Dave Dombrowski has led four franchises to the World Series as a president of baseball operations, and he has done it by embracing tradition and analytics.
Oct. 31, 2022, 5:00 a.m. ET
PHILADELPHIA — The Fighting Phillies are a plucky group of wild-card upstarts who have shocked the baseball world by playing into November.
Then again, with Dave Dombrowski in charge, is it really so surprising that Philadelphia is in the World Series?
For the last quarter-century, when Dombrowski was at the helm of a baseball team’s front office, it meant a World Series berth during his tenure. The Marlins found that out in 1997, the Tigers in 2006 and 2012. It came to fruition for the Red Sox in 2018, and this year for the Phillies, who hired Dombrowski to be their president of baseball operations in December 2020.
He is the only head of baseball operations to take four franchises to the World Series. Now he has a chance to become the first to win a World Series with three of them. It would be a remarkable achievement, and it is not lost on those who see the Phillies as an extension of Dombrowski’s well-honed baseball vision.
“It’s his baby: this moment, this year,” Bryce Harper, the centerpiece of the Phillies’ roster, said. “Dombrowski is an unbelievable president.”
Harper was a member of the Phillies before Dombrowski arrived, having signed a 13-year, $330 million contract with the club in 2019. But since then, Dombrowski and his general manager, Sam Fuld, have added, and kept, key pieces to build yet another team with a chance at a trophy.
Whether investing in the productive players he inherited from the team’s previous general manager, Matt Klentak, or acquiring new faces via free agency and trades, Dombrowski has done what he has always done: add, tweak, spend, commit — and win.
“Just look at his track record,” John Middleton, the principal owner of the Phillies, said. “He’s won everywhere.”
But it is not just that Dombrowski, 66, has constructed four pennant winners and two champions (along with seven division champions). Many people have hits and misses over time. What is most remarkable is that since taking over the expansion Florida Marlins in 1991, Dombrowski has managed to find this level of success with every team he has joined.
Both old- and new-school, Dombrowski is smart, exacting, aggressive, decisive and experienced. He was working in the White Sox’ front office when Dusty Baker, the Astros’ 73-year-old manager, was still in the middle of his playing career. His résumé stretches back to when batting average was considered the most important statistic.
He was once the youngest head of baseball operations, and now he is one of the oldest; working, adapting and succeeding across more eras of baseball history than double-knit uniforms, cellphones and compact discs.
For many traditionalist fans, who disdain the modern analytical movement, Dombrowski is upheld as a kind of savior, proving that “baseball people” still know how to build teams based on talent, not math. The archetype of the modern general manager is a young, highly educated computer whiz who relies on complex equations and algorithms at the expense of visual insight and hard-earned baseball expertise.
But don’t be fooled by stereotypes. Dombrowski uses advanced statistics for both player procurement and in-game tactics, and has a 20-person analytics staff to prove it. But he blends it with the experience he has gained in more than 40 years in professional baseball.
“You learn so many things along the way and you apply them,” he said. “But the key is that you’ve got to get good players and have a good organization, however you want to define that.”
Many of the moves that he made to help construct the current National League champions are familiar to longtime Dombrowski watchers. Spend money, trade prospects for established players to go for it all, right now.
He used that formula in Boston in 2018 by adding Chris Sale, David Price and J.D. Martinez to a group that included Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers and Christian Vázquez.
Now a member of the Astros, Vázquez personifies why many players and agents appreciate Dombrowski’s approach. Hint: It has something to do with the three-year, $13.55 million extension he signed with Boston in 2018.
“I’ll always be grateful for that,” Vázquez said. “He does what it takes to win. That’s how we won that year. We got Chris Sale and all those guys. He gave all the prospects away, and we won a World Series.”
The strategy does not always work, of course, and when you make decisions over four decades, there are blemishes. While serving as Montreal’s general manager, Dombrowski traded a prospect named Randy Johnson in a package for Mark Langston. It was an aggressive, win-now move that failed. But it did not dissuade him, and Dombrowski is almost certainly destined for the Hall of Fame (where he would join Johnson).
