Plenty of reasons for late slide
Phillies have stumbled badly down the stretch over last 2 seasons
So, the Phillies are playoff spectators again after another dreadful September.
It was expected in 2018, but this season was supposed to be different. Instead, it played out like a Groundhog’s Day sequel … minus Bill Murray’s comedic genius.
Philadelphia was 20-36 the last two Septembers. That .357 winning percentage is better only than the Orioles, Giants, Tigers and Marlins — who collectively were out of playoff contention as soon as spring training ended. They also failed to win five games in a row at any point for the first time since 1990. The Gabe Kapler/ Matt Klentak partnership was supposed to ensure that this season not only was the Phillies’ first winning season since 2011, but also their first playoff appearance in eight years.
Instead, the club that spent $473 million in the offseason on four players finished in fourth place in the National League East Division and never seriously threatened the second wild-card spot after a 2-4 mid-September road trip to Atlanta and Boston.
What went wrong? The only simple answer is: plenty.
Here’s a look at seven contributing factors:
Andrew McCutchen’s fluke ACL injury: His season-ending injury in the first inning of a June 3 loss in San Diego was pain felt by the Phillies the rest of the season. Up to that point, the 32-year-old free-agent signee had an .834 OPS in 60 games which complemented his stellar clubhouse presence. Without him in the lineup, the Phils never found another leadoff hitter and never found offensive consistency.
Rhys Hoskins’ second-half woes: In 2018, his first full MLB season, the first baseman hit .237 with 59 hits and 57 strikeouts in 67 games after the All-Star break. It got much worse in 2019: .180 average, .679 OPS, 79 strikeouts, 48 walks and 46 hits in 71 games. That production void hitting behind Bryce Harper in the lineup was a major part of the offense’s inconsistency. What made it particularly disturbing was that during his biggest hot streaks in the upper levels of the minors and in his first month in the majors (August 2017), he was peppering right-center field. His pull-happy mode was obvious late in 2019.
Ravaged bullpen: David Robertson, Tommy Hunter, Seranthony Dominguez, Adam Morgan, Pat Neshek and Victor Arano were six integral parts of the Phillies relief corps. Hunter pitched 5 1⁄3 innings this year, or exactly four innings more than utility player Sean Rodriguez and two innings more than often-injured outfielder Roman Quinn.
The six relievers pitched a combined 89 innings (in 102 appearances), which left the likes of Nick Vincent, Jared Hughes, Blake Parker, Mike Morin and Fernando Salas — none of whom were with the Phillies out of spring training — throwing more innings (92 2⁄3).
Jerad Eickhoff again was hurt more than he wasn’t and the Phillies mistakenly tried to make yo-yo relievers out of Triple-A starters Cole Irvin and Enyel De Los Santos.
Dallas Keuchel … NOT: The Phillies never made the left-handed free agent an offer, so he sat without a job until June 21. All he did was pitch at least six innings in 12 of his last 17 starts… for the rival Braves. The lack of interest is a microcosm of Klentak’s flawed offseason approach to starting pitchers. He earned credit for acquiring J.T. Realmuto, the game’s best all-around catcher and a solid leader. He also signed McCutchen.
But the Phils GM took called third strikes on Patrick Corbin, J.A. Happ, Charlie Morton, Lance Lynn and even Anibal Sanchez. Only Lynn isn’t pitching in the playoffs, but it wasn’t his fault. The right-hander had 246 strikeouts in 208 1⁄3 innings and worked at least six innings in 25 of 33 starts, including 19 in a row. By comparison, Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez combined for just five starts of at least six innings in 36 attempts.
Bench misconstruction again: Scott Kingery, Nick Williams and Aaron Altherrr joined Andrew Knapp to form an unproductive bench out of spring training. They combined to hit .154 (14 for 91) as pinch hitters.
Pinch hitting is hard, especially if you’re a young player who has not done it much. For the second year in a row, the Phillies put the burden on relative newcomers who predictably struggled.
Sean Rodriguez, a 10-year veteran, was called up in April and stayed the rest of the season. Phil Gosselin got two stints and led the team in pinch hits. Shane Robinson, Andrew Romine and other veterans who started the year in Triple-A never got a call-up.
Clubhouse authority: Kapler has never hid the fact that he was a players’ manager, but he took it to extremes in his two seasons. Minus playing videos during games, the players were never reigned in. Jean Segura’s lack of hustle after slipping in the batter’s box on his pop-up allowed Padres second baseman Ian Kinsler to let the ball drop and get a double play … and land McCutchen on the injured list. It wasn’t Segura’s only hustle transgression, but there was never a hard stance from the organization. Cesar Hernandez is another who had moments of lethargy on the field and on the base paths. It is tolerated. It should not be. Realmuto and Harper are leaders by example. They are not going to call out lazy teammates publicly or privately, so that falls directly on the manager.
Kapler also made it clear when Pivetta was sent to Triple-A Lehigh Valley that the right-hander needed to work on his attitude and first-inning troubles. He did neither, yet was promoted after six minor-league starts when the Phillies were feeling somewhat desperate for pitching in May. Pivetta was moved to the bullpen in late July and sent back to Triple-A for three relief outings in August before spending the rest of the year in the majors. The club tolerated behavior from a guy who has a 5.34 ERA and 1.43 WHIP in parts of three major-league season.
Communication issues: With the exception of a relief pitcher (Hector Neris twice) not being ready to enter a game yet being summoned by Kapler, the Phillies had a plan of accelerating the usage of analytics into everything they did on the field in an effort to catch up to the elite organizations (Yankees, Astros, Dodgers). They hired nonbaseball people from Driveline Baseball and other data-driven companies in order to expedite the process. They produced chart after chart. They shared them with the players, told them what to do. But there was one problem: they struggled to help the players make changes necessary to achieve the organization’s analytic goals.
Fired pitching coach Rick Kranitz excelled with his relationship skills, but the Phillies opted to promote Chris Young whose history was in scouting. Kranitz is in the playoffs with the Braves. Young failed to help younger pitchers develop. Zach Eflin’s recent decision to balk at what Young and his charts were telling him and return to be the sinkerball pitcher that allowed him to get to the majors paid off. In his last seven starts, Eflin posted a 2.89 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and .239 batting average against.
Assistant pitching coach Dave Lundquist has a solid relationship with Eflin and many of the other Phillies/IronPigs young pitchers. His track record in the minors of combining the ability to help with mechanics and reach pitchers on a personal level speaks for itself. Yet, his voice is not the one being heard most right now.
The Phillies took a calculated risk last summer in an effort to look smart with a business decision that involved sending Eflin to the minors — though he never reported and never missed a start.
It irked Eflin, who is among the nicest human beings in the Phils clubhouse. It upset the rest of the roster.
Kapler met with Eflin to discuss the situation, but it came after the poor decision on a personal level was made.
Phillies management does not appear to have learned from that episode about the ability to communicate and the importance of the timing of the communication.
It all could cost Kapler and/or others their jobs. Stay tuned.
Andrew McCutchen was off to a solid start in his first season with the Phillies before a torn ACL took him out of the lineup for good on June 3.