Friday, August 10, 2018

The 1st Place Phillies

The Phillies Celebrate a Walk-Off Home Run from Maikel Franco

Wow. Been a long time. Nice to be back.

I know I haven’t been able to address the Phillies for my readers this year. 

You guys been paying attention? I know it was tough for me in the early going to tune into what I thought would be another season of Maik Franco hitting .230 with lackluster at bats. I was a bit frustrated GM Matt Klentak went out and got a 1st baseman for 3 years $60 million when Rhys Hoskins seemed to have first base covered. Cesar Hernandez leading off the season playing second base was not exactly moving the needle for me. Sure, I may be one of the few people who like Odubel Herrera, we’ll get to that numbskull at length, but how much was he going to do? That Aaron Altherr Nick Williams battle in right field, a barn burner.   JP Crawford and Scott Kingery? I had mild interest but Crawford never showed much life with the bat in the minors and Kingery remains a utility guy. Every single starter was a question mark to an extent with the possible exception of Aaron Nola. You had to like the Jake Arrieta signing at the time, it’s not your money. Hector Neris was going to be fine but you figured the closer would not matter much on a team that won 66 games in 2017.

I was very interested in the Gabe Kapler era from the get go. Interested does not translate into me thinking it was a good move, but it felt very un-Phillies like if you will, and I thought why not?

Press fast forward for 114 games so you can skip TMac thinking pop ups are home runs and home runs are pop ups all season long.

The Phils are in first f&^%ing place! And they have been every day post All-Star Break. At 64-50 they better hope to equal last season’s win total this weekend in San Diego with Zach Eflin, Aaron Nola, and Jake Arrieta scheduled to go against the hapless Padres.

What the hell happened?

Somehow some way Gabe got these boys humming. I will admit I am paying much more attention the past month and a half than I did during the first two months of the season, but if you’re watching you know the two main reasons they are winning.

Aaron Nola pitching in the All-Star Game. He struck out Mookie Betts and got Mike Trout to pop up.

First and foremost is starting pitching. Right now Kapler’s crew is 3rd in the NL with a 3.75 ERA as a unit, and the starters are a shade lower at 3.70. Aaron Nola has solidified himself as a top of the rotation ace. He does not over power you but his ball just seems to dart away from the zone onto the black of the plate more often than it does not. Think Greg Maddux. Hmph. Nola has a 2.37 ERA and a WHIP of .99. Anything under 1.00 in WHIP, walks and hits per inning pitched, is phenomenal. It’s hard to give up a lot of runs if there aren’t base runners.

The Phils' other starters are doing their best to limit base runners as well. Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez have 11 to 1 and 10 to 1 strikeout-to-walk ratios, respectively. After watching Velasquez up and down performance as a starter since acquiring him in the Ken Giles deal I have always thought his style of pitching would be better suited for the bullpen. Vinny has done his best to prove me wrong this season. He had a clunker of an outing on Wednesday, but in his prior 4 starts he allowed just 2 runs combined. He’s had a few games get away from him, including an outing where he was tagged for 10 earned causing the fairly high 3.98 ERA, but overall he has been an above average middle to back end of the rotation arm.

Zach Eflin could get a whole blog himself if these were my old writing days but this kid can throw. He was acquired in the Jimmy Rollins deal in 2014 believe it or not. At the start of the year Eflin was optioned to Triple A and the job was Ben Lively’s. Yada yada yada Eflin made his first start May 1st and has not looked back. He went 5-0 in June with a 1.76 ERA striking out 28 and walking 6 over 30.2 innings. He has been prone to give up the long ball of late and that has hurt him. If he can keep that blistering fastball down he should continue to be effective.

Then there’s Jake. In what can be considered perhaps the first bold move in what has become a series of bold moves from Klentak (I’m not calling the Carlos Santana signing bold) is the Jake Arrieta signing. There he was, the former Cy Young Award winner and World Series Champ, possibly washed up bearded surly intense prick battle tested vet, Jake Arrieta languishing on the free agent market all winter, all spring. Enough was enough. Hey Jake how’s 3 years $75 million guaranteed? Done.

After a career year at age 29 in 2015 for the Cubs that saw him go 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA he seemed to have lost the dominant edge. That didn’t stop him from going 2-0 with a 2.38 ERA in the 2016 World Series if you were wondering. It just made him wait to get signed in 2018.

I would say he has been as good if not better than expected with a 3.11 ERA. He has had his share of dud starts but he has been the stopper during a losing streak on more than one occasion. He is probably the only guy on the team with enough clout to come out publicly calling out effort or poor play from his teammates and he’s done that. I don’t know enough to say he is a leader vocally in the clubhouse but he has to be a leader by example and this team had to have a calming veteran presence like Jake’s on this staff. The move made sense theoretically and it is paying dividends on the field as well.

So that’s the starting pitching. It’s the main reason they are in first place. At risk of losing you I’ll skip the bullpen breakdown.

Just know Gabe got warned by the MLB in the first week of the season for bringing in a reliever without properly warming him up. Calm down Gabe.

