The Phillies Tread Water in First Year of Harper Era

The Phillies were ready to launch out of their rebuilding phase and into contention, but 2019 had other plans. (Photo: Michael Stokes)

“Unhappiness lies in that gap between our talents and our expectations.” – Sebastian Horsley

If you had any questions about where in their rebuilding cycle the Phillies saw themselves as being, the signing of Bryce Harper and the trade for J.T. Realmuto should have been big clues. Philadelphia planned to build on 2018, a surprisingly competitive season that ended in an even more surprising total collapse and residual, Fortnite-related stress. Instead, the Phils ended up winning just one more game than last year, a failure that ended manager Gabe Kapler’s brief reign.

The Setup

The Phillies had every reason to look forward to the offseason after 2018. The year may have ended on a sour note due to a late collapse, but there were plenty of optimism. Unlike the team’s luck-infused 71-91 record in 2016, its surge to an 80-82 record had some real force behind it. With the exception of Carlos Santana, the entire starting lineup was still in their 20s, Aaron Nola had stepped into Cy Young contender territory, and the team’s young bullpen arms were beginning to work out.

And most importantly, the Phillies had “stupid money.” These aren’t even my snarky words, but a direct quote from ownership. In an offseason when most teams were looking to refinance their mortgages, the Phillies planned to build a fancy new casino. No free agent was out of reach, and while it took them until nearly March to close the deal, the team landed Harper on a 13-year, $330 million contract.

But the Phillies weren’t aggressive in the market otherwise. Andrew McCutchen was brought in for three years and $50 million, and David Robertson was scooped up for two years to make the front end of the team’s bullpen look a bit scarier. But one thing was missing in free agency: another starting pitcher to join Nola. Read the rest of this entry »

Effectively Wild Episode 1453: Time Is on Our Side

Chris Davis and the Brutal Life of a Late-Career Slugger

The Orioles will not be hosting a FanFest this year; the team has indicated it will be “looking into other ways of connecting with fans,” according to the Baltimore Sun.

Perhaps there’s just isn’t really much to say right now. Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Zack Britton, Jonathan Schoop, Buck Showalter, and all the team’s other recognizable names have been shipped out or moved on. But Chris Davis remains, and he found a big way to connect with Baltimore this offseason, as he and his wife, Jill, recently donated $3 million to the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital. While talking to reporters, Davis said that the Orioles’ reshaping their franchise in the front office and the dugout had already made him feel more “hopeful.” Where in previous winters, he’d set about his workouts with motivation but no direction, there now seems to be a plan, devised by him and manager Brandon Hyde to keep him moving toward a goal.

And yet, it seems like we’re looking at a winter of hard truths for the Orioles slugger. Davis will turn 34 years old in the middle of spring training. He’s on a well-known and oft-despised seven-year deal worth $161 million that is scheduled to end in 2022. Even better-known are his struggles, which have seen him drop from an All-Star and Silver Slugger in 2013 to asking for the game ball after breaking an 0-for-54 hitless streak this past April.

At this stage in his development, he’s developed. The swing either works or it doesn’t. Once a hitter gets some experience and establishes his mechanics, his later years are the work of mental tweaks rather than physical ones. Sure, older players can make adjustments, but Davis is apparently not going to do that: Read the rest of this entry »

Are the Cubs Really Going to Ignore Their Window for Contention?

It’s early in the offseason, but the Cubs look to be in pretty good shape for next year. Our Depth Charts currently have the team set to produce 41 WAR next season, which translates to around 85-90 wins. Even better for the Cubs, they are about six wins ahead of last year’s division-winning Cardinals and seven wins ahead of the Wild Card-winning Brewers. On paper, the Cubs have the best team in the division. That’s a pretty good spot to be in; the problem comes in trying to improve and win with the greatest core of players the franchise has produced in decades.

