Partying Like It’s 1928 Again

MLB: Washington Nationals at Philadelphia Phillies
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Phillies are bad. This much we know. The club finished off a historically bad May by getting swept by one of the worst teams in baseball in the Miami Marlins. They were outscored 21-5 in the three game series, and finished the month with a minus-64 run differential. Take away that game against the Cubs on May 1st that they won 10-2, and the Phillies were outscored 161-89. That 10-2 victory was one of only six the Phils managed over the past 31 days. With a 6-22 mark, the team posted their worst May record since 1928, when they went 3-22. The 6-22 record was the franchise’s worst month since June 1997, when they finished 4-22.

Entering the month, there was some optimism flowing through the city. The Phillies finished April just one game under .500 (11-12), a feat that was slightly more impressive when you consider that they started the year 3-7. The offense was looking fairly solid, and if it wasn’t for the shoddy bullpen, the team might have had a few more wins. The young starting rotation was exhibiting some inconsistency, but veteran Jeremy Hellickson was off to an outstanding start, leading some fans to question what kind of prospects the front office could fetch in a July trade for the 30-year-old right-hander. In any case, the team was seemingly on pace to meet the 75 to 80 win goal that many set upon them. Of course, as we all know, the calendar turned to May and the Phillies turned into the Colorado Avalanche of Major League Baseball (for those that don’t follow hockey, the 2016-17 Avalanche are not a team you want to be compared to).

Take a look at some of these statistics, per Jayson Stark:

  • The Phillies won six straight games in April. They haven’t won two straight since. For the first time since that aforementioned month of June, the Phillies went an entire month without winning two straight games.
  • Their 17-34 start is the worst for the team since 1945.
  • The starting rotation went 2-16 in May and pitched to a 6.55 ERA.
  • The last time the Phillies made it through an entire game without trailing at all was May 1st. For those keeping score at home, that means the Phillies have fallen behind in 27 straight games. 27! Stark says that he doesn’t know if that’s a record, but he thinks that it should be.

Stark also mentioned that the 2017 Phillies, who are on pace to lose 108 games, could actually be worse than the 1961 squad, which was one of the worst Phillies teams of all time due in part to their 23 game losing streak, which is the longest in MLB history. During this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad month, the starting pitchers have been horrid, the offense has forgotten how to score runs, and the bullpen… well, the bullpen has actually been good compared to how they performed in April. If it was up to the fanbase, Pete Mackanin, Bob McClure, and Matt Stairs would already be on the curb looking for new jobs. Alas, the Philadelphia Phillies aren’t run by the fanbase, but rather by John Middleton, Andy MacPhail, and Matt Klentak. As far as I know, I’m not one of those three gentleman, but if I was I would do the following five things to make the Phillies at least semi-watchable again.

 

white-flag-wave2
Comcast SportsNet

1. Fire Bob McClure

And how. The McClure hire was questionable at the time and it’s safe to say it really hasn’t worked out. The Phillies (who at the time were still under the tutelage of Ruben Amaro Jr.) were looking for a new pitching coach following the 2013 season. Rich Dubee, the pitching coach for nine seasons, was canned as Amaro said, “We believe it is time for a change as we move forward.”

McClure wasn’t even the Phillies first option that offseason. Amaro and Co. had initially pursued Roger McDowell, the Braves pitching coach who had received high praise for his work with both veteran pitchers and young hurlers alike. McDowell declined Amaro’s offer, and the latter turned his attention to Jim Benedict of the Pirates. Benedict, considered by some to be a pitcher whisperer, also turned down the club’s offer.

Amaro ended up reaching out to at least 12 candidates in 2013, eventually settling on McClure. At the time, the GM explained, “We are very, very happy to have Mac with us. I think his personality, his experience, some of the due diligence we did with how he handles himself as a person and as a coach kind of emphasize what he brings to the table.”

Bob’s track record wasn’t entirely impressive. He’s credited by some for helping Zack Greinke become an ace by encouraging him to commit to throwing a changeup. Coincidentally, Greinke didn’t fully commit until 2009, which was the year he won the AL Cy Young Award. Still, the Royals rotations he oversaw were never exactly top-tier, and his time in Boston is better left forgotten.

