Phillies’ Second Half Hints That Success is Closer than Expected

There is a school of thought that says the road to contention for a team is linear with the team advancing little by little each year until success is assured.  This theory been debunked by many teams over the year who seemingly leap to contention from nowhere.   Now this doesn’t mean the Phillies can jump from 63-99 to the playoffs in 2016, a 30 game swing is a bit much to ask for (for reference Houston made a 16 game swing and the Cubs made a 24 game swing in 2015).  That being said, the Phillies are closer to a team that looks like a 2017 contender.

First let’s start with the basics.  The 2015 Phillies did not underperform.  Baseball Reference had them at 14.2 total WAR and Fangraphs at 16.4 total WAR.  That puts the expected win total somewhere in the 61-64 range, so right about where the Phillies ended up.  The Phillies even traded away a good chunk of the production in trades that sent out Cole Hamels, Ben Revere, and Jonathan Papelbon.  But yet if we use Fangraphs 1st half (91 games) and 2nd half (71 games) sample size and scale them to 162 games we find this:

First Half fWAR/162: 10.7 (~58-104)
Second Half fWAR/162: 24.0 ~(71-91)

If we backtrack a bit to the 81 game split we see that the Phillies went 27-55 (54-108) in the first half and 38-44 (76-88) in the second half.  Given that the Fangraphs 1st half/2nd half split includes more of the traded veterans this makes sense, but we are still on the right track of second half growth.  But how did this team trade away its remaining veterans and still come out on the other side as a 10+ win better team.

Clearing the Incompetent:

It starts with the pitching.  In the first half of the season Severino Gonzalez, David Buchanan, Dustin McGowan, Chad Billingsley, Kevin Correia, Jerome Williams, and Sean O’Sullivan combined for 280 innings of baseball (just over 31 nine inning games).  The lowest ERA among them was Sean O’Sullivan at 6.08.  In the second half Alec Asher, Adam Loewen, David Buchanan, and Aaron Harang were all over 6.00 ERAs, but they only contributed 159.2 innings.  In their place there more games by Adam Morgan (4.52), Aaron Nola (3.59), and Jerad Eickhoff (2.65).

On the hitting side it was less pronounced with guys hitting the garbage bucket, but the team certainly didn’t miss Grady Sizemore going forward.

On both sides the Phillies are closing gaps that were artificially large because of the filler on the roster.  This roster junk was suppressing the Phillies true future talent level.

The Hitters went From Putrid to Bad:

No one is going to give you an award for being a replacement level player, but when you are the Phillies’ first half lineup they should.  Chase Utley, Cody Asche, Jeff Francoeur, Domonic Brown, Darin Ruf, and Ryan Howard combined for a first half fWAR of -4.0, in the second half that same group was at 0.7.  Part of this was improvement, someone was regression, and some was reduction in playing time.  Either way it helped to limit the impact on the team.  None of the players look to have a long term future with the Phillies (Ruf and Asche could be bench players) so we can really look at their contributions as zeroes that can be built on.

Youth, Youth, and More Youth

Let’s start with Odubel Herrera who put up 2.6 fWAR in the second half (on the back of a .432 BABIP), now Herrera is not going to keep the pace up, but he did show large improvements in walk rate that should indicate long term success.  Maikel Franco actually had less impact in the second half, but he should be a positive going forward (obviously).  Aaron Altherr took an outfield job away from Francoeur and Brown and racked up a 1.7 fWAR while playing really good defense and showing great power and speed.  Cameron Rupp went from zero to mediocre.

The impact was also felt on the pitching side where Eickhoff and Nola made up for the loss of Cole Hamels.  Meanwhile Ken Giles outperformed Papelbon, and while Adam Morgan’s year wasn’t stellar he was an upgrade on the Phillies’ previous back end starters.

Going From Here:

Time for funny math.  Let’s say that the returning young players are Giles, Eickhoff, Nola, Morgan, Herrera, Altherr, and Franco.  Let’s say all three hitters average out to 2-3 win players (Franco stays healthy, Herrera regresses some, Altherr’s defensive metrics stabilize), that gives us say 8 wins.  Nola and Eickhoff can probably be filed in that same 2-3 win category, Ken Giles has been a reliable 2 win reliever, Morgan is probably a 1-1.5 win pitcher, so let’s call the whole bunch 7 wins.  We are at 15 wins using our funny math.  So assuming the Phillies just get a zero everywhere else (not the easiest task we just saw) we are looking at a repeat of 2015.  The spots left to fill are:

C, 1B, 2B, SS, OF, SP, SP, bullpen

Now we know 1ish WAR pitcher Jeremy Hellickson will be in one of those SP slots and that C/1B/2B/SS have their placeholders.  We also know that reinforcements are on the way for C/SS/OF/SP during the 2016 season.  Obviously the Phillies aren’t to contender status in 2016, but the roadmap is there and the roster is a break or two from where the FO can make the moves in trade or free agency to make the leap to contention.  The Phillies won’t be the worst team in baseball in 2016 and are unlikely to own that distinction for a long time.  They aren’t good yet, but it is almost there.

Author: Matt Winkelman

Matt Winkelman
Matt is originally from Mt. Holly, NJ, but after a 4 year side track to Cleveland for college he now resides in Madison, WI. His work has appeared on Phuture Phillies, The Good Phight, and TheDynastyGuru.

11 comments

  1. Keith

    now, that was encouraging. We definitely saw signs in the second half. I am excited for July/August, when we start seeing a number of these future guys come up and get their feet wet.

