The Phillies are a remarkable 9-9 in what’s now 18 games in to the 2017 season. Why is that remarkable? Because of what they’re doing on both sides of the ball in the late innings.
The team, as a whole, has an ERA in the ninth inning of 7.36. Batters they’re facing in the ninth are OPS’ing a ridiculous .910 in the inning and the team has given up six home runs, nearly one in every ten plate appearances. By almost every metric, the ninth inning has been the worst for Phillies pitching. Only two teams have a worse ERA in the ninth and only three have a higher OPS. Of the two teams with a higher ERA, the Rangers gave up half of their ninth inning runs in two games, and no teams have given up as many home runs.
With those kinds of ninth-inning numbers you’d expect that the Phillies would have a high amount of losses attributed to blown saves. Of their 18 games so far, eight have come down to save situations, and they’ve given up runs in six of those games and blown four of them. What’s remarkable, though, is that they’ve only lost two of those games, and both games were where the Phillies didn’t get a chance to bat following the blown save. In the other two they’ve managed to come back and win.
So, how is it that they’ve managed to be at .500 over the first 18 games to start the season? Well, there’s some interesting anomalies in the late innings on the offensive side as well.
To counter the poor pitching in the 9th inning, the Phillies batters are excelling at hitting in the late innings. Through innings 7-9 as a team the Phillies are hitting .267/.336/.497 for an OPS of .834, which puts them at the best in baseball. To put that in perspective, that’s extremely close to what Edwin Encarnacion hit all of last year, .263/.357/.529 for an .886 OPS. Encarnacion finished 14th in MVP voting.
What can be interpreted from this is that the Phillies are doing something all good teams seem to do – take advantage of relief pitching. Indeed, their line against relievers so far this year is incredible at .282/.355/.531 for an OPS of .878, which is again the best in baseball. Mets slugger Yoenis Cespedes earned himself a contract with an annual average value of $27.5M over the next four years by hitting similarly to what the Phillies are doing to relief pitchers early on this year. He had a slash line of .280/.354/.530 for an OPS of .884.
For a team like the Phillies have been so far, every run seems to matter. This isn’t a situation where they’re scoring extra runs or giving up meaningless runs in blowouts. Over their 18 games they’re carrying a run differential of +7 runs. To drive home how important every run is in a typical Phillies game, 13 of their 18 games have been decided by less than two runs, and nine have been one-run games.
So to say that the late innings for the Phillies have been adventurous is a bit of an understatement. They’re giving up runs, but they’re scoring runs as well. Surely this is a somewhat unsustainable balancing act, but due to the fact that it’s happening on both sides of the ball, when it does in fact even itself out, the end results aren’t likely to be much different.