Thursday, July 12, 2018

Phillies first half loaded with positives

The first half of the 2018 season officially ended for the Phillies on June 30, when they played their 81st game against the Washington Nationals. The unofficial end of the first half for every team in Major League Baseball falls on Sunday with the All Star break to follow. The Phillies have four games left before the break, one of which is against the team with the worst record in the American League, and the other three against the team last in the National League. Currently sitting at 51-40, the team is just 15 wins shy of equaling its 2017 win total, something that will likely happen by early August. More importantly, that mark is identical to the division-leading Atlanta Braves as both teams sit deadlocked atop the NL East, 5.5 games ahead of the Washington Nationals, the clear preseason favorite.

                                             Stephen Brashear/Getty Images
Nola will represent the Phillies in Tuesday's All-Star Game.
So how did we get here? It starts with consistent starting pitching. Aaron Nola has taken the next step in his young career and figures to finish in the top five in NL Cy Young Award voting this season. Not only is that encouraging for this season, but it’s becoming evident that Nola’s perceived ceiling as a second or third arm in a rotation on a good team was an underestimation of his true talent. Zach Eflin has been the biggest surprise of the first half as practically all of his numbers have improved drastically. Jake Arrieta hasn’t been as consistent as the first two pitchers named, but his season numbers are still respectable. Lastly, while Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta remain wild cards, they’re certainly passable as back-end rotation arms. It doesn’t take brain surgery to know that with good starting pitching, you’re going to be in lots of games.

While new manager Gabe Kapler, has been scrutinized by most fans at almost any opportunity that presents itself, he’s doing a great job with the hand he was dealt.  Many pundits expected the Phillies to improve in 2018 and win anywhere from 75 to 85 games. They’re currently on a 91-win pace. Teams like the Phillies can be difficult to peg in March because their nucleus is predominantly young players and young players, in baseball especially, rarely progress on a linear basis. But, free agent signings of Arrieta and first baseman Carlos Santana were indicators that the team was ready to at least take a step forward and they’ve taken several in the first half. Kapler’s analytical approach finally has the Phillies thinking like most teams operate in Major League Baseball in 2018 and so it comes as no surprise that the Phillies team on-base percentage is among the best in the National League.

Kapler’s influence has also been most relevant late in games with his bullpen management. Relief ace Seranthony Dominguez has been deployed in high-leverage situations since he arrived in the big leagues in May and has answered the bell. Victor Arano, another young arm in the bullpen, has been reliable in big spots in the late innings. Eight different relievers have recorded a save for the Phillies so far this season. The team leader in saves remains Hector Neris, who’s been in AAA for the last two weeks, which says a lot about the right way to use your relievers. Every game is different and different situations will present themselves so therefore a different combination of relievers is probably the best way to close games when you don’t have Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and David Robertson to rely on. The Phillies are 19-8 in one-run games which is another indicator that the manager is pushing the right buttons late in games and getting the most out of a bullpen that was horrendous to start the year. Adding another left-handed arm to the bullpen should be the top priority for the Phillies with the non-waiver trade deadline looming at the end of July.

The lack of offense on a regular basis has been the most disappointing part of the first half for the Phillies, but there are some silver linings. Cesar Hernandez fits the bill of a prototypical leadoff hitter. Odubel Herrera has already reached his career high in home runs. Rhys Hoskins has put some early-season struggles behind him. Santana is third in the majors in walks. After ceding early playing time to Aaron Altherr in right field, Nick Williams slashed .293/.369/.586 in the month of May. While he wasn’t good in June, Williams is off to a great start in July slashing .387/.472/.645. Williams’ improved walk rate is particularly encouraging given his profile as a free swinger in the minors. Maikel Franco seems to be coming alive at the perfect time for his own tenure with the Phillies. The front office may still opt to move on from Franco in the coming weeks or in the offseason, but his current slash line of .274/.323/.467 rivals his 2015 slash line of .280/.343/.497 when he flirted with NL Rookie of the Year prior to hitting the disabled list.

