The Philadelphia Phillies got a lot of buzz going into the 2018 season. For a while, they validated the optimistic opinions that dominated the lead-up to the season. Ultimately, they finished two games below .500.
What happened? What went wrong?
The late-season collapse from Philadelphia was one of the more stunning developments in the big leagues. It didn’t cost over bettors, as the Phillies still went over all of their win total odds, but this is a team that was tied for first place on August 12 and 13 games over .500. By the end of the season, the Phillies had to win their last two games just to get to 80 wins and finished 10 games out.
An 8-20 month of September defined the season for the Phillies. Up until that point, things were going pretty smoothly for a team that a lot of people felt was a contender. Progressive manager Gabe Kapler had to answer a lot of questions early in the season for his managing style, which included pulling starters extremely early and some odd defensive configurations. He settled in and the detractors went away….until they came back as the team was falling apart.
A running joke of this offseason was owner John Middleton’s claim that the Phillies were going to spend money and “maybe be a little stupid about it”. In this current financial climate, spending is a good idea. Teams are getting bargains relative to what the cost per win was in the free agent market a few years ago. The Phillies are on the cusp. They have an improving pitching staff anchored by a true ace in Aaron Nola. They have a young position player core that should continue to get better. Now is the time to spend.
And spend they did. It took until February 28, but the Phillies eventually won the Bryce Harper sweepstakes with a 13-year, $330 million deal. Harper turned 26 in the middle of October, so he is in the prime of his career, which meshes well with what the Phillies already had going in that regard.
The Phillies’ average batting age per the formula at Baseball-Reference, which is weighted by at bats and games played, calculated the Phillies as the second-youngest team in baseball. The formula for average pitcher age had the Phillies as the third-youngest team.
The hype wasn’t misguided last year and the Phillies were actually a really solid team for most of the year. That month of September really does stand out. To be totally honest, it creates some misleading and false narratives about the Phillies, who were just 2.5 games back of the Braves on September 7 before falling off the face of the earth.
The Phillies got hit early in the betting market on the over and saw another adjustment thanks to the Harper signing. Is there still value on the Phillies at this point in time or has this number simply gotten too far away?
Season Win Total Odds
2018 Standings Data
Actual Record: 80-82
Run Differential: -51
Pythagorean W/L: 76-86
BaseRuns Record: 79-83
BaseRuns Run Differential: -22 (4.22/4.36)
3rd Order Win% Record: 78.8-83.2
Record in One-Run Games: 23-18
Additions: Bryce Harper, Jean Segura, JT Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen, David Robertson, Jose Alvarez, Juan Nicasio, Drew Butera, Rob Brantly, Sean Rodriguez, Phil Gosselin, Andrew Romine, Gregorio Petit, Gift Ngoepe, Lane Adams, Shane Robinson, James Pazos, Jeremy Bleich, Edward Paredes, Josh Martin
Losses: Wilson Ramos, Jorge Alfaro, Justin Bour, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jose Bautista, Luis Avilan, Aaron Loup, JP Crawford, Carlos Santana, Luis Garcia, Sixto Sanchez, Will Stewart
The Phillies added the best catcher in baseball according to some people when they landed JT Realmuto after a winter’s worth of trade speculation. I’m a sucker for metrics and Mike Petriello of MLB.com had a lot of them in this breakdown of why he’s such a valuable piece. The cost was steep, as the Phillies gave up top prospect Sixto Sanchez plus Jorge Alfaro, Will Stewart, and some international bonus money, but they instantly upgraded the top of the order, the area behind home plate, and the roster as a whole.
For a while, that was the cherry on top for what has been a strong offseason for the Phillies. Then they landed Bryce Harper, whose fWAR numbers have bounced around a lot, but he is an on-base machine with great power. Jean Segura and Andrew McCutchen were solid pieces to add to the lineup and the bullpen looks stronger with David Robertson, Jose Alvarez, and Juan Nicasio.
The losses aren’t all that significant, as many of the players were late-season rentals for the playoff push that fizzled out. Carlos Santana never really seemed to fit in and the Phillies did well to get out from under his contract and re-appropriate those funds elsewhere. Sanchez is a loss, but that’s the cost of doing business.
