Cesar Hernandez has had a strong start to the 2017 for the Philadelphia Phillies. (Frank Klose/Sports Talk Philly)
By Tim Kelly, Sports Talk Philly editor
After this weekend's series in Pittsburgh, the Philadelphia Phillies have played 41 games, which represents just over 25 percent of the team's games. With that in mind, this week's edition of "Phillies Nuggets" will be our first of four yearly award breakdowns, just as yesterday's Phillies post-game show was.
Most Valuable Player: Aaron Altherr
The Phillies didn't have an obvious pick here, which probably gives you an idea of why the team is already 10 games back of the Washington Nationals in the National League East. Aaron Altherr may not end up being an All-Star, but he's been one of the few offensive bright spots thus far in 2017.
The 26-year-old didn't open the season as a starter after a wrist injured cost him much of the 2016 season, but he's forced his way into the long-term discussion in the outfield with his strong play.
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Two things — his wrist returning to full strength, coupled with new hitting coach Matt Stairs' request to lower his hands — have done wonders for Altherr. After hitting .296 in April, Altherr is slashing .322/.437/.712 in May, with six home runs, 19 RBIs and 10 walks.
A quarter of the way into the season, Altherr and Cesar Hernandez (who we will get to in a minute) have been the Phillies' best players and become their two most likely All-Star candidates.
Least Valuable Player: The entire bullpen
Remember that year that Peyton Manning and Steve McNair won co-MVPs in the NFL? This is kind of like that, except it is an award that awards incompetence.
Despite posting a 19.13 ERA in September of 2016 and losing the closer's job, Jeanmar Gomez had a strong Spring Training and opened the season as the team's closer. That didn't last long, as Gomez nearly blew an Opening Day win and eventually did blow a lead to the Washington Nationals on April 11.
Joaquin Benoit got the first crack at closing after Gomez, but didn't fair much better. After converting his first save, he allowed Bryce Harper to hit a walk-off home run on Easter Sunday. This was the first of two Harper walk-off home runs against the Phillies in the first 41 games, and also the first of two blown saves from Benoit. The 39-year-old, who was expected to bring stability to the bullpen, has posted a 4.50 ERA, 4.71 FIP and 5.53 xFIP (per FanGraphs) in 19 games this year.
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Even Hector Neris, who was one of the league's more valuable relievers in 2016, hasn't been especially good. His 3.54 ERA isn't horrendous, but his 4.87 FIP and 4.39 xFIP suggest he's been worse than his traditional statistics lead you to think. Neris had so much success in 2016 behind a strong splitter, a pitch that's used at a slightly lower rate in 2017.
While Neris seems like the most likely reliever to bounce-back in the remaining 121 games, he was on the mound for perhaps the most painful loss that the Phillies have suffered since Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS. On April 29, Neris came in for the save with a 5-2 lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers proceeded to hit three consecutive moonshots, one by Yasiel Puig, one by Cody Bellinger and one by Justin Turner, in a game the Phillies would eventually lose 6-5.
The Phillies weren't expected to be a particularly good team from a wins and losses standpoint in 2017, but their bullpen was expected to be a strength. Nearly 300 words were just dedicated to discussing deficiencies in the bullpen without even mentioning that the team hasn't found an effective lefty and Edubray Ramos hasn't progressed in the way that the team had hoped. Suffice to say, the bullpen has not been a strength.
Most Disappointing: Vince Velasquez
Not putting Maikel Franco here isn't meant to let him off the hook, but he seems closer to figuring things out than Velasquez. It's also easier for the Phillies to find another third baseman than a starting pitcher with front-of-the-rotation potential.
While Velasquez's first season in Philadelphia certainly wasn't without its rough patches, he demonstrated an elite fastball and had numerous starts that displayed why he was the headliner in the return the Phillies got for Ken Giles.
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With that potential, Velasquez entered spring as a popular pick to break out. He added onto that hype himself, by suggesting that he was working on mixing in his secondary pitches more effectively to supplement his fastball.
So far, Velasquez's 2017 season has been an unmitigated disaster.
In eight starts, the 24-year-old has a 2-4 record with 5.98 ERA and a 5.18 FIP. After talk of using his arsenal of pitches more effectively this spring, Velasquez is throwing his fastball 68.3 percent of the time, which is up from 64.4 percent of the time in 2016 (per Fangraphs). He is using his curveball more frequently, but as this chart from Brooks Baseball shows, it hasn't been especially effective:
Velasquez's work ethic is far from his problem. Heck, as he admitted over the weekend, he's in his own head right now and probably is too hard on himself. Perhaps in his desire to be great, Velasquez has bypassed trying to pitch to contact more frequently and hone in his secondary pitches, forgetting that he first needs to learn how to be consistently good.
Most Intriguing: Cesar Hernandez
Cesar Hernandez said earlier this month that he wants to be the Phillies' second baseman of the future. If Hernandez continues to play like he has over the course of the last calendar year, he's going to be someone's long-term starting second baseman.
After a strong second half propelled him to a 4.4 WAR (per FanGraphs) a season ago, Hernandez opened the 2017 season with a leadoff home run and slashed .323/.375/.531 in April.
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Though Hernandez has come back down to earth in May — he's hitting .275 — his average on the year still sits at .296. In addition, he isn't being thrown out as frequently stealing bases and seems to have eliminated some of his mental errors on the basepaths overall.
With Scott Kingery having a tremendous season at Double-A, some of Hernandez's future is still out of his control. The Phillies could decide to cash in on his value in a trade. They could try him at a different position. But the part that he controls, which is his play, he's doing really well at.
Most Likely to Rebound: Odubel Herrera
After signing a long-term extension this offseason, it's certainly disappointing that Herrera is batting just .236. His month of May has been especially disappointing, as he's barley batting above the Mendoza Line.
But Herrera had a similar month last July, when he hit just .227. At the time, I cautioned Phillies fans who were ready to give up on Herrera that one really bad month wasn't enough to write him off. By the offseason, his extension was nearly universally applauded, which should tell you how well he hit for the rest of the season.
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The 25-year-old may just be a streaky hitter, which is a bit concerning, but also means that a hot streak may be right around the corner.
When his bat does catch up, Herrera will be extremely valuable because he's fielding as well as he ever as. It's early in the season, but according to FanGraphs, Herrera is leading all qualified center fielders in UZR, UZR/150 and dWAR, plus has three defensive runs saved.