All throughout the winter — and for the last few winters, really — the Philadelphia Phillies have been the go-to for easy jokes to make about seemingly terribly-run baseball teams. We’ve wrung years of hilarity out of the Ryan Howard extension, dating to basically the exact moment it was signed. We cringed at the riches awarded to the declining Jonathan Papelbon in an era where teams are getting smarter about the values of closers. We watched GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. squeeze a few more good years after Pat Gillick’s 2008 World Series champs once he was promoted in Nov. 2008, then ride the team downward from 102 wins in 2011 to 82 in 2012 to 73 in 2013, all while refusing to trade any of the team’s clearly aging core. Just days ago, the Sporting News ranked all 30 GMs. Amaro came in last, and while none of those rankings have a lot of science to them, it’s hardly the first time.
And really, it was a different kind of bad for the Phillies. The Astros are worse on the field, and so are the Cubs. But those teams, and others like them, seemed to have a plan. They were willing to suffer the pain of 100-loss seasons in order to rebuild barren farm systems. They’re not there yet, but they’re both going in the right direction. The Phillies, meanwhile, refused to trade Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels or Chase Utley or Jimmy Rollins for talent that could have been on track to form the core of the next good Phillies team with J.P. Crawford and Jesse Biddle. Amaro, likely with his own employment status in mind, chose to retain or re-sign all while reloading with the likes of Michael Young and Delmon Young in 2013, then to get even older with his main moves for 2014:
- Retain 35-year-old catcher Carlos Ruiz for three years and $26.5 million
- Add 36-year-old outfielder Marlon Byrd for two years and $16 million, plus attainable 2016 option
- Import 37-year-old pitcher A.J. Burnett for one year and $16 million
- Sign 33-year-old not-Fausto Carmona Roberto Hernandez for one year and $4.5 million
If there was an overall plan other than stubbornness, it was difficult (if not impossible) to see what it was. At an average 31.2 years of age, their hitters are older than any team other than the ancient Yankees. Their pitchers, at 31.3 years, are tied behind only the Giants. This is an old team that wasn’t expected to win this year, and isn’t winning this year. They’re sitting in last place at 22-27, with just one more win than Houston, and their projected 75-87 isn’t that far off from what many would have figured in March; that our projections don’t have them landing in last place says more about the forever in-turmoil Mets than it does the Phillies.
But a funny thing happened along the way. It’s not that the Phillies are mediocre and unlikely to make the playoffs; that part hasn’t changed. It’s that the problem hasn’t been with the senior citizens Amaro has either hung on to or imported. They have, for the most part, been stellar. The problems have been with everyone else.
Seriously, look at the numbers. (All of which were compiled prior to Tuesday night’s games.) If we split the team into “through 31” and “32 and up”, the performances of the two sides of the Phillies team are shocking. (Why 32? It’s mostly arbitrary, but not entirely; it feels like close enough to being “post-peak,” and either way the Phillies have only little-used Jayson Nix & Tony Gwynn as players at either 31 or 32. If we moved it down far enough so that 30-year-old Cole Hamels and his close-to-career-best 3.08 FIP were in the older group, it’d be even more of a difference, so let’s go with this.)
I haven’t included labels for every team to improve readability, but I don’t imagine it’s that difficult to find the Phillies there, way down at -2.6 WAR, the only team to be getting negative production from their young players. (WAR, obviously, is a counting stat, and the samples are not even for every team. The Phillies have the fewest plate appearances from these players, 787. Their combined line is .212/.274/.297, or a 56 wRC+. No other team has below a 78. It’s not just that they have fewer opportunities, it’s that they’re bad.)
You need not look far for the culprits, of course. Domonic Brown, 26, has been completely unable to replicate last year’s hint of success, putting up a mere 51 wRC+ with bad defense. He’s been one of the worst regular players in baseball this year, regardless of age. Ben Revere, also 26, has taken his usual offensive ineptitude to new lows, becoming just the fifth player — and first since 1946 — to amass 1,500 career plate appearances without a home run (before finally getting one last night). Cody Asche, 24 in a month, showed some life at the plate (113 wRC+) to go with poor defense before being sidelined last week with a hamstring injury; he’s been replaced by 24-year-old utility man Cesar Hernandez, who has shown no ability to be a big league hitter, since prospect Maikel Franco, hitting .231/.311/.358 in Triple-A, “isn’t ready to be a big leaguer yet,” per Amaro.
Now, the older group:
Again, no labels needed, and again imperfect sample size comparison here. The “old” Phillies have 1,051 plate appearances in this age range; a team like the Cubs has only 82. But the point isn’t to compare playing time, because we always knew that the Phillies would be an older team; it’s to show how well they’ve done with that time. This group of Phillies has been good for .271/.344/.441, a 116 wRC+, with plus defense. The Yankees, for example, have nearly the exact same amount of plate appearances, but a .253/.318/.400 (97 wRC+) and awful defensive value, giving them a 2.0 WAR as opposed to Philadelphia’s 5.8 WAR.
That’s because the ancient Phillies hitters are all doing more than could be expected. Utley’s 160 wRC+ isn’t likely to sustain all year, but he’s easily on pace to match some of the elite seasons he had at his peak. Rollins seemed done; he’s also having one of the best years of his career, at 35. Howard is still a replacement-level player, but Ruiz and Byrd have both been very productive. Just about all of the success the Phillies have had on offense this year is thanks to this group.
Now the pitchers. Young guys first:
There’s your young Phillies in last, and it’s not just that they’ve thrown the fewest innings; their xFIP is No. 24, their FIP is No. 29. That’s even with Hamels and generally solid relief work from Jake Diekman; it’s a lot of Kyle Kendrick not being that good and little excitement to be found anywhere else. (Even from pitchers not on the big league roster! Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, last year’s Cuban signing who has had little but arm woes and inconsistency since arriving in America, is now suffering from even more trouble.)
Back to the old guard:
Again, the Phillies have thrown the most innings here — that the Athletics have one, by Jeff Francis, probably demands further consideration — but they’ve also been good innings, with a No. 9 FIP and No. 7 xFIP. That’s mostly thanks to the incomparable Lee, who was wonderful yet again before his recent arm injury, but it helps that Papelbon has been outpitching his peripherals and generally being useful, in addition to the return of the finally-healthy Mike Adams.
Looking back at the deals signed this winter, you can see in our write-ups at the time that although none was especially popular, at least in the sense that adding non-elite age to a non-elite aging team wasn’t likely to move the needle, each of those deals made a certain amount of sense when taken by itself. The gamble on Byrd was small, and he was very good in 2013. Ruiz was a known quantity in a thin catching market. Burnett was excellent, and required only a one-year commitment.
So far, those deals have really worked out well for Amaro, and Utley & Rollins have provided far more than anyone could have possibly hoped — yet the team still struggles. The Phillies aren’t losing because they are old, and that’s maybe not what we would have expected several months ago. They’re losing because their young players aren’t very good. Suddenly, that seems so, so much worse, particularly if — well, when — Utley & Rollins are unable to maintain their production. It’s still a bad situation in Philadelphia. It’s just a differently bad situation.