It’s obvious on the face of the standings that the Phillies haven’t been playing great ball. After setting the pace in the NL East through early June, the club took a spill (dropping 11 of 13) and has limped along ever since at about a .500 rate of play. The Braves are largely cruising. The Nats just streaked past. The Mets are even back on their feet and in pursuit.
This is what all of that looks like in Fangraphs form: a bunch of jagged lines that signify devastating changes to the Phillies’ odds of appearing in the postseason. That chart, at least, shows that there’s still at least something like a one-in-five chance … at a coin-flip game to get a full playoff series. The division is the real prize. How are things looking there? Well, the descending jags are beginning to flatline.
More worrying still is the fact that the Phillies’ record may not even accurately reflect the team’s true state. Entering play today, the club was carrying a negative-20 run differential. By measure of BaseRuns — which looks not at actual runs or actual wins, but reasonably expected runs (and by translation wins) based upon underlying performance — the Phils have outperformed their theoretical win expectancy by a whopping seven games. The good news is that the team does not actually sit five games below .500. The bad news is that they have (broadly speaking) played like such a team, and project to play sub-.500 ball going forward.
I can already hear some readers’ alarm bells going off … what happened didn’t really quite happen? you can predict the future? Phooey! None of those fancy stats are gospel, true, though they do provide critical context for understanding outcomes that necessarily depend upon a vast array of factors. And it’s not as if other means of analyzing the situation provide cause for greater optimism. Phillies pitchers — especially starters — are giving up home runs by the bucket. (Analytical aside: the Phils’ three most successful starters — Aaron Nola, Zach Eflin, and Jake Arrieta — have also outperformed their FIP/xFIP/SIERA numbers.) Closer Hector Neris is suddenly on the ropes. What appeared at the outset to be a loaded lineup is now without one of its best pieces (Andrew McCutchen) and carries a distinctively middle-of-the-road .243/.322/.420 collective output.
This is a club that entered the season with huge expectations after promising its fans significant spending and going on to secure the services of McCutchen, Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura, and David Robertson. It’s not as if it’s totally out of the picture. Still, it doesn’t feel like a time for anything close to an all-in push.
And yet … here we are, reading about the Phillies’ broad canvassing of the starting pitching market. The club is reportedly looking into just about every starting pitcher named on MLBTR’s list of the top sixty free agents — including pure rental players, highly paid veterans, and younger/more controllable hurlers. From public reports, anyway, it seems to be the sort of open-ended approach that would seem better suited to a club in a clearer position to contend.
But it may be that we shouldn’t read too much into the laundry list of starting pitching targets. It would behoove the club to have a good sense of the price of all the arms, after all. And at some point, it’d be worth going ahead with a move even for a pending free agent if the acquisition cost is low enough. There’s no particular reason to believe the team would act in an overly rash manner, even if it has an obvious interest in seeing through its significant offseason investments. President Andy MacPhail and GM Matt Klentak have plenty of contractual security, so their incentives should be fully in line with those of the organization itself.
Notably, the club’s leadership hasn’t been shy about acknowledging the predicament. MacPhail seems quite realistic about the situation. It’s no question whether the team is “one trade away from the World Series,” he said: “We don’t believe that. I don’t believe that.” Well then. That doesn’t mean that the club won’t pursue additions, but the declining postseason odds will clearly influence the nature of the pursuit. MacPhail suggested the Phils would “be more judicious with [their] playing talent,” while noting that such hesitancy to give up high-end prospects “doesn’t mean you can’t make a deal where a component is taking on somebody’s salary.”
So, where do and where should the Phillies stand when the deadline hits? That’ll obviously depend upon the final run of play, but presuming the situation remains roughly the same, there’s little doubt that a true all-in deadline approach would be unwise. The odds of a division title are minuscule; chances at a Wild Card are rather low. That said, there’s unquestionably value in pursuing even a play-in opportunity. Drawing fans down the stretch, convincing season-ticket holders to re-up for 2020, maintaining roster morale, preparing for another offseason of player recruiting (free agents and extension targets), adding players who’ll feature on future rosters … there are causes aplenty even beyond that of boosting the odds of a postseason berth itself. And even a Wild Card comes with an approximately 50/50 shot at earning a full series … and who knows from there?
What’s most interesting here is the fact that the Phillies are obviously especially willing to throw their financial heft into acquisition efforts. That may not be possible for quite a few other teams — even traditional big spenders have their limits and are facing luxury tax concerns — and opens up many creative possibilities. Perhaps a rental target or controllable starter could be packaged with a more expensive (albeit potentially still useful) player to reduce the prospect burden. Or the Philadelphia org can simply focus in on the higher-priced segment of the market as things shake out under the pressure of the impending deadline. Plus, while the Phils are seemingly clinging to prospects … who isn’t? There’s plenty of reason to think they can compete with cash — and, more importantly, that it could make bottom-line sense from both a financial and baseball sense to do so. If they fall short in their pursuit of new arms, the Philadelphia front office can sleep easy knowing that it did its best … and, quite possibly, forced the club’s long-term rivals to pony up additional young talent to shut down the 2019 Phils.