You may have heard the story by now, and if you have, indulge me for a minute to catch up those who haven’t, but on my first day at Spring Training last month, I ended up on an elevator at BayCare Ballpark that included Phillies owner John Middleton, me, and no one else.

I asked John how he was doing, simply to be polite, knowing the ride would last about 15 seconds, and it was better than awkward silence.

He told me he wasn’t doing great. I asked why? It was a beautiful morning in Clearwater, there was a lot of excitement and great expectations about his team. He’s a billionaire. What could be so troubling?

“Our pitching… it just isn’t where it needs to be,” he said.

It was March 7th. I reminded him of that. It was still early days for Spring Training. I said they had three weeks to get it right.

He told me he hoped I was right, but that he still had his concerns.

At the time, I chalked it up to him just being uber-competitive. Of course, we were awaiting the results of the tests on 19-year-old top pitching prospect Andrew Painter, who had an elbow issue of some kind, but the Phillies were being mum while awaiting a second opinion.

I thought that Middleton couldn’t be that worried over a teenager with no big league experience, even if he needed Tommy John surgery, which it turned out, he didn’t. That would have been a developmental blow, for sure, but it wouldn’t have had a major impact on the big league team, because he was going to be on an innings limit in 2023 anyway.

Everyone else at the time was healthy. Ranger Suarez was still with his Venezuelan team at the World Baseball Classic and had not reported any arm concerns. Depth pieces Christopher Sanchez and Nick Nelson had not yet had their injuries. Matt Strahm wasn’t being considered for a role where he’d have to be stretched out and used to start a game at Yankee Stadium the first week of the season. What could Middleton have been concerned about?

Two games into the season, we probably knew our answer.

Yes. That was all-time bad. In fact, the only team to allow more in their first two games were the 1951 St. Louis Browns. It’s just another ignominious statistical footnote in a long-line of them in the now 140-year history of the Phillies.

Things got better pitching-wise Sunday, as Bailey Falter and the bullpen stemmed that tide, but the Phillies’ bats came up small, especially with runners on base.

I don’t want this to be Overreaction Monday, especially since it’s just three games into the season, and if you’ve ever listened to our Crossed Up podcast, you know I have a much longer leash of patience with a baseball team than most, so I’m not pushing any panic buttons over an 0-3 start, no matter how historically bad it’s been.

But it’s worth dissecting the possible reasons behind such a remarkably bad start – and here’s what I have to offer you:

This isn’t a player problem or a multi-player problem as much as it is a failed organizational philosophy problem.

I’ll explain in a minute, but first, today’s Table of Contents:

  1. Grapefruit Bubble Wrap
  2. A Disgrace to Our Initials
  3. Barrell Rolling
  4. Square Pegs, Round Holes
  5. Taking Back the Game

So, without further ado…

1. Grapefruit bubble wrap

When trying to identify why the majority of their pitchers are getting absolutely lit up during the opening weekend the regular season, the Phillies may not have to look any further than their super conservative deployment numbers from Spring Training.

In all honesty, this is a philosophy that, in my humble opinion, plagues all of baseball, but the Phillies may have taken it to an extreme in February and March of 2023.

The Phillies played 32 Grapefruit League games this Spring. In those 32 games, their pitchers threw 276 1/3 innings. Of the pitchers who made the Opening Day roster, they threw 124 2/3 of them. That’s it.

Painter, Sanchez, and Nelson combined for seven more. Suarez didn’t pitch at all for the Phillies, although he did throw innings for Venezuela. Likewise, Jose Alvarado and Taijuan Walker got a few extra innings at the World Baseball Classic as well, but…

That means that 144 2/3 of the Phillies Spring Training innings, or 52.4% of them, were thrown by pitchers who didn’t make the team, and likely, with maybe only one or two possibilities, weren’t really in consideration to do so coming into camp.

Aaron Nola, who had a bad Opening Day, threw just 13 1/3 innings. Zack Wheeler, who had a rough first start to his season, threw just 10 2/3. Gregory Soto, who couldn’t get an out in his first appearance for the Phillies, threw just 4 2/3 innings. Yes, he was late arriving to Spring Training because of visa issues, but the Phillies never felt he was behind in his throwing program because he was working out at their facility in the Dominican Republic while awaiting his updated visa. Seranthony Dominguez, who was terrible Saturday, threw 8 1/3 innings. Craig Kimbrel, who only threw 18 pitches, but loaded the bases, threw 8 innings.

You know who lead the Phillies in innings pitched in Spring Training? Bailey Falter. How’d he look Sunday night?

