What Went Wrong in Philadelphia?
Pictured is 2021 NL MVP Bryce Harper - Photo via All-Pro Reels
*Stats are as of 5/30/2022
*All Opinions stated in this article are that of the individual author, and do not represent the whole of The Drummey Angle.
Coming into the season, the Phillies had the longest postseason drought in the National League. The last time they made the postseason in 2011, Twilight Breaking Dawn was the number one movie in America. Yeah, it has been that long since the Phils were playing in October.
Last season, the team had a lackluster year, finishing 82 - 80. Zack Wheeler had an incredible year, logging 213.1 innings and producing 7.6 bWAR. Ranger Suarez seemed to be a diamond in the rough, operating in a role between closer and starter. In addition, Bryce Harper won NL MVP after having an insane second half; it was the first time in recent memory that the MVP was not an All-Star - the last one I found was Jimmy Rollins in 2007. Overall, the club seemed to be on an upward trajectory when the season ended, capitalizing on having one of the easiest second-half schedules.
Fangraphs gave the Phillies a 62.6% chance of making the postseason at the start of the year. Many thought they would challenge the Mets and Braves for the top spot in the division, but so far, that team has yet to be seen.
Part of the blame, in my opinion, lies with the ownership group and, most importantly, Dave Dombrowski (the Phillies General Manager). This is not his first time in control of a large market team over the luxury tax. He is most well known for his time with the Detroit Tigers. He applied a philosophy that prioritized starting pitching depth and consistent hitting, sacrificing defense. From 2011 to 2014, the Tigers made it to the postseason after winning the division each year behind one of the league’s best pitching staffs and offenses. However, the Tigers could never get over the hump in the postseason using this philosophy. Often being shut out or plating less than 3 runs, these offenses were not able to provide adequate run support to the starting staff of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Robbie Ray, and David Price.
Why do I mention all this about the Tigers when we are talking about the Phillies? Simply put, Dombrowski brought the same playbook to Philadelphia. This offseason, he brought in Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber to beef up the top of the lineup that featured reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper. It is the only trio in the MLB to feature a WRC+ of more than 140 in 2021. He also tried to address the Achilles heel of last year, the bullpen, with the additions of Brad Hand, Corey Knebel, and Jeurys Familia. No additions were made to their starting staff. What seemed like a great offseason at the time has not led to the success Phillies fans have been dreaming of. Currently, the team sits at a 22.2% chance of making the playoffs.
Despite the starting staff not experiencing as much success as last season, it has not been the issue thus far. Zack Wheeler is again off to a strong start, currently leading the MLB in FIP at 2.38 while maintaining a 126 ERA+. Unfortunately, he is the only consistent star on that staff. Ranger Suarez and Aaron Nola have not been able to string together consistent starts. In 2021, Ranger Suarez was in the 96th percentile in xERA and xwOBA and 97th in xSLG. He was their secret weapon and a large part of their second-half success last year. This year, his xERA and xwOBA are in the 28th percentile, and his xSLG is in the 33rd percentile. Easy to say, he has regressed since last year. As for Aaron Nola, he is pitching like he has most of his career - showing flashes of being dominant but struggling to sustain that dominance. Kyle Gibson has been average, with nothing too crazy to write home about. Zach Eflin, on the other hand, has a large variance between his expected and actual stats. For example, his ERA is 4.61 versus his 2.51 xERA, which I suspect is a result of a poor defense behind him. As a whole, the Phillies starting staff has produced 6.3 fWAR this season, which ranks 5th among MLB teams. Once again, the starting rotation is not the reason they are floundering.
On to the real Achilles heel, the bullpen. The Phils have the 7th worst bullpen ERA in the MLB. To add to that, they also have the second-highest WHIP (1.47) of all MLB bullpens and have yielded the third-most walks (91) from these relievers. Arguably one of the most concerning stats, they have blown 5 of their 12 save opportunities. That is a conversion rate of 58.33%. For reference, Taylor Rogers of the San Diego Padres has converted 17 of his 19 save opportunities on the year. The Phillies are supposed to be a playoff team, considering they pushed all their chips in and spent beyond the luxury tax for the year. Therefore, it is fair to compare them to other teams who seem to be postseason bound, like the Padres. The inability of the Phillies to shut down opposing lineups to end games is a major problem. They are 7 games below .500, yet they have a +3 run differential. That is indicative of losing many close games and winning the other games by a significant margin. That falls on the bullpen. The starting rotation has been top 5 in the league, yet they are a sub .500 ballclub. Remember the free-agent signing of Corey Knebel I mentioned earlier? Well, he has not been that guy. He is currently experiencing one of the worst seasons of his career. He has a hard-hit rate of 47.5%, which is horrible, and an xERA of 4.05, the second-highest of his career. It is safe to say that was not a productive signing this offseason. Another bad signing was that of Jeurys Familia. The signing made no sense to begin with because he was never that special with the Mets. He currently is rocking a 51.9% hard-hit rate, which puts him in the lower 4th percentile of MLB pitchers, and a barrel rate that puts him in the bottom 6th percentile. That is very concerning, considering both of these relievers were expected to bolster the struggling bullpen, not weigh it down. The free agency duo thus far has allowed 20 runs, 16 of which were earned. To add insult to injury, Corey Knebel is the second most used guy in that bullpen, and Jeurys is the fourth most deployed reliever. To defend Knebel, he never was the closer when he was with the Dodgers, which could explain his struggles in the ninth inning. Familia, on the other hand, was the long-time Mets closer but was not a shut the door in your face kind of closer like this bullpen needed. However, like starting pitching, I think the defense behind them is a significant factor in the bullpen’s struggles.
