Before y’all get in the comments and point out the obvious — that technically the Phillies are still alive for a playoff berth — let me just acknowledge that you are correct.
The Phillies enter their series against Atlanta five games behind the Cubs for the second wild card spot with 14 to play. Mathematically, the Phils have not been eliminated. This is true.
It is also true that the Phillies are about to play three games in Atlanta, three games in Cleveland and five games in four days against the desperate Nationals in Washington, before finishing the season with three home games against the Marlins, against whom they have a losing record. As such, Fangraphs has calculated the Phils’ odds of making the postseason at 0.4%.
So this article is being written under the premise that the season will end up the way 99.6% of seasons just like the ones the Phillies are in the midst of — with no postseason berth. It’s a disappointing end for a team that many picked to either win the NL East or snag one of the two National League wild card spots, and it’s certainly a question as to whether the Phils will even manage to finish with a winning record.
In order to win 82 games, the Phils have to go 6-8 in their last 14. To surpass last year’s win total, they need to go 5-9, and to match last year’s 80 victories, they must go 4-10. Given the slate in front of them, none of those records is a sure thing.
So what happened? Why, as the team enters the final two weeks of the season, are the Phillies resigned to simply trying to finish with a winning record and not working out their postseason rotation? Here are my five main reasons why the Phils have disappointed in 2019.
To be fair, Klentak did have a good off-season. We all thought so. After signing Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson and trading for J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura, the Phillies looked like a 90-win team. Sure, the starting rotation had some question marks, but very few predicted that multiple arms in the rotation would take big steps backwards. Klentak put a team together with what we thought was a good lineup and a deep bullpen with the hope that they would mitigate against any rotation stumbles at the trade deadline.
So while I disagreed with the front office’s decision not to sign Patrick Corbin to a six-year deal and to forego signing Wade Miley or Charlie Morton, I generally thought Klentak did a fine job this off-season. Where Klentak failed this team was in-season, when it was clear the team was desperate for real pitching help.
He was right not to trade away stud prospects like Alec Bohm or Spencer Howard, but signing Dallas Keuchel to a one-year deal should have been a no-brainer. When 7/8s of the projected bullpen went out for the season with injuries, supplementing them with scrap heap arms like Blake Parker and Mike Morin, and hoping guys like Jared Hughes and minor leaguers like Nick Vincent could get big outs in high pressure situations was foolhardy. Signing Drew Smyly and trading for Jason Vargas was putting lipstick on a pig, and ugly lipstick at that.
The Phils might have been able to stay in the wild card chase without giving much up had Klentak and the front office been more aggressive, but instead, they chose to add around the edges.
To his credit, he did trade for Corey Dickerson, who turned out to be an impact bat before he got hurt. Jay Bruce was also good for the first month he was here, too. It wasn’t all bad for Klentak, but it wasn’t enough, especially on the pitching side.
The Starting Rotation
The Phillies have received 7.4 fWAR out of their rotation this year, 12th out of 15 NL teams. Their 4.57 ERA is 6th-highest, but their 4.88 FIP is 2nd-worst. Only two teams, the Rockies and Giants, gave up more home runs per nine innings (1.59 HR/9), and their 1.35 WHIP is 4th-highest in the National League. Aaron Nola accounted for 3.6 of the rotation’s 7.4 fWAR, with Zach Eflin’s 1.6 2nd-best. In all, 11 pitchers made starts for the Phillies. Not great.
Nick Pivetta was the biggest reason why this rotation faltered. He entered the season with a lot of hype as the team’s No. 2 starter, but was demoted to AAA after his first four starts and, with two weeks left in the season, is in bullpen Siberia thanks to a ghastly 5.74 ERA and a strikeout rate that has dropped from 27.1% last year to 20.6% in ‘19. His walk rate ballooned from 7.4% to 9.2%, and opponents hit .276 against him this season.
Jake Arrieta’s bone spurs complicated what had already been an injury-marred and relatively unproductive first two seasons. His inability to pitch effectively, then stay healthy, was a crushing blow. After a hot start, Eflin went in the tank with ERAs of 4.02 in June and 11.88 in July. Vargas’ 5.48 ERA is horrific, Smyly’s 4.14 is better than I thought while still being terrible, and Vince Velasquez has been exactly Vince Velasquez, with a 5.01 ERA in 20 starts this season.
Even Nola contributed to the team’s demise. His 3.62 ERA is far worse than the 2.73 ERA he put up in 2018, as his homer rate (1.13 HR/9) and walk rate (9.3%) all jumped way up over last year (0.72 & 7.0%, respectively). His 5.68 April ERA got the season started off on the wrong foot, and his late-season swoon (5.29 ERA in September) was one of the nails in the Phils’ pennant race coffin.
