Phillies April Review: .500 Isn’t So Bad
Here we are at last, the first of May. The Phillies made it through the season’s opening month, most of it spent without Cole Hamels. A.J. Burnett was diagnosed with an inguinal hernia. The bullpen has been a giant tire fire. Roberto Hernandez has a 5.74 ERA.
And yet, the Phillies are 13-13, .500, only two games out of second place (and 4.5 games out of first place) in the NL East. Some, before the season, predicted the Phillies to win fewer than 75 games, but based on what we have seen through the first month, this is a team that could potentially contend for an NL Wild Card spot with a few lucky breaks.
There’s been plenty to be happy about:
- Carlos Ruiz is back. The catcher is slashing .297/.414/.473 in 89 plate appearances. It’s tough to say if his resurgence is health- or Adderall-related (or both, or neither), but the Phillies will be happy to take the performance without asking questions. Ruiz was signed to a three-year, $26 million extension in November. A productive year one goes a long way towards the contract returning equal or better value to the Phillies.
- Chase Utley is still healthy. The last time Chase Utley went a full year without landing on the disabled list was 2009. ZiPS projected Utley to accrue only 455 plate appearances and PECOTA put him at 446. In other words, they assumed Utley would miss one or two months’ worth of games, and they were totally right to do so. The baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint, they say, and peril could still lie ahead for Utley in the remaining five-sixths of the season. Through that first one-sixth, however, Utley has excelled, as he is baseball’s best-hitting second baseman once again with a .417 weighted on-base average. Utley and his ability to stay healthy will be a large deciding factor in the Phillies’ competitiveness over the course of the season.
- Ryan Howard hasn’t been dominated by left-handed pitchers. You’ve heard it here ad nauseam, but as Corinne Landrey showed recently, Howard has done quite well against left-handed pitching. With a career .408/.316 right/left wOBA split, Howard has posted a .352/.345 split in the early going. In fact, Howard has shown slightly more power against southpaws than right-handers with a .226 isolated power compared to .209 against the opposite side. Overall, Howard has been going up the middle and to the opposite field more often, reducing his pull rate on batted balls from 46 percent in 2012-13 to 40 percent this season.
- Cliff Lee has been Cliff Lee. In his four starts bookended by his Opening Day shellacking against the Texas Rangers and his most recent beating by the Arizona Diamondbacks, Lee has been remarkable, striking out 37 and walking one while posting a 1.20 ERA in 30 innings. Lee has been a victim of a .397 BABIP overall, so his results stand to improve as the season drags on. Including all six of his starts, Lee has a 3.29 ERA with a 10-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio.
- A.J. Burnett hasn’t been hampered by his inguinal hernia. After Burnett’s April 11 start against the Marlins in which he walked six batters for the second consecutive outing, the right-hander was diagnosed with an inguinal hernia. If you’re squeamish, don’t look up the injury. It’s not life- or career-threatening, however; just uncomfortable. Burnett said he would pitch through it as long as he wasn’t in too much discomfort. In the three starts since the diagnosis, Burnett has posted a 0.83 ERA with 18 strikeouts and three walks in 21 2/3 innings. It’s hard to expect Burnett to keep up this level of dominance over an extended period of time, but anything remotely close to it will give the Phillies exactly what they paid for in February.
- Reports of Jonathan Papelbon‘s demise may have been greatly exaggerated. Papelbon still isn’t firing fastballs at 95 MPH the way he used to, and maybe he never will, but since blowing a save in spectacular fashion against the Rangers on April 2, Papelbon has converted all eight of his save chances without allowing a run in 10 innings of work. The strikeouts aren’t there the way they used to be, just like his velocity, but if Papelbon can still get the job done by inducing weak contact, then the Phillies will certainly take it. It’s not ideal, but what other option is there?
Another positive to take in is that the Phillies played a shockingly difficult opening slate of games. They opened the season with six on the road against the Rangers, who have won 90-plus games in four consecutive seasons. The Phillies could have conceivably swept the series if not for their awful bullpen. After leaving Texas, the Phillies then took two of three from the lowly Cubs, as anyone should. On the return home, the Brewers greeted them with a three-game sweep. The Brewers have turned out to be baseball’s best team after a month with a 20-8 record, so there’s certainly no shame in being beaten by the best. The Phillies returned the favor, sweeping the Marlins in three games at home before losing two of three to the pitching-rich and NL East-leading Braves in a close, hard-fought series. The Phillies arguably could have swept the series if not for their bullpen and Julio Teheran narrowly out-pitching Cliff Lee.
The Phillies then began a ten-game road trip out west, starting in Colorado. The Phillies have had lots of success against the Rockies, going 25-9 against them between 2009-13, including 10-5 at Coors Field. But they were outscored 15-2 in the first two games, both losses, before escaping with 10-9 victory in the getaway game. The Phillies traveled to Los Angeles and impressively took three of four from the Dodgers, the pre-season favorite in the NL West. The road trip concluded in Arizona, and the Phillies took two of three from the Diamondbacks The Phillies closed out April with a series-opening loss at home to the Mets and were rained out of Wednesday’s game.
That’s a .500 record with a six-game road trip to begin the season, a grueling 10-game road trip in the middle of the month including four against the pre-season favorite (Dodgers), and two series at home against the National League’s best teams (Brewers and Braves). And that is with Cole Hamels missing four starts, with the awful bullpen, with Roberto Hernandez being subpar, with MLB-worst production at third base, and with the outfield ranking in the bottom-third of the league offensively.
The Phillies have a -15 run differential. They are the only team in the red in the NL East, and have the third-worst differential in the league behind only the Diamondbacks (-62) and San Diego Padres (-26). With that run differential, we would expect the Phillies to be two games worse at 11-15. They are fortunate to be at .500. They walked out of a casino with more money than they arrived with — that’s a win in anyone’s book.
They won’t be .500 if they continue to play baseball the way they have; if the bullpen continues being a disaster, if Ben Revere and Domonic Brown can’t find any semblance of power hitting (excluding Wednesday’s games, they rank first and tied for 6th with the least amount of extra-base hits among hitters with 100 plate appearances, respectively), and if the Phillies’ third base situation becomes a massive black hole. However, there’s reason to believe upward trends are in store for all of them. Cole Hamels is back in the rotation, and the schedule won’t be nearly as difficult going forward.
April was frustrating in a lot of ways for the Phillies and the fans who watched them. But 26 games later, we can exhale and accurately label the first month a rather thrilling success for the Phillies. Now, onto May.