5 reasons the Phillies failed in the 1st half

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5 reasons the Phillies failed in the 1st half

For a large chunk of the first half of the season, it was difficult to reconcile the Phillies' poor record despite relatively impressive individual contributions from many regulars.

The theory all offseason was that if Jimmy Rollins regained some power, if Chase Utley stayed on the field, if Ryan Howard could come close to 30 and 100, if the bullpen was improved, and if free-agent signings Marlon Byrd and A.J. Burnett repeated their 2013 seasons, the Phillies would be a winning team.

Most of that happened, and yet here we are at the All-Star break with the Phils again playing mostly meaningless summer baseball.

How did it get this bad? Let's take a look at the key stats which explain the Phillies' 42-53 record:

1. Ryan Howard
Howard is on pace for 26 home runs and 95 RBIs, and that's after he homered just once in his final 101 plate appearances before the All-Star break.

But it's an empty 26 and 95. Howard has hit .220 with a .300 on-base percentage. He also has just 10 doubles.

Out of 157 major-leaguers with at least 300 plate appearances, Howard ranks 148th in batting average, 137th in on-base percentage and 89th with 26 extra-base hits. The first two ranks you can live with because it's just the player Howard is nowadays. But if he's also not driving the ball, he's completely useless.

Platoon him in the second half? Howard actually has a higher OPS vs. lefties (.711) than against righties (.671). But his plate discipline has been significantly worse against same-handed pitching.

Against righties, Howard has walked 10 percent of the time and struck out 26 percent of the time.

Against lefties, he's walked in nine percent of his plate appearances and struck out in 39 percent.

There is no difference between Howard and Mark Reynolds at this point. Reynolds has one fewer homer and OBP three points higher than Howard's. The difference is that Reynolds signed a minor-league deal worth $2 million at the major-league level, and Howard makes $25 million.

2. Domonic Brown
Brown was literally the least valuable everyday player in the first half, according to Fangraphs. Brown was worth minus-1.2 WAR thanks to an atrocious 91 games offensively and defensively.

You can't quite say enough about how little Brown has given the Phillies this season. In that same aforementioned group of 157 players, Brown ranks 146th in batting average, 151st in on-base percentage and 139th in extra-base hits.

Throw in all the runs he's cost the Phillies defensively -- at a position regarded as the second-easiest on the diamond to play -- and you can see why Phillies fans are ready to run a once-highly touted 26-year-old out of town already.

The Phillies' OPS from first base is .685, 23rd in baseball. That's 76 points below the league average. Their OPS from left field is .572, second-worst in baseball and 144 points below the league average.

3. No timely hitting
The Phillies have had more plate appearances with runners in scoring position than 16 teams. But they rank fourth-worst in baseball with a .229 batting average with RISP.

The last time the Phils finished with a worse batting average with runners in scoring position was 1971.

Even in the down years of 2012 and 2013, they hit a combined .259 with RISP.

Hitting .259 would have meant 24 more hits with runners in scoring position in those first 95 games. How many wins do 24 more hits with RISP equal? Three? Five? Ten?

4. Pitching on different pages
The best month for the Phillies' starting rotation was April, when the rotation had a 3.70 ERA.

The worst month for the Phillies' relievers was April, when the bullpen had a 4.89 ERA.

In May, the starters had a 3.92 ERA and the bullpen had a 3.42 ERA.

In June, the starters had a 3.89 ERA and the bullpen posted a 2.63.

So in those two months combined, the bullpen rebounded for a 3.04 ERA in 157 innings, but the starters had just a mediocre 3.90 ERA.

Ten years ago, a 3.90 ERA would have been nice. But in today's declining offensive climate, the National League average is a 3.69 ERA.

The Phillies just haven't been able to get both components of their pitching staff going concurrently for a prolonged period of time.

And really, that was the main theme of the Phils' first half. When the offense showed up, the pitching didn't. When the pitching did, the offense didn't. The fielding was mediocre and the baserunning wasn't spectacular like it was from 2007-11.

5. The last word
This final stat should sum up exactly what kind of team the 2014 Phillies are:

Against teams over .500, the Phils are 20-32.

Against teams under .500, the Phils are 22-21.

When you can't beat the good teams and you're just .500 against the bad teams, what does that say about your club?

Nick Pivetta continues build toward strong finish in Phillies' win over Braves

Nick Pivetta continues build toward strong finish in Phillies' win over Braves

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — The Phillies and Atlanta Braves are both rebuilding teams that have looked to acquire as much pitching as possible over the last few seasons.

The Phillies added Nick Pivetta in the trade that sent Jonathan Papelbon to Washington two years ago. The Braves picked up Luiz Gohara from Seattle back in January.

If both pitchers continue to develop, there's a chance they could face each other in a National League division race someday. 

On Sunday, they squared off in a battle of teams playing out the string, but the intensity of the matchup was good. That can happen in the penultimate weekend of the season. After all, impressions can be made right up until the final pitch of the season. Players are always auditioning, especially rookies hoping to win spots next season.

Pivetta, 24, made a very nice showing. He out-pitched Gohara in helping the Phillies salvage one game of the three-game series against the Braves with a 2-0 win (see observations).

Maikel Franco and Aaron Altherr keyed a just-enough Phillies' offense with a solo homer and an RBI double and the bullpen triumvirate of Edubray Ramos, Adam Morgan and Hector Neris combined for three scoreless innings to seal the shutout.

Pivetta pitched six shutout innings, walked one and struck out four. He gave up five hits. It's been an up-and-down season for the rookie right-hander. There's been a lot of on-the-job training and a few bruisings. He is 7-10 with a 6.26 ERA in 25 starts. He has allowed just two runs in 12 innings over his last two starts, so he's finishing the season on a high note.

