Entering the season, there were several reasons to believe that the Phillies could play competent baseball. Not competitive, not contemptuous, but competent. Tommy Joseph’s 2016 debut had been encouraging. Maikel Franco was coming off a down year, but the underlying numbers and his 2015 performance pointed to a potential rebound. Between that and the promising young trio of Nola, Eickhoff, and Velasquez, there was a lot to look forward to – the years of watching aging veterans slowly slip from relevancy with next to nothing on the way from a barren farm system were over.
Or so we had hoped. After an 11-9 start to the season, the Phillies stumbled and tumbled their way down the standings, settling into last place and the role of “punching bag of the league”. A first half record of 29-58 left us wondering what we were optimistic about to begin the season. Joseph, Franco, and Cameron Rupp had been projected to combine for about 6.0 WAR/600 PA (a little over league average). Instead, they totaled -0.3 WAR/600 PA (yes, that’s a minus sign). Even the reliable Odubel Herrera, who had proved himself worth of a 5 year/$30.5 million extension, was under-performing what was expected of him. It seemed as though the next “window of opportunity”, which we’d been cautiously peeking through, was slammed shut and pushed back several years. Would this team ever be good again?
When something is broken, you have two options to make it right: You either fix it, or you replace it. Such is baseball, and such is life. Odubel Herrera took the latter course – after posting a .685 OPS in the first half, Herrera has come storming back with a .934 OPS in the second (fueled by improvements in his plate discipline). Baseball is a game of adjustments, and Herrera seems to have made his. In the cases of Joseph, Franco, and Rupp – well, say hello to Rhys Hoskins, J.P. Crawford, and Jorge Alfaro. The recently-promoted trio (in particular Hoskins) has shined upon filling in for the disappointing starters.
So they got better or replaced bad players with good ones. These are very real improvements that the Phillies have made. But you don’t have to take my word for it – you can also take my pictures for it. Here are a few graphs to really underline the changes. The size of the circle denotes the number of plate appearances a player has, and the color of the circle denotes how good the player is. Look at how much less red there is! And the green! Green good!
Unsurprisingly, the Phillies are among the most improved teams in baseball. The following table takes a team’s WAR, converts it to a rate stat, and shows which teams have improved most overall. There’s rounding involved in case any of the math looks “off”. Direct your eyes to the final column.
The Phillies are winning more as a result of their improved play (intuitively – play better, win more). After starting the season 29-58, the team has an “actually pretty decent” record of 33-36. Going back to 1913, a span of 105 seasons, this 2nd half improvement in winning percentage (from 0.333 to 0.478) ranks 7th. (The most improved team? The 1997 Phillies, who went 24-61 in the first half and 44-33 in the second. From a 46-game win pace to a 93-game win pace. Just needed a few days off, I guess.)
Will the team be good in 2018? That is another question. The Phillies are certainly much better than they were, but holes remain (the starting rotation behind Nola is almost entirely question marks), and the league will have had an entire off-season to study scouting reports and adjust to the “reinforcements” that have propped up the sinking ship. 2018 could be great. It could also be an adjustment year. Regardless of the kind of year it ends up being, it will go a long way toward determining where the Phillies are at in their rebuild.
- Game 150: vs. LAD. W, 4-3. Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher of the past decade. Still only 29 years old, the lefty has established himself as a near lock for the Hall of Fame with his consistent excellence (excluding playoff games). Kershaw was putting up 0’s along as usual until Aaron Altherr put a dent in his future Hall of Fame plaque – with two outs and the bases loaded, Altherr hit the very first grand slam against Kershaw. This hit would prove to be the difference in the game as the Phillies went on to win 4-3.
- Game 151: vs. LAD. W, 6-2. Aaron Nola, you wonderful pitcher. Another excellent outing – the Dodgers put together enough offense for an early 2-0 lead, but Nola clamped down and limited the damage to that, striking out 8 batters in 7 innings. Pitching alone can’t win games. Good thing the Phillies bats took over – 6 runs late in the game (highlighted by another Altherr blast) sealed victory for the Phils.
- Game 152: vs. LAD. W, 7-5. It’s hard to feel bad for Dodgers fans. Sure, the Dodgers might be hard to watch lately, but even winning only 5 of their previous 25 games they’re still 40 games over .500. You can’t judge a team by their hot streak or by their cold streak – consider their entire track record when determining their quality. The game came down to the bottom of the 8th. Knotted up at 5, the bases were loaded by a walk, an error, and an intentional walk to Rhys Hoskins (if you aren’t going to intentionally walk the hottest hitter in baseball with the game on the line, you’ll never intentionally walk anyone). Aaron Altherr made them regret that decision, driving a single deep to right field that was good for two runs and the lead. A 1-2-3 9th inning by Hector Neris secured the series win. Not bad for the worst team in baseball.
- Game 153: vs. LAD. L, 4-5. Three out of four isn’t bad. Three out of four against the best team in baseball is great. The Phillies winning streak was the result of a Houdini-ish act – in Game 1 of the series, they scored 4 runs on only 4 hits to win. In Game 3, they scored 7 runs on only 6 hits to win. In the finale, the magic ran out – they tallied only 7 hits but still scored 4 runs – which proved to be an inadequate buffer for the shaky bullpen.
- Game 154: @ATL. L, 2-7. The Phillies scored 2 runs and lost.
- Game 155: @ATL. L, 2-4. The Phillies scored 2 runs and lost.
- Game 156: @ATL. W, 2-0. Sensing a pattern here. The Phillies scored 2 runs and lo….wait…they won? Must’ve been Nola pitchi…no? Who? Pivetta? Only four strikeouts? And Maikel Franco hit a home run? Fake conversations on a non-existent telephone are a weak writing device? That’s wild.
Around the League Round-Up
- Some things just shouldn’t work at the major league level. So when a hidden ball trick does…
- File this under: “Things I’m confident I could do”
- I can’t think of a good way to introduce this next story, so instead I’ll just drop in the headline – Group of 45 men dressed like Magnum, P.I. kicked out of Detroit Tigers game
- Angels Stadium features a large “Sherwin Williams” paint can in center field. This isn’t something for a long overdue project (the laundry room walls are calling out to me) but as a charity promotion – any time a home run is hit into the can, Sherwin Williams will donate $1,000,000 to charity. This has happened a total of 0 times since the promotion began in 2014. Last week it looked like Justin Upton had scored a million for charity, only for Sherwin Williams to back out due to a technicality.
- The man who promised to buy everyone chicken nuggets if Hoskins went yard followed through. Love it when someone puts their money where their mouth is, especially so that others can put nuggets where their mouths are.
- I, for one, am not much of a fan of the “Rhys Lightning” nickname. I will give it a pass for now, though, because it resulted in the Phillies rookies dancing and singing to Greased Lightning in the hotel lobby. Yes, they were dressed the part.