Twenty-two. Of all the ways to quantify the Philadelphia Phillies first half of the 2021 season, twenty-two remains the most revealing and consequential number. One might argue that instead it’s seven — the number of games the Phillies won out of their past ten — or forty-four — the amount of victories they needed to enter the All-Star break with a .500 record. But no, the most important number is neither seven or forty-four, nor is it 3.5 — the number of games back the Phillies are to the division-leading New York Mets — or even thirteen — the slot in which the Phillies drafted high school right-hander Andrew Painter in the first round of Sunday night’s 2021 MLB draft.
It is twenty-two, the number of blown saves the Phillies have surrendered this season, and perhaps also forty-eight, the bullpen’s save percentage, that tells us all we need to know about this team. Because in between the lines of Girardi’s gutsy managing of a hamstrung ball club on Sunday afternoon, Zach Wheeler’s breakout season, and the offense’s recent spike in production lies a cold, hard truth: the Phillies have held the division lead in their hands this entire season, only for it to slip through their fingers time and time again. Had the Phillies not blown twenty-two of their forty-two save opportunities, they would be a virtual lock for October. Moreover, if the Phillies had merely converted saves at the league average clip of sixty-one percent — blowing only seventeen saves instead of twenty-two — their record would be 49-39, good for a 1.5 game lead over the Mets.
What these numbers make evident — other than the desperate need for an adequate closing pitcher — is that the bones of a contending team are here. Now — not in the next three to five years — but now, in this very season, with the starting core of Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Zach Wheeler, Aaron Nola, and Rhys Hoskins at the pinnacle of their primes are the Phillies built to contend. Now, in 2021, in a division that no one seems to want to win, can the Phillies bring light to a city desperately in need of October baseball.
Which is why it’s so strange to see that these bones aren’t being supported. That the front office doesn’t seem to share this sentiment — at least, they haven’t acted like it. While the Phillies’ recent run has surely convinced Dave Dombrowksi and company to be "buyers" and not "sellers" at the upcoming trade deadline, the front office had a chance to show their faith in the team’s ability to be an immediate contender in the first round of the MLB draft on Sunday night.
They did not. Instead, amateur scouting director Brian Barber selected Andrew Painter with the 13th overall pick, one of the top high school arms in the country. A long-term project, for a short-term contender. We’ll be lucky if we see him in five years.
The message from the front office couldn’t be more clear: "We don’t believe in this team enough to draft a player that can contribute during this current window of contention."
Rather than looking to bolster pitching through a proven, college arm, the front office decided to take the riskiest course — a high school pitcher — in the hopes that it’ll pay off long after this current team is any good. It’s not a surprise, over the past twenty years — including 2020’s pick of high school righty Mick Abel — the organization has only used a 1st round pick on a college player five times.
No, Brian Barber favored his own job security over the current team’s dreams of title contention — just like he did with Abel, selecting Painter guarantees Barber at least a few more years as amateur scouting director while his young pitchers marinate in the minor leagues. Add on top of that Painter’s connection to Joe Girardi’s son, Dante, and Barber has found a way to make everybody happy. Huh.
Never mind the prototypical risks associated with high school pitchers that are clearly evident in Painter — an extremely large 6’7 frame that combined with the stress of throwing 97mph at eighteen years old all too often leads to injuries and dips in velocity later on. Tyler Kopek or Dylan Bundy anyone? A flat plane fastball that doesn’t cut it against big league pitching. Breaking balls without depth or bite that only worked against other high school kids in Florida. No, all of these red flags must’ve seemed like Phillies ‘P’s’ across Painter’s chest to Barber — he was tantalized by Painter’s size and velocity, despite him being the higher-risk, lower-reward pick.
What makes the Painter pick feel like such a statement by the front office is, more than anything, time. According to a study done by Keith Law at The Athletic, the median time for a college player taken in the top twenty picks from 2000-2018 to reach the big leagues was 810 days. For high school players? 1,458 days or nearly two years longer than their college counterparts. Those are two extra years that the Phillies, in the midst of a 1-3 year window of contention, don’t have to waste. Furthermore, the study found that college players didn’t just progress to the majors faster than high schoolers, but that big league production was closely correlated with moving quickly through the minor leagues. If the Phillies had taken a college pitcher instead of Painter, not only would he be able to contribute far earlier, but the organization would be able to tell if they had a future starter on their hands in a matter of three years or less. For high school pitchers like Painter, their progression through the minor leagues looks to be far longer and much more ambiguous.
It’s not as if there weren’t any strong college pitchers to choose from. Just ask the Mets, who landed Vanderbilt standout Kumar Rocker at 10th overall or the Atlanta Braves who drafted Wake Forest pitcher Ryan Cusik 24th overall, whom they plan on fast-tracking to the Major Leagues any way necessary. Atlanta, a perennial contender, is an old-hat when it comes to drafting and developing college pitchers — last year they drafted another Wake Forest pitcher, Jared Shuster and their 2017 first round pick Kyle Wright, a pitcher out of Vanderbilt, is already in their rotation.
Overall, eight college pitchers were selected in the first round alone, the majority of which went to contending teams. The one that really stings? San Francisco’s selection of Mississippi State right-hander Will Bednar at 14th overall, one pick after the Phillies took Painter. Drafting college pitchers isn’t just for teams who want to bolster their farm system, it’s a practice that perennial contenders have a historical track record of doing. It’s a belief in the team’s ability to contend at a high-level and continue to do so while ushering in new talent, a sign of a unified front office.
Signing unnecessarily risky high school pitchers isn’t a tell of elite scouting, but rather one of pride and ego — of the scouting director pursuing a prospect that fits his ‘mold’ instead of what will help the team the most. It tells the team that you don’t believe in their immediate future enough to invest in a player that could contribute to their success. Morality aside, the results are in the numbers — teams play better when their front office believes in them. Perhaps Barber and the Phillies front office should give it a try.
Nine — years since the Phillies have posted a winning record, much less made the postseason. Seventy-four — more chances the Phillies have at proving their front office wrong by winning the division title. Three — of the Phillies first round draft picks since 2010 have established careers for themselves in Major League Baseball.
Baseball is a game of infallible numbers, played by fallible men — they reveal how much we care, tracking a man’s effort in a sport that is an exercise in failure. For the Philadelphia Phillies, no number is more revealing than twenty-two, the number of blown saves the team surrendered in the first half. Twenty-two, in turns out, is enough to make an organization lose faith in its current roster and turn back into its own ego, drafting players for a future that will never know this team’s toil. Twenty-two, apparently, is all the thanks that a manager gets for squeezing every last drop of excellence out of a poorly constructed roster all with the burden of nine years of a city’s broken dreams riding high on his back. Twenty-two is all you need to know to unveil the true nature of this Phillies team: That they are like heat lightning, striking down onto sun-scorched forests of the West in July — powerful bolts of electricity that bring light to our city, but could go up in flames at any moment. It’d be a real shame if a number like twenty-two is what sets them ablaze.