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Hittin’ Season #560: Grading key Phillies at the one-quarter mark

We’re a quarter of the way through a disappointing season.

Los Angeles Dodgers v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The 2022 Philadelphia Phillies season is already 25% complete.

It seems like it was just yesterday we were watching with baited breath as MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and a cadre of owners repeatedly marched back and forth across a Florida parking lot to meet with players union representatives and hash out a collective bargaining agreement that enabled this season to begin. And, while it started late, it’s incredible that we’re already a quarter of the way through the season.

Of course, for the Phillies, things could have gone better.

Following their 7-3 win over the Braves in Atlanta, the Phillies are 20-22, once again rotating around that gas giant known as .500 that sits in the middle of their universe. They are eight games behind the Mets in the NL East, but just 2.5 back in the wild card race.

They have been disappointing, although their +15 run differential and expected win-loss record of 23-19 indicates they’ve suffered some bad luck through their first 42 games. The starting rotation started slowly, with Zack Wheeler and Ranger Suarez getting a late start in spring training, but has generally been decent. The bullpen has been largely disappointing, but with some nice surprises, too. But the offense has been the biggest head scratcher, seemingly incapable of scoring at home while becoming one of the most dominant offensive road teams in the league.

So as we sit at the quarter pole, let’s quickly grade certain players/aspects of the Phillies thus far.

The Lineup

Several key members of the lineup have underperformed relative to expectations. Kyle Schwarber has 10 HRs, second-most in the National League, but is hitting just .200 with a wRC+ of 112 that is tied for 40th out of 86 qualified NL players. Nick Castellanos has just five dingers this year and a wRC+ of 109 that is tied for 45th with teammate Rhys Hoskins. And after getting off to a hot start, Alec Bohm’s wRC+ is down to 106, 49th in the NL. The Phillies need Schwarber, Hoskins and Castellanos to be well above league average, not just barely.

Only Bryce Harper (7th) and Jean Segura (20th) are in the top-20 among NL hitters in wRC+. Center field and shortstop continue to be a black hole, and J.T. Realmuto’s struggles (75 wRC+, T-73), have been damaging as well. They also have yet to figure out the leadoff spot, with leadoff batters hitting .176 so far this season, 2nd-lowest in the Majors.

It’s hard to know how much of their struggles have been issues with the baseball (particularly at home) and their very difficult schedule thus far. They’ve scored 0 or 1 runs a staggering 11 times this season, but also scored 6 or more runs 15 times. They’re 6th in the NL in total runs scored, and are 3rd in Statcast’s Hard-Hit%.

They probably should have better results to show for their efforts, but this is a results-oriented game, and it’s hard to argue they’ve been anything better than average.

Schwarber (D+), Castellanos (C), Hoskins (C-), Bohm (B), Harper (B+), Segura (B+), Realmuto (D), everyone else: some combination of C and D.

Overall Grade: C

Starting Rotation

According to Fangraphs, the Phillies currently have the best rotation in the NL. With 4.6 fWAR, they are tops in the league, with the Brewers (4.4), Mets (4.2) and Padres (4.1) the only other teams above 4.0 fWAR.

That’s pretty encouraging and there are reasons to be optimistic, none more than Zack Wheeler’s continued dominance. In his first three starts, he was essentially still in spring training mode, and it showed. He had an 8.53 ERA in just 12.2 innings and was striking out just 7.82 batters per nine. In his last five starts, he’s gone 32.2 innings and put up a 1.38 ERA with 11.02 K/9. Any questions about whether he could duplicate his Cy Young caliber season last year have been answered.

Aaron Nola’s and Zach Eflin’s peripherals continue to vary wildly from their actual counting stats. For Nola, his 11.01 K/9, 1.72 BB/9, 50.8% GB, and xERA of 2.72 are all great, quite a bit better than his actual ERA of 3.96. In his last start, the two-strike, two-out runs were a problem once again as he blew a 4-1 lead, and no one knows what he’s going to do from start-to-start. Eflin’s numbers are even more eye-popping (3.65 ERA, 2.19 xERA), the main reason why he’s second on the team in fWAR (1.0) behind Wheeler (1.5). Kyle Gibson has been consistent and fine (3.98 ERA). while Suarez has been a typical No. 5 starter.

Overall, this has been the part of the team that has overperformed the most. While you’d like better results than what Nola and Eflin have gotten, all they can do is trust the process and hope the results will follow. And, stop giving out two-strike home runs.

Wheeler (B+), Nola (B), Eflin (B), Gibson (B), Suarez (C-)

Overall Grade: B

The Bullpen

The Phillies have a closer problem.

