At the risk of belaboring the obvious, the Philadelphia Phillies team which qualified for the 2022 MLB postseason, the first playoff berth for the franchise since their 102-win 2011 season ended in just about the most crushing possible fashion against the 2011 World Series championship-bound St. Louis Cardinals, is a good baseball team. At 87-74 (with another irrelevant game to go this afternoon), the Phillies are undeniably better than their cross-Pennsylvania rivals, the Pittsburgh Pirates, against whom the Cardinals have grown accustomed lately. And since replacing manager Joe Girardi with Rob Thomson, the Phillies have played at a 96-win pace.
For a three-game series, the scariest part of the Phillies for the Cardinals will be that they employ two really, really good starting pitchers–Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola. Their third starter, either Ranger Suárez or Noah Syndergaard, is good too, but Wheeler and Nola are the headliners. The two righties (I have dedicated my life to erroneously believing Wheeler, who granted did bat left-handed, is a lefty pitcher, and I apologize for my inevitable future mistakes in this regard) enter the final day of the season as the sixteenth and first best pitcher in baseball by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, respectively–Wheeler has the superior ERA at 2.82 while Nola’s 10.32 strikeouts and 1.27 walks per nine innings should merit serious Cy Young consideration, even if his somewhat higher 3.25 ERA and 11-13 record likely means he will not take home the hardware.
There is something of a tendency in baseball analysis to over-assume that having two great starters is all a team needs to win a title–after all, the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks are nearly old enough to legally drink. A pair of guys who have been Cy Young finalists in your uniform in the last half-decade is undoubtedly beneficial, but the team that last year got to throw Max Scherzer and Walker Buehler (and Julio Urías) didn’t win the World Series. Additionally, I will do something I don’t do often and note that Aaron Nola has a losing record. Does that mean he has been bad? Absolutely not! Do not interpret this whatsoever as a knock on Aaron Nola! But it does demonstrate that Aaron Nola alone is not an assured victory. And the average Aaron Nola game wasn’t against a team that won 93 or 94 games.
The Phillies have a strong lineup capable of scoring runs–barring a massive offensive explosion this afternoon, they will finish seventh in baseball in runs scored. The Cardinals presently rank fourth, with 24 more runs. But in terms of how the lineup matches up against the Cardinals, the Phillies have two hitters who have stood above the rest in 2022–Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber. Harper, who has battled injuries that have relegated him to a designated hitter role exclusively since a mid-April IL stint, hasn’t quite had the MVP-level success he had in 2021, but his team-best 139 wRC+ still makes him a worthy foe, and Schwarber, whom the Phillies likely wish could play at DH from time to time, has 46 home runs on the season, good for second in Major League Baseball behind some guy on the Yankees who is only 11 home runs shy of an MLB record.
What Harper and Schwarber have in common, aside from being major defensive liabilities in the outfield, is being left-handed. This trio, in addition to likely starters Bryson Stott, the shortstop, and Brandon Marsh, the center fielder, makes the Phillies’ lineup heavily lefty. This does not mean the Phillies do not have threats on the right side of the plate–catcher J.T. Realmuto, first baseman Rhys Hoskins, second baseman Jean Segura, third baseman Alec Bohm, and right fielder Nicolas Castellanos bat righty and all but Castellanos have been above-average hitters in 2022. But the biggest and scariest threats are lefties, and thus the Cardinals’ trade deadline acquisitions of José Quintana, who is all but guaranteed a start this weekend, and Jordan Montgomery, who also factors into the equation for the Cardinals, could play pivotal roles.
But to return back to the outfield of the Phillies, one particularly interesting factor is one that was frequently cited prior to the 2022 season and which largely came to fruition–their defense, particularly in the outfield, stiiiiiiiiinks. By Defensive Runs Above Average, the Phillies gave up -50.9 runs in the field, 28th in baseball and by far the worst among playoff teams (the next-worst, the Padres, were 27 runs better and 10 spots in the rankings better than the Phillies). The idea of “hit ’em where they ain’t” is a favorite trope of those who think that every infield shift could be bunted against successfully if players weren’t so selfish or whatever, but whether it can be controlled or not, that could be the entire key to the Cardinals’ success or failure in this round.
The Cardinals offense in 2022 was broadly good, but more specifically, it was the kind of good that can properly exploit a bad defense. The Cardinals are one of just four MLB teams to have struck out in less than 20% of their plate appearances this season. Among the Cardinals’ likely starters, only Paul Goldschmidt, Lars Nootbaar and maybe Juan Yepez have strikeout rates over 20% (and even in that case, their rates are 21.7%, 20.6%, and 22.2%). While Nolan Arenado struggled in September (and broadly speaking, has in the postseason so far in his career), this could be a perfect matchup for a guy who has struck out in just 11.5% of his plate appearances in 2022–it was against the Phillies, after all, that Arenado secured the Cardinals’ first cycle since 2005 earlier this season. The likes of Yadier Molina, Brendan Donovan, Albert Pujols, and Corey Dickerson, all of whom have struck out in fewer than one-sixth of their plate appearances in 2022, could benefit from balls dropping just out of the reach of Kyle Schwarber in left, Nicolas Castellanos in right, or Brandon Marsh in center (Marsh doesn’t belong in the same discussion of outfield butchers as Schwarber or Castellanos, but he almost certainly does not have the range to atone for their shortcomings). Even a player with a slightly higher strikeout rate like Tommy Edman (17.7%–again, still not exactly Adam Dunn in terms of contact ability) could benefit not by getting considerably more hits but by being able to take extra bases.
I am not a believer in reading too much into team records versus another team, and the Cardinals and Phillies have only played seven times this season, but it should be said–the Phillies won 4 of the 7 games, though none of the games were true blowouts (the biggest margin of victory was five runs). It should also be said that these games were all played in early July and only two of them were started by a likely Wild Card Round starter (Miles Mikolas). There is no real reason to read too much into games started by Dakota Hudson, Matthew Liberatore, or Andre Pallante, only one of whom is likely to be on the postseason roster in any capacity.
Phillies fans in my life (i.e. the ones I follow on Twitter) are breathing a sigh of relief that they drew the Cardinals and potentially the Braves in the NLDS as opposed to the Mets and potentially the Dodgers in the NLDS. And let me be clear–I get why. On paper, the Cardinals are not as good of a team as any of the other three teams mentioned, particularly the Dodgers. But this does not mean the Phillies are going to get off easy. While they avoid having to face Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer in a postseason series, they will still be forced to reckon with a strong, balanced team that is perfectly capable of exploiting the holes on their roster.