“Not good enough” is about the worst place to be in sports. “Not good enough” describes the Philadelphia Phillies. During the 60-game sprint, the offense took a major step forward and looked a lot like the group we were expecting to see in 2019. Unfortunately, there are two other key areas to the game – pitching and defense.
The offense was actually a top-10 unit that ranked third in on-base percentage and even cut down considerably on the strikeouts. That was an outstanding sign and one that yields some promise for the future. The pitching staff, however, turned in the 28th-ranked ERA and the team ranked 28th in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), 29th in UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), and had two players, Jean Segura and Alec Bohm, on the plus side in the Statcast metric Outs Above Average.
This was a pitching staff that was significantly affected by a very bad set of fielders. When we look at ERA-FIP discrepancies, the difference between earned run average and fielding independent pitching, the Phillies had the largest positive differential at 0.77 runs. Positive differential, at least in this case, would suggest positive regression.
In doing the copious amounts of research it takes to do the MLB Betting Guide, I look through a lot of numbers. Most don’t surprise me, but some do. This one does. The Phillies were sixth in FIP among starting pitchers last season. The Phillies bullpen was 27th in FIP and dead last in ERA. Those two numbers do not surprise me.
Analyzing a team’s statistical profile to come up with a projected outlook for the season is what I’m trying to do here. When it comes to the Phillies, I see an offense that lived up to its potential and a starting rotation that maybe exceeded expectations to a degree, but returns basically in tact, minus Jake Arrieta, who is a below average pitcher at this point anyway.
Two factors killed the Phillies last season. The relief pitching and the defense were so horrific they were like characters in a Rob Zombie slasher flick. When I look at the Phillies for 2021, my two biggest questions surround those areas of the ballclub. Are those defensive issues going to improve and will the new bullpen additions make a difference?
The Phillies did very little over the winter to improve a team that most likely viewed as an afterthought following 2020. They signed JT Realmuto and then made some bullpen moves, snagging Archie Bradley, Jose Alvarado, and Chase Anderson. All four of those transactions make sense to me and the upgraded arms in relief could make a huge difference.
A lot of the same culprits remain on defense, though. Fielding isn’t factored enough into a full-season handicap or within the context of single-game betting, so I try to keep it in mind as much as I can.
Is that enough to keep the Phillies from reaching or exceeding their 2021 expectations?
2021 Over/Under Season Win Total Odds
Odds To Win NL East
|Team||Odds To Win|
|New York Mets||+140|
|BaseRuns Run Differential||-15 (5.10/5.35)||-57 (4.76/5.12)|
|3rd Order Win%||28.2-31.8||74.1-87.9|
|Record in One-Run Games||8-10||20-20|
Additions: Brad Miller, Tony Watson, Jeff Mathis, Travis Jankowski, Matt Joyce, Brandon Kintzler, Chase Anderson, Hector Rondon, Matt Moore, Ivan Nova, Bryan Mitchell, David Paulino, Archie Bradley, Michael Ynoa, Neftali Feliz, CJ Chatham, Sam Coonrod, Jose Alvarado, Kyle Holder
Losses: Phil Gosselin, Blake Parker, Heath Hembree, Adam Morgan, Jay Bruce, Tommy Hunter, Jose Alvarez, Brandon Workman, Jake Arrieta, David Phelps, David Robertson, Kyle Holder, Cole Irvin, Carson Ragsdale, Garrett Cleavinger, Ian Hamilton, Kyle Garlick, Victor Arano
When your bullpen is as bad as what the Phillies dealt with last season, you make some changes. A lot of changes. Brandon Kintzler and Tony Watson were late signings right before Spring Training, but it sure seems they’re both locks to make the bullpen along with newcomers Archie Bradley and Jose Alvarado. Chase Anderson could very well make it in a relief capacity, though he might be thrust into the fifth starter role. This should be a much improved bullpen.
The Phillies also brought in a lot of starter depth. Matt Moore came back from Japan to battle for the fifth spot, along with Anderson, Ivan Nova, and maybe even David Paulino. Or the Phillies could just let Spencer Howard have the rotation spot and use any of those guys in relief.
Just about all of the moves were centered on pitching, which should come as no surprise. Matt Joyce could make the roster as a platoon bat, but that was about it as far as acquisitions on the position player side until the Phillies signed another bad defender with a good bat in Brad Miller.
