By July 24, the Phillies had convinced the Fangraphs playoff projections that they had the best shot of any NL East team of making the playoffs. Part of that was the Nationals going into a tailspin, but mostly it was that the Phillies had played their way into a decent position. They were 12 games over .500 and they had just ridden a walk-off win against the Dodgers to reclaim the top of the division. Even if they couldn’t stave off the Braves, they would always have the Wild Card to fall back on.
Then August happened. The Phillies won one series all month and that came against the Marlins. They split a four-game series, but that was against the Mets. They were outscored 131-112. They should consider themselves lucky they only went 13-14 over the month.
But the NL Wild Card is highly competitive, and a poor month has sent them to four games back of the Braves and 3.5 games back of the Wild Card after Labor Day. After Monday, the Phillies were as close to the Nationals as they were to the second Wild Card Spot. Fangraphs has their playoff odds at less than half of what they were just over two weeks ago. They were at 67.5 percent as of August 17. As of September 4, they were 29.3.
Of course, this isn’t completely unexpected. Sure, the pitching has been excellent. From Cy Young candidate Aaron Nola to Zach Eflin, the Phillies’ rotation has been among the best in the majors. The Phillies are fourth-best in the majors by combined starter fWAR. Jake Arrieta has been their least valuable starter, and he’s been pretty good at 1.8 fWAR.
No matter how good their pitchers have been, that doesn’t make up for the Phillies inability to field or hit the ball. The Phillies have the absolute worst defense by DRS at -113 and they made no efforts to amend that issue with trades. If anything, they doubled down on clankmitts. The Phillies added Asdrúbal Cabrera (-17 DRS at second), Justin Bour (-4 DRS at first), and Jose Bautista (-1 and 0 DRS at third and right field respectively but -22 UZR/150 in right field).
Bour and Cabrera haven’t done anything to stave off the Phillies’ offensive woes either. On the season, the Phillies have just a 91 wRC+ which ties them with the Diamondbacks. Arizona is likely underestimated by wRC+ because the addition of the Chase Field humidor has knocked things out of whack. The Phillies will also look worse according to park-adjusted metrics, but even by traditional numbers, things look dire. As a team, they’re slugging just under .400 and they have the third worst strikeout percentage.
The Phillies have had their share of disappointing offensive seasons. Cabrera hasn’t been effective since coming over from the Mets. Carlos Santana has been merely average. César Hernandez has a higher on base percentage than slugging. But the most worrying development has been the disappearance of Odubel Herrera.
Herrera began the season as hot as anyone, but he’s just gotten worse as the season has gone on. His OPS by month goes as follows:
Herrera was one of the few helping Rhys Hoskins carry the offense, but lately, he’s become more of a liability than anyone. Herrera had a 53 wRC+ in August as he stopped hitting for power.
But the most concerning thing for the Phillies was that their August wasn’t really that unusual for them. They didn’t hit any worse than they normally do. Their pitching wasn’t substantially worse. They weren’t unlucky. With the exception of Herrera, they played to the back of their baseball cards more or less.
They just had their second sub-.500 month because as it turns out, they’re probably not that good.
August wasn’t a good month, but it wasn’t their worst month. Ordinarily when a team falls out of a playoff position, the thought is that they just need to get back on track. The Phillies’ problem is that they didn’t really fall off the track at all.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score, McCovey Chronicles, and BP Wrigelyville. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.