Following a string of five straight division titles and two World Series appearances, one win and one loss, the Phillies went from mediocre in 2012 to awful in 2013. For the Phillies, the 610 runs they scored in 2013 was the fourth-lowest run scoring output since the Major League Baseball season was extended to 162 games. A lack of run scoring coupled with the second-most runs allowed per game led to a fourth place finish and a 73-89 record. It marked the worst finish for the Phillies since 2000, when they lost 97 games and finished last in the NL East.
The futility led to the firing of Charlie Manuel and Ryne Sandberg, who many believed was the manager-in-waiting, was promoted and given a contract extension after the 2013 season. The Phillies were 53-67 under Manuel last season and 20-22 under Sandberg. The second half of the season was a disaster for the Phillies, posting a 25-41 mark after the All-Star Break.
Based on run differential, the Phillies actually overachieved last season. Their Pythagorean Win-Loss was 66-96. The seven-win discrepancy was the highest in all of baseball. One reason for the huge discrepancy is that when the Phillies lost, they lost in an ugly fashion. They were beaten by five or more runs in 35 of their 89 losses, with just 11 wins by five or more runs.
The Phillies tied for the sixth-lowest walk rate and had the fourth-worst strikeout-to-walk rate. Phillies pitchers had the fourth-highest ERA. Part of the reason was that the bullpen had the highest walk rate at 10.8 percent. Not only were the Phillies bad offensively, but they had one of the league’s worst defenses as well, which didn’t do the pitching staff any favors. In fact, the Phillies were the worst team in the league with -102 defensive runs saved. Only the Mariners showed less defensive range as a team.
All in all, it was a very forgettable season for the Phillies. Unfortunately for Phillies fans, the oddsmakers seem to think 2014 will be as well. 5Dimes.eu, BetOnline.ag, and Bovada.lv all have the Phillies win total set at 76.5 and all have the vig shaded to the under at either -120 or -125. BetDSI.eu is at 76 with a -130 on the under.
Key additions: Marlon Byrd, AJ Burnett, Bobby Abreu, Roberto Hernandez, Jeff Manship, Chad Gaudin
Key losses: Erik Kratz, Roy Halladay, John Lannan, Tyler Cloyd
It was a rather quiet offseason for the Phillies with the exceptions of the signings of AJ Burnett and Marlon Byrd. Burnett signed a one-year deal with a mutual option for 2015 after contemplating retirement following last season. Long-time Phillie Bobby Abreu was a non-roster invite to Spring Training, presumably to mentor some of the younger players and try to make an impression with another team. At 40, Abreu has little chance of making the Phillies.
Roberto Hernandez is all but guaranteed a rotation spot. The Phillies lost some depth as Tyler Cloyd and John Lannan moved on. Roy Halladay retired after a couple years of poor pitching. Jeff Manship is the clubhouse leader to secure the fifth rotation spot with an injury to Jonathan Pettibone. Chad Gaudin will provide a swingman who can start in a pinch or long relieve. Erik Kratz was just a backup catcher.
Marlon Byrd had an impact for both the Mets and the Pirates last season. Byrd looks to be the starting right fielder and could have a very nice season for the Phillies given Citizens Bank Park’s power-hitter-friendly conditions.
The Phillies didn’t do a whole lot this offseason, opting to mix in some veteran leadership and versatility with guys like Reid Brignac, Ronny Cedeno, and Abreu.
Why bet the over?
Even though the Phillies’ record was awful last season, there were some surprises that should lead to a sense of optimism. Chase Utley was healthy last season, racking up over 530 plate appearances for the first time since 2009. Utley didn’t put up the same production that he did from 2005-09, but he was still good enough to produce 3.9 fWAR and his numbers were pretty close to his career averages. Utley’s plate discipline did fall a little bit with his lowest walk rate since 2007, but the power came back as Utley slugged .475.
