Through the first two months of the 2016 season, there have been plenty of surprises and disappointments, but perhaps nothing as surprising as the Philadelphia Phillies. They were expected to compete with the Atlanta Braves for not only the cellar of the NL East but all of baseball.
As we approach Memorial Day, the Phillies are now 25-21 and only three games behind the Nationals for first place and 1 ½ games behind the Mets for second. There are a number of factors that point to the Phillies not being able to sustain their early season success, but perhaps none as obvious as their run differential.
Through the weekend the Phillies have a run differential of -34. Since 2000, only the 2005 Padres and 2007 Diamondbacks have finished the season with negative run differentials and won their divisions. The 2005 Padres were outscored by 42 runs, and the Diamondbacks were outscored by 20 runs. Let’s examine how the Padres and Diamondbacks won their divisions with negative run differentials and see if there is a path for the Phillies to win the NL East even if their negative run differential persists.
The 2005 Padres finished 82-80 and won the division by five games over the D’Backs, who finished 77-85. First and foremost, a huge factor into the Padres winning the division was the struggles of the rest of the division. No one else finished with a winning record. As a team the Padres were not an offensive juggernaut. The only regular to hit over .300 was Brian Giles, who led the team with 119 walks and actually walked more than he struck out. He totaled 5.9 fWAR, more than doubling the next closest on the team, current Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and his 2.3 fWAR. Overall their offense was league average with a 98 wRC+, but without pitchers their wRC+ was 104.
The Padres pitching staff was led by Jake Peavy, who totaled 5.4 fWAR. As was the case in the mid-00’s for the Padres, Adam Eaton joined Peavy in leading the rotation. He threw 128.2 innings with a 4.02 FIP, which was roughly average according to FIP-. Brian Lawrence and Woody Williams were the other two main starters but had ERAs near five.
The key to this team’s success was a strong bullpen. Scott Linebrink and Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman formed a solid 8th and 9th inning combo. Linebrink stranded 84.3 percent of his baserunners, and Hoffman had a 2.50 FIP. Rudy Seanez rounded out the trio. The Padres needed a lot of innings from their bullpen, ranking third in innings pitched, but they also got quality. The Padres' relievers led all bullpens in fWAR, FIP, and FIP-. They were 29-20 in one-run games.
Their defense was not particularly adept -- the five position players who logged the most innings had negative DRS values and UZR values, except for Brian Giles' barely-above-zero 0.5 UZR.
According to the Pythagorean W-L created by Bill James, the Padres should have finished 77-85.
The 2007 Diamondbacks won the NL West by one game over the Rockies, finishing 90-72. Unlike the 2005 Padres, the 2007 Diamondbacks had a competitive division to beat en route to their division title. There was only a one-game difference between first and third. However, the Rockies had a run differential of +102, the Padres had a +75 run differential, and even the fourth-place Dodgers were +8 in run differential. Not the D’Backs, who were outscored by 20 runs.
Offensively, Chris Young and his 32 home runs (though below average overall offensive output) as well as Eric Byrnes, who had a better overall season and stole 50 bases, led the D’Backs. As a team, no one hit over .300, unless you take into account the 64 PA of pitcher Micah Owings, who hit .333. Conor Jackson, Mark Reynolds, and Orlando Hudson should be mentioned as well, joining Eric Byrnes in having an above league average wRC+.
Brandon Webb led the pitching staff, throwing a whopping 236.1 innings with a 3.24 FIP. His RA9-WAR was 6.9, behind only 2007 NL CY Young Award winner Jake Peavy’s 7.5. Randy Johnson joined for ten games of 3.20 ball but threw only 56.2 innings. Doug Davis, Micah Owings, and Livan Hernandez, all with ERAs north of four, rounded out the rotation.
One surprising factor of the ’07 D'Backs was their bullpen. They had a 3.95 ERA, but their FIP was 4.32. Outperforming their peripherals seemed to be the theme for the D’Backs bullpen, as Jose Valverde, Brandon Lyon, Tony Pena, and Juan Cruz did just that. Those four threw the majority of the bullpen innings. At first glance, they had good seasons, especially Valverde, but maybe not that good. Brandon Lyon severely limited home runs with a 2.2 percent HR/FB. The D'Backs relievers' HR/FB as a team was 8.6 percent, which was middle of the road, but seems pretty good considering their home environment.
According to the Pythagorean Theorem W-L created by Bill James, the D’Backs should have finished 79-83 – a stark contrast from 90-72. The bullpen helped the D'Backs finish 32-20 in one-run games.
How does all this relate to the 2016 Phillies? To start, the ’05 Padres and ’07 D’Backs both did not do it through offense. The '07 D'Backs in particular ranked near the bottom of the league in team wRC+ even after eliminating pitchers. The Phillies this year have a dreadful offense, but they do have one standout player in their lineup by the name of Odubel Herrera. Herrera has a slash line of .335/.445/.456 and a wRC+ of 149. His 2.2 fWAR is 13th in the league so far and almost four times the next closest on the team in Freddy Galvis’ 0.6. The Phillies, like the '07 D'Backs, are near the bottom of the league in team wRC+.
Overall the offensive numbers are not pretty, but the Phillies have continued to win because of their pitching. Similar to Peavy and Eaton on the Padres, Philadelphia’s rotation has been carried by Vincent Velasquez and Aaron Nola, but those two have been excellent rather than just really good and average.
Velasquez has thrown 52.1 innings with 10.49 K/9 and 2.92 BB/9 for 1.2 fWAR. Nola and his devastating curveball have actually performed better than his 2.85 ERA would indicate, as his FIP is 2.61. He has the best walk percentage on the staff at 4.7 percent and leads the Phillies pitchers with 1.7 fWAR. Jerad Eickhoff has been a little above average as a third starter, and Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton have been decent enough as fourth and fifth starters. Top to bottom, the Phillies rotation is better than either the '05 Padres or '07 D'Backs.
Perhaps no group has been more important to the Phillies' success than their bullpen. Jeanmar Gomez, Hector Neris, and David Hernandez have formed a formidable 1-2-3 trio to start the season for the Phillies. Gomez has been a pleasant surprise as closer this season helped by his bullpen-best 6.1 percent walk rate. Neris has been fantastic with a 100 percent LOB% and strong K-BB rate. Hernandez leads the bullpen with a 13.08 K/9.
The Phillies, like the two teams before them, have won a bunch of one-run games, but they're doing it the best. At 14-4, there has been no one better in 2016. The Phillies' offense is worse than their two predecessors, but they have superior starting pitching and at least an equally good bullpen (so far).
If the Phillies do not start scoring more runs and plan on winning the NL East, they are off to a good start in terms of following the path the Padres and D’Backs used in their respective division-winning seasons. The early season success of the Phillies is probably not sustainable, but if they can play this way through June, they will be in a positon to bolster this team down the stretch. Matt Klentak has said he is open to adding pieces at the deadline. History has shown us you need a positive run differential to win a division, but if the 2016 Phillies have shown us anything so far it is that they will defy what history has projected for them.