Now, admittedly, the struggles shouldn’t all be placed on McClure. During his time with the Royals, McClure didn’t have much to work with outside of Greinke and a young Joakim Soria. Just a sample of names that featured in KC’s starting rotation at some point or another during Bob’s tenure: Kyle Davies, Sean O’Sullivan, Brian Bannister, Odalis Perez, and a 35-year-old Brett Tomko among countless other castaways. In Boston, McClure had to deal with the likes of Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront, Aaron Cook, and a god-awful Daisuke Matsuzaka. He also had to endure working under Bobby Valentine. Valentine said in a radio interview that McClure “was on his two-week vacation,” referring to the latter’s leave of absence to attend to a medical emergency involving one of his toddlers.

Transitioning back to the Phillies, their arsenal of young arms impressed early on in 2016, and credit had to be given to McClure:

“All these years later, McClure remains unflappable. Only now he is with the Phillies, a rebuilding club that ranks a surprising first in the National League in shutouts, first in strikeout rate and fifth in ERA.

The Phillies current rotation includes four pitchers between the ages of 22 and 26–Aaron Nola, Vince Velasquez, Jerad Eickhoff and Adam Morgan–plus veteran Jeremy Hellickson, who is 29.

One Phillies official refers affectionately to McClure as ‘a mad scientist’ full of creativity, always generating ideas.

Whatever the case, McClure is connecting with his pitchers, getting his message across.”

Well, at some point between May 2016 and now, McClure has seemingly lost that aforementioned connection with his young arms. Eickhoff, who looked so promising in 2015 and 2016, has regressed. His BB% is up over two percent from last season (5.2 to 7.5), batters are hitting more off of him (his BAA, WHIP, and BABIP are all inflated compared to 2016), and he’s unable to strand as many baserunners as he has in the past (his LOB% has fallen from 80.4 in 2015 to 70.1 this season). Jerad pitched to an ERA- of 88 last season. That figure has ballooned to 113 in 2017.

Velasquez is the bigger issue. His peripherals are off all across the board. He’s striking out less guys (24.1 K% this season compared to 27.6% in 2016), walking more (9.6 BB% compared to 8.2%), and letting up far more homers than he ever has before (he’s sitting at 1.98 HR/9, the highest mark he’s posted at any level during his professional career). His ERA- and FIP- aren’t pretty either: he posted marks of 100 and 94 in these areas last season. This season, he’s sitting at 133 and 120, respectively. Part of the reason? He might be relying on his fastball too much:

Brooksbaseball-Chart

Vince is throwing his fastball close to 70 percent of the time this season. In April, he threw the pitch roughly 66 percent of the time, and in May that figure increased about three percent. In 2016, however, Velasquez tossed his heater more than 61 percent of the time in a month just once. From June to September, he used it less than 60 percent of the time.

Naturally, if a pitcher is using their fourseamer more often, it means they’re not utilizing their secondary pitches as much. In the above chart, you can see that Velasquez isn’t throwing his sinker or his changeup nearly as often as he was last season.

Another reason for Vince’s struggles is definitely his inefficiency on the mound. Excluding his most recent start against Miami, Velasquez has made nine starts this season, and failed to see past the sixth inning in all but three of them. If you’re going to be a starting pitcher, you can’t consistently have 90-plus pitches in the fifth inning. You’re not only putting yourself at a disadvantage by doing that, but you’re unnecessarily taxing the bullpen as well.

Velasquez recently came out and explained, “I guess no matter what or how I feel, there’s no adjustments being made at all…I don’t know. I’m just clueless right now. I’m just running around like a chicken without a head. I don’t know what I’ve got to do but I just know there’s something.” When your 24-year-old starting pitcher says something like that, the blame needs to go on the pitching coach. One of the main responsibilities of the pitching coach is (shockingly) coaching the pitchers on your staff. When one of your guys relates his performance to a chicken running around without a head, that’s a major red flag.

I don’t have any opinions about who the Phillies should get to replace McClure. I think it’s clear that he’s just about run his course here, though. A replacement needs to be made, and it needs to be made as soon as possible.

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Tony Gutierrez-Associated Press

2. DFA Michael Saunders

When the fanbase wanted the front office to go out and spend some money last offseason, I guess they didn’t mean spend $8.0 million on Saunders. The former Toronto outfielder has been a major bust, and while the motives behind the signing were understandable at the time it’s clear that the transaction just wasn’t meant to be.

