The Philadelphia Phillies were supposed to be easy to ignore in 2016. They were supposed to be bad, and that was supposed to be that.

But instead, here we are in the middle of May, wondering if they’re actually this good.

Following a 99-loss season that saw them jettison almost all the stars left over from their 2007-2011 glory days, the 2016 Phillies are off to a 20-15 start. Only three teams in the National League have a better record. If the Phillies hadn’t begun the year with a four-game losing streak, that list might be smaller.

At the least, this is a sign the Phillies are ahead of schedule with their rebuild. When Pat Gillick took over as the club’s interim CEO in 2014, he set 2017 as the earliest target for a return to contention. But rather than a team that’s ahead of schedule, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin sees a team that’s for real.

“Every time we play somebody, I get the same question, but it’s a good question because of course we [are],” the skipper said earlier this month, via Joe Harris of

Mackanin also pointed out that he and his club have “held our own against contenders.” The Phillies are indeed 13-9 against winning clubs, which suggests they’re not getting by on good fortune.

Or are they?

Because we’re in the year 2016, we must make a fuss over the Phillies’ run differential. It stands at minus-27, by far the worst among Major League Baseball’s early winners. If the Chicago Cubs are a winner that deserves better based on their plus-99 run differential, the Phillies are their antithesis.

And it’s not like they’ve drastically turned things around after starting the year 0-4. Their 20-11 record since then comes with a minus-13 run differential.

It’s easy to narrow down why the Phillies are succeeding despite this. They’ve crushed it in one-run games, posting a 12-3 record. And to their credit, this hasn’t happened by accident.

There’s one measure that rates the Phillies pitching staff as one of the 10 best in baseball. Their rotation is led by some awesome arms belonging to Aaron Nola, Vince Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff. Their bullpen features a trio in Jeanmar Gomez, David Hernandez and Hector Neris that’s combined for a 29.3 strikeout percentage and a 2.29 ERA.

For the sake of competing in as many games as possible, good pitching is a key thing to have. And as the leverage—that’s baseballese for “pressure”has gotten higher, Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and OPS show that both Phillies pitchers and hitters have been at their best:

Note: These stats are current through play on Wednesday, May 11.

This brings the 2014 San Francisco Giants to mind. As Blake Murphy of FanGraphs highlighted at the time, they got out to a 38-21 start by owning pressure situations. The Phillies are doing the same thing.

But this cool tidbit is also a cautionary tale. Even that Giants team, which went on to win the World Series, was forced back down to earth over the long haul in the regular season. A team with more talent than it could avoid a similar fate. The Phillies are not that team.

As good as the Phillies pitching has been, there are faults to find. Nola, Velasquez and Eickhoff have done a fine job of carrying a rotation that’s thin outside of them, but it’s unfair to expect that to continue all season. Hitters have already adjusted to Eickhoff, who has a 6.65 ERA in his last four starts. And none of the three has pitched a full season before.

The Phillies bullpen doesn’t have many cracks, but it does have a singular big one. In light of its considerable problem with the long ball, all that high-leverage dominance may not have a long shelf life.

If the team’s pitching wavers, the Phillies will need their offense to pick up more slack. At that, all anyone can say is “good luck.”

Said offense has been one of the worst at scoring runs. Outside of budding superstar Odubel Herrera, one of the NL’s best players, the only other regular with any real promise is Maikel Franco. As such, the high-leverage dominance of the Phillies offense is probably on even thinner ice than the pitching staff’s high-leverage dominance.

If the season ended today, the Phillies would be in the playoffs as a wild card. But in the long run, probably not. They began Thursday with a 5.9 percent chance of making the postseason at Baseball Prospectus. At FanGraphs, their odds were just 0.1 percent.

Still, the Phillies don’t need to make the playoffs for 2016 to count as a success. As a stepping stone toward what they hope will be many years of contention, it’s a damn enticing proof of concept.

The Phillies have every reason to be excited about how Nola, Velasquez and Eickhoff are establishing themselves as rotation cornerstones. With good stuff and control, they’ve been instrumental in giving Phillies starters virtually the same strikeout percentage as the Nationals‘ star-studded rotation.

And as a whole, the Phillies rotation may be on to something with its love for the curveball. It’s throwing more curveballs than any starting staff in recorded history, and FanGraphs August Fagerstrom can tell you all about how awesome these curveballs are.

There’s not as much long-term brightness in Philly’s bullpen, but Neris looks like a keeper. In carving out a 1.64 ERA in 20 appearances, the 26-year-old right-hander has showed off a splitter that shouldn’t even be legal. He looks like a future shutdown closer.

And even if it never improves as much as it needs to this season, the Phillies offense could at least get a glimpse of its future beyond this season. From a farm system that Baseball America ranked at No. 8 coming into the season could come shortstop J.P. Crawford, outfielder Nick Williams and catcher Jorge Alfaro before the season is over.

The Phillies farm system could also have some gifts for the pitching staff. Right-handers Jake Thompson and Mark Appel, the former No. 1 pick of the Houston Astros, haven’t been great for Triple-A Lehigh Valley, but that may not get in the way of them getting called up.

There’s always the chance that every prospect the Phillies call up this summer will hit the ground running and help propel the team forward. It’s more fair, however, to expect them to gain the experience that will help them be of use in 2017 and beyond.

That means Gillick‘s target date for contention is looking pretty good. And based on the preview, the show itself should be a good time.


Stats courtesy of and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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