John Middleton first stepped out of the shadows and established himself as the face of Phillies ownership in 2015. Until then, most fans probably couldn’t have said who he was or what he looked like. Middleton was the driving force behind the Phillies’ organizational overhaul in moving towards a focus in analytics. He was who hired Andy MacPhail and Matt Klentak to operate the on-field transformation of a team that had finally accepted it needed a rebuild.
For those first few years, Middleton seemingly wasn’t too heavily involved in baseball matters. He was willing to open his checkbook to fuel his burning desire to “get his bleeping trophy back,” but he listened to his baseball ops people and waited until the time was right.
That time came in 2019.
The 2018 Phillies exceeded expectations before suffering a brutal collapse in September. But, their occupation of first place for the majority of the season gave faith that they were only a few pieces away from finally contending again.
Enter John Middleton. More specifically, John Middleton’s “Stupid Money.” Middleton personally led the effort of eventually signing Bryce Harper to a then-record 13 year $330M contract. The Phillies managing partner and his wife Leigh flew out to Harper’s home in Las Vegas. The couple had dinner with Bryce and his wife Kayla, in which the Middletons were able to convince the most recognizable player in baseball to don Phillies pinstripes for the foreseeable future.
Of course, that was the end of a huge spending spree Johnny Stupid Money led his team on last offseason. He also signed off on other big money contracts to players such as Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson.
Taking a page right out of The Boss’ book
George Steinbrenner took over as principal owner of the New York Yankees in 1973. He remained in that position until his death in 2010. Under his ownership, the Yankees won seven World Series titles and 11 American League Pennants. They also grew into what is referred to today as “The Evil Empire.”
Steinbrenner was not afraid to spend money. He handed out record-breaking contract after record-breaking contract, almost single handedly driving up the average player’s salary. Steinbrenner brashly went out and spent whatever he could to make his team competitive. He also had a heavy hand in many of the on-field related decisions for the Yankees and was notorious for his constant hiring and firing of numerous managers and general managers. It was clear that “The Boss” was the one running the Yankees.
John Middleton might not have the winning pedigree or abrasive personality of Steinbrenner, but he has certainly employed some of the late Yankee executive’s tactics. Middleton has already handed out a record-setting contract to a free agent and has directly influenced the way his team is run.
Getting HIS manager
On Thursday, the Philadelphia Phillies made Joe Girardi the 55th manager in team history. Girardi of course comes with a winning pedigree, after managing the New York Yankees for ten seasons (2008-2017) and guiding them to above .500 records each of those seasons. The former catcher also led the Yanks to six postseason appearances and a World Championship over his new team in 2009.
In a piece detailing the hire, Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia included this tidbit:
“General manager Matt Klentak led the search for a new manager, but it was made clear that his superiors, including Middleton, the team’s managing partner, would have to sign off on the hire. Middleton, according to sources, began thinking about Girardi as a potential Phillies manager back in July when he first started to contemplate dismissing Kapler.” -Jim Salisbury, NBC Sports Philadelphia
It was the owner, not the general manager, who had final say on the new manager. It just so happened that the new manager was the one the owner had contemplated before and the old manager was hand-picked by the GM.
Middleton went around his baseball ops people and was the driving force in not only Kapler’s dismissal, but also the removal of John Mallee from his position as hitting coach. Salisbury reported at the time that Middleton was “met with resistance from team president Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak” when he contemplated dumping Kapler in July.
Middleton stated in the post-firing press conference that he invoked his rights as CEO to overrule his front office and remove Kapler from his position.
Sound a little like someone?
For better or worse
The Phillies are John Middleton’s show. He has already overruled his front office on critical decisions and made sure they signed a big ticket free agent. His hand will now be behind everything the Phillies do. He will be the boss that everyone has to answer to. He is the Phillies’ own version of George Steinbrenner.
The Steinbrenner comparisons are even easier in the sense that the Phillies are becoming the Yankees south. In just a week, they have hired former Yankees scout Brian Barber to be scouting director and Girardi as manager. This is to go with already in place bench coach Rob Thomson who served under Girardi in New York.
Of course, Steinbrenner wasn’t infallible. He was a highly controversial figure who often clashed publicly with his employees, on-field and off-field alike. He was once banned from day-to-day management of the Yankees by Major League Baseball. His comments often caused division and even drove some free agents away. His meddling sometimes did more harm than good.
However, Steinbrenner was a winner, no matter the cost.
Middleton is leading the Phillies down a not so different path. He is willing to open up the checkbook and to interfere in order to win. It’s now more clear than ever he will do whatever it takes to get his trophy back, even if he has to take matters into his own hands. Only time will tell if those hands are capable.