A common refrain from Phillies fans lately is that, despite the win increase of at least a dozen this season, just as many questions remain this offseason as last.
It’s the truth. No aspect of this team looks settled. Not the offense, not the defense, not the rotation, not the bullpen.
That being said … what answers did we get in 2018?
1. Can’t have both Velasquez and Pivetta in the rotation
Unless the Phillies have designs of utilizing the “opener” next season – a pitcher who starts the game for matchup purposes but only goes an inning or two – they cannot afford to enter 2019 with both Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta in the rotation.
Both pitchers have big strikeout stuff, but neither has been consistent enough going deep into games or adjusting midway through an outing. It’s evident in the massive dropoffs in their numbers as they go through a lineup multiple times.
Gabe Kapler recently supported both pitchers by mentioning their respectable FIPs. FIP stands for Fielding Independent Pitching. It is a number on the ERA scale that rids a pitcher of everything except strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed.
It is an incomplete metric. Yes, Kapler and many others can say that it’s a better estimate of future production than ERA, but the issue with FIP is that it treats all non-home runs the same. A 400-foot triple is the same as a groundout to second base. The idea that a pitcher cannot control where or how hard a non-home run is hit is kind of ridiculous.
Think about how many times this season we’ve seen Velasquez or Pivetta fall apart in an inning and allow multiple well-struck line drives back up the middle. To claim those balls in play were out of their control just because they involved defenders touching the ball? Poppycock.
Pivetta, at this point, has more potential to stick as a starter than Velasquez. Velasquez has made 76 career starts and has a 4.50 ERA with an average of 5.0 innings per start. The sample size is no longer small.
2. This isn’t the right outfield
Between 2014 and 2015, the Phillies prioritized outfield defense after watching Ben Revere, Domonic Brown, Marlon Byrd, Darin Ruf and Cody Asche give away too many extra bases.
In the span of four years, they’ve come full circle, with the outfield defense again a big concern.
Odubel Herrera regressed defensively. We know Rhys Hoskins is not a left fielder. Aaron Altherr, their most instinctive outfielder not named Roman Quinn, struggled so much offensively that he was unusable as the summer wore on.
Unless Herrera hits to make up for the defense, you can’t rely on him as the everyday centerfielder. Too many mental mistakes, too many weak throws, too many extra bases taken on medium-deep fly balls to center.
Bryce Harper or not, the Phillies should have two new regular outfielders next season, with Quinn starting in center as long as he’s healthy.
The Phillies essentially spelled the impending end of Hernandez’s tenure here when they signed Scott Kingery to a long-term contract. It is doubtful the Phillies enter 2019 with Kingery as the everyday shortstop. His arm probably isn’t suited for third base, and second is his natural position. Can only keep so many infielders.
As for Franco, we did see offensive improvement this season. But that’s kind of the reason it’s time to move on. Franco’s trade value will be a lot higher this winter than it was last winter when he was coming off a .230/.281/.409 this season. Franco this season has hit .270/.314/.467.
He’s 26 years old and cost-controlled, so the Phillies should be able to get something of substance in return for Franco – perhaps a young starting pitcher or a couple of established arms.
Aside from the “sell-high” aspect of a Franco trade, the Phillies could turn to Carlos Santana at 3B next season. Santana has fielded his position adequately there. If the Phils end up signing Harper – a possibility but far from a certainty – the adjustment could be Hoskins to first base, Santana to third and Harper in the corner outfield.
When this topic has been brought up, some fans have claimed that Franco is a better player than Santana. Just not the case, even though Santana entered Saturday night with a .227 batting average. Santana has better at-bats, a better approach, a longer track record of power, and he’s under contract the next two seasons for a total of $35 million.
What makes more sense: Eating money to trade Santana for little to nothing in return, or selling high on Franco, who showed improvement but is not essential to this team’s ascent? Franco also has a body type that traditionally does not age well in baseball.
If Franco and Herrera are indeed back next season, showing up in spring training in better physical shape is a necessity.
Ramos remains out of the lineup Saturday against Atlanta.
Ramos sits for his fourth straight contest, with Jorge Alfaro returning from a quad strain to start in his place. With the Phillies out of the playoffs, the team is giving the starts behind the plate to its pair of young catchers, Alfaro and Andrew Knapp, as Ramos’ contract will expire at the end of the season. It’s possible that he’s already taken his last at-bat for Philadelphia.
With less than a week left in the regular season, we know that the Philadelphia Phillies will not be playing in October. But they have been one of the most interesting teams in the majors this season, because there are two ways to look at their season.
A young team improving
Last year, the Phillies went 66-96, the third-worst record in the majors — it was their third straight 90-loss season after losing 89 in each of the previous two years. It finished a five-year stretch where they were the worst team in baseball, 11 games behind the next-closest team.