John Mallee would have also made this list, but he was fired as hitting coach in August. The Phillies must ask themselves if Young is the guy to lead this rotation moving forward, because none of the existing starters, nor any of the young AAA arms they brought up, proved to be good enough. No starting pitcher got better this year.
Now, it’s true development is not linear, but a recent Ken Rosenthal piece in The Athletic raises questions about Young’s ability to mentor a mostly-young staff.
The Phillies’ promotion of Young last November was triggered in part by other teams offering to make him their head pitching coach; club officials did not want to lose Young, believing his game-planning had been a major factor in the success of their young pitchers in the early part of last season. Kranitz, in their view, did not offer as much substance. But Young, from every indication, does not connect with pitchers the way Kranitz did. And the team that replaced hitting coach John Mallee with former manager Charlie Manuel on Aug. 13 might be looking for a new pitching coach next.
When this many pitchers fail to take a step forward, the pitching coach has to share some blame.
Sometimes you’re simply the victim of bad luck, and that certainly applied to the Phillies this year. The loss of Andrew McCutchen, who was on track to be a 4-to-4.5 win player this season, was crippling. While the Phils got decent offensive production from Bruce in the first month and then later from Dickerson, they clearly missed McCutchen’s abilities as a leadoff hitter. There appeared to be an emotional component to his departure, too.
Before McCutchen’s injury, the Phillies were on an 89-win pace. Since he got hurt, they’ve been on a 79-win pace. It’s not a coincidence.
Arrieta’s bone spurs didn’t help, either. But the true massacre came at the expense of what was supposed to be a very effective bullpen.
I don't think I truly realized how decimated the Phillies Opening Day bullpen had become until I laid it out like this.— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) September 9, 2019
This doesn't include Tommy Hunter, Víctor Arano, etc. pic.twitter.com/VXy2tKcEWQ
The Phils got 6.2 innings out of Robertson and, after signing him to a two-year deal, have likely lost him for 2020, too. Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter were non-existent, but the really crushing loss was Seranthony Dominguez, a hard-throwing, home-grown arm with tons of potential who simply never got healthy this year. Klentak could have done more to help make things better, but losing this many key contributors was devastating.
In case you were wondering just how impactful the bullpen injuries were, consider this note from our stat guru, Schmenkman, in the comments section of a recent post here on TGP:
Look, I really like Hoskins and I hold out hope that he’s going to very soon figure out how to avoid the massive slumps that seem to torpedo his season every year. His on-base ability is a net-positive, but he is player with some notable flaws.
Rhys Hoskins has played 350 games in his career. If we split his career into three equal stretches:— Jonny Heller (@jonnyheller) September 16, 2019
First 116 games - .256/.385/.538, .923 OPS, 29 HR, 91 RBI
Next 117 games - .251/.356/.540, .896 OPS, 33 HR, 81 RBI
Last 117 games - .225/.365/.441, .806 OPS, 18 HR, 53 RBI
Now, that’s a lot of fun with arbitrary end-points, but the fact remains that Hoskins has not put a fully productive, end-to-end season together yet. And while Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto have both been very good offensive players in the second half of the season (130 and 126 wRC+, respectively), Hoskins has not (92 wRC+). He’s hit .201/.337/.407 since the All Star Break, with just eight home runs in 58 games, a crippling lack of production from the cleanup hitter. Other than the loss of McCutchen at the top of the lineup, Hoskins is the biggest reason why the Phils’ offense was so inconsistent in 2019.
You’ll note that I do not have Gabe Kapler listed among the five biggest reasons why the team will finish short of the playoffs. I am not absolving the manager of blame, I am merely stating the five reasons I’ve listed ahead of him were more to blame. But there is lots to go around. Many of Kapler’s moves this season have mystified me, some lineup decisions have been perplexing, his bullpen management has left me scratching my head at times, and the whole thing with Hector Neris and his warmup pitches is just weird.
That being said, Kapler has also dealt with challenges that were difficult to overcome, and was left with a roster that, by midseason, wasn’t talented enough to go on a postseason run. No manager could be expected to coax a long winning streak out a team that was lining up Smyly, Vargas, Eflin and Velasquez every fifth day and a ‘pen that had Morin, Parker, Hughes and Vincent logging significant innings.
I don’t know if Kapler is a good manager. I haven’t seen a lot that I really like. But I also think it’s hard to say he’s a bad manager, given the roster he’s been given to finish up the 2019 season, which is why he’s not listed among my top five.
Certainly Harper and Realmuto’s early season struggles hindered the offense, and Odubel Herrera’s domestic violence suspension was a black eye on the season.
In a future post, I’ll give you the five most positive things to come out of the 2019 season, but for now, we’re left with trying to figure out what went wrong and, more importantly, how to fix it. On Episode 319 of Hittin’ Season, Justin Klugh, Liz Roscher and I try to answer some of those questions in our not-quite-end-of-season postmortem.