Originally tutored at the feet of Roland Hemond, a recipient of the Hall of Fame’s Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award, Dombrowski was hired as an administrative assistant with the Chicago White Sox in 1978. Under Hemond’s guidance, he roamed the continent, learning the intricacies of scouting and player development in the minor leagues and Latin America. Within two years, he was hired as Chicago’s farm director.
“I learned so much from Roland,” Dombrowski said. “He was a great resource and mentor.”
In 1986 Dombrowski moved to Montreal, and two years later, at 31, he was named general manager. The Expos were named organization of the year by Baseball America in 1988 and 1990.
The Marlins hired Dombrowski in 1991, when the team was barely more than a concept and an office, and within five years of throwing their first pitch, they won a World Series. Then the team’s owner, Wayne Huizenga, ordered Dombrowski to rip it all apart and slash payroll ahead of a sale of the team. Dombrowski did so, and started building another version of the team, which won it all again in 2003. Dombrowski had been gone for two years by then, but that championship was achieved with a core of players he brought in, including Josh Beckett, Miguel Cabrera, Alex Gonzalez and Mike Lowell.
Dombrowski spent 15 years in Detroit, trying to win a championship for the team owner Mike Ilitch, and although he guided two Tigers teams to American League pennants, Ilitch fired him in 2015.
“He told me I didn’t win a championship and he was going to make a change,” Dombrowski said. “We came close, but we couldn’t get it done.”
Within weeks he was hired by the Red Sox, and three years later, in 2018, he won the World Series, only to be fired the next season. Some believe he was ousted prematurely because he spent too much of ownership’s money — something he has done before, to great effect. Dombrowski told USA Today that he was “hurt” by the Red Sox dismissal and that he did not think he was treated fairly. On Friday, he added that he never felt he was treated unfairly by any other organization.
Now, Dombrowski may have found his ideal team owner in Middleton, a longtime Phillies fan who yearns for success after years of failure. Middleton believes in Dombrowski’s demanding approach to building a top-flight baseball department.
“He cares about people,” the owner said, “but he’s not going to let somebody who he doesn’t think meets his World Series caliber standards stay in the organization. He’s going to kind of say: ‘Guys, here’s the standard. We need to hit this standard, and if you can’t meet the standard, you have to leave.’”
In Philadelphia, Dombrowski inherited many of the team’s current top players, like Harper and J.T. Realmuto, the talented catcher. But when Realmuto became a free agent after the 2020 season, Dombrowski anchored him to Philadelphia with a five- year, $115.5 million contract. When he saw the team needed more punch, he signed Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos, two significant contributors, especially in the postseason.
To stabilize the outfield defense between Schwarber and Castellanos, Dombrowski acquired center fielder Brandon Marsh from the Angels in August, along with the nervy relief pitcher David Robertson and the versatile right-hander Noah Syndergaard, who will start Game 3 of the World Series on Monday.
Perhaps the most decisive move was firing Joe Girardi as manager after a disappointing 22-29 start this season, and replacing him with his bench coach, Rob Thomson, who had never managed in the big leagues. Many players see it as the turning point.
“During the season, you make adjustments, you make a manager change, things like that,” Harper said, “and it just kind of goes from there.”
Harper and other players also laud Dombrowski’s human skills. They point to the accommodations he makes for their families and his willingness to collaborate on issues surrounding team rules and travel. During the division series, Dombrowski wanted the team to spend a night in Atlanta to ensure proper rest. But when the situation came up again, the players asked if they could go home that time, and Dombrowski conceded.
“Everybody is kind of a robot these days, all baseball,” said Zack Wheeler, the team’s ace starter. “So it’s cool for him to be the boss, the head honcho, and also have a feel. He plays the game that he wants to play, the game that he knows. But he also takes in the newer stuff. He just has a clue.”
He has more than just a clue. He has two titles with two franchises, and he is alive in November with a chance for a third. No surprise at all.