MLB

The Phillies have surged into first place in the NL East; here are five ways they can stay there

In the span of two weeks, the Philadelphia Phillies went from sitting four games out of first place in the NL East to leading the division by two games. The Fightin’ Girardis have won eight straight games, their longest winning streak since a nine-gamer in 2011, and they swept the Mets out of the first place this past weekend. It was their most convincing performance in years.

“That’s the thing about this game, you have to stay in for the long haul,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi told reporters, including MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand, following Sunday’s win (PHI 3, NYM 0). “You can have bad weeks. We had a bad couple of weeks at one point during the season, but it’s a long season. You just have to keep doing your work, every day trying to get better and grinding things out.”  

The Phillies have not qualified for the postseason since 2011 (only the Mariners have a longer postseason drought) and SportsLine puts their current postseason odds at 45.4 percent. FanGraphs is even more optimistic and has them at 56.3 percent. A graph is worth a thousand words:

The Phillies have surged to the top of the NL East standings.
FanGraphs

Because the NL West is so stacked, it’s essentially division title or bust for NL East teams. You can’t count on the second wild card spot as a fallback plan. Either win the division or spend your October at home. The Phillies, thanks to their eight-game winning streak, are in first place and control their own destiny. They don’t need help from anyone the rest of the way.

With that in mind, here are five things that must happen for the Phillies to qualify for the postseason for the first time since Cliff Lee and the late Hall of Famer Roy Halladay fronted the rotation.

1. Awards frontrunners keep it up

In Bryce Harper and Zack Wheeler, the Phillies have leading candidates for the National League’s MVP and Cy Young awards. Heck, at this point Wheeler is an MVP candidate as well, not just a Cy Young candidate. He tossed a two-hit shutout against the Mets to complete the sweep Sunday. Wheeler leads baseball in innings (156) and strikeouts (181).

“I think I’ll always have that little chip on my shoulder,” Wheeler told Feinsand about beating his former team. “We’re all human. At the same time, you have to come here and concentrate, finish out the series with a win, and get out of here with a sweep.”  

Wheeler is one of those pitchers whose value transcends the days he starts because he eats up so many innings and spares the bullpen. He ranks second in baseball in six-inning starts (19), first in seven-inning starts (15, no one else has more than 12), and first in eight-inning starts (four). Wheeler is an ace defined. He provides quality and quantity when he’s on the mound.  

Sunday’s win gives Wheeler a 2.42 ERA and an MLB-leading 6.0 WAR on the season. Aaron Nola has labored this year (4.49 ERA in 22 starts) and a top starter having a down year could sink a team’s season, especially when that team is a fringe postseason club more than a clear-cut title contender. Wheeler has stepped in and assumed the mantle as staff ace. 

As for Harper, he slugged two homers against the Mets this past weekend, and he’s in the middle of a two-month rampage that has seen him hit .339/.437/.661 with 12 home runs since the admittedly arbitrary date of June 12. Since that date Harper is top five in each triple-slash category, and his season line is up to .302/.413/.570. This is his best season outside his MVP season in 2015.

The Phillies have a championship core in Harper, Wheeler, and JT Realmuto (and Nola when he’s right), though the supporting cast is not strong enough to carry the team to October should the star players falter. Harper and Wheeler have carried the Phillies into first place and continuing on their current awards candidate paces is imperative to reach the postseason.

2. Stick with Suárez as a starter

The bullpen has been a season-long headache for the Phillies (isn’t it always?), though one of the few bright spots has been lefty Ranger Suárez, who was unimpressive in up-and-down duty the last three seasons (4.66 ERA in 67 2/3 innings). This year Suárez came out with increased velocity and quickly assumed a late-inning role. He even saved four games in July.

Suárez became a full-fledged sinkerball pitcher this season (his 65.4 percent ground ball rate is fourth highest in baseball) and he’s also seen an uptick in velocity. Out of necessity (i.e. Matt Moore and others pitching poorly), the Phillies moved Suárez into the rotation two weeks ago, and he’s responded with 5 2/3 scoreless innings in two starts while on a pitch limit.

“They presented the idea to me. I am ready for whatever role they need me for. So this is what I need to do now for the team. And I think I’m ready to do it,” Suárez told reporters, including The Athletic’s Matt Gelb, about moving into the rotation. “My goal has always been to be a starting pitcher. So I was ready for that decision or possibility to happen. It was something that I wanted at some point. I think I’m going to be able to do this.”

