By Connor Thomas
In their final game prior to the all-star break, the Phillies were able to hold off the Boston Red Sox 5-4 in Fenway to make it back to 44-44 and a dead even .500 record. It was an admirable effort, especially considering the fact that the Phillies lost multiple players to COVID contact tracing, including scheduled starter Aaron Nola and 3rd baseman Alec Bohm, just hours before game time. It wasn’t the easiest road, and with a red hot NL West and a still strong New York Mets team to chase down, .500 won’t get the Phillies into the playoffs. But all things considered, the fan base should absolutely be satisfied with the first half of the Phillies season and where the team stands at the break, mainly because of what they have overcome so far.
First of all, the preseason line for the Phillies win total was sitting at 81.5 for many sportsbooks. Some quick math shows that the projection at the start of the year was right around .500 for the Phils. For better or for worse, according to Vegas they are on pace with what their projection was at the start of the season. That would be satisfying in a vacuum to some fans, but for some of the sticklers out there who want to see, say… a competent major league bullpen, or some corner infield defenders, there are some more positives to take from the Phils first half.
Normally a team ends a game with the bullpen, but in the first half of the season, this is where the Phillies’ troubles started. The ‘pen was less than stellar over the first 88 game, blowing 22 saves, good for the MLB lead and 4 more than any other team in baseball. That’s a comically bad job at finishing off ball games, and it’s even worse than last year’s historically bad effort by the bullpen. 2020 was a shortened 60 game season, but projected over 162 games, that awful pen was on pace to blow 35 saves. This year, the Phillies are on pace to blow over 40 saves. And yet, here they are, still holding on at .500. Even better, it appears that Ranger Suarez, who has recently been getting some action in the closer role, has been really good all season long, including his recent stints at the back end of the bullpen. If Suarez can continue to be effective and other surprises like rookie Bailey Falter stay steady, the Phillies should be even better than .500 in the back half just on the ‘pen improvements alone.
Another thing that the Phillies struggled with early in the season was play by their collective center field unit. The first stretch of their year saw a combination of Roman Quinn, Adam Haseley, and Mickey Moniak manning the middle of the outfield and creating a gaping hole in the lineup. None of the 3 are still with the Phils Major League roster for various reasons, but there was not much of an argument for continuing to play any of them. Quinn batted .173 in 52 at bats before suffering a season ending Achilles tear, Haseley was slightly better at .190 prior to leaving the team for personal reasons in mid-April, and Moniak, who did hit the only home run of the trio, batted .120 prior to being sent down to the minors again. If that isn’t the worst performance by position in all of baseball this year, I would be very surprised. Since moving on from the terrible trio, the Phillies have handed over the reins to Odubel Herrera, with some slight fill-ins from rookie Luke Williams. Herrera has had some hot stretches, and as a result is hitting .241 with 6 homers and 25 RBIs. Williams has seen minimal usage, but he’s hitting .276 through 58 at bats (still more ABs than all 3 of the original platoon). In fact, the Herrera-Williams duo combined are hitting .034 points higher than the Quinn-Haseley-Moniak trio, despite having one less average to count. Clearly, it seems, the center field position will be much more reliable in the 2nd half.
There are no signs to say that the defense will improve from the likes of Alec Bohm and Rhys Hoskins, but hey, they can’t be worse right? The bottom line is, there were a lot of things that went very wrong for the Phillies in the first half, and yet here they are, right on par with their original projections. Even more importantly, they are only 3.5 games out of the NL East lead thanks to the underperforming Braves and the lesser Nationals and Marlins. The Phils have also been red hot, putting up the most runs in baseball over the last week. Even though .500 is not the goal, with all things considered, there’s no reason to not have some cautious optimism heading into the 2nd half of the season. It was far from a perfect first 88 games, but so far, the Phillies are on pace.