On August 29, the Phillies sat at 61-69, tied for third in the NL East with the Mets, 10 games behind the Cardinals for the second Wild Card in the National League. Cool Standings, a website that calculates playoff probability, had their odds of making the playoffs on the morning of the 29th at less than 0.1%. Since then, the Phillies odds have increased to a September-high 5.5% on Thursday and sit at an even 5% this morning. To put that in perspective, the Phillies are greater than 50 times more likely to reach the playoffs as of this morning than they were on the morning of August 29. While a large amount of luck was needed to pull within three of the Cardinals, the Phillies improbable return to contention in 2012 was powered by a number of stand-out performances by some likely, and unlikely, performers. As you’ll see by the size of this list, a winning ball-club is made up of a number of excellently performing players. The Phillies have had that in the second half.
The Not-So-Surprising Contributors
Pop quiz: Who leads baseball in K/BB ratio? It’s Cliff Lee. Lee has flow under the radar in the second half but has been exactly what the Phillies have needed: an ace. Lee’s second half record may only be 4-2, but let’s disregard win/loss record for a second; his second half ERA (2.66) is second on the team among starters only to Kyle Kendrick, averaging over seven innings pitched per start, and just under a strikeout per inning pitched. Lee has struggled with the long ball in the second half, most notably allowing four in his July 24 start against the Brewers, but has been strong since, not allowing a home run since August 16. Lee’s strong second half have stabilized his disappointing first half and is a big reason the Phillies are rapidly ascending the Wild Card ranks.
Pop quiz #2: Which shortstop has accumulated the second most fWAR in the National League and third most in Major League Baseball behind a surprising season from Ian Desmond and a strong season from Elvis Andrus? It’s not Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, Starlin Castro, or even Reds’ rookie standout Zack Cozart. No, the shortstop that FanGraphs finds the second most valuable in the NL and third in the entire MLB is Jimmy Rollins.
Much was made about Rollins’ contract heading into 2012, but Rollins has provided more for less than Reyes. Rollins 4.2 WAR season is his highest since his 5.6 WAR season in 2008. FanGraphs values Rollins 4.2 WAR as a $18.8 million contribution. Rollins’ batting line, .249/.308/.425 with 20 HRs and 32 2Bs, may be ugly for a lead-off hitter but is beautiful for a shortstop and is bolstered by legitimately elite defense and high-level contributions on the base paths (27 for 32 in steal attempts). Rollins second-half triple slash for the Phillies, .238/.305/.459 with 13 2Bs and 12 HRs, is, again, below average for say an outfielder or first baseman, but in a changed MLB landscape is elite for a shortstop. In the last 15 games, where the Phillies are 12-3, Rollins has put up a remarkable .297/.343/.578 with 5 HRs and 12 runs scored line.
It is said so much that it is nearly a cliche but it appears to be true: As Jimmy Rollins goes, so do the Phillies. And both are going right now.
The “Young Veteran” Category
There really isn’t a whole lot that has not been said already about Kyle Kendrick’s remarkable, and sometimes confusing, 2012. Yo-yo’ed between the starting rotation and the bullpen, Kendrick has shined at times in both roles and is undoubtedly one of the top reasons the Phillies have remained within arms length of the playoffs in spite of injuries, and bouts of ineffectiveness, to Roy Halladay, Vance Worley, and Lee. Kendrick, at age 28, has seemingly finally put together the repertoire to stick at the Major League level as a starter, reportedly abandoning the cutter and focusing on throwing mostly a fastball/change-up mix. Many criticized the Phillies signing Kendrick to a two-year pact in the off-season when it was believed he could be non-tendered; instead, Kendrick has posted his most valuable season yet (1.2 WAR, worth around $5.5 million), running off remarkable scoreless innings streaks as a starter and reliever, and has posted a very impressive second half (2.34 ERA in 57.2 IP, 44 Ks, winner of four out of his five last starts).
John Mayberry Jr.
