Look, I understand. It is April 20, 4/20, and quite honestly, some of you reading the title of this article may think I have been partaking in some of the fun associated with the numbers in question (author’s note: I did not). The Phillies are just 8% through the season and, by all accounts, look pretty bad, at the very least, offensively. Almost offensively bad offense, but you may be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt before casting assumptions.
I am not.
Quite frankly, I have seen enough to make my own assumptions and draw my own conclusions. Admittedly, there is some confirmation bias involved: prior to the season, I picked the Phillies to win just 64 games, effectively placing them among the worst teams in club history. So, to me, any reason to say they are bad and will continue to be bad is in my best interests to prevent me from looking silly (author’s note: I don’t need the Phillies’ help). But there are a number of reasons why the early weeks of the season are telling and why it may only get worse.
Good News and Bad News
Phillies fans, there is a bit of good news: it likely won’t get any worse for some of the Phillies’ worst players. Ryan Howard, he of the .175/.214/.250 line, hasn’t been baseball’s worst first baseman this year according to WAR. Hooray! But he likely won’t be much better than he is right now. Howard is pretty-WYSIWYG right now, ranking 30th among MLB first baseman in batting average, 31st in OBP, and 29th in SLG. While his numbers likely will improve just a pinch, his positioning among MLB first baseman will likely not.
The same news goes for Grady Sizemore (.136/.174/.182), baseball’s current worst right fielder by fWAR. Sizemore likely won’t hit .136 all season but the folks slightly ahead of him will likely improve throughout the season. Jeff Francoeur (.200/.282/.400) has actually provided positive value above replacement-level and ranks as the game’s 24th best right fielder in that regard. Sizemore and Frenchy should remain relatively close to their positioning as the season progresses with the potential for a slight upgrade when Domonic Brown returns. Brown, however, brings as many questions as he does answers, as he himself was last year’s worst left fielder in all of baseball by WAR.
The other good news may be found in two of the team’s most seasoned players, Chase Utley and Carols Ruiz. Utley, who is hitting .119/.170/.262, will not be this bad all season. However, at age 36, where is Utley’s ceiling? His basement? One of the game’s best second baseman last year, Utley is now 36 years old. While his former teammate up the middle Jimmy Rollins has found some early success in LA at the same age, Utley has come out of the gate rather cold.
Utley would be only the 27th second baseman in MLB history to qualify for a batting title at age 36 and the results, historically, have actually been pretty good. In 1999, Randy Velarde had one of the all-time underrated seasons for a veteran player at any position at age 36 (.317/.390/.455, 16 HR, 24 SB), while Joe Morgan‘s 1980 at age 36 was a major reason the Astros competed for the pennant. Utley’s manager, Ryne Sandberg, had a pretty good age 36 season in his own right (25 HR, 12 SB, .444 SLG).
But Utley, as with Chooch, falls into a weird confirmation bias loop where 36 year old players who historically got playing time did so because they were still pretty good. Unlike the 26 previous at second base, there have only been four catchers at age 36 to ever qualify for the batting title and none had negative value below replacement-level. Ruiz is exactly even in that stat and the odds are against him at qualifying for the batting title: just about one in four (40 out of 164) catchers who have had a plate appearance at age 36 reached 300 plate appearances, with only four qualifying for the batting title.
Here is the bad news: the players that have been playing well, Cody Asche, Freddy Galvis, and Odubel Herrera, don’t have a significant enough track record that makes me comfortable projecting them to do anything close to what they are doing. Asche, now 24, may be the player that can provide the most value in the group. Asche has accumulated as much fWAR in 11 games as he did in 121 games last season, but of course, that could change quickly with a cold streak. Asche won’t hit .350/.409/.475 all season, but he comes into 2015 healthy and was a .290/.348/.449 hitter in the minors and may continue to get closer to those numbers.
While Asche’s progress could be very real, Galvis came into the 2015 season with 550 MLB PA, hitting just .218/.259/.362. Still just 25 years old, Galvis, was just a .246/.291/.334 hitter in the minors. Galvis has found power in the Majors, and has kept his glove, but hasn’t been able to achieve offensive success seemingly until 2015. Galvis’ line (.317/.378/.390) is likely unsustainable, largely due to his inability to hit righties as a lefty (.216 batting average).
