Is It Really Just Sandberg? Exploring Other Explanations for the Phils' Recent Hot Streak

Is It Really Just Sandberg? Exploring Other Explanations for the Phils' Recent Hot Streak

If you haven't noticed, or if you'd given up following weeks or months ago, the Phillies have won seven of their last nine games. For a good or even average team, this would only be slightly notable, but before this stretch, the Phils had won just seven of their last 28 games--and even that began with a three-game winning streak--so a patch of games this good feels almost like an entire season turning around.

A reversal of fortunes like this requires some kind of over-arcing explanation, and the obvious one in this case would be the big change the Phillies made up top, replacing longtime manager Charlie Manuel with third-base coach Ryne Sandberg. Asked about whether it's Sanbderg making the difference, last night's winning pitcher Cliff Lee says sorta, not really. Jim Salisbury of CSN got the quote:

We’re grinding it out a little more, just playing hard from the start to the finish, basic execution...I’ve said that from the very beginning -- if we just execute and play fundamental baseball we can beat anyone. We’ve started doing that in the last week and a half or so and the results are showing.

I’m not a guy who thinks the manager wins or loses games for us. I don’t think it was Charlie’s fault that we lost, and I don’t think it’s Sandberg that’s winning it for us, to be honest with you. But I think he has instilled more of let’s-get-after-it frame of mind and that’s what we’re doing.

But it’s the guys that are going out there and getting the outs and making the plays and swinging the bats that’s getting it done. I feel like his frame of mind and what he expects has influenced that and it’s up to us to buy into it and lay it out and we’ve definitely done a better job with that, just getting after it and playing hard and never giving up and trying to execute and play fundamental baseball. That’s how we’ve won the last 10 days.

So is it really Sandberg making the difference? An improvement in fundamentals? Let's look at some other explanations for how the Phillies have actually managed to win some games recently.

  • They've been facing some crappier competition. Let's remember that as many games as the Phillies lost recently, they lost most of 'em to some pretty damn good teams. Three to the Cardinals, three to the Tigers, three to the Braves, three to the Nats, two to the Dodgers--and all of 'em (except probably the underperforming Nats) are headed to the postseason. Now, the Phillies have had the benefit of playing three against the reeling Rockies, three against the mostly mediocre Diamondbacks, and now a series against the injury-decimated Mets. Opponents matter, and you can expect the hot streak to likely continue through three against the rebuilding Cubs after our last two at Citi.
  • They've been getting pretty lucky. They may be on a 7-2 run, but over those nine games, they've only managed to cumulatively outscore opponents 42-39. Remarkably, all but one of those seven victories were by just one run, including those three straight walk-off victories that almost managed to make people excited about Phillies baseball again. You could say that winning in those games comes down to execution and fundamentals, like Cliff posits, but luck also plays a big part with margins of victory so small--a beneficial call here or there, a grounder that finds its way up the middle, a throw that sails a foot or two wide. Play enough games in a season and eventually you'll lose three or four straight by one run, too, and it won't just be because the other team executed better, either.
  • They've been getting some starting pitching. The Phils have gotten quality starts in six of their last nine games--outings that last at least six innings without allowing more than three runs--and they've won all six. After some minor post-All-Star struggles, Cliff Lee appears to have rounded back into form, going seven innings or more in his last three starts and getting his first win since early July with his eight-inning, five-hit, one-walk and seven-strikeout performance last night against the Mets. Cole Hamels has been similarly solid, also going at least seven in each of his last three, and pitching his first CG victory of the season against the Braves a couple weeks ago. If Roy Halladay can continue on the comeback trail after his rocky return (albeit in a win) against the Diamondbacks, we might actually have a pretty decent top three for our pitching rotation again.
  • They've been getting some relief pitching, too. The unspoken hero of the recent Phils' hot streak has been closer Jonathan Papelbon, who has regained his early-season consistency over his last six appearances, giving up zero runs, zero walks and only four hits over the span, picking up two saves and two wins in the process. Far more surprising, however, has been the contribution of lefty reliever Jake Diekman, who as Salisbury points out in that same CSN article, has gone scoreless over his last seven appearances, also with zero walks and four hits, but with an impressive 12 strikeouts over that period. We'd been waiting all year for someone from our crappy bullpen to step up into dependability, and at long last--and far too late--it looks like Diekman actually has a shot of being that guy.
  • Their catcher is hitting again. Darin Ruf has been getting most of the attention recently for his hot August, and rightly so--The Babe has hit nine homers in the month, second-most in the majors to some random guy in Detroit, and now has as many homers on the season as Ryan Howard in about half the games. But have you been paying attention to what Carlos Ruiz has been doing at the same time? After a disconcertingly slow start to the season after his return from suspension and then injury, Chooch has hit at a sparkling clip .347/.373/.556 this month--numbers which spike to .455/.471/.758 (!!) if you only include the team's last nine games. It was easy to forget how huge a part of this offense Ruiz used to be when he was hitting like Humberto Quintero, but now that he's back in the saddle, it's once again impossible to imagine the lineup without him somewhere near the middle.

