Through 20, 30, even 40 games it can be easy to dismiss early season success as a flash in the pan. In 2016 the Phillies started out 26-21 only to see them crater over the summer to an abysmal 71-91 record. At 27-19 the current team is slightly ahead of that pace, but if you’ve followed this season you would realize that a similar regression isn’t likely.
For starters, you can take one look at that 2016 roster and see why they crashed and burned as hard and fast as they did. With guys like Cameron Rupp, Tommy Joseph, Cody Asche, and Freddy Galvis manning the top of the lineup along with the ghost of Ryan Howard—who managed to strike out on a mind-numbing 35% of his at-bats during his “swan song”—that collapse was as close as you could get to a sure thing.
Compare that to where they stand two years later and the difference is clear: the 2018 Phillies have a legitimate roster of major league-level ball players.
Actually, they have more than that. Aaron Nola is a real contender for the NL Cy Young award; Jake Arietta has surpassed what were already high expectations; and Nick Pivetta and Vincent Velasquez are posting numbers that are well above replacement level for the #3 and #4 starters in a rotation. All of this has the Phillies’ starting pitching ranked as the third best in baseball, and it isn’t a fluke.
The Nola-Arietta combination is arguably the best 1-2 punch in the majors and there’s no reason to expect a regression as the season wears on. Unless the middle/back end of the rotation totally bottoms out over the summer then this will continue to be the backbone of the team’s success.
While the starting pitching continues to excel, it’s important for the bullpen to keep getting the job done on a nightly basis—which is a little more suspect. The teams’ bullpen ranked 12th in ERA last season and was quietly a strength of the team, so their success this year shouldn’t be a surprise.
Eudabry Ramos has been lights out with an ERA of 0.96, and Luis Garcia—despite his misleading ERA: 3.67—has also been exceptional (0.86 WHIP). Adam Morgan, a veteran of this rebuild, has quietly settled into the lefty-specialist role where he continues to impress (2.31 ERA); and the 23-year old Victor Arano is starting to look like the back-end bullpen arm that the team is missing (1.32 ERA, 0.80 WHIP). Those four relievers have perfectly supplemented the experienced Hector Neris in the closer role. While these five names wouldn’t seem like a formidable bullpen on paper, they’ve been good for the 10th best in baseball.
If the Phillies do end up going on a few losing streaks that derail their early promise then it will almost certainly come from a lack of hitting. While this is clearly the most talented lineup they’ve had in a while, they don’t have much experience—history tells us that will rear its ugly head sooner than later.
Outside of Odubel Herrera (.345 / .410 / .542) and Cesar Hernandez, none of the Phillies hitters have been consistent at the plate. Rhys Hoskins has suffered through the worst month of his short career (.129 average with just two homeruns in May) and the platoon in right field between Aaron Altherr and Nick Williams has flashed potential but has mostly been a failure.
Maikel Franco, a player who most fans inexplicably gave up on after two “down” seasons, is quietly posting his best numbers since his breakout season in 2015, but is still a relative disappointment compared to the promise he once had.
The catcher position has been a disaster at the plate with neither Jorge Alfaro nor Andrew Knapp producing anywhere close to their preseason expectations. (Although it appears Alfaro is a future gold-glover at the position).
In regard to the middle infield, JP Crawford has been an absolute disaster both offensively and defensively, while Scott Kingery has cooled off considerably since he slugged his way onto the opening day roster with a productive spring.
On top of that, the only player on this roster with legitimate major league experience at the plate is Carlos Santana, who has over 4,000 at-bats to his name—for reference, there isn’t a single other player on the team with more than 2,000. Rather than being a veteran presence in the middle of the order, Santana has disappointed by hitting just .195 on the season. Although the fact that he’s still finding ways to get on base (.322 OBP) and put the ball in play (just 28 strikeouts) tells me that he hasn’t lost his trademark plate discipline; which means that his numbers will more than likely pick up as the season progresses.
The Phillies struggles at the plate are evidenced by their .238 average as a team—good for 21st in the MLB. What undermines that problem is that they’ve scored the 13th most runs in baseball (210). I would love to sit here and say for sure what the reason is behind the chasm between the two statistics. They don’t hit homeruns at a high rate, and while they draw a lot of walks, that wouldn’t account for the difference. The most logical conclusion would be to chalk it up to timely hitting and savvy small-ball; both of which I think can be attributed to the analytics department and Gabe Kapler’s reliance on sabermetrics. I can already hear the collective moan from the pitch-fork crowd who thinks that the team is winning in spite of Kapler’s “system,” and to be fair, there is credence to that argument. But, until the team starts producing runs at a rate commensurate with their offensive output, then it’s hard not to give Gabe his due.
The reality is that the Phillies early season success is far from a fluke, but that doesn’t mean it will keep up. The team is talented but young, which means the inconsistency that they’ve played with so far should be, well, consistent. With starting pitching that ranks at the top of the league, a bullpen that—for now—gets the job done, and a lineup that, for better or worse, finds ways to produce runs despite its youth, the Phillies have a team and a formula for success that should be able to weather the dog days of summer. There’s no reason to think that a major drop off is around the corner. Considering the NL East is shaping up to be the weakest division in baseball, I’ll go as far as saying that this Phillies team has a chance to be playing in October for the first time since 2011.