The biggest surprise last season was the development of Domonic Brown. Brown finally got regularly playing time and absolutely flourished for the Phils. He hit 27 home runs and slugged .494. As expected, his home splits were higher with Citizens Bank Park being such a great hitter’s park, but he still slugged .470 with 13 home runs away from home, so by no means was Brown’s season park-aided. With a strikeout rate right around league average, there’s some hope that Brown’s .287 BABIP could go up, even if the power stays the same. A drop in power would likely result in more doubles and a higher BABIP anyway, so Brown should remain a productive player.
Ryan Howard missed essentially half of the season from early July through the end of the year with a left knee issue. Prior to the injury, Howard was in the midst of a bit of a bounce back season. He was on pace to hit over 20 home runs and his batting average had climbed back to a much more respectable number. Even though Howard is pretty much a very expensive platoon bat at this stage of his career, staying healthy through a season of 450 plate appearances against righties could lead to a pretty big slash line and a lot more offensive value.
Marlon Byrd saw a big power jump in a park that became a lot friendlier to power after the fences were moved in back in 2012. Byrd went from 22 home runs in 1,265 plate appearances from 2010-12 to 24 home runs in 579 plate appearances with the Mets and Pirates in 2013. Byrd has actually been a pretty decent average hitter for a guy without much speed throughout his career. Even at his age, there’s a lot of optimism for his numbers in a great hitter’s park after what he did last season.
Ben Revere’s fractured foot in mid-July also contributed to the Phillies second half struggles. Revere was batting .305 over the first 88 games of the season with 22 stolen bases. He puts balls in play and makes things happen on the basepaths, along with being an above average defender for the Twins in his two previous Major League seasons. For a team like the Phillies with a lot of low-to-mid batting average guys and a ballpark that requires power hitting, losing a player with Revere’s intangibles was a tough blow to the offense. With him back and a better middle of the lineup with a healthy Utley, a healthy Howard, and Byrd, that should help the offense score more runs.
Was Jimmy Rollins’s power drop an anomaly? He posted a career low 3.1 percent HR/FB rate after a 10.4 percent in 2013. His career average is at 7.7 percent, which would imply that even with his age and a decline, Rollins should probably be somewhere in the six-to-seven percent range. Bump Rollins back up to 10-12 home runs and 30 steals and he’ll have more value to the Phillies lineup.
On the pitching side, there’s not a whole lot that can be said about Cliff Lee that hasn’t already been said. He is a bona fide ace with elite control, posting a BB/9 of 1.67 or below for the sixth straight season in 2013. His 6.94 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the best among qualified starters, well above Adam Wainwright, who was second at 6.26. Lee continues to get ground balls, strikeouts, weak contact, and remains one of the best pitchers in the league.
The Phillies are being both smart and cautious with Cole Hamels at the outset of the 2014 season, as he is expected to miss the first month, but be ready to go shortly after that. Losing a month of production from Hamels is hard to overcome, but what any Phillies bettor should do is look at Hamels’s production when in the rotation. Since 2007, Hamels has posted fWAR values between 3.5 and 4.6. He’s very consistent and should continue to be. The 8-14 record shouldn’t concern you. The Phillies scored just 3.37 runs per game for Hamels and he pitched much better than his record would indicate.
What the Phillies sorely lacked last season was a competent number three starter. They have that and then some in AJ Burnett. Roy Halladay was supposed to be that guy, but his body failed him and the lack of depth in the Phillies rotation was exposed. Burnett has been a steady workhorse over the last six seasons, which should help the Phillies immensely. He has a pretty extreme ground ball split, so pitching at Citizens Bank Park shouldn’t hurt him that much. A reasonable expectation would be an ERA in the 3.50 range and a lot of innings. That’s extremely valuable.
Behind Burnett, the Phillies have some competent Major League arms in Roberto Hernandez, Kyle Kendrick, and Jonathan Pettibone. What’s nice about all three of those guys is that they all induce ground balls at 49 percent or better, so they should be able to keep the Phillies in games and not be hurt too much by fly balls in a hitter-friendly park.