Not listed as an addition, because it isn’t, is that Aaron Nola signed a very reasonable extension just before Spring Training that ate up arbitration and two free agent years.
BA: .234 (30th)
OBP: .314 (19th)
SLG: .393 (23rd)
wOBA: .307 (21st)
wRC+: 91 (21st)
BABIP: .289 (24th)
K%: 24.8% (28th)
BB%: 9.5% (4th)
The Phillies were fortunate to be in the race as long as they were with numbers like that. Because the Phillies walked or struck out in more than 34 percent of their plate appearances, they had the fewest balls in play of any team in baseball. They ranked 21st in average exit velocity by hitting in so many deep counts. As a result, Philadelphia was 30th in batting average and was 24th in batting average on balls in play.
That won’t happen again this season and the Phillies even gained ground in the BB department as well. Bryce Harper finally signed on the dotted line with a team and he will play for the next 13 years, health permitting, with the Phillies. Harper batted .249 last year, which is a reminder that batting average is still a bad gauge for a player because he posted a .393 OBP and a .496 SLG.
There wound up being a lot of noise in Harper’s defensive metrics. He was +28 defensive runs saved for the first six years of his career and wound up -26 defensive runs saved last season. That horrific defensive performance dropped his fWAR down to 3.5. With his offensive profile, an average defensive season would have had him up around last season’s 4.8 fWAR, so I’m far from concerned. The Phillies got a bona fide middle of the order bat to add to what already looked to be a much improved lineup.
Andrew McCutchen has a career 12 percent walk rate and has a .287 batting average. He hasn’t posted anything close to that since 2015, when he hit .292, but he gets on base a lot and still has decent pop. He’s also not as hurtful defensively when he’s playing a corner and that will be the case with Odubel Herrera in center.
Jean Segura doesn’t hit for much pop, but has posted three straight seasons with an OBP of .340 or better with one 20/20 season and a couple 10/20 seasons. Add in above average defense at a key position and he’s a strong addition. So, too, is JT Realmuto, who has managed to post wRC+ marks of 111, 107, and 126 while playing at Marlins Park, which dramatically suppresses offense. As Petriello noted in that link above, Realmuto’s home/road splits are astonishing, with a .291 wOBA at home and a .364 wOBA on the road in his career per FanGraphs.
Rhys Hoskins clubbed 34 dongs last season and led the team among regular players with a 129 wRC+. Cesar Hernandez is a solid hitter with a high OBP, but a low SLG. Maikel Franco made the leap back to being a league average hitter after two down years. Nick Williams has a 106 wRC+ in his 791 plate appearances as a big leaguer. In 607 plate appearances against righties, he’s been 13 percent above league average. He’ll now be Triple-A depth or in a pinch hit role, which is a nice asset to have in case of injury.
There aren’t many black holes in this offense. With the acquisitions at the top of the order to set the table for the rest of the group and better depth on the bench as a result of internal development with guys like Andrew Knapp, Scott Kingery, and Roman Quinn, the Phillies look like at least an average offense with room for more, which is a tremendous upgrade from last season.
ERA: 4.15 (18th)
FIP: 3.83 (7th)
xFIP: 3.87 (6th)
K%: 23.9% (6th)
BB%: 8.2% (12th)
LOB%: 71.0% (23rd)
When you see an ERA/FIP or ERA/xFIP discrepancy like this, you know right away that the pitchers didn’t get much help from the defense. The Phillies were dead last in defensive runs saved with -146, which was 46 runs worse than the next worst team. Only the Orioles and Blue Jays rated worse in UZR and UZR/150.
The pitching staff should take a step forward with Segura, McCutchen, and Realmuto. The trade of Santana means that Hoskins can play first base and not be one of the worst outfielders in baseball. Hopefully Williams, who was -15 DRS in right field, can make some strides in the outfield as a part-time player.
This is one of many reasons why people are high on the Phillies. The pitching staff is good and the bullpen is improved, but there are two hindrances – health and defense. The defense will be better, though still well below average in all likelihood. That means the ceiling for this staff will be defined by the amount of time spent on the disabled list.