Franco’s regression in 2016 and 2017, followed by what now looks like a decent first half in 2018, is yet another reminder that the growth of young players is hard to predict. Therefore, slow starts in the big leagues from Scott Kingery and J.P. Crawford should not necessarily be cause for pause just yet. It’s also why a bullpen arm makes the most sense for the Phillies at the deadline. Is it possible they go big and acquire Manny Machado in hopes of re-signing him in the winter? Sure. But the recipe for success for this year’s team seems pretty evident. They’re going to win with starting pitching, relievers being used in situations when they’re most effective and timely hits here and there. Given this was not expected to be a year in which the team made the postseason, it’s hard to see them really abandoning the young position players everyone looked at as part of the long-term future. Many of those players require further evaluation, especially with an offseason on the horizon that has a boatload of upper echelon players slated to be free agents. A left-handed reliever and a utility guy who can be a helpful bat off the bench at the very least are probably the best bets when it comes to deadline moves. It’s hard to blame President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak for wanting to sink or swim with their young players, especially when the team might be good enough to make the playoffs anyway.


Sunday, June 24, 2018

Brett Brown: Coach and Salesman

Five years after launching their much-maligned “Process,” the Sixers enter a pivotal offseason. There’s little doubt that opting to bottom out in the first place was the right decision. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are the most talented players the Sixers have had since Allen Iverson and the 52-30 mark in 2017-18 was the franchise’s best win-loss record since 2001. Despite that, the Sixers are about to hire their third general manager in The Process era at some point this summer.

Ownership allowing the NBA’s intervention to slowly force Sam Hinkie out the door and empower the Colangelo family will never make sense. When Jerry, and eventually Bryan Colangelo arrived, the situation they inherited was difficult to screw up. Two years after Bryan’s hiring as Hinkie’s replacement, the Sixers inevitably improved drastically. But, thanks to Burnergate, Bryan managed to hold the title of President of Basketball Operations and General Manager shorter than Hinkie did.

The Sixers and Colangelo parted ways on June 7, two weeks prior to the NBA Draft. Ownership could have opted to immediately conduct a search for a new general manager, and theoretically had one in place for the draft and free agency, which opens next week. Ownership opted to entrust three employees that worked under Colangelo and coach Brett Brown to guide the team through the draft, and almost certainly free agency, and will likely bring in a new general manager later in July or sometime in August. It’s possible there could still be a major transaction or two that the new general manager makes before training camp, but most are expecting Brown to lead the Sixers through the summer as the interim general manager.

                                                   Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Based off of his actions in last week’s NBA Draft, Brown certainly doesn’t have an issue putting his coaching title aside and wearing the general manager hat. Last Thursday, the Sixers drafted and traded Villanova product Mikal Bridges to Phoenix for the rights to Texas Tech’s Zhaire Smith and the Miami Heat’s unprotected 2021 first-round draft pick which Phoenix held. The move was unpopular amongst the fanbase, as Bridges was not only a local college player, but billed as one of the more NBA ready players in this year’s draft and would provide the Sixers with some help on the wing right away.

Though, sometimes the unpopular decisions wind up being the best decisions. Brown choose to trade away a player that would have certainly helped him as a coach right away in 2018-19, for Smith who is seen as more of a project and needs to develop a more consistent offensive game and a draft pick that won’t be made for three years. He made it very clear in his press conference on Thursday night that the organization is “star hunting” and views the draft pick as a helpful asset in trade negotiations. Given the Boston Celtics are rife with young talent and still a couple of valuable draft picks, the Sixers needed another bargaining chip. The top trade target this summer is San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, and the draft pick the Sixers just acquired allows them to better compete with their division rival in pursuit of Leonard. Brown’s history with the Spurs as an assistant before coming to Philadelphia might be an added bonus. Throw in the fact that LeBron James can opt out of his contract this week and become a free agent and it’s a good summer to be “star hunting.”

