What We Learned About the Phillies in the First Half
Well, that could’ve been a whole lot worse. The Phillies hit the All-Star Break with a 42-48 record which places them ninth in the National League. The NL has been criticized since before the start of the season for a lack of parity. With very few exceptions, it was clear before the season began who would be contenders and who would be engaged in battles for last place. The only NL teams with a better record than the Phillies right now are the eight considered clear “contenders” entering the season. In a league of “haves” and “have-nots”, the Phillies are the winningest “have-not”.
However, there’s a difference between being a surprisingly good team and having a surprisingly good record and the Phillies decidedly fall into the latter distinction. After all, they still have the third worst run differential in the majors. But the biggest storyline for the Phillies isn’t their surprising proximity to a winning record. The most important thing for the team is still their future outlook and 2016 has gone about as well as could be hoped for through that lens.
They’ve seen breakouts and strong performances by young players at the major league level. Upper level prospects who have seen their stocks rise or hold steady include Jake Thompson, J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams, Dylan Cozens, and Rhys Hoskins. There have been a few unexpectedly fun surprises as well including Hector Neris, Jeanmar Gomez, Cameron Rupp and, the out of nowhere, Tommy Joseph.
Of course, it hasn’t all been good. When dealing with a large enough quantity of baseball players, injury setbacks are inevitable and, naturally, they’ve come for a handful of Phillies prospets including Mark Appel, Roman Quinn, and Jimmy Cordero. Nola’s recent struggles have been unsettling, even if the overall prognosis remains positive. Maikel Franco hasn’t quite put together the breakout sophomore campaign many hoped he would. And, maybe it’s just me, but there’s a constant feeling that a catastrophic injury to Vincent Velasquez is just around the corner.
With a mix of the good and the bad, here are my top five takeaways from the first half:
5. Placeholders aren’t fun to watch.
Speaking as a biased observer who has watched the team regularly during the decline over the past five seasons, one of the most exciting things about the 2016 version of the Phillies is that they’re interesting. On any given night, there are a handful of guys on the field who could easily be key contributors in the Phillies next postseason performance. It’s a massively welcome departure from bad Phillies teams of recent years which consisted of players who were clearly not a part of the Phillies future.
Unfortunately, the formation of a new core is still an evolving process which means there’s more than a little roster filler still remaining on the team. There’s a very real sense each night that every starting position player not named Herrera or Franco is simply bridging the gap to the arrival of the next key members of future Phillies teams to arrive. It’s easy to know intellectually that patience is a virtue when it comes to player development, but after years of watching roster filler it’s hard not to get antsy for the future to continue arriving. With the potential upcoming arrivals/returns of Aaron Altherr, Nick Williams, J.P. Crawford, and Jake Thompson, it’s getting easier to see the light at the end of the tunnel where it will no longer be necessary to manufacture emotional investment in roster placeholders.
4. Maikel Franco is streaky
Franco hasn’t yet emerged as a consistent middle-of-the-order presence to help anchor a lineup. With his tremendous power and contact ability, all the potential is there, but he’s been unable to exhibit the plate discipline necessary to capitalize on his talent. He is the kind of player I like the most in that he’s a player who has demonstrated again and again an ability to adjust to his level of competition. To me, that’s the key to being a productive ball player — can you adjust to your opponent? And until Franco shows he’s run out of adjustments, his track record provides reason for optimism. Franco has been streaky this year. That doesn’t mean he’ll always be streaky, but it does mean that right now his rolling-wRC+ chart looks like this:
Those are tremendous peaks and valleys. At the risk of stating the obvious, for Franco to take the next step forward, he’s going to need to find a way to produce more consistently at the plate.
3. Bullpens are unpredictable
Entering the season, the Phillies bullpen was a terrifying unknown. After the departure of key bullpen pieces Ken Giles, Jonathan Papelbon, Jake Diekman, and Justin De Fratus last season, the Phillies declined to bring in established talent to take over those roles. Their biggest addition was a league average reliever in David Hernandez. Beyond that, their spring training bullpen was a collection of oft-injured veterans on minor league deals and an uninspiring collection of AAAA arms. It was a plan that could have backfired horrifically, but in the end, the Phillies found a bullpen mix which has gotten them through the first half.
Don’t misunderstand, the Phillies bullpen hasn’t been great. In fact, their team bullpen ERA of 4.39 ranks 21st among all major league teams. But Jeanmar Gomez has emerged as a surprisingly effective closer with a sub-3.00 ERA and a profile that can perhaps best be described a closer’s version of a junkballer. Yes, Gomez has a mid-90s fastball, but nothing about his repertoire exhibits the type of dominance we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from closers. However, he’s found a way to make it work exceptionally well through movement on his pitches and stellar command of the zone. Additionally, Hector Neris has emerged as a tremendous (if still occasionally inconsistent) setup man thanks to his filthy splitter.
The rest of the bullpen has been largely mediocre, if with occasional flashes of brilliance. Andrew Bailey has had moments where he resembled the dominant reliever he once was. Edubray Ramos has been stellar in his brief stint with the big club. And Severino Gonzalez, who was an unmitigated disaster as a starting pitcher a year ago, has reemerged as a reliever with potential value.
Some things in baseball are predictable. Bullpens aren’t one of those things.
2. Odubel Herrera is Good
This needs little explanation. The Phillies lone all-star representative has taken tremendous steps forward this season at the plate. His home run power is up and his plate discipline is improved. He now has a career 113 wRC+ a season and a half into his major league career and if he can find a way to capitalize on his speed both on the bases and in the field, he has all the makings of a solid regular for years to come.
1. The Phillies young rotation has tremendous potential
Odubel Herrera is one potentially solid regular, but the Phillies young rotation currently features four pitchers all of whom could be taking the ball every fifth day for a long time. None of them are sure things — though Nola sure has looked like one at times. In fact, chances are extraordinarily slim that Nola, Eickhoff, Velasquez, and Eflin will all stick in the Phillies rotation for years. Injuries will come. Bullpen demotions will happen. Trades and free agent signings will occur. But right now, the Phillies have a young rotation that has put up results and it’s been fantastic to watch.
Were it not for the surprising production out of their rotation, the Phillies would likely be battling the Braves for last place. Instead their rotation has the sixth highest K% (22.1%) in the majors. Their run prevention has struggled at times and their 4.33 ERA ranks just 13th in the league, but all ERA indicators reflect strong underlying peripheral stats [FIP – 3.99, xFIP – 3.86, SIERA – 3.93].
Although the Phillies future lineup is still taking time to develop and emerge, there is reason for optimism that the rotation could be a true strength for the Phillies soon, if it isn’t already.