Early June is the first major checkpoint in the Major League Baseball season. It’s the time of the year when pretenders and contenders begin to separate and front offices around the sport start preparing for the trade deadline — the second major checkpoint of the year.
As executives around the league begin to do their homework on whether or not they will be buyers or sellers roughly eight weeks from now, players have to either put up or shut up to ensure the executives who run their clubs make the right decisions at the deadline.
One of the teams that has its executives really doing their homework is the Philadelphia Phillies. While it is unlikely president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and Co. make any major selling or buying moves at this year’s trade deadline, they do find themselves in an odd spot.
The reigning National League champions are 27-32 through their first 59 games of 2023. That record puts them in fourth place in the NL East — eight games behind the first-place Atlanta Braves. At 27-32, the Phillies are also four-and-a-half games out of the third Wild Card spot in the NL — the spot they clinched last season.
Rob Thomson’s squad finds itself in a similar position that it did a year ago. The 2022 Phillies posted a 10-18 record in May, while the 2023 Phillies had a 10-16 record in the season’s second month. Through 59 games last year, Philadelphia was 30-29 after a 21-29 start to the year.
So, with the team playing underwhelming baseball a little more than two months into the season again, how did the Phillies get here this time?
Before diving into the team’s pitching staff and lineup, it is important to take a look at how many runs they’ve scored and allowed since run differential is a good indicator of how a team should be performing.
The Phillies have scored 252 runs through their first 59 games and have allowed 288 — “good” for a -36 run differential. Their Pythagorean win-loss record, which uses a team’s runs scored and runs allowed to estimate what their record should be, is 26-33.
So Philadelphia is neither an underachiever nor an overachiever. Instead, they are right on par with their 27-32 record.
Philadelphia’s pitching staff was supposed to be relatively deep at the big league level in 2023. The rotation was set to be headlined by co-aces Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, Ranger Suárez and Taijuan Walker were supposed to settle into the middle of the rotation, and a combination of top pitching prospect Andrew Painter and lefty Bailey Falter was supposed to fill the fifth spot in the rotation.
In the bullpen, José Alvarado and Seranthony Domínguez were scheduled to be the club’s high-leverage relievers. Offseason acquisitions Matt Strahm, Craig Kimbrel, and Gregory Soto were set to be used in a variety of situations based on matchups and the availability of others.
Injuries tested the team’s rotation early in the year. Both Painter and Suárez went down with arm issues in spring training. That thrust Nola, Wheeler, and Walker into the top three spots of Philly’s rotation as Falter and Strahm were put in the fourth and fifth slots.
Nola, Wheeler, and Walker have all had rough starts to the year. Entering play on June 5, they’ve each made 12 starts and all have ERAs north of 4.25. Nola (4.40) and Walker (5.39) deserve to be where they’re at when looking at FIP, but Wheeler (2.85) seems to be a bit unlucky.
Falter struggled early this year and is currently in Triple-A. Strahm looked good as a starter and has continued that as a reliever. He has a 3.05 ERA in 16 total appearances with 53 strikeouts.
Suárez has returned from his injury and has made five starts. His first three were not great — allowing 12 earned runs in 11 innings. However, his last two starts have been much better as he allowed three earned runs over 13 2/3 innings.
Outside of a rough start to 2023, the club’s relievers have been very good. Alvarado started the year off as the best reliever in baseball before being put on the injured list in early May. The lefty posted a 0.63 ERA with 24 strikeouts in 14 appearances. As for Domínguez, after a bad start to the season — he allowed seven earned runs in his first five appearances — the right-hander has looked much more like himself of late. The Dominican-born reliever has surrendered just two earned runs in his last 21 outings.
Both Kimbrel and Soto have high ERAs but have been solid for the most part. Kimbrel has allowed one or no runs in 21 of his 24 appearances. Soto has 22 scoreless outings out of his season total of 27.
Altogether, the Phillies’ pitching staff has a 4.58 ERA — 23rd in baseball. However, if you look a little deeper into their numbers, they have been much better than that number would suggest.
They are 10th in walk rate (8.3 percent), 11th in strikeout rate (23.4 percent), 11th in home runs allowed (62), ninth in FIP (4.04), and ninth in SIERA (4.02).
Philadelphia’s pitchers also have the fourth-lowest average exit velocity (88.3 miles per hour) and hard-hit rate (37.0 percent) against them. That has helped result in the sixth-lowest barrel rate against a group of pitchers (7.4 percent) in the majors.
Now, the sweet spot rate against Phillies pitchers is 24th in baseball (34.8 percent), however, most of their numbers suggest they have been good at controlling what they can — walks, strikeouts, home runs, and overall quality of contact. With that, looking at the team’s defensive numbers provides more clarity as to why they’ve given up the ninth most runs in baseball.