As always in baseball, it's impossible to quantify just how much the manager helps--are the Phillies winning more because they're focused and excited and playing together again, or are they focused and excited and playing together again because they're winning more? But regardless of how much Ryne Sandberg's installment as manager has helped the team lately, there are some more easily isolated factors that have been just as important, if not more, to their recent winning ways. Hopefully they stick around to next year, regardless of whether or not Sandberg does.

Phillies-Marlins 5 things: Phils, Fish try to fight out of NL East cellar

Phillies-Marlins 5 things: Phils, Fish try to fight out of NL East cellar

Phillies (17-31) vs. Marlins (18-30)
7:10 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies dropped another series with an 8-4 loss to the Reds in Sunday's rubber match at Citizens Bank Park. Zach Eflin struggled and was promptly optioned to Triple A Lehigh Valley.

Now the Phils head to Miami for a quick three-game road trip against the Marlins. Jeremy Hellickson will take the ball in Monday's opener, facing veteran Edinson Volquez.

Here are five things to know for Monday's contest:

1. Welcome back Howie
With the Phillies optioning Eflin, Howie Kendrick is the corresponding move, manager Pete Mackanin said Sunday. He will be reinstated from the 10-day disabled list after he was sidelined on Apr. 15 with an oblique injury.

In 10 games to begin the season, Kendrick played exclusively left field and batted .333/.395/.487. He had hits in eight of 10 appearances and had two three-hit games.

Kendrick rehabbed with Triple A Lehigh Valley, playing left field and third base. He began his career at second base and can play that and first base in a pinch.

To begin, he'll likely be used primarily as an outfielder. Mackanin hopes to spell his current trio and will take it slow with Kendrick to keep the 33-year-old healthy. Starting centerfielder Odubel Herrera will get a few days off soon, his manager said. Herrera is stuck in a 1-for-22 slide and has seen his batting line fall to a paltry .217/.264/.328. 

Kendrick's ability to play third could also come into play with Maikel Franco slumping. He's batting just .213 in an extended skid.

"He hit a ball hard today but he's not giving us consistent at-bats," Mackanin said about Franco. "He's searching both physically and mentally. It's not easy for him. I can tell he's down on himself. He's not happy about what's going on."

2. Jeremy on the hill
It's quite fitting that the Phillies face the Marlins in Miami on the seventh anniversary of Roy Halladay's perfect game. However, with the rotation's recent struggles, expectations of a repeat need to be tempered.

Hellickson is coming off his worst start of the season, although the bad start can be boiled down to just one poor inning. He gave up seven runs in the third inning on Wednesday vs. the red-hot Rockies, highlighted by a three-run homer by Carlos Gonzalez.

The start raised his ERA from 3.44 to 4.28. Still, the righty has had more good starts than bad this year, which is reflected by his 5-2 record. His strikeout rate has been halved from last season, yet his other peripherals have stayed level. To offset the lack of strikeouts, Hellickson has had really good command at times to the point where he induces a lot of weak contact. 

Facing the Marlins should be a major boon for 30-year-old. He went 3-1 with a 2.01 ERA over 40 1/3 innings against the Fish last year. He walked just three during those games and had a sterling 0.843 WHIP.

