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July 13, 2017

Phillies at the All-Star Break: Five encouraging signs from a rough first half

Pete Mackanin was off for the Jersey shore following Sunday’s game at Citizens Bank Park, as ready as anyone inside the ballpark for a much-needed break from baseball.

The Phillies, as you may have heard, have the worst record in baseball. They had five fewer wins than any other team entering the All-Star break.

Earlier this week, we looked at the five biggest concerns coming off 3 1/2 months of bad baseball.

But, you know what? It hasn’t all been bad. Really.

There’s this, for example: by winning on Sunday over the San Diego Padres, the Phillies ensured that they will not finish with the worst winning percentage in the 135-year history of the franchise.

Because the only way that would have happened is if they lost Sunday, and then lost all 75 games after the All-Star break to finish at 28-134 (.172). The Phillies team with the worst winning percentage in franchise history was the first team in franchise history: in 1883, then known as the Philadelphia Quakers, the team went 17-81 (.173).

The 2017 Phillies are on pace for the worst record by the franchise in a 162-game season, though. The 1942 Phillies (42-109) and the ’41 Phils (43-111) played 151 and 154 games, respectively.

The current Phils would have to go 21-54 (.280) in the second half to break the ’41 Phils’ franchise record for most losses in a season. And we’re going to go right ahead and say that’s not happening since that’s markedly worse than they were in the season’s first half (29-58, .333).

So, yeah, a lot wasn’t very good for the Phillies before the All-Star break and, again, we looked at the lowlights on Tuesday. Now for five of the most encouraging signs from a mostly forgettable three-plus months of baseball:

Aaron Altherr

If Aaron Altherr would have been selected to the National League All-Star team instead of reliever Pat Neshek, no one would have batted an eye. Which is remarkable if you consider where Altherr as just three months ago: firmly on the bench with Odubel Herrera, Michael Saunders, and Howie Kendrick manning the outfield.

Through 78 games, Altherr is slashing .284/.356/.530 with 14 home runs, 18 doubles, and three triples. The 26-year-old Altherr ranks in the top 10 of major league outfielders (that’s all outfielders, not just NL outfielders) in slugging percentage and OPS. Perhaps this is a fair reminder that young players rarely arrive in the big leagues as finished products and patience is required as they develop into their true selves.

Altherr, who altered his swing and stance slightly thanks to the spring training direction of first-year hitting coach Matt Stairs, took off immediately when he began playing regularly over the injured Kendrick in mid-April. And while almost everyone waited for him to slow down, it just hasn’t happened: after a quiet two-week period in June, he’s hitting .313 with a .939 OPS in his last 19 games before the break.

Aaron Nola

Remember all winter and spring, when there was serious concern about whether Aaron Nola could pitch a full, healthy season after missing the majority of the second half of last year with elbow woes, and never undergoing any surgical procedure?

Nola was placed on the disabled list with a back strain after three starts in April, but he’s been pretty darn good since returning: 3.36 ERA in 10 starts (and a 2.61 ERA in his last seven).

Nola’s 9.07 strikeout rate (K/9) is 12th best in the NL among pitchers with at least 80 innings (sandwiched between Cubs’ starters Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta) and his 3.24 strikeout-to-walk rate is better than both and also 12th best in the league.

Nola is still just 24 and less than two years removed from his big league debut. He’s made all of 46 major league starts. But he’s once again looking like the former No.1 pick who was brilliant in his first 25 big league starts – a 3.12 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and a 153-to-34 strikeout-to-walk ratio – and like an important foundation piece in the rotation at the team’s rebuild moves into another gear in the next two years.

'The Futures' Sluggers

The Phillies offensive production from their right side of the infield has been fine in the last calendar year. Tommy Joseph in the last 365 days: .254/.321/.476, 25 home runs in 143 games (115 starts). Cesar Hernandez in the last 365: .288/.378/.405, nine home runs, seven triples, 17 doubles, and 17 stolen bases in 128 games.

