It’s been a rough weekend for the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phils scored only one run over three games in their road series against the San Francisco Giants, losing all three contests. That was an especially bitter pill to swallow considering the fact that the Phillies had outscored the Giants 31-8 in a four-game sweep last month.
Since May 26, when a win over the Toronto Blue Jays briefly saw them take sole possession of first place for the first time since they won their last division title in 2011, the Phils are 2-6 and have seen an alarming dip in offense, including a 22-inning scoreless streak that was snapped when Sunday’s starting pitcher, Jake Arrieta, hit a solo home run.
That would be the only run the Phillies would score in the entire series.
After the game, Arrieta held court in the locker room and sounded off. He described the series as “horses***” and twice called for the team to take an “accountability check” as the team entered “a key moment in our season.” He was also critical of the Phillies’ use of defensive shifts.
It’s not often you hear a player calling his team out in public like this, especially in baseball, where the locker room culture is extraordinarily private. How will the Phillies take Arrieta’s rant? Here, we take a closer look at their situation.
Leader taking the reins
One of the biggest reasons Arrieta was signed was to be a leader in a clubhouse full of young players. That’s a big part of what’s going on now.
Arrieta is one of only four players on the Phillies’ 40-man roster who has logged a postseason appearance, and the only one who has won a World Series ring. In a locker room full of players under 25 and with, on average, very little MLB service time, his experience carries a lot of weight. His presence has been credited by many as a factor in the improved performances of Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta in the early part of the season. Now, he’s using his leadership role to steel the Phillies for a daunting stretch.
Over the next month, the Phillies will play series against the Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers (twice), Colorado Rockies, St. Louis Cardinals, Washington Nationals (twice) and the New York Yankees. All of those teams are above .500, three of them by over 10 games. The games against the Nationals, currently 1.5 games ahead of the Phillies for second place in the NL East, will be particularly important.
The Phillies deserve their position in the standings, but they haven’t yet been tested like this. While the public nature of his outburst is out of the ordinary (things like this tend to be handled behind closed doors) its purpose is clear—to keep his young teammates from settling into the rut they’ve been in. If they were to wallow in their poor form this week, the stretch of schedule they’re about to go through will bury them.
One part of Arrieta’s scathing review, however, deserves closer scrutiny. As Arrieta called for accountability, he did so from “top to bottom.” That, coupled with his criticism of the team’s defensive shifting, certainly sounds like a challenge to manager Gabe Kapler.
The early season criticism of Kapler has mostly faded. After that disastrous first weekend of the season, the rookie manager has stopped over-managing—at least for the most part—and the team has taken off since.
But the echoes of that tumultuous first week—including an anonymous player’s assertion “We’ll be OK…we just need the manager to get out of the way,” still lurks over Kapler’s shoulder. Despite the Phillies’ success over the first two months of the season, Kapler’s use of defensive shifts has continuously been under a microscope.
Phillies pitchers actually have a lower BABIPA (Batting Average on Balls In Play Against) when their defense plays straight up than they do when they shift. Their weighted on-base average (wOBA) is similarly higher with shifts (.301) than without (.289). The Phillies are dead last in Shift Runs Saved at -11. The Los Angeles Dodgers are the only other team in the negative on Shift Runs Saved, at -1.
When it comes to shifts, the buck stops with Kapler, whose statistical models determine where he puts the fielders. Arrieta’s comments again bring the manager’s rapport with his locker room into question.
Kapler, for his part, has accepted Arrieta’s criticism. “Jake’s comments are true—we didn’t play well and we can be better,” he said on Monday. “It’s a good opportunity to for us to sit down and discuss how we can improve our team.”
This isn’t out of character for Kapler, who has always put a premium on communication. Indeed, he also said on Monday, “Personally, I don’t mind Jake expressing how he feels about shifts or anything else.”
While indicative of Kapler’s ability to accept criticism—a crucial attribute that other, unsuccessful Phillies managers (Ryne Sandberg comes to mind) lacked—it’s still concerning to see that there may yet be mistrust between team and manager.
It remains to be seen how the Phillies will respond to this first taste of real adversity. Arrieta has said his bit. Whether the Phillies take to their leader’s words or crumble under their weight will be determined as the month of June progresses.
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