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For Phillies, surprising hot start raises hopes for even better future

Expected to be a doormat, the Phillies are instead surprising the league with an unexpected winning record—one they can credit to a strong rotation.

On the heels of three straight losing seasons and a regime change, the rebuilding Phillies were expected to be doormats this season. But on Sunday, they completed their second series sweep in a row, winning their third straight one-run game against the Indians at Citizens Bank Park—that after stifling the Nationals in Washington. At 15–10, Philadelphia is off to its best start since 2011, the year the team won a franchise-record 102 games and the last season that it made the playoffs. Just what in the name of Ruben Amaro Jr. is going on?

Thus far, it's been a matter of strong run prevention propping up an abysmal offense. The Phillies' 3.92 runs per game allowed is the league's fifth-lowest rate, more than half a run better than the league average of 4.49 runs per game. On the other side of the ball, their offense is wheezing along at a league-low 3.28 runs per game. That's right: They've been outscored by a hefty 16 runs, 98–82. Despite being tied with the Pirates for the NL's fourth-best record, they have the league's sixth-worst run differential. Philadelphia has gone a sizzling 8–2 in one-run games—that after going 16–27 in such games last year, when the team finished 63–99—but is 0–4 in games decided by five or more runs. The Phillies have been outscored 35–5 with two losses apiece against the Nationals and Mets, both of whom are ahead of them in the NL East standings, as expected.

Given their subpar run differential, the Phillies are an MLB-high 4.4 wins above their .422 Pythagorean winning percentage (their projected record based upon runs scored and runs allowed). That .422 mark outranks only the Padres (.378), Brewers (.349), Reds and Braves (both at .300)—three of the NL's four other teams who are in one phase of a rebuilding program or another (San Diego is in more of a post-roster shakeup hangover), with the Rockies (12–12 with a .478 Pythagorean winning percentage) the other such team off to a better-than-expected start.

Indeed, the presence of so many teams taking a page from the recent success of the Astros and Cubs in turning around their fortunes means that the Phillies might not wind up bottoming out to the expected extent, though to be fair, they already own the No. 1 pick of the 2016 draft. With regression expected sooner or later, they should still be in competition for a high pick in 2017, if not another No. 1. To date, the Phillies have gone 5–2 against the Padres and Brewers, though they were swept by the Reds in the season-opening series. Where they really stand to pile up some wins is against the Braves, who are off to an MLB-worst 6–18 start and still have all 19 games against their division rivals ahead.

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As to the specifics of the Phillies’ success, Sunday’s six shutout innings from Vince Velasquez underscored the quality of a rotation whose starters took just 36 turns for the team last year (15 from Adam Morgan, 13 from Aaron Nola, eight from Jerad Eickhoff), with palookas such as Aaron Harang and Jerome Williams no longer in the picture. Acquired from the Astros in the 5-for-2 Ken Giles blockbuster last December, the 23-year-old Velazquez has whiffed 39 batters (against just 10 walks) in 31 1/3 innings, carrying a 1.44 ERA and delivering four quality starts out of five; he’s pitched shutout ball in three of them, including a 16-strikeout, no-walk, complete-game whitewashing of the Padres on April 14. Nola, their 2014 first-round pick, has a 3.55 ERA, 2.55 FIP and 10.1 strikeouts per nine in five starts this year. Eickhoff, acquired from the Rangers in the Cole Hamels deal last July, has a 4.15 ERA, 2.84 FIP and 9.5 strikeouts per nine. Even Jeremy Hellickson, the former AL Rookie of the Year acquired from the Diamondbacks in a trade for teenage hurler Sam McWilliams this past winter, has struck out 9.7 per nine, up from 7.5 last year and 6.7 for his career. As a group, the unit’s 10.2 strikeouts-per-nine rate is the majors’ best, its 2.89 FIP and 3.40 ERA are both third in the league, and its 56% quality start rate is fifth.

