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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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Vernon Dozier

    July 27, 2018 at 11:31 am

    Even the most optimistic fans could not have predicted being in first place a few days away from August. I predicted a .500 team, which would have been a huge accomplishment coming off of a 66 win season. That awful first series in Atlanta now seems like it was years ago. Kapler instantly became a bit of a joke on the local level as well as in the national media. Fans on this blog and others were calling for his firing. Gabe countered by guaranteeing a playoff berth.

    https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/after-another-gaffe-and-a-15-2-loss-phillies-manager-gabe-kapler-guarantees-playoffs/

    You have to give the guy some credit…I’ve never been a subscriber to “the team winning in spite of the manager” mantra. The next two months should be a lot of fun.

    #BeBold #ElTorito #RedOctober

    • Ken Bland

      July 27, 2018 at 1:00 pm

      Still another in a “series” of listeners who take liberties with word associations and I guarantee you, have zero respect for what the word guarantee means.

      But don’t feel bad.  Tom Verducci was one of at least 3 people who GENERICALLY and IN ARREARS had the decency not to use quote marks in paraphrasing Kapler’s alleged words, but still said the man guaranteed something he didn’t.

      Open 1 ear and digest this.  But not too attentively since I guarantee you I have the stamina to repeat this as circumstances grow by the day that others will refer to Kapler’s guarantee as the weeks roll on.

      Kapler, INDEED, talked about the playoffs and October baseball while he was a laughing stock.  That is definitely Be Bold action.  But NOWHERE but NOWHERE did he guarantee the playoffs.  He spoke OPTIMISTICALLY about it through the laughter. HUGE DIFFRERNCE!

      Now to be truthfully candid, strong armed and straight up as I am in denying the guarantee word choice. it is POSSIBLE he used the word and my search and plea for proof of it, which went unanswered could have been accurately answered had someone taken the trouble if he actually guaranteed anything. In fact, that I got zero evidence that he guaranteed his optimism doesn’t mean anything, but its damned suggestive.

      I guarantee you the English language has words that should be respected, and as definitive as some words are, literally used.  Guarantee is one of them. Since Joe Namath popularized the word, many don’t.  Even if the playoffs are in the cards, for my money, Kapler avoids that list. Smart fella.

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