Phillies Weekly Recap #2: Winless Weekdays and Weekend Warriors

Woof. What a difference a week can make in a season’s outlook. After last Sunday’s win evened their record up at 3-3, the Phils took the week off and went 0-4 during the work week. That brings their season record from Monday through Friday to an abysmal 1-7 (their one win on Opening Day). If Rob Manfred ever decides to make baseball a weekend-only league, watch out – the Phillies are 3-1 on the bookends of the week. What does that mean? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I’m stalling. Let’s sift through the carnage of the week.

  • Game 7: Loss, 3-4. The first game against the Mets was also the first dollar dog night of the year. Those regretful meat cylinders were the consolation prize for Phillies fans in attendance, as the Phillies let another great Eickhoff start go to waste. The bullpen will blow games sometimes, so we’ll focus on the good – Eickhoff’s 7 IP with 7 K’s and 2 ER continues his consistency streak. Only twice over his past 13 starts has he failed to complete 6 innings. He continues to outperform his peripherals, and maybe he really is a FIP beater and will continue to post a better ERA than expected. Even if he isn’t, his 2.63 ERA gives him plenty of space to regress and still be a valuable member of the rotation. Also worth mentioning – in this game Stassi recorded his first hit – a home run at that. His batting average is .154, but since one of his two hits is a home run and he’s walked in almost 20% of his PA, his overall offensive package is actually just about average. Baseball is weird.
  • Game 8: Loss, 4-14. Maikel Franco hit his first home run. In the 7th inning, the Mets were held scoreless. That is it for highlights as the Mets absolutely clobbered the Phillies. The gruesome twosome of Buchholz and Morgan got batted around for a combined 10 earned runs in 6 innings. Thankfully, this is likely the last we’ll see of the (im)potent combo – Buchholz left the game with a forearm strain and could be out for the season, and Morgan was optioned to Triple A. Jeanmar Gomez didn’t have to wait long to pitch in the 9th again, but this time he approached the mound mop in hand. Take a look at the rightmost column and weep. Double digits all the way to the horizon.
  • Game 9: Loss, 4-5. Vince Velasquez, your stuff is filthy. Your strike out numbers are dirty. Every time you get someone to whiff or catch someone looking at your looping curveball, my heart beats a little quicker. You are so good that I believe you could no hit a team every time your spot in the rotation comes up. And yet it seems just as likely that you will get fouled off a dozen times and walk more than a few batters before getting pulled in the 5th. Only 3 times in 33 starts has Velasquez pitched into the 7th inning. He is a uniquely inefficient pitcher – since 2016, 125 pitchers have thrown at least 2,000 pitches. Velasquez’s foul ball rate ranks 25th. Of the 24 pitchers in front of him, only 6 have a higher walk rate. Of those 6 pitchers, none have a higher strike out rate. Strike outs take more pitches to record outs than balls in play do. Walks and foul balls are the mortal enemies of pitch count. It all adds up to a pitcher who struggles to go deep into games. This game followed the same script – 7 strike outs, 4 walks, and pulled after 5 innings. When things click for Vinny V, he will be dangerous. Until then, the only danger is to the bullpen.
  • Game 10: Loss, 2-3. Jeanmar Gomez continues to lay claim to the title of “final pitcher in Phillies games no matter what”, giving up the winning run in a walk off loss against the Nationals. When I wrote my team previews this past offseason, I mentioned Tommy Joseph’s promising exit velocity. I noted that he was squaring the ball up well enough that 30 home runs wasn’t an unreasonable expectation. So far in 2017 he’s done little to justify that confidence, as both his average exit velocity and average fly ball distance (that latter of which has a high correlation with home runs) rank among those of the pitchers of the team. Given that he’s a first baseman, not an ideal sentence to write. This game, though, he would shine, hitting his first home run of the year against former phenom Stephen Strasburg. While the Phillies would go on to lose in extras, Neris and Neshek continue to prove that the bullpen is in better shape than it has been in years past.
  • Game 11: Win, 4-2. Jeremy Hellickson trotted out the weirdly potent combo of low strike outs, low walks, and low home runs to put together 7 strong innings and give his team the chance to win. The clock will eventually strike midnight on his high wire act, but for now that mixed metaphor is working for Hellickson (and me). Interesting note: Matt Albers finished the game for the Nationals and, as his team was down 2-4, he did not record a save. It might not seem like a particularly noteworthy occasion except that Albers has never recorded a save, despite finishing nearly 100 games in the majors. He is in a race with Ryan Webb for this particularly weird record. It’s not McGwire-Sosa, but they can’t all be, right? It’s the little things that make baseball fun.
  • Game 12: Loss, 4-6. The bad news: Jerad Eickhoff had his worst game of the season. The good news: That “worst start” was merely 3 runs in 6 innings. It’s hard to find much fault with what Eickhoff is doing as he continues his quietly effective career. If only his team could start scoring runs for him, then he could get some of those elusive (and meaningless) pitcher wins. The Phillies were in line for the win going into the 9th inning when the Curse of the Phillies Closer found its latest victim – Joaquin Benoit. Up 4-3 in the 9th, Benoit recorded two flyouts, a walk, and a single before Bryce Harper took center stage. Benoit quickly worked Harper into a desirable 0-2 count. For his career, Harper’s numbers in an 0-2 count resemble that of the infamous Michael Martinez. Unfortunately, “almost never getting a hit” is much different than “never getting a hit”, and for the second time in the game Harper went deep, sealing the Nats victory and breaking the Phillies weekend winning streak. At least we got this gif out of it.

Something interesting I wanted to mention.

The Phillies have two first baseman on the 25-man roster – Tommy Joseph (right-handed) and Brock Stassi (left-handed). Given their talent levels (and relative lack of experience), a platoon wouldn’t be out of the ordinary. Usually, platoon use is based on the opposing starting pitcher – a left hander starts against a right handed pitcher, and vice versa.

Pete Mackanin has been doing something weird, and he’s been doing it almost every single game. Rather than follow the traditional platoon strategy, he has been managing around the pitcher’s batting spot by double switching when it’s about to come up. The usual formula has featured Tommy Joseph as the starter, and from about the 6th or 7th inning on Mr. Stassi has manned first and batted 9th. This pushes the pitcher’s spot back to 6th or 7th in the order. In effect, Pete is limiting the number of times he has to go to a pinch hitter, although he’s still burning a bench player to do so.

I was wondering if there was any math to back up this strategy, so I tried doing a simple correlation – I went back to 2002 for each team and compared the number of plate appearances by pinch hitters vs. runs scored. My hypothesis: Since PH are generally worse at hitting (or they wouldn’t be PH), the more PA they got, the fewer runs a team will have scored.

There was one major oversight about this misguided math. If a pinch hitter is getting more plate appearances, it means the offense is doing well enough to turn the lineup over and reach the pinch hitter’s spot. So in actuality –  the more plate appearances pinch hitters get, the more runs a team will have scored. That means all Pete is doing with the double switch is demonstrating his preference for Joseph and Stassi over Nava or Blanco. Given their performance to date, the validity of that assertion could be questioned. I’m sure as the season goes on we’ll see more moves like Friday, when it was Blanco rather than Stassi who was double switched into the game.

After two weeks, the Phillies are sitting on a 4-8 record. You don’t have to go far to find a worse start to a season – the 2015 Phillies would start 4-9 on route to a major league worst 63-99. The 2017 team is better than that team was, but if things keep going the way they are it’s only a matter of time before reinforcements in the form of top prospects arrive.

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