Last Updated: 2018-03-01
Sports can be funny sometimes. In 2016, the Philadelphia Phillies, who were one of my favorite season win total picks to go over, went 71-91 to easily surpass the line of 63.5 wins. Their Pythagorean Win-Loss record was 62-100, as they were outscored by 186 runs. Their BaseRuns record was 63-99.
Those two numbers often signal regression the following season. I laughed in the face of that knowledge and looked for the Phillies to go over their season win total of 73 wins. That bet was dead by the end of May, as the Phillies were 17 games under .500. By the All-Star Break, they were 29 games under. The Phillies finished 30 games under .500 at 66-96, but their Pythagorean Win-Loss record was 72-90 with a -92 run differential. They had a 70-92 BaseRuns record, despite the projection of a worse run differential.
So, in essence, the Phillies were better when they should have been worse and worse when they should have been better over the course of the last two seasons. Does that have any bearing on the 2018 season? We’ll have to wait and see, but the Phillies were the second-worst team in baseball by win percentage in one-run games with a 21-36 record. Their 36 losses in one-run games were the most in the league by nine over the Toronto Blue Jays. Basically, this is a team that played a lot of close games that could have swung in either direction. Toronto had the second-most one-run decisions with 53 and went 26-27 in those games. Teams typically finish within four games of .500 on either side in those one-run affairs. The Phillies were -15, which is how you get a big Pyth W-L split.
Realistically speaking, a lot of it was simply variance. The Phillies graded out as an average bullpen, ranking 14th in ERA, 16th in FIP, and 14th in xFIP. The offense was pretty terrible overall, so that played a role, but the Phillies shouldn’t have been -15 in one-run games. Right there, we have some signs of improvement before we’ve even dug into the personnel.
With teams in Philadelphia’s position, it isn’t really about wins and losses. Seasons are defined by individual development. In 2016, the Phillies were 42-48 in the first half and cratered in the second half. In 2017, the Phillies were 29-58 in the first half, but as more youngsters and prospects got playing time in the second half, they posted a 37-38 record with exactly as many runs scored as runs allowed. In a lot of respects, we can consider 2017 a more successful season than 2016, despite the fewer number of wins.
Will that second-half momentum carry over into 2018? Will the new acquisitions be good fits? Will progress be made? All of these are good questions to ask and answer as we look ahead to the 2018 season.
Season Win Total Odds:
5Dimes: 77.5 (-110/-110)
BetOnline: 76.5 (-135/115)
Bovada: 75.5 (-165/135)
Additions: Carlos Santana, Tommy Hunter, Pat Neshek, Fernando Abad, Francisco Rodriguez, Matt McBride, Ryan Flaherty, Will Middlebrooks, Adam Rosales, Danny Ortiz, Collin Cowgill, Enyel De Los Santos, Drew Hutchison
Losses: Henderson Alvarez, Andres Blanco, Clay Buchholz, Hyun Soo Kim, Daniel Nava, Cesar Ramos, Freddy Galvis, Kevin Siegrist
The Phillies had a pretty good offseason, in all honesty. They picked up Carlos Santana to hit in the middle of this lineup and upgraded the team defensively at first base. His on-base percentage skills should be a huge help for Rhys Hoskins and Nick Williams.
They also added some veteran relief arms in Tommy Hunter, Pat Neshek, Fernando Abad, and Francisco Rodriguez. It’s fair to wonder how much is left in the tank for K-Rod, but Neshek has been a tremendous reliever and Abad is a solid LOOGY. I like what the Phillies have done here. They’ve also added some plug-and-play vets that can occupy bench spots in case of injury so prospects can play everyday.
None of the losses are overly significant. Freddy Galvis is the biggest name, but he is a bad hitter with a low on-base percentage.
Why bet the over?
I have to be honest. This is probably a spoiler alert, but I like this team a lot. The .500 team that we saw in the second half was mostly comprised of this roster, with Nick Williams and Rhys Hoskins in the middle of everything. They’ve added Carlos Santana, one of my personal favorites and I won’t lie that I got a little bit choked up when he officially signed with someone that wasn’t the Indians.
