Uh-Oh, The Phillies Are Too Good
It wasn't supposed to be like this.
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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It wasn't supposed to be like this. This Phillies season was intended to be a decent time-killer in between Sixers tragedies, a couple months' worth of entertainment long on home runs and short on emotional investment. They were gonna be just good enough that you didn't feel like you wasted your time watching them, but never quite good enough that you dreamed of them being anything more but a sporadically pleasant diversion from the dregs of the NBA offseason -- a way to either embrace or hide from the dog days of summer, depending on where you were watching from. They were gonna be very, very slightly good, and that was going to be more than good enough.
But then. On June 25, a Blake Snell fastball exploded Bryce Harper's thumb in the midst of his second-straight season of MVP-caliber production, sidelining him for somewhere in the six weeks to forever range. The Phillies were three games over .500 at that point, a decent-but-unextraordinary 8-6 since they'd won new manager Rob Thomson's first eight games following his inheriting the position from the mercifully deposed Joe Girardi. Given how hopelessly inert the Phils' offense had appeared in the games they'd played without Harper already this season, it seemed like a perfectly respectable time for them to pull the ripcord on the entire season. Instead, they went 22-13 in their next 35 games, vaulting the Phillies into playoff position. And now we're really in trouble.
Their beginnings may have been as humble as they could be for a team that paid a combined $180 on two top-line sluggers in free agency last summer, but the 2022 Philadelphia Phillies have now been branded with the most dangerous word in professional sports: should. And there's no getting around it at this point: The Phillies should make the playoffs now. They just should. They're one of four teams fighting for three playoff slots -- or five fighting for four, if you count the Braves, who are just three up on Philly after dropping a series to the Mets over the weekend -- and they're currently tied with one and ahead of two others. All they really need is one of those teams to slide back -- the Brewers and Padres have already both kinda started -- and just keep from entering freefall ourselves, and whoops there goes another decade-plus playoff drought.
Plus -- have you looked at the schedule for the final third of the Phillies' season? Yes, there's still seven games each against the Braves and the Mets still on the docket, starting with a three-game series at CitiField this weekend, which could end up being deeply unpleasant. But there's also nine against the Marlins, seven each against the Nationals and Reds, and a series each against the Cubs, Giants and Diamondbacks -- and no more against the Padres, Dodgers, Cardinals or Brewers. Even the three they have coming up against Houston comes at the very end of the season, at which point the 11-games-up Astros could be holding Take Your Kid to the Pitchers' Mound Day at Minute Maid Park for all we know. This might not have meant all that much in past seasons when the league's bummier teams routinely spoiled the Phils' entire season, but this year they've made hay bopping on the bottom of the barell; they even have a winning record against the friggin’ Marlins for once.
And reinforcements are coming. Most of them are already here, in fact; the Phillies got Jean Segura back from the 60-day DL last week, and traded a bouquet of prospects for a trio of fill-ins to bolster their outfield (Brandon Marsh), pitching staff (Noah Syndergaard) and bullpen (old friend David Robertson, presumably alive-ish this time around). Whether those guys represent significant upgrades remains to be seen, but just about anyone would over some of the guys they replaced -- including the since-DFA'd Odubel Herrera and Jeurys Familia, whose subtraction from the team felt like the key additions of the deadline. And Harper, the biggest matzo ball remaining, seems just weeks away from returning, an absurd bonus for a lineup that just scored 36 runs in their last four games. It all adds up to a team that Baseball-Reference says has a 91.3% chance of making the playoffs -- 91.3%!!!! -- and one where, shit, we better actually do it now.
That's not what you want to hear if you're a Sixers fan. For Process Trusters, should is not our friend: The list of things that the Sixers should have accomplished by now but have not is a long and sleepless one, and one that gets more gut-wrenching with each new item added. Nearly every time expectation has been foisted upon the Sixers, it's been Bad News Bears for all of us. For the Phillies to potentially pile on that list themselves by belatedly getting us to expect a winning season after four of the most determinedly mediocre campaigns in the history of professional sport -- especially when at least one or two of those seasons involved a slow and painful late-summer fade from relevance -- it's just not the sort of thing you do to a fanbase you care about.
How likely is it that we end up furious at being suckered into these shenanigans again? Well, that's the tricky part to answer, because again: It feels like the Phillies' record should be about this good right now. Previous seasons saw the Phils significantly outperforming their run differential and improbably overcoming spotty production throughout their lineup -- until they stopped doing either, at which point they tumbled long and hard towards the middle. But now, not only is the Phillies' +72 run differential befitting a team of their record, but their roster doesn't seem like it's that driven by overperformance: In fact, the only players who are definitively playing over their heads right now are near-.300-hitting third baseman Alec Bohm, who might just be a talented young player starting to really figure it out, and slugger Darick Hall (this year's Darin Ruf), who will likely be relegated to super-sub status when Harper returns away. But just about everyone else is either about at or a little below career levels; they just have a lot of good hitters in their lineup now and they've rebuilt their bullpen to not be a complete catastrophe. It's amazing how competent your team can suddenly appear when they beat up on bad teams and loosen up on the organizational commitment to blowing games in the eighth and ninth.
Of course, competent isn't usually enough to win the World Series, and even the most optimistic projection of the Phils this year probably doesn't include them doing that. They have both the fifth-best record and the fifth-best run differential in the NL, and both those placements seem exactly right: There are probably four NL teams that are definitively better than them, though whether the fourth is the Padres or Cardinals may depend on how their respective regular seasons finish. (Though it’d hardly be the first time a team not obviously among the cream in their league got hot at the right time and plowed through the playoffs; baseball is silly like that.)
Regardless, that's not really the problem; getting to the playoffs for the first time since 2011 would unquestionably be success enough for this season, even if it just lasted the one Wild Card game. The problem is that they need to get there in the first place. The problem is that there's no real reason why they shouldn't. The problem is that the Phillies are officially Too Good for us to be OK with it if they don't. Save us from should and from ourselves, Rob Thomson.