It’s a good problem to have too many good players for the same position, although it does present the general manager with the challenge of maneuvering things right when everyone is major league-ready.

Rhys Hoskins is likely going to force Matt Klentak’s hand in the near future as the IronPigs first baseman has picked up right where he left off from Double-A a year ago, leading the International League in OPS and total bases while on pace for another 30-plus home run season, with his walk rate up and his strikeout rate down from a year ago. Hoskins, 24, has excelled at every stop along the minor league ladder and looks like the kind of disciplined power hitter that Pete Mackanin could use in the middle of his lineup.

Second baseman Scott Kingery, who joined Hoskins at Sunday’s MLB Futures Game, looks exactly like the kind of spark plug the Phillies could use at the top of Mackanin’s lineup, although he only just arrived in Triple-A last month and there are pretty loud whispers that his 40-man status (he doesn’t have to be added this winter to prevent him from being chosen in the Rule 5 draft, while other prospects do have to be added) cold delay his big league arrival until 2018. That’s unfortunate, but his numbers are not: .312/.371/.606, 22 home runs, 23 stolen bases in 81 games between Double-A Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

The Phillies may not have an Aaron Judge-type young star to build a lineup around for the next 10 years, but Hoskins and Kingery are looking like two pretty nice pieces for 2018 and beyond.

Freddy Galvis

Did you notice that almost every newspaper beat writer responsible for a Sunday column wrote almost the same thing last week, the story of the veteran Galvis’s popularity and positive influence as a leader in the Phillies clubhouse?

Galvis, who signed with the organization 11 years ago as a 16-year-old, takes his responsibilities seriously. He watched Carlos Ruiz and Chase Utley as a young major leaguer and has taken the reins in the clubhouse, lending an ear when one is needed, pulling a teammate aside when the situation calls for it, calling the team out when necessary, and bringing a positive, youthful, infectious energy onto the field even during rough stretches of baseball that can sap anyone’s effort level.

Galvis’ defense at shortstop is exquisite; if he fails to win a Gold Glove at some point during his career, it will be as big of a goof as Bobby Abreu winning one. 

Galvis’ offense will always be flawed for his lack of on-base skills (he has a career .283 OBP), but he is on pace for his second straight 20-home run season and has a knack for delivering hits when they’re needed most: according to baseball-reference’s “Clutch Stats” split, Galvis is slashing .300/.382/.400 in 34 plate appearances with 2 outs and runners in scoring position and .314/.355/.500 in “late and close” situations (defined as any plate appearance from the seventh inning on in which the batting team is either in a tie game, ahead by one run or has the potential tying run on deck).

Galvis is eligible to be a free agent after the 2018 season and if J.P. Crawford begins to mature as a hitter as most expect he will, the former will be replaced by the latter. But the fact that it’s even a discussion topic is remarkable considering Crawford was ranked as a top 3 prospect in all of baseball a little over a year ago when Galvis had a .241/.282/.352 slash line in 322 major league games.

By the way, did we mention Galvis’ defense?

John Middleton

A smaller story that went mostly under the radar for Philadelphia sports fans this winter occurred when Phillies ownership partner John Middleton was named the “control person” for the organization. If you’ve listened or read anything Middleton has said since he made himself more public in the last two years, you know he’s not at all a man content with being the owner of a team with baseball’s worst record and a ballpark that’s rarely half-filled in South Philly.

If you missed it, he gave a pretty good interview back in April (before the current season really went off the rails). 

Only nine teams in baseball had a smaller Opening Day payroll than the Phillies in 2017, which is mostly a product of the rebuild and the front office’s understanding that spending wisely (when the young core is ready to contend) is better than spending just to spend. But Middleton’s patience will be tested in the coming year. Middleton, general manager Matt Klentak, and team president Andy MacPhail are all very aware of the star-studded free agent class of 2018-19.

The Phillies could add a big-contract star before then, too, however, perhaps through a trade if not free agency. If they do, it wouldn’t be shocking to learn that Middleton is the driving force behind the scenes.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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