I cannot think of a Phillie in recent memory whose platoon success was expected to immediately transform into everyday success quite like fans expected John Mayberry Jr. to make that leap. Mayberry’s late-season power surge in 2011 was fueled in part because of a large platoon advantage Mayberry has against left-handed pitching (.306/.358/.595). A disappointing spring saw Junior lose the left field job to veteran Juan Pierre, who has yet to relinquish it. Mayberry did play early and often but often came in as a pinch-hitter or defensive replacement. Now that he has been the starting center fielder since the July 31 trade deadline, Mayberry has hit .308/.386/.500 with 10 2Bs and 6 HRs and has been arguably the Phillies’ best hitter as they track down the Wild Card.
Professional wrestling fans may remember Gorilla Monsoon saying that Greg “The Hammer” Valentine needed about 10 minutes in a match before he really got the juices going and there may be merit to that with Mayberry. Mayberry’s stats have obviously improved dramatically since becoming an everyday starter but check these stats out for Mayberry’s performance against pitchers during a game – it may be a case of Mayberry getting comfortable throughout a game:
Seeing a starter for the first time in a game: .227/.277/.372
Seeing a starter for the second time in a game: .317/.385/.561
Seeing a starter for the third time in a game: .297/.308/.594
When I hear people call into sports talk radio and say the Phillies “need to play that Frandsen kid”, I snicker. Not because it’s untrue, he’s likely their best option at third, even with a stress fracture in his leg, but because “that Frandsen kid” turned 30 years old this year. While Frandsen has seen MLB action in parts of six seasons, his career plate appearances total, 626, is the equivalent of a full season of an everyday player. Yet, nobody has told Frandsen that. I don’t want to hear sample size, all Frandsen has done is hit in 150 PA with the Phils (.341/.389/.399), putting a charge in the blackhole of the line-up spot that used to be known as the number seven hitter. When your number seven hitter is getting on base at a near .400 clip, your team is going to win some ball games.
Similarly to Frandsen, Kratz is no spring chicken in baseball terms. At 32, this is the first time Kratz has received regular playing time. Quite frankly, I wonder what took so long. Between has rocket arm that can throw runners out from his knees to his power stroke, Kratz looks like he has been doing this all his life in the Majors. Kratz had big shoes to fill replacing the Phillies’ best hitter this season, Carlos Ruiz, but has done so admirably. In games Kratz has caught in the second half, the Phillies are 25-12, with Kratz hitting .254/.305/.508. That last number is the important one: of catchers who qualify for the batting title, only two have higher slugging percentages. One is A.J. Pierzynski, the other is probable NL MVP Buster Posey.
The Unexpected Veteran Help
Juan Pierre was signed in the winter for the veteran minimum to add bench depth. A lot of the folks on Phillies Nation thought Scott Podsednik should get the opportunity Pierre would get: 25th man, speedster off the bench. Then, something strange happened. Pierre put up a Spring Training to remember and didn’t relent as the season went on. His entire year has been a turn-back-the-clock year (.311/.355/.372, 35 of 42 in steals) but his second half has been likely his best ever (.320/.376/.361, 15 of 19 in steals). His performance in the second half, more specifically his September performance (.448/.500/.483, 3 steals), has limited the playing time of minor league phenom Darin Ruf to just one at bat and, knowing the outcome (Phils are 8-1 in Pierre’s September starts), I’m OK with that.
The biggest reason the Phils have turned the corner in the second half and have gotten on a September hot streak has been the performance of the bullpen. Josh Lindblom is riding a streak of six innings pitched in eight appearances where he has ten strikeouts and has not allowed a run. Phillippe Aumont‘s late breaking curve and change-up have frozen batters and has made him look like a closer of the future. Jeremy Horst, one of the most consistent pieces of the ‘pen since his call-up, has averaged over a strikeout an inning in the second half. Justin De Fratus looks to have recovered quite nicely from off-season surgery and has yet to allow a run since his promotion, while B.J. Rosenberg may sport the most deceptive ERA above 9 in the history of baseball, sporting a 2.08 ERA in September, striking out 5 with a suddenly-overpowering 97+ MPH fastball. Meanwhile, Jonathan Papelbon has lowered his ERA to 2.44 for the season and sports a 1.48 ERA and .179 BAA in 29 second half appearances. It is one thing for offensive standouts to power the Phils, but they have been able to keep those leads thanks to a much improved bullpen, who has led all of baseball with a 2.44 ERA in the last 30 days.