Analysis

Will the Phillies offense improve in 2017?

cesarhernandez-300x168.jpgThe 2016 Atlanta Braves were mocked for their inability to score runs, a futility highlighted by a 15-game homerless streak early in the season. By the close of the season, however, it was the punchless Phillies who scored the fewest runs in baseball, reaching a total (610) that was 39 fewer than Atlanta’s 649.

While it’s no secret that the Phils have suffered from a number of weaknesses in recent seasons, poor offense has been among the most painful to watch. They haven’t had an above-average offense since 2011 – a year that feels now like it might as well have happened in an alternate universe – and even then ranked 13th in runs scored. 2012 was the last time they scored over 630 (3.88 runs per game), which isn’t exactly the most respectable standard in the first place.

With reason to believe the Phillies are on the better side of rebuilding, the question arises of whether they’ll be any better at scoring runs in the year to come than they were in 2016, and where on the diamond the most likely improvements can take shape.

Constants

Knowing what to expect from a rebuilding team full of young players can be difficult. Some players stand to improve each year as they become more experienced and comfortable against major league pitchers, while others regress or never hit their ceiling. A few, though, have provided a pretty good sense of the player they’ll become, making it easier to know what their production will look like.

Odubel Herrera, for example, produced numbers in 2016 that were strikingly similar to those from his rookie campaign a year earlier. He drew more walks and struck out less, bolstering his on-base percentage to a commendable .361, and was otherwise similar enough to past performance to think the same can be expected of him going forward.

Cameron Rupp, too, is more of a known entity than some of his teammates. In 2016, he was almost exactly average in wRC+ (99), wOBA (.321), and batting average (.252). While these marks are a noticeable improvement over his previous seasons, the difference is not great enough to set an impossible standard for Rupp and may even be the result of legitimate growth for him. For the most part, he is unlikely to be the real difference-maker the team needs, but maintaining the power stroke that netted him 16 home runs in 419 plate appearances would help. As a backstop, of course, his defense and ability to work with the team’s young pitchers will be his more important functions.

maikel_franco_1280_c6sj9vxr_6iiznin6New questions for familiar faces

Like Rupp, Freddy Galvis will man a defense-first position and is unlikely to ever be thought of as a real slugger. Unlike Rupp, Galvis can put an exact date on an adjustment he made to improve his hitting: Aug. 9. That day, he and hitting coach Steve Henderson altered his swing to keep his weight back longer, leading to a surge of power that included 6 home runs and a .275 ISO in the month of August. While his second-half numbers were still pretty lackluster – including a .251/.289/.439 slash line – they were an improvement over how he started the year and, over the course of a full season, could squeeze out a few more runs if that more-powerful swing is sustained.

His double-play partner, Cesar Hernandez, had a breakout year in 2016, leading Phillies who had at least 200 plate appearances in average (.294), on-base percentage (.371), and walk rate (10.6%). While those are appealing enough numbers to get anyone on his side, there are fears that they are not representative of his ability. For example, his batting average ballooned despite his ground ball rate being the same as it had been throughout his career (54.9% compared to 54.3%, respectively), so it would not be unfair to suspect that Hernandez was the beneficiary of some BABIP-fueled luck.

With that said, Hernandez has been trending positively in each of his seasons in the majors and was no stranger to similar on-base skills during his development in the minors. Even if luck was a factor in his 2016 season, he could remain a table-setter for future Phillies teams, to some extent.

Whether Hernandez repeats his 2016 performance or not, however, it’s hard to imagine him improving it further. Additionally, he’s a player with no power, which makes him dependent on the guys behind him in the batting order to turn his hits into runs. In other words, the team’s offense improving as a whole in 2017 will depend on players other than Hernandez.

A player whose 2016 was a step in the other direction is Maikel Franco. He followed up a 2015 campaign that most fans were pleased with by dropping off in every rate stat last year. The downturn can be explained by two things: slumps and poor plate discipline. Franco was an average or above-average hitter for the better part of the season, but his May and August were so miserable that they bring down his whole line.