Through June 4, Philadelphia’s defense has been one of the worst in the sport. Their minus-eight outs above average is 24th and their minus-18 defensive runs saved is 27th. That, along with the new shift rule, has likely helped lead to 8.7 hits per nine innings allowed by Philly pitchers — which is the ninth-highest in baseball — and the seventh-highest batting average on balls in play (.306) against a team’s pitchers.
All in all, the pitching hasn’t been great. But, it hasn’t always been the pitchers’ fault due to poor defense and the occasional bad luck — which happens to all pitchers.
Regardless of that fact, Nola, Wheeler, Walker, and Suárez all need to find a way to get going. As for the bullpen, they’ve been Philadelphia’s strength for most of the year. Since April 16, Phillies relievers have combined for the lowest ERA (2.82) and FIP (3.28) in the big leagues. And with Alvarado set to return soon, they should only get stronger.
Last year the Phillies were a top-ten scoring offense. They were also top ten in a number of other offensive categories such as home runs and wOBA. This year has been a different story, though, as through their first 59 games they’re 23rd in runs scored (252), 18th in home runs (64), and 13th in wOBA (.321).
As a team, they strike out a lot and don’t walk much, either. Their team strikeout rate of 23.9 percent is the eighth-highest in the majors and their 8.1 percent walk rate is 25th. Both of those numbers can be related to how often the Phillies’ lineup swings at pitches outside of the strike zone. Philly’s 31.6 O-Swing percentage as a team is the fifth-highest in the majors. As a result of swinging at pitches outside of the zone on a regular basis, they are seeing just 49.8 percent of the pitches they face in the strike zone — the seventh-lowest rate in the big leagues.
Altogether, Philadelphia is slashing .257/.321/.418 and averaging 4.27 runs per game through June 4 — league average is 4.54 runs per game. The club’s 103 OPS+ suggests they are only slightly above a league-average offense. Their batting average with runners in scoring position has been a problem all year too, as it has been one of the worst in baseball.
So, while looking at those numbers, one would think the Phillies’ offense had a lot of turnover after last season. However, that is not the case. The only bat they are missing is Rhys Hoskins — who tore his left ACL toward the end of spring training. And even Bryce Harper, who underwent Tommy John surgery in late November, made the speediest recovery known to man and returned to the lineup in early May — 160 days after surgery. The front office even went out this past winter and added to the club’s already star-studded lineup by inking Trea Turner to an 11-year, $300 million contract.
It is clear that with the amount of talent on the roster, there are a number of players underperforming. Kyle Schwarber has been about a league-average hitter all year despite his 15 home runs. J.T. Realmuto was Philadelphia’s best hitter down the stretch in 2022 and he has a 105 OPS+ through the first 59 games of the 2023 season. Bryson Stott and Alec Bohm were supposed to take steps forward this year, but they haven’t, as both of them are right below league-average hitters with an OPS+ of 99. And to make matters worse, their $300-million shortstop has been their worst hitter. Turner has been chasing a career-high number of pitches outside of the strike zone amid posting an unimpressive 76 OPS+ through June 4.
That has left Nick Castellanos, Brandon Marsh, and Harper as Philadelphia’s top hitters. Castellanos is looking like himself after a bad first year in red pinstripes. The veteran right fielder is slashing .316/.360/.498 with seven home runs, a .369 wOBA, and 135 OPS+. Marsh has become more patient at the plate this year and it has resulted in a .369 on-base percentage. The young center fielder also has a 128 OPS+. And Harper hasn’t missed a beat since his return with a 139 OPS+ in 124 plate appearances and a .298/.403/.462 slash line.
Overall, things haven’t been going great, or even good, for the Phillies lineup. Despite a 20.6 percent line drive rate and 34.2 percent sweet spot rate — both of which are 12th among big league teams — the lineup hasn’t been able to drive the baseball as they did a year ago. Their average exit velocity of 89.1 miles per hour is 17th in the game, while the club’s 38.9 hard hit percentage is 19th and 8.0 barrel percentage is 18th.
Warmer weather is coming — meaning balls with start to travel further. It also means some guys could be reaching a turning point in their season. June is Schwarber’s best statistical month historically. Realmuto started off slow at the plate last year, too, and went on to be one of the game’s best hitters from July 1 through the end of the season. And Turner’s track record is too strong to think he won’t turn his season around.
Needless to say, if multiple guys can get going all at once, the Phillies lineup could, once again, become one of the best in baseball.
Even though the Phillies have been here before, they know it’s not good to dig themselves into this type of hole. But, the club doesn’t seem too worried about their struggles and isn’t close to hitting the panic button. After all, they’ve been here before and know what it takes to turn things around.
It won’t be easy. It wasn’t last season. However, there is seemingly too much talent on the Phillies roster for them to not at least make a push for the postseason once again.
With roughly two-thirds of the season left, anything is possible — from making the playoffs to everyone continuing to say, “They’ll figure it out” until it’s too late.
NOTE: All statistics in the article are accurate before play on Monday, June 5.
Featured Photo: Twitter / @Phillies