The Philadelphia Phillies are now a surprising two games over the .500 mark early in the 2016 season.
Life is full of good things. We look forward to many of these, from important stuff, such as the impending parenthood of a couple expecting a child, to the somewhat frivolous of a movie that we know is coming out months in advance.
For sports fans, it’s the beginning of a season after months of having to endure the perils and doom of nothingness that is the offseason. That is what happens every April as Opening Day rolls around in Major League Baseball. We Phillies fans begin to look forward to settling down in our chairs on many nights over six months to watch nine innings of Fightin’ Phils baseball.
Last season, there simply wasn’t a lot to look forward to where the Phils were concerned. As the team was constructed, it was obvious that on days when Cole Hamels wasn’t pitching, there was very little incentive to watch.
There were hapless at-bats and shoddy fielding plays, and plenty of questionable pitching as the club ran names like Aaron Harang, David Buchanan, Chad Billingsley, Kevin Correia, and Sean O’ Sullivan out on to the mound for starting assignments. There was very little reason fans had to say, “I need to watch tonight!”
This season, though the team is still projected to win fewer than 70 games, has been infinitely more fun to watch than last year’s version. They’ve made watching Phillies baseball enjoyable once again, especially after having to slog through that moribund 2015 campaign.
Now that a very satisfying series sweep over the Washington Nationals has been accomplished (complete with Jonathan Papelbon implosion!), the team will finish April at no worse than the even .500 mark.
I’m filled with such happiness and joy over this team that I am ready to declare 2016 a success already, even if they lose every game the rest of the season. “Why?“, you ask. I’ll tell you!
The offense, though still bad, is better
The Phillies offense is bad this year. There is no denying that as fact. They are scoring just 3.26 runs per game, which is now last in the National League. They have a team OPS of .657, which is next-to-last behind only the woeful Atlanta Braves, who have just four team home runs.
I could go on and on, but I think you can already see and agree that this is a bad, bad offensive team. How bad? Think about the players that are getting regular playing time, now and those since released. There is very little production being had from those players, which is dragging the rest of the offense down.
Using the Baseball Reference Play Index, I ran a search of all past Phillies’ teams that gave regular playing time during the months of March and April to players that carried an OPS of under the .650 mark.
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I established 35 plate appearances as my definition of “regular playing time”, since now the team is running out at least two platoons, and has given either regular rest to players in the outfield, or has tried to find the right combination of players to get production. What did the results show?
The rest of the search shows that it’s not even close to the teams that have been run out in the past. Last season, the 2015 Phillies had six such players meet these guidelines. In 2014 there were four, and in 2013 there were only two.
Since 1913, the team has had more than four players meet the “.650 OPS in 35 or more plate appearances in March/April” threshold in only nine years: 2015, 2008, 1982, 1969-70, 1948, 1941, 1935, and 1931. Considering the putrid history of the franchise at times over its 133-year history, this is a major accomplishment.
Our Mike Campanella did a nice job yesterday of breaking down some of the things that are going right for the current team. Odubel Herrera has gotten even better this season as a hitter. The catching platoon of Cameron Rupp and Carlos Ruiz, though generally horrible defensively, has been very productive with the bats. Maikel Franco….well, do I even need to say anything? An emerging NL All-Star.
So, yes, compared with last season, this team is already showing improvement. Players who were once heroes but whose skills were deteriorating, like Chase Utley, Grady Sizemore and Ruiz were last year, are not accumulating as much playing time.
The team has firmly committed to younger players such as starting middle infielders Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez over stopgap veterans. So, the potential for improvement offensively exists more at this point than at any point a year ago.
Couple that with the promise of calling up more offensive talent at the end of the summer from the minor leagues, and you have a recipe for a burgeoning powerhouse that could come together as early as mid-2017.
So thus far it’s clearly 2016 season – 1, 2015 season – 0. Yet another shutout for the improved 2016 club. Which leads us to…
The starting pitching is better too!
This should be apparent to even the most casual fan following this 2016 team already. The starting pitching as a whole is better than at any point in the 2015 season.
While there is no one who can match the talent of Hamels a year ago, this is a deeper and a more well-rounded rotation than anything that was starting games last year.
Being able to watch Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, and Vincent Velasquez develop at the Major League level makes a Phils followers life so much better than watching Harang or Jerome Williams struggle to throw fewer than 100 pitches over five innings, all while sweating out three shirts in that same time frame.
Excluding that 2012 group and the 2011 “Four Aces” squad with Roy Oswalt added, you’d have to go all the way back to the eventual NL champs of 1993 to find a better opening month from a Phillies starting pitching rotation.
And they’re doing it now in much more dominant fashion as well. Using the BR Play Index again, I found some very interesting stats that demonstrates that current rotation dominance. Since 1913, this staff is/has:
- the only iteration with a K/9 rate over ten, at the 10.4 mark
- the best K/BB rate, now at a 4.68 mark
- 3rd best WHIP – 1.056
This is a very good staff, anyway you slice it. While they might not end the season in the same form as they have begun, either through injury or trade (and we have already lost Charlie Morton to the former), we can cling to the hope that the arms won’t go bad, and that there are still more reinforcements to come as well. We’ll see one of those tonight as Adam Morgan steps up in Morton’s place.
Even if the bats don’t progress this year, even if the pitching staff begins to tire as the season wears on, this season is still a ringing success. They might still run the bases at times like a T-ball team, their fielding might still make you wonder exactly what Statcast would think of their route running, but boy do I love them. You should too.
The Phillies will be on television three times this weekend. Turn them on and enjoy them. If you get the chance, head down to South Philly and take in a game again at Citizens Bank Park. It remains a beautiful venue. And now a team with some heart will be there to entertain you.