"The key to his outing today was that he was throwing all his pitches for strikes," manager Pete Mackanin said. "His breaking ball and his changeup, he really did a good job with them, throwing them ahead in the count and behind in the count, so that was key.

"This is the place to learn. You can have a lot of success in the minor leagues but when you get up here it's a different animal. The best place to learn is at the big-league level and take your lumps and learn from them. Now, if you have too many guys like that you don’t win a lot of games, so you can afford to have one or maybe two guys in the rotation that are feeling their way through it, but not more than that."

Forced to the majors by injuries in the rotation early in the season, Pivetta has often talked about the learning experience his first year in the majors has been.

He was happy to talk about getting a victory Sunday.

"It's been nice," he said. "I've settled down a little the last two starts. Today, I just tried to do the right things — get ahead of hitters. And the guys played great defense behind me.

"Even when I had runners on base, I was able to attack the hitters the way I wanted and I didn't put too much pressure on myself."

That's not always easy for a rookie pitcher in a close game. Pivetta's ability to stay cool and pitch around baserunners in the fifth and sixth innings was a sign of his improvement. He will have one more start before the season ends and is looking to build on two good ones and go into the offseason with a healthy dose of confidence. He will be a candidate for a spot in the rotation next spring.

Sunday's victory left the Phillies at 62-94. They need to win one of their final six games to avoid 100 losses. That once seemed to be a certainty, but they have played well since the All-Star break, recording a 33-36 record since then. They were 29-58 before the break.

Young players such as Nick Williams and Rhys Hoskins have come up from the minors and given the Phils a lift in recent weeks. The bullpen has also improved with Ramos, Morgan, Neris and Luis Garcia (before Saturday night) pitching well. Morgan pitched a scoreless eighth inning Sunday. He has allowed just two runs over his last 24 innings. That covers 18 appearances since Aug. 2. Neris is 18 for 18 in save opportunities since June 28.

The only run that the Phils scored against Gohara came in the fifth when Franco smacked a first-pitch changeup into the left-field seats for his 21st homer. The pitch was on the middle-half of the plate, Franco's happy zone.

Franco is hitting .308 with three homers and seven RBIs since J.P. Crawford came up and applied a little competitive heat.

Franco said that's coincidence, that he's focused only on what he needs to do to get better.

"I think when those young guys come up it always creates an energy spurt in everybody," Mackanin said. "For whatever reason, if Maikel is having a good September, I hope it carries through for five or six months next year. One month does not a good year make. Hopefully, he'll have a better approach and he's going to be more successful."

Phillies-Braves observations: Maikel Franco homers, Nick Pivetta tosses gem in final road game

Phillies-Braves observations: Maikel Franco homers, Nick Pivetta tosses gem in final road game

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — Phillies rookie Nick Pivetta outpitched Atlanta Braves rookie Luiz Gohara Sunday afternoon as the Phils salvaged the final game of a three-game series with a 2-0 win at steamy SunTrust Park.
 
Maikel Franco smacked his 21st homer and Aaron Altherr had an RBI double for the Phillies' two runs.
 
Pivetta (7-10) pitched six shutout innings and the bullpen did the rest.
 
The Phillies ended up with a 13-6 record against Atlanta this season, their best against any team.
 
• Pivetta has mostly struggled in 25 starts in his rookie season, but he's also had some very nice outings where his potential has really shined. This was one of them. His last start, in which he gave up two runs in six innings against the Dodgers, was a good one, too. So the right-hander seems to be finishing on a high note. He will have one more start before the end of the season. In a perfect world, Pivetta would have gotten more time at Triple A this season, but there was a need in the majors. Ultimately, he should benefit from his baptism by fire.
 
• Atlanta lefty Gohara was very good in his fourth big-league start. The 21-year-old from Brazil gave up just five hits, walked two and struck out nine. The only run he gave up came on Franco's homer.
 
• Pivetta did a good job pitching around trouble. He got two outs in the second inning after an error by Franco put a runner on second. He also pitched around sloppy infield play in the fifth. In the sixth, Pivetta knocked down a ball back to the box but was unable to start a double play. He stayed calm and got two outs to get out of the inning.
 
• The Phillies took a 1-0 lead on a solo homer by Franco in the top of the fifth. Franco turned on a first-pitch changeup from Gohara. The pitch was on the inside half of the plate — right in Franco's happy zone. Franco pulls off pitches away in the zone, but he kills mistakes inside. Franco will work on this flaw in winter ball this season (see story).
 
• Altherr doubled home an important insurance run for the Phillies in the eighth inning. Altherr has 61 RBIs on the season and 27 have come in the seventh inning or later.
 
• Good job by the Phillies' bullpen. Edubray Ramos and Adam Morgan pitched scoreless ball in the seventh and eighth innings, respectively. Morgan has allowed just two runs over his last 24 innings. That covers 18 appearances since Aug. 2. Hector Neris survived two hits in the ninth and picked up the save. He is perfect on is last 18 chances since June 28.

• The Phillies' first two hits of the game were singles to right field and both runners, Cesar Hernandez and Jorge Alfaro, were out trying to stretch at second base. Braves rightfielder Nick Markakis made two perfect throws. Hernandez needed to come out of the box quicker.
 
• The Phillies have a 35-40 record at home. They will play their final six games of the season at home beginning Monday night with the opener of a three-game series against the NL East champion Washington Nationals. Aaron Nola (12-10, 3.56) pitches against right-hander A.J. Cole (2-5, 4.43) on Monday night. Jake Thompson (2-2, 4.14) opposes lefty Gio Gonzalez (15-7, 2.68) on Tuesday night. Mark Leiter Jr. (3-6, 4.69) and right-hander Tanner Roark (13-10, 4.41) close out the series Wednesday night. The Phillies need to win one of their final six games to avoid 100 losses.