phillies.
That said, he is learning. He is growing. Nick Castellanos is his de facto mentor. And he picked up a tip Tuesday before the game from another teammate that knows a thing or two about hitting that helped him deliver the game-winning knock.
“I had a really special moment with (Bryce) Harper today in the cage,” Rojas said. “He told me that I needed to stay inside of the ball more. I actually did that (on the winning hit). It helped me. It’s little things like that that are going to help me in my career.”
Harper was also indirectly responsible for the other in-season addition who helped the Phillies Tuesday, as it was because of his need to face live batting during his rehab from Tommy John surgery that allowed the Phillies to get a look at Hoffman in April.
— Anthony SanFilippo (@AntSanPhilly) September 27, 2023
“I didn’t take that day lightly. I looked at it as my own personal World Series.” Hoffman said, of being asked to come to Citizens Bank Park and throw to Harper. “I knew that if I made a good impression that they might look past those Triple-A numbers. The rest is history.”
To call on guys like Rojas and Hoffman and add seven other pieces to an incomplete puzzle takes the work of an artist. And it takes the work of a different type of artist to make them fit together. It takes someone who believes in such artists to commission their work.
That’s why Middleton, Dombrowski, and Thomson have the Phillies 13 postseason wins away from the franchise’s third World Championship for a second year in a row.
And maybe, just maybe, five, 10, or 15 more of these opportunities lie ahead.