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Whether the Phillies delight or disappoint in 2022 remains to be seen. One thing we (probably) know for sure: success won’t come easy. (Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports)

Phillies Working Through Kinks Of Unorthodox Formula: 7th-Day Stretch

Whether the Phillies delight or disappoint in 2022 remains to be seen. One thing we (probably) know for sure: success won’t come easy. (Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports)

Phillies Working Through Kinks Of Unorthodox Formula: 7th-Day Stretch

I’d like to begin the second season of the 7th-Day Stretch, a weekly to bi-weekly series covering the exploits of the Philadelphia Phillies by myself, one of many fans old enough to remember the glory days of the late 2000s and early 2010s but having gone through enough to have nearly forgotten them, with a formula. This is just about the only team I will use math of my own free will, so enjoy it. It is also the one used by every single baseball team in every league when assembling their roster and deployment, whether they know it or not.

Hitting + Defense + Baserunning + Starting Pitching + Relief Pitching = Wins

The platonic ideal of a baseball team is one that excels in all of these facets, at least to some degree. No such thing exists, not even the Dodgers, and even if that did, it would likely not be long before injuries or other external factors depleted it to some extent. While there is no hard salary cap in baseball, teams usually find themselves picking and choosing between players of different skillsets or/and positions. The above formula takes on a different shape for everybody. But the Phillies have distorted it in a way perhaps no team that is aiming for a postseason berth has, at least to the extent they have.

Hitting + Starting Pitching + Baserunning – Relief Pitching – Defense = Wins

Just because there are two negatives in that formula does not overrule the possibility the Phillies could be as good, if not better, than the teams using the first, fully positive formula. There are plenty of other teams with postseason aspirations that have a negative or two in their formula. They just aren’t as dramatic as the Phillies’ holes. The bullpen that tied a Major League record last year with 34 blown saves is more different than truly better. The Phillies’ defense cost them 11 more runs than any other team in 2021, 55 in total. Their two main position player additions combined to cost their teams 15 runs themselves last season. Baserunning is probably more neutral than anything; the Phillies have been aggressively trying to take extra bags, with mixed results. No one on the roster has reached 15 stolen bases since Bryce Harper had exactly 15 in 2019.

This was the same formula the Phillies applied last season, and it came oh-so-close to working. It puts a lot of pressure on the offense and rotation especially, and that is by design. The club could’ve placed the fault for missing the postseason for the tenth straight season on the formula itself or the flaws within each individual element. Their 2021 roster construction was undeniably more sound than in 2020. They identified the right holes to fill, just the wrong players to fill them with. Maybe even that wouldn’t have mattered if Zach Eflin and Rhys Hoskins had stayed healthy. Starting left fielder Andrew McCutchen missed significant time as well. So did J.T. Realmuto, who played a lot of the season dinged up. Bryce Harper literally took a fastball to the face.

Every team has injuries, of course. The Phillies lost the NL East to a Braves team that lost a top-five player in the sport in July and still won the World Series. But the timing of the season-ending blows to Eflin and Hoskins felt especially cruel given the injuries occurred just before and during the brightest moment of the season.

That eight-game winning streak to begin August was the Phillies’ formula at its peak. And no, the Phillies (probably) didn’t base how to shape the direction of their franchise based on eight days in August, no matter how magical they were. The Phillies’ bats bashed throughout last July as well. The team spent most of the first half of the season trying to convince everyone their offense would warm up with the weather. It did, just not long enough to raise a flag, not even a white one (that’s the color of the pennants denoting postseason appearances at Citizens Bank Park; blue represents an NL championship, red a World Series title). But it created the type of baseball bliss kept from Philadelphia for far too long.

This may not work. The Phillies could find themselves outside of even an expanded postseason picture when the dust settles in six months. The biggest reason why the Phillies have failed to return to baseball’s biggest stage since 2011 is failing to commit to a coherent formula, taking fragments of the sport’s best organizations but never assembling a sound strategy of their own. They’re committed to a plan now, but this may just be an overcorrection. That has been true at the Major League and especially the Minor League and scouting level. But it’s best to leave September and October problems for September and October, or at the very least, approximately Aug. 2. You cannot win the World Series in April, as the saying goes. And you technically can’t lose it then, either.

That doesn’t mean criticism or concern is not warranted. Joe Girardi has sat Realmuto after a 4-4 game and Alec Bohm after going 2-3 with 3 RBIs, and maybe he shouldn’t have. Bohm didn’t play third base since the happy-ending nightmare that was his first appearance at the hot corner until the late innings of Sunday when the game was already out of hand.

Aaron Nola and Kyle Gibson each reached the seventh inning in the first two games of the season. No Phillie starter has made it to the 6th since. Of course, 60% of that rotation is still getting ramped up due to injury, illness, or/and visa issues, which is fine long term. Zack Wheeler, part of that group, sat in the low-mid 90s on Sunday, and that might not be if an IL stint becomes necessary. The Phillies’ lack of pitching depth likely makes Wheeler their most important piece. The entire staff, rotation and pen, not being able to shut down a Marlins offense averaging 2.8 runs per game out of the gate before facing arguably their most notable punching bag in recent years, isn’t a good look.

The Phillies went from being one of the worst fastball hitting teams in baseball to the best. But that gain has been canceled out by significant struggles against breaking balls. The Phillies are somehow getting even less production out of center field than last year. But then again, two of their top three options for the position have been injured all season. The one who is healthy is in the 85th percentile in hard-hit percentage (balls with a 95+ MPH exit velocity). That is Matt Vierling, who’s batting just .143.

Vierling and Símon Muzziotti have combined for four hits since this Tweet, but the overall picture still isn’t great.

It was always going to take a while to sort everything out. But then Kyle Schwarber hit a home run on the first at-bat of the season, the Phillies scored eight more runs in the next seven innings, then launched three home runs the next day, and suddenly putting everything together seemed like wouldn’t take much time at all. Despite feeling the exact same feeling before and it ending up being nothing more than a tease, euphoria still overtook Citizens Bank Park. Fans are desperate for joy and closely guarding against false hope because that is all they have known since Oct. 7, 2011. They are cynical, but not contemptuous. It would be great if ending a drought that is closing in on 4,000 days could be easy. Reading that sentence should give you a good idea of why it isn’t.

If that doesn’t, this might. Schwarber had just four hits, including only one for extra bases, in eight games after that Opening Day blast. He is already out of the leadoff spot ten games into the season. He’ll probably be back at some point. And if he’s not, it probably means the Phillies’ offense has figured things out. After all, they scored ten runs in the first game after the change. The second game did not go nearly as well, though Schwarber launched another towering drive to right. It didn’t matter much in the moment, but maybe it will lead to a few more than do.

An overview of the base group the Phillies are counting on this year, one that is already changing.

If this seems all over the place, well, that’s because it is. Everybody in baseball is a little behind the eight-ball because of the lockout and shortened Spring Training. The Phillies are probably more so than most because of the aforementioned starting pitching situation and the mid-spring signings of Schwarber and Nick Castellanos. There are reasons to be excited. There are reasons to be concerned. Which should you be more of? Well, it’s still April, which is baseball for “we’ll let you know when we do”.

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