The Phillies arrived in Milwaukee on Thursday night as a team in contention. They were four games behind the first-place Atlanta Braves and 2 ½ games behind the Washington Nationals for the second wild-card spot. They were also four games over .500 after a win over Colorado gave them their first series victory in three weeks.
Given where this team was a year ago at this time and where this team finished last season, it should be impossible to see the Phillies’ glass any other way than at least half full. Can it be annoying sometimes that first-year manager Gabe Kapler sees their glass overflowing with positives even after devastating or lopsided defeats?
Remember, however, that after 66 games last year, the Phillies were 22-44 and 18 ½ games out of first place. Rhys Hoskins had not yet arrived, and Aaron Nola was 3-5 with a 4.76 ERA after also spending a month on the disabled list. It does not take a doctorate degree in analytics to recognize vast improvement, although we will acknowledge that watching the team that strikes out a major-league-high 9.71 times per game is, at times, difficult.
The eternal-optimist manager would argue that the Phillies also have the third-highest walk rate in baseball, and that’s similar to the way the New York Yankees go about their business. It’s a hollow argument because the Phillies have not slugged the baseball like the Yankees even though they play in a homer-friendly park.
Kapler did, however, make a valid point after Thursday afternoon’s win against the Rockies. Times have been tough for the Phillies recently. Even with their win over the Rockies, they were 6-11 in their last 17 games, a difficult stretch that started after they spent a single day, May 26, on top of the National League East standings. A 3-7 road trip was followed by a 3-3 homestand. The Phillies batted .212 with a .286 on-base percentage and .625 OPS during that stretch. They also had a 5.03 ERA, which dropped them from second to 12th overall in the majors in that department.
The immediate road ahead is difficult, with their next 16 games being played against Milwaukee (three on the road), St. Louis (three at home), Washington (three on the road and four at home) and the Yankees (three at home).
It is entirely possible the Phillies, the youngest team in baseball, will be below .500 when the calendar turns to July. On the other hand, it’s also possible the Phillies simply went through a bad stretch of baseball the way every team does at some point during the season. Nine of those 17 games during the 6-11 stretch were played without Hoskins, whose mere presence in the lineup is a game changer for the Phillies. The team was 2-7 without him and averaged just 2.6 runs.
“Even the best teams, the best pitchers go through rough stretches,” Kapler said. “When we were going through our toughest stretch without a lot of wins, I went back and looked at the 2017 Houston Astros and the 2004 Red Sox and even this year’s Dodgers. All good teams go through long periods, sustained periods of struggles.”
He’s right, of course. That’s the nature of the 162-game beast. The Astros won 101 regular-season games on their way to the franchise’s first World Series title last season. They also had a 5-13 stretch that started with a 9-0 loss at Citizens Bank Park in late July. The 2004 Red Sox, with Kapler on the team, ended the franchise’s 86-year title drought, but still endured a stretch in which they went 6-12. The high-powered, 2008 World Series-champion Phillies went through a 5-13 stretch during which they hit .227 and scored two runs or fewer nine times in 18 games.
Perhaps the most pertinent team struggle for this current collection of Phillies belongs to the 2016 Reading Fightin Phils. The Phillies’ double-A affiliate, with Hoskins, Scott Kingery, Jorge Alfaro and other current Phillies, had the best record in the Eastern League, 89-52, that year. They also went through a 6-11 stretch in August.
“You can take a little bit from that,” Hoskins said. “I do think you have to learn how to win, and you have to learn how to lose. You learn how to get past the losing stretches. But I do think it’s a little different at this level, so you can only take bits and pieces of it from the minor leagues. Until you do it at this level you don’t know what it’s really like.
“It’s just learning day by day. I don’t think that we’ve changed anything. I don’t think there’s any need to change anything. I think if we just kind of ride it out and learn as we are going along. … Things will flip the other way.”
We know how Gabe Kapler will see the Phillies’ glass when we get to July. Far more telling will be the Phillies’ record and where they sit in the standings when this month is over.