On Tuesday, I unveiled my full-season infographic detailing the season that was for the Philadelphia Phillies using Wins Above Average (WAA) by position. The season was, for all intents and purposes, pretty ugly. But what makes a (hopefully) successful rebuild so rewarding, what makes the special seasons (like 2008) so truly special are the years like these that often proceed them.
As a quick reminder, here’s what the 2016 season looked like for the Phillies. The full story and graphics can be READ AND SEEN HERE.
In 2016, the Phillies tied for last in the league with -16 wins above average. They played at or above league-average in just three positions: catcher, second base and center field. Of the remaining positions, their starting rotation ranked 18th in the league while every other position ranked no better than 24th. Spelling the rotation, the bullpen’s WAA was second-worst in the league and the position players as a whole posted the lowest wins above average in the majors with -11.2.
Terrible position players, terrible relievers, okay starting pitching. Thus was the story of 2016.
So were this rebuilding process to bare similar fruits to the most recently constructed Phillies powerhouse, what would that look like? Here’s what the Phillies 2008 roster looked like when it took home the team’s first World Series trophy in 28 years.
*Reminder: positions marked in red are the top half in the league, those in blue are in the bottom half. The darker the red, the closer to the position was to leading the league, the darker the blue, the closer it was to league-worst.*
(If the graphic below appears slightly compressed, widen your browser window.)
The 2016 season was a necessary evil in the long, plodding course of a Major League Baseball rebuild. Even the kick in the pants provided by Ruben Amaro Jr. on his way out the door could not avoid the slop that constituted last season’s roster. That’s just the way she goes.
So in light of that, in order to fully take stock of that roster and to shed some light on the changes made by the front office since the season mercifully came to an end on October 2, I broke down the team’s performance on a position-by-position basis using wins above average figures courtesy of the lovely folks at Baseball-Reference. Below that – in case you forgot just how bad the second half of the season was – is a graphic showing the team’s proximity to the .500 mark. Red, as depicted by the uptick in wins in May, shows days when the Phillies were above .500. Days below .500, as the Phillies were each and every day after the first of June, are shown in blue.
Among other glaring deficiencies, the corner outfield spots were black holes in Pete Mackanin‘s daily lineup card. The cumulative left field wins above average of -4.4 was the worst mark in the league, over a full win worse than the Colorado Rockies who trotted out the likes of Gerrardo Parra, Ryan Raburn, Brandon Barnes and Daniel Descalso before finding some relief in the late July call-up of David Dahl. Not even the thin air at Coors Field could make that contingent worth watching without one (or several) Coors in hand.
What began in Philadelphia as a tryout for Cedric Hunter quickly turned into a mélange of mediocrity. And that’s putting it kindly. David Lough got his reps in April before Tyler Goeddel stole the spotlight to begin May. Starting all but three games from May 4 to June 1, he hit .286 with an .818 OPS. That translated to a 118 OPS+, a figure that – for a Rule 5 rookie – one could only expect to have solidified him at least as a part-time left fielder for a team with no win-now urgency. Instead, Cody Asche returned from an oblique injury and started 45 of the next 54 games in June and July with a blistering 219/.292/.375 slashline and a .667 OPS that was 21 percent worse than the league average. August and September saw starts handed to a recovered Aaron Altherr, Jimmy Paredes, Darin Ruf and Roman Quinn. But the position never saw any success quite like it did when Goeddel routinely stepped to the plate three or four times a night in May.
That slew of left fielders combined for the worst on-base percentage in the majors (.278), a .316 slugging percentage 30 points lower than any other team’s left fielders and an OPS last in the league by 35 points. By wRC+, the Phillies’ left fielders produced at a clip 40 percent lower than league average. No team’s left fielders had posted a wRC+ that low in over a decade. By wRAA (weighted runs above average) those same left fielders contributed -50.4 runs over the course of the season, the fourth-worst mark in baseball history.