In April, he held the Marlins to just one run on seven hits in six innings. He really seems to have their number.

Marcell Ozuna, Giancarlo Stanton and Justin Bour are the three Marlins with home runs off of him. Christian Yelich is a solid 7 for 23 with a walk while Stanton is an awful 2 for 18 with two walks and six strikeouts. Dee Gordon is 5 for 14. 

3. Marlins overview
Make no mistake, this is an opponent ripe for the beating. While the Phillies have the worst record in baseball, the Marlins are just a game better and are 7-18 this month, being outscored by 39 runs. They did just take two of three from Mike Trout and the Angels.

The Fish have the fourth worst team ERA in baseball with a 4.74 mark. The Phillies are second worst with 4.85 while the Mets have a 4.93 team ERA. The Marlins have walked 210 batters as a team, 13 more than the second-highest total. Their pitchers have thrown the most HBPs (28) in the game. Simply put, control is not an asset they possess.

Just like Reds, the worst part of the team is their rotation. Their 5.11 ERA is better only than the Phillies and Reds. Adam Conley and Tom Koehler have struggled more than expected, plus they've used nine starters thanks to injuries. 

In the bullpen, A.J. Ramos is the closer and Kyle Barraclough is the key setup man. Ramos' ERA sits at 4.96. Veteran submarine pitcher Brad Ziegler has a 6.75 ERA while racking up the most appearances of any reliever. David Phelps and Nick Wittgren have been solid in middle relief.

On offense, Ozuna, Stanton Bour each have at least 12 homers. Catcher J.T. Realmuto has been strong both behind the plate and at the dish. A big issue has been Yelich, who has disappointed to the tune of a .268/.340/.402 batting line. That's not bad, but the 25-year-old was expected to have more of a breakout season.

4. Woeful with Volquez
This has not been a banner year for Volquez. The 33-year-old righty was signed to a two-year, $22 million deal this offseason and hasn't lived up to the billing through nine starts. He has an 0-7 record with a 4.87 ERA. He's walked a ton of batters (5.6 per nine innings to be exact) and has a 1.671 WHIP. 

He's never lived off control, but the walks are a bit extreme, his highest rate since 2009. He is three years removed from leading baseball with 15 wild pitches. Volquez baseball with 14 HBP his rookie year. At the same time, he was also an All-Star that season and finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting.

In his career, he's been solid against the Phils. He has a 4-2 record wit ha 2.30 ERA over seven starts and 43 frames. He faced them in April, gave up three runs (two earned) in 5 2/3 innings while losing to Hellickson.

Freddy Galvis has lit up Volquez in their meetings. He is 6 for 10 with a double, triple, homer and a walk against him. Michael Saunders is 3 for 13 with two walks. Franco is 2 for 5. 

5. This and that
• The Phillies have a few rotation options to fill Eflin's vacated spot. They won't need anyone until at least Saturday and they could skip a turn through the rotation with a day off on Thursday. 

They have three ready-made options to take that next turn when needed. Ben Lively has a 6-1 record with a 2.40 ERA in his second season with Lehigh Valley. Jake Thompson has struggled with a 5.88 ERA but has MLB experience. Nick Pivetta, who filled Aaron Nola's spot for three starts, is undefeated in five starts with a 1.41 ERA back in the minors.

• The Phillies won both games with the Fish in April. In fact, that was the last time they won back-to-back games. They went 10-9 vs. them last year, 5-4 at Marlins Park. This is their first series in Miami in 2017.

• Outfielder Daniel Nava will begin a rehab assignment with Triple A Lehigh Valley today. 

Phillies Prospect Notebook: Franklyn Kilome, Jose Taveras anchoring Clearwater's strong rotation

Phillies Prospect Notebook: Franklyn Kilome, Jose Taveras anchoring Clearwater's strong rotation

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Prospect Franklyn Kilome is the second-highest rated pitcher in the Phillies' organization, and the right-hander lived up to the billing Sunday, as the Clearwater Threshers, the Phillies' Class A Advanced affiliate, closed a three-game series at St. Lucie.

The right-hander twirled seven sparkling innings, shutting down the Mets’ hot bats, as the Threshers blanked St. Lucie 1-0 behind an unearned run at First Data Field to salvage the final game of the series.

