The Phillies Are the Best of the NL’s Worst

This is probably not going to be the Phillies’ year. Probably not next year, either. How’s that for building optimism to begin a post?

Even former Phillies interim president, now senior advisor, Pat Gillick noted he might have been too optimistic in suggesting the Phillies could contend in 2017 or 2018.

Last year wasn’t great for the Phillies, as the club finished 20 or more games out of first place for a fourth straight season. The farm system had setbacks. The Phillies’ system declined from a rank of eight last year by ESPN to 14th entering 2017 even after adding the draft’s No. 1 pick, Mickey Moniak, to the system and with J.P. Crawford yet to debut.

If you’re a Philadelphian searching for optimism, you won’t find it in the PECOTA or FanGraphs projected standings, either, each of which forecast a fifth-place finish for the Phillies.

PECOTA’s Projected Last-Place Teams
Division Projected Last-Place Team Wins GB
AL East Orioles 73 17
AL Central Royals 71 21
AL West Athletics 75 18
NL East Phillies 74 14
NL Central Reds 74 17
NL West Padres 70 28

FanGraphs’ Projected Last-Place Teams
Division Projected Last-Place Team Wins GB
AL East Orioles 79 13
AL Central While Sox 70 21
AL West Athletics 77 13
NL East Phillies 71 19
NL Central Brewers 68 26
NL West Padres 66 29

Among the last-place finishers, perhaps the Orioles have the most reason for optimism. Not only have they beaten preseason expectations before, but they brought a similar club to the postseason, briefly, last October.

At a time when there are groups of teams clearly trying to contend and others clearly attempting to rebuild – particularly in the NL – there’s not a lot of hope entering spring for fanbases in San Diego, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. But perhaps the Phillies are the best among the worst teams in the NL, perhaps they are the best hope for an NL Cinderella story.

There is this silver lining: Baseball Prospectus has the Phillies closer to first place (14 games back) than any other projected last-place team. FanGraphs has the Phillies finishing 2017 the fewest games back of any NL last-place team. Optimism!

If you’re hoping the Phillies can surprise and make things interesting in 2017, there’s this, too: the Phillies were among the unluckiest teams in baseball last season (from a pitching perspective). The Phillies’ ERA-FIP differential was fourth in baseball; the bullpen, specifically, ranked second by that measure. While this isn’t to suggest that the Phillies’ 2016 bullpen was a quality group, there’s also reason to believe it wasn’t as catastrophic as its 5.05 ERA suggested.

Moreover, the Phillies have improved the group this offseason by signing Joaquin Benoit and trading for Pat Neshek. From Carson’s report on the fairly optimistic ZiPS projections:

A brief examination of Joaquin Benoit’s (44.0 IP, 0.6 zWAR) player page reveals that the 2017 season will represent his 16th as a major-league pitcher. He recorded one of the highest average fastball velocities of his career last year, his age-38 season. He’s projected to produce the lowest ERA on the club by some measure. Even after Benoit, Philadelphia has a number of pitchers capable of handling high-leverage innings: Hector Neris (78.0 IP, 84 ERA-), Pat Neshek (46.1, 80), and Edubray Ramos (74.0, 88) are all quite strong on a per-inning level.

As for the rotation, it’s intriguing.

ZiPS has the top-five rotation options accounting for 10 zWAR (that’s ZiPS WAR). I wrote about Aaron Nola last week. Not only does Nola have a burgeoning front-of-the-rotation skill set, but no pitcher underperformed his FIP more than Nola last season. Nola finished with a 4.78 ERA in contrast to a 3.08 FIP.

While Vince Velasquez posted a 5.33 second-half ERA after a 3.32 first-half mark, his underlying skills remained consistent. Velasquez posted a 28.4% strikeout percentage and 8% walk rate in the first half, and a 26.3% K percentage and 8.5% walk rate in the second.

Jeremy Hellickson is back after accepting a qualifying offer, Jerad Eickhoff posted a 3-WAR season and 197 innings, and the inconsistent Clay Buchholz lost his command, but not his stuff, last season, and could benefit from leaving the AL East environment for the NL. Even if Buchholz and Hellickson are not part of the next Phillies’ postseason team, with quality seasons, they could perhaps be flipped for assets that are part of the next Philadelphia team to play deep in October.

The pitching staff is going to have to be better, and luckier, because the club’s run-productive capabilities have a long way to go even after adding Michael Saunders, Howie Kendrick and Chris Coghlan.

The Phillies were the worst offensive team in the majors last season. Objectively, as intriguing as Crawford’s two-way game is, it doesn’t look like he’ll be Francisco Lindor or Corey Seager when he’s summoned. At least not right away. Crawford has often struggled after promotions, and produced a paltry 27 extra-base hits across Double-A and Triple-A last season. We’ve read and heard about Jorge Alfaro’s power and arm for years, but expecting a Gary Sanchez 2016 would be folly. Only Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera project three-win players or better in 2017. If the Phillies’ lineup is going to make dramatic improvements, it will likely require some breakouts at unexpected levels from the Crawfords and Alfaros.

As a group, the Phillies are inching closer to relevance. While there’s a clear divide between the Haves and Have Nots in the NL, the Phillies should have one of the better rotations among second-division teams and an improved bullpen. They have an intriguing collection of young position players who can perhaps exceed expectation and timetables. With improved luck, maybe they can exceed expectations while accelerating the rate at which they return to play meaningful baseball in September.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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John Autin
7 years ago

FWIW, I don’t see “unlucky” in a team that beat its Pythagorean projection by +9 wins. The Phils were a distant last in scoring, with the deadly combo of last in slugging and next-to-last in OBP.

Even if their ERA had been as low as their FIP, they still would have had the league’s worst run differential.

7 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

So they had unlucky pitching, but extremely lucky (and still horrible) hitting.