There is nothing worse for a fan than watching your team lose to a team that is, in every way shape and form on paper, the worse team. While a 2-2 split in a four game set is usually satisfactory for any ball club thousands of miles from home, the Phillies could have, and should have, swept away the lowly Padres. Yet, as Phillies’ fans, we wake up confused and wondering what can be done.
By no means is it time to raise the white flag, but it may be time to reassess what we thought we knew as fans when the season started. Here are few preseason expectations with their corresponding readjusted realities and what that means for the Phillies.
Warning: Reading this may induce banging your head into the wall in frustration and calling into talk radio yelling about the need for “run producers”. The Phils have better than anticipated pitching and defense and are seemingly wasting it. If you read through the end, hopefully I will have convinced you, Phillies Nation reader, that there may be a light at the end of the tunnel.
Expectation 1: The starting rotation is very good and the bullpen is solid.
Readjusted reality: Both the starting rotation and bullpen have been among the tops in the National League.
There was expectation heading into 2012 that the rotation would be very good but not as great as it was at the end of 2010 or for parts of 2011. As fans, we tempered our expectations and realistically adjusted them while considering both Doc Halladay and Cliff Lee‘s ages, the possibility of improvement from Hamels and regression from Worley, and the wild card that is Joe Blanton. Three weeks in and the rotation, and staff as a whole, has delivered more than expected. The staff ranks 4th in baseball in WAR (2.8), trailing only the Nationals (4.1) in the NL. Their ERA (2.41) is good enough for 2nd in the Majors behind only Washington (2.34), are tied for 2nd in HR/9 IP, and are 3rd in the MLB and 2nd in the NL in BB/9 IP. From starter to closer, the Phillies pitching has been nothing short of great and may be the reason early in 2012 that this team has been so frustrating to watch.
When broken up by starters and relievers, Phils starters have posted an incredible 2.29 ERA, good for 2nd in the MLB behind the Nationals 1.82. With some more advanced numbers like Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) from FanGraphs, the Phillies still rank 2nd (2.87 to the Nats’ 2.07). The good news? There is no possible way the Nats can sustain that pace. While there is almost no chance the Phillies will remain that dominant either, the Nationals will likely face a greater regression as the season progresses despite their obvious upgraded rotation. The Fightins’ ‘pen has posted a 2.78 ERA, good for 4th in the NL but their FIP puts them toward the middle of the pack. The Phils’ relievers have gotten a little luckier than most and may start to stutter a little bit more but this pace probably isn’t anything too out of the ordinary. Expect the starting rotation, including Worley and Blanton, to help the Phils keep the pace toward the top of the NL and the relievers to be middle to tops.
Expectation 2: The Phils will no longer be a viable defensive team. They have no clear left fielder, no clear first baseman, an aging shortstop and third baseman, and a rookie that has never played second base in professional ball.
Readjusted reality: The Phillies are exceptionally good on defense. No, really.
The Phillies made three errors yesterday. So what. Chalk it up to a bad day at the office.
The Phillies rank second in the Majors to the Royals in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), a pace that they likely can maintain. While jokes are a-plenty about the fact that Juan Pierre is the Phils’ starting left fielder in 2012, remember that this team won a World Series with Pat Burrell and made the following year’s World Series with Raul Ibanez in left. Pierre may have a wet newspaper for an arm in left but has played league average defense, which is actually a significant upgrade over Ibanez. The Phillies are also getting exactly neutral value from each of the four players they have played at first base, which is a minor upgrade as well.
One of the biggest, most positive surprises has been the as-advertised defense of Freddy Galvis. Galvis ranks 3rd among all players in the Majors in UZR and leads all second basemen in the category. Jimmy Rollins continues to contribute positively defensively, only trailing Brandon Crawford in UZR in the NL. And not to be ignored, Placido Polanco again paces all NL third basemen in the category.
The best part: None of these improvements are out of left field (a metaphor, as one of the improvements literally is out of left field). The Phillies ranked among the lower half in MLB team UZR last season; with a staff concentrating on throwing ground ball-outs, this sustainable improvement does and could continue to make the pitching staff terrific.
