Phillies Are An Illusion Worth Watching

It’s May 20th and the Phillies are one game out of first place. Let’s just savor this for a moment. We are officially one quarter of the way through this baseball season and, at 24-17, the Phillies are seven games over .500.

Usually, the next sentence is something like, at this rate, the Phillies are on pace to blah blah blah. But we can’t really say that right now. The math just doesn’t work out in our favor.

Frankly, the Phillies shouldn’t even be on pace for their current record. Everything about it defies logic, expectation, and basic probability. Of course, that’s why the season is 162 games long. Ultimately, that many games will prove who’s real and who isn’t. The fakers will fade come August.

So what are the Phillies? In what capacity is this real and how excited should we be? Well, to the latter question first, be excited. Any time your team is winning, be excited. The players look excited. They’re obviously having fun and it’s something you should be a part of.

So now, to the former question. Is this real, or just an illusion?

Dying At the Plate
We all know exactly how this team is winning. The rotation has been dominant. The bullpen has been effective beyond anything we had a right to expect. And the hitting…well, the hitting has been timely.

Of course, “timely” is a pretty euphemistic way to say generally terrible except some of the time. The Phillies figure close to the bottom in nearly every offensive category. At .235/.294/.362, they have the third worst slash in baseball. With 31 home runs, they’re second worst in the majors. And they’re only ranked that high because Atlanta, amazingly, has a sum total of 15 dingers, or just two more than either Nolan Arenado or Yoenis Cespedes has all on his own. Thank goodness for the Braves or we’d have nobody to look down our noses at.

Still, the Phillies aren’t exactly keeping opposing pitchers awake at night.

At the heart of the lineup, and batting .333/.443./.458, Herrara continues to excite as the team’s best hitter. Franco has shown encouraging flashes of power and his defense has been stellar, but he still has plenty of work to do as an evolving hitter. Rupp looks very much like a guy who could be defending the plate for years to come. Outside of the new core though, the lineup is below average in every statistical way possible.

Ryan Howard is a suck-hole in the middle of the batting order, slashing .168/.236/.398 and making a strong case for Tommy Joseph to become an everyday player after a mere three games at the major league level.

Peter Bourjos and Freddy Galvis are obvious defense plusses and, based on their respective outputs at the plate, they’d pretty much have to be to remain professional ballplayers. And beyond Andres Blanco, the bench has been abysmal.

Most pundits predicted the Phillies would be among the worst teams in baseball and so far, the hitting suggests these predictions were not unfounded.

Thriving On the Mound
Doesn’t sound much like a winner, does it? I mean, you’d have to run out some pretty serious pitching to overcome that level of offensive futility.

Fortunately, that’s exactly what the Phillies are doing right now. Collectively, Phillies pitchers lead the majors with 374 strikeouts. At .233, the starters have limited opposing hitters to the fourth lowest batting average in baseball. At 3.72, Phils starters also have the 9th best ERA in baseball, 5th in the NL. And here’s the big one. Starters have limited opposing hitters to just 62 walks, the third fewest free passes in all of baseball.

In Aaron Nola and Vincent Velasquez, the Phillies have two starters with ERAs under 3.00 and WHIPs under 1.00.

Of course, we had a sense that these young starters might be cause for excitement. By contrast, let’s see a show of hands for everybody that was excited about the bullpen. Right. Well, with a .246 batting average against, Phillies relievers are right there in the middle of the pack. We’ll certainly take it.

But here’s the real kicker. The Phillies entered this season without naming a closer and presently lead the majors with 18 saves. Most of the credit for this accomplishment goes to Jeanmar Gomez, purveyor of all pitches, master of none. Lacking a knockout pitch but compensating with gritty workmanship, Gomez has converted 16 of 17 save opportunities.

As for the other two saves, one belongs to Hector Neris, who has otherwise been among the most unhittable setup men in baseball. His 1.44 ERA/.72 WHIP, 33:7 K/BB and a positively evil splitter suggest that the Phillies have two guys who are more than capable of closing.

David Hernandez has one save but in fairness, all credit goes to Tyler Goeddel, who made the throw of a lifetime last Saturday night, and Cameron Rupp, who absorbed a punishing head-on collision with Eugenio Suarez at the plate, to seal a 4-3 victory over the Reds. Anyway, Hernandez got the save but it wasn’t easy and I wouldn’t rush to get him back out there.

The Improbability of It All
But let’s get back to Goeddel and Rupp’s thrilling connection for just a minute. If you saw it, you probably felt something that you haven’t felt in a while. You probably felt like baseball was fun again, perhaps even consequential. You felt right.

That game also gave the Phillies a highly improbably 14-3 record in one-run games this year. How improbable is that? The Phillies have a -28 run differential, which is literally the worst run differential any team has ever had this late into the season while sporting a .585 winning percentage. They sit just one game behind the Washington Nationals, who sport a +48 differential. The optimistic way to look at this is that the Nationals are working a whole lot harder for basically the same results.

But another more accurate way to look at it is that the team’s current level of success is unsustainable. For a team in a rebuild, it looks like they’re well ahead of schedule. Some of this appearance is probably an illusion.

And yet, the energy and sheer desire to win are not illusions. Now is a good time to start paying attention. The Phillies are winning games but, lacking a superstar box office draw, they haven’t yet won the attention of their city. I was at a game this past Monday when the Phillies hosted the Florida Marlins. It was Dollar Dog night. The stadium was so empty, you could hear a mosquito fart. People should be coming out to see these guys.

The numbers say they probably won’t be able keep this up all season. But you should get it while it’s hot. Even if this is an illusion, it’s one worth watching.

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