Over these last four seasons, the Phillies have assembled enough talent on their roster to be postseason contenders. Perhaps they were never the best team in their division or a real threat to win a World Series, but they certainly had enough good players on hand to at least make the playoffs.
In 2018, the team spent $119 million on their roster, then increased their spending to $192 million in ‘19, a prorated $207 million last year and, so far this season, have a payroll of $202 million, according to Cot’s Contracts.
They currently have three of the top six starting pitchers in the National League by fWAR in Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin, a lineup that scored the fourth-most runs in baseball last season, and a remade bullpen with a cadre of hard throwers and bat-missers (Phils relievers are 7th in K/9 this year).
And yet, after a dispiriting series loss against the Atlanta Braves that came on the heels of a five-game winning streak, the Phillies are a .500 team once again, 18-17, one game behind the Mets in the underwhelming NL East. The 2021 Phillies look very much like the 2020 Phillies, and the 2019 Phillies, and the 2018 Phillies.
Something’s missing. When the team hits, the starter falters. When the starter is great, the offense goes quiet. When the starters go deep and the offense hits, the bullpen blows a lead. The manager has appeared out of his depth without the designated hitter. Something always seems to keep the Phillies from going on a sustained winning streak and, while some of it is talent, that’s not the entire problem.
Brandon Lee Gowton over at our sister Eagles site Bleeding Green Nation has coined the term BLE, Big Loser Energy, for players whose body language and demeanor on the field indicate they don’t really believe they are winning players. While I won’t go so far as to say the Phillies have Big Loser Energy, I believe they do not possess BWE, Big Winner Energy.
There is a difference in attitude between this team and winning teams from the past. Remember those 1993 Phillies? They were a last place team in 1992 and yet, going into that season, they believed they were winners. They came out of the gate, much like the ‘21 Phillies did, by sweeping their opening series opponent, the Houston Astros, and rampaged their way through April and May, with one stunning victory after another.
It was as if they willed themselves to victories that entire summer.
Now, 1993 was a magical year, and it’s unreasonable to expect the 2021 Phillies to repeat that kind of success, especially in the way that team did it. Perhaps a better parallel is to the 2005-06 Phillies, who every year seemingly found a way to stall momentum, avoid long winning streaks, and fell short of the postseason each year.
In 2007, something clicked and, narratively, we often point to Jimmy Rollins’ preseason prediction that the Phillies were “the team to beat” in the NL East as the catalyst. For most of the season, it looked like the Mets were going to win the division easily until that miraculous late-September run pushed the Phils over the top. Rollins had Big Winner Energy, and that energy trickled down to the rest of the team. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard didn’t hurt either, but it was Rollins’ assertion, and an epic Mets collapse, that convinced the ‘07 Phils that they were winners.
This Phillies team is missing that. It’s as if the entire team is continually asking themselves “Are we good?” There does not appear to be a Jimmy Rollins on this roster telling them “We ARE good.”
At the end of the 1978 season, the Phillies were coming off their third straight NLCS loss and the narrative surrounding the team was that they “couldn’t win the big one.”
So, the Phillies brought in Pete Rose, a player who had won two championships with the Cincinnati Reds, one of the hardest-nose players in the game. Those Phillies were seen as “too soft,” with, as manager Dallas Green once described, “...too many players more worried about tee times” than winning ballgames. Rose was brought on board to provide veteran leadership, postseason experience, and a harder edge for a team that didn’t seem to know how to get past their own failures.
It took an extra season for it all to work out but, in 1980, Rose’s influence was obvious as those Phils rallied in the season’s final month, won the NL East, and eventually their first World Series title in 96 seasons.
These current Phillies need their own Pete Rose (the good parts of him, not the other stuff, of course), either from within, or from the outside.
Bryce Harper is an outstanding, intense player, but he doesn’t have an outstanding postseason pedigree. J.T. Realmuto has never made the playoffs. Neither has Zack Wheeler. Jean Segura has played for mostly losing teams, Andrew McCutchen never won a playoff game with the Pirates, and the Phils’ homegrown stars, Rhys Hoskins, Aaron Nola, Zach Eflin, and Alec Bohm, have never even tasted a winning season.
Look, it’s true the Phils need to play better. They need to stay healthy. They need to hit, they need to catch ball and throw it accurately, and they need to pitch. Those things will always be true.
But the Phillies don’t appear to believe they are good and until they do, they will have a hard time getting over the hump.
The Phillies need some Big Winner Energy.