Santana’s walk rate has gone down a tad in each of the last two seasons, but he is still an extremely potent offensive player. He’s hit at least 20 homers in four of the last five seasons with on-base percentages of .360 or higher in those four seasons. Now that he has improved his defense as well, he should easily be a three-win player. He really deepens this Phillies lineup because he regularly rates among the best in pitchers per plate appearance, which appears to be a skill that Rhys Hoskins also has. Cesar Hernandez also draws a lot of walks. All of the sudden, you can see the pieces of an offense that is tough to pitch to coming together. Santana’s power did drop last season, but I would expect some positive returns with a good hitting environment at Citizens Bank Park.
What Rhys Hoskins did in his 50 games will not be sustainable over a full season, but you cannot deny this kid’s power. Hoskins hit 38 HR in 2016 for Double-A Reading in 589 plate appearances. Between Triple-A Lehigh Valley and the big leagues, Hoskins slugged 47 home runs in 687 plate appearances. He walked 101 times against 121 strikeouts. For good measure, he also had 31 doubles. I’m not going to pretend that his 31.6 percent HR/FB% is sustainable, but the projection systems love him and are projecting him to easily be a three-win player. He was a 2.2-win player in 212 PA last season while playing something around league average defense in left field. I’m not expecting a .390 OBP, like he posted last season and in a couple of minor league stops, but he’s going to be a potent bat.
Cesar Hernandez is one of the better players in baseball that you haven’t really heard of. Over the last two seasons, Hernandez has amassed 7.6 fWAR with above average offensive performances and quality defense at second base. Hernandez has posted .370 OBPs each of the last two seasons. He doesn’t have much power, so the offensive profile takes a little bit of a hit there, but he did hit nine home runs last season to set a career high and more than double his output over his first 1,330 plate appearances. He can steal a few bases here and there and draws a good amount of walks, with a 10.6 percent BB% each of the last two years.
We’ve already got the makings of a solid offense here with three players that should be somewhere around 10 fWAR. The other guys are going to determine the ceiling for this offense. Odubel Herrera regressed offensively last season because his BB% went from 9.6 percent to 5.5 percent and he stole 17 fewer bases. He did have fewer opportunities to steal, which didn’t help. The biggest story for Herrera, though, is that he was pretty bad in the first half. He struck out 84 times in 328 plate appearances against just 16 walks. He batted .256/.292/.393 in what was a disastrous first half. But, he slashed .323/.378/.551 in the second half, cut his strikeouts down, and increased his walk rate. The 26-year-old made enough adjustments to have a league average offensive profile and he’s a plus defender in center field, which carries a lot of weight. If the walk rate returns, Herrera has the ceiling of a four-win player. At a minimum, he should be another three-win guy on a team that keeps adding value on offense as we go along.
Nick Williams has hit at every level of the minors and slashed .288/.338/.473 in his 343 plate appearances at the MLB level. He’s not a great defender and has an iffy offensive profile, but he’s made a lot of high-quality contact throughout his minor league career and he should be an average player. Remember, as I’ve been preaching, “average” in baseball terms is not a bad thing.
Maikel Franco still has power, but he doesn’t walk and his contact quality has been pretty bad. His 76 wRC+ was hideous last season. His 91 wRC+ in 2016 was a little bit better. There is still talent here and he was good in the minors. Maybe there’s hope. His teammate on the left side of the infield, JP Crawford, is a really toolsy kid with a great walk rate and good contact rates in the minors. He’s also a slick fielder. That’s the type of guy that could have value, especially if last season’s power gains in the minors can translate to the bigs.
Jorge Alfaro is a solid defensive catcher with some offensive upside. He was terrible in Triple-A last season, but came up to the bigs and hit everything hard. He has a track record in the minors of making a lot of hard contact to offset some swing-and-miss issues. There is so hope here and also hope with guys like Tommy Joseph, who has good power on the thin side of the platoon, Cameron Rupp, who can hit a little, and Aaron Altherr.