None of the losses seem to be that bad. Tommy Hunter and Blake Parker were useful relievers, but the others won’t really be missed.
|Batting Average (BA)||.257 (9th)||.246 (22nd)|
|On-Base Percentage (OBP)||.342 (3rd)||.319 (19th)|
|Slugging Percentage (SLG)||.439 (10th)||.427 (18th)|
|Weighted On-Base Avg (wOBA)||.336 (7th)||.314 (18th)|
|Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)||109 (9th)||91 (21st)|
|Batting Avg on Balls In Play (BABIP)||.299 (12th)||.293 (19th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||21.6% (7th)||23.2% (16th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||10.3% (8th)||9.0% (14th)|
It was only a 60-game season, but the gains that we saw from the Phillies offense were a sight for sore eyes. On paper, this should be a really strong lineup. It was a highly disappointing group in 2019 and very much an underwhelming unit in 2018. The Phillies improved in every area in 2020 and it is hard to see a major drop-off in 2021.
The walk rate could go down, as I expect a league-wide regression in BB%, but the Phillies also have some extremely patient hitters like Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins. Even Alec Bohm, who made the leap from Double-A, walked over 10% of the time in his final minor league season.
The Phillies might end up with exactly the same position player group as last season, unless Brad Miller and/or Matt Joyce make it on the bench. Their lineup is fully in tact because JT Realmuto was re-signed. It is possible that Mickey Moniak cracks the Opening Day roster after just 18 plate appearances last season. Otherwise, the lineup returns and the Phillies should have another good group yet again.
Bryce Harper could be in line for modest regression after cutting his K% down to 17.6%, a career-best in the 60-game sprint. His 20.1% BB% was also a career-best, but everything else seemed to be business as usual for him and he even saw a pretty decent spike in exit velocity and Hard Hit%. If everything holds, Harper will be an MVP candidate. I’m assuming everything won’t, but it is still an extremely valuable offensive profile.
Harper was very vocal about re-signing Realmuto and the Phillies did exactly that. Realmuto is a very good player both in the batter’s box and crouching behind it. When you look at win total markets, you want to find areas of surplus value for teams. On the whole, most catchers are not very good hitters. Some may provide a lot of defensive value, but little punch on offense. Others are the opposite. In the case of Realmuto, he is both. This is a huge area of advantage for the Phillies, particularly if the other parts of the lineup stay status quo.
The Phillies retained Didi Gregorius, so they remain in good hands offensively at shortstop. He’ll be on the left side of the infield with Bohm, who is likely to go through some growing pains in his first full season. He had a .410 BABIP in 180 plate appearances, so that will regress. I’d expect some more power production to offset some of that, but Bohm is not a guy I see an exact replica of 2020 from. That being said, he won’t actively hurt the team. That part is really important. Teams are hurt by below average and awful players. League average is actually a good thing because a lot of guys are not league average players.
Rhys Hoskins rebounded in a big way across all facets of his offensive profile. He hit for more power and made better contact. He walks a ton and needs to be a big bat in the middle of this order. He was exactly that and I see no reason to doubt his profile for this season. That high walk rate of 15.3% is a nice asset for this lineup because the middle of the order guys all walk a lot and that will generate opportunities for a deep lineup with guys like Jean Segura and Gregorius as plus offensive pieces at the bottom.
If Andrew McCutchen can improve a little bit, this is a situation in which every regular in the Phillies lineup among the top seven spots in the batting order will be an above average offensive player. The Phillies need to outhit their bad fielding and try to make leads bullpen-proof. There are no weaknesses to this offense.
This was also an offense that performed very well in the biggest spots. The Phillies were fourth in wOBA with runners in scoring position. I don’t see any tremendous outliers in that profile. While there is no year-over-year correlation in performance with RISP, this is a good, patient lineup that will get a lot of chances and should do well yet again.
It came in a short season, but after the really disappointing 2018 and 2019 Phillies offensive seasons, it is nice to see that they lived up to the potential last season. Now we get to see if they can do it again.
|Earned Run Average (ERA)||5.20 (27th)||4.53 (17th)|
|Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)||4.43 (14th)||4.88 (23rd)|
|Adj. Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)||4.00 (7th)||4.55 (17th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||24.2% (10th)||22.2% (19th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||8.4% (8th)||8.7% (16th)|
|Left On Base Percentage (LOB%)||69.4% (25th)||74.7% (7th)|
Is there hope for this pitching staff? I think there is!
