The 23-16 Phillies have exceeded expectations through six weeks, playing at a mid-90s-win pace. While few would project them to approach that total, it’s interesting that they’ve arrived at this record despite slow starts from numerous players.
Let’s take inventory of the biggest surprises and disappointments as we near the quarter-pole.
Biggest offensive surprise
Odubel Herrera is the obvious answer. We knew of his skill set and potential if everything clicked, but who would have guessed he’d be leading the National League in hitting through 40-ish games?
The widespread perception is that Herrera is a streaky player. But in reality, his bat has been hot for nearly a calendar year. Dating back to last June 3, Herrera has hit .338, second in the majors to only Jose Altuve. His .395 OBP and .550 slugging percentage are also top-10 in the NL over that span.
Herrera’s slugging percentage has increased in each of his four big-league seasons. When he homers, they tend to be missiles or towering no-doubters. Sure looks capable of reaching 20-plus home runs after previously topping out at 15.
Biggest offensive disappointment
While some might still want to give this to Carlos Santana, you just can’t right now. Santana has been one of baseball’s hottest hitters the last week, driving in 16 runs in his last nine games.
Despite his slow start, he has nearly as many walks (23) as strikeouts (24), and Santana’s 19 extra-base hits rank second among all major-league first basemen behind only Freddie Freeman.
So let’s go with a combo here of Andrew Knapp and J.P. Crawford.
Knapp is hitting .185 with one extra-base hit and 23 strikeouts in 62 plate appearances. Because of this and Jorge Alfaro’s recent play on both sides, Alfaro has emerged as the No. 1 catcher. If both stay healthy all season, expect Alfaro to start between 95 and 110 games.
As for the injured Crawford, he’s hit .188/.246/.328 with just four walks and 19 K’s in 71 plate appearances. He’s swung and missed a good amount and has not shown the trademark plate selection he did in the minors. It’s far too early to say this is who Crawford will be, but the Phillies certainly hoped for a faster start in his first full season.
Biggest defensive surprise
Santana had a track record of top-notch first-base defense but he’s been even better than advertised. Aside from his steadiness around the bag and on scoops, the Phillies have picked four runners off of first base in their last 11 games, with Santana providing the quick swipe tag each time.
There’s hidden value in that and in first-base defense on the whole. You don’t notice scoops unless they’re missed. You don’t notice the 3-6 assists unless they go into left field.
Biggest defensive disappointment
Not to pile on Crawford, but he committed a major-league high five throwing errors from shortstop in his 20 starts this season.
Unfortunately for Crawford, his defense will always be measured up against the gloves of his predecessors, Freddy Galvis and Jimmy Rollins. Galvis and Rollins are two of the best defensive shortstops of the last two decades.
Still, the Phillies will need more consistency moving forward from Crawford, especially with ground-ballers like Jake Arrieta, Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin in the rotation.
Biggest pitching surprise
It’s hard to pick just one with Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez each pitching well in five of their eight starts and young relievers Edubray Ramos and Victor Arano taking steps forward.
But you have to go with Nola. Aside from Max Scherzer, is there any right-handed starting pitcher in the National League you’d put clearly ahead of Nola? After Scherzer, you have a similarly-skilled group of Nola, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Stephen Strasburg, Carlos Martinez and Johnny Cueto.
Nola is among the major-league leaders in every important pitching category: ERA, WHIP, opponents’ batting average and OPS, soft-contact rate, groundball rate, first-pitch strikes, swinging strikes.
Last season, we saw a No. 2 starter become an ace. This season, we’re watching an ace become a Cy Young candidate.
Biggest pitching disappointment
Hector Neris is the answer here based on the three blown saves, nine walks and three homers allowed through 15⅔ innings.
Neris just isn’t right at the moment. He’s never trusted his fastball as much as he should, and right now his splitter isn’t nearly as effective as it was the last couple seasons.
The Phillies have several relievers with closer’s stuff, so it makes sense at this point to go with the hot hand rather than define Neris’ role as the saver. We saw the beginnings of it Sunday with Ramos.