For those unfamiliar with the statistic OPS+, all you really need to know is that it attempts to quantify a player’s success at reaching base and hitting for power, combining his on-base percentage and slugging percentage and weighting it, so that a mark of 100 is league average.
With that knowledge, the following facts might interest you:
1) Heading into Sunday’s action, only four teams in the major leagues fielded a lineup that featured more than five regulars with an OPS+ of 100 or higher.
2) Looking ahead to 2018, the Phillies could field an Opening Day lineup that features six hitters who entered Sunday’s series finale against the San Francisco Giants with an OPS of 100 or higher.
Now, there’s a qualifier, and it is not an insignificant one. Two of those six Phillies — Nick Williams (116 OPS+) and Rhys Hoskins (149) — had combined for a total of 215 plate appearances in their big-league careers. That is far too minuscule a sample size to render meaningful judgment. Williams, for instance, entered Sunday having struck out nine times while reaching base in just eight of his last 29 plate appearances, with only one extra-base hit. He went 2 for 4 against the Giants, and did not strike out.
Here were his numbers over his first 21 games:
Here were his numbers in the 21 games since:
First 21: .303 average, .345 OBP, .592 slugging percentage.
Next 21: .263/.337/.388
The odds say the real Williams isn’t that guy from the first 21 games. The question is whether he’s the guy from the second 21 or a combination of the two. If it’s the first choice, then he’s a fringe regular even on a second-division team. But if it’s the latter, and his batting line stabilizes around its current mark, then he’s a legit piece of a playoff-caliber lineup.
Which one’s which is very much an open question, as Madison Bumgarner showed on Sunday, elevating his fastball and pounding it into the hole where Williams has struggled to hit it. Among other adjustments, he’ll need to learn to lay off those sternum high offerings. There are signs to suggest he’s a hitter in progress: Before Sunday’s game, he’d drawn five walks in his previous 33 plate appearances after drawing just six in his first 140 of the season.
Hoskins, meanwhile, had already drawn eight walks in 42 plate appearances since his big league debut. He’d also hit four home runs, giving him a .381 on base percentage and .576 slugging percentage in 10 games, then added another Sunday afternoon. It’s a near-meaningless sample size; pitchers haven’t had a chance to figure him out yet. But they’re going to have to work hard to do it: at Triple-A this season, he struck out just 75 times while drawing 64 walks in 475 plate appearances.
The point of all of this isn’t that the Phillies’ problems are solved. Just that there’s reason for hope. If Williams and Hoskins turn out to be the hitters they were in the minors, which is roughly the hitters they’ve been in their limited sample sizes as major leaguers, and Odubel Herrera, Aaron Altherr and Cesar Hernandez continue to be the players they’ve been over the last few seasons, then the Phillies have the potential to field a lineup with above-league-average bats in the one through five holes. Cameron Rupp (100 OPS+) and Andrew Knapp (96 OPS+) have given them roughly league average production at catcher, too.
The Phillies have a realistic enough chance at fielding a competent lineup that it’s fair to wonder how it might affect their offseason plans. As has been pointed out repeatedly in these pages, 2018 will be dead on arrival if general manager Matt Klentak does not figure out a way to add a minimum of two or three arms to the rotation. That’s a tall task even for a team willing to take the risk of saddling itself with a bad contract. The Phillies are not, and should not be, such a team. Free-agent contracts are like new cars: they start to depreciate the moment you sign on the bottom line. It makes no sense to pay now for production you probably won’t need until Year 2 or 3 or 4 of any deal. All that does is diminish your ability to maximize your payroll in a year when you actually have a chance to contend.
Essentially, the Phillies are in rebuilding purgatory. The goal should be to make next season watchable. The lineup has a chance to get there on its own. The rotation will take some combination of creativity and luck, with heavy doses of both.