The Phillies are one of baseball’s hipster teams at the moment. Hardcore generalist fans are taking note of them now so that they can say they were into them before the team became good again. With good reason. For as bad as the Phillies have been in the last half-decade, they’ve compiled a nice collection of talent.
The pitching staff has young arms like Aaron Nola, Vince Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff, who have all shown themselves to be capable of performing in the big leagues, and still have some upside remaining. The position player talent in the majors is not quite as strong, but Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera are nice pieces under team control.
There’s more help on the way, as well, as the Phillies just had the number one pick in the draft — California high school center fielder Mickey Moniak — and have some upper-level talent like SS J.P. Crawford that can help the club sooner rather than later.
For as optimistic as things are right now, however, the 2010s have mostly consisted of failure for Philadelphia. After the mid- to late-aughts, a decline was to be expected to be sure. From 2001 to 2011, Phillies fans could count on at least an average ballclub almost every single year, and things culminated in a championship in 2008.
That 2011 regular season was the most successful in franchise history. The Phillies won a franchise-record 102 games, marking their fourth consecutive season with 90 or more wins, including the title-winning 2008 squad that kicked the streak off.
But after finishing 2012 with 81 wins, the Phillies haven’t won more than 73 in the years since. They looked like a franchise adrift without a plan or an idea of how to get back to winning ways.
That makes one wonder: Just how unusual is it for a team that good to have a drop off this steep? You would expect any 100 win team to decline, sure, but that’s only because the 100 win threshold is such a difficult threshold to pass. Unless you had a Marlins-style fire sale, you’d probably count on that team to continue to be good for at least a few more years.
The 2012-2016 Phillies have not done much to support that hypothesis, obviously. But let’s look into recent history and see just how unusual the Phillies collapse was, assuming it was at all.
Measuring from MLB expansion in 1998, the Phillies one year drop in win total from 2011 to 2012 was not unprecedented on a league-wide scale. 21 fewer wins is a lot, but it’s not as bad as the 2014 Red Sox (27 fewer wins), 2004 Mariners (30 fewer), or the 2011 Twins (31 fewer).
But it is unusual for a 100-win team. There have been 18 100-win teams since 1998, and only one team — the 2006 Cardinals, who won the World Series — suffered a comparable drop off, going from 100 wins in 2005 to 83 wins in 2006. No other 100-win team in that time period had won fewer than 91 games the next year.
And that’s only looking at a one-year regression. How do the Phillies look compared to those other 100-win teams when you measure five years down the line?
First of all, let this be a reminder to never stop hating the Yankees. Second, to focus on the Phillies, you can see from this chart that they have few peers in terms of a total half-decade collapse. On average those five-year win totals went like this: 103, 95, 88, 88, 87. A 100-win season should net you at least four seasons of competitive September baseball. The Phillies didn’t even get one.
The Mariners’ decline was definitely more swift and possibly more painful, but they were coming from such great heights in 2001 that it makes the 93 wins they had in 2002 look like a much bigger drop in quality than it actually was. Even still, they were rebounding by year five and would win 88 games just two years later (only to collapse again, it should be said).
The closest comparison is the 03-07 Giants. Those teams had Barry Bonds, of course, but as soon as Bonds started getting hurt — he missed almost all of 2005 — and stopped playing like the greatest player we’ve ever seen, the Giants became bad, and they didn’t have the depth to make up for it. Even still, they bottomed out at just 71 wins and would embark on harassing the world with Even Year Bullshit just a few years later.
So what caused the Phillies’ decline? Well, it was a combination of a lot of different things.
People will point to Ryan Howard’s contract and the immediate collapse of his ability to hit baseballs as a big reason. And while that didn’t help, it’s more of a convenient scapegoat than a panacea.
There’s really two parts of this explanation. On the one hand, there’s the fact that they got bad in the first place. On the other, there’s the fact that they were slow to recover from all that losing.
The first part can be explained by age. The great Phillies teams of the late-aughts were led by a core of Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay. In 2011, Howard was certainly declining, but still an effective hitter. Rollins, Utley, and Halladay, however, were all at least 3.5 win players. Halladay, in particular, was outstanding in 2011, leading the league in pitcher WAR and finishing second in the Cy Young voting.
In those 2011 playoffs, however, Howard tore his Achilles. He’s never been the same since. Halladay came back in 2012 and pitched effectively, but he was nowhere near as good as he had been the year before. He would retire due to injuries a year later.
Rollins and Utley stuck around as good starters for a few seasons, but they had long since ceased to be the MVP candidates they were when the Phillies were in their heyday. So that’s one thing: an aging, declining core group of stars.
Then there’s the flipside of the Phillies’ front office’s inability to compensate for that decline. The general manager for that period was Ruben Amaro — who did not put the Phillies’ best teams together; that was Pat Gillick — and his tenure was beset by a ludditical resistance to analytics and some truly terrible drafting and developing.
In fact, it was probably the Phillies’ lack of success on the farm that caused this downward spiral more than anything. Part of it was bad drafting — top picks like Greg Golson, Joe Savery and Anthony Hewitt never panned out — but it was also trading top prospects and signing free agents with draft pick compensation attached. Philadelphia didn’t have a first-round pick in 2009, 2011 or 2012.
Those were all moves made with the intention of winning in the moment, of course, but when you combine a dried-up farm system with an old major league roster, this is the risk you take.
It did give Phillies fans perhaps the most enjoyable decade of baseball watching they’ve ever had. But it also led to one of the most rapid collapses’ we’ve seen in recent history. In the end, it was probably all worth it, as frustrating as these last five years have been. But one has to wonder what could have been if Amaro had shown more prudence.
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Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.