The Phillies are looking much better to me as the season wears on. I can see, less dimly through the fog, a future where the rotation looks pretty solid with more depth in the system coming up. There's productive stability at third, though likely not a star that we hoped for. First base is no longer the unmitigated disaster it was until Tommy Joseph came up. The catching has been objectively good. J.P. Crawford is coming at some point to shore up shortstop. The outfield depth in the organization suggests that there will be good players to emerge from a competitive selection process. Lots of good news.
Still, right now, the team is pretty bad. For most of the year, the team has been really bad. There is a loooooong way to go. How much improvement is needed? Where in the roster? Maybe not as much as I initially thought when I sat down to write this.
Let's take a look at our old friend, run differential. The 2016 standings at Fangraphs are a good starting point, with RD for the year to date and projected for the rest of the year. You can easily scan the Phillies' position in the standings and ranking in run differential. Lookit.
It isn't perfect. Teams with some good pitching and a good bullpen but with poor offenses can stay in and win close games. They will get shelled occasionally and never "shell" the opponent, and therefore will tend toward close wins and close losses with no or few lopsided wins with occasional lopsided losses. This will push the run differential toward a lower number, but a team may be competitive. Look at the 2007 Diamondbacks, for instance. This excellent article from earlier this year about the 2016 Phillies and other surprisingly good performances coming from "bad run differential teams" describes some variations on this theme.
I'm not here to defend run differential or claim that it is a "be all/end all" but it provides utility as a rule of thumb measure of the quality of a baseball team. It certainly isn't perfect and there are occasional paths to success that do not require a great run differential. Understood. Caveat, hand wave, caveat, hand wave.
Right now, the Phillies have the 8th worst winning percentage in the MLB with 4th worst run differential. The Phillies may resemble the 2007 Diamondbacks in outperforming their expected win level based on run differential, but they are still a bad team.
The Phillies are projected by Fangraphs to finish with a run differential of -145 this year. That's a pretty great improvement of +42 in the right direction, but it would take more than three such improvements to get to a break-even point and a shot at a .500 record. The projected number of -145 for 2016 would be third-worst in MLB, behind the Diamondbacks and Atlanta if Fangraphs is right.
Where is there room for the Phillies to improve more from 2016 to 2017? Mostly, they need better players. The position-player fWAR list for the Phillies is here. Sit down and fan yourself before looking at it.
The list is remarkable less for the few truly awful players than for the quantity of mediocre to bad to awful players. The 6th-best player on the team, Tommy Joseph, would be between 1 - 2 fWAR over a full season. Many of us are holding our collective breath over the best player on the list, Odubel Herrera, as we wonder if he's been found out over the last 2 months or so. To be merely average for the year to date for position player fWAR, the Phillies need to add about 8 fWAR. For a full season, that number is even higher. To be "good" they need more. Maybe 2 Mike Trouts.
On the pitching end of things, there's a better picture. The Phillies are 11th in fWAR. The caveat is that their best pitcher, Aaron Nola, is out with an injury. Who knows about the volatility we should expect to see from the bullpen? Which Hector Neris do we get next year? Which Jeanmar Gomez? Are they Phillies? Consider how well the bullpen has done this year despite many dire predictions. In many ways, that bullpen success has been the biggest story of this season for the Phillies.
Still, if the Phillies head into next year with (a healthy) Nola, Vincent Velasquez, Jerad Eickhoff, Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin, Adam Morgan, Gomez, Neris, and Jeremy Hellickson (with a Q.O. or not and getting a draft pick), there is hope for improvement, stability and depth. Remember that players like Ricardo Pinto and (someday, but not soon) Franklyn Kilome may pitch in Philadelphia. With the prices asked for starting pitching at the trade deadline, having that side of the ledger in good shape is great.
So while there may be some improvement from the starting pitching, it looks like the low-hanging fruit is on the position player side of things. Plugging in Crawford over Galvis could mean, conservatively, +20 runs in Year 1. Plugging Galvis in for Emmanuel Burris-type innings will help down-roster. Keeping Ruf out of Philadelphia for the whole year and letting Ryan Howard leave does the same thing, probably bumping first base by +25 runs, even if Joseph is only what we've seen so far. While Howard has been good at the plate when used against right-handed pitching, he's a butcher in the field regardless and he runs like a steamroller. Off to the AL with thee, Howard. Godspeed to you, sir.
Cooking Tyler Goeddel in AAA for a little longer while instead playing some combination of Altherr, Williams, Quinn, and Herrera regularly likely helps significantly in the outfield. The outfield lineups from early in the year still give me the shivers.
The catching has been objectively good, with the division between Ruiz and Cameron Rupp. This is actually an area where I am concerned there may be some falling back.
