The Phillies are red hot and here are five reasons to believe they can stay in contention all year

Three weeks ago at this point, new Philadelphia Phillies manager Gabe Kapler was a laughing stock throughout baseball. His first series as manager went about as poorly as possible, and it was capped off by Kapler forgetting to warm up a reliever before taking out his starter. It was bad. So bad he was booed during the home opener.

No one is laughing now. Since starting the season 1-4 with a minus-17 run differential, the Phillies have gone 13-3 and outscored their opponents by 50 runs. The Phillies come into Monday with a 14-7 record and a plus-33 run differential. Among National League teams, only the Arizona Diamondbacks (15-6) and New York Mets (14-6) have better records, and only the Atlanta Braves (plus-34) have a better run differential.

Over the weekend the Phillies swept the Pittsburgh Pirates in four games to improve their record at Citizens Bank Park to 9-1. It's been more than half a century since the Phillies started a season this well at home.

"We're having a lot of fun. Keeping it light, we laugh in the dugout," said Kapler to reporters, including NBC Philadelphia's Corey Seidman, after Sunday's win (PHI 3, PIT 2). "I hope you guys are seeing that. A lot of smiles and a lot of laughter, and after the games, we're having a great time in (the clubhouse). We take it seriously and we prepare like animals, but we also enjoy each others' company and we're laughing a lot."  

While maintaining a .667 winning percentage all season won't happen -- sorry, Phillies fans, but they're not going to win 108 games -- the Phillies are off to a very nice start this year, and there are reasons to believe they're good enough to stay in contention all season. Good enough to make the postseason? Maybe! But simply staying in the race into September would represent real improvement for a team that hasn't lost fewer than 89 games since 2012. Here are five reasons to believe the 2018 Phillies are for real.

They have a bona fide star in Hoskins

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Philadelphia Phillies
Rhys Hoskins continues to emerge as one of the best hitters in baseball. USATSI

With the exception of maybe the 2015 Kansas City Royals, every recent World Series winner had a true superstar and MVP caliber performer anchoring the lineup. The 2017 Houston Astros had Jose Altuve (and Carlos Correa). The 2016 Chicago Cubs had Kris Bryant (and Anthony Rizzo). The 2012 and 2014 San Francisco Giants had Buster Posey. The 2013 Red Sox had David Ortiz. The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals had peak Albert Pujols. On and on it goes.

The Phillies have their star offensive cornerstone: Rhys Hoskins. The 25-year-old first baseman turned left fielder came up last August and smacked 18 home runs in 50 games, and he has continued to be one of the top offensive forces in the game this season. Hoskins currently owns a .323/.483/.615 (208 OPS+) batting line -- he leads the NL in on-base percentage -- with 11 extra-base hits and nearly as many walks (19) as strikeouts (21).

The plate discipline is really what sets Hoskins apart from so many other young mashers. Here's where Hoskins ranks among the 331 hitters with at least 250 plate appearances since the start of last season:

  • Strikeout rate: 22.4 percent (121st highest)
  • Walk rate: 18.8 percent (2nd highest)
  • Chase rate: 22.1 percent (21st lowest)

Hoskins has combined elite plate discipline with an average-ish strikeout rate, which are the early career skills that translate very well to future success, especially when they come with this much power. Yes, Hoskins has yet to play a full big league season. But he's produced at a star caliber level since arriving and he's shown the underlying skills to not only sustain this level of performance, but even improve on it long-term.

Arrieta is starting to get settled in

The Phillies signed Jake Arrieta in mid March and he did not have a normal spring training. He rushed through the Grapefruit League season and pitched in a minor league game before finally joining Philadelphia's rotation. Arrieta has been progressively better each time out with the Phillies:

Date

IP

H

R

ER

BB

K

HR

PC-ST

4/6 vs. MIA (6-3 loss)

4

3

3

2

2

5

1

74-47

4/14 @ TB (9-4 win)

6 2/3

7

3

2

2

1

0

88-57

4/19 vs. PIT (7-0 win)

7

1

0

0

2

10

0

97-65

Arrieta generated nine swings and misses total in his first two starts this year before getting 14 in his third start. After his third start he told ESPN's Jerry Crasnick that he's "caught up" after a short spring training and an unusual start to the season. From Crasnick:

"I knew I was going to be pretty crisp today in the bullpen when I had my sinker glove-side going early," Arrieta said. "That's just a matter of my timing being right. When I get my foot down, I'm able to drive the ball downhill to my glove side. Three starts in, to be able to do that, is a good sign. I was a little behind, but now I'm caught up."  

The numbers back it up too. Arrieta generated more side-to-side movement with his sinker in his most recent start than he had in any other start in his career.

Maybe getting that much movement on the sinker won't last forever. That's a bit extreme. The larger point here is that Arrieta appears to be up to speed after his abbreviated spring. He doesn't have to be the 2015 Cy Young winning version of Jake Arrieta to have an impact. A performance in line with last season (3.53 ERA and 126 ERA+) is plenty good enough to give the Phillies a big lift.

Santana has yet to get going

Carlos Santana, the team's other big free agent pickup, comes into Monday hitting a weak .151/.301/.228 (67 OPS+) with two home runs on the season. The good news is he's still walking a ton -- Santana is one of only 14 qualified hitters with more walks than strikeouts (16 BB, 14 K). The bad news is nothing else is really working. That doesn't figure to last long though.

In the super early going, there is evidence Santana has been one of the unluckiest hitters in baseball. His 40.3 percent hard contact rate is well above the 33.5 percent league average, yet his batting average on balls in play sits at .150. .150! This is a player with a career .267 batting average on balls in play, and that's with a career 33.1 percent hard contract rate. Geez. Poor Carlos.

