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Are the Phillies getting better or not?

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The last 10 games or so have been a struggle. Close games blown. Not many wins. But it is a small stretch. What lies beneath?

Hotter than the surface of the sun
Hotter than the surface of the sun
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

I went to the first Mariners game with my son. The weather was beautiful, there were dollar dogs, and there was a returning Chooch. The Phillies announced a paid attendance in excess of 30,000 for a night game against a non-division opponent on a school night. Just throwing that out there.

I was excited that the Phillies were up 4 - 0 before I even had my hoagie from Primos. I kept seeing balls arcing into the outfield seats, accompanied by the roar of a crowd, and they were winning! 4 - 0! I haven't been this excited since they were up 4 - 0 with Cliff Lee on the hill against the Cardinals in the NLDS! Oh, wait...

And, yeah. Just wait. Two four run leads blown. Blech. Jerad Eickhoff looked bad again. But...RUNS!

My son has been nursing a seething hatred in his heart for the bullpen this year. "They crushed my soul, dad! AGAIN!" Dude, it's only May, first of all. And second of all, this is not a good team yet, so let's just enjoy Altherr killing it and Tommy Joseph coming alive and...wait...they aren't good? Are they? I'm not completely sure.

I remember well the early wins last year. At this time (through all games as of May 10, 2016) the Phillies were 19-14. It was all built on smoke and mirrors, though, as they had been outscored 107 - 133 during those 33 games. Scoring 3.2 runs per game to your opponent's average of 4.0 (through May 10th) was not a recipe for long-term success. That caught up with them, and they finished 20 games under .500 at 71 - 91 with a Pythagorean of 62 - 100 by scoring 3.8 versus 4.9 for opponents for the year, so even the 71- 91 record was lucky (or fueled by a really good bullpen or something).

This year, they are averaging 4.8 runs per game. They are giving up 4.9 runs per game. Aaron Altherr and Cesar Hernandez have blown up, but others aren't really killing it and Maikel Franco has been pretty awful. The runs scored are 16th in MLB and the OBP is 11th at .328. The wRC+ is 100 even, good for 13th in MLB. They are slugging .434, good for 7th in MLB.

Defensively, it looks to my eyes like they are catching everything. Odubel Herrera seems to make a highlight-level catch in the outfield every game, and Altherr covers an enormous amount of territory as well. Freddy Galvis, presumably peaking at or about age 27, is playing great defense and he's hitting just enough right now. Tommy Joseph is so much better at first than Ryan Howard that I just...I can't even. Defensively, they look really good. I remember teams of Michael Young at third and Ryan Howard at first. Delmon Young in the outfield. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, MONTRESOR!

Fangraphs assigns the Phillies 5.8 fWAR so far, good for 7th in MLB for non-pitchers. The main contributors (and ages per BR) are Hernandez (27), Altherr (26), Rupp (28), and Galvis (27).

The pitching has been awful. It has been the worst in the league, and the xFIP is really, really bad. In this reverse-sorted order of xFIP, the Phillies are 5th worst in MLB. If you sort on fWAR, there are the worst in all of MLB. I think we'd all hoped for more from the bullpen, but even the starting pitching has been bad.

Still, we have been presented with a Phillies team that is scoring 4.8 per nine and giving up 4.9 per nine. Their record is 13 - 19 but their Pythagorean record is 16 - 16. They are not riding on top of a -1.1 run per game run differential and trying to win games.

Much was made of this stretch of games that included the Dodgers, the Cubs, the Nats multiple times, etc. And guess what? They've been getting beaten but there haven't been many games of the BTFO type (Blown The Heck Out)  like we saw last year. BTFO is a stat I just made up by arbitrarily describing losing by 5 or more as a BTFO loss. The 2016 Phillies (by May 10, 2016) had 4 BTFO games out of 33 played. They had 33 BTFOs for the whole season. So far, the 2017 Phillies have 3 BTFOs out of 32 games played. I'd lay good money down that the BTFO number this year will continue to be lower than that of last year, and by a significant number.

The bottom line is that the 2017 Phillies are better than the 2016 Phillies, and probably by quite a bit. The Pythagorean record over a whole season could go from 62 - 100 to 81-81, which is a massive jump. The results on the field may depend on solidifying the bullpen somehow.

It's a young team still, but pieces (and important productive pieces) are not super young anymore. Some are likely fully mature. None, excepting Altherr and Hernandez (and if he isn't just riding a nuclear hot streak) are performing on a 2008 Phillies "prime" level. The team appears to be a whole lot of average. There's no obvious Hamels. There's no Utley or Rollins or Werth.

But there's hope. The team is competitive, day in and day out. They are not out of games when they get behind a few runs. There are plausible MLB players (and potentially really good ones) still in the pipeline. There is massive payroll flexibility. The much-discussed "compression trade" option is open. And depending on if this team can bounce back after the nightmare schedule stretch is over, maybe that trade could occur at this year's deadline. I am capable of seeing the Phillies at or near .500 in July. If that happens, they will be in the wild card discussion, and maybe it will be time to start seriously considering adding a piece for the rest of 2017 and, more importantly, for 2018.

I noted during the Tuesday night loss that "The Phillies are getting to be fun again". They lost, but I'm not changing my assessment. They are getting to be fun again. And I can't be happier about it. In fact, I'm feeling a little like this: