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The Phillies are locked in NL East purgatory

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The Philadelphia Phillies head into 2021 with the same strong lineup and a mildly improved pitching staff. Does it even matter in their division?

MLB: New York Yankees at Philadelphia Phillies Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Suppose you’re operating a baseball team.

This team you operate features a borderline generational talent in right field. There’s a former MVP in left field. You need roster perhaps the best catcher in the game. You’ve got an up-and-coming star at third base and a thumper of a Sac State product on the other side of the diamond at first.

Your rotation has a couple of frontline starters. This, you realize, you can work with. Then you gaze upon the landscape that is the rest of your division.

Unfortunately, this is the story of the 2021 Philadelphia Phillies.

First, a word about Bryce Harper. Without getting too hot take-y, it does seem as if a lot of the world has somewhat forgotten how excellent a player the Phillies have in right field.

To be fair, the narrative around Harper as “overrated” has always existed and never really subsided, for one reason or another. It’s not new. Early in his career, it was that he played too hard. Now it’s more just a blasé declaration of him being overrated and overpaid with little evidence provided to confirm. More than anything, just to remind folks, look at some of these percentile rankings:

Bryce Harper percentile rankings
via Baseball Savant

I’m sweating.

One thing not really illustrated here is Harper’s patience. He sees typically just over four pitches per plate appearance. He cut his whiff percentage back down to his career averages last season (12.2 percent). His 72.6 percent contact rate was the highest it’s been since 2017. And as the figures above indicate, when he swings, and makes contact, it hurts the baseball. Harper has had a hard hit rate of at least 40 percent in each of the last three seasons. He’s in the 92nd percentile.

The degree to which he makes hard contact elevates him in every facet of the game. That’s why his xwOBA is in the 99th.

You’re supposed to reach base when you strike the ball that hard. You’re supposed to get extra bases (looking at that xISO) when the ball is in the air 80 percent of the time.

Simply put: Harper’s approach at the plate is extraordinary and it’s led to some obscenely impressive underlying stats. His swing is as effective as it is aesthetically pleasing.

Beyond Harper, though, the offense is...good! J.T. Realmuto is perhaps the best all-around catcher in baseball.

Rhys Hoskins brings plenty of offense to compensate for his miserable defense.

Alec Bohm had a really nice rookie season at third (.381 wOBA, 139 wRC+) and looks to be a budding star in this lineup.

Didi Gregorius had a nice first season in Philly, while Jean Segura and Andrew McCutchen are nice supplementary pieces, even at this point in their career.

It’s a good group with some depth to it. And as much as we’d like to spend time fleshing out each of their respective offensive upsides, there’s a far more sinister force at play here: the pitching.

The following is where the Phillies ranked in terms of their staff:

Starters

ERA: 4.08 (10th)
xFIP: 3.64 (2nd)
K/9: 9.52 (8th)
BB/9: 2.84 (10th)
Contact%: 77.2 (11th)
Whiff%: 10.9 (13th)
Hard%: 27.2 (2nd)

There’s definitely more room for optimism on the starting pitching front. When you’re working with Nola and Wheeler out of the gate, then you’ve got reason for it. There’s even more room for it if Zach Eflin can take another step forward, having posted the best “full” season of his career to date, with a K/9 over 10, a career-best 2.29 BB/9, and a xFIP of 3.23. His groundball rate was also up a few percentage points, at a hair over 47 percent. That’s an extremely formidable top three. It gets a little questionable beyond that, as there is some uncertainty in the form of Spencer Howard (more on him later), Vince Velasquez, Matt Moore, and (probably) Chase Anderson. Nonetheless, it’s a decent enough group with a top three that probably compensates for the lack of clarity on the backend.

HOWEVER.

Phillies, your bullpen...woof. This is where the relievers fell in those same categories:

Relievers

ERA: 7.06 (30th)
xFIP: 4.61 (18th)
K/9: 9.82 (12th)
BB/9: 4.21 (17th)
Contact%: 74.2 (15th)
Whiff%: 12.1 (13th)
Hard%: 36.6 (27th)

Even if you were to take out the truly abominable numbers from this list, they’re still in the bottom half of the league...but you can’t ignore the worst.

The Phillies’ relief corps didn’t miss a ton of bats, but they were still middle-of-the-pack in surrendering contact overall. It’s when that contact occurred that they got into trouble. They gave up just an obscene amount of hard contact. And while the starters had the second-best groundball rate against in the league (49.1 percent), the relievers were down at 13th (42.8 percent). That’s not a completely terrible figure, but when you compound the tendency to elevate more so against the bullpen with that hard contact rate, you’re going to get into serious trouble. Which they did. To the tune of that 7.06 ERA. There aren’t a lot of underlying numbers that do much to salvage how bad this group was.

Perhaps the good news is that they did assemble some additions to ‘pen.

While thus far unable to replicate his 2017 peak, Archie Bradley is coming off of a really strong year with Arizona and Cincinnati that included a Hard% of 33.3. Conversely, José Alvarado is coming off of a brutal season in which he pitched just nine innings. And while his walk numbers are concerning, he does induce some pretty heavy strikeout numbers, doesn’t give up a lot of hard contact, and typically gets the ball on the ground at a clip around 50 percent. Historically, the movement on his pitches alone has been reason for excitement. And there’s no way Héctor Neris will throw as poorly as he did last season, especially if he can get his walks back down to his career averages to his career norm after a 5.40 BB/9 last season.

Additionally, the team has Brandon Kintzler, Tony Watson, and Héctor Rondón in camp as non-roster guys. Kintzler has had a nice couple of years with the Cubs and Marlins thanks, largely, to obscene groundball numbers. Watson, unspectacular as he may be, doesn’t walk guys. And Rondón, despite a mediocre 2019 in Houston and a brutal 2020 in Arizona, has high leverage experience in the past with the Cubs. Maybe the volume approach works and the Phils are able to capture some lightning with at least a few of these arms.

In any case, it’s unlikely that the group could be much worse than they were in 2020.

The biggest wild card of the arms looks to be Spencer Howard. The Phillies’ top prospect didn’t come close to realizing his potential in his 24.1 innings of work in 2020. Understandable, given the context of...*gestures broadly at everything*. He posted high strikeout numbers and a declining walk rate during his time in the minors, which weren’t quite realized in his short 2020. He wasn’t hit overly hard (31.6 percent), though, and while his walk rate wasn’t awful, at 3.70/9, he did have a .329 BABIP working against him. So there was high traffic and a lack of groundball contact (38.0 percent). The question of his role is set to be sorted this spring, as to whether or not he’ll be in the rotation, the bullpen, or in Lehigh Valley. Ultimately, the fastball-slider combination should serve him well as he continues his development and could end up giving the Phillies a dynamite top four in their rotation. That’s a best case scenario, of course.

Have I talked myself into the Phillies? Yes. I like them far more than FanGraphs (16.1 percent playoff odds) and Baseball Prospectus (PECOTA has them at 11 percent to win the division).

But also no. Again, the Phillies are not a bad baseball team. They’re actually quite good! However, they have massive competition in the division. Atlanta still looks terrific, the Mets (on paper) are significantly improved, and the Nationals are just two years removed from a championship, with a few notable improvements scattered throughout their roster.

Even the Marlins are one of the better “bad” teams in baseball. So it may not be a matter of the Phillies’ flaws that ultimately keep them on the outside of the postseason picture. Their shortcomings have become more minor, but ever-shrinking as they may be, they may not be able to transform those flaws into strengths in enough time to compete with the other heavy hitters that comprise their division.

Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.