It is hard for me to watch Phillies games because their defense is so bad. I know defense is not the end-all-be-all when it comes to value, but as a former center fielder who prided his game on defensive soundness, their fielding is horrendous. The Phillies are dead last in two of the most important defensive metrics, Outs Above Average and Defensive Runs Saved. Outs Above Average (OAA) aims to provide value for each defensive play a player makes. When it comes to measuring it for a whole team, they just add each player’s OAA together. As for the Phillies, they rank last in the MLB with a -20 value. Yeah, that is not what you want to see. Still not sold? Okay, let’s look at Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), which shows how much better than league average a player or team’s defense has been. The Phillies, yet again, are at the bottom of the league with an astounding 22 runs below league average. From Alec Bohm overthrowing first base three times in one game to players failing to keep the ball in front of them while backing up an overthrow, their defensive woes have earned them spots on Sportcenter’s Not Top 10 multiple times this year. It is fundamental baseball they are messing up, which grinds my gears. “Defense wins championships,” is a famous quote by Bear Bryant, but it seems that Dave Dombrowski thought he knew better. Well, let’s see how it plays out … sike, we have; it has failed multiple times.
Sure, the Phillies can roll out an absolutely horrific defense onto the field every day. But do they hit? The easy answer is yes, but, based on what I think Dave Dombrowski wanted when he constructed the lineup, they should be better. The Phils are top 10 in most offensive stats. They are 10th in batting average, 9th in both hits and runs, and 10th in wRC+. All in all, this is not a bad start to the year offensively. However, Big Dave wanted more, especially from free-agent signee Kyle Schwarber and former top 30 prospect Alec Bohm. Schwarber is a lethal bat when he is seeing the ball well, but when he is off, his production truly is a swing and a miss. His numbers live off of his power-hitting capabilities. Last season, he hit .291 with a .435 on-base percentage and an OPS+ of 155, all of which were career highs. To start the year, he is hitting .188, getting on base at a .305 clip, and rocking an OPS+ of 106. This is an extreme regression. The problem is his strikeout rate, which is 32% and puts him in the bottom 5th percentile of the league. Yikes. That is not what Big Dave paid for. Onto Alec Bohm, who is not having a bad year, but I think is producing less than what Dave was hoping for. For reference, in 2020 (yes, the Mickey Mouse season) he was runner up for NL ROY. He slashed .338/.400/.881 in 44 games. Bohm was a top 30 prospect in the MLB pipeline going into the 2020 season, so the expectations for him were high. Now, as of writing this, he is 47 games into the 2022 season and his slash line is .269/.308/.679. Bohm maintained a Weighted Runs Created+ north of 100 for most of his time in the minors and his first year in the majors. Since then, he has struggled to hit for power like he previously has. Bohm is sitting at an 89 wRC+ this season. He needs to find that power stroke that made him such a coveted prospect. For reference, he was evaluated as a 60/60 raw power, which means the guy has some pop. Dave built this lineup on one thing - power hitting. That gamble makes sense: power hitting is the key to success at this point in the MLB. Just look at the Giants last year. It is why they won 107 games. But thus far, his gamble has not paid off, as Schwarber and Bohm, two of the shiny power bats, are not performing as Ol’ Dave hoped.
When answering the question of what went wrong with this preseason favorite to make the postseason, I could give you the obvious answer and say bad defense and weak bullpen, but I won’t. Dave Dombrowski’s philosophy is what has driven this team off course. It is quite clear that his approach of strengthening offense and starting pitching while sacrificing the defense and bullpen has failed yet again. Who knows, I might have jumped ship too soon when it comes to this team, but I highly doubt that. Being dead last in the two most important defensive metrics is not a recipe for success, and neither is converting save opportunities at a 58.33% clip. For this team to make it to the postseason, they need to be adding two relievers at the deadline and a defensive-minded veteran to change the attitude when it comes to fielding. Until then, enjoy the errors and postseason drought.