Hopefully Maikel Franco can begin to walk a little more and hit a little more consistently. Still, he's not even 24 yet and still in a sweet location on the improvement/age curve. He's not striking out tons and he seems to be solid enough defensively and he provides power. I expect more of the same but better-ish out of Franco going forward.
The bottom line is that as talent graduates from the minors, there will be some very solid gains from a more sound roster, top to bottom. Of course, there will be no Mike Trouts being added, but the Phillies can add a Mike Trout by having a more solid roster, top to bottom.
Addition by subtraction and addition by addition.
Just the situations at first and short could be 40 runs of swing, using the old "10 runs is a win" rule. Galvis is a solid bench player, but he's not a good enough hitter to be an everyday player. Burris was not good enough to be a bench player. That kind of scenario is ending as the Phillies finally get enough talent to fill an entire Major League roster.
An additional benefit here is that, aside from perhaps Cameron Rupp or the bullpen, nobody has obviously had a "career year". There appear to be many more opportunities for roster improvement versus roster decline. Closing the run differential gap by 50 runs next year seems plausible to me, barring a rash of injuries to the starting rotation.
If they are a -145 run differential team, it will take 3 years of +50 run improvements like that to get to .500 territory. Improving the team by 50 runs for 2017 still leaves the Phillies in an area where their run differential is in the bottom third of MLB, maybe in the -80's. That's a lot more losing to endure, but I don't think it's going to happen like that because I don't think the Phillies are remotely the same team now as they were during the first half of 2016.
At an arbitrary moment, and I'm picking the precise mid-point of the season -- July 1, 2016 -- the Phillies were 36 - 45 with 282 runs scored and 376 given up, for a differential of -94 after playing 81 games. That's a -188 run pace for a whole season which is truly, truly awful.
Since then? Well, their current run differential 33 games later is only -104. So since the midpoint of the year, the Phillies are 16 - 17 with a run differential of -10. For a 162 game period, that differential would annualize to -49.
The roster is a moving target, and it has moved considerably since the start of the season. Maybe not since July 1 specifically, but definitely since April. Even for players on the roster who remain, some have definitely grown - Rupp, Velasquez, Gomez, Neris, Herrera, etc.
Is it just the schedule? Playing Atlanta can make you look good, but the Phillies have played Kansas City, San Francisco, the Marlins, the Dodgers, the Padres, and the Pirates, too. Not all good or great, but they are hardly feasting on the underbelly of the league. They are again on a run of outperforming their Pythagorean (.485 vs .468) over that relatively small 33 game period. The run differential is still on a much better pace, though.
What are the Phillies, then?
While the Phillies at this moment are not playing good baseball, neither are they playing .409 bad baseball, as expected by Fangraphs for the rest of the year. A .468 team wins 76 games while a .409 team wins 66. That's a big difference. And again, the run differential of this team over a season in the first half had them on a -188 pace. It's hard to see the lineup going out there right now, including the rotation and bullpen, doing that poorly for the rest of the season. If the recent period (annualized as above to a -49) is the new normal, that's even harder to accept.
There is some evidence to suggest that right now, they are much less bad than they were earlier this year. I think it is fair to say that the roster has improved and the existing players are maturing. "Growing" parts are being added while "placeholder" parts are being removed.
The Phillies run differentialed at -183 in 2015. Their first half pace for 2016 was -188. They seem to have put on the brakes. For all of 2016, I don't think it is crazy to suggest that they end up in the neighborhood of -120, and mostly because they're in a -104 hole right now on the 'strength' of that -94 over the first half.
Next year, just playing like they are now with who they have now, I could see them going to -40. The Howard/Ruf situation at first was an unmitigated disaster which literally could not have possibly been worse. ToJo has stopped the bleeding and been a pleasant surprise. Maybe not an all-star, but the difference between his level of play (with Howard thrown in occasionally against lefties) and the play of the Ruf/Howard megadisaster is about the difference between a 0.0 fWAR player and a fringy all-star.
Crawford could make as big a difference at short and for the bench effects by pushing Galvis to a backup role. The outfield that was a disaster early on is easier and easier to see as turning the corner into a strength, both in starters and the bench. It's hard to see where, barring injuries, a high likelihood of a production decline exists outside of the bullpen or maybe Rupp, Cesar Hernandez, or the Hellickson slot in the rotation. I see a huge leap forward for the Phillies for the rest of this year and the future in the quality of the bench.
Throw in a free agent position player pickup (a corner bat?) and the Phillies could be a winning team next summer looking to make a trade deadline move to get into the playoffs again.
Wishcasting? Sure. Maybe more than a little. Crazy? I don't think so.
It's useful to sit back and take stock of things from time to time. We get lost in games and series and months. Still, based on what I'm seeing from this team right now -- from the whole organization -- I can't remember a time since 2011 when I was as excited to be a Phillies fan. That's the big picture right now.
How bad are the Phillies right now, really? Not very bad and not for much longer.