By this point in the 2019 baseball season, all the baseball writers of note have long since waded into the “there are a lot of home runs” discussion pool. Which is logical, considering how deep the pool is, with all of those home runs. Some of the writers have merely observed the phenomenon, while others seem ready to declare their 2020 candidacy in “The Number of Home Runs is Too Damn High” party.
I am not a writer ‘of note,’ so I don’t believe the public has been clamoring for my take on the historic number of dingers. Although I will say that it feels to me personally as if the home run is a devalued currency from too much over-printing, and soon we’re going to need a wheelbarrow of home runs just to buy a loaf of bread.
Instead, I’m here to take this home by examining the Phillies’ relationship with the 2019 edition of the juiced ball. And, prepare yourself: if it were a human relationship, everyone would be gently holding the Phillies, telling them that they could really find someone who treats them with more kindness and respect.
You Say You Want a Fly-Ball Revolution
The Phillies offense was supposed to be a powerhouse this year, but the power- part of that metaphorical kenning hasn’t shown up, relative to the rest of baseball. Of course, the present-day Phillies squad isn’t the same one who started the season. Losing McCutchen and Herrera for the season pummeled the team with different kinds of tragedy, and many other key players have missed time—and that’s just on the hitting side. Still, when the Phillies acquired Jay Bruce right before McCutchen injury, he became the club leader in homers. Which seemed odd on a team with the two 2018 Home Run Derby final round participants in Hoskins and Harper.
Each day, I awake anew and continue to be baffled as to why Bryce Harper has hit fewer home runs than Mitch Garver or Christian Walker, or way fewer than Max Kepler or Jorge Soler, who plays in the spacious Kaufman stadium—which is not to disparage any of those players. (Although I didn’t name Ketel Marte because I’m tired of people picking on him in their anti-home-run-surge arguments; Ketel Marte, I love you and I always believed in you.) It’s just to say: Bryce Harper hit 45 dingers to win the Home Run Derby last year. What happened?
How the Phillies Stack Up
Because as of this writing, the Phillies stand at 21st place in the majors in terms of hitting home runs–and this represents a nice upgrade from the spot they’ve occupied for most of the season, at around 24th. In fact, the Phillies sat at 24th as recently as a week ago, when I first started putting together this article. (I took a break from it to address the Phillies’ pitching at the trade deadline.)
But in the last week, the Phillies have vaulted over the formidable offense of the Orioles, and, puzzlingly, their NL wild-card rival, the Cardinals, to a tie with the Rockies. As you can see, though, only a home run or two separates these teams as of August 6th. Here’s a screengrab of the standings sorted by home runs, but you can also visit ESPN’s ranking site to see an updated ranking.
On the whole, the Phillies are still hitting more home runs than they did in 2018, according to this site which calculates the number of home runs per game. At present, they’ve hit 1.29 homers per game, versus 1.15 last year. Last year, however, that was good enough for 15th in baseball, exactly league average. This year, 1.26 per game puts them, you guessed it, at 21st.
With hitters of the Phillies’ caliber not clobbering the ball at the same rate as their leaguemates, it’s hard not to wonder if coaching ethos or team approach doesn’t have something to do with them falling comparatively short. However, since the Phillies “Bamboo Game” on June 24, around which time it was mentioned publicly that they were changing their approach to attack fastballs –a tactic whose connection to any plant, alive or dead, is purely coincidental–they have had more home run success, relative to other teams. It’s a six-week sample size, and we all know anything can happen in six weeks. But the Phillies have faced many difficult opponents in that span, and since then, have ranked 12th in homers hit.
So, maybe there’s hope for the future in the Phillies’ wild card goose chase. The problem, though, is that there’s another home-run-related category in which they’re nowhere close to league average.
“Now I Shall Give Up Another Tremendous Dinger”
Many times this season I have thought of this Clickhole article about pitchers no longer being allowed to deliver stirring monologues between pitches. It attributes the speech “Now I shall give up another tremendous dinger” to Max Scherzer, which never struck me as the right pitcher for that monologue. Sadly, I have some other candidates.
Because the biggest issue that the Phillies have with home runs is allowing them. The Phillies pitching staff has given up the largest number of home runs in the National League, with 185 home runs allowed. If this has changed by the time you’re reading this, visit the refreshable if not refreshing ranking here.
Only the Orioles and Mariners have allowed more, and there’s not another National League team on this ignominious leaderboard until sixth-worst, with the Colorado Rockies, who have given up 169. Anyone who would like to argue that the Citizen’s Bank Bandbox (its small dimensions make for a hitter-friendly environment) is responsible for this problem need only note that the team that pitches at Coors field (the altitude makes for the most hitter-friendly environment in baseball) has given up 16 fewer home runs.
To sort this between starters and relievers shows that the starters are slightly more culpable, versus their brethren. Phillies’ starters have only been surpassed in giving up tremendous dingers by the starters on the Orioles, Yankees, and Mariners, with 112; the bullpen, with the remaining 73, ranks ‘only’ 6th worst in baseball. What a prize.