A few other things to know, Neris is no longer in the Majors. A guy named Seranthony Dominguez easily has the best stuff of a Phillies’ closer since, well Neris, when he was good last year. Pat Neshek looks to be really effective when healthy. Victor Arano can spin a pair when you need him to. Tommy Hunter may have settled into a setup role but Gabe can pull a fast one at any time and bring Dominguez in for the 7th instead of his customary closing role, so don't get too comfy Tommy. Gabe is not conventional when it comes his use of the bullpen. It has not backfired to a big enough extent to change it yet. We’ll see how it goes as each one of these games is essentially the biggest game these young guys have played in their lives.

The second biggest reason the Phils are winning is that they are finally taking pitches, making pitchers work, and getting on base via the walk. The Phils are 14th out of 15 teams in the NL in batting average at 235. How can you be a first place team hitting at a clip like that? It’s because they are 9th in on base percentage at 318 and 6th in home runs with 134 or almost 1.2 a game. The Phils hit 130 home runs total in 2015. Heh. The Phils are 3rd in walks in the NL with 433 or 3.80 a game. If we take a look at the 2015 number for walks we can have another laugh. They racked up had 387 walks in all of 2015 or 2.38 a game. Double heh! Carlos Santana (2nd), Cesar Hernandez (5th), and Rhys Hoskins (8th) are all in the top 10 in walks.

Other than the walks, the two biggest pleasant surprises and reasons for the Phillies success are the emergence of Maikel Franco and Nick Williams. Franco has been the everyday third baseman since half way through 2015. He showed real signs of promise that year in his age 22 season but had gotten progressively worse at the plate over the next two seasons. Miraculously, Maikel is currently leading the Phillies in batting average at 274. Of course the team almost dead last in average does not have a guy hitting near 300. As the season was progressing early, Franco was not seeing his name on the lineup card more and more and he was sitting for the first time in his career. Maikel has responded with aplomb and has continually gotten big hits, big home runs, and is more and more beating the ever present shift by finding holes on the right side of the infield for base hits. Last week he hit a 3 run walk off home run against the Marlins. You have to be happy for Maikel.

I single out Nick Williams, acquired in the Cole Hamels deal, as well because we were not sure what we were going to get from Nick this year. At first, it may have been more of Aaron Altherr’s dreadful play that forced Gabe’s hand to give Nick his shot but at this point Nick belongs. He has what I like to call easy power. It seems like he can smoke one into the upper deck on a rope without even looking like he’s swinging that hard. He’s up to 16 home runs and is one of 5 Phillies that should finish the season with 20 or more. Nick has made some plays in the outfield as well. Just the other day he went up and robbed a would be two run home run in Arizona.

I have to take a minute to discuss Carlos Santana. I mentioned he’s second in walks. I didn’t mention that he prefers to walk than swing the bat but now I did. I’m telling you, this guy takes more 2-0 pitches or downright hittable pitches than any guy I can remember watching for the Phils and we all watched Pat the Bat.  The signing just did not make sense to me from the jump so I’ve been skeptical but this guy is doing exactly what he’s done his whole career except worse. He’s hitting 219. 219! And that’s up from last week if I wanted to check it but I refuse. Can’t hit 219, and make $20 M a year, and be that selective at the plate, and make an error in four straight games at first base, and not get raked over the coals. Step it up Carlos. We’re waitin.

Rhys Hoskins participating in the Home Run Derby

Rhys Hoskins is on the verge. I can’t quite tell if he is perennial All-Star talent or just a guy that is an above average hitter contributing to a winner but not thee reason they will win. He gets on a roll where he does this thing as my buddy likes to say, “all he does is hit for extra bases.” Rhys came out of his impressive Home Run Derby performance rearing to go post break. He has 8 home runs since the mid-summer classic, 2nd in the NL to only Matt Carpenter. He is slashing 278 / 402 / 708 in the past 19 games that have seen the Phillies maintain first place. If he continues near this pace we can start talking about him being one of the stars of the game.

Sadly, my favorite player on the team is Odubel Herrera. Odoobs I call him. Make no mistake about it. Odoobs is a first class idiot out there. And off the field too judging by his Instagram activity. But also make no mistake about it, when Odoobs is going good at the plate there aren’t many hitters better than him in baseball. He is ridiculously streaky. He hit a high water mark, leading the league in batting average by 30 points on May 17 at 361. By June 12th he was hitting 283. Gabe sat him on June 13th. In the next 8 games he went 18-35 with 6 home runs and 10 RBI. Huh?

He is a clown on the field. His helmet is at least 2 sizes too big and that is despite a ridiculous frosted dreadlock mane look he has going. The helmet comes off 2-3 time  a game. He will go down 0-2 in the count with horribly timed leg kick pathetic swings and then the next swing he’ll rip one through the box right past the pitcher for a base hit. He’ll misplay a fly ball to the point you’d think he could get cut from Legion ball then he’ll make a diving play in the gap. He has mental errors on the base paths that are nearly unforgivable. I assume it all just a lack of concentration when he is not playing well. I may have just talked myself out of liking him so much..

