Wait…what??? The Philadelphia Phillies finishing in last place in the National League East Division during the upcoming 2020 season? You would have to be nuts to even entertain such a notion, right?
Wrong, chewing tobacco breath! Well, it’s at least not such a difficult proposition when you consider how the Phillies were evaluated in the preseason PECOTA projections.
For those unfamiliar with it, PECOTA stands for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm. It is the proprietary system from the folks at Baseball Prospectus that projects player and team performance.
Baseball Prospectus uses their system to project the final standings for the upcoming season and also presents the percentage chance for each team to reach the postseason.
This year’s projections were pushed through that system, and PECOTA spit out a final record of 77-85 for the Phillies. That put them in fourth place in the NL East Division and gave the club just an 8.9% chance of making the playoffs.
For the rest of the division, PECOTA projected the New York Mets (88), Washington Nationals (87), and Atlanta Braves (83) to all finish with more wins than the Phillies. Only the Miami Marlins (71) were picked behind them.
If PECOTA is to be believed, it would mean that Joe Girardi’s first Phillies team has been evaluated as being as close to a last place – six games – as they are to a third place ball club.
Now, arguments against the entire premise itself aside, and I am sure that many Phillies fans would come up with quite a few, let’s assume the PECOTA system is as valid as any. What would it take for the Fish to make up those six games, and actually pass the Phillies in the real final 2020 standings?
I follow the Phillies and all of baseball closely on a regular basis, and can say without reservation that fans have plenty of concerns and criticisms of the ball club.
The Phillies enter the season with a first baseman who underwhelmed in 2019 and was one of the worst hitters in all of baseball over the season’s final two months. They have new starters at each of the other infield positions, none of whom had an especially productive season a year ago.
In the outfield, the club has a left fielder coming off major knee surgery and playing at age 33. Their center fielder is scheduled to be an unproven 24-year-old in his first full big-league campaign.
On the mound, the Phillies starting rotation has a veteran third starter who has collapsed over the final four months during each of the last two seasons, and pitchers in the back three spots who have not established themselves as effective winners. The bullpen has two dozen potential members at spring training hoping to thwart the injury devastation of a year ago.
Every one of these concerns is legitimate, and each has been aired regularly by fans of the team during the course of this winter. So, let’s assume that it all goes bad.
Andrew McCutchen‘s knee either doesn’t hold up over six months, or he loses something in the field and at the plate because of it. Adam Haseley and Scott Kingery fail to develop into impact players. Rhys Hoskins and Jean Segura disappoint once again. Ditto the majority of the pitching staff. And GM Matt Klentak is unable to come up with pieces to fix any of the problems.
At this time of year, hope springs eternal. Spring training camp has just opened. The first Grapefruit League games are a week away. Major League Baseball’s regular season is still six weeks off in the distance. And then it’s a six-month long marathon of almost daily baseball.
Frankly, everything could go right – or many things. The Phillies could contend all summer, add a couple of key pieces in-season, and either win the division or reach the playoffs as a Wildcard team. They could give fans the first taste of exciting October baseball in almost a decade.
But the fact is, everything could just as easily go wrong. If even most of the things described above do actually go wrong, it would be disastrous. If, God forbid, the club loses someone like Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Aaron Nola, or Zack Wheeler for any lengthy period due to injury, could they overcome that loss?
If those things happen, and the rest of the division plays mostly to their potential, and the Marlins overachieve just a little bit, then the nightmare scenario of a Phillies last place finish could indeed unfold. That would surely result in Klentak losing his job. Perhaps team president Andy MacPhail as well.
Keep in mind, PECOTA is certainly not an exact science. A year ago they projected the Phillies for 89 wins, tied with the Nationals for the top of the division. Of course, the club finished with just 81 wins and in a fourth-place position.
For the coming 2020 season, Rob Mains at Baseball Prospectus wrote the following on their evaluation of the Phillies:
“The problem with the Phillies is that they were, despite their mere .500 record, one of the luckiest teams in the majors last year, with a third-order winning percentage that was seven games worse than their actual record.”
“PECOTA’s projection would indicate improvement. Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler are an imposing 1-2, but the integers after that aren’t. The bullpen is unsettled. Two of Didi Gregorius, Scott Kingery, and Jean Segura seem likely to play out of position, and PECOTA sees all three as below-average hitters. (It’s particularly down on Kingery, expecting a 78 DRC+). Bryce Harper’s outfield mates are 33-year-old Andrew McCutchen coming off major knee surgery and Anyone’s Guess in center.”
No one wants it to happen. Frankly, I don’t believe it will happen. But don’t say that the last-place scenario hasn’t at least crept into the back of your mind. That is an unfortunate result of the last eight years and of collapses by the Phillies down the stretch in each of the last two seasons. Sorry that I had to even bring up the possibility.
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