Crashburn Roundtable: Early Season Opinions
We are roughly 3 weeks into the major league season, and the Phillies have been fairly average. That is a big improvement over the projections which still see them as one of the worst teams in baseball. Almost every part of the team has had its ups and its downs. It may be too early to make some big sweeping judgments about the season, but the staff here has some opinions on the season so far anyway.
The Phillies are 9-9 after having a tough early game schedule including 12 against the Nationals and Mets. It is still early, but has your outlook on this team changed?
Adam Dembowitz: I think maybe 79 wins (my preseason projection) is a little low for this team. Nothing personal against Buchholz, but I think his injury actually adds a win by itself (at least). Considering some other changes — Nola presumably being the “old Nola” after he gets back from the DL, Velasquez maybe getting into the sixth inning more often, Neris holding down the 9th all year, Altherr breaking out — I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like 83, 84 wins by the end of the season.
Michael Schickling: The outlook hasn’t changed much. In our season previews, I predicted the Phillies to go a little below .500, and I still think that’s in play. There have been several early season pleasant surprises, like Cesar Hernandez’s power, Odubel Herrera’s walk rate, anything and everything about Aaron Altherr, and Jerad Eickhoff and Jeremy Hellickson’s strong starts. However, not all of that looks sustainable, and there are reasons to be pessimistic as well (lookin’ at you, Maikel Franco’s 56 wRC+).
Brad Engler: I don’t think 18 games should change anyone’s outlook on this team. They have some decent position players, and their starting pitchers are capable of stringing together good outings. In the end, my feeling remains that the team will have long stretches where they make you want to put out your eyes with a splash of bleach and then chug the rest of the bottle.
Timothy Guenther: My outlook hasn’t changed, but I feel less crazy in my prediction the team could be competitive this year. Most of that can be attributed to the offense, which has looked competent against some very good opposing pitchers. Apparently, getting on base is relevant to scoring runs. There’s also a healthy balance of over and underachievers on the team right now, so the offense is unlikely to implode when the likes of Hernandez, Altherr, and Nava come back to earth a bit.
Matt Winkelman: I was already optimistic with my prediction of 78-84 for the season, so it is hard to push the record higher than that. I do think that .500 is more in play than it was to start the year, but I wouldn’t call it likely. For me this has less to do with the team’s hot start and more to do with things like Aaron Nola’s arm looking healthy and Aaron Altherr looking more like the 2015 version than the 2016 version. This could all change quickly, but the Phillies have some holes and yet still don’t look entirely embarrassed on the field vs good teams.
The Buchholz and Kendrick injuries have opened up time for Aaron Altherr and Zach Eflin to get plenty of playing time after injury shortened 2016 seasons. Who are you most excited to see getting the extra playing time?
Adam Dembowitz: I love that the Phillies signed Kendrick and Saunders for veteran depth and potential trade bait, but I am really glad to see Altherr getting a shot and making something out of it. There’s still a chance for him to be a part of the core going forward. Obviously there are tons of other names in the long-term outfield mix, but right now he’s looking like an excellent complement to Odubel Herrera.
Michael Schickling: As I alluded to in the first question, I love Aaron Altherr. His 6’-5” frame glides smoothly through the outfield, nabbing every ball in sight. His power is back after his wrist injury last year. His Germanness is still very much intact. I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that he’s a legitimate outfielder, and I’ll take these 36 plate appearances as definitive proof that I was right. As I wrote in his 2016 Report Card, “I think the Phillies would be foolish to ignore his stellar 2014 and focus on his injury-shortened 2015. Give the kid a chance.”
Brad Engler: If you thought I was going to say anyone but The Rhineland Rocket, you haven’t been paying attention to my Twitter feed for the last three years. At some point in the past, I almost gave up on Altherr, but for me, his ceiling remains as compelling as ever.
