There is a lot of panic in the Phillies fan-universe right now. People are stressing big-time about their 1-3 start to the season, worried the team is in danger of turning what they hoped would be a competitive 2017 season into a lost cause before the team is even able to poke its head out of April.
For anyone who has watched the first four games of the season, the worry is understandable. Aside from the season opener against Cincinnati, the team has not looked good.
The heart of the lineup has struggled immensely. The 4-5-6 hitters are a combined 4-for-41 heading into Saturday’s action against the Washington Nationals, “good” for a batting average of .096. Of course, that’s the bad news.
The combination of Maikel Franco, Michael Saunders, and Tommy Joseph (with a game of Aaron Altherr sprinkled in) have struck out a whopping 17 times with three walks while hitting in those three spots in the lineup.
Odubel Herrera (wRC+ 216) and Howie Kendrick (wRC+ 168) have done a good job in the 2-3 spots in the order to set things up for the bashers, but it hasn’t helped. The team is a combined 5-for-28 with RISP, which has led to a number of aborted rallies.
But this kind of thing happens in small sample sizes. If this were four games in the middle of June, no one would bat an eyelash. But there are two reasons why folks are stressing about it now.
First, this is our first impression of the 2017 Phillies. We’ve been waiting for the regular season to start for months, and it’s here now, and the baseball that has been put on display has been tough to watch.
Second, everyone was hoping the ‘17 Phils would be an improvement over the 2016 crew that went 71-91. While no one is expecting a playoff run for this group, .500 is a somewhat reasonable goal.
But so far, in what is an admittedly very small amount of appearances, this season’s Phillies are displaying the same problems last year’s crew had. And that is causing some major stress among the fanbase.
As you might remember, the 2016 Phillies had the worst offense in baseball. You may have read about this in the electronic papers. They showed poor plate discipline, struck out a ton, and didn’t do enough damage with fastballs and in hitters’ counts.
Last year, the Phillies struck out 1376 times, 7th-most in baseball, a ratio of 8.5 strikeouts per game. Their strikeout percentage (K%) of 23.0% was 5th-highest in baseball.
Through four games this year, Phils hitters have struck out 42 times, averaging more than 10 Ks per contest. And their K% of 28.6% is second-highest through the early going this year.
In my Franco piece last year, I screen-shotted a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks in which he popped up a 2-0 fastball that was right down the middle.
Take a look at his shoulder and foot. Now see what happened in the series opener against the Washington Nationals, as Franco came to the plate as the tying run in the bottom of the 8th inning, with the count in his favor, 3-1.
Not to pick on Franco, but here was his swing on a 3-1 fastball. Look at the hips and his foot. He simply cannot hit that pitch. pic.twitter.com/qhk9S5aYej— John Stolnis (@FelskeFiles) April 7, 2017
While Franco did well to get to that 3-1 count, he was overanxious and, instead of waiting for his pitch or going with that pitch and hitting it hard up the middle or in the right-center field alley, he tried to pull a monster smash to left field. Instead, he popped it up.
But this isn’t to pick on Franco, who is still very young and learning. Joseph is also off to a bad start, hitless in 14 PAs, with a strikeout rate of 42.9%. Cameron Rupp has also appeared lost and has struck out in 45.5% of his PAs.
The problems that plagued the offense last season are the same ones that are plaguing them in the very early going this season. We all knew Matt Stairs had his work cut out for him and, as we can see, it’s not going to be fixed overnight.
If it can be fixed at all.
But it’s not just the offense. Vince Velasquez pitched one of the most maddening games in MLB history against the Nats in the series opener. He went four innings, struck out 10, walked three and gave up two long dingers totaling four runs in the Phils 7-6 loss.
Velasquez threw 94 pitches in just four innings, a continuation of pitch economy problems that plagued him last year. And while the 10 Ks are great, he is working entirely too hard for those strikeouts early in the game.
To his credit, Velasquez took the blame for Friday’s loss, saying he was “all over the place” with his pitches. To that end, he was correct, as evidenced by how badly he missed his location to Bryce Harper on Harper’s first inning bomb.
Here's where Rupp set up for the changeup (away), here's where Velasquez threw it (down & in to a LHP). Predictable results follow. pic.twitter.com/YtDv8grJDl— John Stolnis (@FelskeFiles) April 7, 2017
He also failed to retire Daniel Murphy after getting ahead of him 0-2, instead leaving him a cookie fastball to wail on as the count went even 2-2.
Again, this was only Velasquez’ first start of the season. He will hopefully have 25-30 more coming. He has all the talent in the world, but needs to do more to prove he can be a starting pitcher long-term before the team has to decide to take him in another direction.
Happily, there are things that are going right. Jerad Eickhoff, although he struggled the third time through the order against the Reds, pitched great in the second game of the season. Jeremy Hellickson was fine in the opener. Herrera and Kendrick are off to hot starts, and Freddy Galvis has two home runs, showing his 20-homer season last year may not have been a fluke.
Altherr has shown some life as well, and it’s extremely heartening that the Phillies came back from a 7-0 hole against Max Scherzer in the finale, bringing the tying run to the plate in the 9th inning. That kind of fight is always great to see.
But at the moment, the reason people are freaking out about four measly little games in a 162-game marathon is because it’s a first impression, and that impression looks a LOT like what everyone saw last year.
It’s far too soon to draw any conclusions about anything. Talk of benching certain players is way too premature. It’s likely many of these issues will get better as the season goes along. And if they don’t, there are a slew of prospects ready to take some jobs away from Major Leaguers who aren’t getting the job done.
In the meantime, hopefully the big league roster can get past some of the problems that hung around their necks like an anvil last season, and make the product a bit more watchable over the next few weeks and months.
The baseball season is a marathon. Try not to freak out just yet.