Among the few certainties surrounding the Phillies these days, there is one that stands out above the others: This is the kind of season that gets managers fired.
Baseball isn’t always fair, and it isn’t always kind. Line drives that are caught and bloops that fall in don’t always even out, and a walk is absolutely not as good as a hit. But baseball is consistent in some regards. The manager taking the fall for a team that can’t get out of its own way is as time-honored a tradition as spitting in your glove.
Pete Mackanin has been in this game professionally since 1969. None of the above would be news to him. He’s grounded enough to know that what is going on with the Phils isn’t his fault and to also know that it usually doesn’t matter whether it is or isn’t. Sometimes, a manager is just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and, heaven knows, being in charge of the Phillies right now is definitely the wrong place to be.
Having said that, however, and understanding the glacial forces of baseball, which grind slowly toward the future while dragging along sediment of the past, the Phils will make more of a statement by keeping Mackanin than they would by getting rid of him for cosmetic purposes. But at the same time, they have to make some ritual sacrifices in the clubhouse that go beyond Michael Saunders and Jeanmar Gomez if the organization really wants to prove a point to its hired hands – and to its paying customers.
Team president Andy MacPhail, in concert with controlling owner John Middleton, delivered support for the manager when they extended his contract on May 11 while the Phillies were in the midst of a stretch during which they had lost 10 of 12 games. In some ways, it was a mild vote of confidence, an extension through the 2018 season with a club option for 2019, but it was a lot better than having Mackanin paddling through this fetid swamp as a lame duck.
Since then, you might have noticed, things haven’t exactly improved. May turned out to be a 6-22 slog and June hasn’t been much better. After Wednesday’s win against the Mariners, the team has gone 15-42 since a five-game winning streak near the end of April. Sometimes bad baseball is hard to define, but playing at a .263 pace speaks for itself.
“This is as bad as it gets,” Mackanin said when the dreadful May came to an end, but somehow the hole has gotten deeper. Not only are the Phillies playing poorly, but they are also playing stupid at times. That lack of focus among the players — not caring enough or not being motivated enough to attempt the right things, regardless of whether they actually do them — is another manager-killer.
As the front office eyes the all-star break in two weeks and the long march of the season still to come, changing the manager has almost certainly been discussed. When Odubel Herrera runs disastrously through a stop sign and, only days later, ignores a no-steal sign to a similarly bad end, the natural rhythms of baseball call for a shake-up of some sort. I happen to agree with that, but it would involve shaking up Herrera, not Mackanin. How exactly that would be accomplished with a guy who recently signed a $30 million guaranteed contract that extends at least through 2021 is a good question, but it was the front office, not the manager, that made that mistake.
The Phillies’ woes extend far beyond one boneheaded outfielder. The team is near the bottom of every hitting and pitching category in the National League because there simply isn’t much talent on the roster, and the group of prospects emerging recently from the farm system isn’t providing a lot of confidence in the near future.
Who exactly is Maikel Franco — the guy who seemed to be a can’t-miss a year or so ago, or the guy hitting .222 now? And what of J.P. Crawford, the next Jimmy Rollins who is scuffling around at .204 in Lehigh Valley, or Nick Pivetta, whose 1.41 ERA for the IronPigs ballooned to 5.40 against major-league batters? There are candles in the darkness — Rhys Hoskins, Aaron Altherr, maybe Ben Lively, maybe Nick Williams — but it’s still pretty dim in the room.
The easy way for an organization to show its commitment to quality baseball is to fire a manager who can’t seem to get more out of the players. There is the matter of keeping the fans involved and selling tickets. I’m sure as the front office studies the end of the schedule, particularly when the Phillies are home for 16 of the last 19 games after the kids are back in school, the mental picture of what it might look like in Citizens Bank Park isn’t pretty.
Still, if the real commitment is to gradually replace what’s bad with something better, then do it. Get rid of, as quickly as possible, the underachievers and mopers and fool’s gold who didn’t pan out under scrutiny. Pete Mackanin, current circumstances notwithstanding, is part of what’s good, although it takes a strong organization to know the difference, and to withstand the pressure of giving in to what baseball usually demands.
The Phillies will reveal which kind of organization they are pretty soon, and Mackanin probably can’t wait to find out.