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Bryce Harper not to blame for Phillies’ failure

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With a 3-1 loss to the Nationals in the first game of Tuesday’s day-night doubleheader, the Phillies were mathematically eliminated from postseason contention. It was apropos that the Nationals put the final nail in the coffin in D.C. as superstar outfielder Bryce Harper left the nation’s capital for Philadelphia when he signed a then-record 13-year, $330 million contract as a free agent.

There will be a lot of postmortems written about the Phillies and I’m willing to wager that a lot of them place some level of blame on Harper. I’d like to preemptively rebut such a notion. These are his 2018 and ’19 numbers (note: I slightly edited the screenshot to include the column headers):

14 points of OPS is nothing. The big difference is that Harper drew 31 fewer walks but his walk total last year was an outlier, not the norm.

Harper’s career adjusted OPS (a.k.a. OPS+) is 137. Harper’s average OPS+ since 2016 (the year after his outlier 2015 MVP season) is 130. He was at 133 in 2018 and 123 this year. Average is 100. Harper’s offense was more or less in line with expectations. Furthermore, Harper’s defense improved sharply. Baseball Reference rated him at 26 runs below average last year and six runs above average this year. With the shorthand conversion of 10 runs for one win, that’s an improvement of more than three wins with defense alone.

The actual causes for the Phillies’ demise are manyfold:

  • Injuries: While teams like the Yankees thrived despite myriad injuries, the Phillies floundered. Two of the Phillies’ big offseason acquisitions — Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson — combined to appear in 66 games. The club also acquired corner outfielders Jay Bruce and Corey Dickerson, who were both productive when in the lineup but eventually succumbed to injury as well, as did speedy outfielder Roman Quinn. The Phillies’ bullpen was ravaged by injuries as Robertson was joined on the sidelines by Seranthony Domínguez, Tommy Hunter, Pat Neshek, Víctor Arano, Juan Nicasio, Adam Morgan, Enyel De Los Santos, and Edubray Ramos. That’s an entire bullpen completely gone, save Héctor Neris. That’s why the Phillies had cast-offs like Mike Morin, Blake Parker, Jared Hughes, and Nick Vincent pitching in high-leverage situations throughout the second half. To round out the list, Phillies lost starters Jake Arrieta and Jerad Eickhoff to injuries.
  • Lack of development: In particular, three starting pitchers failed to make any forward progress: Zach Eflin, Vince Velasquez, and Nick Pivetta. Eflin and Pivetta’s strikeout rates both plummeted while all three saw their hard-hit rates jump noticeably. It’s easy to blame the juiced ball and the Phillies’ so-called bandbox of a ballpark, but that’s only a small piece of the puzzle. Though he was injured, Eickhoff can also be thrown onto the “lack of development” list as he just completed his fifth season. That the Phillies haven’t been able to turn just one of these guys into an above-average starting pitcher is not a good look for the club’s player development. It’s not just in the rotation, however. Third baseman Maikel Franco, once the organization’s top prospect, has been a bust. Nick Williams, once a hot prospect himself, was sent back to Triple-A earlier this year. And while the club saw strides from Alec Bohm and Spencer Howard, other prospects like Adonis Medina, De Los Santos, Mickey Moniak, Jojo Romero, and Luis Garcia have seen their stocks fall.
  • Lack of depth: While few teams could withstand the totality of injuries the Phillies dealt with, the club’s lack of depth made it even harder to stay afloat. Backup catcher Andrew Knapp posted a .613 OPS in 69 games. Utilityman Sean Rodríguez mustered a .695 OPS. When he was healthy, Quinn had a measly .668 OPS. Utilityman Phil Gosselin, .626. The only bench player who passed muster was Brad Miller with a .781 OPS.
  • Aaron Nola regressed: Nola finished third in NL Cy Young voting last year, compiling a 2.37 ERA and a 224/58 K/BB ratio in 212 1/3 innings. In 2019, he owns a 3.75 ERA with a 220/76 K/BB ratio in 196 2/3 innings. His strikeout rate is about the same, but his walk rate increased by more than two percent, from seven percent to 9.2 percent. Like his rotation mates, Nola’s hard-hit rate jumped considerably from 25.1 percent to 41.4 percent. While the altered baseball can explain some of the regression, it doesn’t explain all of it. The Phillies needed prime Nola down the stretch, but he has a 4.84 OPS in his last six starts, all resulting in team losses. The Phillies haven’t won a game he started since August 20 in Boston.
  • No breakouts: Every successful team receives significantly above-average production from somewhere unexpected. The Yankees, for example, had multiple breakouts from Gio Urshela (133 OPS+), Mike Tauchman (128), Cameron Maybin (124), and Mike Ford (124). The Phillies’ breakouts were Scott Kingery and Adam Haseley. Kingery, who played six different positions, still only posted a 102 OPS+. Haseley flashed above-average defense but had a subpar 91 OPS+. And as mentioned, their other young but seasoned players failed to take the next step forward. All of this adds up to a team that justifiably has a -19 run differential.
  • Rhys Hoskins slumped hard: Hoskins slashed .161/.342/.301 across 121 trips to the plate in August and .179/.270/.410 in 89 PA entering Monday’s action. One wonders how the Phillies might have looked if he was hitting at even the league average during the final two months of the season instead of significantly below average. Hoskins does have a major league-high 113 walks, but in the year of the juiced baseball, the Phillies have seen his slugging percentage dip 30 points overall compared to last year.

