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.

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11 comments

  1. TomG

    May 01, 2014 09:14 AM

    The fact that they scored 14 runs in their first game, had a lead, blew it, then came back to win; that they outscored the Rockies 10-9 in Colorado in that one game they did win; and had a few other games in which they came back from behind late and showed an ability to score more than three runs … those were all good signs, too. It’s nice for a change to feel that when the Phils fall behind in a game they are not necessarily incapable of coming back and winning it. (Or coming back and then losing it, thanks to the BP, as happened in that Braves game. I’m not blind to the flipside of this, which is also characteristic of this iteration of the Phillies.)

    But if we continue to get 7 or 8 innings on a somewaht regular basis from our top three starters (and from KK once in awhile), the arms we have in the bullpen might be able to hold leads for us.

    Also, Dom could have the kind of May he had last year and then little else will matter.

    I think option A is more realistic, even though there are more variables.

    The prospect of being able to see Lee, Hamels, Ruiz and, of course, Utley play regularly would be enough to keep me coming back for more, even if they don’t contend.

  2. LarryM

    May 01, 2014 10:11 AM

    What’s depressing is the performance of pretty much everyone under the age of 30, with the arguable exception of Revere. Collectively the under 30 contingent is more than 2 fWAR below replacement – by far the worst in baseball.

    • mark66

      May 02, 2014 02:15 PM

      As I have been saying that the Phils have shown they don’t develop players very well in their farm system. When was the last time a home grown player has come up, stayed, and developed into a sound major league ? Look at how bad 3B is, no proven outfielder. It has been awhile. Changes need to be made in the front office.

  3. Bob

    May 01, 2014 10:56 AM

    Chooch needs to bat higher in the lineup. If he’s hot, ride him. Batting him so low is not optimal.

    The Phillies, as projected, are not good at defense. They are 13/15 in the NL in DRS at a -8 — tied with the D-backs. They are -7 UZR/150 good for 14/15 in the NL. They are -5.6 in Def on Fangraphs, which is 12/15. The Phillies are pretty good in ErrR, but not so good in RngR meaning they’re sure-handed but just can’t get to some balls. Howard, Asche, and Galvis have not been good up to this point. Depending on the metric, Ruiz and Brown haven’t been good either.

    The Phillies need to win divisional game against those ahead of them in the standings. The Braves and Mets have looked better and played better than them in head-to-head matchups. They need to start winning these divisional series or they’re going to be in trouble. To have such a large run-differential is alarming. It shows that they are inconsistent as they have had some high scoring affairs and some quiet bats at other times.

  4. William

    May 01, 2014 10:20 PM

    Reuben Amaro Jr. has to go and he needs to take Ryan Howard with him !!!!! Howard’s contract has really hampered the Phillies as he still strikes out way to often. More contact, more contact, more contact! So many years with 200 or more strikeouts and not putting the ball in play just kills the Phillies. Just as important is the amount of money the organization has to pay for that (Reuben Amaro’s Jr’s fault). Howard’s contract prevents the organization from acquiring quality ballplayers needed to replace those that are sub-standard. I haven’t even mentioned Howard’s injuries. Anyway time for both to go !!!!!!!!!!!!!!! NOW !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Bob

      May 02, 2014 09:46 AM

      His K rate is down this year. His walk rate is up . His ISO is the highest its been since 2011. He has five homers to lead the team. Double-digit runs and RBIs. His LD% is up. Corrine has already showed that he’s doing better against LHP. His contact rates are darn near the highest they’ve ever been. His wOBA is good. And once the weather heats up and the ball starts traveling, his power numbers should go up.

      If you want to complain about his defense, that’s fine. He’s terrible defensively. But he’s having a pretty good year offensively and I can’t wait to see him hit in warm weather.

      • LarryM

        May 02, 2014 10:23 AM

        Here’s the problem with that …

        It’s certainly true that as a hitter he is having a bit of a bounce back year. EVEN SO he is a shadow of his former self. Per wRC+ (and, unlike, say, defensive metrics, no one who understands the metrics would deny that wRC+ is a rock solid measure of offensive production), he’s only 14th in major league baseball among starting first basemen. That’s looking at hitting only – and I don’t think anyone would deny that his defense and base running are at or near the bottom of major league first basemen.

        That package, even if he continues his hitting rebirth, makes him one of the least valuable first basemen in the league. He’s Luke Duda with a tiny bit more offense but worse defense.

      • Bob

        May 02, 2014 11:00 AM

        A 121 wRC+ is pretty good. He’s had four seasons of wRC+ in the 120 range; 3 in the 130 range; one in the 160 range; and one in the 110s range. Would I like to see him get back to the 130 range? Of course. Hopefully, that’s realistic and he can come on strong during the summer. To make the top 10, he’d have to get almost a 140 wRC+. I think it’s unfair to suggest that he won’t have a good season unless he gets a 140 wRC+ when he’s only gotten above a 130 range once in his career.

      • LarryM

        May 02, 2014 11:24 AM

        Couple of points, but I’d summarize all of them as follows: yes, we shouldn’t expect more than a 120 wRC+. But that’s not a DEFENSE of him; it’s basically why he’s no longer an adequate first baseman. But more specifically

        One, his defense and base running have deteriorated, so a 120 wRC+ is no longer adequate.

        Two, there’s an obvious difference of opinion about just how good he was even before his decline. His MVP year aside, there’s a pretty strong argument that he had only one year of true stardom – 2009 with a wRC+ of 139. Perhaps a borderline star in his rookie season (wRC+ 132) AND 2007 (wRC+ 135).

        Three: putting #1 and #2 together, with a wRC+ under 130, he was a solid regular at best – when his defense and base running were at least passable.

        Another way of stating the same thing – a first baseman who has a wRC+ of 120, can’t run the bases, and plays poor defense, is a below average regular. And, at this stage of Howard’s career, that’s his upside.

      • LarryM

        May 02, 2014 11:46 AM

        Not that there is much that they can do to replace him in the short run. They are stuck with the awful contract and have no realistic options. I do think that, despite the improvement versus left handers, that he should platoon with Ruf when Ruf is healthy. But I doubt that that will happen.

    • mark66

      May 02, 2014 02:17 PM

      Everyone agrees 1,000%. Changes need to made in the front office first

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