Much has been said about the Philadelphia Phillies firing manager Joe Girardi on June 3 after 51 games into the 2022 Major League Baseball season. Most critics didn’t believe it would change the trajectory of their losing season. But interim, and now official, manager Rob Thomson took the team from 22-29 to 87-75, reaching the MLB playoffs for the first time since 2011 by earning the final National League Wild Card spot in the post season. The team went on to win the National League pennant and battled the heavily favored Houston Astros, who were unbeaten in the first two rounds of playoffs, until game six of the World Series.
The 2022 Phillies are only the ninth team in history to make the Word Series after changing their manager mid-season (only two teams have won the World Series after changing managers).
While The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal penned a mea culpa in September for a May 31 column in which he stated firing Girardi wasn’t going to fix the Phillies’ problems, at least one person wasn’t surprised by their recent success. Christian Resick, PhD, an associate professor in Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business, co-authored a 2017 study examining the impact of a mid-season leadership change on the performance of MLB teams.
In the paper published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, Resick and his co-authors studied the connections between MLB teams who changed their manager during the regular season and the performance of their teams post-change, applying theory from the management literature – particularly around leadership and human capital – to a professional sports context.
Resick and his co-authors examined all the teams that changed managers from 1974 (the start of baseball’s free-agent era) through 2008. Using data obtained from STATS LLC, they calculated the ratio of the manager’s total in-game line-up changes to the number of total games managed and did so separately for pitchers and batters/fielders.
“Our results support the assertion that a leader change is likely to be a disruptive event,” said Resick. “However, rather than being a disruption that leads to chaos and confusion, leader transitions appear to be beneficial for the team as it can move the team away from routines and rituals which may be limiting a team’s success.”
Resick noticed a theme among press conferences by Thomson and commentary by analysts on MLB Network about Thomson’s approach, demeanor and overall strategy.
“The Phillies went on this winning streak and they never looked back. They played completely differently under his leadership,” said Resick. “Leadership is about getting a team to integrate their knowledge and their efforts, to cooperate and work toward achieving a common goal. Good leaders are actively making sense of things that are unfolding. They know what talent and human capital is on the team, and they think about ‘what talent do we have, and how do I need to leverage that talent if things aren’t going well?’ That translates across contexts.”
In the study, players were sorted into two categories: strategic core human capital (pitchers) and non-strategic core human capital (all other position players). The authors noted that the keys to realizing performance gains after a manager change were having talented human capital in the team’s strategic core roles (pitchers) and skilled action-phase functional leadership of the team’s core talent (managers’ actions during a game such as changing pitchers).
In other words, teams saw the greatest performance improvements when they had a strong pitching staff (strategic core human capital) and a new manager who was skilled in making real time adjustments that enabled the team to leverage the available talent.
Resick said that Thomson is an interesting case study that exemplifies the 2017 research.
“He did a really great job of backing off the lineup and off the fielding aspects, giving them the confidence that they’re talented and they can play these positions,” said Resick. “He was not looking over the shoulders – he was empowering them rather than micromanaging them. He had a completely different strategy with the pitching staff. He knew what the pitchers’ strengths were and when and where they struggled, and quickly made adjustments during the game.”
Resick noted that the results of the study highlight that organizations need to consider the collective capabilities of team members when contemplating such a change. In particular, the results indicate that teams with higher quality human capital levels are better able to garner the performance improvements sought when making a leader change when that new leader leverages the team’s strategic core human capital resources to actively adapt to events as they evolve.
Media interested in speaking with Resick should contact Annie Korp, news manager, at 215-571-4244 or firstname.lastname@example.org.