Phillies Head West with Massive Momentum Swing

By Ben Ballier, Sports Talk Philly Staff

Just one week ago, the Phillies were sludging their way through a spell of mediocrity. One bad stretch and “panic mode” may have been in full effect.

The club was just 4-6 in their last 10 games, and they would prepare to take on the Atlanta Braves next, a series in which they ended up losing game one. This ultimately landed the Phillies at a subpar record of 28-31.

But more importantly, the Mets continued to extend their division lead, and the Phillies had a treacherous June schedule staring directly at them.

Then, the Phillies altered the outlook of their season in dramatic fashion.

Three straight walk-offs and a 7-0 blowout in the remaining 4 games of the homestand against quality baseball teams spurred hope in the team and fanbase.

Arguably the most significant development throughout the win streak was the offense.

The offense may be heating up with the weather after months of inconsistent offense from an oft-injured lineup, one that appeared to sleepwalk through many games. They averaged 5.2 runs per game versus the Braves and Yankees opposed to 4.26 runs per game on the season.

For reference, the difference in average runs per game between the teams with the highest (Astros--5.51 runs) and lowest (Pirates--3.48 runs) in MLB is 2.03, so jumping nearly an entire run per game is significant.

I attribute some of the offensive uptick to Alec Bohm, a key contributor to the elite 2020 Phillies lineup, who has heated up in June. He is batting nearly .400 this month, and the “clutch factor” appears to be back as well.

In addition, Jean Segura is tearing the cover off the ball. The should-be-All-Star has raised his batting average to .339, and he was responsible for 2 of the 3 walk-off hits in crunch time.

Pair that production with Odubel Herrera’s .347 average in the leadoff spot and you have got a LETHAL one-two punch to begin ballgames.

This offensive surge comes at an opportune time. They will need to scratch and claw for runs in the upcoming Dodgers series, although the pitching matchups do seem to be slightly in the Phillies favor.

Spencer Howard, piggy-backed by rookie Bailey Falter, faces off versus Tony Gonsolin in game one. Zach Eflin opposes Julio Urías in game two, and Zack Wheeler is set to duel future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw in game three.

Speaking of starting pitching, the Phillies rotation ranks 11th in the majors in ERA and sixth in WAR.. It has undeniably been a strong suit for the ballclub this season.

It is precisely why it is imperative for the Phillies lineup to continue having success.

If you combine the 2021 rotation and improved bullpen with the elite production of the 2020 lineup, a lineup that is nearly identical to the current one, the Phillies suddenly look like a threatening playoff contender.

Only time will tell if the Phillies can sustain this level of production on both sides of the ball, but two series wins against the NL West's best teams would turn heads around the baseball world.


The Phillies Bench is Suddenly A Glaring Concern

By Ben Ballier, Sports Talk Philly Staff

Entering the 2021 season, most Phillies fans were feeling pretty good about the Phillies’ bench. Originally comprised of Andrew Knapp, Brad Miller, Matt Joyce, Ronald Torreyes and Roman Quinn, the bench has been whittled down as injuries have piled up.

Two remaining members are Knapp and Joyce. Knapp has a sub-par .152 batting average, but he has continued to call great games behind the plate. Meanwhile, the veteran outfielder Joyce has struggled off the bench. Usually a reliable power threat, Joyce has hit 0 home runs through 38 plate appearances with a “whopping” .133 SLG%.

Meanwhile, Miller has transitioned into a utility-starter role following Adam Haseley’s absence, Quinn’s finger injury, and until recently Jean Segura’s quad strain. Manager Joe Girardi has seemingly tried to get him into the lineup as much as possible, which is easy because he can play almost any position on the field.

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What if Everything Goes Right for the Phillies?

By Ben Ballier, Sports Talk Philly Staff

We are roughly two weeks away from Opening Day as the Phillies continue their Spring Training surge towards the regular season. Brad Miller, J.T. Realmuto, and Adam Haseley have already had their progression delayed due to minor injuries. Surely other fanbases would echo this sentiment about their own clubs, but it really seems like every year multiple things go drastically wrong for the Phillies.

