The Philadelphia Phillies probably shouldn’t be this bad. Not that they were going to be surprise contender, but the fact that they managed to win 71 games in 2016 combined with some projected growth from their young core of players should have been enough to keep them above the absolute basement of the league.
Unfortunately, that projected growth hasn’t come for many key pieces of the Phillies young core. The stagnation ultimately doesn’t matter much for this season, as the Phillies had no realistic shot at contention regardless. But the lack of progress for the Phillies’ young position players — specifically Odubel Herrera, Maikel Franco, and Tommy Joseph — raise significant questions about how long this rebuild will ultimately take.
Herrera has probably been the least disappointing of the underperforming trio, but that’s akin to saying he’s the fanciest item at the dollar store. Herrera’s saving grace is his defensive capabilities. Defensive Runs Saved pegs him as saving nine runs so far this season, and Ultimate Zone Rating has him at nearly ten runs. Defensive metrics are not the end-all-be-all, but the fact that Herrera is on pace to post his third positive defensive season per the metrics support the idea that he is a quality defender out in center.
However, the shift in Herrera’s results at the plate are concerning. Here are Herrera’s walk rates over the past three seasons, including this one:
2015: 5.2 percent
2016: 9.6 percent
2017: 5.8 percent
When Herrera displayed newfound plate patience last season, the narrative was that he was rounding into form as a true leadoff hitter the Phillies could build around. But now, Herrera has played nearly two seasons with subpar walk rates versus just one with a good walk rate, and the solid season in between was buoyed by an out-of-nowhere 22.1 percent walk rate in April of that year.
The absence of free passes shouldn’t be surprising; at Herrera’s three minor league stops where he played over 100 games, he never posted a walk rate above six percent. But without the benefit of more walks, Herrera relies on above-average BABIPs to be a positive offensive contributor. And even this season, his .338 BABIP and career-high .165 ISO are not even enough to get him to league average at the plate, as he’s currently running a 95 wRC+. Herrera will remain at least somewhat valuable because of his defense, but he doesn’t currently resemble the top-of-the-order hitter he looked like in 2016.
Unlike Herrera, Maikel Franco does not have a strong defensive profile to fall back on. Franco has ranked somewhere between “passable” and “butcher” at third base, so he needs to hit to be a valuable player, and he’s failed to do so this season.
The regression in Franco’s offensive game is a cause for both concern and hope. Concern, of course, because he’s an offense-first player with a 75 wRC+ this season, but also hope because he’s shown at the big league level that he can be a good hitter, even if the proof came in a pretty small sample.
In 2015, Franco looked well on his way toward cementing himself in the middle of the Phillies lineup for the next half-decade. In 80 games that season, Franco slashed .280/.343/.497, showing a rare ability to hit for power (.217 ISO) without sacrificing a lot of contact (15.5 percent strikeout rate). Franco’s triple slash numbers each took a step back in 2016, and now again in 2017, to the point that he’s struggling to even reach replacement level, per Fangraphs WAR (-0.2).
Franco’s problems are tough to pinpoint, but to a large extent they come back to BABIP:
It would be easy to say that Franco should be fine with some better batted ball luck and leave it at that. But despite his respectable contact rate, he’s never been consistent when it comes to hitting the ball hard. His 28.7 percent hard contact rate ranks just 145th among qualifiers. In other words, while Franco is to some extent getting unlucky, he’s also not making enough luck of his own by squaring the ball up more consistently.
The tricky question here is if this is something that can change. Although Franco is not a total hacker, he’s shown a propensity to struggle against breaking pitches. Despite that, there is still hope he can come around. The bat-to-ball skills and raw power are still there, and Franco has made some positive adjustments on the margins, swinging less often at pitches outside the zone and making more contact when he does swing in the zone. He may not reach the promise he showed in 2015, but there’s still reason to believe he can get back to being an above-average hitter, and thus a useful major leaguer.
Unlike Franco, Tommy Joseph’s emergence for the Phillies last season was something of a surprise. The Phillies acquired Joseph from the Giants in 2012 in exchange for Hunter Pence, and at that point in time Joseph was a power-hitting catcher prospect. Concussions nearly derailed Joseph’s career, and they eventually caused him to toss aside the catcher’s gear in favor of a first base glove.
Therein lies the issue with Joseph. Joseph’s ability to overcome concussion issues to make it to the big leagues is a fantastic personal achievement. But the fact that he can no longer catch puts a lot more pressure on the bat to perform. The position change was less of an issue in 2016, when Joseph slashed .257/.308/505 as a rookie and the Phillies didn’t have a another first base option close by. But a downturn at the plate — and the continued development of first base prospect Rhys Hoskins — has turned Joseph into a trade candidate.
A closer look reveals Joseph is essentially the same player this season as he was last year, save for a 50-point dip in slugging percentage (.505 last year, .453 this year). Joseph has not been helped by a sharp decrease in his fly ball rate, which has dropped from 45.1 percent last season to 34.1 percent in 2017. Joseph’s profile as a big, burly slugger requires him to hit for power, and putting the ball in the air more often would go a long way to helping do that. And he better do it sooner than later, because Hoskins is standing by in Triple-A to take Joseph’s spot if he can’t get his power stroke going again.
It’s fair to wonder if the Phillies should consider making changes to the coaching staff. Manager Peter “iLove” Mackanin inherited the position on an interim basis when Ryne Sandberg stepped down during the 2015 season, and his handling of Herrera and Franco during their struggles has at times been questionable. Mackanin hasn’t shown the ability to get the best out of his players, particularly Herrera, who was recently benched again for lack of hustle, and a managerial change could be in order this offseason. Hitting coach Matt Stairs is still in his first season with the club, so perhaps another offseason of work with the trio will yield some better results.
But for now, there’s still two months left this season, and a strong finish from the trio would go a long way toward answering the questions they each face. 2017 will be the Phillies’ sixth consecutive season without a postseason appearance, and if this group of three players continues to struggle, more changes could be afoot before too long.
All stats current as of July 27, 2017.
Jeremy Klein is a writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @papabearjere.