I was right about Aaron Nola last season, but that wasn’t exactly a thick limb to crawl out on. Nola had a 3.54 ERA with a 3.27 FIP and a 3.38 xFIP. He missed a handful of starts, but still posted a 4.3 fWAR. Nola’s 4.78 ERA in 2016 was accompanied by a 3.08 FIP and the same xFIP. He was a positive regression candidate and it clearly came through. His K% and BB% were about the same, but instead of a 60.6 percent LOB%, he had a 76.8 percent LOB%. That explains the ERA drop. His HR/FB% stayed pretty steady as well. He’s an ace in the making as long as that right arm stays in tact.
I like the offense and I certainly like the idea of full seasons of Carlos Santana, Rhys Hoskins, and Nick Williams. What I really like is the upside of this pitching staff. While I was right about Aaron Nola, I was wrong about Jerad Eickhoff. Eickhoff had a 3.65 ERA with a 4.19 FIP and a 4.15 xFIP in 2016. Last season, he regressed to a 4.71 ERA with a 4.30 FIP and a 4.86 xFIP. What happened? His home run rate went down in a year when everybody else’s was going up and he still struggled. He pitched behind in the count too much. The difference between a 1-0 count and an 0-1 count last season was staggering. Counts that started 1-0 resulted in a .272/.387/.470 slash line. Counts that started 0-1 resulted in a .223/.267/.359 slash line. Eickhoff’s first-pitch strike percentage dropped 4.1 percent. Therefore, hitters chased less because they owned the counts. Eickhoff has average fastball command, but lives on his slider and curveball. The slider was far less effective last season.
I like some things about Eickhoff’s season, though. The Phillies, who have embraced analytics a lot more under GM Matt Klentak, got Eickhoff to throw the curveball more. If he can get ahead in the count more frequently, the swings and misses and the chases come. Because hitters didn’t chase, they punished Eickhoff in the zone and had a .320 BABIP. A regression in his BB% would be huge. Projection systems aren’t high on him, but I actually like his chances to bounce back. That could create some surplus value for us and that’s why I do what I do to look from an individual level.
Speaking of which, let’s take a look at Nick Pivetta. On the surface, the 25-year-old was awful. He had a 6.02 ERA. But, here’s where it gets fun. Pivetta had a 4.26 xFIP. He struck out 140 in 133 innings of work, but fell victim to a high HR/FB% of 18.2 percent, a BABIP of .332, and a LOB% of 67.1 percent. Pivetta’s line drive rate wasn’t anything out of the ordinary and hitters didn’t pull the ball at an exorbitant rate. His 4.32 SIERA speaks to more improvement. I think Pivetta can be a league average type of guy. Don’t believe me? The much smarter Eno Sarris weighed in.
Vince Velasquez still has some promise, though I still believe a relief role is in his near future. The Phillies have some depth guys like Jake Thompson and Zach Eflin that can give them respectable innings. Let’s keep in mind, we’re taking about a win total in the mid-70s. We don’t need the back end of the rotation to be that great.
I really like this bullpen. Hector Neris was quite good last season with a 3.01 ERA and a 3.71 FIP. He struck out 87 and walked just 26 in his 74.2 frames and has been a solid reliever for two years now. Pat Neshek was dominant in his 43 appearances before getting traded to the Rockies. He’s back with the Phillies now after posting a 1.59 ERA with a 1.86 FIP. Opponents had a .241 wOBA against Tommy Hunter in the second half and a .274 wOBA in the first half, so he was strong for Tampa Bay. Adam Morgan is another guy to watch. The southpaw starter turned reliever had a 4.12 ERA, but a 3.47 xFIP. He was a victim of circumstance with a 20 percent HR/FB%, but he struck out 63 in 54.2 innings as a reliever. Edubray Ramos was dominant in 57.2 innings with a 2.91 FIP. He’s another fine option. This is a strong group.
I like to think that what we saw in the second half from the Phillies is more of what we can expect this season. Philadelphia was 12-23 in the first half in one-run games, so 9-13 the rest of the way, when the offense was better. This is an improved bullpen and an improved offense. There are a lot of positives for this team.
