Memorial Day is typically the first checkpoint in the marathon season that is Major League Baseball.
Entering the first weekend series of June, the Phillies sit eight games back in the NL East with a record of 25-31.
They are just one game above the last-place Nationals. To right the ship in 2022, the Phillies parted ways with their manager, Joe Girardi. Philadelphia sports radio 94.1 WIP debated a leadership change on Wednesday morning.
That will not happen this year.
In the final days of Girardi’s tenure as Phillies manager, it became clear he had lost the trust of the clubhouse. That does not appear to be the case under Rob Thomson, who was instrumental in getting the team to the World Series just a year ago. Just because the first two months of the season have been marred with inconsistent hitting, injuries, and bad starting pitching––especially from the fifth spot in the rotation––does not mean it’s the manager’s fault. Firing the skipper cannot be the first solution whenever things go wrong.
So, what can be done to get the Phillies back on track?
The obvious answer––and, truthfully, the only real answer––is to play better. On paper, this Phillies roster is better than last year. It may not seem like it right now, but the Phils added a perennial All-Star shortstop in Trea Turner, one of the best left-handed relievers in the game in Gregory Soto, and now one of eight relievers to reach the 400 save mark in Craig Kimbrel while only losing Jean Segura and the oft-injured Zach Eflin. As a whole, the team’s roster should be among the top 10 in baseball. The talent is there––it’s just a matter of finding their groove.
For the offense, it could be as simple as having a consistent approach. Brandon Marsh recently spoke about his “controlled aggression” as a factor in his early season success. Though he has significantly cooled off after a torrid month of April, where he finished the month with an OPS of 1.066, the center fielder has continued to attack his pitch rather than chase out of the zone. Entering Friday night, Marsh’s walk rate has more than doubled while his chase rate and average exit velocity rank in the 68th and 91st percentiles, respectively.
The Phillies lineup as a whole could benefit from a similar approach. Considering Turner and Nick Castellanos rank in the bottom 10% in chase rate, JT Realmuto’s hard-hit percentage being down 9% from last year, and Kyle Schwarber’s typical high strikeout rate, something needs to change. A consistent plan of attack and understanding how pitchers are getting you out is the first step.
Speaking of consistency, uh, well, the starting pitching. As a team, the Phillies rotation ranks 24th in baseball with a 4.59 ERA and 27th in innings pitched. The starters’ inability to go deep into games has heavily taxed the bullpen, which could become an issue as relievers tire heading into the dog days of the summer. The addition of Ranger Suarez following a stint on the injured list should ease the burden off the bullpen, but it all starts with Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler.
In his last start against the Mets on Wednesday, Nola was less than impressive, throwing six innings, allowing four runs with three walks and only five strikeouts. He has allowed four runs or more in four of his last six outings. Wheeler, who has shown better command in May and gets the start tonight against the Nationals, has allowed three or more runs in six of his 11 outings this season. Looking at the rest of the rotation––especially the fifth starter spot––if the Phillies have any chance at turning their season around, they need Nola and Wheeler to be the 1-2 punch we expect them to be.
Regarding the fifth starter, there’s really nothing that can be done at this moment in time. Bailey Falter, who pitched well enough during August and September last year to earn the fifth starter spot to begin the season, pitched to an 0-7 record and a 5.13 ERA before being demoted to Triple-A. Dylan Covey, who looked good in his first appearance, didn’t make it out of the first inning in his next start. Matt Strahm has only thrown over 100 innings one time in his career and would not survive the season with a starter’s workload. The Triple-A staff is bleak, No. 3 prospect Griff McGarry is coming back from injury, and No. 1 prospect Andrew Painter is on the shelf until mid-summer at the earliest.
Could a trade for a starter be coming? Sure, but it takes two to make a deal. The calendar just flipped to June, and the Trade Deadline isn’t until August 1. In the current market, there is significant demand for starting pitchers with very little supply. Therefore, it’s more likely selling teams will wait until the last couple weeks of July to deal with their pitching surplus to maximize their potential return. Translation: out-of-organization cavalry won’t arrive until after the All-Star break, at the earliest.
Things are bad right now. The past year has been a roller coaster of rock bottom, magical highs, and rock bottom again. At the moment, there is not much that can be done to right the ship other than hope for the Phils’ star-studded roster to play like it. They say hope is not a viable strategy, but hope is all there is right now.