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3 words to describe the Phillies first half

With the season half over, we still don’t really know how good these Phillies can be.

Philadelphia Phillies v Miami Marlins Photo by Sam Navarro/Getty Images

As the Phillies boarded various charter flights from Miami following their 7-3 loss on Sunday that wrapped up the first half of their NL pennant defense, it was reasonable for them and their fans to feel uncertain over where the team is headed.

Despite multiple positional stars having subpar seasons, their top two starters completing uneven first halves and a schedule that featured the most road games in baseball, the Phillies hit the unofficial halfway point at 48-41, on pace for 87 wins this season. Yep, that’s the same number as last season when the Phils snuck in as the National League’s third wild card team.

This year, they enter the break a half-game outside the wild card picture, trailing the San Francisco Giants, with Arizona 2.5 and Miami three games ahead of them. The Phils had a chance to draw within a half-game of the Marlins over the weekend, but subpar performances from Ranger Suarez, Aaron Nola and the disappearing-reappearing offense left a 4-2 road trip feeling hollower than it should have.

Make no mistake, the Phils finished up their first half schedule playing some pretty good baseball. After starting 25-32, the Phils went 23-9 since June 2, good for a .719 winning percentage. Struggles against teams within their division have held them back, just 9-15 against the NL East (they’re 2-4 vs. the Marlins, Braves and Mets and 3-3 vs. the Nationals), but few teams have benefitted more from additional interleague play, going 19-10 against the American League. Only Miami (20-7) and Atlanta (20-15) have more wins against the AL.

But the Phillies have left a lot of meat on the bone. Many of their offensive stars have struggled to hit consistently, and the performances of Nola and Zack Wheeler have been below their usual standards. With a run differential of +9 that indicates an expected win-loss record of 45-44, it’s actually kind of amazing they are where they are.

Given the swirling headwinds, it’s understandable the fanbase is confused about what they’ve seen and what it means for the season’s final two-and-a-half months. On Twitter, I asked fans to describe how they feel about this team at the All-Star Break and many were fairly optimistic, far from the doom and gloom you usually see on Twitter.

But overall, fans were in a mood to grumble, especially with the way they finished the Marlins series after a thrilling sweep of the Rays and their dramatic, 9th-inning victory on Friday against the Fish.

It’s entirely fair to say the vast majority of the Phillies “stars” didn’t shine. While Bryce Harper miraculously returned from Tommy John surgery faster than any player in baseball history, his home run drought has been astonishing. Since homering on May 25, Harper has gone 36 games without a dinger, the longest stretch of his career. Of course, no one was even expecting him back until about now, and his .359 OBP over that time has been useful, but there’s no doubt his .677 OPS isn’t his typical production. Still, it’s at least understandable why he’s not jacking taters out of the yard like his usual self. One would think the power will come.

Trea Turner’s .247/.299/.389 slash line is far below his career norms, and his 1.5 fWAR just isn’t good enough. He’s had minimal impact in far too many games this year and, to be honest, his defense hasn’t been all that great, either. J.T. realmuto is slashing .249/.307/.460, but with a wRC+ of 101, he’s barely been an above league average offensive player at his position, and his struggles with runners in scoring position (.184) have been profound.

Kyle Schwarber’s 22 home runs lead the team, but a .184 batting average is simply ghastly, but at least it’s consistent with his .183 average with RISP. Yeah, cover your eyes.

One major area of concern is the lack of power.

Their 99 home runs rank just 18th in baseball, with just five of them coming with multiple runners on base.

Only All-Star Nick Castellanos has had the kind of season one would expect from a player of his caliber, with a .301/.344/.496 slash line that has remained consistent all season long. And thank goodness for the Day Care. Bryson Stott leads the team with 1.9 fWAR, sporting a .301/.338/.422 line, Brandon Marsh is 2nd at 1.8, with a .275/.349/.450 slash, and Alec Bohm is hitting .280/.328/.426.

Perhaps it was the frustration of watching them hit with runners in scoring position night after night, not knowing which Aaron Nola or Zack Wheeler would show up, or the brutal first month of Taijuan Walker and Suarez’ 2023 seasons, but some fans see whatever success the team had in the first half as a mirage.

We already discussed Schwarber, so let’s talk about the pitching. The catalyst for their 23-9 stretch was outstanding performances by the rotation. After Friday’s win over the Marlins, the Phils had posted a 2.80 ERA over their previous 30 games, the best stretch by any pitching staff over any 30 games this year.

But there’s no doubt Nola’s struggles put a pall over much of it. He’s allowed 20 home runs this season, one more than he did all of last year. Despite one of the lowest on-base percentages allowed this season and dominant performances sprinkled in against very good teams (Houston, Atlanta, Tampa), none of it matters if you leave pitches over the middle of the plate for hitters to mash. His 4.39 ERA is only slightly worse, however, than Wheeler’s 4.05, although Wheer’s 2.83 FIP and 3.38 xERA are far friendlier than Nola’s 4.34 and 3.53, respectively.

If Nola and Wheeler can’t produce better results in the box score, can the Phillies pile up enough wins in the second half, especially if the offense doesn’t improve?

So where is this all leading?

Despite all the negatives, there are reasons for optimism. Unlike the Mets, Padres and Cardinals, the Phillies are a ‘22 postseason team that is actually not cratering. Because they’ve already piled up 51 road games, they will play 42 of their last 73 at home (57.5%). They will not play a game outside the eastern time zone until September, play no more than six games on the road at any one stretch, and are done with their treks to California, save for one trip to San Diego in the season’s final month. They also have the 12th-easiest strength of schedule ahead, with a combined opponents’ winning percentage of .500. The other wild card contenders all have a tougher road, with the Marlins’ remaining .515 opponents’ winning percentage giving them the 4th-toughest schedule the rest of the way.

If the Phillies get slight improvements from their underperforming superstars while losing little from the Day Care and the continued health and effectiveness of the bullpen, there’s no reason the Phils can’t stay red hot and challenge for the top wild card spot in the National League.

Maybe these four days will recharge some batteries.