Another positive is manager Gabe Kapler. Kapler was one of the first former players to be very open about his appreciation of advanced metrics. He was able to work in the Dodgers organization with a brilliant set of executives, including Andrew Friedman. Kapler is a tremendous thinker when it comes to the game. I expect the Phillies to do a lot of creative things this season, including mid-inning defensive changes.
Why bet the under?
This is a pretty significant improvement in the standings when the only free agent of consequence to be added to the roster was Carlos Santana, who is a good player, but not necessarily a game-changer. After all, Santana generally projects around three wins above replacement player, which is solid, but a player with a 2.0 fWAR is considered to be average. So, he’s above average, but his impact on a team’s projection is fairly marginal.
That means that guys like Rhys Hoskins, Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro, and JP Crawford need to take the next steps. Hoskins will hit, but the chances of a .259/.396/.618 slash line are very miniscule. He won’t be posting a full-season .417 wOBA nor will he post a 158 wRC+. He’ll likely be in the .360s and the 130 range, which is still extremely good, but we need to have realistic expectations for these guys.
Williams has a very concerning profile. I really don’t like buying guys that have to rely on batted ball luck and contact quality to produce offensively. Guys that walk or hit for power have greater margin for error. In today’s game, every pitcher is throwing NC-17 breaking balls and 93+ mph. Williams has regularly posted high BABIPs with average speed, so maybe he’s just a guy with a good feel for the barrel. He did hit 27 HR across two levels last season, so that could be his saving grace, but he’s not carrying a full-season .375 BABIP and he was just 10 percent above league average offensively. Projection systems have a pretty big regression coming for him. Statcast data most definitely agrees, as Williams posted an Expected wOBA of .309 and an actual wOBA of .350 per their calculations of that metric. Those high-strikeout, low-walk profiles just don’t translate well to the big leagues in most cases. Williams was fine last season, but he faced a ton of fastballs.
Per PITCHf/x, Williams faced the fourth-highest percentage of four-seam fastballs last season at 44.9 percent. He was a plus hitter on the hard stuff, but struggled a ton with sliders and was around average on other offerings. Pitchers should adjust and pitch differently, especially with more players around Williams that can hit. Lineup protection is a myth in terms of statistical production, but it is not in terms of how pitchers attack a hitter. You can bet that Williams will see a greater variety of pitches this season and it will be interesting to see how he adjusts with a swing-and-miss profile and not much plate discipline. I’m skeptical of him for those that may overdraft him in fantasy leagues.
Odubel Herrera’s Dickensian “best of times, worst of times” 2017 season was pretty interesting. Over the course of 162, he’s probably a league average hitter, as he showed, but keep in mind just how bad he was in the first half. It took a lot of fill dirt to get out of the hole that he dug himself early in the year. A similar start might have us buried under this win total, much like last season, if it coincides with sophomore slumps for Rhys Hoskins or Nick Williams.
Jorge Alfaro carried a .420 BABIP in his 114 plate appearances as a catcher with no speed. His minor league numbers were all over the map, so he is a high-variance player for this season. JP Crawford’s contact quality is non-existent, but he does walk to lessen the blow. He won’t be walking 18 percent of the time, though, so what walk rate is enough to compensate for the low-average profile? Does Maikel Franco ever figure it out? He hit 22 HR last season, but was one of the worst everyday players in baseball, as he was bad defensively and offensively.
Aaron Nola’s health is probably the biggest key to this whole equation. If he misses significant time, this rotation goes from an average ceiling to the ceiling being too low for Verne Troyer to stand upright into the room. Nola means everything to this starting staff. The 24-year-old did throw 178.1 innings last season to quell some fears after only throwing 111 the season before. However long Nola is out there, he will be a highly valuable pitcher, but the more innings the better. There is nobody capable of replacing what he can do if he goes out.
I was wrong on Jerad Eickhoff last season and I could very well be dead wrong again. He didn’t post a 4.71 ERA with a 4.86 xFIP by accident, though I pointed out a very obvious shortcoming that could have significant impact. He’s still a starter with an average fastball and a heavy dependence on secondary pitches that require the right counts to throw. He may end up being a punching bag again. The same can be said for Nick Pivetta, whose contact management skills left something to be desired last season.
