It’s been challenging to be a Phillies fan for the past six years.
Perhaps it was the baseball overlords of karma putting us in our place. From 2007-2011, we enjoyed five straight division titles, three appearances in the National League Championship Series, made it to two World Series, and emerged as the world champions in one of them. Ah, weren’t those the days?
Since then, it’s been a painfully bleak downward spiral. In 2012, our Phils had, in every sense, the most average season, finishing 81-81. Dethroned as the reigning rulers of the NL East by the nasty Nats, the Phillies fell to third place while desperately attempting to make the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season. Maybe our world champs had gotten too old for the sport? Well, you can’t win ‘em all. There’s always next year.
… And the next year.
… And the next year.
… And the next year.
This isn’t even the toughest streak of losses Phillies fans have endured. Admittedly I wasn’t alive or had the cognitive functioning to recall some of these years, but 1994-2006 was twice as grim as the times we find ourselves in now (in terms of baseball). There was the 1994 MLB strike, the division and wild card titles we (arguably) lost to injuries in 1995 and 1999, and the playing of sheer lousy baseball in an empty Vet Stadium was downright depressing to watch.
There were a few glimmers of hope in those days, though: the signing of Jim Thome in 2003 breathed some life back into the Phillies clubhouse and fans, only for him to be replaced by former Rookie of the Year and MVP Ryan Howard, who’s professional baseball career seemed so full of promise in 2005 and 2006. The opening of Citizens Bank Park in 2004 was pretty exciting, too. Otherwise, it was a Phillies dark age.
In 2018, it finally started to feel like the dawn of a new era in Phillies history was among us. Phillies fans went into the season feeling cautiously optimistic, beginning with the hiring of our new, fearless leader, Gabe Kapler. While some questioned the logic behind hiring Kapler, a first-time manager leading the youngest team in baseball, it turned out to be a decently fruitful decision for the Phillies.
By some accounts, he had a successful inaugural year. He was analytical in his approaches to managing and maintained a positive atmosphere in the dugout regardless of what the scoreboard read. Of course, there is room for his managerial skills to improve in 2019. For one, he probably should bench players with broken bones rather than have them play through their injuries for half a season. Second, his unwavering positivity will need to translate into momentum to avoid another season-ending collapse. In that vein, Kapler says he’ll be more critical of his players in 2019.
Phillies fans also enjoyed watching the rise of our number one man on the mound, Aaron Nola. Though he was still recovering from an elbow injury, Nola first demonstrated that he had some serious chops in 2017, when it seemed like no one in Philadelphia was watching baseball anymore (because the rest of the team was pretty god awful).
In 2018 he commanded the field, throwing 224 strikeouts (that change-up will getcha), earning 17 W’s, and wrapping up the season with a 2.37 ERA. His peak performances were in the May, July, and August. In August, Nola pitched 34 innings, allowing only four earned runs (roughly one run for every eight and a half innings) in five appearances. Such performances earned Nola both MVP and Cy Young Award nominations for the year.
The Phillies 2018 offensive performance left a little to be desired, but there were some who emerged as leaders at the plate. Lead-off man Cesar Hernandez was the Phillies’ most reliable hitter of the year, with the most hits (153) and highest OBP on the season for the team. Additionally, Rhys Hoskins showed great promise as the Phillies leading power hitter, completing the season as a top 20 home run and RBI producer in the MLB.
Heading into 2019, the Phillies community has, as our beloved Harry Kalas once said, high hopes. But before we talk confidently about making our first playoff appearance in eight years, let’s first talk about going over .500.
I’m not saying that the playoffs are out of the question for the Phillies. That is certainly not the case. And the Phillies made moves at the winter meetings to make this year’s playoff dream a tangible reality.
One exciting trade and a huge (hopefully) offensive gain for the Phillies is the acquisition of former Seattle Mariner Jean Segura in exchange for JP Crawford and Carlos Santana. (In another trade on December 13, Santana got sent back to Cleveland.) Segura ended the 2018 season with one of the highest batting averages in the MLB, and is expected to lead his new team in many hitting categories (average, hits, OBP), giving the Phillies the offensive boost they need. He’ll likely take Hoskins’ number two slot in the batting order, ideally setting up Hoskins for some multi-run homers or grand slams, if not for a bunch more RBIs. Wouldn’t that be nice? A Hoskins-Harper power duo would be even nicer for the Phillies offense, but where Bryce Harper will wind up in 2019 remains to be seen.
Following the Crawford/Santana<>Segura swap, the Phillies announced that they signed veteran outfielder Andrew McCutchen to a three-year, $50 million contract. Some Phillies fans did not receive the news eagerly, fearing that the long-time Pittsburgh Pirate is already on the decline from his mid-’10s glory days. Though he might not be the offensive asset some fans were hoping for, McCutchen is expected to restore integrity to the Phillies outfield. Cutch has a four-star catch probability, and his clutch slide and grab makes him a standout outfielder. Plus, he’s been playing the game for a while, which will position him to be captain of morale boosting and long-game strategies if nothing else among his younger teammates.
In all honesty, my cautious optimism for the Phillies playoff prospects stems from my belief that change is incremental. I know this isn’t always the case in the unpredictable sport of baseball, as demonstrated by our 1993 Phillies, who had the most unbelievable ascension to world champion-dom maybe in all of baseball history. I would further argue that the Phillies 2018 season was the incremental change they need from five seasons prior, when we watched our team tessellate between fourth and last place in the division, often finishing with one of the worst record in the MLB. However, the Phillies will simply not make the playoffs without going over .500, and I would like to see them get there and hold onto it before I get riled up in Red October talk.
We nearly had it last season. We were, after all, 15 games over .500 on August 5th. But from there until the last game of the regular season was a straight catastrophe: the Phils were scoreless for nearly six innings against a pitcher with a 7.00 ERA (among other crushing defeats), and lost 11 games in a row to close out the season. This is hardly what a playoff-contending team looks like.
The addition of Segura and McCutchen to the Phillies roster will hopefully get us over .500, but we’ll need to make some defensive changes, too, in order to clinch. For one, the bullpen needs to hold the opposing offense so that the work of our starting five isn’t completely unraveled. The Phillies bullpen performance ended up being pretty lackluster last season, and Kapler relied on relievers too heavily, sometimes pulling his starters while they were still hot to no avail. We might also see the Phillies go over .500 if Kapler keeps his players in the same position in the field all season. Though he made the case that a lot of great teams mix and match lineups to maximize success against different opposing teams, maintaining the same position in the field all season will allow our young guys to hone their skills and strengths, making them effective no matter the match up.
As always, win or lose, I’ll be pulling for the Phillies to make the playoffs, but above all, I’ll be looking for them to have a winning record in 2019.