  2. Anthony

    I’m excited for this upcoming season, not because I’m expecting us to compete for a playoff spot but because I’m looking forward to how the young guys grow and seeing who get’s called up and how they perform. It’s nice to read an encouraging piece.

  3. Kurdt Kobeyn

    @Matt – I agree with you that the 2016 opening day roster is almost set in stone — which I think is Sixers like (some young core pieces with a bunch of below average performers). The best case scenario to me is when ALL the Reading guys pan out as expected – Williams, JPC, Thompson, Eflin, Knapp, Quinn, Alfaro, Cordero, Ramos. I still think the Phils need to have a “game changer(s)” type of a player (either from the Reading group or FA or Trade) to bring some suprise in 2017. Otherwise, I can see the Phils hovering around 0.500 in 2017 and possibly in 2018 as well.

    Barring any major FA signing that will make immediate impact, the optimistic me thinks that 2018 is the earliest year to be relevant. 2016 is pretty much over. 2017 is just going over the 0.500 barrier.

    • ryand17

      I agree with all of your points but I think you are undervaluing the future team you’re describing. I also think they have the makings of a .500 team where every position is covered by a pool of competent but not spectacular players. However, that .500 team will be basically 26 and under, extremely cost controlled and extremely deep because of roster flexibility. It would probably take signing one ace and a zobrist type super utility player, but adding 8 WAR in free agency before 2017 shouldn’t be all that difficult.

      • Kurdt Kobeyn

        ryand17 – i did mentioned and foresee that the Phils will be a 0.500 team in 2017 but not just in 2016 (on the assumption that no major FA signings). I don’t see any reinforcements in 2016 other than the prospects coming in from Reading which will be called up around the trade deadline. But I can see Middleton giving the go signal to sign FAs post 2016 since the payroll will significantly go down.

        I’m also hoping that the top 10 rpospects we have will pan out as expected to be considered relevant by 2018.

  4. Nick M

    O agree with most of your points above. If the Phillies repeat their second half performance in the first half, it will be real interesting to see what kind of boost the potential call ups can give them. By July and August there is a realistic shot that Crawford, Williams, one of the catchers, Thompson, Eflin, Cordero, Windle and maybe even Quinn make their debuts. That isn’t going to be enough to push them into a wild card hunt but it should and could be an imporvment going into 2017. At that point, watch Middleton. Not enough talk about him. Once the young core is in place I think he’ll spend big on either free agents or international talent to put this team right back into contention and I think if everything goes right, it could be as early as 2017. (not saying World Series contention, more like wild card contention, but meaningful baseball in September nontheless)

    I am excited and I’m looking forward to following the minor leagues through this blog during 2016

  5. keith

    Agree on Middleton. He won’t spend this year, but as soon as the wildcard is a possibility, Middleton will give the Pres/GM the go ahead to spend big time.

  6. phillysf

    Matt you are a glass half full kinda guy arent you ?! but I liked reading it for sure , thanks again

  7. Travis

    It is actually harder than you’d think to reliably fill your roster with players able to produce at least 0 WAR. Last season, for hitters, there were 186 that were at at least -0.2fWAR, and 77 at at least -0.5fWAR. For pitchers 140 at at least -0.2fWAR, and 33 at at least -0.5fWAR. While I didn’t specifically verify it, it would surprise me if every team didn’t have at least one player put up at least -0.5fWAR. The average team will have 3-4 such players. The Phillies had 9 which is actually pretty impressive if you think about it[and that is with some of the dead weight[Gonzalez,Billingsley] actually having positive fWAR]. So while there is definitely room for improvement, it won’t be completely eliminated.

    • allentown1

      Totally true. If Ryan Howard is again our starting 1B, which is what the Phillies are telling us, he alone can be penciled in as -2.5 WAR. In 2015 he slipped to negative WAR on offense and was a big negative WAR on defense. His decline is almost certain to continue. However many games Ruiz catches for us, he is almost certain to be a negative WAR player.

      Every year of the Phillies current dark half, somebody has pointed to a two month period or the second half of the season and declared an optimistic extrapolation to the next full season. It hasn’t happened. It is unclear whether the Phillies merely got a psychological bump from the firing of Sandberg and played loose in a season lost, with the vets gone, while other teams with a lot at state played a little tight. I know that I’m very happy to have Nola as our #2 starter going forward, but am under no illusion that he is as good as Hamels. I think that the 2015 Phillies were always a better team than their first half results indicated. The first half was down to the total collapse of Chase Utley, which I have to believe was due to a hidden injury. Chase was better in the second half, but nowhere near the Chase of old.

      The Phillies should win more games in 2016 than they did in 2015, but this is still a very bad team. As of today, they’ve really added next to nothing to improve last year’s team. Mid-season help is likely from the minors, which is why I think we’ll win more games but, at least on paper, our April team is likely to be weaker than it was in 2015. I don’t have a problem with that. The Phillies should be looking beyond 2016 and we have a lot of talent in the minors added in place of Hamels. We should see at least two more guys from that trade sometime this season.

      I still can’t believe we are risking losing Tirado to keep some of the guys, Howard included, that are now on our 40-man.

  8. msb

    Great analysis Matt, as usual. I’m exited for 2016 to see young guys progress and debut. As one looks at the MLB landscape post-steroids era, it’s obvious that youth and pitching depth is where success lies. To me, it’s vital that Crawford, Williams, Thompson and more get their feet wet in 2016. Once the $ starts to be spent in 2017 and 2018, those guys shouldn’t be wide-eyed rookies by that point.

    I just wish this rebuild had started a year or two earlier!