What Should the Phillies Have Discussed in their Team Meeting?
After Thursday night’s 13-2 loss against the Blue Jays, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin held a team meeting to discuss the Phillies’ poor play of late. After starting the season 24-17, the young team has been much worse over the past 30 days, with a record of 6-20. While the meeting may have simply been filled with platitudes about “working harder day in and day out” and “keeping your heads up,” I wanted to find concrete things the Phillies could do better to recapture some of their early season magic.
Over the past 30 days, the Phillies have easily the worst wRC+ among Major League teams. Their 68 wRC+ is a full 8 points lower than the White Sox in 29th place. Their hitters have the second-lowest walk rate, and the highest K%-BB%. They also have the lowest WAR at 0.0. In short, the Phillies need to do everything better. But that’s not exactly instructive, so let’s dig in and find a few specific things the lineup could improve upon.
Despite the Phillies’ poor full-season offensive performance (72 wRC+), one area they excelled in early was clutch. Now I know clutch isn’t a reliable metric for individual players, let alone a full team, but the differences are stark. In “clutch situations”, the Phillies performed very well through their first 41 games. Their clutch score of 0.87 for the season ranks 7th in baseball, but over their last 30 days, their clutch score has plummeted to -2.20, worst in baseball.
I should note that clutch score compares how a hitter does in high-leverage situations against how he hits overall. Therefore, the Phillies poor overall hitting would not negatively affect their clutch score. This means that, as putrid as the Phillies offense has been, they’ve been even worse in the most important plate appearances. This is one situation, though, where keeping your head up is probably the best you can do. Clutch score is not predictive and tends to revert to 0 over time. The Phillies should not keep performing this poorly in crunch time.
Most of the Phillies’ statistics outside of clutch have remained relatively stable. The Phillies were one of the worst offenses in baseball before the last 30 days as well, but one suggestion I think Pete Mackanin should make to his hitters is to be more selective at the plate. The Phillies’ O-Swing% is about two percentage points higher over the past month than over the full season, but their O-Contact% is down. On top of that, their Z-Swing% is down. Add it all together, and their SwStr% is up, as is their K%.
Without the statistical overload, that basically means they’re swinging more out of the zone and whiffing more, while swinging less in the zone. This leads to more called strikes and more strikeouts. As a result, the Phillies are last in pitches seen per plate appearance over the last 30 days. Basically, they’ve got to swing at more strikes and fewer balls. What great insight!
Pitching has been the real difference between the Phillies fast start and their recent slump. A look at their recent statistics is telling.
As you can see, the Phillies starting staff has regressed in just about every metric. Between Vincent Velasquez’ command problems and subsequent DL stint, poor performance from Aaron Nola and Jeremy Hellickson (4.53 and 4.73 FIPs, respectively) and nightmarish debuts for Adam Morgan and Zach Eflin, the pitching staff is in shambles at the moment.
Get Back to What Works
Now after that lead-in about how horrible the pitching staff has been, I think it’s important to include a qualifier. Over the Phillies last 26 games, during which they’re 6-20, these have been their opponents.
While they could have handled the Nationals’ and Brewers’ offenses, the other 19 games have been against some of the best offenses in the league. So it makes sense that three of the Phillies six wins have come in the seven games against Milwaukee and Washington. However, we can’t realistically expect the Phillies’ young pitching staff to continue to dominate when facing lineups chock full of MVPs and Silver Sluggers. If there’s one positive to take from this recent swoon, at least it was against the best the MLB has to offer.
Digging deeper, the Phillies Zone% has decreased by about 5 percentage points as they’ve been facing more dangerous hitters, while their SwStr% has decreased and opposition contact rates are up across the board. That’s not good, obviously.
So what should Pete Mackanin and Bob McClure tell the Phillies’ young staff? Get back to what works. Stop trying to pitch around the good hitters in the league. Attack them, as you were early in the year. As they’ve tried to pitch around these hitters, the Phillies’ starters walked more batters and struck out fewer.
“Get back to what works” is much more easily said than done, but if the pitching staff can summon the confidence to challenge the Bryce Harpers and Miguel Cabreras and Josh Donaldsons of the world, as they had earlier in the season, they will have more success.
While I hate to try to diagnose the emotions of grown men who play baseball for a living, as I have very little in common with them, the statistics show me a young team struggling with playing under pressure. It is a sports truism that poor play in clutch situations and against the best of the best can be overcome by remaining relaxed and confident. Maybe there’s some truth to that
And besides, the stated goal for this season is not to win as many games as possible or to make the playoffs. The goal is to develop the young roster for the future. And in a 162-game season, dealing with adversity and making adjustments is one of, if not the most important skills for players to develop.
Maybe “Keep your head up” isn’t such bad advice.