We are about five months in from the Bryce Harper signing, the perceived culmination of the Phillies 2018-2019 offseason. The team, the front office, the coaching staff, the fans, and even the city of Philadelphia were all abuzz about the 2019 Phillies and their opportunity to compete. There was a fairly unanimous consensus in the baseball world that the Phillies had the best offseason in baseball. That offseason was supposed to manifest itself as a team that would surely be competing for the National League East division title and more.
And here we are in mid-July, just past the All Star break, and the Phillies find themselves clinging desperately to/fighting for the second wild card spot. Seemingly everything is falling apart for them and everyone is looking for answers. Why? How? What happened—and what is continuing to happen—to this team?
In an attempt to explain, the easiest and clearest thing to do may be to look at each aspect of the team and try to figure out exactly what is going on and exactly who is to blame.
The rotation looked pretty much the same as last year and that was really okay. This was a rotation that pitched well last year but had the league’s worst defense behind them. As a staff the starters managed the third best FIP in the National League last year but had the fifth worst ERA. Again, this was largely due to a defense that ranked dead last in Defensive Runs Saved and second to last in Fielding Percentage.
This year is a drastically different story. As a defense they are very “middle of the pack,” even boasting a positive Defensive Runs Saved. But the starters aren’t doing the same job they did last year. Their 5.02 FIP is the worst in the NL and their ERA is fifth worst. It’s a huge drop from last year and it’s a major contributor to the problem.
Last years FIP with this years defense would have the 2019 Phillies starters as one of the five best starting staffs by ERA in the National League. The New York Mets had a similar FIP to the 2018 Phillies and a similar defense to the 2019 Phillies and they had the third best ERA in the NL last year.
Only two external factors have changed with the pitching staff from last year. One is that JT Realmuto is now the primary catcher and the other is that Chris Young is the pitching coach. It would be logical to assume that one of those two things is a big part of the problem this year. JT Realmuto is widely regarded as one of the best catchers in baseball.
This is Young’s first year ever as a pitching coach. He’s an analytics guy who’s only experience as a coach at any level came last year when he was the Phillies assistant pitching coach. Prior to that he was a scout in the Houston Astro’s organization. He was a pitcher at one point but he never made it to the majors. He pitched for six years in the Colorado Rockies minor league system as an 18th round draft pick.
No one ever wants to blame the coaches but someone has to answer for the problems. Would it be that outlandish to maybe think that the guy with the least amount of experience in the equation is the problem? Probably not.
This one’s pretty easy. There’ve been a ton of injuries that have forced the team to go to guys in the minors who were nowhere near ready to join the majors. Their three biggest, most experienced arms have been on the shelf for most of the season and this has hurt the team… somewhat.
Even with all the issues the team has had with the bullpen they’ve still been about league average. While they have the 10th worst bullpen ERA, they’ve still only lost 14 games out of the ‘pen, sixth fewest in baseball. And for their part the starter have minimized the innings needed out of the relievers with the team having the seventh least innings pitched in relief.
Again, the bullpen hasn’t been great, but it really hasn’t been awful, either. When looking at the big picture it’s not apparent that the bullpen is the biggest issue with the 2019 Phillies.
The one thing that maybe should have happened that hasn’t is replacing the injured players with some proven commodities, either via trade or acquisition. The Nationals picked up Fernando Rodney for next to nothing and Craig Kimbrel could have surely helped bolster the injury-ravaged ‘pen. There were options out there that could’ve helped and it’s a bit puzzling why the front office sat idly by when big pieces of the bullpen went down – especially after the investment towards winning they made in the offseason.
Here is where the team is really falling short of expectations. You can talk all you want about the starting pitching and the relievers and the defense but the offense was where the biggest offseason improvements were made and it was supposed to be a real strong suit of this team. For those that haven’t been paying attention, it hasn’t; it’s been a problem.
The offense is 11th in the NL in home runs, 10th in batting average, and similarly ranked in most other offensive categories. They are, in short, a “bottom third of the National League” offense.
We’ve seen guys with a decent history of success, like Jean Segura and JT Realmuto, have their worst offensive seasons in years, if not ever. Bryce Harper is on pace to strike out the most he ever has while just generally putting up below career norm numbers across the board.
There’s no real reason for this. Hitting coach John Mallee has some proven prior success as the Chicago Cubs hitting coach from 2015-2017 so it would appear he knows how to handle a talented group of hitters. It’s just not working the way it’s supposed to.
Quite frankly, this offense mirrors the attitude of the entire team: flat. In general the team just doesn’t seem like they’re into it day in and day out. They don’t seem motivated and that expresses itself in the way they play the game. They don’t hustle, they don’t execute and it’s it’s easy to get the impression that they don’t seem to care. We’ve heard “no one on this team is panicking” over and over as they go deeper and deeper in the standings—but maybe they should be panicking? Maybe they should start to play with a bit of urgency. Maybe someone, like the manager, should light a fire under them.
But looking at all this big picture and you find that the real person to blame may just be general manager Matt Klentak. Why? Because he’s at the top and he’s made some very egregious errors in building this team.
Klentak gave a pitching staff that was supposed to compete to a guy with basically no experience in the major leagues. He gave up three top prospects in JP Crawford, Jorge Alfaro and Sixto Sanchez for guys to “win now” while ignoring massive holes, like the bench and starting pitching depth, effectively building a very expensive team that at best is “almost good enough.” It appears he naively thought that everything was going to go just right and they would cruise into the postseason with what they had. It hasn’t gone right at all and these mistakes could turn out to be very costly.
Lastly, Klentak seems to be giving manager Gabe Kapler the benefit of the doubt. He apparently looked at last season and over-valued the job Kapler did through the first half of the season and completely discounted what happened at the end of the season. Most managers would have to answer for a collapse of that magnitude but Klentak must feel, one could only assume, that Kapler was a great manager to be able to even get that team to that point. It’s not “you let them collapse” it’s “you got them to a point where a collapse was possible” and that’s just not how an executive should view things.
Well, that collapse is happening again only it’s started a lot sooner and, curiously, it’s now happening with a bunch of proven veteran players who were poised to compete. They do all have one thing in common with last years team though – they’re all managed by the same guy. Klentak will either have to make him answer for it or he’ll be the one that ends up as the answer.