It’s Worse Than It Looks: Defending the Phillies Doomsayers
As it stands on this humid, overcast June 3rd, the Phillies are in 3rd place in the NL East with a 27-30 record. With the team just 7.5 games back from the division-leading Braves and 8.5 games back from the wildcard slot, many fans are still be clinging to the hope that this team can turn its fortunes around and make a playoff run. Cliff Lee is pitching out of his mind again and Domonic Brown has finally blossomed at the plate, so it makes sense that some would be optimistic about the team’s immediate future.
But like the murky skies and sticky air outside, all the signs for this Phillies team portend rain.
Beware, Phillies fans. Don’t let that record fool you. Even though a playoff berth is seemingly within reach, the fact is that the Phillies have been extraordinarily lucky just to have as many wins as they have right now.
The untold story of the Phillies’ record – the one not mentioned by radio personalities, and often ignored by the newspapers as well – is that the their 27 wins-to-date is a house of cards. They may have the 3rd best record in the east, but they’ve scored a whopping 49 fewer runs than they’ve given up in just 57 games. That’s an average of -.86 runs per game, 3rd worst in the National League and ahead of just the Mets and Marlins.
Total run differential is an excellent predictor of a team’s record (like, d’uh) and the Pythagorean Wins calculation, originally invented by Bill James, is an accurate formula for determining how many wins a team ought to have. Having scored 202 runs and allowed 251, the Phillies’ Pythagorean Win-Loss record is 23-34. This means that, over the course of the season so far, their 27-30 record is actually 4 wins better than it should be.
In fact, they’re the luckiest team in the whole National League. Only one other team is ahead of their Pythagorean W-L record by 4, and that’s the 35-win Pirates. So even with the benefit of good fortune, the Phillies are still sitting far away from a playoff spot.
Skeptical of the predictive powers of this formula? In 2012 and 2011, only one team finished the season more than 7 wins over their expected total – the fluky 96-win 2012 Baltimore Orioles were 11 wins better than expected. But they were a ridiculous aberration. If you add up the difference between real wins and expected wins across the whole league in those years, you end up with -7 in 2012 and +2 in 2011, not large numbers considering how many games are played. So while some teams might have great luck, other teams have bad luck and the two generally even out.
But more importantly, while the Orioles might be seen as an example of what the Phillies might accomplish, one must remember that they still finished the season with 7 more runs scored than given up. Meanwhile, our Phillies are on pace to finish the season with a run differential of -139. That mark would count as the 3rd worst in baseball in 2012 (HOU, CHC), and 3rd worst in 2011 as well (HOU, MIN).
Now, it must be said that a team can beat its Pythagorean W-L record by having great relief pitching. After all, a team can get a lot of 1- or 2-run wins if it has ringers in the bullpen. But outside of Papelbon and Adams, the team is once again struggling to find consistent relievers. Likewise, the Phillies could turn around their fortunes if they get better starting pitching (here’s looking at you, Cole) or start to hit better and close that gap in run differential.
But sadly, none of this looks particularly likely. Cole Hamels seems destined to repeat his dismal 2009, but without the benefit of a competent lineup to back him up. Even with Dom Brown’s May surge, the team’s .246 BA and .393 SLG are just 8th in the NL. There’s not a lot of reasons to think that what we saw in April and May isn’t a true reflection of this team’s capability. They just don’t seem to have much more to give.
We’ve talked about the team trading away all of its pieces and starting over, and though their record so far might have fooled some into thinking this group has a chance, there’s no way it’ll last like this. Any move that Rubén Amaro makes to “improve” this year’s team is a waste of time and resources. Make no mistake, doomsday is here. Perhaps many of us just can’t see it yet.
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