Odubel Herrera Is Not Having A Bad Season

There’s been a modest amount of discussion late this season about the Phillies potentially trading young, All-Star center fielder Odubel Herrera. There are no real indications from the team itself that they look to trade him this offseason, but a perceived combination of a worse total performance (particularly in the second half), and concerns about attitude (largely the idea that he started to coast after making the All-Star team) have lead some local fans and pundits to want to cash out on the former Rule 5 pick.

I’m not in the clubhouse, so I can’t (and won’t) really speak to the latter concern. However, I can certainly comment about the former concern. The idea Odubel Herrera is having a worse season than in 2015 is really not based on much of substance. His 9.9 percent walk rate is almost double last season’s 5.2 percent rate, his strikeout rate is down by four percentage points, and his .134 ISO is moderately improved over last season’s .121 mark. He’s stolen 22 bases and hit 14 home runs, 6 more than each of his respective totals last season.

In fact, with one notable exception, he’s outperformed his ZIPS projections in every rate category (BB%, K%, ISO, AVG, OBP, SLG, wOBA, SB%), while proving himself to be very durable. He’s also swung and missed a little bit less often, and has improved his swing selection by a tiny bit.ZIPS projected moderate regression from his rookie year, but his performance in almost every one of those categories is also in line with or better than his 2015 season. Basically, in all respects other than BABIP, Odubel Herrera’s offensive season is remarkably the same as last year – if not slightly more refined.

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Alec Asher Returns Armed With Two-Seam Focus And Deception

The day before Alec Asher‘s first Major League start of the 2016 season, Matt Breen of Philly.com noted that the right-handed pitcher was returning to the Majors with a new two-seam grip on his fastball. Developed at the request of the Phillies, the pitch propelled Asher to success in the early part of the Minor League season. He still didn’t strike out many batters, but he did produce encouraging 51 percent groundball and 4 percent walk rates over 12 starts.

The pitch is largely necessary because his previous fastball – a four-seam grip – was not only below-average in terms of speed, but also in terms of movement. Without life or velocity, it was crushed by opposing Major League hitters during his seven start debut in 2015. In Breen’s article, Pete Mackanin said the new pitch provides batters a second look, but at least in Asher’s two starts so far, it’s more of the primary look.

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Vince Velasquez and Secondaries

Vince Velasquez‘s 2016 season is officially in the books and it’s hard to find much to complain about. Despite a brief trip to the disabled list in June and an early September shutdown, he set a career high innings total at 136 and crossed the 100 innings mark for the first time since 2013. He struck out 27.6% of batters faced which ranks 9th in the majors among pitchers with 130+ innings and demonstrated an ability to maintain elite fastball velocity deep into outings. Although his run prevention leaves room for improvement (4.12 ERA), the overall performance was solid and more than a little encouraging for the 24-year-old in his first full season as a major league starter.

However, that’s not to say Velasquez is a finished product. His biggest weakness is the cause of his high rate of pitches per plate appearances — his 4.01 P/PA ranks 21st of 126 qualified pitchers — which, by extension, limited him to less than seven innings in 21 of his 24 starts this season. That weakness? You can either call it fastball over-reliance or ineffective secondaries depending on how you want to slant it.

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The Best Pitch In Baseball

In only his second start as a major leaguer, Jake Thompson took the mound against the Colorado Rockies and, despite the mathematical issues that make such an accomplishment improbable, proceeded to record four strikeouts in a single inning, becoming the first Phillies pitcher to do so since 1902. To execute such a feat, Thompson took advantage of an archaic and confusing baseball rule that, for the benefit of the reader, may be loosely translated as follows:

If, with two strikes in the count, a batter proceeds to swing at a pitch so far removed from the strike zone that it is not only unhittable, but uncatchable by the very player whose designation is to catch the baseball, then the batter may commence as if he, by virtue of his own skill, put the ball in the actual field of play.

The seemingly inane rule allowed us to witness a pitching event that occurs more infrequently than the much celebrated no-hitter. But more relevant to the author’s intentions, it has given us a pretense upon which to discuss the pitch not only directly responsible for the rule’s enforcement, but also largely instrumental in the consequent four strikeouts. That is, Jake Thompson’s slider.

