It’s been a decade since the Philadelphia Phillies last rose to the mountaintop of Major League Baseball. The 2008 championship run was directly in the middle of a five year stretch when the Phillies won the National League East every year, averaging over 95 wins a season. It was the regular season equivalent of the Cardinals 2011-2015 postseason runs, a frightening display of dominance powered by an elite pitching staff and formidable lineup of players all hitting their primes at the same time.
The 2011 squad was arguably the best of the bunch. But it was also the last of the Phillies dominant years; the organization hasn’t had a winning season since. So let me kindly remind you how that dominant, 102-win season ended for Philadelphia.
You know how we all have those memories where we remember exactly where we were when something happened? This is one of about seven or eight memories I have from that 2011 postseason, and it’s probably one of my fondest.
So while the 2011 championship run for the Cardinals represented a new era – and a new standard – of success for the Cardinals, it was the end of one for Philadelphia. Several of Philadelphia’s star players fell off a cliff in 2012: Roy Halladay, Shane Victarino, and Ryan Howard come to mind (though Howard had been in decline.) And while many of the Phillies other key contributors were still good, many took significant steps back in terms of fWAR: Cliff Lee, Chase Utley, and Hunter Pence. The following five seasons were not kind to Philadelphia, with the Phils finishing the cellar three times and one spot up the other two.
But the 2018 Fightin’ Phils are a different story. After an aggressive offseason saw them add Carlos Santana and Jake Arrieta, the Phillies are 24-16 squarely on the backs of their maturing prospects. They’re riding into St. Louis having only played two games in the past five days, something that will soon be remedied by four straight days of baseball.
So what can we expect from these two competitive teams, both of which sit one game back from their respective division leads?
The Phillies are bolstered mostly on the strength of their starting rotation, and the Cardinals will get a nearly complete look at that staff this series. Let’s go down the row by game probables:
- Vince Velasquez (vs. Luke Weaver, Thursday): Velasquez entered the MLB consciousness in 2016 when he recorded a 16-strikeout, 3-hit shutout against the Padres during his first full season in the bigs. He hasn’t yet had the sustained success to match that outing, but he’s off to a better start this year than his numbers would suggest. His ERA currently sits at 5.05, but that goes progressively downward by each more predictive metric. His FIP is 4.34, his xFIP 3.84, and his SIERA 3.55. He’s an aggressive pitcher who gets a lot of strikeouts and gives up a fair amount of contact, so the Cardinals more patient hitters should look to take a more aggressive approach.
- Jake Arrieta (vs. Michael Wacha, Friday): The Birds will get their first look at a familiar beard on Friday after former Baby Bear Jake Arrieta made the late offseason move to swap deep dish pizza-ish casserole for cheesesteaks. Arrieta has been the Phillies’ second most valuable pitcher so far, but he’s almost the anti-Velasquez in terms of true pitching talent. The same ERA to SIERA progression we used above gets worse for Arrieta as we go (2.93, 3.48, 4.23, 4.47.) He’s running the lowest strikeout percentage of his career to go with one of his highest walk percentages and banking on a fair amount of luck (.231 BABIP) to keep him out of trouble. The Cardinals should have a pretty good chance to turn his luck around; the Phillies have one of the league’s worst defenses.
- Zach Eflin (vs. John Gant, Saturday): The 24-year-old has only made two starts on the year so far, but he’s been pretty good in both, going six innings and striking out 13 to only 3 walks. There’s not a lot of data on Eflin as of yet, but he’s a hard thrower with a very good fastball/slider combo. He might be coasting on the fact that there’s not a lot of information on him, but he appears to be pretty good based on what he’s shown so far.
- Aaron Nola (vs. Jack Flaherty, Sunday): Nola has arguably been the second best pitcher in the National League this year behind the eternal Max Scherzer. The 24-year-old was very good last year and has stepped it up again this year. He throws four above average pitches at least 15 percent of the time, including a good fastball and sinker. He doesn’t strike out an unreasonable amount of batters, but he also barely walks anyone, entering the series among the league leaders in walk percentage. He’s going to induce a lot of ground balls so, like Arrieta, there’s always the chance that the defense could let him down. But the Phillies will be saving the best pitcher of the series for last, so it would behoove the Cardinals to bank some wins before then.
