As I opined last week, gauging where you stand on the Phillies can hinge on what day you check in on this ambivalent bunch. Nowhere is it more visible than within the Philadelphia media, where readers are bombarded with recurring “buy” and “sell” advocacy within the same publication, sometimes on the very same day.
For Phillies fans, it really is a recipe for whiplash.
Today is one of the good days. Cliff Lee and Domonic Brown will represent the city in tonight’s All-Star Game at CitiField. The Phils are riding high, winners of nine of 13 and four straight series, three of which came against teams in contention. They are at the .500 mark for the first time since June 7 – six-and-a-half games behind Atlanta in the NL East and five-and-a-half behind Cincinnati for the second wild card spot.
There is nothing wrong with fans craving the excitement of a playoff run. That remains true even if they don’t truly believe this team has the talent to make one (count me in with that cautiously hopeful bunch). But while this group’s recent penchant for second half improvement has me conceding that a playoff spot is a remote possibility, it still seems pretty implausible when you crunch the numbers.
On Sunday, I tweeted out the breakdown of pre and post All-Star Break win percentage for the Phillies since 2005. Their second half dominance has been impressive in both magnitude and consistency:
2012: first half 37-50 (.425), second half 44-31 (.586) 2011: first half 57-34 (.626), second half 45-26 (.634) 2010: first half 47-40 (.540), second half 50-25 (.667) 2009: first half 48-38 (.558), second half 45-31 (.592) 2008: first half 52-44 (.542), second half 40-26 (.606) 2007: first half 44-44 (.500), second half 45-29 (.608) 2006: first half 40-47 (.460), second half 45-30 (.600) 2005: first half 45-44 (.506), second half 43-30 (.589)
Let’s forget about the crippling injuries to Ryan Howard and Ben Revere for a second and pretend that the Phillies will extend this latest stretch into a second half push… not a huge reach considering the numbers above. Even with that assumption, there are still several factors working against them that have me (again) cautioning the optimists out there.
At 48-48, the Phillies have already played 96 games this season. Outside of 2008, when they had also played 96 by the break, the Phils highest game total at this point was 91 in 2011. Quite simply, fewer games mean fewer opportunities to put that second half surge to use.
Over the eight-year span from 2005-12, the Phillies were better in the second half by an average win percentage of .090. Put that number of .590 (current win percentage plus .090) into play for the remaining 66 games, and it leaves the Phillies at 87 wins in 2013 (rounding up). With the current playoff format, 87 wins would have earned them an NL playoff berth exactly once in the past 10 years (2006). Not good.
However, if they’re able to miraculously replicate the .667 win percentage of 2010, that would put them at 92 wins (rounding down), a number that would’ve secure a playoff spot in each of the last 10 years. Good news to be sure, but easier said than done.
First, I don’t think anyone would argue that this team is less talented than their predecessors. In addition, while the Phillies sit at 48-48, they have a run differential of minus-45, suggesting that they’ve had quite a bit of good fortune in the first half. There are only seven teams in baseball that have been more drastically outscored. The Mariners hold the best record of that bunch at 43-52. To put it further into perspective, the Mets have a superior run differential of minus-27. Even if the Phils improve from here, they’re going to need luck to stay on their side.
Making matters worse, ESPN’s Buster Olney broke down the strength of schedule for baseball’s 19 “contenders” as of Sunday morning. The Phils have the ninth toughest schedule of that bunch. The easiest? The Braves, who, at that point, played only 19 of their 67 remaining games against teams with a record .500 or better. Atlanta also doesn’t have to travel west of the Central Time Zone for the rest of the season. For what it’s worth, every team the Phillies are chasing for the NL wild cards has an easier schedule than they do according to Olney.
In short, it’s going to take a colossal second half effort from the Phillies to make the playoffs, and when you consider the holes on this team, perhaps one even more heroic than any we’ve had the pleasure of watching over the last eight years. The good news is that the number of games the Braves play against .500-or-better competition jumped from 19 to 32 on Sunday when the Phils took care of the White Sox in extra innings to get to 48-48.
Those 13 remaining match-ups against Atlanta are the proverbial ace in the hole for the Phillies. In 2007, the Phils played .600+ ball in the second half, but more importantly, went 7-0 against the Mets. The numbers say this core group has to try to mirror that performance over their remaining 66 games if they want one more shot at a title. Anything less probably won’t be enough.