Klentak and the Phillies were banking on Saunders performing like he did in the first half of 2016 as opposed to the second half. At one point in early July, Saunders was slashing .302/.377/.560 with 16 home runs. He finished the season slashing just .253/.338/.478 with 24 dingers. To this point in 2017, Saunders’ triple-slash line is a putrid .225/.268/.402. He’s been below replacement level both at the dish and in the field, and if it wasn’t for his contract I’d imagine he would’ve been released already.

Saunders might be striking out at a lesser clip than he did last season in Toronto, but he’s also walking less. His ISO of .224 was clearly unsustainable, as it’s down to .178 this year. Mike’s wRC+ is also below average (74). After 179 PA’s, the 30-year-old has a negative WAR (-0.1), WPA (-0.89), and UZR (-1.8).

I get the idea behind signing Saunders: if it all works out and he performs well, you buy a little more time for some of your outfield prospects and flip Mike for a prospect or two at some point before or at the deadline. It’s the same reason Klentak has acquired guys like Hellickson, Buccholz, Pat Neshek, and Joaquin Benoit. It’s clear that the move hasn’t worked out. The positive thing? Saunders only signed a one-year contract (with a team option, but that was never going to be picked up). The negative thing? At this point in time, especially with two intriguing outfield prospects knocking on the door over in Allentown, you need to admit that signing Saunders was a mistake and DFA him. If he doesn’t accept a demotion, all you can do at that point is eat the money.

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Associated Press

3. Demote Maikel Franco 

Franco’s performance this season has been extremely worrisome. At one point tabbed as the future at third base (or potentially first base) for the Phils, Franco’s solid rookie season is starting to seem like a mirage. You might remember that he hit .280/.343/.497 that season, hitting 14 round-trippers and driving in 45 runs in the process. He struck out 52 times and walked 26, good enough for a 0.50 BB/K ratio.

All good things must come to an end, though. Franco regressed last season to the tune of a .255/.306/.427 triple-slash, albeit with 25 four-baggers and 67 RBI’s. He was striking out more and walking less, but if he could hit close to 30 homers and keep his average around .260, perhaps he could get away with that trend. Instead, at this point in 2017, Franco bucked the trend. His BB% and K% are back to where they were in 2015. However, the young third baseman has struggled mightily to the tune of a .222 average and an ugly .625 OPS.

A look at Franco’s peripherals would indicate that not a ton has changed. His line drive percentage is up, his infield fly ball percentage is way down (17.1% to 6.1%), and he’s making less soft contact and more hard contact than before. Yeah, his BABIP is unusually low (.222) and his HR/FB ratio is lower than it was in 2015 and 2016 (12.2% this year compared to 15.9% in ’15 and 14.6% in ’16), but those statistics tend to even out over the course of a season. They won’t always revert back to the norm, but I digress. So, why is Franco struggling so much this season?

Perhaps the slider is what’s doing him in. Per FanGraphs, Franco has faced the slider more this season than he ever has before in the bigs. He’s seen a slider 26.6 percent of the time in ’17, up about six percent from 2015 and seven percent from 2016. It would appear, utilizing FanGraphs Pitch Value statistic, that Franco hasn’t yet been able to adapt to the sliders of opposing pitchers. If you’re not familiar with Pitch Values, here’s a brief recap (you can read a more thorough description here):

“The Pitch Type Linear Weights (“Pitch Values”) section on FanGraphs attempts to answer the question, ‘How well has a better/pitcher performed against/using a certain pitch?’

There are two different types: total runs by pitch (which is denoted as wFB, wSL, etc.) and standardized runs by pitch (denoted by wFB/C, wSL/C, etc.). Total runs by pitch=the total runs above average that a hitter has contributed against that pitch or total runs saved by a pitcher using that pitch. Standardized runs by pitch=essentially the same as the first type, but the values are standardized on ‘per 100 pitch’ basis.

If you see a wFB/C of 1.50, you can generally say that hitter was successful against fastballs that year. It’s not always that simple, but that’s the basic idea.

A score of zero is average, with negative scores being below average and positive scores being above average for both hitters and pitchers. In general, pitches will generally fall somewhere between +20 and -20 runs. This is conditional, though. Fastballs fall into the -20 to +20 range regularly, but sliders are more typically in the -10 to +10 range.