In recent years, the Phillies have been slammed with the injury bug. Andrew McCutchen’s season-ending injury in 2019 derailed what was a magical start to the season. In addition, David Robertson had just signed a multi-year deal and pitched in only 7 games before sustaining an elbow injury. He underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the rest of 2019 and the entirety of 2020 before departing the organization via free agency last offseason.

Then, on September 12th, 2020, Rhys Hoskins injured his elbow on an errant throw by Realmuto. It was just the beginning of what turned out to be a devastating stretch of injuries for the Phillies, including ailments to impact performers like Zack Wheeler, Jean Segura, Jay Bruce, Roman Quinn, Bryce Harper, and Realmuto, among others.

One could also say that the Phillies have struggled immensely with drafting and developing prospects throughout the entire rebuild. Cornelius Randolph and J.P. Crawford are a couple of top draft picks that did not pan out. A big-name international free agent, Jhailyn Ortiz, was signed in 2016 yet has not played a game above High-A Clearwater. Those are just a few of the most-recognizable names, but there is still a long list of second tier draft picks that have not made an impact at the major league level, either.

There is a sense of urgency and confidence early on in Spring Training. What could happen if everything goes right for once? What if this is the Phillies year?

For starters, my definition of a perfect season would involve players staying healthy, key players taking a step forward, and prospects making a noticeable difference for the major league team. I am going to strictly reference the Phillies organization, so I will not consider any outside factors that might benefit the Phillies such as health and performance amongst the other teams in the division. I will also attempt to be as realistic as possible so that if everything does go right, a season like the following is actually feasible…

To begin, everything going right would undoubtedly begin with Harper having an MVP season, something that he is due to have and something that he has done before. An MVP Harper year could single-handedly carry the Phillies to the playoffs (likely a Wild Card spot).

Moreover, Didi Gregorius repeating his 2020 season would be monumental for the ballclub. He led the team in RBI in 2020, so if everything goes right, one could imagine that he would boast impressive offensive numbers once again. Hoskins fulfilling his potential by fusing his 2017 power numbers with his 2020 on-base abilities would round out my expectations for the offense. It would cement the Phillies as a top 5 offense in all of baseball.

In addition, if Aaron Nola further establishes himself as a Top 10 pitcher in baseball (by manufacturing a season close to that of his 2018), Zach Eflin solidifies himself as a bonified 3rd starter, and Wheeler, Matt Moore, and whoever wins the 5th spot simply pitch to the standards of their respective positions in the rotation, it would put the Phillies in a favorable position.

Should this happen, they would likely secure a spot well inside MLB’s top 10 starting rotations. Any team on that list is automatically a serious threat in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Furthermore, if everything breaks the right way I genuinely believe the Phillies could possess a top 15 bullpen with the depth they have now. Acquiring a legitimate closer could elevate them to top 10. It is a bold take, but I do think it is possible that the bullpen shocks a lot of people. If the bullpen can be league average or better, combined with a top 10 rotation and top 5 offense, the Phillies will win the division no questions asked.

Next, no World Series teams wins without production from young talent. Prospects JoJo Romero and Spencer Howard would see improved numbers and continued growth at the major league level in a perfect season. In the cases of Connor Brogdon and Bohm, they would be difference-makers for the team. Both players would likely prove that last year was not a fluke by producing similar numbers. Damon Jones could also be called up at some point, and if he is a serviceable reliever who flashes potential it would be a win.

If the Phillies get the most out of their youngsters and the aforementioned events occur, they could be favorites to win the NL pennant and the World Series.

But none of the above is relevant if guys cannot stay on the field. It is not realistic to expect everyone to stay healthy, so I will limit it to 3 position players, 2 pitchers, and 1 reliever. If the big guns in the lineup: Harper, Realmuto & Bohm, the workhorse starters: Nola and Wheeler, and the fear-inducing reliever: Jose Alvarado are all healthy for at least 140 games of the season, I think the Phillies will be positioned to make a deep playoff run.

