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The Phillies Wanted To Be The Astros. Now They’ll Have To Beat Them For A World Series.

As hard as it can be to remember now, with the Houston Astros headed for their fourth World Series in six seasons, the franchise was once notable for its capacity for self-inflicted losing. As part of a radical rebuilding plan, Houston from 2011 to 2013 became just the seventh team since 1901 to pile up at least 320 losses in a three-year span. Such a thorough tanking effort, one of the first of its kind in the current era, proved to be the surprisingly predictable prelude to a run of dominance that produced a championship in 2017 and continues to this day.

While the Astros were performing their turnaround, other teams were noticing the strategy — including the Philadelphia Phillies. In 2015, the same season the fruits of Houston’s losing helped it return to the playoffs, Philadelphia dismissed rebuild-resistant former general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., clearing the way for a full-scale teardown that sure looked like what the Astros underwent. Philadelphia’s ascent wasn’t as rapid, nor did it have the same feeling of inevitability as Houston’s march to a dynasty, and the Phillies put their own spin on the formula — most notably by flexing their financial muscle on external acquisitions like Bryce Harper, whose clutch eighth-inning home run Sunday propelled Philadelphia to the National League pennant. 

For a good long while, it seemed like Philadelphia might never join Houston here. That goes both literally, since the Astros are a Fall Classic fixture, and also figuratively, as successful pupils in MLB’s popular late-2010s tanking program — despite seemingly having all the requisite ingredients. But in the end, Philadelphia’s result finally matched the blueprint it was trying to follow. And now, the emulators will face the originators as the Phillies and Astros meet in the 118th World Series. 

With the help of some strong drafts near the end of his tenure, Amaro’s successors (team president Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak) built up a farm system that ranked as high as sixth in Baseball America’s organizational rankings, featuring a string of prospects including Aaron Nola, Alec Bohm and Rhys Hoskins. Philadelphia knew it also had the salary budget to complement the farm products later on, having run up MLB’s third-highest payroll as recently as 2014. So the perfect rebuilding plan seemed to be this: Draft and develop some of those farmhands into regular starters (or better); use others in trades to acquire talent, such as catcher J.T. Realmuto (picked up in a trade for Jorge Alfaro and Sixto Sanchez) and second baseman Jean Segura (acquired for J.P. Crawford); break the bank on free agents such as Harper and ace starter Zack Wheeler; bring in a championship-pedigreed manager in Joe Girardi; and finally, wait for the World Series appearances to roll in.

But roughly five years into that plan, smart folks like ESPN’s Sam Miller were wondering if the Phillies were the first failed rebuild of MLB’s tanking era — and a cautionary tale for other Astros emulators. Philly’s prospects hadn’t reached anywhere near the level of Houston’s celebrated homegrown core of José Altuve, Alex Bregman, George Springer, Carlos Correa and Dallas Keuchel. (To take just one example, the unique long-term bet the club made on Scott Kingery was a flop.) The splashy newcomers had a mixed track record. (For every Harper, there was a Jake Arrieta.) The team wasn’t winning enough — Philadelphia went 271-275 from 2018 to 2021 — despite the increases in payroll. Klentak and MacPhail didn’t survive the fallout, their tenure symbolizing the potential pitfalls of trying to follow the Astros’ path.

Taking over in the aftermath, new president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski — no stranger to successful team turnarounds — appeared to double down on the deluded spending of his predecessors, inking defense-challenged sluggers Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos to big contracts ahead of the 2022 season. The early returns were just as mediocre as before; the team found itself staring at a very un-Astros-like 21-29 record on May 31. That was around when Dombrowski cleaned house, firing Girardi in favor of Rob Thomson, and the turnaround began: Philadelphia went 66-46 from June 1 onward, plus 9-2 in the postseason. The pieces started to fit, painting a clear picture of the team’s ceiling. The Phillies would lean into their strengths — great starting pitching, as led by Wheeler and Nola, and a scary lineup averaging an MLB-high 5.18 runs per game in the playoffs. So what if the defense needed work? (It wasn’t as dire as it seemed anyway.)

Few outside the ranks of hardcore Philly partisans — or perhaps few in those ranks, either1 — would have predicted the formula would work this well back when the team was struggling early on. Even going into the playoffs, our model gave the Phillies just a 4 percent chance of making the World Series, based on the unlikelihood of making it through the gauntlet of the St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta Braves and either the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets or San Diego Padres in the NL bracket. Anybody who tells you they’ve figured out a formula for the postseason is probably lying — many analysts have died on that hill over the years — and the real secret sauce of the playoffs is reductive and circular: The hottest team in October wins, and we find out who’s hottest from all that winning.

But if anybody has genuinely figured it out to any degree, it might be Dombrowski. And even if not, there’s something to be said for a long rebuilding blueprint eventually materializing into a successful run, even if it took more twists and turns (and dollars) than originally expected. It’s fitting that the capstone of Philadelphia’s process2 would be defeating the very team that helped inspire its eventual path to the World Series nearly a decade earlier.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. The town is notoriously hard on its athletes.

  2. Not that Philly Process, though.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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