Over at The Athletic, Shahadev Sharma has a comprehensive look at the Cubs’ plans for the winter. The title gives a little away: “Cubs seem ready to make big moves, but don’t count on them spending big money.” Todd Ricketts’ comments on local radio station 670, The Score provides further insight:

But ultimately, now I think we can stop talking about windows. We should be consistent, and we should be looking toward building a division-winning team every year.

Theo Epstein sort of agrees. From Sharma’s piece:

“Next year is a priority,” Epstein said, before quickly looking ahead. “We have to balance it with the future. That’s probably more important now than it was even a year ago, because we’re now just two years away from a lot of our best players reaching their end of their period of club control with the Cubs. I think the goal is to do everything we can to win the World Series next year, but we also have to pay attention to the long term. Maximize this window while also putting in a lot of good work to open a new one as well.”

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Craig Edwards FanGraphs Chat – 11/7/2019

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Injury-Shortened Primes Consign Mattingly and Murphy to Modern Baseball Ballot Also-Rans

This post is part of a series concerning the 2020 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot, covering executives and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon at the Winter Meetings in San Diego on December 8. For an introduction to JAWS, see here. Several profiles in this series are adapted from work previously published at, Baseball Prospectus, and Futility Infielder. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

Don Mattingly

2020 Modern Baseball Candidate: Don Mattingly
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Don Mattingly 42.4 35.7 39.1
Avg. HOF 1B 66.8 42.7 54.8
2,153 222 .307.358/.471 127
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

See here for a more in-depth profile dating to Mattingly’s time on the BBWAA ballot.

Don Mattingly was the golden child of the Great Yankees Dark Age. He debuted in September 1982, the year after the team finished a stretch of four World Series appearances in six seasons, and retired in 1995, having finally reached the postseason but nonetheless departing a year too early for their run of six pennants and four titles in eight years. A lefty-swinging first baseman with a sweet stroke, “Donnie Baseball” was both an outstanding hitter and a slick fielder at his peak. He made six straight All-Star teams from 1984-89, and won a batting title, an MVP award, and nine Gold Gloves. Alas, a back injury sapped his power, not only shortening his peak but also bringing his career to a premature end at age 34.

Born in 1961 in Evansville, Indiana, Mattingly was not only naturally talented when it came to baseball, but was also ambidextrous. In Little League, he switch-pitched occasionally, throwing three innings righty and three more lefty. By the time of the 1979 draft, he had committed to attend Indiana State University on a scholarship, but the Yankees chose him in the 19th round, and he surprised his family by deciding to sign for a $23,000 bonus. Early in his minor league tenure, his lack of speed and power concerned the organization to the point that they considered moving him to second base because of his ability to throw right-handed. Even so, Mattingly clearly demonstrated he could hit, topping .300 at every stop in the minors with good plate discipline and outstanding contact skills, even if he never exceeded 10 homers. Read the rest of this entry »

Dan Szymborski FanGraphs Chat – 11/7/19

Avatar Dan Szymborski: Greetings, there is no baseball!

Avatar Dan Szymborski: But there is pretend baseball that may lead to future baseball.

Avatar Dan Szymborski: Unless, you know, the world ends in March or something. But then you won’t be aware of no baseball so our demise works out also!

Avatar Dan Szymborski: I like existing, but no longer needing to finish cleaning out the basement is cool too.

Bill G: Where can I get plate appearances per lineup slot.  Thanks!

Avatar Dan Szymborski: Our Split Leaderboards are just the tincture you need for revitalization, good sir!

Read the rest of this entry »

Zack Wheeler is Good, But Not as Good as He Could Be

Any day week month now, Zack Wheeler is going to sign a contract that compensates him like a very good pitcher, and he’ll deserve it. He’s been consistently above average the past two years, the kind of guy you’d love to have as a No. 2 starter and one who can fake it as a No. 1. In short, he’s been what the Mets hoped for when he was a highly regarded prospect, after a brief detour into arm-injury-land.