While there have been tons of players coming and going during The Process, several injuries to high-profile players and the aforementioned changes at the general manager post, Brown has been the constant since the summer of 2013 when he was hired. He’s been through all the losing it took to get here and all the waiting for the centerpieces of the franchise to get healthy. There are exceptions, but the coach acting as the general manager on a full-time basis usually doesn’t end well. But, perhaps in this case the Sixers get the best of both worlds. Who better to sell the entire program to free agents, and in Leonard’s case, a potential free agent next summer if the Sixers are to acquire him, than the guy who’s been through it all? When the season arrives in four months, the only title Brown will hold is the one he’s used to holding as the head coach. But, his activity as the general manager during the draft showed a willingness to make an unpopular decision that could be a turning point in the right direction for the organization. That, coupled with his familiarity with everything the Sixers can offer to new players acquired via trade or free agency, might just be the perfect storm at the perfect time.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

An appreciation for Bob Baffert

The past four days in the sports world were very busy. Statements were made, narratives were altered and legacies were forever changed. It started on Thursday night with superstar winger Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals finally hoisting the Stanley Cup in his 13th season. It continued on Friday with the Golden State Warriors winning their third NBA championship in the past four years. Over the weekend in Paris, the top-ranked women’s tennis player, Romania’s Simona Halep won her first grand slam. The top-ranked men’s tennis player, Rafael Nadal, claimed his 11th French Open and 17th grand slam title. Lastly, at Belmont Park yesterday, Justify became the second horse in four years to win horse racing’s Triple Crown.

The last five weeks on the calendar are the pinnacle for horse racing. For 37 years, the aura of the Triple Crown loomed over the sport. In 2015, American Pharoah, trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, finally ended the drought. It was going to happen eventually and it was going to happen again. But, the likelihood of the same man being behind both? That’s a whole new level of improbable. Baffert trained Justify to all three victories becoming just the second trainer to boast multiple Triple Crown winners on his resume. The other one? Jim Fitzsimmons who won his second Triple Crown back in 1935.

Saturday marked the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes. Justify was the 13th Triple Crown winner. In addition to the 37-year drought that American Pharoah ended, 25 years elapsed in between Citation’s Triple Crown in 1948 and Secretariat winning all three jewels in 1973. Though, when it has happened, it’s usually part of a decade of a golden era in the sport. In the 1930s, three horses won the Triple Crown. In the 1940s, four horses won the Triple Crown. In the 1970s, three more horses won the Triple Crown. And now, two horses have accomplished the sport’s greatest feat in the current decade.

                                                     Garry Jones/Associated Press
Justify became the second undefeated horse
to win the Triple Crown.
Are we in the midst of another golden era in horse racing? If so, it’s all thanks to Baffert. Of the 13 Triple Crown winners, Justify defeated the largest field in the Belmont Stakes. Both American Pharoah and Justify won the final race of the three in wire-to-wire fashion. For what it’s worth, American Pharoah went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the fall of 2015, doing so by six and a half lengths, the largest winning margin in the event. Most expect Justify to return to Churchill Downs on the first weekend in November for the same race. Rather than arguing that Justify’s victory yesterday diminished the ability for younger fans to understand how difficult it is to win the Triple Crown, maybe just acknowledge how special these two horses were.

Baffert’s list of accomplishments goes well beyond the American classics, as he has several Breeders’ cup wins, International stakes and graded stakes victories under his belt too. It’s not worth analyzing the fields of some of those other races and trying to make sense of how impressive those victories are. It would take a real horse racing expert to do that and it’s really not even necessary. These are the five weeks of the year that horse racing is most visible. Announcers Tom Durkin and Larry Collmus have done a remarkable join accentuating the excitement of this time of year for the sport. For those that weren’t around in 1978 for Affirmed, the Triple Crown and its mystique were an annual draw. There were several horses that got close and made Belmont Park on the second Saturday in June the place to be. Then it happened, and now it’s happened again, all because of one legendary trainer. That should be all we need to know about the legacy of Bob Baffert.