Five Things to Know About the First-Place Phillies as August Begins

PHOTO CREDIT: GREG M. COOPER-USA TODAY SPORTS

The Phillies stopped their four-game skid last night with an important 3-1 victory over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park behind an outstanding pitching performance from Jake Arrieta.

They open the month of August clinging to a half-game lead in the National League East.  Can they stay in front of the upstart Braves and underachieving Nationals? Let’s take a look at some things you need to know as the Phillies gear up for a late-summer postseason push.

1. The Phillies added All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos ahead of yesterday’s trade deadline

Matt Klentak told reporters yesterday that Ramos won’t return from his left hamstring injury that has kept him sidelined since July 14 until at least mid-August. Even when he does return, there’s no guarantee that Ramos will return to his pre-injury form after more than a month on the shelf.

Still, taking a low-cost chance on the 30 year old for his offense seems worth it.

Consider this: Phillies catchers have combined for a .312 OBP and .702 OPS this season with 11 homers. They’ve also struck out in 35.9% percent of their 449 plate appearances. Ramos, meanwhile, has a .346 OBP and .834 OPS with 14 homers while striking out in only 19.4% of his 315 plate appearance. He gets on base more frequently, hits for more power, and strikes out less.

Defensively, the 13 passed balls allowed by Phillies catchers are more than any other team in the National League. The 58 wild pitches they have been on the receiving end of are the second-most. Ramos, meanwhile, has allowed six passed balls and has been on the receiving end of 23 wild pitches this season. That’s not a marked improvement.

In terms of limiting damage on the base paths, Phillies catchers have thrown out 24 of 92 base stealers (26.1%), which is a bit below the MLB average of 28%. Unsurprisingly, Jorge Alfaro has been better than league average on this front, stopping 18 of 57 attempts (31.6%):

It’s also unsurprising that Andrew Knapp has struggled, as he’s thrown out only six of 35 base stealers (17.1%).  This throw didn’t come on one of those attempts – because it was ball four:

Ramos, meanwhile, has eliminated seven of 32 base runners (21.9%). While he’s more experienced and perhaps “more smooth” behind the plate than Alfaro, and most certainly a defensive upgrade over Knapp, Ramos is not a classic “defensive minded” catcher. This acquisition was about adding experience and solidifying the position, but more than anything, it’s a low-risk flyer that could provide a big offensive payoff come September.

Oh, and one thing more thing on Knapp. Despite assumptions to the contrary,  he may not be destined for Lehigh Valley after all. He’s hitting only .233 with a .689 OPS this season, but he’s shown significant improvement in recent weeks. Since June 20, Knapp has hit .283 with a .918 OPS that’s driven by a .550 slugging percentage. While I don’t expect him to log many innings behind the dish over the season’s final month, if he can maintain his recent production, his bat can be valuable to Gabe Kapler late in games down the stretch. Bet you didn’t think you would be reading that take this season.

2. How about Maikel Franco?

The Phillies once-forgotten third baseman reached base four times last night and leads the team with a .278 batting average after a blistering month of July in which he slashed .330/.378/.593. His K% dropped to a season-best 11.2% in 98 July plate appearances, and his hard-hit % has incrementally increased every month this season:

Franco is doing more damage against fastballs, cutters, and sinkers this season, and I think a lot of that has to do with his increased commitment to hitting the ball the other way. He’s hitting .345 on balls raked to the opposite field this season, which is a 59-point increase over his .286 average on such balls a season ago. He’s also hitting .262 on grounders, which is a 98-point increase from his .164 average in 2017 on such balls. His improved offensive performance has been absolutely critical to the Phillies’ ability to ascend and hold on to first-place.

3. I don’t think anybody would argue that the Phillies’ defense has been consistently tough to watch this season

The latest example came Monday night on this play that directly contributed to wrecking a virtuoso performance by Aaron Nola:

The analytics support what your eyes have probably been telling you. Perhaps you saw this tweet on Monday from Sports Info Solutions:

According to FanGraphs, which also tracks defensive runs saved, the Phillies have graded negatively at every single position. The numbers are egregiously poor in left field (-18), at shortstop (-11), third base (-11), and catcher (-10).

Mark Simon (@markasimonsays) of Sports Info Solutions told me through a series of messages yesterday that the primary issues include:

  • The team has struggled getting outs on groundballs and line drives when they shift.
  • Throwing has been an issue, as no individual players throw the ball well to first relative to the rest of the league.
  • Rhys Hoskins rates poorly on balls hit to the deepest and shallowest parts of the field, and runners often take extra bases on balls hit to him.
  • Andrew Knapp struggles to block and get called strikes.
  • It’s worth mentioning the addition of Asdrubal Cabrera most certainly won’t help. He’s accounted for a brutal -18 DRS at second base this season and will likely spend some time playing short stop, which is obviously a more difficult position to field. That’s a tough assignment for an aging and well below average defensive infielder.

If the defense doesn’t improve, and it’s hard to imagine it will, the Phillies will desperately need more consistency from an offense that has some individual productive players, but often feels disjointed as it shuts down for prolonged stretches.

And now for two more additional quick notes:

4. Seranthony Dominguez has held the opposition scoreless in four of his first five appearances since the All-Star break

His lone blemish came last Monday when he earned the loss against the Dodgers after a shaky ninth inning in which he was tagged for two runs while recording only one out.

But I do have one concern with Dominguez – he’s been wild.  In those five appearances, Dominguez allowed seven walks and also hit a batter, which is a drastic jump when you consider he issued only one walk over his first 16 appearances to start the season. Obviously, he is pure electricity and has the stuff to overcome his control issues as we saw during both of his appearances against the Red Sox, but this is something to keep an eye on moving forward.

5. And, finally, there is Rhys Hoskins

The dude is unreal. Since participating in the home run derby, Hoskins has been out of his mind. He’s hitting .327 with a 1.309 OPS, 7 HR, 6 2B, 9 BB, and 14 RBI in 49 plate appearances to start the second half. He’s not there yet, but he’s turning into a star before our eyes.

Be sure to check out Crossed Up: A Phillies Podcast for more on the Red Sox series, the team’s trade deadline acquisitions, and more.

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