Let’s be honest: it’s looking really bad for the Phillies on July 5. Baseball Prospectus pins their playoff odds at under three percent and there isn’t any one player that would transform the Phillies from NL East cellar dwellers into the behemoth of old. That said, however, the Phillies aren’t quite ready to pull the plug. There are only four games left until the All-Star break, but all are within the division, and they do play the 31-50 Colorado Rockies and 38-43 Milwaukee Brewers after the break, providing some potential ground for a comeback.
If the Phillies are to mount an offensive against the rest of the National League, they will need a lot to go right. Even to reach the second Wild Card, they would need to play roughly .640 baseball over the remaining 79 games (~50 wins). Although the Phillies are well-known as a second-half team (313-192 in the second-half since 2005), that’s asking a lot from a team with so many flaws. In fact, many of those flaws would have to outright go away overnight, but again, it’s not impossible. Here’s an incomplete list of things that need to happen for the Phillies to keep themselves afloat:
“Chooch”, or “Choice” as Ryan Howard likes to call him, currently has a 172 OPS+. Only one catcher has ever finished a season with a 172 OPS+ or better: Mike Piazza, twice.
Asking Ruiz, who entered the season with a 106 OPS+, to continue hitting at that level is a touch unrealistic, but then again, nothing about Ruiz’s 2012 has been realistic.
Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay Must Make Triumphant Returns
The Phillies have withstood injuries to three of their most important players, recently getting Chase Utley back while Howard and Halladay each hope to be back shortly after the All-Star break. In their stead, the Phillies simply have not been able to replace either player. First basemen have collectively compiled a .736 OPS so far this season. When compared to Howard’s career-worst .835 OPS last year, it becomes clear that the Ty Wigginton/John Mayberry/Hector Luna combination is simply not cutting it.
Likewise, the Phillies’ starting rotation went south once Halladay went on the disabled list after his May 27 start. In the month of June, Phillies starters compiled a 4.99 ERA as the team lost 19 of 28 games. Kyle Kendrick, ostensibly Halladay’s fill-in, posted a 6.96 ERA in six June starts.
However, getting Howard back at 2011-12 levels and Halladay at his 2012 3.98 ERA level simply won’t be enough to cut it. The Phillies need an MVP-caliber performance from Howard and a return to Halladay’s Cy Young form. Anything less and a comeback simply won’t be in the cards for the Phillies. Comebacks of historic proportions require some outstanding performances from your team’s best players.
Shane Victorino‘s Platoon Split Must Disappear
Victorino’s struggles from the left-handed batter’s box have been well-publicized. The switch-hitter has posted a .976 OPS as a right-hander, but a very disappointing .602 OPS as a lefty in more than three times the plate appearances. He was an MVP candidate through August last year with a comparably-sized platoon split, but he was .787 as a lefty. Shane has arguably been the most disappointing part of the Phillies’ lineup as he and Hunter Pence were considered the backbone prior to Ruiz’s breaking out.
This is, of course, assuming that the Phillies don’t move Victorino prior to the July 31 trading deadline. But even so, Victorino correcting his lack of success against right-handed pitching would no doubt help the Phillies move him as well, so it works both ways.
Juan Pierre Must Continue Being Average
Pierre finished the 2010 season with a 79 OPS+, then followed up with a 78 OPS+last year. His career average is 84. His current OPS+ is 104. It’s been a renaissance for the well-traveled outfielder, and he has been a surprisingly productive member of the Phillies’ everyday lineup. Pierre currently sports a .322 batting average with 20 stolen bases in 23 attempts — one of only three Phillies with more than four stolen bases along with Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino. It’s certainly an out-of-character performance for Pierre, but the Phillies will need him to keep it up over the final three months if they have any hope of pushing their way up the NL East standings.
Lee’s season-to-date has been a hot topic of conversation, especially lately, but Blanton has had a comparably mismatched 2012. Blanton and Lee are #1 and 3 in the league, respectively, in strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.9, 4.9). Only six qualified NL pitchers posted a K/BB above 4.0 last year, and five of them had an ERA at 3.10 or lower; the other was Jordan Zimmermann (3.78). Lee’s ERA is at 3.98 while Blanton’s has ballooned to 4.85. Because pitchers have a lot of control over their strikeouts and walks, they are the most informative and the most predictive, which means we should expect better results from both pitchers even in the short-term, looking towards the second half of the season.
Jonathan Papelbon Needs to be Used
Earlier in the season, the Phillies were willingly not using their $50 million closer. Recently, though, they simply didn’t have any spots to use him because they were losing so often. Between June 24 and July 3, Papelbon appeared in only one of the Phillies’ ten games. He appeared in yesterday’s win over the New York Mets with a seven-run lead, just to get some work. Jim Salisbury even wondered if Papelbon would have needed a rehab start to stay fresh if he hadn’t been brought in yesterday. Whether it’s protecting the standard 1-3 run leads or working in high-leverage situations, even in tie games on the road, the Phillies need to make use of their best and most consistent reliever.
The Young Relievers Must Step Up
So far this year, the Phillies have used Antonio Bastardo, Michael Schwimer, Jake Diekman, Joe Savery, David Herndon, Michael Stutes, B.J. Rosenberg, and Jeremy Horst, all 26 years old or younger. Although Stutes and Herndon are out for the year, the rest can still play very important roles in the bullpen, and the Phillies will need at least a couple of them to take big strides. Bastardo in particular is a must as the Phillies see him as a critical piece of the puzzle moving forward, handing him late-inning responsibilities both last year and this year, but he currently has a 4.00 ERA and is averaging five walks per nine innings, both numbers that need to come down.
The most likely scenario for the Phillies is that, with a 12-game deficit in the NL East, they consider themselves sellers and say goodbye to franchise stalwarts Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino. Potentially, Placido Polanco, Joe Blanton, and Ty Wigginton could be moved as well. Even Carlos Ruiz can’t be considered off-limits given his age and how much his value has risen lately. Still, there is a very slim but non-zero chance that the Phillies can still make something out of this season. It will take a lot of things going right all at the same time, but we said the same thing about their playoff hopes in 2007 and ’08. The Phillies of recent vintage have always found a way to surprise us.