The likelihood that ALL these things break the Phillies way is highly unlikely, but even if just half of them come to fruition the Phillies will be destined for success.

Two Secondary Effects of the Phillies Offseason That Are Being Severely Overlooked

By Ben Ballier, Sports Talk Philly Staff

The Phillies bullpen was a glaring weakness in 2020, a persisting weight that eventually sunk the team’s chances to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011. The Phillies head into 2021 with a nearly identical (if not improved) lineup after retaining J.T. Realmuto & Didi Gregorius, while adding Brad Miller and Matt Joyce as potential left-handed bench options. Centerfielder Odúbel Herrera could also provide quite a spark to the lineup should he make the roster.

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Zach Eflin is Developing into one of MLB's Premier Breakout Candidates

Roughly six years ago, Phillies icon Jimmy Rollins was traded to the Dodgers. In return, the Phillies acquired two minor leaguers, one of them being Zach Eflin. Prospects are as close to gambling as one can get in Major League Baseball, but the starter is now poised to become a legitimate #3 starter in the Phillies rotation.

Many fans are understandably worried about the back end of the rotation, but all too often “Eflin” is jumbled into a group of question marks that includes Matt Moore, Chase Anderson, Vince Velasquez, and Spencer Howard. He simply does not belong in that conversation.

Eflin has improved nearly every year since his debut in 2016. In each of his first two seasons, he pitched in 11 games (63.1 and 64.1 innings respectively) and had an era above 5.50. But he turned a corner in 2018 and never looked back. His era improved significantly, starting at 6.16 in 2017 and improving every year down to a 3.97 era in 2020. His ERA+ also breached 100 in 2019 (exactly league average production), and in 2020 he achieved a career high 115 ERA+.

Most of that success can likely be attributed to Eflin improving his strikeout numbers in 2020. Playing in a bandbox like Citizens Bank Park, it is imperative to limit contact. He made massive strides in that department last year, striking out 10.7 batters per nine innings compared to a lackluster 7.1 SO/9 in 2019. If Eflin can maintain those numbers, or even improve them under new pitching coach Caleb Cotham, it would be a massive step towards unlocking his peak potential.

With that being said, the most encouraging aspect about Eflin is his peripherals. They suggest that his upward-trending performance appears to be more than sustainable. He ranked in the 76th percentile in hard hit %, 77th in xwOBA, 77th in xERA, 74th in K%, and 80th in BB%. In other words, Eflin was better than ~75% of pitchers in the league last year. It also reveals that his success was not a fluke.

In addition, the 26-year-old relied heavily on his 4-seam fastball through the first four years of his career. In 2020, he transitioned to throwing his sinker 51.6% of the time while throwing 4-seam fastballs at a shockingly low 9.6% clip. He also revamped his curveball and began throwing it with conviction. He suddenly felt an air of confidence in that pitch. Then, over the Winter, he worked on his slider and changeup.

Recently, manager Joe Girardi sung Eflin’s praises, noting that he believes he could be a “1.C” in the starting rotation right behind aces Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. Eflin is also convinced that he can become a legitimate starter in this league, and maybe more:

“I view myself as a No. 1. I really believe that truly inside of me, the sky is the limit for me. I feel like I have a lot of feel and I can really shape my pitches in any way I want to and have a good feel for the zone with every pitch.”

On Wednesday afternoon, it was time for Eflin to unveil his refined arsenal and begin what might be another career year for him. The hype train has officially left the station. Eflin went 2.0 innings, gave up zero earned runs, collected 3 backward Ks (!!!) and induced a lot of weak contact. The Detroit announcers spoke glowingly about the way his pitches looked.

Eflin has always possessed the intangibles necessary to be a top of the rotation starter. He oozes composure, maturity, and intelligence on the mound under all circumstances. Plus, being 6’6” and lanky does not hurt, either. It is time for him to put everything together.

Phillies fans have patiently waited 5 years while Eflin learned and grew as a major leaguer. Now, they might just witness the dominance that they have been waiting for as he looks primed to be one of the better pitchers in the National League in the coming years.

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