Aaron Nola is a bona fide ace. He posted a 2.37 ERA with a 3.01 FIP and a 3.21 xFIP. He also filled two of my favorite criteria in that he struck out over a batter per inning and had an elite ground ball rate of 50.6 percent. The Phillies also harnessed the potential of Nick Pivetta, who had 188 K in 164 innings. He was one of many Phillies pitchers hurt by the defense, as he allowed a .326 BABIP and posted just a 69 percent LOB%. His 4.77 ERA came with a 3.80 FIP and a 3.42 xFIP, which would signal positive regression.
Vince Velasquez also struck out well over a batter per inning, but he only worked 146.2 innings in his 30 starts and one relief appearance. He, too, had a big ERA/FIP discrepancy with a 4.85 ERA and a 3.75 FIP. Zach Eflin tapped into his strikeout potential to a degree and was yet another guy with a 4.36 ERA and a 3.80 FIP. League average for LOB% is generally around 72 percent. Among the five primary starters for the Phillies, only Aaron Nola was above 69 percent. If the gains stick from last season, and the defense improves, this rotation could certainly finish in the top half of baseball.
Gabe Kapler is very stats-minded, which is why Nola was the only guy to work more than 173 innings as a starter. Pivetta worked 164 in 32 starts and one relief outing. Velasquez, as mentioned, didn’t work deep into games. Eflin worked 128 innings in 24 starts. Arrieta worked 172.2 in 31 starts. The Phillies were very strict early in the season about limiting exposure to the opposition a third time through the lineup. It led to a lot of early-season burnout for the relievers before Kapler relaxed his stance.
I would still expect the Phillies to be more proactive than reactive, which is why adding David Robertson, Jose Alvarez, and Juan Nicasio is such a big deal. Seranthony Dominguez got overworked in the first half and went from a .172 wOBA against with a 43/6 K/BB ratio in 33.2 innings to a .290 wOBA against with a 31/16 K/BB ratio in 24.1 innings in the second half. A healthy Pat Neshek will provide a big boost. Adam Morgan is a useful matchup lefty. Tommy Hunter is a reliable vet. Hector Neris posted a .211 wOBA against and had 35 K in 17.2 IP in the second half. For the season, he had a 4.04 FIP and a 2.71 xFIP to go along with his 5.10 ERA.
Depth is a bit of a worry for the Phillies. Part of the reason why the starters didn’t work deep into games was the third time through the order penalty concerns, but also Pivetta, Velasquez, and Eflin have all had their share of injury scares. Last season marked the first time Aaron Nola worked more than 178.1 innings in a season.
Positives & Negatives
The song will sound the same for the four NL East contenders, but this division is a bear. There is a pretty clear path for the Nationals, Mets, Braves, and Phillies to win the division. It may simply depend on how much injury attrition each team has to face. As far as balance, with four legitimate contenders, the NL East may be the most balanced division in baseball this season, which makes those 76 games a real challenge.
The Phillies were a trainwreck defensively. Some of it had to do with their very aggressive defensive shifts. Most of it had to do with players that had limited range. It is entirely possible that the Phillies make a huge leap when they’re playing defense and it would really elevate the pitching staff. On the other hand, how much of a leap we can realistically expect is a challenging question to answer.
Pick: Over 89.5
I’m buying stock in this team. I believe in the improvements that they have made. Matt Klentak is a really smart GM and he has the financial backing of ownership. They clearly tapped into and harnessed a lot of pitching potential from the starting rotation and the bullpen. The position player group is better both offensively and defensively this season. The signing of Harper has created immense expectations, but the Phillies have very few weaknesses and were better than they finished last season.
The September collapse kept this number manageable, at least for a while. If the Phillies had played even .500 ball in September, they’d have won 86 games. This number would be in the 88 range with the additions and with last year’s 86-76 record. To me, this is a team that ran out of gas. A 21-34 record and a -74 run differential over the last 55 games does represent a big chunk of the season, but it’s the last thing everybody saw. I think this team is better equipped for the long haul this time around.