Given his success as a reliever and the team’s perpetual bullpen woes, it’s fair to wonder whether moving Suárez into the rotation is the right move. He lacks a reliable breaking ball and has had issues turning over the lineup multiple times in the past. That said, this is a new Suarez. The sinker is a wipeout ground ball pitch and he’s sustained the newfound velocity in his two starts:

Ranger Suárez has seen his velocity increase quite a bit this season.
Brooks Baseball

“I feel like it moves enough to get the job done,” Suárez told reporters, including Matt Breen of the Philadelphia Inquirer, about his sinker earlier this season. “Any time I need a grounder, I feel like I can count on my sinker. When I see it, it moves. Maybe it doesn’t move as much as other pitchers’, but it moves enough for me.”  

Guys move to the bullpen and see their velocity spike all the time. It’s not often that they move back into the rotation and keep the same velocity, however. And to be fair, it is only two starts, but the early returns are promising. Suárez has a dominant sinker and a lot of new velocity. Those are tangible reasons to believe in his success (granted, he won’t continue to pitch to a 0.98 ERA because no one does that), so it’s worth keeping him in the rotation and finding out whether he can be reliable starting pitcher.

The Phillies have three veteran starters in Nola, Wheeler, and trade deadline pickup Kyle Gibson. Moore has pitched his way out of the rotation and Chase Anderson, Zach Eflin, and Vince Velasquez are all on the injured list, so the Phillies kinda need Suárez to start. They’re short on options behind the three veteran righties. The Suárez move was made out of necessity more than anything.

Moving Suárez into the rotation is doable because the Phillies added Ian Kennedy at the trade deadline, and also because Archie Bradley has been lights out since July 1 (one earned run in 15 innings). Those two have helped stabilize the late innings. Kennedy throwing fastball after fastball by Pete Alonso and JD Davis with the game on the line Saturday was something else.

Anderson and Velazquez have not pitched nearly well enough to be gifted a rotation spot when they return and Moore just isn’t working out. I thought he was a nice little roll of the dice signing following his strong 2020 season in Japan, but it’s not working. Suárez is the club’s best bet for quality innings behind Gibson, Nola, and Wheeler (and Eflin), so keep him in the rotation.

“I remember when we put him in the (bullpen) that we were thinking of, then he was closing games, and people are saying, ‘He’s never done that! He can’t do that,'” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told Gelb. “So now we’re moving him back to starter and people are saying, ‘Well, come on.’ And not just you. I mean, just a lot of people in general. But we think he can be a good starting pitcher.”  

3. Shelter Bohm

A year ago third baseman Alec Bohm was a clutch god who finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting. This year Bohm is hitting a weak .258/.311/.353 with seven home runs while being a major defensive liability. He made three errors against the Mets this past weekend and all three were routine plays a major-league third baseman should make.

Bohm is among the MLB leaders with 15 errors, and while errors are not always the best way to evaluate defense, they speak to Bohm’s defensive issues. He has stone hands and an inaccurate arm. He gets to the ball well enough, but he’ll let it clank off his glove or he’ll airmail the throw. Since Opening Day 2020, Bohm ranks dead last in baseball with minus-18 defensive runs saved.

If he were hitting like he did a year ago (.338/.400/.481), it would be easier to live with Bohm’s defense. He’s hitting .258/.311/.353, however, including .229/.279/.297 against righties. That’s pretty close to unplayable. It would be difficult to justify keeping Bohm in the lineup with that offense even if he were a Gold Glove third baseman, and he’s certainly not a Gold Glove third baseman. 

I don’t advocate benching Bohm. I do think the Phillies need to pick their spots with him though. First and foremost, I would not play him at third base when Gibson and Suárez start. They are pitch-to-contact ground ball guys who need a good defense behind them, and Bohm is too much of a liability. (Wheeler is a ground ball pitcher too, though he can miss bats in a way those two can’t.)

And second, Bohm should move into a platoon role. He’s struggled against righties this year but he’s crushed lefties throughout his fairly limited MLB career (.303/.374/.493) and that’s a useful skill. For now, the Phillies can run Ronald Torreyes out there at third base against righties until trade deadline pickup Freddy Galvis returns from his quad strain. At that point, the Phillies could do this: 

That’s essentially a Bohm/Galvis platoon. Neither Galvis nor Segura have much experience at third base, though Segura played it some last year whereas Galvis hasn’t played the position since 2014. Maybe there’s a better way to optimize the defense. The more important point is that it’s time to shelter Bohm. Platoon him against lefties and don’t put him at third when Gibson or Suárez start.

