The Phillies Return To Relevance

Remember the 2011 National League Division Series between the Phillies and Cardinals and the epic pitchers’ duel between the late Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter? The Cards won that game 1-0 behind Carpenter and ended the Phillies’ 102-win season. Turns it out that was the last happy moment for the Phils. They haven’t had a winning season since and spent the last five years in complete irrelevance. But it looks like the dark years are over and a new era of winning is ahead.

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Philadelphia is 27-19 and just a game and a half back of the Atlanta Braves in a four-team NL East logjam, as we approach the Memorial Day turn. Even better, this strong start looks for real, with the Phillies winning in sustainable fashion.

Starting pitching and patience at the plate are two good ingredients for success in the course of a long baseball season. Philadelphia has both. They rank second in the National League in drawing walks and are third in starting rotation ERA.

Two significant offseason veteran acquisitions could explain the change by themselves. Jake Arrieta was signed on the free agent market after the Cubs—and it seems the rest of major league baseball—decided he was finished. Instead, pitching in hitter-friendly Citizens’ Bank Park, Arrieta has posted a 2.82 ERA in his eight starts. On the offensive side, the Phils added Carlos Santana. A veteran of the recent playoff teams in Cleveland, Santana consistently covers up bad batting averages (.186 so far this year) with an amazing ability to get walks (.313 OBP).

The development of young players, both pitching and in the everyday lineup, have worked in tandem with the veteran upgrades. Aaron Nola has been the Phils’ best starting pitcher, with his 2.37 ERA. Nick Pivetta is throwing the ball well, with a 3.23 ERA in ten starts. Vince Velasquez is pitching respectably, with his 4.18 ERA good enough for the back end of the rotation.

Offensively, rightfielder Rhys Hoskins and second baseman Cesar Hernandez are following in the Santana mode of drawing their walks. If you see a player with an on-base percentage that’s 100 points over his batting average, you are looking at a player with exceptional knowledge of the strike zone. Hoskins’ spread is 146 (.373 to .237). Hernanedez’ spread is 111 (.388 to .277). In the bigger picture, it’s more important to hit than draw walks, but at this point in the season, I like to see a team showing patience—for the simple reason that patience doesn’t slump.

And if you want the position player who can simply drive the baseball? Let’s meet Odubel Herrera, coming into his own with a .345 batting average and .542 slugging percentage. Herrera has been one of the National League’s best offensive threats in the early part of this season.

The bullpen has been shaky and rookie manager Gabe Kapler did the right thing this past weekend in making a shuffle at closer. Hector Neris has been inconsistent, while Edubrary Ramos has been excellent. Ramos got his first save chance on Sunday and cashed it in. His ERA is a sparkling 0.96. At least stabilizing the ninth inning gives Kapler a foundation to put together the rest of his bullpen, currently lacking in depth.

Washington remains the top-heavy favorite to eventually pull away in this race and I won’t be the one to challenge that consensus wisdom. I will say this though—if the Nationals have an off-year, it’s the Phillies, rather than the Braves or Mets, who are the best bet to fill the void.