Timothy Guenther: Following the 2015 season, I spent the better part of four hours crafting a poorly written fanpost for TheGoodPhight explaining why Aaron Altherr was a breakout star in the making. I copped out of publishing the post, instead writing a less brazen piece on his plate discipline. This year, I predicted he would have the highest WAR on the team despite his lack of a starting role on opening day. But Zach Eflin is replacing Clay Buckholz, who I am happy is done before I had to figure out how to spell his name correctly. Eflin still needs to learn how to keep the ball on the ground or miss the occasional bat, but I’m intrigued by where a healthy pair of knees and a 92 mph sinker will take him. He also works fast on the mound, and again, he’s doing that in place of human traffic jam Clay Buchholtz. That difference in pace over the course of a season amounts to getting those four hours of my life back. So yeah, it’s a toss up.
Matt Winkelman: I love Aaron Altherr, and I really think he has a chance to be a really good piece for the Phillies. I am also really excited to see Zach Eflin with two good knees. His curveball looks like a better pitch and his velocity gains are still all there. Right now, his arsenal is nothing special, but he such a great foundation to build on. He just turned 23 at the beginning of April and I think there is a lot of growth ahead for him. I don’t know if he will be as dynamic as Altherr, but I think he has just as much of an opportunity to prove he should be part of the Phillies’ future.
What or who has been the biggest surprise about the team so far?
Adam Dembowitz: The plate discipline and general hitting approach is a huge change. Matt Stairs has already had a tremendous impact on the hitters individually and as a whole. There’s just a totally different vibe to this lineup.
Michael Schickling: I think the easy answer is the Phillies startling turn from 3.81 pitches per PA in 2016 (4th-worst in MLB) to 3.98 pitches per PA this year (6th-most in MLB). But they’re still just 20th in baseball in BB% and 6th in K. In fact, their team K%-BB% has actually gone up slightly. Where the effect has been seen, and where I’m most surprised, is in the power department. The Phillies team ISO is up 0.22 points, and hitting season, as Charlie Manuel called it, hasn’t yet begun.
Brad Engler: I guess that Cesar continues to be, for lack of a better term, “somehow good at baseball”, is the biggest surprise.
Timothy Guenther: How Maikel Franco could hit .171 while making me more excited about his future outlook. That sounds odd, but he’s looked so under control at the plate, and his poor results have been largely a consequence of poor luck. In the long run, the improved approach is going to pay off in a big way.
Matt Winkelman: It has to be Cesar Hernandez. His season is entirely unsustainable, but that has both positive and negative implications. His strikeout rate is a career high, his walk rate a career low, and his HR/FB rate is that of a hulking slugger. The strikeout rate should come down, the walk rate should come up, and his torrid home run pace should return to just being a career best. Right now, Cesar is on pace to be one of the best players in baseball, and he has carried this team through some games on his own so far this year. He is getting close to proving that he is not just the second baseman of the future, but possibly an important core piece for this team going forward.
Who has been the biggest disappointment so far?
Adam Dembowitz: Well, it’s not Maikel Franco for me. His plate discipline — just by watching actual games — has gotten better than it was last year, and the swing data backs that up. He is the youngest hitter in the lineup, and while he’s sporting a .244 OBP and slugging .329, he’s also getting BABIP’d to death (.155!!). His numbers will improve once some of those hard-hit balls start finding available real estate. However, I am concerned about Tommy Joseph. He’s hitting a lot of ground balls and swinging quite a bit more than he was last year. He’s been terrible, and obviously it’s still early, but there are several sweet-swinging hitters the Phillies could put at first base if Joseph continues to be a zero at the plate.
Michael Schickling: But I’m going to say that I’m shocked at the poor performance of the bullpen thus far this season. A group that added Pat Neshak and Joaquin Benoit and brought back Hector Neris was supposed to be formidable. Instead they’re allowing more home runs per 9 innings than every team but the Reds. Their ERA is over 5, and it’s not far off from their 4.57 FIP, second worst in baseball (again the Reds. What is this, a rerun of 2016?). It’s only been about 60 innings, and Neris, Neshak, and Benoit have been good, but the rest of the bullpen has been a tire fire.