On a per 100 pitch basis, the range shrinks to -1.5 to +1.5 for fastballs and -5 to +5 for other types of pitches.”

This season, Franco has a -4.63 wSL/C figure and a -9.0 wSL figure. This would indicate that Maik has been woefully inadequate against the slider. He’s right at the far edge of both Pitch Value ranges, which is a location he’s only been at once during his major league career: his 2014 “cup-of-coffee” season. If Franco is going to survive in the bigs, he needs to learn how to effectively face a slider. Perhaps a demotion to AAA (or maybe even lower than that) would be immensely valuable. If not, I hear a certain elite third baseman will hit the free agent market in about a year.

I know there are many on the “Demote Odubel Herrera!” train. I’m not one of them. At least, I’m not on the train quite yet. There’s a reason El Torito just got a five year, $30.5 million contract (with two team options) in the offseason. He proved to be above-average at the plate in 2015 and 2016, and while he’s not hitting much this season, he’s been one of the best fielders in the league per UZR (8.4) and UZR/150 (30.1). He’s first on the UZR/150 leaderboard, and second in the UZR rankings, behind just Mookie Betts. I truly believe that Herrera will break out of this slump that he’s currently in. Unlike Franco, Herrera has earned the right to have a longer leash.

4. Promote Roman Quinn 

The kid is ready. His service clock already started, and the Super 2 Deadline has passed, so they shouldn’t be used as excuses. Over the past month, each member of the Phillies has looked completely monotonous and miserable. The team desperately needs some type of spark, and I think Quinn can be the guy to provide that spark.

He’s currently slashing .274/.344/.389 with the IronPigs, with two home runs, 13 RBI, and 10 stolen bases. Those might not be gaudy numbers, but consider that over his last 30 games, he’s hitting .308/.391/.462 with seven stolen bases in ten attempts. The strikeout-to-walk ratio isn’t exactly pretty (49/18), but over that 30 game stretch, he’s struck out 28 times and walked 15. So, he’s starting to earn a free base more often.

A second-round draft pick in 2011 by the Phillies, Roman just turned 24 years old last month. He’s got 80 grade speed, he can play the field well, and he’d inject some life into what is an otherwise lifeless Phillies squad. It’s understandable to want to leave prospects like Rhys Hoskins, Dylan Cozens, and Scott Kingery down. Tommy Joseph is smacking the cover off the ball, Cozens could use some more seasoning with Lehigh Valley, and Cesar Hernandez deserves to be the starter until at least the deadline, if not the rest of the season. There’s no reason for Quinn to be toiling around in the minors at this point. It’s time for him to get the call.

5. Promote Ben Lively and Nick Pivetta

With Velasquez’s injury and Zach Eflin‘s recent demotion, the Phillies are going to need two new arms to slot into the rotation. Now, to be completely honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if they only called up one of the guys listed above along with Adam Morgan. However, Lively has proven that he deserves to be on the major league roster. He’s been one of the Phillies best minor league arms throughout the first two months, and at 25 probably won’t develop much more than he already has. Lively doesn’t walk many guys, he strikes out a fair amount, and he tends to keep the ball in the yard. It’s time to see what he can do in red pinstripes.

I’d like to see Tom Eshelman pitch several more games at AAA just to prove May wasn’t a fluke. Seeing as there aren’t many other options–Mark Appel has been a dumpster fire and Jake Thompson could benefit from a bit more time with the Pigs–Pivetta makes the most sense to rejoin the rotation. The Phillies don’t need a fifth starter immediately, so Pivetta could stand to remain with Lehigh Valley for just a while longer.

Now, I understand the argument that you don’t want to bring the young guys up to a toxic losing environment. You don’t want to ruin their confidence. Still, the Phillies are the worst team in baseball. People expecting this team to possibly finish .500 probably should have entered the season with lower expectations. All things considered, though, the club wasn’t supposed to be this bad.

Some moves need to be made. As I mentioned earlier, to the best of my knowledge I’m not John Middleton, Andy MacPhail, or Matt Klentak, so I don’t know what changes need to be made in order for this team to become watchable again. I trust that the previous three individuals are aware of the issues with the club at this point in time, though, and will do what it takes to make sure the Phillies become respectable on the field again sooner rather than later. Honestly, what else can I do when it comes to Philadelphia sports other than Trust the Process?

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