The bullpen is anchored by Jonathan Papelbon, who remains a top closer because of his control. Papelbon lost some velocity, but used his good control to also miss the barrel of the bat. Antonio Bastardo mows down lefties, but also has pretty good platoon splits against righties. He’ll be the primary setup man in front of Papelbon. Once-dominant setup man Mike Adams is looking to regain his value after missing most of 2013 with a shoulder injury. His HR/FB rate and command issues from last season should be an anomaly, assuming he’s healthy. Spring Training reports have been positive. Others like Justin de Fratus, Jake Diekman, and Kevin Munson are young depth options that miss bats, but also miss the strike zone. When the bullpen is on, it will be tough to hit, so that gives it a lot of promise.
Why bet the under?
There are a lot of concerns with the Phillies, most of them injury-related. There’s absolutely no guarantee that Cole Hamels comes back healthy and even if he does, there were some red flags last season. He has trended towards becoming more of a fly ball pitcher over the last three season. Normally, that wouldn’t be a major cause for concern, but park factor plays a big deal in Philadelphia. Add in a drop in strikeouts last season and the fact that the Phillies defense was one of the worst in baseball last season and isn’t much improved this season and Hamels could post an ERA above the 3.60 he had last season. His advanced metrics will continue to look good because of his walk rate, but his home run could trend up and keep him from being as good as he has been.
The last time AJ Burnett pitched in a good hitter’s park, he was destroyed by the media and sent packing. That was in 2011 at Yankee Stadium and he left town with a 5.15 ERA and a 4.77 FIP. Last season with the Pirates, Burnett was tremendous at home with a 2.37 ERA and a 2.46 FIP. On the road, it was a different story with a 4.22 ERA and a 3.14 FIP. It may have just been an outlier, but Burnett’s strikeout rate fell, his walk rate increased, his HR rate increased, and his BABIP increased by 46 points. Burnett was also a benefactor of the Pirates defensive scheme that included lots of shifting, as well as a couple of elite fielders in left field and center field. He doesn’t have those luxuries in this park and with this team. Expectations should be tempered for him, especially because he’s also 37.
The Phillies lack depth among their position players, so you’re left to hope that 35-year-old Chase Utley with his bad knees, 35-year-old Carlos Ruiz, 35-year-old Jimmy Rollins, who is already fighting with Manager Ryne Sandberg, 36-year-old Marlon Byrd and his random display of power, and 34-year-old Ryan Howard and his 609 plate appearances over the last two seasons can actually stay together and produce for this lineup. Maikel Franco is an impressive prospect with power, but he is only in Double-A and needs more time because his tools are still quite raw. There’s not a lot of help coming from below and there’s next to no help depth-wise for the Phillies.
Jonathan Papelbon’s second straight season with a noticeable velocity decline certainly has to be concerning. His control didn’t fall off much, so the injury concerns aren’t as high as they could be, but it’s still something to keep an eye on. Behind Papelbon, the bullpen has Bastardo and a bunch of guys with control and command issues. Even though the rotation could give the team some length if Hamels comes back healthy and Burnett is effective, the bullpen is not deep for the starts from the fourth and fifth guys.
The Phillies were positively awful defensively last season with -102 defensive runs saved. With Marlon Byrd patrolling the outfield, the middle infielders a year older, and Domonic Brown still in left field, the team doesn’t appear to be much better this year in that regard. With an offense that projects to be below average everywhere but in the power category, potentially, the pitching staff won’t have a lot of margin for error and a shoddy defense won’t help matters.
Pick: Under 76.5 (-120, BetOnline)
This is an older team with plenty of problems and it would take far too many things going according to plan for the team to win 77 games. Ryne Sandberg has established himself as a hard-ass and that may not sit well with the veteran players who are set in their ways at the Major League level. More than the feelings, the Phillies may opt to trade Cliff Lee this year to replenish a weak farm system. It’s an outside chance, but it’s certainly a possibility if the team is out of it in June or July. Even with Lee, Hamels’s health coupled with Burnett in this environment, with this defense, and the rotation is going to do well to be average or better. Even when the team gets a good start, the bullpen looks like a weakness.
The saving grace for the Phillies may be all of Atlanta’s pitching injuries, as the Marlins will be better and the Mets could be as well, but the Phillies will have opportunities to win games against those teams. But you’re banking on a lot of guys over the age of 35 and that’s never a good gamble to make in Major League Baseball.
Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.