While Giles has been rocked for a 9.00 ERA in his first 10 innings in Houston, the Phillies have gotten excellent work from Jeanmar Gomez, who after saving just one game in his six previous big-league seasons is a perfect 8 for 8 in saves, with a 1.80 ERA through 15 innings. Philadelphia's higher-leverage relievers—David Hernandez, Hector Neris, Elvis Araujo and Andrew Bailey—have also all pitched well within their limited samples of innings; that quintet has held batters to a 7-for-83 showing with a pair of doubles in high-leverage situations, helping to account for the team’s stellar record in one-run games. Once you remove mop-and-bucket man Brett Oberholzer (8.74 ERA in 11 1/3 innings) from the equation, the rest of the unit has a respectable 3.42 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning, and they’ve been even better lately, as CSN Philly’s Corey Seidman pointed out on Monday:

On the other side of the coin, the Phillies’ offense has been mostly unwatchable. The team is hitting just .229/.290/.366 as a whole; the average is second-to last in the league, the on-base percentage ranks dead last and the slugging percentage is 12th. Centerfielder Odubel Herrera (.301/.449/.410, 131 OPS+) and third baseman Maikel Franco (.258/.310/.452, 100 OPS+) are the only regulars producing at an average-or-better clip, though the catching tandem of Cameron Rupp and Carlos Ruiz has hit a combined .277/.320/.500 to add a functional third gear to the mix. Of the rest—Ryan Howard, Cesar Hernandez, Freddy Galvis, Peter Bourjos and their various leftfielders—none has an OPS+ above 78, which is to say that there’s very little middle ground in this lineup.

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The good news is that the players struggling are largely just placeholders until better options come along. Howard (.195/.256/.403, 72 OPS+) is in the final year of his five-year, $125 million contract, and Ruiz (.297/.381/.595 in just 42 plate appearances) is the only other one of the aforementioned making more than $2 million this year, and even he has a ridiculously affordable option ($4.5 million) for next year. Meanwhile, the top two performers are players written into the team’s long-term picture. The 24-year-old Herrera, a 2014 Rule 5 pick from the Rangers, looks like a steal thanks to dramatically improved plate discipline; he’s drawn 23 walks so far, compared to 28 in 537 PA in all of last season. Franco hasn’t quite lived up to the 127 OPS+ he put up in 80 games last year, but a 23-year-old former top prospect keeping his head above water counts as a positive, too.

It will probably be awhile before top prospects such as shortstop J.P. Crawford, catcher Jorge Alfaro and outfielders Nick Williams and Roman Quinn join Herrera and Franco in Philadelphia, as Williams is the only one of the quartet with any Triple A experience. Williams and Alfaro both came over in the Hamels deal, and Crawford and Quinn are among the team’s best draft picks from recent years.

There’s little incentive to rush those players to the majors, particularly because it’s likely that the current rotation may not hold out for the entire season. Hellickson, if he continues to pitch well, might wind up being some team’s target at the trade deadline. Velasquez threw just 88 2/3 innings last year and is on an unspecified innings limit, and you can bet that the team will keep an eye upon the workloads of Nola and Eickhoff, both of whom threw upwards of 180 innings last year, for signs that they’re running out of gas. Jake Thompson, a 22-year-old top prospect from the Hamels trade, and Mark Appel, the 24-year-old former No. 1 pick of the 2013 draft—also from the Giles trade—are among those who could get looks if their performances at Triple A merit it.

Even if it’s not sustainable, the Phillies’ start has shown off the fruits of the belated rebuilding job begun by Amaro and continued by new GM Matt Klentak. Parting with franchise stalwarts Hamels, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, as well as the promising Giles, was no fun, but between the fruits of those trades and some strong draft work, the team has built one of the game’s strongest farm systems, and the big club appears to be closer to respectability than any of the other rebuilders. It’s not likely that Philadelphia will maintain this pace and contend for a playoff spot, but the next good Phillies team may not be far off in the distance.