Kilome, 21, allowed five hits, struck out six and didn’t issue a walk in winning for the first time since April 27. Only one St. Lucie player managed to reach second base against the 6-foot-6, 175-pound pitcher.

The Dominican pitcher is ranked No. 7 overall by Baseball America among Phillies' prospects. Only 18-year-old Lakewood hurler Sixto Sanchez (fifth overall) is rated above him in the organization.

“He’s got a chance to be a workhorse. Good body, very good arm, but still learning how to pitch a little bit,” pitching coach Aaron Fultz said of Kilome, who improved to 3-2 with a 3.02 ERA.

“He’s up to 97 (mph) with a good curveball and slider. He’s learning a changeup. He’s learning the game, but he’s got a huge upside.”

Jose Taveras (4-2, 2.26) has been another reliable arm on Clearwater’s staff. He led the South Atlantic League in strikeouts last season and has 54 in 55 2/3 innings this year.

Taveras also handled St. Lucie on Saturday, but he was left with a no-decision after the bullpen gave up three runs in a 4-3 loss in 10 innings. The 23-year-old worked six strong innings and yielded just a run on four hits.  

“Taveras is just a very good competitor," Fultz said. "His fastball is average, pretty decent breaking ball and his changeup is good, but the thing that makes him good is he’s just a competitor. He studies the game and the hitters and is very advanced with that.”

Added Threshers manager Shawn Williams: “There are times when he may not have his usual command, and he’ll change an arm angle, which shows he’s got a good feel for what he’s doing. He’ll crossfire, has deception … he’s got something where they don’t pick up his fastball and are always late.”

A third Dominican right-hander, Seranthony Dominguez (3-0, 2.02), has been a big part of the rotation as well and has won three times in six starts but is currently sidelined with shoulder soreness. An MRI returned a clean report.

“The first three or four weeks we were ridiculously good," Fultz said. "We’ve had a few bumps in the road since then, but we’re getting the job done.”

Zach, not Francis Ford
Zach Coppola has a famous Hollywood last name, but the Clearwater corner outfielder has spent 2017 making a name for himself with his defense, at the plate and on the bases.

Coppola, 23, was 5 for 12 with two runs scored in the St. Lucie series, including Sunday’s lone run. He made a pair of outstanding run-saving catches in the outfield over the weekend and raised his average to .346, second to Chris Paul (.351) of Fort Myers.

“Zach has been doing a great job as a leadoff hitter,” Williams said of the Iowa native. “He gets big hits, bunts, but the thing for me is he does something every night to help you win, whether it’s a bunt hit or a great diving play in left-center. He’ll throw a guy out or get a great dirtball read and score the winning run.

“He’s a very good baseball player who does all the little things.”

Good contributors
The Threshers (28-23) have sat atop the FSL’s North Division for most of the first half, but a series loss at St. Lucie over the weekend left them trailing Dunedin by one game after both clubs won Sunday.

Williams said his first season skippering the club has been highlighted by a full-team effort.

“It’s been a little bit of everything,” Williams said. “Early on our pitching was very, very good. Cole (Irvin) was really dealing (see more on Irvin). Dominguez, everybody was. We were getting the big hits, and our defense has been very consistent. Overall, we’ve just played good baseball.”

One standout playing good ball has been 5-foot-5 middle infielder Grenny Cumana, who went 7 for 10 in the series and made a spectacular catch-and-throw on the grass behind the bag while playing second base to rob St. Lucie’s Vinny Siena of an infield hit Sunday.

Tenacious P
Fultz said one immeasurable he likes in his pitchers is a bulldog-like tenacity that has them wanting the ball in key moments, regardless of previous outcomes.

“I don’t have to have the guy who’s always going to succeed in the big situation, but I always want the guy that wants to be out there in that situation. To me, that’s the selling point,” he said. “It’s not always being successful; it’s always wanting to be in that situation, which is a big plus.”

Fultz said his favorite battler was Jamie Brewington, a teammate of his in the San Francisco farm system, who appeared in 40 games over two MLB seasons.

“He went right after hitters, and it was fun to watch,” Fultz said.