Statcast can help really drive home this point. Weighted on-base average, or wOBA, is essentially on-base percentage on steroids. It more heavily weighs specific events because, for example, two singles are not really equal to one double. Expected weighted on-base average, or xwOBA, is the wOBA a player would be expected to produce given his launch angle and exit velocity. Look at Santana's numbers:

  • wOBA: .270 (168th among 215 players with 50-plus at-bats)
  • xwOBA: .426 (22nd)

Good gravy. Santana has been hitting the ball hard pretty much all year, but he doesn't have the results to show for it. The .156 point difference between his wOBA and xwOBA is the largest in baseball and not by a small margin either. The leaderboard:

  1. Carlos Santana, Phillies: .156
  2. Randal Grichuk, Blue Jays: .142
  3. Joey Votto, Reds: .134
  4. Adam Duvall, Reds: .125
  5. Francisco Lindor, Indians: .115

Only seven other players in baseball have underperformed their xwOBA by at least 100 points. If you have these guys on your fantasy team, be patient. They're stinging the ball but the hits aren't falling in. The season is long. Give it time and this'll all even out. And once Santana starts being rewarded for all this hard contact, Philadelphia's offense will be that much more dangerous.

Pivetta is breaking out

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Philadelphia Phillies
Righty Nick Pivetta is coming into his own this season. USATSI

In Arrieta and staff ace Aaron Nola, the Phillies knew they would have a pretty good 1-2 rotation punch this year. The question was whether any of their younger arms would step forward and emerge as a quality third starter. Five starts into the new season, right-hander Nick Pivetta looks very much like that quality third starter.

The 25-year-old Pivetta, who came over from the Washington Nationals in the Jonathan Papelbon trade a few years ago, held the Pirates to two runs in 6 1/3 innings Sunday, giving him a 2.57 ERA (151 ERA+) through five starts and 28 innings. Furthermore, his underlying numbers are very promising. Pivetta has racked up strikeouts while limiting walks and homers:

  • Strikeout rate: 25.5 percent (29th highest among 97 qualified pitchers)
  • Walk rate: 3.6 percent (10th lowest)
  • Home run rate: 0.32 HR/9 (8th lowest)

A home run rate that low probably won't last all season, especially since Pivetta is not particularly adept at getting ground balls -- his 44.6 percent ground ball rate ranks 50th among those 97 pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title.

What Pivetta does do, however, is limit hard contact. The MLB average is 33.5 percent hard contact so far this season. So basically one out of every three balls in play is well-struck. For Pivetta, it's more like only out of every five balls in play is well struck. Here is the hard contact leaderboard:

  1. Aaron Nola, Phillies: 15.3 percent
  2. Jose Berrios, Twins: 19.1 percent
  3. Carlos Carrasco, Indians: 20.8 percent
  4. Dallas Keuchel, Astros: 21.4 percent
  5. Nick Pivetta, Phillies: 22.4 percent

Pivetta is just ahead of guys like Jacob deGrom (23.1 percent) and Justin Verlander (24.3 percent). If you're not going to get a ton of ground balls, getting weak contact in the air is a good alternative. It helps limit homers to a degree, plus many of those weak fly balls are easy outs. Cans of corn. Combine the weak contact with very good strikeout and walk rates, and you've got a recipe for a breakout young pitcher.

The bullpen is sneaky good and more help is on the way

Kapler caught a lot of grief for his quick hooks and aggressive bullpen matchups in the first series of the season. In the three weeks since, Kapler's bullpen has fallen into place and relievers are settling into roles. A trio of seldom known righties are doing some serious work behind closer Hector Neris:

G

IP

H

R

ER

BB

K

HR

Victor Arano

8

10 1/3

1

0

0

2

11

0

Edubray Ramos

10

9 1/3

5

2

1

3

12

1

Yacksel Rios

9

7

8

1

0

3

7

0

Both of Arano's walks are intentional, by the way. The 23-year-old got a look as a September call-up last year, struck out 13 in 10 2/3 innings, then made the Opening Day roster this year. He's a fastball/slider reliever who throws his slider a ton and has a history of missing bats in the minors. Eventually he's allow some hits, but he has the stuff to stick long-term.

The 25-year-old Ramos spent most of last season in Philadelphia's bullpen, throwing 57 2/3 innings with a 4.21 ERA (102 ERA+), plus he struck out 29.3 percent of batters faced. His 2.91 FIP and below-average 70.5 percent strand rate pointed at better things to come, and they have this year. With a slider like this ...

... it's not hard to see where all the strikeouts come from. The pitch just drops off the table and hitters just can't lay off.

Rios, 24, made his big league debut late last year and has been a factor in the early going this year. Like Arano and Ramos, he's a fastball/slider righty with a history of missing bats. In the early going these three have done a real nice job stepping up in middle relief, and they've had to because free agent pickups Tommy Hunter (hamstring) and Pat Neshek (shoulder) have been on the disabled list.

Hunter is healthy now -- he made his season debut with a 1-2-3 inning Sunday -- and Neshek is on the mend. The Phillies bullpen has been good overall this season without their late-inning veterans. Hunter is back now. Neshek will be soon enough. Once they're whole, Kapler is going to have a quietly strong relief corps at his disposal. The emergence of Arano, Ramos, and Rios gives the club that much more depth.


The Phillies will face a good test this week when they welcome the first place D-Backs to Citizens Bank Park for a three-game series beginning Tuesday. Kapler's squad has already done a great job bouncing back from that rough opening series to go on this 13-3 run, and while they won't stay this hot all season, they have a talented roster, and there are reasons to believe they can hang around the postseason race all year. After years of sitting in the NL East cellar, the Phillies now clearly look like a team on the rise.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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