(Photo credit: makeonlinesimple)
The Philadelphia Phillies' start this season has been quite unexpected.
Even the most optimistic fan would have had difficulty believing that the Phillies would be above .500 this close to the All-Star Break, let alone have spent anytime at all in first place in the NL East beyond the first week of the season.
While their time as division leaders lasted but a single day, the Phils have already vastly exceeded expectations and have largely achieved their main objective on the year: proving to next winter's epic free agent class that they are close to being the kind of team one of them can be the final piece to a true contender.
As surprising as the team's start has been, what's even more remarkable is that the Phillies have been succeeding this year despite getting little production from some key players.
Free agent signing Carlos Santana flirted with the Mendoza line for the first six weeks of the season, although those struggles can be blamed more on bad luck than on poor play. Rhys Hoskins endured a monthlong slump in May and then missed a week and a half after fracturing his jaw when he hit himself in the face with a foul tip. Aaron Altherr has been very poor in the first two and a half months of the year, making many wonder where the promising outfielder of last year has gone.
The starting rotation has carried this team so far but that can't last forever. The Phillies are going to have to start getting better production from their lineup and an upgrade might just be brewing in manager Gabe Kapler's own clubhouse.
Nick Williams has been heating up after a rough April and he deserves the chance to see whether or not he can be a catalyst for this team.
Williams had a tough start to the season, much of which had to do with things far beyond his control.
The acquisition of Santana, while advantageous in some respects, created a serious logjam in the Phillies' outfield by forcing Hoskins back into his unnatural position in left, leaving only one spot left for Williams and Altherr to fight over. Most thought the two would share a standard platoon arrangement, with the left-handed Williams playing against right-handers and Altherr against lefties.
But that's not what happened. Williams saw very little playing time in the first weeks of the year and he vented his frustration in the second week of the year. Aiming some brazen criticism at manager Gabe Kapler, Williams suggested that the new manager was overreliant on analytics to make his lineup.
After being largely successful in spot duty in the first two weeks of April, Williams went into an extended slump and didn't get another hit until the first of May. He, too, flirted with the Mendoza line, seeing his average drop to .185 at its nadir.
But May was a different story. Williams was still mainly used as a bench piece while Altherr struggled in the starting lineup, but he had an excellent month.
He played 24 times in May, with 14 starts, slashing his way to figures of .293/.369/.586 with five home runs and ten RBIs, raising his season batting average from .185 to .241.
His production has also come in big moments. In 26 plate appearances in late and close game situations, he's hitting .318/.423/.636 and five of his eight home runs on the year have broken ties.
It seems that Williams is beginning to get into more games. He's started four of the Phillies' last six contests, and Altherr continues to flounder.
There's maybe a case to conserve Williams as a weapon off the bench—he's hitting .467/.500/.952 with three homers and eight RBI as a pinch hitter this year—but he's clearly the better player at this point, and he clearly deserves to be in the lineup more than Altherr, particularly given his uptick in form the last month.
A mystifying absence
Williams was a pleasant surprise last year, and his initial burial by Kapler was somewhat mystifying, especially as Altherr's struggles became more pronounced.
He injected a lot of life into the order a season ago, and he needs the opportunity to do so again for a team whose success has come in spite of its lineup.