ERA is the batting average of pitching statistics. It tells you very little. Sorry to the old-school baseball thinkers that are reading this, but there are much better ways of evaluating a hitter or a pitcher. Take, for instance, FIP, which stands for Fielding Independent Pitching. I will admit that I’ve soured on this concept a bit, but the idea is that FIP incorporates what a pitcher can control – strikeouts, walks, home runs, and hit by pitches. From a FIP standpoint, the Phillies were 14th. From an ERA standpoint, they were 27th.
The reason I’ve soured on FIP is because pitchers can, at least to some degree, control contact quality against. In the era of Statcast, where we see instant feedback in terms of things like exit velocity and launch angle, we can reasonably deduce that pitchers do have some measure of how control on how hard a ball is hit and the batted ball type, like a ground ball or a fly ball. Pitchers that locate can minimize hard-hit contact, thus giving their fielders a better chance to make plays.
When we look at the Phillies, we see a pitching staff that ranked 11th in average exit velocity against and tied for 18th in number of Barrels against. A “Barrel” is a batted ball hit at least 95 mph that falls into a particular range for launch angle and has an expected batting average of at least .500 with an expected slugging percentage of at least 1.500.
Batted balls of 95+ mph are labeled “Hard Hit” in Statcast. Hard-hit balls against a bad thing, for obvious reasons. The Phillies were 19th in that department with 562 batted balls against of 95+ mph. Allowing hard contact is bad. Inducing soft contact is good. The Phillies were neither good nor bad in this department, but I would argue that their contact metrics against did not merit a 5.20 ERA.
Let’s put this another way. The Phillies allowed 550 hits in 497 innings. That was the third-most in baseball, trailing only the Rockies, who, of course, play at a great hitter’s park in Coors Field, and the Red Sox, who had maybe the worst pitching staff in baseball last season. Boston and Colorado ranked 29th and 30th, respectively, in number of 95+ mph batted balls against. The Phillies, again, ranked 19th.
It is borderline unfathomable that a team that good on offense, that was a top-five unit in performance with RISP, was outscored on the season. The bullpen and the team defense were the culprits. This was actually a really good starting rotation in the short season, even with some potent offensive opponents in a lot of games.
How good was the starting rotation? How about third in fWAR? The Phillies were behind only the Reds and Indians in fWAR. Those two teams had the Cy Young winners. The Phillies rotation wound up with a 4.08 ERA, but had a 3.75 FIP and a 3.64 xFIP. Of course Aaron Nola was a huge part of it, but it wasn’t just him. Zack Wheeler was right on his heels in fWAR, even with a massive K% drop that I’ll address in a minute. Zach Eflin was also a surprise contributor with 1.5 fWAR. The Phillies really found something with Eflin and he’ll try to build off of that this season.
Everybody knows about Aaron Nola, but here’s what you might not have known. Nola’s highest usage pitch last season was the changeup at 27.4%. His second-highest usage pitch was the curveball at 26.7%. Third was the four-seam fastball at 25.3% and fourth was the sinker at 20.7%. Compare that with 2019 when he was 35.4% four-seam fastball, 35.2% curveball, 18.6% changeup, and 10.8% sinker.
Also consider that Nola threw the change and curve pretty equally irrespective of handedness. He was more prone to attacking lefties with the four-seam and righties with the sinker. When all was said and done, Nola had a career-high Whiff% on his curveball and also his changeup. He also saw a huge spike in Whiff% on the four-seam fastball.
The new Nola is even more unhittable. Smart teams around the league are doing this. Offspeed and breaking pitches yield lower exit velocities and more swings and misses. Pitchers don’t have to “pitch off the fastball” anymore. The fact that Nola evened out his usage of all four pitches and went heavier with the changeup is suggestive to me that his K% spike is very real and very legit. Nola is a Cy Young candidate this season. I don’t think I ever really would have said that before, even though he’s had some strong seasons.
Zack Wheeler saw a huge K% decrease last season, but he also posted the lowest average exit velocity against of his career and a career-best Barrel% at just 3.8%. He was in the 90th percentile in exit velo and 87th in Barrel%. Where did the strikeouts go? The stuff was obviously excellent. Wheeler actually became more of a pitch-to-contact guy with an elite GB% of 55.9%. Here’s the funny thing. His swinging strike percentage (SwStr%) was a career-best at 10.8%. Why didn’t he get strikeouts? Hitters happened to make more contact on pitches outside of the zone and his first strike percentage fell to a four-year low.
Unlike Nola, Wheeler actually threw more fastballs, but he turned them into ground balls and commanded everything well enough to deal with a K% decrease. I think the K% does go back up to a degree this season. Wheeler has already spent time as a guy with plus command that suppresses exit velocity. I think he’ll be excellent again this season.