Brad Engler: My expectations were so low for the year that it’s hard to say, but I guess seeing Nola hitting the DL so early is pretty disheartening. Luckily the injury seems like not a big deal, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed for a quick and healthy return, as expected.
Timothy Guenther: Tommy Joseph. No rational mind expected Joseph to become one of the premier power hitters in the league, but he’s been a train wreck this season. Unlike Franco, Joseph appears lost at the plate and is trending in every wrong direction. Less contact? Check. Worse plate discipline? Check. Fewer balls in the air? Check. The underlying talent is still there…somewhere…but he’s running short on time to find it.
Matt Winkelman: Tommy Joseph has been an absolute disaster on offense this year. Some of his struggles may be a “sophomore slump” as the league adjusts to him, but he really just looks lost at the plate. We know the talent is there for Joseph because he will flash the ability to destroy fastballs and work a count. I am not ready to give up on Joseph, but the Rhys Hoskins‘ footsteps are coming and despite Joseph’s level of talent, this team doesn’t have time to give him months to work through his struggles. Honorable mention to Freddy Galvis who parlayed a hot end of season into more hacking and random home runs.
What do you see as the Phillies’ biggest weakness and how do you want to see them try to solve it?
Adam Dembowitz: I think it has to be starting pitching, which may seem counter intuitive considering all the organizational arms we talk about. There’s a lot of potential there, but coinciding with that, a lot of variability. As we saw last year with the injuries to Nola and Velasquez (also RIP Charlie Morton), you never have enough starting pitching. I’m interested in a lot of the young arms the Phillies have, but realistically, there’s nobody in the upper minors or on the major league squad who’s an ace. If you have a true Game 1 starter, everyone else’s role becomes much more clear. Jeremy Hellickson has been fantastic this year (anemic K% aside) but he’s at best a low #3 on a contender. I think this offseason the team should go hard after Jake Arrieta and/or Yu Darvish. A 2018 rotation headed by one (or both!) of those guys would put this team in position to compete. As for 2017, I don’t think there’s much to do other than give guys opportunities and see who seizes them (and who doesn’t). I stand by my preseason prediction that at the end of the year, the team’s most valuable/best starting pitcher will be Jerad Eickhoff.
Michael Schickling: The Phillies biggest weakness this season has been production from the corner infield. Right now, Tommy Joseph has a 48 wRC+ and Maikel Franco isn’t much better at 56. With Tommy Joseph, there’s been talk of replacing him with Rhys Hoskins who’s been mashing at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. That may be a little premature, but if these struggles continue for a couple more weeks, and Hoskins keeps mashing, I’d make that change. For Franco, he still has a lot of potential, and although he hasn’t hit since 2015, I think you stick with him through this season and see if he can recapture the magic.
Brad Engler: Really, the biggest weakness is lack of experience. Keep playing the young guys who have a chance to make a difference in the long run, and the long run will be better for it.
Timothy Guenther: There are no obvious game-changers on either the major league roster or in the upper levels of the minors. A team can succeed with the no glaring holes, endless depth approach, but the task is much easier when there is a legitimate star to count on for 5-6 wins every year. I would enjoy seeing Matt Klentak utilize some prospect depth to make a bold move at the trade deadline. Barring that, cross your fingers that Maikel Franco starts hitting like Anthony Rizzo or Aaron Altherr channels his inner Mike Cameron.
Matt Winkelman: Catcher continues to be the Phillies’ biggest weakness. Cameron Rupp and Andrew Knapp aren’t hitting as poorly as Joseph and Galvis, but they aren’t fielding at the level of those two either. Rupp continues to be one of the worst framers in the league, and Knapp does not have a reputation as a good receiver (though he seems to be a good game caller). The problem is that the Phillies have an answer, and that they can’t go to that answer yet. Jorge Alfaro is not a great defender yet, but he might be better than the two major leaguers right now. He is hitting the crap out of the ball right now, but his plate discipline numbers are also poor. The truth is Alfaro might be the best catcher the Phillies have, and also true that he needs more time in AAA. It would be nice to see the Phillies give Knapp more time while we wait for Alfaro’s arrival.