PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies woke up Thursday morning in second place in the National League East, just a half-game behind the Nationals with a 24-17 record.
How many folks in the Delaware Valley predicted that?
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Thank fantastic pitching and an improved defense for the surprising start. The only question is if the Phils can keep it up. They rank 29th in baseball offensively, averaging just 3.32 runs per game. They have been outscored by 28 runs.
Only 14 teams in the past 10 seasons have finished .500 or better despite being outscored. The 2009 Mariners were the most fortunate of the bunch, finishing 85-77 despite a -52 run differential. Philadelphia is on pace to be outscored by 112 runs.
So how in the world are the Phillies doing it? How are they winning night after night?
Here are five explanations:
1. It starts with the rotation
The starting pitching is the most obvious reason the Phillies are playing well. The rotation ranked among the worst in baseball last season, but it is among the best in the game this year. Phils starters have a 5.4 WAR, which ranks fourth in MLB. Philadelphia is third in FIP (3.26), WHIP (1.13) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.87).
2. Bullpen dominance
Remember the first four games of the season, when the Phillies' bullpen allowed 15 runs in 10 2/3 innings? It has a 3.13 ERA in 36 games since. Jeanmar Gomez transformed himself from a capable middle reliever to a surprising closer, saving 16 games in 17 opportunities. FanGraphs just wrote about how dominant the Phils' bullpen has been, pointing out that it leads baseball in Wins Probability Added at 3.08, which is 0.76 points higher than the second-ranked Royals (2.32).
You just read about the Phillies' negative run differential, which falls onto the struggling offense. However, the Phils have been coming up with big hits. They are batting .356 in high-leverage situations, according to FanGraphs. Not only is it the best mark in baseball, it is 56 points better than the Angels, who rank second at .300. It is unlikely the Phillies can keep up that torrid pace for the entire season, but it at least explains how they have been winning so many one-run games. So while the Philadephia is not scoring a lot of runs, it is taking advantage of the very limited opportunities it has had to score runs in big moments.
4. Freddy improves
Freddy Galvis is fifth out of 29 qualified shortstop in Defensive Runs Above Average at 5.8, according to FanGraphs. This measures a player's defensive value relative to league average. Galvis ranked 12th out of 23 qualified shortstops last season, when he committed 17 errors and posted a .796 zone rating. This year, he has committed two errors and has an .873 zone rating.
5. Fewer circus acts, more cans of corn
The Phillies emphasized defense in the outfield, and so far it has paid off. The Phils' left and right fielders each ranked 27th in DEF last season. This season, they are in the middle of the pack, ranking 16th in left and 17th in right. That modest improvement can make all the difference in the world to the pitching staff.