With that said, it’s no surprise the first move Matt Klentak made to bolster the offense was to snag Howie Kendrick from the Dodgers for Darin Ruf and Darnell Sweeney. The latter was originally traded to the Phillies in the Chase Utley deal, sparking quite possibly my favorite opening paragraph in Crashburn history, courtesy of Tim Guenther.
“In a move that shows just how easy it is to improve the Phillies’ roster, Matt Klentak struck yet another trade in the early offseason. Howie Kendrick will bring his league average bat to Philadelphia, presumably to play a league average left field, and to run the bases in a somewhat league average manner. Heading to LA are the inexplicably divisive Darin Ruf and a confused Darnell Sweeney, who was reportedly last seen mumbling to himself, “No…the Dodgers traded me…to the Phillies.”Tim Guenther on November 12, 2016
If only slightly less depressing than left field, the cluster of outfielders that patrolled the right field line posted -2.2 wins above average last season, good for second-worst in the majors. Improvement! That figure, however, would be lower without both the defensive exploits of Peter Bourjos in his 92 starts, and his inexplicable late June/early July stretch of 23 games in which he hit a league-leading .440 with a top-five 1.208 OPS. Let me break that down for you into digestible pieces: Peter Bourjos. Had a 23-game stretch. With a top-five OPS. In Major League Baseball. In this universe. Yes, that Major League Baseball. Playing the game with the round horsehide ball, wooden stick, dirt and grass.
He ended 2016 with as good a season as one could expect from the defensively inclined outfielder, essentially posting his career averages in every triple-slash category while playing right field for the first time in his career and playing it at an above-average level.
The right field position yielded the following numbers in 2016:
- League-worsts in: wRC+ (70), wOBA (.279), wRAA (-27.2)
- Second-worst in: Slugging percentage (.324), batting average (.231), runs batted in (67)
- Third-worst in: On-base percentage (.291) and isolated power (.119)
If any more moves are to be made this offseason, as Ken Rosenthal pointed out last week, it very well could be to upgrade right field. For now, right field looks to be shared by a fully healthy Aaron Altherr, if he remains so, and Roman Quinn who is bound by that very same health-dependent qualifier.
Up the Middle
If I were to tell you heading into the season that the only three positions in which the Phillies would post average or above-average numbers could be found straight up the middle of the diamond, you’d have closed CrashburnAlley.com and never returned. Yes, Odubel Herrera’s success, while not a given by any means, would have been pointed to as one of the team’s few positions of strength. The success at catcher and second base, however, came unanticipated.
Cesar Hernandez played a rather inspiring second base in his 143 starts, especially given his prior career performance. He posted career highs in every major offensive statistic, albeit it running the bases at a high-school level.
Eric’s report card on Carlos Ruiz noted that the 37-year-old’s bat likely benefited from his decreased workload in 2016. And with less Chooch in the lineup, Cameron Rupp turned into a better than league-average option behind the plate. Among the 24 catchers who logged over 300 plate appearances, Rupp’s .447 slugging percentage was fifth-highest. Rupp’s 99 wRC+ was 12 percent better than the average backstop and he nearly turned himself into a mid-season trade candidate.
Rest of the Infield
While Hernandez held his own and then some at second, the rest of the infield fell remarkably flat. The cumulative WAA of the first base, shortstop and third base positions all ranked in the bottom-six in MLB.
Split almost evenly by Tommy Joseph and Ryan Howard in 2016, first base for now is the sole property of Joseph in his first full major league season. The pair (in addition to seven starts combined from Ruf and Andres Blanco) posted a .285 on-base percentage, the second-lowest for any team’s first basemen and 49 points below average for the position. Their 43 home runs were the most any team garnered from the first base position, although in reality, that was just about the only thing the pair did well. They were the only team that had two first basemen topping 20 homers (23 from Howard, 20 from Joseph). But with -3.1 wins above average, they were the least effective first base platoon in the majors.
