Phillies? Postseason? Run!

Trea Turner
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Amidst all the headlines last fall about the Phillies’ postseason run, perhaps the repetition of the phrase had a subconscious influence on the team. Phillies? Postseason? Run! That might explain why they’ve been taking those words so literally this October.

In four postseason games, the Phillies have stolen nine bases on ten attempts. They’ve advanced on five wild pitches, one failed pickoff, and a lofty throw that wound up in center field. Bryce Harper legged out an infield single; Nick Castellanos stretched a bloop hit into a double. Trea Turner hasn’t stopped moving in over a week. Most recently and most dramatically, Harper ran his way into a game-ending fly-out/throw-out double play at first base, in an aggressive bit of baserunning that wasn’t nearly as foolish as the Gameday description would have you believe.

It’s not as if we’re seeing a baserunning bonanza across the board, either. In fact, the Phillies are doing more than their fair share to hold up the postseason stolen base rate. In the regular season, the league averaged 1.44 steals per game. So far in the wild card and division series, we’ve seen 22 stolen bases in 18 contests, an average of only 1.22 per game. That’s still up from last year, when the league averaged 1.02 steals per game during the season and 0.85 in the playoffs. But if you remove the Phillies and their nine stolen bags, the overall numbers take a pretty big hit:

Steals Per Game
Timeframe With Phillies Without Phillies
2023 Season 1.44 1.43
2023 Playoffs 1.22 0.76

Stolen Base Attempts Per Game
Timeframe With Phillies Without Phillies
2023 Season 1.80 1.79
2023 Playoffs 1.61 1.06

Stolen Base Success Rate
Timeframe With Phillies Without Phillies
2023 Season 80.2% 80%
2023 Playoffs 75.9% 68.4%

Nine steals in ten attempts across four games is already impressive enough, and all the more so when those nine swiped bags account for over 40% of league-wide steals throughout the playoffs. The Phillies have also taken several additional bases on wild pitches and errors, and they deserve more credit for those events than the box score gives them.

Of the five wild pitches the Phillies have seen (no other team has seen more than two), only one truly got away from the catcher. Two were close enough to warrant a throw down to second, and the other two might have led to throws if the Phillies hadn’t gotten such good jumps. If Turner, Bryson Stott, and Johan Rojas (twice!) hadn’t read those four misplays so well, the official scorer would have had no reason to issue a wild pitch:

On top of that, Philadelphia has also taken an extra bag on a couple of throwing errors. The first, a pickoff attempt that Spencer Strider lobbed into the stands, only happened because he was desperately trying to control the running game. Harper courted a pickoff throw and reaped the rewards.

The second, a futile attempt by Travis d’Arnaud to catch Castellanos stealing, sailed over the head of Orlando Arcia at second base. Far from a fast runner, Castellanos got such a good jump that he forced d’Arnaud to make a hasty throw from his knees, then read the overthrow well and advanced to third base. Both Harper and Castellanos would go on to score thanks to a couple of additional displays of aggressive baserunning:

The Phillies have several fast runners on their roster — Turner, Stott, Rojas, and Brandon Marsh chief among them. Still, that doesn’t seem like quite enough to explain all the running. Every player in the lineup has made an aggressive choice on the basepaths, from Cristian Pache to Kyle Schwarber. The speedsters are putting pressure on opposing pitchers, and the slower movers are taking advantage when they can. Manager Rob Thomson hasn’t let too much slip about his strategy, but the particular baseball platitudes he used after Game 2 on Monday suggest he’s got aggressive baserunning on the mind: “Getting extra bases is critical. Getting into scoring position, going first to third, getting a dirt-ball read. We’ve been doing a lot of good things with that.”

Against Strider, the toughest starter the Phillies have faced (not to mention the only right-hander), they were relentless, even with Gold Glove catcher Sean Murphy behind the dish. In addition to stealing bases and courting pickoff attempts, they were similarly aggressive on balls in play. The aggression didn’t always pay off — J.T. Realmuto was caught stealing second, and Schwarber was erased on an ill-advised attempt to reach third — but they are pushing their bold strategy to the limit. Indeed, the successful steals more than made up for the only one that failed, and a good run from Turner erased Schwarber’s baserunning gaffe.

Understandably, the Phillies were less inclined to steal with southpaws Jesús Luzardo, Braxton Garrett, and Max Fried on the mound. Nevertheless, their aggressive approach never disappeared. Whether it was capitalizing on wild pitches against the Marlins’ weak-armed catchers, stretching singles into doubles, or challenging the outfielders on close plays at the plate, the Phillies did it all. Again, it didn’t always work in their favor; Castellanos was the victim of a strong throw from Jazz Chisholm Jr. in center field that nabbed him trying to score. But that’s the cost of doing business. That particular send from third coach Dusty Wathan might have been a mistake, but it was part of a larger strategy that has paid off more often than not. And yes, that strategy also includes Harper’s controversial double play to end Game 2.

