The Slightly-Above-.500 Phillies? The Slightly-Above-.500 Phillies!
This year's Phillies are very, very slightly good. It's been an adjustment for sure, but so far I'm into it.
Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and writes for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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The past few summers, the Philadelphia Phillies have served as an absolute tonic to my 76ers-related spiritual ailments. While the Sixers have frustrated as so-close-yet-so-far playoff pretenders desperately trying to break through to the next level, the Phillies had not sniffed the postseason for a decade, and seemed to have embraced .500 baseball as the franchise's cultural identity. Any time they got too far above or below an even record, they were like Charlie Kelly on a road trip, just reflexively panicking their way back to the comfort and safety of pure mediocrity.
And that was fine: I wanted nothing less than to spend July and August stressing over another team that should've gotten there already, scouring the trade market and waiver wire for marginal upgrades, emotionally bargaining with myself in preparation for the inevitable disappointment of proving Less Than. The Phillies were just gonna play some games; they were gonna win some, they were gonna lose some, they were gonna win some they should've lost and lose some they should've won. All told, it was gonna be pretty chill.
But this year's Phillies are totally different: This year's Phillies are very, very slightly good. It's been an adjustment for sure, but so far I'm into it.
Now, you may look at the Fightins' 39-35 record and ask if the 2.7% difference between them and a true .500 team is really enough to be meaningful. After all, four games over .500 is just a four-game losing streak away from being .500; given that the Phillies have series coming up against the Braves and Cardinals, they could be indistinguishable from the last few Phillies teams as soon as this weekend. I could say this year's team feels different, but that's the great thing and the infuriating thing about the baseball season -- it's long enough that you get to watch about 12 different versions of your team over the course, always tricking you into thinking the version of the team you're watching is the most meaningful one.
It's true, though, sort of: This Phillies team does feel different. Maybe just because the swings have been so much more dramatic than in recent years: When they took five of six from the Mariners and the Dodgers on a West Coast swing it felt like they were putting the rest of the league on notice, then when they lost 12 of their next 16 it felt like they were playing with two-ton weights strapped to their chests. And then when they followed that with nine wins in a row... it was the kind of invincibility the Phillies haven't displayed since they were eliminating the Braves from postseason contention in 2011 after having clinched the East weeks earlier, just because they could. It's not even the All-Star break and this team has already been eight games under .500 and five games over. They even have a +35 scoring differential! The 2019-2021 Phillies would never have stood for this kind of ostentatiousness.
Of course, there's a specific reason to point to for this vibe shift: The decaying of old and busted former manager Joe Girardi, and the arrival of new hotness interim manager Rob Thomson. There's really nothing like an interim manager in baseball to project absolutely anything you want onto: I don't know anything about Rob Thomson as a manager beyond the fact that he's reasonable enough to not stick with Corey Knebel as closer while he plays a drunken game of darts with the strike zone, or to move Kyle Schwarber out of the lineup's top spot for Odubel Herrera or someone else who just feels leadoff hitterier. But I love that the rest of the team refers to him as "Topper," I love that you can make a zillion Matchbox Twenty and "Smooth" puns off his name, and I love how every time his players talk about him doing something well it doubles as a Girardi subtweet. As far as I can tell he's the best Phils manager since Charlie Manuel, maybe ever.
Is he actually good? Is the team actually good? Probably not in any meaningful way. They've improbably done a decent job with their patched-up, reshuffled bullpen, Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola seem about as strong as any 1-2 in the NL right now, and hopefully Nick Castellanos will be ready to resume raking once Schwarber finally cools off from his nutso June. But the defense is pretty horrid across the board, the middle infield and CF position consistently struggles to hit at replacement level, and reigning MVP Bryce Harper is out until question mark, which seems like it will eventually be a problem of some sort. The team was always haphazardly and impulsively assembled, like a 11-year-old preparing their own dinner for the first time: exciting, but unsustainable, and easily outclassed.
It's fine though. A team that's slightly good feels kind of like the best of all worlds: They'll hover around the fringes of the playoff race, providing solid nightly summer entertainment and reason to care long-term while still never really letting us believe they're on the same level as the likes of the Dodgers and Mets. They don't quite have the purity of essence of the resolutely .500 Phillies, but they're a little more fun and a little more likeable -- at least until they visit Toronto next month -- if not quite as admirable. And when the time comes, they'll get out of the way and let us get back to fretting full-time about the Sixers. "All anyone asked is to be entertained for five or six months," Matt Gelb of The Athletic -- a much less ridiculous writer for a much less ridiculous publication -- wrote soberly but lovingly about the Phillies a couple weeks ago. "These Phillies should oblige that request." It shouldn't be so complicated.