Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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Are the Phillies actually this good? Four reasons why MLB’s best team could sustain this wild run

At 38-17, the Philadelphia Phillies are off to the second-best 55-game start in franchise history, behind only the 1993 pennant-winning team that started 39-16. Philadelphia won 34 times in 44 games earlier this year. It was the best 44-game stretch in team history. They had the best record through 50 games since the 2001 Mariners team that set a single-season record with 116 wins.

The Phillies have baseball’s best record, one game ahead of the Yankees, and they have the second-best run differential at plus-89. They’re scoring 5.33 runs per game, most in baseball by 0.27 runs, and they’re allowing only 3.71 runs per game. That’s fifth best in the game. The Phillies were very good from 2022-23. This year they’ve made the jump to top of the class.

We’ve seen other teams get off to tremendous starts in recent years and not turn it into a World Series title — the Yankees started 49-16 in 2022, the Rays started 47-19 in 2023, etc. — but the Phillies are in it for all the glory. They won the pennant in 2022 and fell a win short of the pennant in 2023. They want to get over the hump and win the World Series, not just the NL East.

Are the Phillies really this good? Well, no, they’re (probably) not going to continue on their current pace and win 112 games, but this team is very good. Better and deeper than the 2022 and 2023 versions. Here are four reasons to believe the Phillies are as good as their record indicates, and that they can continue at a similar pace.

1. Few Phillies are playing over their head

We’re deep enough into the season now that we have a pretty good idea if those early-season hot streaks represented a legitimate breakout or just a well-timed hot streak. Sometimes a player (or two) comes out of the gate scorching hot, carries his team to a few unexpected wins, then he cools down and everything returns to normal. That’s just baseball. It happens every year.

These Phillies have few players who are performing at a level that appears unsustainable though. Bryce Harper, Aaron Nola, and Zack Wheeler aren’t doing anything out of line with the rest of their careers. Alec Bohm’s improved approach supports what looks like a breakout season and not two outlier months. Bryson Stott and J.T. Realmuto are doing exactly what they’re expected to do.

That isn’t to say we should expected everything to continue the way it is for the Phillies. As much as I like him, Ranger Suárez is not a true talent 1.75 ERA pitcher (no one is). His improved strikeout rate and ability to limit hard contact makes him an above-average starter, for sure, but that sub-2.00 ERA has a shelf life. Suárez’s 81.8% strand rate is well north of his 75.8% career average.

Cristopher Sánchez has one of the best changeups in baseball and was a trendy breakout pick coming into the season, and he is indeed breaking out. At the same time, he’s allowed one home run in 54 1/3 innings. His 0.17 HR/9 will climb eventually. Edmundo Sosa and Kody Clemens won’t get so many clutch hits. Spencer Turnbull is already coming back to Earth. So on and so forth.

The Phillies haven’t been carried to their 38-17 record by players performing far over their heads. If anything, they have a few players we should expect more from moving forward — Kyle Schwarber hasn’t had his annual June hot streak yet, for example — to even out the players who likely have regression coming their way. There aren’t many anomalous performers here.

2. The improved defense is for real

It’s no secret the Phillies have been a poor defensive team in recent years. The was true during their pennant run in 2022 and also last season, when they returned to the NLCS. They overcame their poor defense with a powerhouse offense and a pitching staff that missed bats aplenty, but yeah, the Phillies shot themselves in the foot with poor glovework on the regular.

Philadelphia took steps to improve their defense in-season last year, most notably installing Johan Rojas in center field and putting Harper at first base. They moved Schwarber from left field to DH and slid Brandon Marsh, himself a very good defender, over from center field to left. It improved the outfield defense greatly. Harper has improved at first as he’s gained experience as well.

Those changes to the defensive alignment carried over into this season and the result is the best fielding Phillies team in years. Here are their defensive numbers:

Defensive efficiency Defensive runs saved Outs above average

2024

.698

+9

+4

2023

.695

-30

-4

2022

.687

-33

-38

2021

.687

-54

-22

Defensive efficiency is a fancy way of saying percentage of batted balls converted into outs, so the Phillies have converted 69.8% of their batted balls into outs this year, up from 69.5% last year and 68.7% from 2021-22. The MLB average defensive efficiency is .699, so the Phillies are right there. League average is a big step up from 2021-23 for this group.

