Superb in second half, what's behind Phillies' surprising hot streak?
Heading into Tuesday’s action, two teams are tied for the best record in baseball since the All-Star break. Both have gone 16–6 for a .727 winning percentage in the second half, and both made news over that span by executing multiple deals, including at least one high-profile one, prior to the July 31 trade deadline. One is the Blue Jays. The other is the Phillies.
Yes, Philadelphia—the team that, when the All-Star break arrived, was 21 games out of first place in the majors’ weakest division and on pace to lose 110 games—is tied for the best record in baseball over the last 3 1/2 weeks. This raises two questions: How on earth has this happened, and are there reasons for Phillies fans to be genuinely encouraged by their team's recent showing?
There are multiple answers to the first of those questions, but this is not a complete fluke. The Phillies are playing way over their heads, but over those 22 games, they have outscored their opponents 113–86, which translates to a .622 Pythagorean winning percentage, which is still sixth-best in the majors over that span (behind the Jays, Cardinals, Yankees, Astros and Giants, all legitimate contenders). On a per-game basis, the Phillies have scored 5.1 runs per game since the break and allowed just 3.9. The latter figure is better than league average, albeit only marginally, but the former is a huge outlier. On the season, no National League team has scored more than the Rockies’ 4.6 runs per game, and only the Jays (there they are again) have bettered five runs per game.
So why is Philadelphia scoring so many runs all of a sudden? It has less to do with any out-sized individual performances than a series of more gradual up-swings throughout the top six spots in the lineup. Rule 5 centerfielder Odubel Herrera is especially hot, hitting .371/.405/.543 since the All-Star break thanks in large part to a .436 batting average on balls in play. But consider what the five men around him in the Phillies' lineup have done over that span relative to the performance the team received at their positions in the first half. (Note: GPA, or Gross Production Average, is an improvement on OPS that combines on-base percentage and slugging percentage and gives added weight to the former, then places the result on the batting average scale.)
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Note that those second-half performances aren't spectacular, but relative to the first-half production at each position, they are significant and, in several cases, dramatic improvements. Add in Herrera, who is once again an everyday player with Ben Revere having been traded to Toronto, and two-thirds of the Phillies’ lineup is responsible for their recent success.
Of course, there’s more to it than that. Philadelphia allowed 5.1 runs per game in the first half, so how has the team given up just 3.9 since the All-Star break despite the fact that its best first-half pitchers—starters Cole Hamels and Aaron Harang and closer Jonathan Papelbon—have been either hurt or were traded?
Again, it’s less about any one player than about a general team-wide improvement. Most significantly, the Phillies’ bullpen has gone 6–0 with a 2.61 ERA in the second half and averaged nearly 3 2/3 innings pitched per game. That’s a huge contribution that has helped the team win all three of its extra-inning games in the second half. Leading the way has been Ken Giles, who replaced Papelbon as closer after the latter was traded to the Nationals. Giles has picked up a save in each of his last six appearances and struck out exactly half of the batters he has faced (12 of 24) in his last five games. Luis Garcia has been outstanding, as well, not allowing a run to score on his watch over his last eight appearances. Jeanmar Gomez has been nearly as impressive in middle relief, providing length where needed, including two perfect innings in the Phillies’ 12-inning win over the Padres on Friday. Rookie Hector Neris has been similarly good in the second half, working his way into higher-leverage innings but also proving capable of multiple-inning outings, and lefty Elvis Araujo hasn’t allowed a hit in 6 2/3 second-half innings.
All five of those relievers are in their 20s, ranging from a pair of 24-year-olds in Giles and Araujo to the 28-year-old Garcia. However, the most encouraging pitching performance the Phillies have received in the second half has come from top prospect Aaron Nola.
Nola made his major league debut with a quality start loss against the Rays on July 21 (6 IP, 1 R, 1 BB, 6 K), but the Phillies have won all three of his starts since. Nola has managed just one more quality start in those three turns, but he has pitched well each time out, and his aggregate performance bodes well for future success. Having just turned 22 in June, Nola boasts a 4.20 strikeout-to-walk ratio after his first four major league starts and an ERA better than league average (3.65, good for a 106 ERA+). He has yet to walk more than two men in a start and likely would have had a third quality start two turns ago had the Phillies not opted to lift him after five innings, 88 pitches and a long half-inning on the bench in a lopsided game.
Fellow rookie starter Adam Morgan, a 25-year-old lefty non-prospect, has not been as impressive, but he has been a valuable part of the Phillies’ second-half success, with the team going 4–1 in his starts as he has turned in three quality starts in five turns and a 3.90 ERA. Veteran Jerome Williams has also pitched well enough to help the Phillies win; since he returned from a hamstring strain on July 24, he's posted a 3.57 ERA, and the team has gone 3–1 in his four starts.
But while the Phillies are playing better across the board, they have also benefited somewhat from a soft schedule. Of their 22 second-half games, 10 have come against the Marlins, Braves and Padres—all of whom ranked 25th or lower in our latest Power Rankings—and Philadelphia has gone 9–1 against those three teams. The Phillies have still gone 7–5 against their other opponents over that span, but only one of those series had a fully unexpected result: a sweep of the Cubs in Chicago in late July, and the middle game of that series was none other than Hamels’s no-hitter. Philadelphia took two of three at home from the slumping Rays in late July in a close, low-scoring series that concluded with a 10th-inning walkoff; split a two-game set against the Jays just before the deadline, losing the one game in that series in which Troy Tulowitzki participated; dropped two of three to the Dodgers last week; and lost the opener of their series against the Diamondbacks on Monday night. Those results aren't unusual.
So while the Phillies’ hot streak has not necessarily been a fluke, it is also not an indication that the Phillies are suddenly a good team. With very few exceptions, the performances that have propelled their recent success represent the performance ceilings of many of their players. Howard, for example, hasn’t had a full-season on-base or slugging percentage as high as his marks over the last 22 games since 2011, while Brown will turn 28 in two weeks. The samples involved in every case are absurdly small, and even with those performances, the Phillies are now just 4–4 over their last eight games and only a half-game better than the Marlins in the overall standings.
It’s certainly encouraging that the team’s best players are the 22-year-old Franco (though he’ll likely have to move to first base to maximize his potential), the 24-year-old Giles and the 22-year-old Nola, but it will be years before a quality team coalesces around those youngsters, if one ever does. Still, there are finally some reasons for optimism among Phillies fans. Shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford could join those three in the majors next year. The team did well in finally cashing in Hamels, acquiring three notable prospects in outfielder Nick Williams, catcher Jorge Alfaro, and righty Jake Thompson. Assuming they continue to cool off from their early second-half surge, they are very likely to land the top pick in next year’s draft.
With Andy MacPhail—who helped turn around the Twins in the late 1980s, the Cubs in the late ‘90s and the Orioles at the turn of the last decade—taking charge of baseball operations as the incoming team president, the Phillies just might pull off an effective rebuild over the next several seasons. Their hot start to the second-half, however, is ultimately nothing more than just that, a brief hot streak by a bad baseball team.