Might a slightly better workload in the spring have set them up for better early-season pitching success? There’s no guarantee, but it couldn’t have been worse.

Like I said, this isn’t just a Phillies problem. Pitchers all around baseball are super protected by their teams, who are more risk averse than they are willing to be ready when the season opens.

While there is some sense in that thought process because of the length of the season, it gets to a point where the aversion is more hurtful than helpful – especially in a division where you are competing with two of the top teams in the sport. A loss on March 30th counts equally to a loss on October 1. So being under-prepared for the sake of caution is stupid.

The Phillies will argue that they had their guys throwing live batting practice or simulated games on the back fields in the Spring, and that those outings should count toward their arm buildup and innings totals.

That may be true from a physiological perspective, that is a flawed practice from a psychological perspective. Throwing in those settings, while controlled by the team and not allowing for uncontrollable variables, such as long innings, are also entirely low-leverage. You are facing teammates and/or your own minor leaguers. The rush of facing opposition just isn’t there. Even in an exhibition game, while it doesn’t get to the highest of leverage situations, It’s certainly different pitching in front of a crowd against another team, and competing. So to go from having none or very little of that to suddenly facing it days later, it’s a complete 180-degree turn.

There’s no doubt that players are going to be behind with that little game-oriented action to experience.

Let’s look, conversely, at the Atlanta Braves, who are 2-1. Yes, they are playing the Washington Nationals, who are terrible, and not nearly as good a lineup as the Texas Rangers, but in Spring Training, the Braves, who played one fewer game than the Phillies, had their pitchers throw 266 2/3 innings. Of that number, the guys who were on the Opening Day Roster plus the injured pitchers who likely would have made the team, threw 132 1/3 innings. Now, the Braves had three other pitchers who were in the mix to make the team as starting pitchers that got a good number of innings as well. Bryce Elder, Ian Anderson, and top pitching prospect Dylan Dodd combined for an additional 37 innings. In fact, Dodd wasn’t on the Opening Day roster as a paper transaction only. He is expected to pitch for the Braves Tuesday.

Still, their minor leaguers, who had very little to no shot to make the team, only threw 93 1/3 innings in Grapefruit action. That’s 51 1/3 fewer innings than similar pitchers for the Phillies.

Think that’s a difference?

I’m not advocating for pitchers to throw a ton of innings in the Spring, but pitchers and catchers officially began on Feb. 13, even though guys were there sooner than that. The Phillies played their first spring game on February 25. You mean to tell me you could only get Wheeler, who was healthy, to throw 10 2/3 innings in 32 days? And Nola only a touch more than that?

Then you hear them say velocity wasn’t where they wanted it, or their breaking pitches weren’t sharp enough, or things like that.  You hear them say that they are struggling to adjust to the pitch clock or finding ways to slow down the game.

Maybe with more time to do that in Spring Training, it wouldn’t be a problem or a half-excuse to start the season.

In the end, I’m ultimately not overly-concerned about Nola or Wheeler, or Soto (who was awesome in his second outing Sunday) or Dominguez or Brogdon (who was also better Sunday). They’ll catch up. I’m just perplexed that the Phillies would rather put themselves in a potential position to have to play catch up, which came to fruition, than to be ready to get off to a fast start in such a competitive division.

2. A disgrace to our initials

Here at Crossing Broad we often refer to ourselves as CB.

We may have to change that after C.B. Bucknor’s horrendous day behind the plate umpiring the Philles-Rangers game Saturday.

While he wasn’t the reason the Phillies gave up 16 runs. He certainly inserted himself into the game with his multiple, egregious calls at the plate, most of which went against the Phillies:

Even in Asia, they are finding Bucknor an embarrassment to baseball.

Then there’s this:

I don’t know what’s more gross – an umpire giving one team a 2.63 run advantage or him having as poor a game as Bucknor did and having that be 0.2% above what was expected.

Take note how no one was talking about Chris Segal’s umpiring Sunday night. Why? Because he’s an umpire who does his job well and doesn’t make himself the story.

Bucknor is the opposite – and likes the spotlight too.

Baseball needs to hold umpires accountable for stuff like this. The fact that they don’t, makes them complicit.

3. Barrell rolling

If we’re looking for good signs for the Phillies, the fact that 6-8 players were offensively productive all weekend is a good thing.

Trea Turner, J.T. Realmuto, Nick Castellanos, Bryson Stott, and Alec Bohm each had at least four hits in the series. Brandon Marsh had a two-hit game Friday. Darick Hall had a two-hit game Saturday and Edmundo Sosa had a two-hit game Sunday.

The only regular who didn’t have a good weekend at the plate was Kyle Schwarber.