Vegas put their over/under win total at 75.5 before the season, 10th-best in the National League, and they entered the season with a rookie manager in Gabe Kapler. Well they blew past last year’s win total in the middle of August, and they went over their Vegas number with more than two weeks left.
Their ace, Aaron Nola, is likely to finish in the top three of the NL Cy Young voting, and youngsters Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez each took steps forward from last year. Add in 30 starts from free agent Jake Arrieta, and the Phillies’ starters ERA fell by almost a full run.
Aaron Nola will likely finish in the top three of the NL Cy Young voting.USATSI
Several hitters showed some big things as well. Odubel Herrera started the year by getting on base in 40 straight games, and halfway through May he was leading the National League in hitting and was third in OPS. Rhys Hoskins put up the Phillies’ first 30-homer season in seven years — the last time they made the playoffs. And after two disappointing seasons, Maikel Franco really cut down on his strikeouts and had his best full season in the big leagues.
And this is a big-market team that has less than $70 million in salary committed next season, with a huge free-agent class on the horizon and very few players really entrenched at their positions.
It’s a big step forward for a young team that has a good-looking future. However …
A disappointing finish to a promising season
After going 1-4 on their season-opening road trip, with questions swirling around some managerial decisions, the Phillies started to win, going 13-3 in their next 16 contests. By July 6 they were in first place in the division, and as late as Aug. 7 they were 15 games above .500 with the second-best record in the National League.
But since then, the Phillies have the second-worst record in baseball (only the Orioles are worse), and fell into third place after last night’s loss for the first time since Father’s Day. So what happened this season?
They’re 10th in the National League in on-base percentage and 11th in slugging, and they don’t have any regular slugging .500 this season.
A few hitters took a step back this season, including Herrera, who is batting .216 with a .636 OPS since the end of his on-base streak, a stretch that covers his past 101 games. His wOBA is 11 points lower than last season, and 20 points worse than his All-Star season two years ago.
Leadoff hitter Cesar Hernandez has struggled since the All-Star break, batting .231 with a .658 OPS, and striking out almost twice as often as he’s walked. He’s having his worst offensive season in three years (by wOBA and OPS).
And rookie Scott Kingery has struggled as he’s been thrust into playing a new position — shortstop, the toughest one on the field. There are 169 players with at least 450 plate appearances this season, and only two of them have a lower OPS than Kingery (.604) — Alcides Escobar and Chris Davis.
The defense has been a problem all year. I mean, a really big problem. They’ve made the second-most errors in the majors, and they’ve allowed the seventh-highest batting average on balls in play. But the advanced metrics are even worse.
The Phillies have seven players this season with positive Defensive Runs Saved, none higher than plus-2 — three of them are pitchers and the other four are players at a spot on the field other than their primary position (for example, Carlos Santana at third base).
Odubel Herrera is having some issues getting to balls hit to the shallowest part of center field.USATSI
As a team, they have negative-129 Defensive Runs Saved, which would be the worst mark by a team in the 16 seasons that Sports Info Solutions has kept this stat. And it’s 236 worse than the league-leading Diamondbacks. I asked Mark Simon, a Senior Research Analyst at Sports Info Solutions, to break down their biggest defensive flaws (of which there are many). Their biggest struggles have been in the outfield, where Herrera is having trouble getting to balls hit to the shallowest part of center field. He’s being positioned deeper on average this year, and more balls are falling in front of him.
Hoskins became the left fielder when the team signed Santana to play first base, and he’s had a hard time with balls in front of him (where he’s seven outs below average) as well as on deep balls (where he’s nine outs below average).
And both primary middle infielders have not gotten outs at a high rate on balls in the hole — Kingery in the SS-3B hole and Hernandez in the 1B-2B hole.
On top of all this, the Phillies made several midseason trades to help the offense that haven’t worked as expected — Asdrubal Cabrera has a .678 OPS since joining the team and Justin Bour has one home run in 47 plate appearances. Wilson Ramos has hit the ball really well for the Phils, but has been limited because of hamstring injuries.
Add it all up, and you have a young team that has made great strides in several areas since last season, but showed its fans a glimpse of competitiveness and will have to wait another year for a shot at October.
Imagine if someone told you, after the Phillies completed a four-game sweep of the Marlins on Aug. 5 and improved to 63-48, that they would have a .500 record only seven weeks later. As Richie Ashburn undoubtedly would’ve said, “Hard to believe, Harry.” Incomprehensible, actually.