Corey Knebel had a nice outing last night against Atlanta, but he’s not the dominant 9th inning guy a playoff team needs to close out games. Heading into Monday, among 27 MLB pitchers with at least 4 saves this year, Knebel’s K/9 of 7.94 was 3rd lowest, and only six pitchers had a higher BB/9 than his 4.24. His 20.8% K-rate was also 141st out of 213 qualified relievers, with much of the damage coming against a curveball that has been much less effective than in years past. Last year, Knebel’s K/9 was 10.52, with a 29.7% strikeout percentage. That’s a significant drop, and not what the Phillies thought they were getting when they signed him.

The bullpen’s biggest problem is free passes, a cardinal sin for relievers. Their 4.84 BB/9 is the highest in baseball, while their 9.50 K/9 is just middle-of-the-pack, 7th in the National League. Perhaps Seranthony Dominguez deserves another shot as closer. His 0.5 fWAR is highest in the ‘pen, slightly better than Knebel’s 0.4, with an 11.34 K/9 and 2.16 ERA that looks a lot more like what you would want from a closer.

One of the newcomers, lefty Brand Hand, has a 1.74 ERA, but an insanely high 7.84 BB/9 and an xERA of 4.79. Very weird. Jeurys Familia has drawn the ire of Phils fans for his inconsistency, dead last with a -0.2 fWAR and a 4.62 ERA. Jose Alvarado’s numbers are insane (5.84 BB/9, 12.41 K/9, 7.30 ERA, 3.05 xERA), and Nick Nelson has been fine for what he is (a long man, mop-up guy). The brightest surprise has been Andrew Bellatti who, in 11.1 innings, has 2.38 ERA and has struck out a team high 13.50 batters per nine this year.

But like the rest of the team, overall, the ‘pen has just been average, at least by the rest of the league’s standards. Their 4.06 ERA is 9th in the NL, and 1.2 fWAR is tied for 6th. Average results, average grade.

Knebel (C-), Dominguez (B+), Hand (C), Familia (D-), Alvarado (D+), Nelson (C), Bellatti (B+), Brogdon (C+), everyone else C-D.

Overall Grade: C

Defense

There’s only so much Bobby Dickerson can do, although we should note that after seemingly getting the yips early in the season, Alec Bohm has done a nice job at third base of late and, with Didi Gregorius out of the lineup, Bryson Stott and Johan Camargo have been good at shortstop. Even Rhys Hoskins has done OK at first.

Yet, the Phillies’ defense is dead last in Defensive Runs Saved (-22!!!) and are 4th-worst in Outs Above Average (-12). No one should be surprised by the numbers from the usual suspects: Bohm (-6 DRS), Castellanos (-4), Gregorius (-4), Schwarber (-3) and Odubel Herrera (-2). Harper having to play DH all season has forced Schwarber and Castellanos onto the field everyday, not an ideal situation.

But this team wasn’t built for defense and we knew that, so I’m grading on a curve, here. It hasn’t been a nightmare, which is all we could ask for. They’re just a bunch of good boys trying their best.

Grade: C-

Manager

Do I think Joe Girardi is failing at his job? No. Do I know that Dusty Wathan or Rob Thomson could come in and make anything different happen? No. Do I think that changing the manager would shake up the clubhouse? Probably. Would that help them win more games? Probably not.

Girardi has his critics. Some say there is no accountability for players who underperform, that there have been too many different lineups, that relievers are used at the wrong times, and players are sat and started at odd times. There doesn’t feel to be a sense of urgency with this team and there is no carry-over from one day to the next, although how much of that comes from the manager? Do we want a manager like Larry Bowa or Dallas Green? Would that be best?

I dunno. It’s hard to know how much managers effect things. I think you have to grade Girardi on how his team has performed this year and, so far, it’s below expectations. The grade should reflect as such.

Grade: C-

So, that’s how things are shaping up at the one-quarter mark of the 2022 season. Importantly, three-quarters of the season remain and, while I would like to believe that each season is a unique season unto itself, it’s hard not to remember the failures of 2018, ‘19 and ‘20 when one projects what might happen over the last four months of this year.

There is hope that, as the schedule eases in June and beyond and the summer months reduce the effect of the humidors around baseball, that the Phils will actually start hitting the ball at home. The trade deadline will offer Dombrowski an opportunity to shore up any areas that might be lacking. Maybe Mickey Moniak comes up and solves the center field issue, and maybe Bryson Stott can take command of shortstop.

There’s a long way to go and we talked all about it on the latest episode of Hittin’ Season, so please check it out!