Better defense helps in so many ways. It’s not just more outs on balls in play. It’s fewer pitches for the guy on the mound, less work for the bullpen, less time the position players are standing on their feet, etc. There’s a domino effect on the rest of the team. The Phillies are playing good — legitimately good! — defense for the first time in years, and it shows in their record.

3. They’ve had a favorable schedule, but …

The Phillies are 8-3 against teams that are .500 or better this year. That’s a great winning percentage! It’s also the fewest games played against .500 or better teams in baseball, and not by a small margin either. The Royals have played 16 such games, the second fewest. Plain and simple, the Phillies have played a lot of bad teams.

But! But there are buts here. First and foremost, there straight up aren’t many good teams out there. This is a result of many things. Many scaled back their offseason spending because of the uncertain local television revenue landscape. Others are tanking. The 12-team format lowered the bar for entry into the postseason, so some teams are shooting for 84-86 wins. It is what it is.

Only six of the 15 National League teams have a winning record, and the Giants and Padres had to win Monday to get a game over .500. To show the absurdity of the “record against teams .500 or better” stat, the Phillies are 8-3 against those teams this year but would have been 4-2 had they beaten the Giants on Monday because San Francisco would have been 27-28 instead of 28-27.

The Phillies haven’t played many winning teams because there aren’t many of them in the NL to start with, and also because they’ve yet to play the most difficult portion of their interleague schedule (they’ll see the Orioles in June and the Yankees in July). The few winning teams they have played, they’ve beaten handily. Credit to them for winning the game they’re supposed to win.

4. The Braves are hurting and the Mets are the Mets

There’s no other way to say it: Ronald Acuña Jr.‘s and Spencer Strider’s season-ending injuries flat out suck. They suck for the Braves and they suck for baseball at large. Two of the best and most exciting players in the game are done for the year. We won’t see them until sometime next season, and once they do return, how long will it take them to get back to their old selves?

The Acuña and Strider injuries are unfortunate, but injuries are part of the game, and no one feels sorry for Atlanta. I mean, the Braves won the World Series three years ago after Acuña tore his other ACL. They faced an Astros team that didn’t have Justin Verlander. The Rangers won the World Series last year without Jacob deGrom. Injuries happen. Good teams overcome them.

That all said, the fact of the matter is the Braves are a weaker team today than they were on Opening Day. They lost their best pitcher and their best position player for most of the season. Add in their uneven play these first two months, and the Braves are six games behind the Phillies right now, their largest division deficit since Aug. 12, 2022. They have an uphill climb ahead of them.

Acuña’s and Strider’s injuries are bad for the Braves and baseball in general but good for the Phillies as they try to win their first NL East title since 2011. It sounds cruel, but it’s true, right? The Braves are compromised and thus Philadelphia has an easier path to the division title. Will they take advantage? That remains to be seen, but their biggest competitor is shorthanded big time.

Also, the Mets are doing what the Mets always seem to do, which is fall short of expectations. They’ve lost 22 of their last 32 games and are already out of the division race. They’re 14.5 games back! The Mets are focused on the wild card. The Nationals are getting better but aren’t ready to contend yet. The Marlins? The less said about them, the better. They’re a mess.

The Phillies have started the season very well and they’ve built themselves a six-game lead in the NL East. Atlanta’s injuries and the Mets’ Metsiness — circumstances beyond Philadelphia’s control — create an easier path to the division title for the Phillies, at least in theory. They could blow it and the Braves could win the NL East anyway. The stars are aligned for Philadelphia now though.


The Phillies are not perfect. Outside of a few good games here and there, Nick Castellanos is not hitting, and they need him to get his season on the rails. The middle of the bullpen is shaky, though Philadelphia has the luxury of remaining patient and seeing whether things improve before making a move (or more than one) at the trade deadline. There are flaws, but, for the most part, the Phillies are an excellent team playing excellent baseball. Their place atop the standings is not a fluke.

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