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Maybe The Phillies Never Needed Defense After All

As the calendar flipped from May to June, the Philadelphia Phillies looked absolutely dead in the water.

Despite boasting MLB’s fourth-highest payroll and a World Series-pedigreed manager in Joe Girardi, Philadelphia was 21-29 on June 1, eight games under .500 and 12½ games back in the National League East. In a recurring problem, its bullpen was the worst in baseball by a mile according to win probability added. Its best player, reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper, was hitting but couldn’t play in the field due to a torn elbow ligament, while second baseman Jean Segura had just broken his finger — putting further stress on an oft-maligned roster that downplayed defense to an extreme degree. And for a team predicated almost entirely on offense, its batting production was actually below league average, too. On June 3, Girardi was fired; within weeks, Harper would be ruled out for an extended period after surgery to repair a fractured thumb. Given all of that, it would seemingly require a miracle for Philly to end its decade-long postseason drought.

But sometimes miracles do happen at the corner of Broad and Pattison. Ever since the beginning of June, the Phillies are 28-17 — the sixth-best record in baseball. Their offense has improved despite the absences of Harper and Segura. Their bullpen is no longer a total disgrace. Even their defense has been slightly less terrible than expected. Despite a weekend sweep at the hands of the Chicago Cubs, the Phillies are just a game back of the NL’s final wild-card spot, with a 51 percent chance to finally return to the playoffs for the first time since Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay shared a field together

So, at long last, things might finally be looking up in the City of Brotherly Love. But to get there, the Phillies had to level up: While their starting rotation was good — ace Aaron Nola ranks fourth in pitching wins above replacement1 this season — they were in dire need of better late-game pitching after losing 14 of the 35 games in which they’d held a lead in April and May. And since above-average defense was probably out of the question with this roster, they at least needed their sluggers to hit better than league average if they had any hope of clawing back into the playoff mix.

Remarkably, they met both of those needs over the past seven weeks.

The bullpen has gone from dead last in WPA on June 1 — with nearly double the negative WPA of any other team — to 10th-best since then, with lefty Jose Alvarado ranking among the Phillies’ most notable improvements. Alvarado had a team-high six “meltdowns” (or appearances with a meaningfully negative WPA) in the season’s first two months, with only three “shutdowns” (the opposite, involving positive WPA), but since then, he has flipped that around to rank fourth on the team with six shutdowns and only three meltdowns — even if he was back to some of his melting ways in extra innings against Chicago on Saturday.2 That’s indicative of Philly relievers’ overall trend over that span, as the bullpen has gone from having six members with more meltdowns than shutdowns to just one (Jeurys Familia) since May. Whether due to natural improvement — even when the Phils’ pen was last in WPA, it was much better (19th) in WAR — or to interim manager Rob Thomson’s reshuffling of a relief corps that had been used too rigidly under Girardi, Philadelphia has a 28-6 record in games it’s led since June 1, the fifth-best mark in the league.

Meanwhile, Philly’s offense is scoring nearly a third of a run more per game over the same time frame, with the league’s seventh-best OPS. This offense was always a sleeping giant of sorts, with a number of good hitters who were not performing to their capabilities. Left fielder Kyle Schwarber and first baseman Rhys Hoskins, a pair of sluggers around whom Philadelphia’s entire offense-heavy premise revolved, had been underwhelming with a combined .714 OPS going into June; ever since, though, they have a combined .912 OPS, as each ranks among MLB’s hottest hitters. By the same token, some of the Phillies’ worst automatic outs from early in the season (Alec Bohm, Bryson Stott, Matt Vierling) have pulled their numbers up to respectability, with a collective OPS up 163 points since May.3 

With Harper’s return still weeks away, it’s impressive that the Phillies were able to improve offensively without him — and maybe even more surprising that right fielder Nick Castellanos, a key component of general manager Dave Dombrowski’s offensive double-down as a free agent signing in March, has had virtually nothing to do with it. Castellanos’s OPS was already down to .757 (from .939 with the Cincinnati Reds last season) at the end of May, and he has slipped even further since, with a .544 mark over the past seven-plus weeks. For the season as a whole, Castellanos is on pace for an impossibly bad -2.23 WAR, with an OPS 15 percent worse than average and a glove worth negative-19 fielding runs.4  

Luckily for Philadelphia, Castellanos’s teammates have picked up the slack. Of course, the Phillies’ fielding remains awful, by and large — they ranked 29th in runs above average on June 1 and have improved one whole spot (to 28th) as of Monday, which includes Saturday’s miscues against Chicago. But maybe that’s better than expected for a defense that was widely panned as maybe the worst ever back in spring training. And besides, bad defense was something Philly was always going to have to live with; Dombrowski simply made the bet that his pitchers would do their jobs and that his bats would get hot enough to offset any gaffes in the field.

Other factors have also played a role in Philly’s resurgence. The team was probably never quite as bad as it seemed: Even when they were eight games underwater on June 1, the Phillies had a perfectly even run differential (224 scored, 224 allowed). And Philadelphia’s schedule was fairly difficult in the early going, when it was piling up all those losses. According to our Elo ratings, which adjust for the quality of opposing starting pitchers, the Phillies faced MLB’s sixth-toughest set of opponents through the end of May. But ever since, that schedule has eased up a bit; the team’s average opponent’s Elo rating ranks just 17th-highest in baseball since June 1. (And as we noted on Wednesday, it’s going to get even easier from here — over the rest of the season, Philadelphia will face MLB’s 23rd-toughest set of opponents according to Elo.)

But regression and an easier slate of opponents aren’t enough to explain Philly’s resurgence, particularly considering the major injuries. On top of those elements, the fundamental theory behind this team — that defense isn’t everything if a team hits well enough — might finally be starting to work in practice. 

At first, Dombrowski’s plan looked like a massive miscalculation. But now it’s looking a bit better. After the many twists, turns and false starts that Philadelphia’s path back to contention has taken during this decade-plus of rebuilding, maybe it’s fitting that it took an unconventional plan executed in an unexpected way to place this franchise squarely in the mix for a return to the postseason.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, for which you can download data on GitHub.

  2. Meltdowns involve a decrease in win probability of at least 6 percentage points, while shutdowns are credited to pitchers who increase their teams’ win probability by at least 6 points.

  3. From .560 to .723.

  4. Which averages together the defensive values (relative to position average) found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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