Like anything else in gambling, we’re trying to predict the future. We’re trying to find edges. I find sabermetrics to be my edge. I think Nick Pivetta can positively regress his 6.02 ERA to something closer to his 4.26 xFIP. That may not happen. xFIP and SIERA are two of the best predictive stats we have for pitcher performance, but that doesn’t mean that things always work out. Furthermore, it’s not like a 4.26 xFIP is all that awesome anyway. It’s about a quarter of a run better than league average, but with this rotation, that may not be nearly enough.
Vince Velasquez is another injury risk. Ben Lively just wasn’t very good. Jake Thompson and Zach Eflin looked pretty overmatched at the MLB level. I know I’m big on bullpens and I do really like Philadelphia’s, but this rotation has some really ugly potential. Nola is the only guarantee to be above average, so long as his arm stays in tact. Beyond that, Eickhoff is teetering on the brink of average and others need some pretty big gains to get there.
While I think there is a lot of upside in a creative, outside-of-the-box hire of somebody like Gabe Kapler, he doesn’t have a lot of managerial experience. Will he be able to mesh the analytics with being a resource for players? Will he get too cute with some of his decisions? Will he push the envelope too far? The Phillies are in a good position to take a gamble like this, but they could very well roll snake eyes.
Pick: Under 77.5 (-110, 5Dimes)
I hate doing this. I love this team, but this is one of the rare instances in which I wish I had entered the market sooner. The secret is out about the Phillies. Their season win total opened 74.5 and has been bumped up over the last few weeks. I will not be betting this one. My initial lean was to go over and I fully expected to go over as I was writing this. Remember that I put in the odds and the picks after I finished all my research and writing. I didn’t want to be biased. I was loving this team. And then I realized just how high this number has gone.
With Aaron Nola as the only surefire bet in the starting rotation, and with his injury history, I can’t do it. I like the bullpen. The offense is rather high-variance for my liking, though I do think the Phillies will hit and be one of the league’s better teams in that regard.
Part of the reasoning behind the line move is that some industry insiders expect the Phillies to sign Jake Arrieta. If that comes to fruition, then I think grabbing a piece of over 76.5 at BetOnline or paying the ridiculous juice for over 75.5 at Bovada makes some sense. That would significantly help the projections for this rotation.
For now, with Arrieta (and Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb) still free agents as I post this on March 1, I can’t do it. This would be a very big bump for Philadelphia and I can’t see them making this big of a leap this soon. That being said, I’m not playing under 77.5 right now. I may play it as the season approaches, but the Phillies are a couple FA pitchers away from being a team that could very well finish above .500.
-END OF 2018 PREVIEW-
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. One of my favorite plays last year was the Philadelphia Phillies over the win total. They got there rather easily from a wins and losses standpoint, but the underlying metrics and some key injuries told a much darker story than the 71-91 record. Heading into the 2017 season, there are high hopes for the Phillies rotation, but they’re going to have some problems in a lot of areas and it looks like another trying year in the rebuilding process.
The Phillies wrapped up 71-91, but they posted a Pythagorean Win-Loss record of 62-100. They were the only team in either league to have 100 losses with the standings metric that spits out a record based on run differential. The Phillies overachieved by nine games, given the discrepancy between the two records, which was second only to the Texas Rangers, who were 13 games better than they should have been. Similarly, per BaseRuns, a context-neutral standings metric based on outcomes, the Phillies overachieved by eight games with a 63-99 record. It is worth pointing out, however, that BaseRuns gave the Phillies a break in run differential. Philadelphia was -186 runs, which was the most in the league by 19. Per BaseRuns, the Phillies should have been -167 runs, with only the Reds coming in below that mark.
What do we do with this information? What does it mean for 2017? Does it tell us anything that we didn’t already know? Well, there are a few things that are clear outliers. The Phillies only won 10 games by five or more runs, which was the lowest total in the league. They lost by five or more runs 34 times. So, when the Phillies lost, they lost badly. They were outscored 339-147 in those games, which is why the Pyth W-L record was so much different than the actual mark. While getting blown out only counts as one loss, it can count as more per Pyth W-L. Generally, some of those things even out, but the Phillies didn’t win big very often.