With the Phillies down by one in the top of the ninth, Harper walked to lead off the inning. He watched Realmuto fly out to center field for out number one. The next batter, Castellanos, hit a much deeper shot to center field. It looked like it had a chance to be the go-ahead home run, and if it fell a little short, it could’ve been a game-tying double. But for Harper to beat a throw from excellent defender Michael Harris II, he was going to need a good lead; he couldn’t just wait by the bag and score from first after the ball bounced off the wall. So he ran past second, putting himself in good position to score the tying run. Unfortunately for Philadelphia, Harris made a spectacular catch, and thanks to an equally spectacular cut-off throw from Austin Riley, Atlanta pulled off the double play.

If Harper hadn’t strayed so far from first, he could’ve made it back in time, and Philadelphia would have had one more out to get back in the game. But if he hadn’t taken such a big turn around second, he might not have been able to score had the ball dropped. Indeed, the fact that Harris and Riley made such a great play is convincing evidence that Harper needed a significant lead to score against the Braves’ defense. In the end, he got caught playing the percentages. He decided that his team’s chances of winning if Harris didn’t catch the ball were far higher than their chances of winning with two outs and a runner on first. He sacrificed that final out to make the most of his best opportunity. Sometimes, choices like that won’t work out, but that doesn’t make those choices wrong. Harper could’ve punted on the fourth down; instead, he gambled on a much bigger reward:

Amusingly enough, as aggressive as the Phillies have been, their third base coach has also drawn criticism for not one, not two, but three separate stop signs. Considering the team’s overall approach on the bases, it’s fair to wonder if Wathan is sending mixed messages to his players. Schwarber certainly seems to think so at the end of this clip:

In Game 1 of the wild card round, Wathan held Schwarber at third when he might have tagged and scored on a lineout. In Game 2 of the NLDS, he held Alec Bohm at third on a base hit to the outfield. Neither would end up scoring. Meanwhile, Wathan also tried to hold Harper at third against the Marlins, but the superstar blazed past the stop sign, easily beating the throw. In hindsight, holding Schwarber was questionable, holding Bohm was more defensible, and trying to stop Harper was clearly a mistake.

All that being said, it feels overly simple to say that Wathan is playing things too safe. At other times over the past four games, the Phillies have shown aggression approaching, rounding, and leaving third base. It also feels premature to criticize Wathan too heavily, given the team’s overall success on the bases during the playoffs and the regular season. According to the numbers at Baseball Savant, the Phillies were above average at taking extra bases this year, both on the whole and specifically on plays involving third base. They were also one of the best teams at knowing when to hold, per Savant. What’s more, they stole third in quantity and with efficiency, swiping that particular bag 21 times with an 87.5% success rate.

Considering Wathan’s decisions and some comments from Thomson, it seems like the Phillies are operating with a thoroughly predetermined baserunning strategy; it’s still aggressive, but it’s premeditated aggression. They’ll wreak havoc with Strider on the mound or Nick Fortes behind the dish, but they don’t want to test Jesús Sánchez in right field or take a risk with less than two outs and Stott (their best contact hitter) due up. While Wathan could, perhaps, read individual situations a little better and deviate from his game plan on occasion, there’s no denying that the Phillies’ approach to baserunning has worked more often than not.

The Phillies have a powerful lineup, a couple of top-tier starters, and one of the deepest bullpens in the National League. Still, they’ll need to take advantage of every opportunity they get if they’re going to upset the 104-win Braves. Four games into the playoffs, their aggressive baserunning is a sign they’re prepared to do just that.

Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
4 months ago

 he couldn’t just wait by the bag and score from first after the ball bounced off the wall. So he ran past second, putting himself in good position to score the tying run. “

Have to disagree with this point on Harper. This sets up a false dichotomy, suggesting that the only way to score on a hit was to go well past second, and that there is nothing between running past second or ‘waiting” by first.

That just isn’t the play there, especially with one out and with Harper as the tying run. You go to the second base bag, and wait. If it’s caught, you go back; if it falls, you run as far as you can.

The other stuff is interesting, but there is no legitimate reason to sacrifice getting doubled up.

Oh, and the author point’s out Riley’s great throw, but that was only necessary because the ball bounced away from two other cut-off men. If they had been in better position, he’s doubled up by ten feet.

4 months ago
Reply to  padraic

This is my take as well. If Harper stops at second, he might still score if the ball drops and most certainly gets back to first safely on the catch. Worst-case if the ball drops is that the Phillies have runners on second and third with one out. Harper did the one thing that could immediately lose the game for the Phillies, and it did.