Pitch/FX data reveals that Franco swung at a higher percentage of pitches last year than in prior seasons but made contact at the same rate, meaning he was swinging and missing. Additionally, he chased balls out of the zone more often, suggesting plate discipline and pitch selection continue to be areas of concern for the third baseman. Fortunately, he’s young enough – still only 24 at the start of the coming season – that these issues have not ossified and can still be reconciled as he continues to develop.

Franco is a player who could, in fact, have a big impact on the team as a whole in the season to come. His tool set and room for improvement both speak to how much better he can make the Phillies’ bats than they were a year ago. It’s hard to expect Franco to get worse, given his stretches of success in the past and the potential most scouts have seen in him for some time, so he represents another spot in the lineup that should lead to a better offense than last year.

A pleasant surprise in 2016, Tommy Joseph was equal parts feel-good story and tater-masher. It’s hard to root against a guy whose future in the sport was doubted by some after a series of concussions made him change positions; it’s nearly impossible to root against him when he goes yard 21 times in less than a full season. He’s still a difficult player to project: His performance in the minors would not have prepared anyone for the year he had; the same performance was also likely stifled by frequent injuries and the difficulty of transitioning to a new part of the diamond.

Having a full season of a player who hit like Joseph did last year would do a lot for the Phillies offense, on which he was the only player with an OPS above .800. Having a full season of a first baseman who isn’t Ryan Howard could do just as much.

Aaron+Altherr+cA4lf8sRzJqmNewcomers

2017 will be Joseph’s first as an everyday first baseman for the team, but the only roster lock who’s completely new to Philadelphia will be Howie Kendrick. At left field, he’ll fill a position that was a soul-sucking garbage void for the Phillies in 2016. Phillies left fielders – Cody Asche and Tyler Goeddel, primarily – ranked worst in baseball in wRC+, wOBA, and OBP. They were 29th in ISO, batting average and win probability added, and 27th in home runs and hard-hit percentage. Expecting production from players with those rankings would be like expecting a dragonfly to total the truck whose windshield it splatters against.

Actual statistics are not prerequisite knowledge in determining that Kendrick should provide an upgrade for the Phillies in left this season. His .255/.326/.366 slash line reveals that he was, in most respects, a below-average batter in what was an uncharacteristically poor year for him in 2016. There has been speculation that his offensive output dropped because of his unhappiness with his role on the Dodgers or that, at age 33, his career is winding down, but he’s an improvement for the Phillies even without a turnaround. Regaining the form that gave him five straight seasons of an OPS+ over 100 (2011-15) would turn him from a bandage into an asset.

Right field wasn’t much more productive for the Phillies last year, and it has no definite choice to fill it out in the year ahead. Pete Mackanin remains interested in external options for the job, but only if one can come without blocking future outfielders from taking the mantle. Two of those future outfielders, Aaron Altherr and Roman Quinn, figure to be auditioning for the spot out of spring training.

Altherr is a perplexing player. He wasn’t a top prospect like Franco, but he’s done well enough along the way to continue getting promotions. He’s athletic and comfortable in the field but had something of a lost season last year, missing time due to injury and not performing well when he returned. It should surprise no one if he’s the opening-day right fielder even if his actual production is harder to predict. The bottom line, though, is that right field was another gaping wound on the roster last season that would be satisfying to improve by leaps and bounds through the acquisition of new talent, but fans may have to settle for breaking even or, at most, experiencing the same slight upgrades seen elsewhere on the diamond.

To the point

Whether the Phillies offense will be better next year is a very different question from whether it will be good. Ultimately, the Phillies haven’t yet made the changes or growth that would turn them into an offensive juggernaut, but a series of marginal improvements even in players familiar to the team could boost scoring in small but conspicuous ways. If enough of these tweaks and developments break the right way, the 2017 Phillies might stagger out of “complete offensive embarrassment” range, but fans looking for firework displays are advised to buy their tickets for the week of Independence Day.

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