Important update (11:50 AM): Bill Baer at Crashburn Alley has rightly tweeted at me that UZR takes quite some time to stabilize (2-3 years). It is also important to note that 16 games is still a ridiculously small sample-size. Please take these nuggets of information with cautious optimism.
Expectation 3: The Phillies will hit enough extra base hits to score runs OR the Phillies will incorporate small ball in order to win games OR the Phillies will use good base running to win games.
Readjusted reality: The Phillies have not hit extra base hits AND the Phillies have not played small ball AND the Phillies have not ran the bases well
Here is the head-banging inducing reality Phillies’ fans live in: While the pitching staff has exceeded expectations and the defense has been nothing short of incredible, the Phillies are not only not doing all the things they said they would do in the off-season, they are in fact managing to do absolutely none of them.
It is no secret the Phillies have hit for absolutely zero power this year. Just how futile are they? They currently sit in a tie for second-to-last in the Majors in home runs (7) with the Pirates and Astros, just two above the Cubs (5). They are currently only out-pacing the lowly Pirates who, by the way, took two out of three from the Phillies on Opening Weekend. Advanced stats don’t bail them out either: the Phils sit second-to-last in the MLB ahead of only the Pirates in ISO, wOBA and wRC+, too.
When talking about small ball, many folks forget that one of the main ingredients of small ball in addition to base hits, running the bases, and bunting is taking pitches and drawing walks. Does it seem like Hunter Pence always swings at pitches outside the zone or that Ty Wigginton has been taking a hack at whatever the first pitch is? Well, there may be some merit with a hint of confirmation bias in those statements. The Phillies currently lead the Majors in swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone (34% of their swinging strikes are outside the zone), in company with such offensive juggernauts as the Giants, Pirates, and Cubs. Not surprisingly, the Phillies are also amongst the most aggressive teams in the league, swinging at 48.8% pitches they see. Granted, these aggressive swings have netted contact for pitches outside the zone an NL second-best 70.4% but good contact usually is not made when pitches outside of the zone are connected on. All this translates into an MLB-worst 5.1% BB%. You can’t play small ball if there are no base-runners. And while the Phillies have been successful on 13 of 14 stolen base attempts and lead the league in SB%, their base-running has contributed a cumulative -0.1 runs to their “bottom line” this year.
Expectation 4: A much improved Nationals team will contend in the NL East.
Readjusted reality: The Nationals are off to a fast start, are very likely to regress, but will be there in the end.
While there is no immediate solution to the Phillies offensive woes, they likely will not waste this great pitching and defense for that much longer. And it has nothing to do with losing Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.
The Phillies, over the last three seasons (2009-2011) have been one of the most selective line-ups in baseball. In that time frame, the Phillies only trailed the Yankees and Red Sox in Swing% for lowest amount of swings per pitches seen and trailed only the Rockies as the most selective team (swings at pitches outside of the zone) in the NL in that time frame.
Despite Adam Dunn‘s departure, the Nationals continue to be at or near 10% in the last three seasons and counting in swinging strike%. From 2009-2011, their approach led them to striking out the fourth most in MLB. Their 47-point difference between BABIP and BA indicates that the team has been a little lucky in some of the hits that have fallen and that their .243 BA, only 4 points ahead of the Phillies may not be sustainable. Add to this their unsustainable 1.82 ERA from their starters and it will leave a window for the Phillies, and Braves, Mets, and Marlins, to regroup and catch them. But the window is actually a lot smaller than we originally anticipated.
While all hope is not lost this early in the season, it is important as fans to adjust our reality. There are two brighter-than-anticipated spots, three glaring-weaknesses that may correct positively over time, and a giant elephant in the room from DC that may not go away. 2012 is going to be quite a different season than we, as fans, have grown accustom to. It really is unique for a team to have this good of pitching and such great defense and yet have no offense. Will the return of Howard or Utley correct the problem? Perhaps, but time may be on their side – the Phillies will adjust as the Nats will cool and make the NL East an exciting race.