SI:AM | Phillies Are Off to a Historically Great Start

And a breakout pitcher is a major reason why.
Suárez’s Cy Young campaign has pushed Philadelphia to a scorching-hot start this season.
Suárez’s Cy Young campaign has pushed Philadelphia to a scorching-hot start this season. / Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
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Good morning, I’m Dan Gartland. I loved watching Luka Dončić take over in the fourth quarter.

In today’s SI:AM:

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They can’t be stopped

The best record in baseball doesn’t belong to the team that signed Shohei Ohtani this winter. Or the one that traded for Juan Soto. Or that one that employs the reigning NL MVP and had the best record in the majors last season. No, through 50 games, the best record in the big leagues belongs to the Philadelphia Phillies.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to see the Phillies near the top of the standings. After all, they reached the World Series in 2022 and the NLCS last year. But those teams weren’t quite elite. They won 87 and 90 regular-season games, respectively. This year, though, the Phillies are elite—historically so.

With an 11–4 win over the Texas Rangers on Wednesday, Philadelphia improved to 36–14 on the season. That’s the best 50-game start to a season since the 2001 Seattle Mariners. There have been 26 teams in MLB history that have won at least 36 of their first 50 games, but most of them were in the league’s early days. It’s a feat that has previously been accomplished only eight times in the expansion era (since 1961). During that period, only three teams have had a better start than the Phillies have had: the 1984 Detroit Tigers (39–11), the ’98 New York Yankees (37–13) and the aforementioned 2001 Mariners (38–12).

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the Phillies have been so good. They’re scoring more runs than any team in baseball, averaging 5.44 per game. (The Los Angeles Dodgers are second with 5.04.) And they’re also among the best in the league at keeping runs off the scoreboard, ranking fifth in the majors with 3.64 runs allowed per game.

The man leading the way offensively is the obvious one: Bryce Harper. Adjusting to a new defensive position (first base) has not dampened his offensive output at all. He ranks third in the NL with 12 homers and fifth in OPS at .936. But he isn’t the only one knocking the cover off the ball. Third baseman Alec Bohm has been nearly as good as Harper, ranking seventh in the NL with a .330 batting average. Of the nine Phillies players who have at least 100 plate appearances this season, seven are better-than-average hitters by OPS+.

The star of the Philadelphia pitching rotation, meanwhile, might come as a surprise. Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, the Phillies two best pitchers in recent years, have still been fantastic, but they’ve been eclipsed by Ranger Suárez’s incredible start. In nine starts this season, he has a paltry 1.36 ERA, which ranks second in the majors behind Shōta Imanaga of the Chicago Cubs, and an MLB-best 0.788 WHIP.

Suárez has been a decently reliable pitcher for the Phillies since making the full-time switch to the starting rotation in 2022, but now, at age 28, he’s suddenly blossomed into one of the pitchers in the game. The biggest difference for Suárez is that he’s dramatically cut down his walk rate. In the previous two seasons, he allowed 3.4 walks per nine innings. This year, he’s cut that number by more than half, allowing just 1.6 walks per nine.

The apparent reason for that change is a refreshing one. In an era where velocity is everything—often to pitchers’ detriment—Suárez has taken something off his fastball this season. And it’s made him better. His four-seamer averaged 93.2 mph in 2022 and 93.4 mph last season. This year, it’s down to 92.1 mph. He’s also throwing his sinker less hard (90.9 mph this season compared to 92.8 mph last year). His fastball velocity ranks near the bottom of the league, in the 13th percentile, according to Statcast. And yet, his fastball is one of the most effective pitches in the game, ranking in the 97th percentile in run value. The lower velocity means Suárez can control his pitches better, limiting walks and also preventing hitters from making solid contact. He ranks in the 94th percentile in both hard-hit rate and ground-ball rate. Or, put another way, when batters do manage to put the ball in play, it’s usually a weakly hit grounder.

Suárez’s emergence as an elite starter gives the Phillies as good a rotation as any team in the majors. That, coupled with a lineup full of sluggers, means there’s no reason to believe this hot start has been a fluke. And history is on their side. Of the eight previous post-expansion era teams to win 36 of their first 50 games, five won the pennant.

Jun 11, 2023; Paris, France; Fans at Philippe Chatrier Court during the Novak Djokovic-Casper Ruud during French Open final.
Attending next week’s French Open? We have some tips. / Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

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… things I saw last night:

5. Juan Soto’s two opposite-field home runs.
4. The Dodger Stadium organist’s song choice when a car caught on fire in the parking lot.
3. Matthew Tkachuk’s snipe to open the scoring for the Panthers against the Rangers. Florida went on to win Game 1 on the road.
2. Luka Dončić’s clutch step-back jumper in the final minute of the Mavericks’ Game 1 win over the Timberwolves.
1. The prank a few Dodgers teammates played on Shohei Ohtani.

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Dan Gartland


Dan Gartland is the writer and editor of Sports Illustrated’s flagship daily newsletter, SI:AM, covering everything an educated sports fan needs to know. Previously published on Deadspin and Slate, Dan also is a former Sports Jeopardy! champion (Season 1, Episode 5).