Bryce Harper not to blame for Phillies’ failure

Greg Fiume/Getty Images
20 Comments

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.

Biden praises Braves’ ‘unstoppable, joyful run’ to 2021 win

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
2 Comments

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said the Atlanta Braves will be “forever known as the upset kings of October” for their improbable 2021 World Series win, as he welcomed the team to the White House for a victory celebration.

Biden called the Braves’ drive an “unstoppable, joyful run.” The team got its White House visit in with just over a week left before the 2022 regular season wraps up and the Major League Baseball playoffs begin again. The Braves trail the New York Mets by 1.5 games in the National League East but have clinched a wildcard spot for the MLB playoffs that begin Oct. 7. Chief Executive Officer Terry McGuirk said he hoped they’d be back to the White House again soon.

In August 2021, the Braves were a mess, playing barely at .500. But then they started winning. And they kept it up, taking the World Series in six games over the Houston Astros.

Biden called their performance of “history’s greatest turnarounds.”

“This team has literally been part of American history for over 150 years,” said Biden. “But none of it came easy … people counting you out. Heck, I know something about being counted out.”

Players lined up on risers behind Biden, grinning and waving to the crowd, but the player most discussed was one who hasn’t been on the team in nearly 50 years and who died last year: Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.

Hammerin’ Hank was the home run king for 33 years, dethroning Babe Ruth with a shot to left field on April 8, 1974. He was one of the most famous players for Atlanta and in baseball history, a clear-eyed chronicler of the hardships thrown his way – from the poverty and segregation of his Alabama youth to the racist threats he faced during his pursuit of one of America’s most hallowed records. He died in January at 86.

“This is team is defined by the courage of Hank Aaron,” Biden said.

McGuirk said Aaron, who held front office positions with the team and was one of Major League Baseball’s few Black executives, was watching over them.

“He’d have been there every step of the way with us if he was here,” McGuirk added.

The president often honors major league and some college sports champions with a White House ceremony, typically a nonpartisan affair in which the commander in chief pays tribute to the champs’ prowess, poses for photos and comes away with a team jersey.

Those visits were highly charged in the previous administration. Many athletes took issue with President Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric on policing, immigration and more. Trump, for his part, didn’t take kindly to criticism from athletes or their on-field expressions of political opinions.

Under Biden, the tradition appears to be back. He’s hosted the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks and Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the White House. On Monday he joked about first lady Jill Biden’s Philadelphia allegiances.

“Like every Philly fan, she’s convinced she knows more about everything in sports than anybody else,” he said. He added that he couldn’t be too nice to the Atlanta team because it had just beaten the Phillies the previous night in extra innings.

Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was later questioned about the team’s name, particularly as other professional sports teams have moved away from names – like the Cleveland Indians, now the Guardians, and the Washington Redskins, now the Commanders – following years of complaints from Native American groups over the images and symbols.

She said it was important for the country to have the conversation. “And Native American and Indigenous voices – they should be at the center of this conversation,” she said.

Biden supported MLB’s decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta to protest Georgia’s sweeping new voting law, which critics contend is too restrictive.