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June 26, 2023

The Phillies have a leadoff problem

But is it a big deal?

Last season, the Phillies went with an unconventional leadoff man, riding Kyle Schwarber and his 26 solo home runs to the World Series.

Schwarber hit just .218 in 2022, but his .317 on-base percentage and knack for seeing pitches — paired with the lack of alternative options — sort of made it work.

The Phillies looked to alleviate the leadoff issue by throwing $300 million at All-Star shortstop Trea Turner and they appeared to have the problem solved. Except they don't.

The Phillies have one of the worst leading off situations in all of baseball yet again. Turner has had a terrible first half to his first season in Philly, Schwarber once again is hitting below the Mendoza line, and manager Rob Thomson is stuck with some limited options to start his batting order.

Rather than sticking with Turner, the Phillies' skipper has elected to go with what worked last season for that exact reason.

“Ever since we put him in the leadoff spot last year, we’ve won,” Thomsonsaid on the 94 WIP Morning Show a few weeks ago. “You can talk about his batting average and all that stuff, but this guy’s a force. That guy walks to the plate as the first hitter of the game, the starting pitcher better be on his toes or it’s going to be 1-0. And he walks, too, and he’s comfortable there."

Schwarber has hit .186 with a .297 OBP in 25 games leading off this season. This following nearly equivalent lackluster attempts from Bryson Stott (.259/.297/.353) and Turner (.250/.286/.367). As a result, the Phillies are trailing the competition. 

Here's how the Phillies leadoff hitters compare with the rest of the league through 83 games:

Batting avg..23723rd
On base %.29727th
Runs scored3727th
Strikeouts854th most

Just 37 runs scored from leadoff hitters though 83 games is pretty bad. So, too, is the fact that they strikeout more than all but three teams in baseball atop the batting order. 

Schwarber has hit leadoff for the last 20 games in a row for Philly and the results, technically, speak for itself. The team is 15-5 over that stretch — which happens to correspond with the month of June, Schwarber's historic best month. 

Perhaps a return to Turner at some point will be the right move as the Phillies look to make it firmly into the playoff picture. He is, after all, a conventional leadoff man with a ton of experience in that spot. But it seems like Thomson is going to try and at least ride the June Schwarber wave, despite his hitting .181 this season. 

“You guys know me, I want people to be comfortable and feel comfortable with what they’re doing, where they’re playing, where they’re hitting, what their role is," Thomson continued. "It makes for a better performance.”

There might not be any correlation between leadoff success and the Phillies winning, however. Last year the Phillies won the NL pennant with the second worst batting average (.221), 10th worst PBP (.306), and most strikeouts (201) of any team in the 1-hole.

It's startling and bucks baseball wisdom, but Thomson has always been a manager who goes with his gut and it's mostly worked for him.

It's still worth some thought. Winning games is easier with early leads, and with base runners for your middle of the order hitters. Somewhere there's a solution. It will be interesting to see if it is, indeed, Schwarber again.

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