Herrera is certainly a wild card and has been an extra base hit machine (five doubles, two triples) and has been fleet of foot (three steals). At 23, Herrera is a career .294/.354/.377 minor league hitter and is hitting .308/.372/.513 in 43 MLB PA appearances. If the cards fall in any certain direction, Herrera could be the Phillies best offensive player or right smack in the middle of the pack. Herrera has been among the Major’s most valuable center fielders 8% of the season in but is unlikely to stay there throughout the season.
Why All That is Important
Let’s list the line-up, with the most positive projections for each position:
C: Ruiz (slight improvement)
1B: Howard (slight improvement/push)
2B: Utley (slight improvement)
SS: Galvis (slight decrease)
3B: Asche (slight decrease/push)
LF: Revere (slight improvement)
CF: Herrera (slight decrease)
RF: Francoeur, Sizemore, Brown (push)
With simple math, the Phillies should have a net positive of one positional slight improvement on offense.
But where would that take them?
Here’s where the Phillies are ranked in the Major Leagues:
Batting average: 28th
The Phillies aren’t baseball’s worst offensive team even though they are pretty close. But their slight net improvement won’t see them climb above many teams.
The 2015 Phillies in a Historic Context
The 2015 Phils are hitting .213, just 12 points below the 1888 Quakers and just 19 points ahead of the first Phillies team (1942) on the list in franchise history. This year’s club is just seven points ahead of the 1883 Quakers, who sit in last place in club history for OBP, while their .313 SLG is ninth-worst in club history and the worst since 1942.
Where this year’s Phillies are truly terrible is among advanced statistics. The stat wOBA, or weighted on base average, is defined as follows at FanGraphs:
wOBA is based on a simple concept: Not all hits are created equal. Batting average assumes that they are. On-base percentage does too, but does one better by including other ways of reaching base such as walking or being hit by a pitch. Slugging percentage weights hits, but not accurately (Is a double worth twice as much as a single? In short, no) and again ignores other ways of reaching base. On-base plus slugging (OPS) does attempt to combine the different aspects of hitting into one metric, but it assumes that one percentage point of SLG is the same as that of OBP. In reality, a handy estimate is that OBP is around twice as valuable than SLG (the exact ratio is x1.8). In short, OPS is asking the right question, but we can arrive at a more accurate number quite easily.
Weighted On-Base Average combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value. While batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage fall short in accuracy and scope, wOBA measures and captures offensive value more accurately and comprehensively.
It may come as no surprise that this year’s Phillies rank dead-last in Phillies history in this category. Another category that they are currently last in are is wRC+. wRC+ is defined as follows:
Similar to OPS+, Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) measures how a player’s wRC compares with league average after controlling for park effects. League average for position players is 100, and every point above 100 is a percentage point above league average. For example, a 125 wRC+ means a player created 25% more runs than a league average hitter would have in the same number of plate appearances. Similarly, every point below 100 is a percentage point below league average, so a 80 wRC+ means a player created 20% fewer runs than league average.
The Phillies wRC+ this season? 68, or 32% below league average. The Phillies likely won’t be 32% below league average bad, but there have only been two teams in the 20th century or later with a sub-70 wRC+: the 1920 Philadelphia Athletics and the 1963 Mets.
The Wrap Up
The Phillies find themselves with a trio of early offensive standouts (Asche, Galvis, and Herrera) who should be pretty good but are due for regression, a couple of players underachieving early but should climb back as long as age doesn’t get involved (Ruiz and Utley), a left fielder who isn’t as bad as he’s playing (Ben Revere), and a right side that is as advertised (Howard, Francoeur, and Sizemore).
There are a few tweaks that could take the Phillies a little bit higher offensively without mortgaging the future (Tyler Henson is probably a replacement level player in the Majors and the same could be said for Chris McGuiness or Maikel Franco at first base) but nothing short of a Bob Hamelin, Earl Williams-esque out of nowhere rookie contribution from an unexpected call-up, there isn’t a whole lot of help on the way, at least offensively.
In short, the team stands to improve ever-so-slightly but will rank among the worst clubs offensively in club history if their output remains close to what they are currently doing. Are they 32% worse than MLB average? It is tough to say. But the numbers game seems to be working against the Phillies producing a cumulative overhaul of their offense throughout the 2015 season.