If the season ended today, it would be chaos. There would be significant protestation from players, owners, and fans alike, all parties confused by the suddenly truncated schedule. But if matters were allowed to proceed from there, the National League would have the Mets grab one wild-card slot. The other entry would be determined through a different one-game playoff — that one played between the Pirates and the Phillies.
The Phillies! It’s understood that anything can happen on any given day. What that means is that anything can also happen during any given month. And here the Phillies sit, tied for baseball’s fifth-best record. The Phillies came in as a clear contender for baseball’s worst record, but they have a better record than the defending champs. They have a better record than everyone in the AL West, and also the NL West. The Phillies have won six games in a row — baseball’s longest active streak — and they’ve completed series sweeps against the Nationals and Indians. A handful of teams in the league are rebuilding. The Phillies have had the best start of any.
It would be exceedingly easy to get out of control. The Phillies are on pace to win 97 games. I’ve already read suggestions they could be the new 2015 Cubs, or the new 2015 Astros. Let me just throw on some cold water before we go back to all the happy stuff. There’s no denying the Phillies’ record, and it’s mostly the result of quality pitching. But the Phillies rank second-to-last in position-player WAR, their total actually below zero. Only the Braves are keeping them from the basement, and the Braves might be thinking about contracting themselves. As well as the Phillies have played at the right times, they have baseball’s 22nd-best run differential, and the 23rd-best BaseRuns record. If the Phillies are going to be good this year, they need to improve. Statistics 101 identifies this success as unsustainable, and I’m sorry that we had to go through this, but it’s important. The Phillies have been outscored. Good teams don’t get outscored. Maintain perspective.
When you remember everything, though, you realize this is all gravy. The Phillies were never building for 2016. A Phillies executive told me he doesn’t really care about the record. The Phillies have been in the business of talent accumulation. They know they almost certainly aren’t going to make the playoffs, but winning is a nice short-term distraction. It makes the rebuild a lot easier to swallow. And more importantly, winning ahead of schedule is the result of development ahead of schedule. For maybe the first time since this all started, it’s possible to look at the Phillies and see where they’re going. The destination, at last, isn’t very far away.
For fans, the winning is kind of a side benefit. Winning just makes things feel warmer. Of course, not every fan understands the scope of the rebuild — some fans just want to see the home team win a ballgame. And not every fan is resigned to the near-certainty that it’s going to be a playoffs-less season. One of the hardest things about a rebuild, though, is the sell. Losing products are unpleasant products, and they’re off-putting to the customer. Winning now is fun, and it’s good for business. The Phillies have gone through some lows, but they’re ever so thankful right now that they’re not the Braves. Every win is worth something. Baseball’s entertainment, and a win is more entertaining than a loss.
The exciting stuff is a little under the surface. Even among the mostly awful position players, there are some bright spots. Maikel Franco is holding his own. J.P. Crawford again has more walks than strikeouts in the minors. And there’s the bewildering Odubel Herrera phenomenon. Herrera owns a top-30 WAR, and he’s fourth in baseball in on-base percentage. He’s just five away from last year’s full-season walks total, and Herrera’s a guy the Phillies got for almost nothing. Herrera’s development is surprising, but he now owns a career WAR of 5, in 644 trips to the plate. Every rebuilding team that gets good ahead of schedule benefits from a little luck. Herrera is an everyday center fielder the Phillies drafted as a Rule 5. He’s not quite their Jake Arrieta, but it’s something.
The pitching success has been more obvious. The Phillies lead all of baseball in team strikeout rate, in large part thanks to the rotation. They also lead all of baseball in team K-BB%. Hector Neris has become a name to know, owning a dynamite splitter he throws half the time. Adam Morgan has shown encouraging higher velocity. But as you should know by now, the Phillies are recognized for the trio of Vincent Velasquez, Aaron Nola, and Jerad Eickhoff. They’ve quickly come to resemble the potential long-term rotation core, and, why don’t we look at a plot? All three pitched and started some in the majors last season. So let’s make the samples slightly bigger. I used our leaderboards to look at starters over the past calendar year, setting a minimum of 50 innings. Here are some percentile rankings:
I like the last column as sort of a compromise. It’s just an even average of the numbers going into the first three columns. By that measure, Velasquez is in the 90th percentile, about even with Max Scherzer and Corey Kluber. Eickhoff is in the 88th percentile, right there with Lance McCullers and Carlos Martinez. And Nola is in the 79th percentile, by Sonny Gray and Hisashi Iwakuma. Velasquez, so far this year, has improved. Eickhoff has improved. And Nola has improved. It’s not yet at all fair to say these arms are on the level of the Mets’ best, but you can get dreaming. At these performance levels, the differences aren’t enormous, and the Mets have built around the pitching. Good rotations are almost necessary for good teams, and the Phillies have quickly found most of one. Long-term, I mean. I’m not even bothering to address the early success of Jeremy Hellickson.
Again, you see the hallmarks of rebuilding teams who succeed early. Nola has simply been developed well by the organization. Velasquez was taken from an organization less willing to give him a starting opportunity. And Eickhoff must have been scouted well, because at the time of the Cole Hamels blockbuster, he was anything but the centerpiece. Based on his own background, Eickhoff has overachieved, just a little like the pitching version of Herrera. When young players take unexpected steps forward, the rebuild moves forward with them. You don’t need every young player to turn out. You just need a few to become good in order to give the team a chance.
Over the first month or so, the Phillies have won a surprising number of games. More importantly, it’s looking like Odubel Herrera is good. It’s looking like Vince Velasquez, Jerad Eickhoff, and Aaron Nola are good. There are other positive signs, too, and J.P. Crawford is on the way. The Phillies themselves aren’t yet good, but they’re so much closer than they were a season ago. More than a season’s worth closer, I’d say, if that makes sense. I can’t in good conscience buy the Phillies as a contender in 2016. That, I don’t see. But next season? It should be surprisingly achievable. Phillies fans can embrace this rebuild, because this rebuild is approaching completion.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.