Bohm turned only 25 a few days ago and he is supremely talented. Talented young players require patience, Bohm included. He’s an important part of the future in Philadelphia. That said, the Phillies need to maximize wins right now, and their best possible lineup doesn’t necessarily include him every single game. They’re a better team when his playing time is limited.

4. Get healthy

Obvious statement is obvious. Like every team, the Phillies are at their best when they’re fully healthy, and right now they’re without several key players. Philadelphia currently has 11 players on the injured list (one COVID and the rest baseball injuries), including:

  • RHP Zach Eflin (third best starter behind Nola and Wheeler the last two years)
  • IF Freddy Galvis (.249/.306/.414 with the Orioles prior to the trade and injury)
  • OF Andrew McCutchen (.254/.369/.525 in his last 73 games prior to the injury)
  • RHP Connor Brogdon and RHP Sam Coonrod (two of the club’s more effective relievers)

Eflin has been out with a knee injury since mid-July and the team was hopeful he would return last week, but that didn’t happen, and there has been no update on his status since. Galvis (quad) and McCutchen (knee) could return fairly soon. Brogdon (forearm) and Coonrod (elbow) got hurt not too long ago and there’s no firm timetable for their return.

When healthy, Eflin would solidify the rotation and Galvis and McCutchen would lengthen the lineup. Brogdon and Coonrod would be upgrades over several pitchers currently in the back of the bullpen, like Enyel De Los Santos and Mauricio Llovera (on Saturday, Llovera became the second player ever to face at least three batters and give up a home run to each of them). All five are missed.

Also, it should be noted Rhys Hoskins is nursing a groin injury and did not play in this weekend’s series against the Mets. He is day-to-day and not on the injured list, but that’s a pretty important bat the team is without. Injuries are part of the game and no one feels sorry that the Phillies are without a solid starter and one of their better hitters (nd others). That said, getting healthy (and staying healthy) could be the difference in what has been a tight NL East race thus far.

5. Capitalize on a favorable schedule

The Phillies have a tough assignment this week. Monday is an off-day, then the powerhouse Dodgers come to Citizens Bank Park for a three-game set. Max Scherzer starts Tuesday, David Price starts Wednesday, then Julio Urías is likely to start Thursday. That will be a good measuring stick series for Philadelphia.

Even with the Dodgers series this week, the Phillies have one of the most favorable schedules in the National League. Their remaining opponents have a combined .459 winning percentage, the lowest in the league, and their remaining schedule includes:

  • 7 games against the last-place Diamondbacks
  • 6 games against the last-place Marlins
  • 4 games against the rudderless Rockies
  • 4 games against the last-place Pirates
  • 3 games against a torn-down Cubs team
  • 3 games against a torn-down Nationals team
  • 3 games against the last-place Orioles

Including the upcoming Dodgers series, the Phillies have 50 games remaining this season, and 30 of those 50 games are against those seven teams listed above. That’s an awful lot of games against some really bad teams. Really bad teams that will be more or less checked out on the season, and counting down the days until they can begin their offseason vacation.

The Mets, meanwhile, have a .514 remaining opponent’s winning percentage, fourth highest in the league. They already played all their games against the Cubs, D-Backs, Orioles, Pirates, and Rockies, and have not yet played a single game against the Dodgers and Giants. The Mets are struggling bad, and starting Friday, they’ll play 13 straight games against the Dodgers and Giants. Yikes.

As for the Braves, they have a .486 remaining opponent’s winning percentage. That’s fourth lowest in the league. They’re done with the Cubs and done with the Pirates, and still have nine games remaining against Los Angeles and San Francisco. Atlanta’s schedule is not as challenging as the Mets’ schedule, though it’s also not as favorable as the Phillies’ schedule either.

Of course, any team can beat any other team on any given day in this league, and a favorable schedule should not be confused for guaranteed wins. Case in point: Philadelphia is 1-2 against the terrible Rockies this year. I’d rather have the Phillies’ schedule over the Mets’ schedule though. The schedule is all set up for the Phillies to go on an extended run. Now they just have to do it.



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