Odoobs being Odoobs

As far as his social media activity is concerned I am just bewildered by his amusement of being in a different city every other week. Odoobs is constantly, and I mean constantly, instagramming the view from his hotel room and obviously very excited about the city he is in. He has been the everyday centerfielder for the Phillies for 3 + years. He’s been to all these cities countless times. I just get a kick out of him getting a kick out of it. Also, he lives in a high rise in University City overlooking the Schuylkill. He has fun and enjoys himself and clearly does not take it too seriously. He bat flips home runs better than almost anyone. I have a soft spot for him and have latched on to him for some reason. I’ve always had a favorite player on the Phillies. A guy I root for more than any one on the team. From Lenny Dykstra to Scott Rolen to Bobby Abreu (Odubel like player – just better) to Ryan Howard to Odubel Herrera. Those are my guys. Like it or not.
Lastly, we get to Matt Klentak. Most of my friends that are avid fans have not quite seen eye-to-eye with Klentak during the course of his tenure. Or at least they weren’t. Old Dartmouth is sensing opportunity this year and seizing it. What’s a prospect or two when you can acquire Asdrubal Cabrera and watch him mash game winning homers the week he comes over? Jorge Alfaro (acquired in the Cole Hamels deal) can’t block a pitch nor hit a pitch with much consistency? Well let’s bring in an All-Star catcher. Wilson Ramos, the injured catcher the Phils acquired, made the All-Star team this year and should only bolster the team’s chances when he gets back reportedly close to the end of the month. Klentak also added lefty bullpen arm Aaroun Loup and he has been ineffective at best in his two appearances but it was still a move to better the team in the now.

Seeing that there are no Yankee or Red Sox juggernauts in the NL this year the Phils have decided to push more chips into the pot. The Phils brain trust did not go all-in by acquiring Manny Machado but they have gotten incrementally better and have firmly stated they are here and ready to contend this year.

My prediction is that this team can hold on and make the playoffs this season. I think the youth can help in this situation when coupled with the right group of veterans the Phils have added. They handed the Dodgers a series loss right after LA had acquired Machado and stood toe to toe with the Red Sox for 14 innings at Fenway in a tough luck loss and came back the next night with an impressive win. It will be fun to have Boston at the Bank this month in a playoff like atmosphere. It has been 7 years since the Phils made the playoffs and we’re all itching.

Here are two bonus baseball related videos of my daughter, Avery. She is 4.


  1. Alex, I haven't been paying any attention until now. Loved your full round-up, minus the bull pen. Hope your predictions come true. Sure would be fun.

  2. Glad you and the Phillies are back! Should make for a fun fall!

  3. Nice post...and yes, it has been a while. They are certainly the surprise team of the year....remind me in some ways of the underappreciated '93 team....

    1. Be huge if they all collectively juice like the '93 squad did. Perhaps Rhys Hoskins and Jorge Alfaro could get into a car accident and the police could help cover it up? Also, would be great if one of them took a cue from Lenny Dykstra and hired private detectives to investigate personal lives of umpires scheduled to their upcoming games. Is that too much to ask for?! Geesh!

    2. Thanks for reading, Mark. You are not the first person that has made the 93 reference for this team to me. I can see the sort of worst to first / out of nowhere feel but as Andrew so eloquently points out it's hard to compare anyone to 93 really.

      What a tough weekend in San Diego. Need a bounce back against the Red Sox and then the schedule gets easier for a bit.

  4. Releasing Hellickson was also key.

    -Jim, East Falls

    1. Hey Jim, thanks for reading. They actually traded Helli back in July of 2017 to the Orioles. He may or may not be running out sacrifice bunts for the Nats this season.

  5. Nicely put Mr. Alex!! Blame WIP for the lose to San Diego this weekend!!

  6. Wow... Whaaaaaaattta swing from Aves!!!
    The only thing holding this team back is Carlos Santana... You pay a guy $20 mil to be a rock in the middle of your order and drive runs in. Im tired of watching him let pitch after pitch go by. His defense has been awful as well. .215/.351 /.396... HES SLUGGING .396 IN CBP?????? Welp... who cares, Freddy Galvis his a Grand Slam and the seasons over. See you next spring.....

  7. Nice to have you back! But how as a baseball fan (and an educated one) can Odubel be your favorite player? One good play followed by 9 bone head plays does not make him a good baseball player and I have to make sure to tell my 8 tear old nephew to not watch him play. I hope all the kids out there are following Trout or some other CF. Great article other than that part!

    1. Thanks for reading! I just think he’s a real talent and the Rangers gave him up for nothing. He just has no concentration for some reason.

  8. oh great... guy doesn't write a blog all year, then comes out of the wood works and back on the band wagon, IN AUGUST, with an article........... then a week later, they are in the gutter, out of first and totally crapping away a wild card! Go back to your hole!

    -A real Phillies fan

    1. Pretty harsh, wouldn't you say Anonymous? Just enjoy the ride and well written article.

    2. Ah the old anonymous tough guy real Phillies fan. Sorry you got to read this. Keep coming by once a year for the criticism!!