How do you build a team around a superstar in a sport where the stars matter least? It’s a question that will define the Phillies over the next few years. In Bryce Harper, they have an MVP finalist in the middle of their lineup. In Zack Wheeler, they have a Cy Young finalist at the top of their rotation.
Yet 2021 is hardly a vindication of the roster-building strategy the Phillies have employed over the past few seasons. If anything, it’s the opposite, a tough reminder of the reality of baseball, a sport where a team’s best hitter is only 1/9 of its lineup and its best pitcher takes the mound once every five days.
That the Phillies managed to win just 82 games despite producing finalists for the National League’s two most prestigious individual awards is not an unprecedented thing. In fact, Harper is the only one of this year’s three MVP finalists to play for a team with even a marginally winning record.
The Padres went 79-83 despite Fernando Tatis Jr.’s 42 home runs and .975 OPS. Juan Soto finished with a .465 on-base percentage and .999 OPS for the last-place Nationals. Keep in mind, Washington also played most of the season with a Cy Young finalist, getting 19 starts from Max Scherzer en route to their 65-97 finish.
Meanwhile, in the American League, the Blue Jays missed the playoffs despite having a finalist for Cy Young (Robbie Ray) and two for MVP (Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Marcus Semien). The 77-85 Angels have an MVP finalist who hit 46 home runs while starting 23 games with a 3.18 ERA (Shohei Ohtani).
It’s been a weird year, but not an unprecedented one. Since 1995, four MVPs have played for teams that finished the year with fewer than 83 wins. During that stretch MVPs have averaged 92.5 team wins per season. In the last five years of voting, 23 of the 30 MVP finalists have played for playoff teams.
The exceptions were Manny Machado (2020, Padres), Joey Votto (2017, Reds), Stanton (2017, Marlins), Jose Altuve (2016, Astros), and Mike Trout (Angels, three times). Interestingly enough, Harper’s one MVP award came in 2015, when he played for a Nationals team that won just 83 games and missed the playoffs.
The story is similar in Cy Young voting. Three years ago, Wheeler played on a 77-win team that produced the NL Cy Young winner in Jacob deGrom.
While this year’s finalists are more the exception than the rule, the gulf between individual and team success remains far wider in baseball than in other sports. Since 1995, all 26 NFL MVP winners have come from playoff teams. The last AP Offensive Players of the Year to miss the playoffs were Chris Johnson in 2009 and Drew Brees in 2008, with both the Titans and Saints finishing 8-8. The NBA MVP since 1995 with the most losses was Russell Westbrook in 2016-17, a year when the Thunder went 47-35.
None of this comes as a surprise when you consider the nature of each of these sports. For a sport that prides itself on individual statistics, team success in baseball is as egalitarian as it gets. In basketball and football, the action is funneled through a team’s best players.
You can build a team around a superstar because a superstar can disproportionately possess the ball. The Phillies? They have no way to get Harper more at-bats. He must sit and wait until the other eight guys hit. There’s no greater example of this than Trout, who is the best player of his generation and has yet to win a postseason game (he’s been to the playoffs once).
As the Angels will attest, the conundrum is one not easily solved. Here in Philadelphia, the professional fate of two men hangs in the balance of their ability to find an answer. Team president Dave Dombrowski and manager Joe Girardi will do what they can to get the Phillies over the hump this offseason, but the hump has been a long time in the making.
John Middleton’s millions were supposed to be the competitive advantage that would return the Phillies to the upper echelon of the National League once they laid a foundation for the next generation. Instead, ownership has attempted to survive on spending alone, with predictable results.
Now, with Harper and Wheeler vying to be named the NL’s best, the Phillies find themselves at a moment that is more daunting than crowning. They are coming off a season in which they got everything they could have hoped for out of their two best players. And after 162 games, they were still 6 1/2 games short.