If the pitching rights itself, this kind of consistent offense will result in a lot more winning than losing.

Yes, you cant go 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position (like they did Sunday) and expect to win. But, those things will happen on occasion. Consistently hitting the ball well, being aggressive on the bases and generating scoring opportunities will ultimately bring positive outcomes.

4. Square pegs, round holes

Back to concerns – The Phillies are ill-equipped to face left-handed pitching as currently constructed.

That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with having Edmundo Sosa or Josh Harrison in the lineup. They’re both good and useful players.

But the Phillies are bereft of options when they stack righties in the lineup, and Rangers manager Bruce Bochy exposed that weakness with his bullpen deployment Sunday.

Cristian Pache, who can’t hit, was also in the lineup with Sosa and Harrison, meaning the Phillies bench Sunday consisted of Hall, Marsh, Jake Cave, and Garrett Stubbs – all lefties.

In the sixth inning, with starter Martin Perez exhausted and the Phillies threatening with two runners on and two outs and Pache coming to the plate, Bochy relieved Perez with another lefty – Brock Burke.

It’s rare for a manager to bring in a lefty to face a righty in this spot, but Bochy took advantage of the Phillies’ weakness here. By going to Burke, he forced Rob Thomson to make a decision – do I still pinch hit with a lefty here, even though none of them are good against lefthanders? Or do I take a chance with Pache, who is a terrible all-around hitter?

Thomson chose the latter, and Pache popped out on the first pitch he saw.

Then, in the ninth inning, rather than go to Jose Leclerc, who closed Friday’s game, Bochy went to another lefty – Will Smith – with the bottom of the order coming up – even though Stott and Sosa hit lefties well, it was all a matter of dealing with that No. 9 spot again.

This time, Thomson went to the bench and chose Hall to bat for Pache, but he grounded out to end the game.

The moral of the story is if the Phillies don’t build an early lead against a lefty starter, the opposition has a distinct matchup advantage from the middle innings on because the Phillies don’t have a reliable righty on the bench.

The solutions aren’t great. It means either Sosa or Harrison has to stay on the bench, meaning Hall, Cave, or Marsh has to start against a lefty, or you roll the dice that you can get the lead with your righty-heavy lineup and hope to not have to worry about the matchups down the line.

Neither are ideal.

Hall being a 1B/DH only muddles things further, because it makes Cave a bad fit to the roster just because of his left-handedness. He’s a better fit offensively than Pache, but because Hall can’t play anywhere else, the Phillies lack flexibility with positions when both Hall and Cave are on the bench.

There’s no real solution that’s better on the current roster. A change may need to happen, especially if opposing teams follow Bochy’s blueprint.

One solution may be to add Scott Kingery, who has continued to hit in the first weekend of games for the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, with a pair of homeruns. Kingery would give the Phillies another righty bat and allow for a righty to stay on the bench, but that would mean removing someone from the current roster.

Hall isn’t going anywhere because he needs to play a bulk of first base. So really it comes down to Cave or Pache. I’m not certain the Phillies want to bail on Pache so quickly when they literally just traded for him and the fact that he is so good defensively in center field. Plus, if they feel like they can make him a passable hitter by working with Kevin Long, they might want to let that experiment play out for a little.

That leaves Cave, who is a valuable depth player and, if Rhys Hoskins hadn’t gotten hurt, would be a better fit in the roster puzzle. But, unless the plan is to play him in the lineup all the time against righties, maybe he goes down to Lehigh Valley so Kingery can come into the fold. They don’t want to drop Cave from the 40-man roster, because he is a valuable depth option, so something else would have to happen roster-wise to add Kingery, and there isn’t a great choice there other than to possibly move away from a young outfielder on the 40-man like Simon Muzziotti, Jhailyn Ortiz, or Johan Rojas or part ways with a slightly-older outfielder on the 40-man like Dalton Guthrie.

Point is, it’s not a great situation.

5. Taking back the game

I’ve already expressed my issues with the new changes to baseball, and I don’t want to keep dragging that into the mud because I don’t want to turn into an old man yelling at a cloud, even if some of you believe it’s too late to stop that.

But the Bryce Harper interview during Sunday night baseball was incredibly telling.

Kevin already dove into this (although I don’t agree with his statement that I think there’s nothing wrong with baseball. There were/are many issues. I just don’t think the pitch clock addresses them at all), and I don’t want to go off on another rant. But, Bryce Harper saying this shows that a lot of people in baseball aren’t on board with what the sport is doing no matter how much the league and its media lackeys want to tell you that it’s so wonderful and everyone loves it.

It’s going to be fascinating to see if this changes in time.