In an ideal world, Harper would be in the running for the NL MVP Award this season. That he isn’t an MVP candidate doesn’t mean the Phillies’ lack of success is his fault or that his 13-year contract is already a bad investment. Harper’s 123 OPS+ and 3.6 bWAR should be more than enough to help the Phillies get into the postseason. Baseball is a team sport. Harper did his part. His teammates didn’t. As a result, the Phillies are missing out on the playoffs for the eighth consecutive year.

MLBPA: MLB’s ‘demand for additional concessions was resoundingly rejected’

Rob Manfred and Tony Clark
LG Patterson/MLB via Getty Images
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On Thursday evening, the Major League Baseball Players Association released a statement regarding ongoing negotiations between the owners and the union. The two sides continue to hash out details concerning a 2020 season. The owners want a shorter season, around 50 games. The union recently proposed a 114-game season that also offered the possibility of salary deferrals.

MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said that the union held a conference call that included the Executive Board and MLBPA player leaders. They “resoundingly rejected” the league’s “demand for additional concessions.”

The full statement:

In this time of unprecedented suffering at home and abroad, Players want nothing more than to get back to work and provide baseball fans with the game we all love. But we cannot do this alone.

Earlier this week, Major League Baseball communicated its intention to schedule a dramatically shortened 2020 season unless Players negotiate salary concessions. The concessions being sought are in addition to billions in Player salary reductions that have already been agreed upon.

This threat came in response to an Association proposal aimed at charting a path forward. Among other things, Players proposed more games, two years of expanded playoffs, salary deferrals in the event of a 2020 playoff cancellation, and the exploration of additional jewel events and broadcast enhancements aimed at creatively bringing our Players to the fans while simultaneously increasing the value of our product. Rather than engage, the league replied it will shorten the season unless Players agree to further salary reductions.

Earlier today we held a conference call of the Association’s Executive Board and several other MLBPA Player leaders. The overwhelming consensus of the Board is that Players are ready to report, ready to get back on the field, and they are willing to do so under unprecedented conditions that could affect the health and safety of not just themselves, but their families as well. The league’s demand for additional concessions was resoundingly rejected.

Important work remains to be done in order to safely resume the season. We stand ready to complete that work and look forward to getting back on the field.

As per the current agreement signed in March, if there is a 2020 season, players will be paid on a prorated basis. Thus, fewer games means the players get paid less and the owners save more. MLB has threatened to unilaterally set a 2020 season in motion if the two sides cannot come to terms. It should come as no surprise that the union has responded strongly on both fronts.

There have been varying reports in recent days over the confidence in a 2020 season happening. The MLBPA’s statement tonight doesn’t move the needle any; it simply affirms that the union remains steadfast in its goal to avoid a second significant cut in salaries.

As I see it, the ball is in the owners’ court. The owners can strongarm the players into a short season, saving money but significantly increasing the odds of a big fight in upcoming collective bargaining agreement negotiations. Or the owners can eat more of a financial loss, agreeing to a longer season than they feel is comfortable. The latter would have the double benefit of not damaging overall perception of the sport and would not disrupt labor peace going forward.

The MLBPA statement included a declaration that the players are “ready to report, ready to get back on the field, and they are willing to do so under unprecedented conditions.” If there is no 2020 season, we will have only the owners to blame, not the players.

Update: Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty, who has been quite vocal on social media about these negotiations, chimed in: