21 Games In; (Re)Visiting Two Early Storylines
With today’s 3-2 win against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Phillies have now played 21 games in 2018, which means we are somehow already through about an eighth of the season. Hard to believe, Harry.
At 8-2 in their last 10 games and 13-3 since their embarrassing showings vs. Atlanta and New York to start the season, there are few teams in baseball hotter than the Phillies. Now, with almost a month’s worth of games on record, let’s look at a pair of the key Phillies storylines from Spring Training and the early regular season.
Gabe Kapler Doesn’t Know What He’s Doing
The elephant in the room for at least the first 3 or 4 series of this season. You know what happened in Atlanta. In terms of baseball-specific catastrophes, you probably can’t do worse than having to use a position player to pitch in the 3rd game of the season. His bullpen usage was questionable at best. If it wasn’t his choice of when to pull starters or swap relievers, it was his choice of relievers themselves that prompted much ire, including my own (I’m of the mind that Hoby Milner shouldn’t pitch in any situation whatsoever, regardless of whether or not he’s warmed up, but as he’s now in AAA, it’s neither here nor there).
Here’s the thing: Gabe Kapler is a rookie. Like all rookies, he has a learning curve. We’ll excuse Scott Kingery striking out at least twice in 6 games already this season because he’s a rookie and struggles are to be expected. Same goes for a guy getting his first taste of coaching above the Single-A level.
What will determine whether he’s a success or a failure is his ability to change. Philly’s starting pitchers are going deep into ballgames, routinely getting near or above 100 pitches. Aaron Nola hasn’t thrown fewer than 6 innings since April 4th. Vinny Velasquez doesn’t have a single start(!) go fewer than 6 innings since his opening-series meltdown. Even Ben Lively, bless him, has pitched into the 6th three out of four starts, and with a serviceable 4.64 ERA (3.66 FIP) he’s comparatively been far-and-away their worst starter so far.
Whether the starters’ respective leashes getting longer is a function of Kapler learning or if it’s just because he thinks they’re better stretched out than in, say, their 1st starts of the season, the result is the same.
Right Field is a Battle Between Altherr & Williams
Ugh. If you can call it a battle, sure. At this point, Altherr and Williams are both standing in front of an open door and both insisting that the other walk through first. Altherr today went 3-3 with the game-winning RBI single to raise his average to .175. It was his first multi-hit game of the season. Williams has hardly been better, at .217. With Altherr’s big day at the plate today factored in, Williams now only holds a .004 edge in OPS. Altherr is still clearly the better glove, having accrued 0.3 dWAR as opposed to Williams’ -0.3
There’s no answer here that will inspire the masses. Here’s my take: if a .250 hitter batted .250 no matter what context or circumstances he found himself in, that’d be great. However, we know that’s not how all baseball players are. For example, Jimmy Rollins had a .171 batting average as a substitute player (not necessarily just pinch-hit one-and-done’s, but batting in a game that he didn’t start).
Now, Williams and Altherr don’t necessarily follow the same suit. In just 13 career PAs as a sub, Williams has an impressive .463 batting average with a 1.231 OPS. Altherr in 35 PAs inversely has a .148 average with a .750 OPS. Both are limited sample sizes though, especially given how both have mainly started before this year, and only this spring have been asked to come off the bench quite a bit.
However, Williams has started 4 games this year the day after only getting 1 AB in the game prior. He has a hit in just one of those games, and is 1-12 overall. It’s a small sample size, but how many at-bats and how much developmental time will the Phillies waste before they decide whether or not Williams can be an everyday starting outfielder?
Altherr is more mind-boggling because I’m less-confident that his struggles are merely a symptom of not starting every day. He’s been bad, regardless of the role or game before. With his 3 hits off the bench today, he has now hit in back-to-back games for the first time all season. Williams, comparatively, has already had an 8-game hitting streak. Altherr has played in some form in all but 2 games but struggled in basically all but three of them.
Having two young outfielders who are producing who you need to find playing time for is a good problem to have. However, the Phillies are currently trying to find playing time for two outfielders who look utterly lost half the time at the plate.
If this has ended up sounding like a pro-Williams rant, that’s partially because it is. Especially now, I think he gives you the better chance for production. What I want to see, in whichever order, is for both of these young outfielders to start for, say, a week straight. They know they’re in the lineup. The other will ride the bench and serve whatever role the team asks. If one of them takes advantage of the extended opportunity and starts heating up, there’s your problem solved.
The response to that is, “How is that fair to whichever one isn’t starting that week?” It’s not fair. Maybe both would drastically improve by starting every day, but there’s nobody else in the lineup who deserves to sit in order to create more playing opportunities. Herrera and Hoskins are your other OFs and your top-2 hitters. Even Carlos Santana, with his .151 average, has reached base in all but two games (meaning no Hoskins-to-first, Santana-to-bench). While it may not be fair to effectively bench Williams or Altherr for a week, it would be even less so to take time away from anyone else.
The sooner the Phillies find a way to get the best player in the lineup on a starting basis (or find someone else to put in that’ll outperform the current status quo), the better. What’s going on right now simply isn’t working. If the Phillies find an answer to this problem, they’ll suddenly have another strength in the middle a lineup that has hit its way to a 14-7 record.