The other concerning thing heading into 2017 is that the Phillies were 42-48 in the first half and fell apart in the second half. They were 29-43 with a -99 run differential over the final 72 games. Will that carry over to 2017? Let’s find out.
Season Win Total Odds
BetDSI: 73.5 (-125/-105)
BetOnline: 73 (-115/-115)
5Dimes: 72.5 (-145/115)
Additions: Howie Kendrick, Michael Saunders, Ryan Hanigan, Chris Coghlan, Clay Buchholz, Joaquin Benoit, Pat Neshek, Bryan Holaday, Pedro Florimon, Daniel Nava, Cesar Ramos, Sean Burnett
Losses: James Russell, Peter Bourjos, David Hernandez, AJ Ellis, Ryan Howard, Charlie Morton, Darin Ruf, Cody Asche, Severino Gonzalez
I actually really like what the Phillies did this season. With their current situation, they can be the type of team to roll the dice on somebody like Clay Buchholz. Buchholz is inconsistent and enigmatic, but the Phillies don’t have any delusions of grandeur about their season, so they can afford to take a chance. He’s a good replacement to Charlie Morton, who missed most of last season anyway.
Michael Saunders should enjoy Citizens Bank Park. He’s a very underrated addition to the ballclub and is coming off of a healthy season in which he hit 24 dongs. Howie Kendrick is a good veteran addition and it appears he’ll play the outfield. Chris Coghlan and Daniel Nava add some platoon depth.
I love the bullpen pickups of Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek. The Phillies had some clear needs in middle relief and they filled them. The losses weren’t overly significant, with a lot of part-time players and injury risks moving on. This was a really solid and underrated offseason in my estimation.
Why bet the over?
In my write-ups for teams projected to perform well, I’ve talked about how hard it is to sustain success over a 162-game sample size. It’s certainly easier to be consistently bad over that span, but even the worst teams in baseball generally find a way to win 60 games at a minimum. For a team like the Phillies, that means finding a few wins here and there and that’s always a possibility with a young team. Guys get a year stronger and get more experience in those rebuilding situations and those are the players that we can often look to for value and improvements.
One of them is Aaron Nola. Nola had a really strange and extremely unlucky 2016 season. He struck out 121 batters in 111 innings, but he didn’t get outs when he needed to and hit the barrel far too often. Nola posted a 60.6 percent LOB%. Keep in mind, as I’ve discussed in other previews, the league average is generally around 72 percent and guys that strike out over a batter per inning generally carry higher LOB% marks. Nola’s was obviously well below league average, which is why he had a 4.78 ERA, but a 3.08 FIP and a 3.08 xFIP. Nola had a .334 BABIP against. Some of that had to do with how poor the Phillies were defensively, but still. Those are two massive outliers. Nola was limited to 20 starts because of elbow discomfort. Clearly that’s a worry, but a healthy Nola could easily shave a full run off of his ERA, even with some K% and BB% regression. Projection systems are calling for a FIP spike, but also a massive ERA drop. While that hurts his fWAR increase a bit, it may help the Phillies tremendously. He’s a guy to buy this season, as long as the medical reports on his elbow are up to snuff.
Another high-upside arm that was limited last season was Vince Velasquez. The 24-year-old only made 24 starts and posted a 4.12 ERA with a 3.96 FIP and a 3.67 xFIP. Velasquez had some command issues with 21 HR allowed in 131 innings, but he also struck out 152 batters. He missed about a month with a biceps strain in June. It’s worth pointing out that Velasquez had two bad months. May, before the DL stint, and August, before he was shut down for the year. I think there’s a lot of upside here and he should be able to be a middle of the rotation or better type of starter. With a better idea of how to pitch and a full winter to work on his command, there’s the makings of a good 1-2 with Nola and Velasquez.