After his spring training-leading nine homers and 23 RBIs, Maikel Franco could not follow up that power in the regular season. Instead of cementing himself at third base for the foreseeable future, he pushed back his own timeline at least a year, entering 2017 with that same goal in mind. Just 11 teams had negative wins above replacement at third base, and Franco’s underwhelming performance landed the Phils in that bottom-third.
There’s not much to say about Freddy Galvis aside from his 20 home run explosion. Only 10 teams received more homers from the shortstop position in 2016. His Gold Glove finalist performance at shortstop was expected, and aside from the unexpected power, he put up career averages in on-base percentage and batting average. But in a league with a surplus of young talent at shortstop, Galvis’ career numbers won’t cut it. The .284 combined OBP the Phils saw at shortstop was worst in the league and 34 points below league average, nearly all of which came from Galvis’ league-worst .275 OBP.
Powering the 24-17 start to the season, the young starting rotation showed promise despite receiving the second worst run support in the majors. Every pitcher but one (Jeremy Hellickson, 29 years old) that started more than four games was younger than 26-year-old Jerad Eickhoff. The rotation’s particular strength was their minute walk-rate, a league-leading 6.5% from an inexperienced corps that has thus far headlined the rebuilding efforts. Zach Eflin, Aaron Nola, Adam Morgan, Alec Asher, Hellickson and Eickhoff all posted better than league-average walk-rates. Vince Velasquez and Jake Thompson did not. Thompson’s 11.8% walk-rate was worst for and Phillies starter and the second-worst at any level in his professional career. Velasquez, however, made up for his high rate of free passes with a team-best 27.6% strikeout-rate among starters that ranked eighth in the majors for all pitchers with 120 innings pitched.
FanGraphs’ soft/hard-hit rates for the rotation were also encouraging; Starters allowed the fifth-highest soft-hit percentage and the 24th lowest hard-hit percentage.
The 2016 bullpen left much to be desired. Other than Hector Neris – who shined in his first full season in the majors (80.1 IP, 2.58 ERA, .200 opposing batting average) – and 40 innings from Edubray Ramos, there was little for Mackanin to hang his hat on. Jeanmar Gomez’s 37 saves were only possible due to a lucky streak of close games. His peripherals significantly undermined those 37 saves, and made his 13.20 ERA after August 14 less than surprising. No closer with at least 18 saves had a lower strikeout percentage (15.8%), and his .286 batting average against and 1.46 WHIP were wholly unconvincing. No decision will be made until spring training about filling the closer role, but the most likely candidate seems to be Neris.
As a whole, the pen’s K-rate hovered around the league average, but their walk-rate (9.4%, 23rd in MLB) was less than ideal. And it only goes downhill from there. They held the fourth-highest WHIP (1.47), allowed the third-highest batting average at .266, had the second-worst FIP (4.57) and were one of only three teams with a bullpen ERA over five.
Just as the organization upgraded the worst left field position in the league, and just as they may still upgrade in right field (which was second-worst in the majors last season), the Phillies made two bullpen moves to bolster what was the second-least effective relief corps in the league by wins above average. Trading for Pat Neshek and signing Joaquin Benoit to a one-year deal, the club filled in two bullpen spots with veteran placeholders on short-term deals.
Note: All pitching wins above average numbers do not include batting outcomes. They only take into account pitchers’ contributions on the mound.
As the All-Star festivities have quieted and teams officially turn their full attention toward the proverbial second half of the season, I went back through the 2016 Phillies’ season from April to the All-Star break to put together a first half infographic for those visually inclined, like myself.
The season, in my eyes, could be split into four distinct parts: an “Oh no not this again” 0-4 start fueled by a disastrous bullpen, a five-week run as the most surprising team in baseball highlighted by an .875 winning percentage in 16 one-run games, the subsequent regression to the mean, and the current stretch of surprisingly potent hitting. Enjoy.
All suggestions, comments and concerns are welcome.