I’m a lot less convinced about Zach Eflin and his K% spike. His SwStr% was below league average at 10.2%. He got very few swings and misses in the zone. Some arsenal changes led to more curveball usage and that was his swing and miss pitch. The Phillies went sinker-heavy with their pitching staff. Nola threw more. Wheeler threw more. Eflin basically ditched his four-seamer for the sinker to induce ground balls. I don’t see the K% gains staying, but Eflin shouldn’t be hurt too badly because of all the grounders.
I’m not terribly high on Vince Velasquez, Matt Moore, any of the other depth options, or prospect Spencer Howard as the #4 and #5 guys. The Phillies will need a ton from Nola and Wheeler again, but I think they’ll get it and Eflin seems to have a lot of staying power. Moore was fine in Japan with a 2.65 ERA over 85 innings with 98 strikeouts, but he was a 4.51 ERA guy with a 1.40 WHIP in MLB.
Howard obviously has the most upside, but I think the Phillies want him to pitch in the minors. He only made 15 starts across four levels in 2019 and made the leap from Double-A to appear in the short season last year.
It is entirely possible none of this matters if the bullpen isn’t better. As good as the rotation was last season and as good as it could be this season, the bullpen was abhorrent and has to be better. The Phillies had a 7.06 ERA with a 5.56 FIP. They had a 21.9% HR/FB% last season, easily the highest in baseball. Hector Neris didn’t give up a homer, but had a .381 BABIP against with a 4.57 ERA and a 2.50 FIP. He should be better after having a 59.5% LOB%.
The primary HR culprits are pretty much gone, though. Heath Hembree is gone. David Phelps is gone. Brandon Workman is gone. Adam Morgan is gone. This could be a much improved relief unit for the Phillies with signings like Archie Bradley, Tony Watson, and Brandon Kintzler. I love the trade for Jose Alvarado.
All in all, I like this group and the bullpen should be significantly better. It was one of the two biggest problem areas from last season. The other, the fielding, hasn’t really been solved, but I think the bullpen has.
Positives & Negatives
Something I keep coming back to in the NL East is that somebody has to lose games. It can’t be the Marlins losing all of them. The top four in this division are either going to trade wins and losses or somebody is going to stand out in one way or another. Are the Phillies the team that could be left holding the short straw again?
The Braves and Mets had top-five offenses. The Nationals have the big three in Scherzer, Corbin, and Strasburg and maybe the best player in baseball in Juan Soto. But, the Phillies are above average at nearly every offensive position and have, at least on the surface, fixed their biggest issue with the bullpen facelift.
I’m a big Joe Girardi fan. I thought he got a raw deal in New York, though I wasn’t privy to what happened behind closed doors and the reports after he was replaced by Aaron Boone were that he just wasn’t a good communicator. I believe he’s a quality in-game manager and one of the better decision makers in baseball.
Speaking of decision makers, the Phillies hired Sam Fuld on December 22 to be the GM. The 39-year-old was the organization’s MLB Player Information Coordinator as a bridge between the front office and analytics department and the players. I love this hire. The Phillies didn’t want to lose his brain after he was under consideration for lots of managerial jobs, so they went ahead and hired him as the GM.
I’ve talked a lot about this, but I tend to give teams that take an analytics-based approach a lot more conviction. The idea that Fuld was in a role where he conveyed metrics and numbers to players and now we’re seeing what has happened with guys like Nola and Wheeler, I’m really excited to see who else takes a leap for the Phillies.
Philadelphia Phillies Pick & Prediction: Over 80.5
This one is indeed a bet for me. I generally don’t worry too much about win total lines taking off on me because most bettors with influence are worried about college basketball and March Madness and then NBA and all of that, but I think this is one that will go up as Spring Training goes along.
Astute observers and analysts will realize that the Phillies addressed their greatest problem area from last season. This is a Phillies team that has underperformed relative to expectations a lot over the last few years. I think this is one that will exceed expectations. You have a team paying more attention to the metrics and a team that has infused some young talent to go along with some veterans performing at a high level.
Sure, it is a bit of a worry that the Phillies are locked into such a competitive and challenging division, but that kept the line manageable for us. I’m actually surprised at how much I liked this one, but I would venture to say that this bullpen winds up around league average. Mix in a top-10 rotation and a top-10 offense and you’ve got a team that can make some noise as a playoff contender. That’s where I have the Phillies, as a second for the Wild Card Game. That would take a lot more than 81 wins and I think they get there.
Phillies over 80.5 is a bet.