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.