Another guy I really like again this season is Jerad Eickhoff. Eickhoff made 33 starts last year with a 3.65 ERA. He had a 4.19 FIP and a 4.15 xFIP because he didn’t miss a ton of bats, but he doesn’t issue walks, so his home run rate increase wasn’t that big of a problem. Eickhoff’s problem is that his fastball command can’t live up to his two primary pitches, the slider and the curve. You have to be ahead in the count to throw pitches like that unless you can work backwards, so that’s a plus for Eickhoff, but the trade-off for him is that hitters are extremely aggressive ahead in the count. Splits generally look bad for all pitchers when behind in the count, but hitters batted .315/.413/.597 against Eickhoff ahead in the count. League-wide, batters slashed .302/.473/.525 when ahead in the count, so Eickhoff definitely gave up more extra-base hits than the average. That comes with experience. I think there’s good room for growth here.
Jeremy Hellickson found a home in Philly. He made 32 starts last year with a 3.71 ERA, a 3.98 FIP, and a 3.99 xFIP. He then re-signed with the Phillies. His career year kind of came out of nowhere, but he’s a pretty average pitcher across the board and that’s very valuable over 190 innings. He’ll likely be the Opening Day starter and should be a two-win guy at a minimum.
Clay Buchholz gets a new lease on life as a National League pitcher. That’s something that should really help him. Between injuries and inconsistencies, things just didn’t quite work out in Boston for the majority of his time there, but he’s only one season removed from 3.2 fWAR in just 18 starts. Citizens Bank Park isn’t forgiving, but Buchholz seems like the type to benefit from a league change. He’ll need to because the depth here is okay with guys like Adam Morgan, Alec Asher, Zach Eflin, and Jake Thompson, but there’s a clear top five.
The bullpen lacks standout upside from any one pitcher, but there are some proven veterans in Jeanmar Gomez, Joaquin Benoit, and Pat Neshek. They’ll be the go-to guys for Pete Mackanin while some of the younger guys fight for the middle relief appearances. Hector Neris pitched well in 79 appearances covering 80.1 innings last season. The Phillies are pretty set from the right side. The left side is another story.
Odubel Herrera now has some financial security, so it will be interesting to see how he responds. He was an extremely valuable player last season and has already amassed 7.8 fWAR in two MLB seasons. Herrera bumped his HR total from eight to 15, his SB total from 16 to 25, and increased his walk rate by 4.4 percent. A .286/.361/.420 slash line is plenty good enough with him and he’s shown the ability to carry high BABIPs throughout the minors. Herrera is also a very quality fielder at a tough position. The CF has been worth 16 defensive runs saved with positive UZRs over his two seasons.
People looking for a Maikel Franco breakout were disappointed. After posting a .280/.343/.497 slash line in 335 plate appearances in 2015, Franco fell back to a .255/.306/.427 slash line last season. Pitchers made adjustments and he did not. He still hit 25 home runs, but his walk rate went down, his strikeout rate went up, and his BABIP dropped 28 points. These are the things I look for in terms of finding value the following season. Franco isn’t some ruined hitter because of a down year. He did post a .269/.323/.491 slash in the first half before a second-half swoon. Maybe it was the grind of the year. Maybe it was an injury. Maybe it was pitchers adjusting. Maybe it was just variance. Whatever it was, I’m confident that Franco, in his second full season, should be an upgraded piece of this Phillies lineup. He’ll never be a Gold Glover at third base, but he was adequate enough last season.
As mentioned above, I really like Michael Saunders as an addition to this lineup. The Phillies were 29th in on-base percentage last season at .301. Saunders posted a .338 OBP despite a .253 batting average because he walked 10.6 percent of the time. He also hit 24 homers and made good contact against pitchers from both sides. The Phillies were 20 games under .500 against right-handed starters last season. They were .500 against right-handed starters. Guys like Saunders and Daniel Nava should help in that area on the fat side of platoons.
The Phillies liked what they saw from Tommy Joseph in 347 plate appearances with a .257/.308/.505 slash. The on-base skills aren’t quite there, but the power plays. On the flip side, the power isn’t there, but the OBP is with Cesar Hernandez, who only hit six home runs, but walked 10.6 percent of the time and posted a .294/.371/.393 slash line. He was also terrific defensively. Speaking of infielders, JP Crawford is coming quickly and should be the starting shortstop shortly after the Super Two deadline in June. He’s a good fielder with plus speed and a hit tool that is developing. The same can be said for catcher Jorge Alfaro, acquired in the Cole Hamels deal, who has tremendous power and a premium arm behind the dish.
