The Phillies have been eliminated from postseason contention for 2019, and while that's been the expectation for several weeks it's nonetheless a disappointment for the team and its rooters. It's a disappointment because the Phillies, coming off a respectable 80-win campaign last season, invested heavily this past winter in building a contending roster.
In addition to signing Bryce Harper to a $330 million contract, GM Matt Klentak also inked Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson and traded for J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura. Pair all of that with Rhys Hoskins (at first base, where he belongs) and a young rotation that included Aaron Nola, Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta, and Vince Velasquez, and the Phillies looked like potential favorites in a tough and balanced NL East. Instead, the Phillies at this writing and this late hour still haven't equaled their win total from a year ago. They're also lugging around a negative run differential.
So what happened? Let's have a look at some key underlying indicators and how they trended from last year to this year:
|Phillies' year||OPS||Runs scored||Rotation ERA||Rotation FIP||Bullpen ERA||Bullpen FIP||Defensive Efficiency|
2018 (NL rank)
2019 (NL rank)
You see some modest strides on offense and some notable improvements on the defensive side of things. The Phillies' pitching, though, has been a different story. The rotation ERA has held steady, and the bullpen ERA has improved in terms of league rank. At the FIP level, however, things have gotten much worse.
FIP (or Fielding Independent Pitching) is scaled to look like ERA but reflects just those outcomes that have nothing to do with fielding -- i.e., strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed. Basically, it's what a pitcher's ERA might look like if you gave him average defensive support and average luck. As such, it can better measure of raw pitching skill than ERA is, and it typically illuminates future performance better than ERA does. Therein lies the concern for the Phillies, especially in the rotation.
The Philly bullpen was injured early and often in 2019, and you can explain away some of their struggles with that. The Phils this season were one of the most injured teams in all of baseball, and that was most acutely felt in the bullpen, where seven of their top eight relievers (!) missed significant time. The rotation, though, has no such excuses.
This season, ace Aaron Nola has at times looked like the guy who finished third in the NL Cy Young balloting last year, but consistency -- and 2018-grade overall numbers -- have eluded him. Nola was supposed to front a compelling young rotation that also included Eflin, Pivetta, and Velasquez. While Eflin's been fine, Velasquez and Pivetta at various points have pitched themselves out of the rotation. Stated another way, this is an aspiring contender that in 2019 gave a total of more than 20 starts to Drew Smyly and Jason Vargas. Throw in the continued decline -- in terms of both performance and health -- of Jake Arrieta, and first-year pitching coach Chris Young may be in peril (along with, of course, second-year manager Gabe Kapler).
Looking forward, the Phillies will enter the 2020 season with Harper, Segura, Nola, Arrieta, McCutchen, and Scott Kingery under contract, and Realmuto, Hoskins, Eflin, Pivetta, and Velasquez under team control. Those are the makings of a contender, but Philly ownership will need to invest further in the product.
Right now, the payroll is such that the Phillies can afford to add at least one impact arm to join Nola at the front of the rotation. Gerrit Cole, barring an unexpected extension in Houston, will be the prize of the free agent market. He should absolutely be in the Phillies' sights. Other options include Stephen Strasburg (should he exercise his opt-out), Cole Hamels, Zack Wheeler, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Jake Odorizzi. Fortifying the rotation via free agency (the Phillies' farm system is likely too weak to pull off a blockbuster trade) and devoting heavy organizational attention to the development of Eflin/Pivetta/Velasquez should be priority number one this offseason. Do that, and the Phillies will be better positioned to crack the postseason for the first time since 2011.