Two ways to look at the 2018 Phillies and why there's reason for optimism in 2019

With less than a week left in the regular season, we know that the Philadelphia Phillies will not be playing in October. But they have been one of the most interesting teams in the majors this season, because there are two ways to look at their season. 

A young team improving

Last year, the Phillies went 66-96, the third-worst record in the majors -- it was their third straight 90-loss season after losing 89 in each of the previous two years. It finished a five-year stretch where they were the worst team in baseball, 11 games behind the next-closest team. 

Vegas put their over/under win total at 75.5 before the season, 10th-best in the National League, and they entered the season with a rookie manager in Gabe Kapler. Well they blew past last year's win total in the middle of August, and they went over their Vegas number with more than two weeks left. 

Their ace, Aaron Nola, is likely to finish in the top three of the NL Cy Young voting, and youngsters Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez each took steps forward from last year. Add in 30 starts from free agent Jake Arrieta, and the Phillies' starters ERA fell by almost a full run. 

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Aaron Nola will likely finish in the top three of the NL Cy Young voting. USATSI

Several hitters showed some big things as well. Odubel Herrera started the year by getting on base in 40 straight games, and halfway through May he was leading the National League in hitting and was third in OPS. Rhys Hoskins put up the Phillies' first 30-homer season in seven years -- the last time they made the playoffs. And after two disappointing seasons, Maikel Franco really cut down on his strikeouts and had his best full season in the big leagues. 

And this is a big-market team that has less than $70 million in salary committed next season, with a huge free-agent class on the horizon and very few players really entrenched at their positions. 

It's a big step forward for a young team that has a good-looking future. However ... 

A disappointing finish to a promising season 

After going 1-4 on their season-opening road trip, with questions swirling around some managerial decisions, the Phillies started to win, going 13-3 in their next 16 contests. By July 6 they were in first place in the division, and as late as Aug. 7 they were 15 games above .500 with the second-best record in the National League. 

But since then, the Phillies have the second-worst record in baseball (only the Orioles are worse), and fell into third place after last night's loss for the first time since Father's Day. So what happened this season? 

They're 10th in the National League in on-base percentage and 11th in slugging, and they don't have any regular slugging .500 this season. 

A few hitters took a step back this season, including Herrera, who is batting .216 with a .636 OPS since the end of his on-base streak, a stretch that covers his past 101 games. His wOBA is 11 points lower than last season, and 20 points worse than his All-Star season two years ago. 

Leadoff hitter Cesar Hernandez has struggled since the All-Star break, batting .231 with a .658 OPS, and striking out almost twice as often as he's walked. He's having his worst offensive season in three years (by wOBA and OPS). 

And rookie Scott Kingery has struggled as he's been thrust into playing a new position -- shortstop, the toughest one on the field. There are 169 players with at least 450 plate appearances this season, and only two of them have a lower OPS than Kingery (.604) -- Alcides Escobar and Chris Davis

The defense has been a problem all year. I mean, a really big problem. They've made the second-most errors in the majors, and they've allowed the seventh-highest batting average on balls in play. But the advanced metrics are even worse.

The Phillies have seven players this season with positive Defensive Runs Saved, none higher than plus-2 -- three of them are pitchers and the other four are players at a spot on the field other than their primary position (for example, Carlos Santana at third base).

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Odubel Herrera is having some issues getting to balls hit to the shallowest part of center field. USATSI

 As a team, they have negative-129 Defensive Runs Saved, which would be the worst mark by a team in the 16 seasons that Sports Info Solutions has kept this stat. And it's 236 worse than the league-leading Diamondbacks. I asked Mark Simon, a Senior Research Analyst at Sports Info Solutions, to break down their biggest defensive flaws (of which there are many). Their biggest struggles have been in the outfield, where Herrera is having trouble getting to balls hit to the shallowest part of center field. He's being positioned deeper on average this year, and more balls are falling in front of him. 

Hoskins became the left fielder when the team signed Santana to play first base, and he's had a hard time with balls in front of him (where he's seven outs below average) as well as on deep balls (where he's nine outs below average). 

And both primary middle infielders have not gotten outs at a high rate on balls in the hole -- Kingery in the SS-3B hole and Hernandez in the 1B-2B hole. 

On top of all this, the Phillies made several midseason trades to help the offense that haven't worked as expected -- Asdrubal Cabrera has a .678 OPS since joining the team and Justin Bour has one home run in 47 plate appearances. Wilson Ramos has hit the ball really well for the Phils, but has been limited because of hamstring injuries. 

Add it all up, and you have a young team that has made great strides in several areas since last season, but showed its fans a glimpse of competitiveness and will have to wait another year for a shot at October.

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