The Phillies and Contender Math
Recently, I have seen quite a few different debates on the Phillies’ status as buyers or sellers leading up to the July 31 trade deadline. There is certainly a legitimate argument to be made in favor of being a buyer (or having the illusion of buying), as it will keep casual fans engaged for longer, meaning they are tuned in to the TV and radio, as well as buying tickets and merchandise. You can even make an argument as a fan — saying “I will not enjoy watching Freddy Galvis and Cody Asche as much as Chase Utley and Michael Young” is legitimate, though not the basis by which a team is run.
However, the most spurious argument I have seen is that the Phillies are contenders for a playoff spot. They are 7.5 games behind the first-place Atlanta Braves in the NL East, and 5.5 games behind the Cincinnati Reds for the second Wild Card spot with only one team in between (the Nationals). The Phillies are well within striking distance of a post-season spot, particularly if they can continue their current run, having won five of their last six, and get on another one or two or three before the season runs out.
Relying on qualifying for one of the two Wild Card spots is a fool’s errand, however. In general, the one-game Wild Card match-up is a coin flip for entry into the post-season if you assume that both teams have around the same level of talent. If the Phillies won the second Wild Card today, they would match up against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Despite taking two of three from them recently, the Pirates have been the much better team over the first 90 or so games of the season with a +40 run differential. The Phillies have a -44 run differential. (And don’t forget, we’re measuring at a time when the Phillies are arguably at their best and the Pirates are at their worst, having lost five of their last six.)
The Phillies, as the second Wild Card, would actually be slight underdogs in a one-game match-up since they would be playing on the road. And if they happened to win, they would play three of their next five NLDS games on the road as well. This would mean playing the St. Louis Cardinals — with a +126 run differential — at home, after exhausting your ace (Cliff Lee) against the Pirates.
The Phillies have not “proven” their ability to contend for a World Series anymore than Lannan has “proven” his ability to pitch eight shutout innings with regularity. Same goes for Ben Revere and the last 26 games, a stretch in which he has hit .413/.435/.500, and Delmon Young over the last 13 games, a stretch in which he has hit .438/.481/.563. Neither player is going to continue hitting at that rate for the rest of the season, so it makes no sense to make any decisions that assume that they will. The complete body of work is what matters, and through 91 games, the only members of the Phillies lineup whose numbers aren’t exactly where their performances over the last few seasons suggest they should be are Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz.
Last year, the second Wild Card winner (the Cardinals) won 88 games. This year’s second Wild Card leader (the Reds) is on pace to win 90 games. For the Phillies to get to 88 wins, they would need to win 43 of their remaining 71 games, or 61 percent. In other words, the Phillies have to play like a 99-win team over the next two and a half months. And not only that, but you have to hope that other teams don’t catch fire. Getting to 90 wins would require taking 45 of 71 (.634), which would mean playing like a 103-win team.
The Phillies are contenders if and only if everything mentioned above goes perfectly. You need the Phillies to play like a 99-win team for 71 straight games and you need the Reds, Nationals, and Dodgers to falter and you need to win your coin flip Wild Card match and you need to win at least one NLDS game on the road against a tough opponent that gets to use its ace potentially twice while the Phillies would get to use Cliff Lee only once.
Baseball Prospectus puts the Phillies’ odds of reaching the Division Series at four percent. Those aren’t great odds, particularly if you’re basing the future of your franchise on them. It would be delusional to add pieces rather than recoup value in the form of potentially-valuable prospects and current Major League-viable players for aging soon-to-be free agents like Carlos Ruiz, Michael Young, and yes, maybe even Chase Utley. It’s okay to miss the post-season, and it’s okay to give up on that hope as a .500-ish team in mid-July, especially if in doing so, you set up future teams in a much better position to succeed. We have had that sour taste in our mouths before, gearing up at the deadline only to fall flat in the post-season, like the Phillies did with Hunter Pence. And that was a team that won 102 games during the 2011 regular season. Now you’re relying on a team that would need everything to go right to cross 85.