But that’s the Phillies’ reality. After getting rocked by the Rockies, 10-1, last night at Coors Field, they are 78-78, back to .500 for the first time since they were 5-5. Matt Klentak and Gabe Kapler can keep saying that the Phillies exceeded spring-training expectations by contending for a division title into September, but a 15-30 free fall changes the narrative.
With six games left, the Phillies must finish 4-2 to clinch their first winning season since 2011. Anything less, and it will be difficult for them to spin this as a success.
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Phillies general manager Matt Klentak made six trades in July and August in an attempt to strengthen the roster.
Trades may have impacted Phillies’ chemistry
As the season has spiraled out of control over these past seven weeks, Phillies officials have explored every possible explanation. But here’s one thing that all the analytics in the world can’t measure: chemistry.
For most of the season, the Phillies had the youngest roster in baseball, with many of the players having come up together through the minor leagues. And when they were winning early in the season, the clubhouse vibe was undeniably positive, highlighted by laser lights and dance music after every victory.
There hasn’t been an outward sign that anything changed for the worse after general manager Matt Klentak pulled off six trades in July and August. And surely he would have been criticized if he stood pat and didn’t make moves to improve the team. Even Klentak doesn’t deny that the clubhouse mix was invariably altered by the new faces — Asdrubal Cabrera, Wilson Ramos, Justin Bour, Jose Bautista, Aaron Loup and Luis Avilan — but ultimately, he doesn’t believe it was an issue.
Asked last weekend if chemistry is to blame for the Phillies’ fall, neither Jake Arrieta nor Rhys Hoskins completely discounted the possibility.
“I have no clue,” Hoskins said. “It’s hard to quantify chemistry. It really is. I wish I had an answer for you. But it’s something that you think about. Look, I think every guy’s goal in here was to do what [the division-champion Braves] are doing. I don’t think that changed from before July 31 to after July 31. So, in that sense, I’m not sure it had much to do with where we’re at right now.”
Said Arrieta: “Chemistry is a factor, but it’s not the only reason teams win games. I’m not saying the chemistry here isn’t good, because in my opinion it is. If something’s going on, that doesn’t mean you’re going to lose or you’re going to win. I didn’t feel a difference post[-trade]-deadline. I don’t think anybody in here is going to make an excuse for why the season turned out the way it did.”
An ugly month is turning painful for the Phillies, Matt Breen writes, after Zach Eflin felt tightness in his left side and Aaron Altherr crashed face-first into the left-field wall. Matt has updates on the condition of both players.
For Jerad Eickhoff, the payoff for an injury-marred season could be a start later this week. The guess here: Eickhoff will start Game 162 on Sunday against the Braves.
Tonight: Vince Velasquez puts his 3.66 FIP on the line at Colorado, 8:40 p.m. Tomorrow: Nick Pivetta makes his final scheduled start, 8:40 p.m. Thursday: Jake Arrieta faces Rockies in his last start of the season, 3:40 p.m. Friday: Aaron Nola starts season’s final series at home vs. Braves, 7:05 p.m.
RICK SCUTERI / AP
Given the lack of production that the Phillies received from Asdrubal Cabrera, it’s fair to second-guess manager Gabe Kapler (right) for not playing Scott Kingery (left) more down the stretch.
Stat of the day
When the Phillies traded for Asdrubal Cabrera on July 27, they viewed him as a major offensive upgrade over rookie Scott Kingery, who had been their primary shortstop for most of the previous three months.
It didn’t work out that way.
Cabrera is batting .228 and slugging .392 with 13 doubles, five home runs, a .286 on-base percentage and a .678 OPS in 171 at-bats for the Phillies. And while there’s no sugarcoating the overall depth of Kingery’s first-year struggles, his numbers in 23 starts since the trade are comparable to Cabrera’s. In those starts, the 24-year-old is batting .208 (15 for 72) and slugging .403 with one double, one triple, three homers, a .256 on-base percentage and a .659 OPS.
Answer: Thanks, Dan, for the question. The presumption among many officials from rival teams is that Phillies owner John Middleton is itching to go on a spending spree. The club has less than $70 million in payroll commitments for next season, so there’s plenty of money to burn. Bet on the Phillies’ pursuing both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, but I think it’s probably ambitious to think they will sign the two marquee free agents, a daily double that could cost upwards of $600 million.
The Phillies have been linked most often to Machado, but don’t underestimate their fondness for Harper. Unprompted, Kapler recently said Harper “might be the best player in baseball.” Regardless, it’s shaping up to be the most fascinating offseason in recent franchise history.
Shortstop Trevor Story returned to the Rockies lineup for the first time since he suffered right elbow inflammation last Monday and went 2-for-5 with two doubles. Story has 80 extra-base hits and became the fourth NL shortstop to reach that mark joining Jimmy Rollins (88) and Hanley Ramirez (81) in 2007 and Ernie Banks (82 in 1955, 81 in 1958 and 80 in 1960).
