Tonight is a big night for the Phillies. One of the biggest of the season, when you consider the potential ramifications.
With three weeks to go before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, everybody seems to think the Phillies need another bat. Or maybe it's just that everybody thinks they need Manny Machado. Which, to be fair, is a pretty safe thought. It's hard to imagine any team making a move that improves its playoff chances more than adding Machado would.
But the Phillies lineup is fine. There are worse lineups that have made the playoffs, or won a division, or even advanced to the World Series. And before you consider that damning, I'd suggest that the praise itself is too faint. After yesterday's doubleheader split against the Mets, six of the eight regulars in the Phillies lineup boasted an OPS+ of at least 107. As a refresher, OPS+ is a metric that takes a player's on-base percentage and slugging percentage and weighs them against league-wide performance so that 100 is the average. For instance, Rhys Hoskins has an OPS+ of 126, which means he has been 26 percent better at reaching base and hitting for extra bases than the average hitter.
So six of the eight regulars in the Phillies lineup have been at least 7 percent better than league average this year. That's good. Very good, actually. The only team in Phillies history that has finished a season with at least six players who had at least 400 plate appearances and an OPS+ of at least 107 was that famed 1892 bunch. The 2007-10 Phillies each had five such players.
Now, in 2018, they have six. In the National League, only the Dodgers and the Cubs also field a lineup with six such regulars.
Granted, both of those teams have more reason to believe that the success they've experienced will continue through the end of the season. While the Phillies can count on Carlos Santana, Rhys Hoskins, Odubel Herrera and Cesar Hernandez as legitimate above-average regulars, we have less of a sample size to consider with Nick Williams and Maikel Franco. Less than a month ago, Franco was near the bottom of the league in hitting, his job in jeopardy if not lost entirely. Over the last 21 games, he is 22 for 60 with nine extra-base hits, three home runs, and eight walks in 68 plate appearances — all of which are remarkable when compared to the numbers he posted in his first 210 plate appearances: 12 walks, 15 extra-base hits.
A lot of that success has come out of the eight hole, where he is 11 for 29 with three extra-base hits and six walks, five of them intentional.
Plenty of skepticism is warranted with regard to Franco. As for Williams, I'm a believer. Since supplanting Aaron Altherr as No. 1A in right field, he is hitting .296/.405/.535 with eight extra-base hits, 10 walks, and 19 strikeouts in 84 plate appearances. He has a short, quick, pretty-looking swing and a maturity and focus at the plate that have blossomed during what started as a difficult season for him. He has played 164 games in the majors now, and he owns a .270/.332/.463 line with 23 home runs and a 110 OPS+ in 584 plate appearances. Most encouraging is his walk rate, which has jumped from 5.8 percent last year to 8.3 percent this year (and is 11.9 percent over the last month).
You can certainly argue that the one thing this lineup is missing is a Big Piece in the middle, a guy who allows everybody else to slot in perfectly. Machado would obviously be that guy.
This is not an argument that the Phillies wouldn't be a much better team with him.
Rather, it is an argument that what they need more is another starter.
Since the start of June, the Phillies are allowing 4.9 runs per game, with an ERA of 4.55 (in April and May, those numbers were 3.7 and 3.40). Among the 10 NL teams that entered Tuesday with a winning record, only the Rockies and Nationals are trending in a worse direction. More significantly, perhaps, is the level at which the top of the heap has been pitching.
Pitching performances of NL contenders since June 1
The Phillies are 22-9 in starts by Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin, 28-30 in starts by everybody else. This isn't about matching up in playoff series: it's about making it through the season. Over Nick Pivetta's last eight outings, 40 percent of the batters he has faced have reached base, and nearly half of them have scored. The improvement that he has shown this season has been real, but he's averaging less than five innings per start with a 4.62 ERA. Jake Arrieta turned in one of his best outings of the season in his last start, but he still has a 5.50 ERA with eight home runs allowed in 37 2/3 innings over his last seven starts.
All this is why tonight will be a crucial game to watch, because tonight marks the debut of the Phillies' best internal hope for improvement down the stretch. In 16 minor-league starts, Enyel De Los Santos has been a revelation, posting a 1.98 ERA with sparkling rate stats: 8.2 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, and 0.9 HR/9. The 22-year-old, acquired from the Padres in the Freddy Galvis trade, might be up for only one start. The Phillies aren't looking at him as a savior. But we've seen the team buoyed by an addition such as this before, from J.A. Happ to Vance Worley.
De Los Santos' debut could mean more for the bigger picture than the immediate present. Nola and Arrieta aren't going anywhere. Neither is Eflin at the moment. Pivetta has earned the chance to work through his current funk. Vince Velasquez pitched well in three starts leading up to his injury, and is expected back soon. But he remains a wild card, and De Los Santos will have an opportunity tonight to put some pressure on him.