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Hector Neris Sure Looks Like An Elite Reliever

Entering the season, Hector Neris was in possession of one of those beautiful back-of-the-bullpen starter kits. He had the requisite devastating, whiff-inducing secondary pitch as well as a solid fastball off of which to work. However, as we have seen time and again, possession of a promising pitch arsenal does not an elite reliever make. The proof is in the pudding or whatever your preferred cliché is.

At the start of the season, it looked as though Hector Neris was whipping up a fine batch of proof that he would be able to put it all together. Through the month of April, he posted a stellar 0.63 ERA to go along with an equally as impressive 43.4 K%. Much of this success was attributed to a splitter which was downright unhittable.

But then, as you might expect, his stat line appeared to regress towards the mean. He posted a 4.95 ERA and pedestrian strikeout and walk rates (21.8 K%, 12.6 BB%) over his next 20 innings. As a result, Neris found himself on June 15th with an uninspiring 3.15 ERA next to his name. He looked like a pitcher who had pitched over his head in April and it was natural to wonder if, perhaps, the magic of his splitter had worn off. But then something changed.

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Finding Professional At Bats

The Phillies are a bad offensive team. They have their moments, where the hits seem to fall in bunches, but as is often the case with bad offenses, reality brings them crashing back to earth. And when the offense goes into an especially brutal stretch of ineptitude, we often hear Pete Mackanin say he’s looking for more “professional at-bats”. It seems like a low bar to set for a major league team, but in the absence of actual hitting talent, it’s probably a good place to start. But what constitutes a professional at-bat? Well, according to Pete Mackanin:

“We just need to get to that point. We need to work the count, we don’t walk a lot. For me, we take too many fastballs for strikes and we swing at too many – we expand the strike zone too often. Right now there’s nobody there that’s risen to the challenge. We’re looking for that guy.”

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Who Had The More Encouraging Game: Nola or Velasquez?

The biggest story of the start to the Phillies 2016 season was the emergence of their talented young rotation. Although Jerad Eickhoff has has his moments of greatness, the two biggest stars were Vincent Velasquez and Aaron Nola. Velasquez grabbed headlines across baseball with his 16-strikeout performance against the Padres in his second start of the season. Nola soared towards the top of league leaderboards in the first two months of the season. But then, almost simultaneously, everything began to crumble for the duo. Over the past 48 hours, however, they have both put together stellar starts that have caused Phillies fans to hope that maybe their struggles are behind them. Is the optimism provided by their post-All-Star-Break debuts justified?

Vince Velasquez

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All About xFIP

This morning, the Phillies’ official twitter account somewhat bizarrely sent out the briefest of introductions to xFIP.

Considering the organization’s, shall we say, hesitance to embrace sabermetric analysis in the pre-Klentak era, this little pebble thrown into the gaping chasm of the interwebs — even if done so with tongue planted firmly in cheek — came as a bit of a surprise. So, instead of mocking the team for doing what people have been criticizing it for not doing…

and at the risk of explaining something already known to an audience that actively seeks out this site for its sabermetric bent, indulge me in a (very) broad overview of xFIP.

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Phillies First Half Infographic

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.

First Half Infographic

All suggestions, comments and concerns are welcome.

Checking in on Zach Eflin

It’s been an up and down beginning to Zach Eflin‘s major league career — or, more precisely, a down and up beginning. His major league debut went about as poorly as a debut can go. He struck out the first batter (yay!), but from there it unraveled in almost historic proportions. His line that day: 2.2 IP, 9 H, 9 R, 8 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 3 HR. It amounted to a game score of 5 which is the lowest game score in a debut since someone named Arnie Munoz posted a -7 game score for the White Sox in his 2004 debut. Here’s a list of the most recent pitchers to post a game score that low in their debut:

Player Date Tm Opp IP H R ER BB SO HR GSc
Zach Eflin 6/14/2016 PHI TOR 2.2 9 9 8 3 2 3 5
Arnie Munoz 6/19/2004 CHW MON 3 10 11 11 3 1 2 -7
John Stephens 7/30/2002 BAL TBD 3 10 9 9 1 1 3 3
Mike Busby 4/7/1996 STL ATL 4 9 13 8 4 4 4 2

That’s, uh, not a terribly encouraging group of names for Eflin to join. Munoz never started another major league game while Stephens and Busby combined for 21 more starts in their careers. And, yet, Eflin has followed up this thoroughly inauspicious start with a remarkably promising run of five successful starts.
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