But I think there’s still more there. Zack Wheeler, as currently constituted, does everything a bit better than average. He strikes out a few more batters than average, walks a few less, and suppresses hard contact just a smidge. That makes for an above-average pitcher, of course. But it doesn’t make for a world-devouring ace, the kind who opposing batters fear and hometown fans assume will never lose.

In 2019, Wheeler struck out 23.6% of the batters he faced, which placed him 45th among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings last year. That’s high enough to be effective, especially considering his excellent walk rate — Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and José Berríos all posted lower K% and were All-Stars — but it’s a rate with plenty of room for improvement.

It’s also a surprising number in light of Wheeler’s arsenal. His fastball sits around 97 mph, and he’s topped out above 100 mph in each of the past two years. He throws it with more horizontal break than your average four-seamer (it has three more inches of horizontal break and one less of vertical break than Jacob deGrom’s four-seamer), but gets excellent movement nonetheless. Read the rest of this entry »

The First Generation of Nationals Fans Has Its First Championship

In Washington, D.C., the roots of baseball fandom don’t run particularly deep. Sure, there are still a few fans of the old Washington Senators, but the last edition of that club bolted to Texas nearly half a century ago. The Homestead Grays also have a storied history, and an important one — but the Grays last took the field in 1951. Prior to 2005, baseball in Washington was a distant memory, and most fans in the D.C. metro region, many of whom originally hail from elsewhere, held allegiance to teams from different cities.

In 2001, a few months after I was born, my family moved from Northern California to Northern Virginia. We’re a family of baseball fans; my parents recall how when we moved during the 2001 World Series, one of the men who helped us was a diehard Yankees fan, rooting hard for the Bronx Bombers to win their 27th title.

In 2009, just a year after Nationals Park opened in the Navy Yard district, I attended my first ever Nats game — as a fan of the visiting San Diego Padres. My dad grew up in San Diego, and there we were, at Nationals Park, wearing Padres gear. The pitching matchup was star-studded: Chad Gaudin versus John Lannan. I don’t remember many details from the game; apparently an Austin Kearns walk-off single in the 10th won it for Washington. I doubt we were still at the park. Read the rest of this entry »

Jay Bruce Talks Hitting

Jay Bruce loves to hit, and he loves to talk hitting. He’s good at both. The veteran outfielder has a well-earned reputation for being thoughtful and engaging, and the numbers he’s put up over 12 big-league seasons speak for themselves. Bruce has 649 extra-base hits in 6,500 career plate appearances, including 312 home runs.

A first-round pick by the Reds in 2005, Bruce debuted three years later as a 21-year-old and went on to spend eight-plus season in a Cincinnati uniform. The native of Beaumont, Texas has since bounced around, hopscotching from the Mets to the Indians, back to the Mets, from there to the Mariners, and last summer to the Phillies. At age 32, he’ll head into 2020 in the final year of his current contract.

Bruce sat down to talk hitting when the Phillies visited Fenway Park in mid-September.


David Laurila: How have you evolved as a hitter over the years?

Jay Bruce: “As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, a lot has happened in the game in terms of information and hitting philosophy. Numbers have started being attached to thoughts, or assumptions. I definitely pay attention to that. But I wouldn’t say I’m of the launch-angle revolution, or whatever you care to call it. I’ve always hit the ball in the air. I have a problem with hitting the ball on the ground.

“If your fly balls are your misses, that can cause some BABIP issues — there are issues that could potentially zap parts of your game. But if you have power, and are hitting the ball in the air, you’re giving yourself more opportunities to produce a positive outcome. That should be obvious.

“The thing I probably do the most is pull the ball in the air, and that’s one of the, if not the most, successful ways to hit a ball. So for me… I think the outside philosophy of hitting has changed a little bit. When I came up, you were taught to use the other side of the field. Stay up the middle. Even hit the ball on the ground sometimes.” Read the rest of this entry »