Analysis

First-place Phillies have become really good at one thing



The relentlessly positive Kapler fist-bumps a Phillies employee prior to Tuesday’s victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Matt Veasey/Phillies Nation)

Fans of the Philadelphia Phillies are ecstatic that their ball club has surprisingly reached the final week of July in first place. After all, at this time a year ago the club was 30 games below the .500 mark and buried in the basement of the 2017 National League East Division standings.

Those Phillies were not only 25 games off the division leading Washington Nationals, they were also nine games behind the fourth place Miami Marlins. Playoffs? The team was 22 games off the pace for the second NL Wildcard berth.

While excitement has been steadily returning to the fan base, there have also been legitimate concerns. There has been much warranted frustration over the team’s overall poor defensive play. Offensively, the Phillies have shown a maddening inconsistency in their ability to produce runs. Early on, the bullpen was blowing leads on a regular basis.

The lone saving grace for this team was the starting rotation. Aaron Nola grew into a true NL All-Star ace to front the rotation. Zach Eflin stepped up to become a legitimate big league starting pitcher. Jake Arrieta added some needed veteran moxie and talent. Vince Velasquez seems to finally be figuring out how to harness his immense talents.

The performance of that starting rotation was the primary reason that the club was able to push its way into contending status. Then this month, with the help of some changes in personnel and roles, the bullpen began to figure things out.

The offense has scored at least five runs in six of their last seven games. This stretch marks just the second time all season that the Phillies hitters have been able to score with that much consistency. They also did it from June 17-24, making it twice in a month now.

Only the defense continues to struggle. There are nightly adventures as we watch fly balls and pop-ups that should be caught drop in between fielders. Balls are bobbled, dropped, or thrown away. Cut-off men are missed.

Catchers Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp repeatedly fail to handle pitches they should, resulting in numerous wild pitches and passed balls. They also fail to block balls in the dirt that more agile or defensively skilled backstops block with far greater consistency.

Some of the defensive problems have been caused by decisions made by management. Rhys Hoskins and Scott Kingery, two young players who should be among the faces of the franchise moving forward, have been tasked with playing out of position all year in left field and at shortstop respectively.

Through all the struggles and all the moments of frustration, the team under first-year manager Gabe Kapler has demonstrated for months now that they are becoming very good at one thing in particular. It may seem simplistic, but it is also a fact. These Phillies have become good at winning baseball games.

The bullpen blows a late lead? The Phillies win. The offense struggles and disappears for large chunks of a game, as happened this past Tuesday night? The Phillies win. The defense makes two or three errors of omission or commission, as they did on Wednesday? The Phillies win.

The Phillies have won to the tune of a 57-44 record. That is an improvement of more than 20 games over a year ago, and they have flipped the divisional standings on its head.

It’s well past time to begin recognizing that Kapler’s relentlessly positive attitude and message with this youngest team in Major League Baseball has been a prime factor in its success.

A perfect example came from yesterday’s post-game press conference. Kapler commented to reporters that Knapp’s first plate appearance leading off the game had been the team’s most important at-bat. Knapp struck out in that at-bat.

Kapler was quoted after the game by Corey Seidman of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

I really believe that the most important at-bat of the game was Knapp’s strikeout at the beginning of the game. Look, I’ve been asked a ton this season about strikeouts, are we striking out too much? And of course, we always want to put the ball in play, but man, you throw an at-bat like that on the pitcher and we’re looking to get the pitcher out early. That’s exactly what you’re looking for out of a leadoff hitter. And in many ways, we owe the fact that Walker Buehler was out of that game to Knapp’s at-bat.

A young player who is hitting for a .237/.331/.396 slash line, has struck out in nearly one-third of his plate appearances, and who is repeatedly making gaffes behind the plate leads off the game by striking out. Kapler somehow turns it into a positive and provides a legitimate explanation.

While the defense remains shaky, the offense may finally be gaining some consistency. The pitching is starting to shape up all the way through the staff. And the manager is both protecting his players and providing them with a positive environment.

Only one team in the National League, the Chicago Cubs, has a better record at this point. With August less than a week away, only four teams over in the American League have a better mark.

Sure, they could still use a little help here at the trade deadline. So could every contending team. But this has already been a fun spring and summer down at the beautiful ballpark in South Philly. As the dog days drag on, it’s getting more and more fun with each passing week as the 2018 Phillies continue to do what they seem to do best, win baseball games.

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