The Phillies are obviously rebuilding. That is not exactly a revelation. They are making good progress on that front in the minors, as Baseball Prospectus had their farm system ranked the fifth-best in baseball. Unfortunately, a couple of their top prospects are struggling, and a major league team that was expected to be better than last year has failed to live up to even those modest expectations.
Last year, one could argue that the Phillies performed a little better than expected, with a record of 71-91. The reason the Phillies did not perform worse was because they had some surprisingly good seasons from a few of their players. Four players had over 3 WAR. Furthermore, some teams were far worse than expected, so the Phillies finished with only the eighth-worst record in baseball.
Unfortunately, it hurts a rebuilding team to not perform as poorly as possible. As a result, in this year’s draft, they missed out on a few top prospects such as Brendan McKay and Hunter Greene.
Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders were added to the Phillies during the offseason, both of whom could have been seen as small improvements. If you really believed in the starting pitching, you could make the argument that the 2017 Phillies could be a little better than the 2016 Phillies.
So far, the Phillies are on pace to win only 54 games. Even the most pessimistic evaluators of the team going into this season would have had a hard time seeing that coming. Luck is a big part of the game of baseball, and it has not been on the Phillies side this season. They are an incomprehensible 11-24 in one-run games. That will get better. What is more concerning is that some of their best young players of last year appear to have taken a step back, which has implications beyond just 2017.
César Hernández had the best year of his career in 2016. He is a utility fielder who has never shown any power, but had displayed some good on-base skills last year with a .371 OBP. It was not much BABIP luck either, as he raised his walk rate to 10.6 percent. That OBP made him an above-average hitter despite the lack of power, and it led to a 3.3 WAR season.
This season, Hernández is walking one third less often, and now his offensive numbers are more in line with his career rates. Why his walk rate went back down is hard to explain. He is not swinging at pitches outside the zone anymore than he was last year. He is making less contact when he does swing at those pitches, so that could be a factor. The good news is that he already has 5 HR, which is only one shy of his career high of 6 HR last year. However, his HR/FB rate is nearly twice that of his career. It is doubtful that the condition of the ball can completely explain away all of that.
Phillies fans were probably very excited about Odúbel Herrera going into 2017. He was very consistent in his first two years of his career, hitting a combined .291/.353/.419. He combined for 8.1 WAR thanks to the defensive metrics liking him so much. Those numbers seem to belie the eye test, but as is commonly the case with measuring fielding, the truth is more complicated.
In 2017, however, Herrera’s offense appears to have taken a substantial step back, dropping 35 points of wOBA over last year. As with Hernández, the big culprit is a large decrease in OBP; Herrera has a .298 OBP after having a .361 OBP last year. The biggest problem is that he is walking half as much as he did last year. He is pressing at the plate, swinging at pitches outside the zone far more often. His WAR looks fine because he already has 8 DRS, but his oWAR is only at 0.5, compared to 3.7 oWAR last year. He is also worse on the basepaths, mostly because he has been caught stealing in half of his ten attempts.
Jerad Eickhoff performed well last year with a 4.01 RA9 and 5.2 percent walk rate, all of which added up to a 3.5 WAR season. That is pretty good for a guy who was originally drafted in the 15th round. This year his run average has risen by over one run to a 5.07 RA9, and his walk rate has risen to league average. While the increased walk rate is on him, he is suffering some bad BABIP luck, which could be the result of the Phillies’ defense. He is also doing a better job of keeping the ball in the park than last season.
I am not sure how many people were expecting Jeremy Hellickson to repeat his 2.9 WAR in 2016 when he had combined for -0.7 WAR in the three seasons prior. At 1.3 WAR so far this season, it might look like he is on track to come close. There are red flags, however. His 4.70 RA9 is 0.6 runs higher than last year, and that is with a .248 BABIP. The biggest concern is that his strikeout rate fell off a cliff after last season, dropping from 20 percent to only 13 percent. That is the worst in baseball among qualified starters. He could have been an interesting trade target had he duplicated his 2016 performance.
Unfortunately, Maikel Franco continues to disappoint. Baseball Prospectus considered him to be the team’s best prospect in 2014 when he debuted, and he just has not lived up to expectations. He was quite good in half a season in 2015, but was a below-average hitter last year, hitting .255/.306/.427 for a 92 wRC+. Now he is even worse with a 72 wRC+. He does have a .223 BABIP, but that does not explain away such an offensive drop. Worse still, he is a poor defender at the hot corner. He is only a month shy of 25, so it is tough to give up on him, but it is hard to ignore the fact that he has been trending downward for two years now.
There are problems in the minors as well. Last year’s number one pick, Mickey Moniak, is hitting only .268/.320/.386 in Low A, and he is struggling mightily against left-handed pitching. He is only 19 years old, though, and still has plenty of time to figure things out.
Of more concern is J.P. Crawford, a player once believed to be a superstar shortstop in the making. After performing very well in almost two seasons in Double A, he is struggling in Triple A. This year he is hitting only .218/.330/.350. It is odd, because you usually do not see such a drop off going from Double A to Triple A. There is not a huge difference between those levels. Even his defense might be worse in a recent online chat, ESPN’s Keith Law mentioned some recent negative reports he has received on Crawford recently. This does not mean that everyone should give up on him, but this turn of events is very worrisome.
But there is some good news, Phillies fans! Aaron Altherr is having a great season, hitting .288/.359/.539 with 14 HR. That adds up to a 132 wRC+ and 1.5 WAR. It is hard to know what to make of this, because he performed very poorly last year. He has a .358 BABIP, but he is also hitting the ball hard at a higher rate than ever. He has a 40 percent hard-hit rate, which was less than 30 percent the past two seasons. I would be very surprised if this were sustainable, but if this is even close to his true talent, that is a big win for the Phillies.
Then of course there is Aaron Nola. Due to injury and ineffectiveness, he was a replacement level player last year. Right now he has a 3.54 RA9 and 2.1 WAR. He had some bad BABIP luck last year, but where he was really unlucky was with his ridiculously low strand rate of 60.6 percent. Naturally, that has regressed to 76.8 percent this year. Last year he tried to be more of a groundball pitcher and it did not appear to work for him. His groundball and flyball rates are now more in line with his 2015 season, where he performed similarly to how he is performing now.
The upshot is that this rebuild, like many rebuilds, is not progressing in a clear, linear fashion. But that’s okay, especially if you recognize 2016’s major league success as the fluke it was. Perhaps fans would have preferred to see the Phillies improve over last year, but it is better for the team to be on track for the number one overall pick in the draft next year. Furthermore, now the front office has a better understanding of what they have and what needs improving. I understand if Phillies’ fans are disappointed with 2017, but the team’s future is still bright.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21. All WAR values are from Baseball Reference unless otherwise specified.