Soon the “we-are-still-alive” cries will end and the difficult decisions will begin for the Phillies. The most immediate judgment of them all, of course, will be the fate of manager Gabe Kapler.
That verdict ultimately belongs to John Middleton and, whatever the managing partner decides, it sure would be nice if he spoke publicly about it. The team’s most influential owner was the driving force behind bringing Bryce Harper here, and this season will not end the way he envisioned after a massive payroll increase and roster overhaul.
An aside here: Middleton, an avid fan of Philadelphia sports teams since birth, knew that things might not go as planned before the start of the season. During a long interview near the end of spring training, he reminded me of the 1979 Phillies, a team that signed Pete Rose with the intent of reaching the World Series, but then finished a bitterly disappointing fourth in the National League East before winning the World Series the next season.
One more aside: A potential x-factor is the availability of Joe Maddon, who many expect to be fired as manager of the Chicago Cubs. Maddon, in the final season of a five-year deal, is trying to reach the postseason for the fifth straight season with the Cubs after also making four trips in nine years with Tampa Bay, a team that regularly has one of the lowest payrolls in baseball.
This could be Middleton’s only chance to land Maddon, a 65-year-old Hazleton, Pa. native with perhaps the perfect blend of analytics and old-school baseball thinking.
Unsurprisingly, general manager Matt Klentak believes Kapler has done a fine job in his second season as manager. It is a biased opinion, and it should be. Klentak hired Kapler, and after two seasons, he still sees a lot of things to love about him as the Phillies manager. How that will impact Middleton’s decision remains to be seen. It could mean more coaching changes with the manager remaining in place.
“When I look at a team that has improved as dramatically as [the Phillies] defensively — and in all areas defensively, from catcher framing to defensive positioning to infielders making tags to cleanly fielding the baseball — that is a very impressive improvement in one year,” Klentak said.
“The players are the ones who do those things. They’re the ones who deserve the credit. But I think a lot of that credit can be shared with a really impactful coaching staff that has spent a lot of time working on little things that over the course of a season turn into much bigger things.”
The Phillies are a better defensive team. According to FanGraphs, the Phillies defense ranked 26th in baseball last season and fourth so far this season. It’s impossible to measure what influence Kapler and the coaching staff have had on that improvement, but Klentak’s personnel changes might deserve the most credit.
The addition of J.T. Realmuto at catcher is a huge reason for the defensive improvement. Moving Rhys Hoskins from left field back to first base helped a lot, too. With Hoskins primarily in left field last season, the Phillies ranked 29th defensively at that position. This year, they are second, and there was no discernible difference between Hoskins and Carlos Santana at first base. Hoskins, in fact, has been considered a slight improvement.
Jean Segura was a slight defensive upgrade at shortstop, and Cesar Hernandez and Maikel Franco showed defensive improvement at second base and third base, which I would attribute to the work of new infield instructor Bobby Dickerson.
The greatest improvement actually came in right field. The Phillies defense was ranked 29th at that position a year ago and is first this season, according to FanGraphs. Credit for that belongs entirely to Bryce Harper, who was ranked as one of the worst right fielders last season — only the Phillies’ Nick Williams and Detroit’s Nicholas Castellanos were graded lower — but is ranked among the best this season.
Klentak also pointed to improved baserunning as a positive reflection on Kapler and the coaching staff.
“Not necessarily in the measurement of stolen bases by themselves,” the general manager said. “But by the efficiency with which we run the bases and the extra bases that we take. I take some exception to the notion that we have a lot of players who don’t hustle because I don’t think you can be one of the top baserunning teams in baseball if that were true.”
Let’s examine the second part of that statement first. You can fail to hustle sometimes and still be an aggressive baserunner at other times. Segura would be the perfect example of being both. He is very good at taking second base on balls that are cut off in the gap, but that does not change the fact that he sometimes does not run hard out of the box.
If you had to categorize the Phillies as a baserunning team, they are, at best, slightly above average. It’s true they were improved, but they were so bad last season that they almost had to improve.
The Phillies’ 74 stolen bases are 12th in baseball. They were 23rd with 69 last season. Their stolen-base percentage has improved from 73% to 80% this season. According to BaseballReference.com, they are tied for 17th in percentage of extra bases taken this season at 40% after ranking 26th last season at 38%.
Regardless, it’s a minimal impact on the overall state of the team.