PHILADELPHIA — A funny thing happened to the Phillies last week. Zack Wheeler started two games. In the first start, he threw eight scoreless innings while striking out 12. In the second start, he allowed seven runs in 3⅔ innings. The funny part is that the Phillies won the first game and lost the second.
Except, it’s not really funny. It’s the way baseball works. Pitch good, win game. Pitch bad, lose game. In Wheeler’s first start, the Phillies scored two runs. In his second start, they scored seven. This isn’t complicated stuff.
The Phillies are flirting with last place because that’s what happens to teams who spot their opponents five runs per game. As of Sunday, they were one of seven teams whose pitching staff was allowing at least 4.9 runs per nine innings. Six of those teams had losing records. The only team among them with a better record than the Phillies was the Boston Red Sox, who were a whopping two games over .500 despite scoring the fourth-most runs in the majors.
No arms, no wins. Know arms, know wins.
This isn’t an apology for Trea Turner or Kyle Schwarber or J.T. Realmuto. Those guys haven’t been good enough. They’re going to need to be a lot better for the Phillies to have a chance at repeating last year’s magical postseason run. If their paychecks were commensurate with their production, the Phillies might be muddling through instead of floundering on the floor of the National League.
At the same time, that’s baseball. It’s something that Charlie Manuel used to say whenever one of his pedigreed hitters was mired in a Turner-like slump. A lot of times, there is no answer. There’s a round bat and a round ball and the latter of the two is moving at a very high rate of speed with an ungodly amount of spins. There are a lot of moving parts. You just have to hope that enough of them are working at any one time. That’s baseball. That’s the game.
Hitting is hard. In any sport, the advantage goes to the guy with the ball in his hand. The quarterback, the point guard, the tennis player who hold serves: They dictate the action. The other end is about reaction. The best hitters eventually improve their reaction time to a point where the hits start coming. Struggles have a way of pulling demand forward. We saw it with Schwarber and Realmuto last season. Schwarber entered the last weekend of May in 2022 with a .699 OPS. Things turned out all right.
Pitching doesn’t work that way. Most times, it works in reverse. The Baltimore Orioles aren’t going to start taking victory laps because Kyle Gibson has a 3.89 ERA and is averaging six innings per start. We’ve all listened to that audiobook before. Check back in August. Likewise, the Tampa Bay Rays will need Zack Eflin to remain healthy for the majority of a season before their three-year, $40 million contract looks like smart money. In 2021, Eflin had an eight-game stretch in which he averaged six innings per start with a 2.65 FIP and 53:5 strikeout-to walk ratio. In 2019, he had a 2.81 ERA in his first 13 starts. So, we’ll see. It’s a little too early to render definitive judgment on Dave Dombrowski’s decision to part ways with Eflin and Gibson in favor of Taijuan Walker.
That said, the results are the results. Gibson has a 3.89 ERA in 71⅔ innings. Eflin has a 3.30 ERA in 60 innings. Walker has a 5.65 ERA in 57⅓ innings. Eflin and Gibson have combined for 13 quality starts in 22 outings. Walker has five quality starts in 12 outings. Eflin and Gibson are earning a combined $23.3 million this season. The Phillies are paying Walker $18 million by himself.
The point isn’t that Turner and Schwarber are above criticism. The point is that they are way down on the list of reasons to doubt the Phillies. Look at their three biggest pitching moves of the offseason. Dombrowski said goodbye to Gibson and Eflin in favor of Walker. He signed Craig Kimbrel to the same contract that David Robertson landed with the Mets. He traded for Gregory Soto.
Walker has a 5.65 ERA. Kimbrel has a 5.32 ERA. Soto has a 5.25 ERA. The Phillies are paying those three pitchers more than they are paying Turner.
Bad pitching is exhausting. It sucks the life out of a team. It adds a counterproductive level of stress to every at-bat. The Phillies have finished the first inning with a deficit in 18 games this season, including 14 of their 32 losses. The Braves have done it in exactly five games. That’s what matters. The Phillies have allowed four-plus runs in an inning on 17 occasions this season. Atlanta has done it six times. That’s what matters.
I don’t think Dombrowski deserves a huge amount of blame for the pitching woes. Everyone is shooting blind in the offseason. The Yankees gave big money to Carlos Rodón. The Cubs gave big money to Jameson Taillon. The Mets chose José Quintana. Two of the three have yet to throw a pitch and the third might be better off if he hadn’t.
The Phillies’ big problem is that Aaron Nola and Wheeler haven’t been aces, Seranthony Domínguez hasn’t been a shutdown closer, and José Alvarado has been hurt. There are very few worlds in which all four of those things happen and the Phillies aren’t sitting below .500.
The lineup? In reality, it’s the biggest reason to think that all hope is not lost. Schwarber’s two home runs against the Nationals on Sunday are evidence of that. Turner and Realmuto both have plenty of performances like that in them. The Phillies are clearly going to need their offense to carry them. We’ve seen enough positives elsewhere — Nick Castellanos, Bryson Stott, Brandon Marsh — to think it could still happen.
The problem is that an offense can only carry you so far. The Phillies need Alvarado healthy. They need Domínguez to be no worse than he’s been over the last month-and-a-half. They need either Wheeler or Nola to be what they were last season. They need the other to be a guy who regularly makes them the nightly favorite.
Maybe the Phillies are a different team. Maybe their payroll and roster mean their hitters face higher expectations. Maybe that’s the problem.