The Phillies lineup you see at the start of the season won’t be the Phillies lineup at the end. Crawford and Alfaro are coming. Aaron Altherr can be an everyday player or at least a good player on the thin side of the platoon. Nick Williams is another prospect with power that is in the upper levels of the system. There’s a lot of built-in upside here, especially if the pitchers can stay healthy.
Why bet the under?
Promising prospects are simply that. They are prospects. We saw it last year when Maikel Franco failed to have his breakout season. We could see it with JP Crawford or Jorge Alfaro this season. These guys have to be able to make adjustments to professional pitchers. The biggest leap in sports is to go from the minor leagues to the big leagues in baseball. Breaking balls are sharper. Pitchers are smarter. Command and control are so much better. Franco’s second-half splits are indicative of some of the problems that young hitters tend to face. There’s also the grind of playing 162 for the first time.
We see that with pitchers as well. Vince Velasquez missed basically two months. Aaron Nola missed basically two months. As promising as those two starting pitchers are, there’s still a learning curve to training your body to finish the marathon rather than show well in the sprints. Nola’s elbow problems are particularly concerning. Velasquez, as a hard thrower, is always under the microscope as well. The Phillies lack depth everywhere, but especially in terms of the pitching staff. If Nola or Velasquez are lost for long periods of time, it’ll be bad. We basically saw this. Velasquez went out at the same time Nola struggled and the Phillies were 9-19 in June. Nola missed the last two months and Velasquez missed the last month. The Phillies were 22-31 in August and September. This is a major risk factor to taking a full-season position on the Phillies.
Clay Buchholz might simply end up not being very good and may be a failed gamble. He’s also an injury risk. Jeremy Hellickson’s best season by fWAR prior to last year’s 3.2-win campaign was back in 2011 when he posted a 1.7 fWAR. He’ll turn 30 next month, so maybe he’s simply “finding it”, but it’s hard to bet on a guy with nearly 1,000 innings at the MLB level to have a similar season.
Defensively, the Phillies will still be subpar until Crawford and Alfaro show up. Cesar Hernandez was good at second, but Maikel Franco is average or worse at third, depending which metric you use. Odubel Herrera covered up some mistakes in the outfield, but now Michael Saunders and Howie Kendrick will be out there. Saunders has had some major knee injuries in the past. Tommy Joseph is a poor first baseman.
I can make a glass half-full case for both the starting rotation and the lineup. I can’t do much for the bullpen. Jeanmar Gomez is not a prototypical closer. He pitches to contact and has a marginal walk rate, so that doesn’t play well in a role like that. Joaquin Benoit will turn 40 around the All-Star Break and his walk rates have been poor over the last two seasons. His control may be starting to go. The Phillies don’t really have any proven lefties to match up late in games.
Season Win Total Pick: Over 73 (-115; BetOnline)
Through it all, I like the Phillies again this season. I’m not as worried about the ugly Pythagorean Win-Loss record or the BaseRuns suggestion of regression. They simply got beat badly more often than they should have and those things only count as one loss. The Phillies gave up nine or more runs 26 times last season. They only scored nine or more runs eight times. Those things happen. With a quality rotation, they’ll have a lot of games where they can hold the opposition in check and hopefully the bullpen can finish those games. We can even say that the Phillies got unlucky by only being 34-14 when they held opponents to two or three runs.
Like I said, there’s some help coming from below and it should come fairly quickly. I think the Phillies like the way that Pete Mackanin can work with young players and the best development can be done at the Major League level with a guy like that. The young players that are already at the MLB level like Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera should keep improving.
The selling point here for me is the rotation. I think the Phillies erred on the side of caution with prized positions like Aaron Nola and Vince Velasquez and they had every reason to do that. The team’s two best pitchers each missed about 10-12 starts apiece and the Phillies still won 71 games. There’s something to be said about that. There’s a lot to like now and in the future, so I’m content with rolling with the Phillies for the second straight season.
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