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Are the Phillies for real?

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The Phillies are off to a red-hot start, but will it last?

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Phillies started the season with four straight losses. Things were bad.

The bullpen blew two late leads in the first two games of the series against the Reds in Cincinnati, after struggling for all of spring training. The offense hadn't gotten in gear, and that 100-loss season many people had predicted before the season began looked like a pretty good call.

Since starting 0-4, the Phillies are 15-6 as they head into their series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Their 15-10 record puts them in third place in the NL East, 2 1/2 games behind the Nationals, who are in first place, having just swept the Red Birds in St. Louis, and 1 game behind the Mets, who had won eight in a row prior to their loss on Sunday.

The Phillies currently have a better record than contenders like the Orioles (14-10), the Blue Jays (12-14), the Rays (11-13), the Yankees (8-15), the Tigers (14-10), the Royals (13-11), the Astros (8-17), the Cardinals (12-13), and the entire National League West.

Their 15-10 record is tied for fourth-best in the National League with the Pirates, and their six-game winning streak is currently the longest in baseball.

Clearly, nobody saw this, not the pie-eyed optimists and certainly not the folks who accused the team of "tanking." Yes, the Phillies are still rebuilding, but the rebuild has gone so well that some wins have come along with it.

But does that mean the Phils are for real? April was a terrific month, but can the Phils continue running with the big boys in the weeks and months going forward?

Here are some reasons why they can, and why they can't.

THE ROTATION HAS BEEN BETTER THAN THE SUPER ROTATION OF 2011:

The run has been fueled by the rotation, which has simply been off the chain and better than a staff more highly celebrated than this one.

That's right, the collection of Vincent Velasquez, Jerad Eickhoff, Aaron Nola, Jeremy Hellickson, Charlie Morton (before his injury) and Adam Morgan (in his lone start) have been better at whiffing hitters than the Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt and Joe Blanton "Super Rotation" of 2011.

And it's crazy to think, but some of the starters have actually under-performed their underlying peripherals.

Nola has a fielding independent pitching of 2.55 and has allowed a batting average against of just .190 but has a 3.55 ERA thus far. Eickhoff has a FIP of 2.84 but an ERA of 4.15, allowing opponents to hit just .240 against him. Morton had the same thing going, an ERA of 4.15 that was higher than his FIP of 3.01. Only Velasquez is outperforming his peripherals (1.44 ERA to 2.46 FIP), although both are excellent, and Hellickson has been right on the money with his (3.81 ERA, 3.72 FIP).

Here's how the two staffs match up (2011 numbers are full-season, 2016 numbers are through May 1, 2016).

Year ERA FIP K/9 BB/9 SIERA WHIP AVG
2011 3.02 3.24 7.92 2.46 3.35 1.17 .235
2016 3.67 3.54 10.14 2.84 3.14 1.15 .222

Do I expect the 2016 rotation to continue to battle out with the Super Rotation of 2011 for numerical supremacy? No I do not. But it's been fun watching them try so far.

However, who knows how long it will last? Velasquez' pitch counts will be closely monitored this year, and you could see him shut down some time in late August. Eickhoff and Nola probably won't be watched quite as closely, but it's likely the Phillies will be careful with their numbers, too. And even if Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin or Mark Appel get called up, the team may have to be careful with their pitch totals, too.

The Phillies have been winning thanks to a super-human effort from the rotation. Even if they become merely "good," many of these wins will become losses.

THE BULLPEN HAS GOTTEN BEASTLY:

This next number will probably make you go cross-eyed.

And even with that 0-4 start in the mix, Phils relievers are striking out 10.06 batters per nine innings, the sixth-best mark in baseball. Their 4.15 ERA isn't terribly impressive, but as you can see from above, they started off in a bit of a hole. Perhaps more impressive, teams are hitting just .236 against the Phils' relievers, 16th-best in baseball.

Everything started to turn around once the closer situation got figured out. Jeanmar Gomez is 8-for-8 in save opportunities thus far. His stuff isn't electric, but he gets ground balls and has a 1.80 ERA in 15 innings. He is one of the few late-inning options that doesn't rely on the strikeout, though.

The most impressive arm in the 'pen belongs to Hector Neris, who is striking out 42.1% of all batters he faces, 11th-best among MLB relievers. He has a 1.17 ERA in 15 1/3 innings and is averaging 14.09 K/9. Opponents are hitting just .135 against him, thanks mainly to a splitter that is virtually unhittable.