“We’re full throttle right now,” Story said. “It’s a great position to be in. These games really do matter. We’re not where we want to be, but we feel like we will be in a few days.”
Jon Gray, who supposed to start on seven days’ rest Tuesday, instead started on Monday and worked seven innings when left-hander Tyler Anderson was scratched from his scheduled start due to shoulder soreness.
Bettis (5-2, 5.18) last started on Aug. 12 and was then moved to the bullpen where he has made six appearances totaling 8 1/3 innings. Bettis has worked in low-leverage situations and will be pitching for the first time since Sept. 13 when he worked one inning and threw five pitches.
Rockies manager Bud Black said he expects Bettis to throw between 30 and 50 pitches. He threw 30 pitches in 1 2/3 innings on Sept. 9.
Bettis is 2-0, 1.93 in six games (four starts) against the Phillies, whom he last faced in 2016.
The Phillies have been in a major tailspin since mid-August. They’ve lost 16 of 22 games this month and are back to .500 for the first time since April 10.
Vince Velasquez (9-11, 4.59) will start for the Phillies. He’s 2-0, 3.95 in five starts against the Rockies and 1-0, 3.27 in two starts at Coors Field.
The right-handed Velasquez has been far more effective against right-handed hitters, limiting them to a .204 average and .598 OPS in 309 plate appearances. Lefties are hitting .282 with a .870 OPS against Velasquez in 300 plate appearances.
In his last start Thursday at Atlanta, Velasquez wasn’t involved in the decision in Philadelphia’s 8-3 loss. He gave up five hits and three runs in three innings. Velasquez has not gone more than four innings in each of his past three starts and is 0-1, 12.00 in those outings, allowing 16 hits and 12 runs in nine innings.
Velasquez threw 73 pitches in four innings Sept. 9 at the New York Mets, 44 pitches in two innings against Miami on Sept. 15 and 57 in three innings in his last start. The Phillies are very analytically inclined, but manager Gabe Kapler said Velasquez’s recent short outings are performance-related and not based on any metrics.
“What I’ve shared with all of our starters and this is also somewhat true for our relievers is if you are the best option, all things considered, to get the next hitter or three hitters out, you will go back out,” Kapler said. “And so, for Vince, when he’s the best version of Vince, he’s hard to take out of a game. I literally have to think about reasons why to take him out. I’m not putting any artificial limitations on Vince.”
DENVER – The Phillies have not announced their starting pitching rotation for the final weekend of the season, so there’s no official word on whether ace Aaron Nola will pitch again in 2018. He had been scheduled to make his final start on Friday. It’s possible he could move back a day, picking up some extra rest, and pitch Saturday. It’s possible he could be shut down. It’s possible he stays on turn and pitches Friday.
More will be known in the next day or so.
One guy who will not pitch this weekend is Zach Eflin. He was removed from an ineffective start in the third inning Monday night. After the game – an ugly 10-1 loss to the Colorado Rockies – manager Gave Kapler announced that Eflin was removed from the game because he was experiencing soreness in his left side.
Eflin, who gave up five hits and five runs, said he’d been managing the issue for a couple of starts, but it flared in this game. He will travel back to Philadelphia on Tuesday to be examined by team doctors and it’s safe to say his season is over.
Eflin, 24, finishes at 11-8 with a 4.36 ERA in 24 starts. The highlight of his season was the month of June. He was arguably the team’s MVP that month, going 5-0 with a 1.76 ERA in five starts.
The Phillies did not add starting pitching at the trade deadline and the team collapsed shortly afterward. The club is likely to add starting pitching this winter. Nola and Jake Arrieta‘s spots in the rotation will be safe. Eflin will come into camp and compete for a spot in the back half of the rotation. He has the tools to be a successful big-league starter, but needs consistency.
In addition to Eflin, outfielder Aaron Altherr went down Monday night when he crashed face-first into the left-field wall trying to make a catch. He suffered a sprained right toe and a bruised right knee. He was also being evaluated for a concussion.
With six games left, he is probably done for the season.
Where they stand
The Phillies have lost five in a row. They are 15-30 since being in first place in the NL East on Aug. 5. They were 15 games over .500 then. They are now at .500 with six games to play and a sixth straight losing season is looming.
A bright spot
Roman Quinn continued to audition in center field. He made a long run and a diving catch in Coors Field’s spacious outfield in the first inning and jetted around the bases for a triple in the eighth. Quinn has game-changing speed. If he can stay healthy – a challenge, always – he could be this club’s opening day centerfielder next season.