What Black Cat Walked Under What Ladder Made of Broken Mirrors
Early in the season, I wondered if the Phillies pitchers giving up so many home runs was just unlucky, and that they would positively regress to something closer to their career averages. But as we all realized that the 2019 ball was sailing out of ballparks across the country at an even higher rate than its 2017 juiced predecessor, I had to acknowledge that career averages weren’t relevant anymore.
So, to look at this a little more closely, let’s consider the pitchers who have made ten or more starts as a member of the Phillies this year (so we have a not-laughable sample size). I know this no longer represents their starting rotation, but I will address the new denizens of ding-dong island afterwards. I seek to assess what brought us to 112 home runs, comparing their home run to fly ball rate, hard hit rate, and expected weighted on base average to the MLB averages for this year.
Choose Your Own Adventure
If Fangraphs already shows up on your homepage as one of your most frequently visited sites, skip this section. Conversely, if you’re wondering why I might want to look at these stats, pray continue.
I thought HR/FB (home run to fly ball) might be useful as a kind of BABIP (batting average on balls in play) for fly balls allowed. But just as a hitter’s BABIP is not just a mark of how lucky they are but also how hard they hit the ball, or how quickly they might be able to leg out a hit to first base, HR/FB is also related to the quality of contact that a pitcher gives up. I thought Hard % (hard hit rate) and xwOBA (expected weight on base average) would be the simplest touchstones here. To be clear, xwOBA does not predict future performance like xFIP; it represents what ‘should’ have happened given the batted ball data that a pitcher allowed. I have ranked the starters here by their xwOBA. These stats are as of 7/28.
|Pitcher||2019 HR/FB||2019 Hard%||2019 xOBA|
Chart Imitates Life…Mostly
That the Phillies mostly have a HR/FB rate above league average tells us what we know: they’re getting shelled. As you can see, only Zach Eflin has a HR/FB lower than the MLB average, although that reflects that Eflin was the Phillies’ most consistent starter for the first few months of the season; through his start on June 19, his HR/FB was only 10.9%. And even though Eflin may be pitching out of the bullpen now, we can see a correlation between his Hard Hit %, xwOBA, and HR/FB: all are better than league average. And the starters who have literally been rotating into the rotation—Pivetta, Velasquez, Eickhoff—see a correlation between their high HR/FB and higher hard hit rates and xwOBA.
At first, Arrieta seems to have been a little unlucky, considering that his Hard Hit % is slightly lower than the average, but his HR/FB is catastrophically worse. But the correlation between his higher than average xWoBA and HR/FB, even if it seems drastic, is about what we see with the other pitchers.
But Aaron Nola stands out as having been unlucky with his HR/FB. A Hard Hit % only a minor 0.4% higher than average and xwOBA 15 points better than average doesn’t seem like it should result in 2.5% more of his allowed fly balls going for home runs. However, I have a tentative theory for some of Nola’s un-Nola-esque results, which will be the subject of Part II of the horror film “The Phillies and the 2019 Juiced Ball.”
The Phillies rotation, however, may look 2/5ths different for the final two months of the season, if all goes according to plan. If you’re curious how the Phillies’ deadline-ish starting pitching acquisitions might contribute to the team’s home runs allowed–well, I have good news and bad news.
|Pitcher||2019 HR/FB||2019 Hard%||2019 Xwoba|
As I mentioned in my last article, limiting hard contact is how Jason Vargas has kept his 85 mph fastball mostly out of trouble this year. His fundamentally average hard hit rate doesn’t quite square with his exceptionally good average exit velocity (cited in the above article). But I hope that’s keeping his HR/FB rate below average, and we won’t see him getting clubbed for more home runs to bring that number to the mean. But he’s pitching in Citizens Bandbox now, so this may be nothing but hope.
And speaking of hope: well, only hope can mitigate Smyly’s quality of contact numbers. With Texas, his hard hit rate and xwOBA were worse than any Phillies starter this year, and a commensurate number of his fly balls allowed went for homers. He may even have been a little lucky, in comparison to Pivetta and Eickhoff (or else, they were more unlucky than I gave them credit for).
As I also mentioned in my last article, I’m rooting for Smyly more than anyone who isn’t related to him, although I should probably assume his agent also has precedence. But it’s the knowledge of this kind of recent track record that causes me to eat Tums like popcorn during his starts. (And anyone who knows me at all knows I love popcorn.)
But the hope is real: the Phillies and Smyly have a plan to have him throw his cutter more, his fastball less and his changeup barely at all, and let’s hope it continues to work. Granted, he sports a 3.00 ERA with a 2.38 FIP and a 3.08 xFIP in a Phillies uniform, which should be cause for optimism. But any member of the Phillies starting rotation has had three good starts this year. Between giving up tremendous dingers.
Home Run Differential
The 2019 Phillies have been difficult to diagnose; somehow, they’re less than the sum of their parts. But the discrepancy could just come down to the long ball. The Phillies’ run differential currently sits at -17–not a ringing-the-bell endorsement. But their run differential on home runs is almost two and a half times as much, at -41. It’s as if Phillies offense and defense aren’t playing with the same ball. And in a year when home runs are the dominating offensive storyline, that adds up to third place in the NL East, no matter how much talent is on the team.