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Fact or Fiction: Nola, Hernandez and the 2017 Phillies

cesarhernandez-300x168.jpgWe’re still not even close to where we need to be to get a decent statistical sample size for the 2017 Phillies, but we can definitely start to see outliers and statistical anomalies in some performances so far.

So it’s a good time to pop open the hood and take a look underneath some of the traditional stats and examine who is putting up numbers unlikely to be sustained over the course of the season by seeing which ones are fact and which ones are fiction:

Aaron Nola

2017: His sudden DL stint notwithstanding, Nola’s year so far is the perfect example why ERA is … well, stupid. OK, ERA isn’t stupid. It can just be extremely misleading. In this case, we can point to a really unlucky series of three starts to open the year where Nola’s BABIP is an eye-popping .405, leading to his ERA of 4.50. His pitch-to-contact style will always lead to a higher BABIP than you’d like, but .405 is outlandish. It’s not going to keep up, no way, no how, and the computer models agree. He carries a FIP of under 3, an xFIP of 3.47 and a SIERA of 3.68.

FACT OR FICTION: Fiction, in a good way. Nola’s velocity has ticked up on both his two-seam fastball (89.9 mph in 2016 vs. 91.3 in 2017) and his four-seam fastball (90.3 mph to 92.6 mph), but so has his walk rate. He’s never been over a 6.4 percent walk rate for a season professionally, but he’s spiking at 8.7 percent so far this year. You could explain that away with the increase in velocity and him learning to control it, but it’s the one concerning thing under his hood. Otherwise, he’s pitching better than his counting stats might indicate and should stabilize with an ERA about a run better than it is now, once his luck turns around.

Cesar Hernandez

2017: If only everyone on the Phillies played this well when they realized they had someone pushing them. Hernandez is the team’s obvious early-season offensive MVP, leading the team in homers, slugging, on-base percentage, OPS (obviously), batting, hits and steals. You can say you saw this coming, but you’d be lying. You didn’t see this coming. Not like this, you didn’t. Too bad there are a host of peripherals that say this ride is about to end …

FACT OR FICTION: Fiction. This just isn’t Cesar. Just like Nola’s .405 BABIP against won’t keep up, neither will Hernandez’s .434 BABIP. He’s always carried a rather high BABIP, but .434 is literally impossible to sustain (the MLB leader is typically in the .370-.380 range, and often plays in Colorado). He’s also never had an ISO percentage above .131 professionally for a season at any of his stops, yet he’s at .225 right now. So those four home runs are an aberration. What’s worse is his strikeout rate has exploded to more than 27 percent and his walk rate has plummeted from 10.6 percent of his at-bats in 2016 to 5.9 this year. These early-season days of Hernandez carrying the Phils on his back are, most likely, about to end. I’ve got a few shares of him fantasy-wise, and I’m looking to sell high yesterday.

Phillies bench

2017: It’s a pretty random stat, but the Phillies are leading baseball with a 0.3 wins above average when it comes to their pinch hitters. So their bench is worth 0.3 wins so far this year, and only one other team has 0.2. It’s easy to see why, as the three main cogs of the bench so far – Aaron Altherr (1.083 OPS), Daniel Nava (1.255 OPS) and Andres Blanco (1.250 OPS) are absolutely raking right now. Nava is getting on base more than half of the times he walks up to the plate. If Brock Stassi and Andrew Knapp haven’t been so disastrously bad, the bench would look even better.

FACT OR FICTION: Fiction. At least to this extent, and especially since Altherr has temporarily (permanently?) graduated into the starting lineup while Howie Kendrick works his way back from injury. Nava’s .438 BABIP and .348 ISO are unsustainable (duh), but it’s not like anyone was counting on that kind of Barry Bonds-like production from him. Altherr’s peripherals tell a similar story, but at least his strikeout rate of 25 percent is more in line with his 2015 season than his 2016 season, when he was over 30 percent. To expect these kinds of numbers from these guys the rest of the season is folly, even though the bench is up there with Hernandez and Jeremy Hellickson as the biggest reason the Phils have managed to scrap out a .500 record so far. Speaking of that .500 record …

9-9 record

2017: The Phillies have won five of their last six, and when you think about it, it should be six out of their last seven had it not been for a messy Joaquin Benoit blown save that led to a Bryce Harper walk-off. But 12 of those 18 games have been against National League East favorites in the Nationals and Mets, so the degree of difficulty and the fact that they’ve played pretty well in those games (OK, except for the Mets series in Philly) bodes well for the rest of the year. Plus, they’re getting the kinds of contributions we thought would need to happen to make a .500 team, and there is still obvious room for improvement in Maikel Franco and Tommy Joseph.

FACT OR FICTION: After a nightmare schedule to start the season – and one that only gets worse through mid-May – for the Phillies to be at .500 is actually pretty impressive. They’ve routinely looked horrible and very good on alternating nights. Isn’t that what a .500 record means? The plus-7 run differential points to a slightly above average team and ranks 12th in baseball, though that plus-14 game against the Nationals kind of skews things. Still, nothing as crazy as last year when they were minus-50 or something nuts like that with a 24-17 record and were 14-3 in one-run games, a crazy combination that set off every siren on every squad at the Regression Police Department. We’ve said it about a billion times on this site: This team should be playing for a .500 season in 2017. If it gets there, this season has been a success. After three weeks, there’s no reason to think any differently.

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