The Philadelphia Phillies were National League champions in 2022 and advanced to the NLCS in 2023. Despite the disappointing ending to the past season, the club had a relatively successful season. Not many teams make it to back-to-back World Series appearances.
The Phillies have many components in place to have yet another successful season in 2024. If the club plans to chase another opportunity at a World Series, however, they will need to improve in a few different areas.
The Phillies must chase less pitches outside the strike zone
One of the biggest issues over the course of the regular season — and was magnified in the NLCS — was Phillies hitters swinging at pitches out of the strike zone.
Dave Dombrowski made it clear that the front office was aware of this weakness. In his press conference at the conclusion of the Phillies' season, he spoke on the issue in the final games of the NLCS saying "I don’t know if it was because they were such quality pitches that they were still fooled. I don’t know if timing was off. I don’t know if they were stressing too much or feeling pressure. I don’t really know that answer, but you could tell that we chased a lot more and they took advantage of it.”
Todd Zolecki of MLB.com indicated that the Phillies' offense chased 36 percent of pitches outside the zone during NLCS Games 3-7. Nick Castellanos, Trea Turner, and Johan Rojas swung at 50 percent of the pitches they saw that were not strikes.
This wasn't just a problem for the club in the NLCS. During the regular season, Phillies hitters swung at pitches out of the zone at the fifth-highest rate (34.7 percent) in MLB. This figure undoubtedly led to the club striking out at a rate over one percent higher than the league average.
Discipline at the plate should be a priority for the team to focus on heading into next season. Nothing is more frustrating than watching hitters strike out in non-competitive at-bats in big spots. In the Phillies' case, it was one of the factors that led to their disappointing postseason exit.
The Phillies' defensive metrics are still a glaring issue
While overall, it may have looked as if the Phillies' defensive play improved greatly in 2023, the reality is that it improved marginally at best. In terms of defensive runs saved, the club ranked 25th in baseball at -34 DRS in 2022. Last season, they ranked 26th in MLB with -30 DRS.
If you don't like advanced metrics to evaluate play, the Phillies' fielding percentage was 20th in MLB in 2023 and fell below the league average. Some players did make strides defensively — at least to the eye test. However, players like Castellanos and Alec Bohm, who made some spectacular plays this season, had negative defensive runs saved in 2023. They likely made plays that looked great because they're not good enough defensively to make them routinely.
If the Phillies score runs like they did in 2023, poor defense is surmountable, but it also allows opposing teams to linger or make improbable comebacks that can hurt the club's record.
The Phillies need to improve at holding men on base
This is an area of weakness that can partially be attributed to the MLB rule changes that kicked in this season. The larger bases, disengagement rules, and the pitch clock all favor the baserunner and make it more difficult for pitchers and catchers to hold men on base.
When it came to Phillies pitchers limiting advancement on the base paths in 2023, they finished in the lower half of the league. Using a new Baseball Savant statcast metric called pitcher base advances prevented — that takes into account the number of bases a pitcher prevents runners from advancing and the number of outs assigned to said pitcher — Phillies pitchers finished 16th in baseball.
Certain pitchers brought the club down in this area more than others. Aaron Nola and Craig Kimbrel were by far the worst at limiting baserunner advancement. Nola openly admitted last season that the pitch clock affected his ability to hold runners. Kimbrel — who, in all likelihood, has pitched his last inning in a Phillies uniform — was seen "intentionally balking" at times last season when runners reached second base.
Hopefully, Nola has adjusted to the pitch clock and will have all of spring training to fix any issues he still has with it. The pitch clock may have affected J.T. Realmuto as well. He recorded his lowest caught-stealing rate since his rookie season, catching just 22 percent of prospective base stealers.
For his career, the Phillies' backstop has thrown out base runners attempting to steal at a 34 percent rate. With the changes in the rules and the larger bases, it's unfair to put too much blame on Realmuto in a one-year sample size. If some of his pitchers are slower to the plate and unable to hold runners on as they previously did, he's at a major disadvantage.
The Phillies should be a very good ball club in 2024. They already re-signed Nola to a seven-year deal. It's feasible to think the front office is still looking to upgrade the roster. If the players can improve in these three areas, the club can create a competitive advantage even before spending money on free agents or making trades.