What We Learned About the Phillies in April

The Phillies just wrapped up a 14-10 April which ties the ’01 (14-10) and ’03 (16-12) teams for the Phillies’ second best April record since 2000 and trails only the legendary 2011 squad’s 18-8 run. Baseball may be an extraordinarily long season rich with unpredictable twists and turns, but there is still meaningful information to be gleaned from the start of the 2016 season beyond “winning baseball is fun!” Here are a few things we’ve learned in the first month of the season:

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A Bucket of Cold Water

Happy Monday! The Phillies are 15-10, remarkably, and the team’s .600 winning percentage is fifth-best in the National League. The Phils have won six games in a row and nine of the last ten. They just swept the Nationals and the Indians, beating Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark, Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and Danny Salazar along the way. Ryan Howard hit an extra innings walk-off homer against Cody Allen, one of the game’s best closers. The pitching staff has exceeded all expectations, and even the bullpen has come around. The catching duo has put up strong numbers at the plate. Most importantly, the team is having FUN and is a pleasure to watch.

Naturally, I’m here to destroy all hope and optimism you may have for the remaining five months of the season. With one month in the books, here’s how the Phillies’ hitters are performing and their corresponding rank among all 30 MLB teams.
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Crash Landing: Relief Pitchers Remain A Mystery

One of the oft-cited clichés in bullpen-building is that relievers are fungible. It’s a gross oversimplification that reduces pitchers to faceless commodities but, although it’s never wise to write-off the so-called “human element” entirely, there’s an undeniable undercurrent of truth to it.

The performance variability relievers experience from year-to-year makes them maddeningly unpredictable. With the notable exception of the few truly elite relievers in the game – guys like Craig Kimbrel, Wade Davis, and Kenley Jansen – it’s nearly impossible to project a reliever’s performance with any certainty in a given year. There’s simply too much small sample size weirdness at play when full season workloads span just 50-70 innings. As an example, one four run outing will add 0.72 to an end of season ERA in a 50 inning season. This means one stomach bug or one bad bullpen session or one poorly located blister can result in a substantial swing in season stats. So good luck looking at a pool of free agent middle relievers and accurately guessing which one is in store for the best season.

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Nola’s Curveball Was An Absolute Monster Yesterday

Yesterday marked the third time in Jonathan Papelbon‘s last 11 outings that his performance has resulted in the Phillies taking an ultimately insurmountable lead in dramatic fashion. It’s glorious and, as Papelbon’s former teammate freely admitted, it’s not only the fans who think so:

That the result of the game was a sweep of the division rival Nationals and an improvement to two games above .500 for the first time since 2012 is remarkably fun, but I’m not sure it holds a candle to the excitement generated by what Aaron Nola did yesterday.

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How Often Did The 2015 Phillies Go 11-10?

With the Phillies win yesterday, the team is now 11-10 which you may have heard makes today the latest in the season the franchise has been over .500 since they were 15-14 on May 4th, 2014. It’s a moral victory worth celebrating if only because it means today is likely the last time I will ever look at the box score from that May 2014 game in which the starting third baseman was Jayson Nix and, really, nobody needs reminders of the Jayson Nix Era in Philadelphia. It got me wondering, however, how significant the Phillies’ 11-10 record is aside from, “Duh, Corinne, it’s April 28th, of course a win-loss record is not significant.”

Last year, the Phillies went 63-99 in the franchise’s worst season since the 1969 Phillies put up a 63-99 record of their own. It was an awful year of Phillies baseball even accounting for the somewhat positive turn of events in the second half with the emergence of Maikel Franco, Odubel Herrera, Aaron Nola, Aaron Altherr, and Jerad Eickhoff. Every 162 game season has 142 distinct 21-game stretches starting with Game #1-#21 and going all the way through to Game #142-#162. In an awful 2015 Phillies season, how many of their 142 21-game stretches were 11-10 or better?

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Cesar Hernandez Is Still Cesar Hernandez

Last year Cesar Hernandez had a breakout campaign of sorts. With Chase Utley injured and then traded, Hernandez received extended major league playing time for the first time in his career. Out of minor league options, it was a sink or swim opportunity for Hernandez who faced a certain DFA if he couldn’t cut it as a starter. Fortunately for him, he passed the test well enough posting a 91 wRC+, stealing 19 bags, and exhibiting passable defense which resulted in him continuing on as the Phillies starting second baseman for another year.

The season, however, has gotten off to an incredibly rocky start for Hernandez. He’s made multiple blatant blunders on the basepaths and at the start of play on Sunday, he was hitting .246/.295/.316 with a painfully low 62 wRC+. But lest anyone start freaking out about his early struggles, Hernandez proceeded to go 5-for-8 with a double over the next two games and raise his season stat line to a markedly more palatable .292/.333/.369 and 87 wRC+. You know we’re still in the heart of small sample size season when a player raises his wRC+ 25 points with two games and just one extra base hit.

Nothing about what Hernandez has done this season indicates that he suddenly became a worse player from last year to this year, but the problem with Hernandez has always been this: nothing indicates improvement either. Let’s quickly run down Cesar Hernandez’s profile:
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Charlie Morton Out For The Season

Well, this stinks.

Just 17.1 innings into his 2016 season, Phillies starting pitcher Charlie Morton fell to the ground running out a sacrifice bunt attempt and the diagnosis couldn’t have been much worse for him. Morton will undergo surgery next week and is not expected to return to the field this season. Season-ending injuries may be an inevitable part of the game, but they’re never not devastating. This marks the second time in his career that Morton will lose the majority of a season to an injury after Tommy John Surgery kept him off a major league mound from June 2012 until June 2013.

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A Phillies Pitcher Is Throwing The Least Hittable Pitch In The Majors

As today’s reminder that small sample size statistics and factoids should be served with a grain of salt the size of a boulder, I offer this: What do major league pitchers and the Atlanta Braves have in common? Both groups of players have hit three home runs this season. Don’t get me wrong, the Braves employ a lineup that makes the 2016 Phillies look like a semi-competent offensive force, but over the course of a full season it’s safe to say even they will be able to outslug pitchers.

With that caveat in mind, I’d like to present one of my current favorite leaderboards:

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Crash Landing: Herrera, Energy, and Personality

I have a theory that at the end of my life the baseball player I will have watched the most is Jimmy Rollins. From his debut in 2000 through his final season with the Phillies in 2014, Rollins played 2,090 games for the Phillies — 2,136 counting the postseason. The only other player in history to suit up for the Phillies that many times was Michael Jack Schmidt (2,404 regular season games and 36 postseason games.) With the rarity of players staying with one team for the majority of a long career, the unlikelihood that the frequency with which I watch one single team will dramatically increase in the future, and the fact that I was an active watcher of the Phillies for Rollins’ entire career, it’s logical enough to suppose that even though I’m still relatively young I’ll never spend as many hours watching any one player as I spent watching him.

The years upon years of getting to know players like Rollins, Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz, Cole Hamels, and Chase Utley steadily lulled Philles fans into a comfortable familiarity with the team. Each player has a public persona understood by Phillies fans, from the gregarious and confident Rollins to the stoic and intense Utley. As the Phillies undergo a dramatic transition from old to new, their fanbase is gradually learning about the new player personnel. Is it worth emotionally investing in these players? Which players will be in Philadelphia for an extended period of time? Will we know any of these players even half as well as we knew the last Phillies core? Do we want to?

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