Thoughts On The Phillies At The Quarter-Season Mark

The Phillies entered this afternoon’s rain-soaked matinee with the Baltimore Orioles with an impressive 23-16 record and only one game out of first place behind the upstart Braves. Along the way, there have been some pleasant surprises, underwhelming disappointments and glimmers of hope. Some pretty crazy shit has gone down, too. With the team set to close in on the 40-game milestone, and thus bringing a welcomed end to the “small sample size” qualifier, let us use this otherwise arbitrary schedule landmark to reflect upon and assess what has gone down over the season’s first seven weeks.

Who or What I Liked:

1. Gabe Kapler

Odubel Herrera is playing at an MVP level, and Aaron Nola has emerged as one of the National League’s best starting pitchers, but the biggest story so far has to be Gabe Kapler. Did he demonstrate a laughably inept command of how to utilize a Major League bullpen? Indeed! Is he an egomaniac who is absolutely obsessed with himself? I think so. But I have to tell you, I’m completely into it. You might remember his removal of Nick Pivetta during the sixth inning of the home opener when the fans mercilessly rained boos upon him, I remember it for the straight sex appeal of his strut to the mound:

“I don’t like all of these pitching changes! Boo! You didn’t let Hoby Milner warm-up last weekend! Boo! Nice abs, asshole! You make me feel like less of a man! Boo!”

While they booed, I swooned. I have this idea that Kapler arrived at the park that morning, went into his office bathroom and put on “I’ll Tumble For You” by Culture Club as he primped himself for the upcoming day. He stood before the mirror, likely shirtless, knowing he was going to get crushed (rightfully so), and said, “Whatever. Doesn’t matter. These aviators are fucking fire, I’m a certifiable TEN, and these people will all love me—they just don’t know it yet.”

On the baseball side of things, Kapler was indeed a disaster in the early going, but he seems to be finding his way. He hasn’t been perfect, and there’s the occasional head-scratcher, but that’s going to happen with any manager. Plus, as I wrote the other day, I have been impressed with the ability that both he and his team to bounce back from adversity.

2. Odubel Herrera

I’ve never understood any take that opposes Odubel Herrera. Takes like this one:

You can get mad over bat flips, an occasional lack of focus, or a rare jog to first. I’ll marvel and appreciate plays like this:

And swings like this:

And stats like this:

And he’s fun:

But does he bring his lunch pail to work? Is he gritty? Cerebral? You know, is he Philly enough? Stop already. The guy is an absolute fucking stud. 

3. Aaron Nola and the starting pitching

I don’t know what else can be said about Nola. I’m in love. He’s been lights-out in all aspects this season on his way to becoming one of the most dominant starting pitchers in baseball. The rest of the starting rotation has been impressive, too, and it has been one of the primary reasons for the team’s success.

Jake Arrieta has been everything the Phillies could have possibly hoped for when they signed him back in March, and Pivetta has delivered thus far on his potential. I’m quite particularly enjoying this lights-out double-digit strike out performance against the Orioles that I’m currently watching as I write this.

Ben Lively was quasi-functional as the early-season No. 5 starter before a back injury sidelined him, but Zach Eflin has been thoroughly impressive in two starts in his place. I’ve made my feelings about Vince Velasquez pretty well known, but I’ll admit that he’s still intriguing enough that it’s hard to turn the page on his as a starter.

As a collective group, they have given quality starts 54% of the time this season, which is good for second best in the National League behind only the Nationals (56%). If they keep this up, the Phillies are going to be a factor in the National League deep into September.

4. The bullpen. Sort of.

Aside from Hector Neris’ recent ninth-inning meltdowns, the bullpen has been solid. This may seem crazy, particularly given Kapler’s early over reliance on the unit, but it enters play today having thrown the fourth-fewest innings in all of baseball (134.1 IP), which has probably helped its production. Opponents are hitting only .219 against Phillies relievers this season and they are striking out more than a batter per inning. Considering they have lost Adam Morgan, Tommy Hunter, Pat Neshek, Victor Arano, and Mark Leiter Jr. due to injury for varying degrees of time, what they have done has been impressive. If the group stays relatively healthy, it can be a strength of the team moving forward, you know, if someone can emerge to consistently finish games in the ninth, or Matt Klentak goes out and makes a deal.

Who or What I Don’t Like

1. J.P. Crawford

I completely understand that Crawford is only 23 years old, has all of 134 career plate appearances, and has been out with an arm injury, so I don’t want to make this sound like I have given up hope for the organization’s former top prospect, but I do have genuine concerns about his performance. Forget the .575 OPS– his swing has seemingly lengthened, and the much heralded approach and plate discipline he consistently displayed as he rose through the minor leagues has seemingly disappeared. I expressed such concerns earlier this season.

While nobody was mistaking Crawford as the game’s next premiere offensive talent, he was supposed to play an elite-level shortstop, which is why his poor defensive performance is both surprising and concerning. His five throwing errors leads all Major League shortstops… and he’s only played in 21 games. Crawford was a mess prior to his stint on the disabled list, and the Phillies have to hope that his extended absence will provide a reset on what has been a miserable start. I don’t want to come across as excessively down on Crawford, so I’ll leave this here as a positive reminder that despite his struggles, there is talent:

2. Hector Neris

It’s been a rough go of it so far for Neris. His ERA, BB/9, and HR% have all significantly increased from a season ago. He was terrible on Opening Day. And his blown saves against the Nationals and Mets wasted what would have been two of his team’s best wins. He’s struggled to keep the ball in the yard, as you can see here:

In fact, he’s already allowed three homers in just over 15 innings pitched (1.72 HR/9). He shouldn’t be team’s primary closer right now, but those wanting to send Neris packing are morons. He still possesses big-time talent, and there are reasons for optimism. His fastball and splitter velocity is similar to that of a year ago, and he’s generating the exact same percentage of swings and misses (16.4%) that he did in 2017. You don’t give up on relievers with a plus pitch that hold a 10.91 K/9 rate.

3. Offensive inconsistency

Entering the season, the hope was that a potentially potent offense could mask a shaky starting rotation. Instead, it’s been the complete opposite as several Phillies have struggled at the plate. Maikel Franco has been better in 2018, but he still can’t hit sliders and often demonstrates many of the inconsistencies and flaws that have plagued him over the past two seasons.  Rhys Hoskins came out of the gates swinging, but is only hitting .143 in 49 at-bats over his last 15 games. Meanwhile, it is true that Carlos Santana has been a victim of bad luck, and that he has heated up lately, but was still only hitting .196 entering today’s action. That’s not good enough. Right field has been a total albatross, as Nick Williams has spent much of the season buried on the bench as a pinch-hitting extraordinaire and Aaron Altherr scuffles with a sub .200 batting average. The Phils have scored the tenth most runs per game this season (4.72), but that number is a bit distorted thanks to a 20-run outburst early last month. They are 19th in ISO (.158) and 17th in batting average (.242). That’s not good enough.

So What?

I would have 100% signed up for a 23-17 start and 90+ win pace through 40 games back in March, so there’s not too much complain about. That doesn’t mean there is nothing to worry about. There are legitimate reasons for continued optimism as this season heads into the summer months, but there are also reasons for concern. If, however, the Phillies continue to prove themselves over the next two months, they could find themselves buyers at the trade deadline and in position to make a meaningful run at the postseason for the first time in seven seasons.

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