On Episode 212 of “Hittin’ Season,” host John Stolnis breaks down the reasons why the Phillies collapsed over the last month of the season, kicking away a possible NL East title in the process. Meghan Montemurro of The Athletic joins the show to talk about the Phils’ run of bad play and how the team could approach the last few weeks of the season. Also, the Paul Owens Award winners were announced this week.
So, how did this happen?
Not long ago, the Phillies were 63-48 and had a 1 1⁄2 game lead in the NL East. Everything seemed right with the world. Birds chirped, the sun shone and blowtorches were nowhere within the vicinity of Citizens Bank Park. Since then they’ve gone 11-23, have gone 0-10-1 in their last 11 series, and are 7 1⁄2 games back of the Braves entering Thursday’s action.
Folks, that’s a collapse.
How did this happen? What has gone so horribly wrong over the last 34 games that took the Phillies from the second-best record in the NL to the team with the worst record over the last five weeks?
Starting Rotation Collapse
The starting rotation, specifically Jake Arrieta and Zach Eflin, collapsed in 2nd half. Nick Pivetta’s 1st half ERA (4.63 in 19 starts) wasn’t much different than his 2nd half (4.75 ERA in 10 starts), and neither was Vince Velasquez’s (1st half 4.39 ERA in 18 starts vs. 2nd half 4.22 ERA in 9 starts).
But Arrieta saw his ERA drop from 3.23 to 4.45, and Eflin put up a 3.15 ERA in the 1st half and a 6.35 ERA in the 2nd half.
As pitchers passed previous innings highs, their performances decreased in quality, and that’s no coincidence.
Odubel Herrera and Cesar Hernandez Struggled
From July 1, Herrera is hitting .219/.276/.353 and over the last 30 days he’s hit .187/.247/.293. Cesar Hernandez hit .233/.332/.311 (.643 OPS) in the 2nd half, and over the last 30 days he has slashed .226/.303/.283.
Hernandez was supposed to be the team’s leadoff hitter. Herrera was supposed to be its No. 3 hitter. That ain’t good.
Rhys Hoskins Slumped
Hoskins is a streaky hitter, and he picked the worst time to go into a funk. From August 4 through September 5, he batted .170/.288/.330 and just five homers over that stretch. With Herrera and Hernandez both struggled, this was a killer.
Franco & Williams Injuries
Maikel Franco hurt his hand in Toronto in at the end of August and, since August 27, only played in nine games, hitting .105/.105/.105 in 19 plate appearances. He has been one of the few hitters to improve this year, so his disappearance from the lineup was hard to take.
Nick Williams has been battling shoulder problems, which led to a drastic dip in his production, too. Over the last 30 days, Williams has hit .229/.289/.301 with just one homer and a 24.4% strikeout rate.
Seranthony Dominguez bottomed out, gang. It’s understandable, given this was his first year as a relief pitcher. He struggled in the second game of back-to-back appearances, and was hit-or-miss in appearances in which he went multiple innings. Starting on August 5, he allowed an OPS of .820 and had an ERA of 7.62 in 13 innings.
The Phillies made a mistake not trading for a closer at the deadline, or at the very least another starting pitcher that would have allowed them to move Pivetta to the bullpen.
Terrible Defense Continued
There were a few games where the Phillies just punted defense and went for offense, and got neither. The Phils have the worst defense in baseball and seemed to lean into that after acquiring Asdrubal Cabrera, Justin Bour and Jose Bautista, essentially trying to jam as many as four first basemen onto the field at any one time.
Carlos Santana was used at third base, a position he hadn’t played since 2014. Cabrera continued to play shortstop, a necessary move given his improved offensive performance over the last two weeks. But while Kingery has improved at shortstop, he lacks the range and arm of a really good shortstop. Hoskins continues to be an extremely poor defender in left, Santana has been a bit disappointing at his natural position at first base, and Williams and Herrera took steps back defensively, in the outfield. Also, Jorge Alfaro had WAY too many errors and passed balls allowed behnd the dish.
The Ever-Changing Lineup
When a team is struggling, why wouldn’t a manager use the same lineup that scored 8 runs in a game the night before? Every night was a different lineup, with different players in different positions with seemingly no rhyme or reason.
Certainly the analytics told them to use certain players against certain pitchers, but this isn’t Stratomatic. It would be understandable if playing guys out of position with constantly shuffling lineups affected their mental approach. If a player doesn’t know when he’s playing, if he’s playing or where he’s playing from day-to-day, can that cause some issues? Especially with young players in their first full year in the Majors?
And was there ever a reason Jose Bautista should be in a starting lineup for a team battling for first place?
It’s fair to note many good teams, like the Dodgers and Cubs, change their lineups with great frequency, but the Phils don’t seem to have the players for it.
Pennant Race Pressure?
An under-talked about issue was that this team had very few players with playoff experience. The additions of Cabrera, Ramos and Bautista certainly gave them a few more guys with postseason experience, but was it enough?
Being in a pennant race, with everything else going on, it’s fair to ask whether players got tight and whether manager Gabe Kapler overmanaged.
Did Kapler become a slave to the numbers? Did he make too many pitching changes, too many lineup changes, too many machinations with his roster on a daily basis? It’s a hard question to answer, but certainly possible.
In short, a mixture of poor performance, a little bad luck, and some questionable decision-making all led to a collapse that not many of us saw coming.