Their bullpen isn’t good, but they do have their own young fireballer in Seranthony Dominguez, who has yet to give up a hit or walk in four innings of work.
The Phillies offense isn’t nearly as formidable as its pitching, but there are a few names to watch out for. Here’s a quick rundown of the rest of their lineup:
- César Hernández (S): Hernández has almost been as good as Herrera this year, mostly due to his on-base skills (16 BB%). The Phillies start a trio of very fast players, and he’s one of them. He’s stolen seven of nine bases this year, and has historically been at least a decent base runner. He’s not much of a slugging threat, but he does have five home runs on the young season.
- Aaron Altherr (R): Altherr is the second of the speedy trio, and his line isn’t as good, though maybe because his BABIP is at a paltry .229. He also walks a lot (15.9 BB%), and can hit the ball out if you make a mistake. Basically, he seems like the slightly worse, slightly less lucky version of Hernández.
- Odubel Herrera (L): Herrera looks to have taken step from “good” to “great” and is currently playing at a pace of 6.66 (foreboding!) fWAR per 600 plate appearances. He’s probably due for some regression, as evidenced by his .379 wxOBA and .395 BABIP, but he’s still their most formidable hitter.
- Rhys Hoskins (R): Hoskins is one of the bigger threats on the Phillies lineup. His 142 wRC+ only sits behind Herrera’s, but his BABIP and wxOBA are more indicative of where his line should be. He, much like his three previous counterparts, gets on base a lot and also slugs the ball a bit more than anyone (but Herrera) at .205 isolated slugging.
- Carlos Santana (S): Santana probably has the second most name recognition in this lineup, mostly due to his long history as an aggressively OK player with the team from Cleveland. His profile hasn’t changed a bit. He walks, slugs, and doesn’t strike out. The only difference this year is he hasn’t been as lucky: his BABIP is even worse than Altherr’s at .179. He’s due for some reversion to the mean.
- Maikel Franco (R): It’s incredible how many guys on the Phillies are only 25 or 26 years old and already pretty good. Franco is another young offensive threat, though his main skill isn’t so much “getting on base” as it is “hitting the piss out of the ball” whenever he does. Surprisingly, Franco has also had some bad wOBA/wxOBA related luck this year, so he’s due for a bump as well. Still, his isolated slugging is .219.
- Scott Kingery (R): Kingery is the fastest of the aforementioned trio, but he’s not much of a threat at the plate. He strikes out at a 28 percent clip and walks less than six percent of the time. He’s a defense and base running guy, both of which grade out to 60+ on a few scouting sites. Still, he’s only 25.
- Jorge Alfaro (R): The catching prospect is sporting a 76 wRC+ and actually has a whopping .391 BABIP. So take that for what it’s worth. He’s not going to get any better until he stops striking out 42 percent of the time, but his raw power grades out well, so he can tag one if the Cardinal pitchers aren’t careful. He and Kingery were both Top 5 prospects in the Phillies system last year by MLB.com.
Final (and extra) thoughts:
- With the Cardinals offense struggling mightily these past few weeks, I don’t exactly feel great going into this series against the Phillies. The Birds need to grab one of the first two games, as Velasquez and Arrieta are probably the two worst pitchers they’ll see this weekend. Eflin is good, but he has also taken some time off since his last start, so he could be slightly rusty. If I had to realistically guess how this series will go, I’d say W-L-W-L. But I could easily see games two and three going either way. Flaherty is going to need to be on to beat Nola.
- The Phillies are putting the late Roy Halladay’s name on their organization’s Wall of Fame, which is really cool. I think of Halladay as a Phillie before I think of him as a Blue Jay, and I remember fondly scrambling to catch his starts and watch his stat lines as a young pitcher.
- That wall also inexplicably includes John Kruk. I wasn’t around for his heyday, but… John Kruk? On a related note, here’s a column on that elaborates on the issue.
- I wrote in my last series preview about my love for T.C. Bear. I won’t even dignify the Phillie Phanatic with the same attention, though I did love watching him fight Green Man in It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
- Ending on the Always Sunny note…