But let's not overlook the recovery of David Hernandez, who has struck out 41.2% of all batters he's faced, which is 17th-best among MLB relief pitchers. And his 14.85 K/9 is actually a bit better than Neris'. After a rough first outing in which he lost the closer's role, he has managed to put up a 3.38 ERA on the season.

Dalier Hinojosa, Elvis Araujo and Andrew Bailey have all been good as well. The 'pen will have its share of struggles this year, but if they can keep the K-rate up, they'll keep games close.

OFFENSIVE SHORTCOMINGS:

Everyone knows the biggest problem the Phillies have right now is scoring runs. Their 82 runs scored is 26th out of 30 MLB teams (the Royals, Yankees, Braves and Rays have all scored fewer), and their 3.28 runs per game is actually second-to-last in baseball, with only the Rays ahead of them.

Yes, the Braves are scoring more runs per game (3.29-to-3.28) than the Phils. That ain't good.

The Phillies basically have two guys you can hang your hats on, Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franco. And unfortunately, Franco has been a bit streaky this year. When Maikel is hot, he carries the team, like he did in the first week of the season and in Milwaukee. But when he's not, it leaves the lineup even thinner than they are.

The catcher position, at least offensively, has held its own, with a wRC+ of 113 that is sixth-best in baseball and an OPS of .820 that is fourth-best. Carlos Ruiz has benefited from playing two days a week, and Cameron Rupp has been decent offensively as well.

But the Phillies still aren't getting anything from their corner outfield spots.

If this is going to continue, that is going to have to change. And, a clutch hit or two aside, Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez aren't helping much at the dish either.

UNSUSTAINABLE TRENDS:

  • While it's not impossible to think the rotation and bullpen can continue to pitch like this, at least for a little while, it's impossible to ignore that the Phillies are benefiting from some luck as well. The Phillies have a run differential of -16 that is 10th in the NL. By comparison, the Nationals' run differential is +38 and the Mets' is +36, second and third-best in the National League. They are the only team in baseball with a negative run differential and a winning record.
  • The Phils are 8-2 in one-run games and 3-0 in extra innings. The team with the next-closest number of wins in one-run games is the Chicago White Sox, with five. Last year, the Phils went 16-27 in one-run games and 6-9 when bonus baseball was played.
  • The Phils are 8-8 in games in which they score three runs or less. That is one fewer win than they had all of last year, when they went 9-69 in those games.

Philly.com's Bob Brookover looked at how teams have done historically with negative run differentials, and the results were not good for long-term success.

Only 26 of the 224 teams that finished April with a winning record since the 2000 season did so with a negative run differential. The Phillies, outscored by 97-80 in April, are one of 10 teams that finished with a double-digit negative run differential and a winning record.

Follow along here, because this gets better. The Phillies are one of only four teams to be at least four games over .500 at the end of April despite a negative run differential, and their minus-17 is the highest of that foursome. The Phillies' average of 3.3 runs per game in the first month was also the lowest of any team in this century to finish April with a winning record, and that number dropped to 3.28 after their latest victory.

THE VERDICT:

While it seems clear that everyone's perceptions of this team at the beginning of the season need to be recalibrated, to say they are a potential playoff team goes too far.

Despite their hot start, Fangraphs continues to place the Phils' odds of winning the division at 0.0% and gives them a 0.2% chance of making the playoffs. This is the more conservative, and likely, more accurate depiction of their true chances.

The only way for the Phils to continue to win 60% of their games is for the team to continue winning virtually every one-run game they play this year, for the unheralded cast of characters in the bullpen to strike everyone out, and for the rotation to continue doing what they're doing.

And even if the Phils do find themselves around .500 and in wild card contention in July, they certainly should not give up any prospects they would miss for veteran help. Sure, some moves around the edges to improve the outfield and maybe first base wouldn't be a bad idea, but it also remains to be seen if and when Nick Williams, Rhys Hoskins, Tommy Joseph, Roman Quinn, Andrew Knapp and/or J.P. Crawford might emerge to help.

Chances are this is still a team that will finish the season under .500. But suddenly, the tanking talk has disappeared as this appears to be a team capable of winning 75-80 games.

And, they're a helluva lot of fun.

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