Friday, May 13, 2016

Are These Guys For Real?

Odoobs, He's a Rule 5 guy.

The Phillies just finished a 10 game road trip, which included a 4 game losing streak, with a 5-5 record. They managed to take two of three from the putrid Braves and put a halt to the Marlins hot streak with late inning clutch hitting. A blown save in St. Louis kept the Phils from splitting the four game set in the Show Me State.

They’ve played 16 of their last 19 on the road and during that stretch their record improved from 7-9 to 20-15. These road warriors have played more games than any Major League team away from their home park and still have the 4th best record in the NL to show for it. We’re nearing the quarter point of the season and the Phils are currently holding on to a Wild Card spot (yes, it’s too early to even discuss really). So their somewhat sustained success begs the question: Are these young kids for real or not?

Well, I don’t want to throw cold water on my readers but most of the data and stats we see coming from this bunch would suggest that they are not. Despite having a record that sits 5 games above .500, these Phils have a -27 run differential. If you’re reading this you probably know that the Phililes have been borderline unstoppable in one-run games this season.  They have played 15 one-run games and hold a 12-3 record in those contests. When they win, they win small, when they lose, they lose big. 

Let’s add some historical context for the kind of ball the Phils are playing. This overachieving team is currently averaging 3.29 runs per game. If that sounds like a small number, it’s because it is. At that pace, the Phils would score 533 runs this year. In the last 10 years, only two teams averaged less than that for a season. The 2013 Miami Marlins (62-100) and 2010 Seattle Mariners (61-101) both scored on average 3.17 runs per game. Since the second wild card was added in 2012 (4 seasons), the ten teams to make the postseason each year have combined to average 4.46 runs per game.  Even further, not one of the playoff teams from the past four years has ended the season with a negative run differential.  Just from a layman’s perspective, it’s hard to win more games than you lose over a 162 game season and wind up with less runs scored than your opponents. These current Philies are defying logic.

The smoke and mirrors the Phillies are employing revolve around a precocious pitching staff performing at a level none of us thought possible.  The staff, led by Aaron Nola, have done a tremendous job of limiting base runners and striking out opposing batters. The Phils have given up the third fewest walks and limited opponents to a .236 batting average, good enough for 4th in the NL. Those stats combined have given the Phils’ arms the third best WHIP (Walks and Hits per Inning Pitched) in the NL at 1.19.  The biggest key to the success of the starters as well as a surprisingly impressive bullpen have been the strikeouts. All season long the Phils had led the NL in strikeouts until the Nationals Max Scherzer whiffed 20 Tigers this week. As it stands they are second to the Nationals in total Ks, 315 to 316, and K/9 at 9.09 to the Nats 9.10.

In 2015, the Phils staff ranked 12th in the NL in strikeouts,  14th in batting average allowed (.280 – yikes!), 14th in strikeouts per 9 innings, and 14th in WHIP. The NL has 15 teams and the Rockies were the only team worse than them in several categories and they play 81 games in the thin air at Coors Field. It’s been clear that the Phils early turnaround has been pitching driven but when you take a look at last year compared to now the numbers really are eye-popping.

As far as individual play is concerned the Phils are playing two, maybe three*, players everyday that you hope to see still playing every day for them come next season. You have to marvel at what Odubel Hererra is doing at the plate, though his defense has been a bit shaky of late. Through 35 games Odoobs is clearly playing at an All-Star caliber level. His. 339 batting average is 6th in the NL while he ranks 4th in walks (26, he had 28 all of last year), second in on-base percentage (.450),  4th in steals (6), and second in pitches per plate appearance (4.50).  He’s been the only consistent hitter on the team and as you can tell by his on base percentage, he always seems to be on base. Last night, he led off the 10th inning with a one-handed golf swing triple that allowed him to eventually score the go-ahead run for the Phils 4th win in 4 extra inning games this season. He finished the game 4-4 with a walk.

Maikel Franco has been up and down at the plate while continuing to play stellar defense. His inconsistency clearly comes from his approach and wild free swinging philosophy at the plate. I can’t recall a guy swinging as violently or haphazardly as Franco since Vladimir Guererro used to terrorize the Phillies north of the border. The problem is, Guererro was a one in a billion talent. Franco takes hacks like he’s trying to hit a 10 run home run, and that’s with nobody on base in a game where the Phils need base runners. Somebody needs to get through to the kid to tone that swing down and take a cue from Axl Rose and have a little more patience at the plate (yeaaaahhhh). His 5.4% walk ratio is between bad and awful. Of course, when he does connect he can send moon shot home runs soaring deep into the stands. That happens too, but we need to see more consistency out of the Phils’ best power bat.

Then comes the Big Piece. All he does is hit home runs. Literally. That is the only thing left that Ryan Howard can do. Somehow, some way,  Howard reached 7 home runs in fewer at bats than he ever has before in his career. His 8 home runs on the season rank 9th in the NL. For his career, Ryan Howard is 12th all time with a home run every 15.0 at bats. This season he is ranked 8th with a home run every 12.8 at bats. Over the past 5 seasons (since the Achilles injury), Howard has averaged a home run every 21.3 at bats, so it is nice to see The Big Piece homering at a clip more consistent with his heyday. His homers have also been mostly of the clutch variety as he has hit a walk-off home run, accounted for the only run in two separate 1-0 Phillies wins, and put the Phillies ahead with 5 of the 8 he’s hit.

The Big Piece After a Walk-Off Homer vs the Indians

So that’s the good news for Howard. The bad news is legitimately everything else. He is slashing .176 / .243 / .422. He’s gotten multiple hits in two, count em, two games this season. He is 3 for his last 32 and all three of those hits are home runs. He’s gone 12 games now without a hit that wasn’t a home run. The best he can possibly be at first base is below average. He’s a polarizing figure but from all accounts he’s been a positive influence in the clubhouse and been a professional when sitting against lefties even though Darin Ruf may be the only 1st baseman in the Majors worse than him.

In reality, this Phils team almost certainly is not for real this season but that should not take away from anything they’ve accomplished during this incredible first month and a half. The experience these young guys are getting winning ball games while building and growing together is exactly what the organization needs. I went back and read my season preview for the 2015 season. That was the most morbid piece I may have ever written. At the time, it felt like we’d be waiting for the roaring 20s until the Phils were relevant again. Well, even if the stats don’t quite add up, the Phils are relevant right now. The chemistry manager Pete Mackanin has helped foster because he seems to understand the makeup of his young squad a 1000x better than his hall-of-fame predecessor can only bode well for the future when more reinforcements can replace the lack of talent currently sprinkled around the diamond for our Phillies.

They may not actually be for real right now, but a positive future is coming much sooner than expected. In the mean time, let’s enjoy the ride this summer as much as we can.

Werth the Watch:

Cole Hamels (Rangers)

W-L: 4-0 (11-1 with Rangers) ERA: 2.95 SO: 45 BB: 17

Chase Utley (playing every day for the Dodgers)

Avg: .296 On Base: .392 Slugging: .454 HR: 2 RBI: 10

Jimmy Rollins (playing 4 out of 5 games for the White Sox)

Avg: .247 On Base: .315 Slugging: .361 HR: 1 RBI: 5

Jayson Werth (playing every day for the Nationals)

Avg: .196 On Base: .258 Slugging: .411 HR: 6 RBI: 19

Shane Victorino - I did a little research. Shane was in spring training with the Cubs and hurt his calf. He is back healthy and playing with their AAA team in Iowa on a minor league contract. You ready for him to win a World Series with 3 different teams? 

Is this Heaven? 

No, it's Iowa.

*Cameron Rupp