The Phillies are off to a historically hot start this season

You know, for someone who has been on the record on multiple occasions saying that “You should wait until Memorial Day to start really paying attention to the baseball standings,” I’ve certainly been doing a ton of it lately. However, there’s just a ton of interesting stuff going on here. The Yankees are apparently back, the Astros are currently in the mud, the Royals appear to be actually good, and the Dodgers are still the Dodgers.

With that being said, the NL East is currently very intriguing. It’s not because it’s particularly deep — the Marlins may have already waved the white flag, the Nationals are still years away and the Mets continue to be in possession of whatever is the opposite of a horseshoe in their back pocket. That already leaves the two teams that everybody expected to be competing for the divisional title: The Atlanta Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies. The Braves have already dealt with their fair share of (relative) adversity and are currently sitting comfortably over .500 and appear to have their eyes on October once again.

However, it appears that the Braves are going to have a serious fight for the division on their hands because the Phillies have exploded out of the gate this season. Any time you get compared to the 2001 Mariners (as long as you stick to the regular season), then you’re doing something fantastic and that’s exactly what the Phillies have done. Philadelphia is 36-14, which is the best start the team has had in franchise history, and it’s also the best 50-game start since those aforementioned Mariners set upon their journey to win a metric ton of baseball games in 2001. The Braves haven’t even gotten off to a bad start and yet Philly is already threatening to put some serious space between themselves and Atlanta.

There’s been a lot of talk about what is fueling the Phillies to such a historically-hot start and it does certainly help matters that the team’s lineup is already raking like it’s October instead of waiting until the Postseason to go on a heater. Heading into action on May 23, the Phillies were hitting .258/.337/.416 as a team, with a wOBA of .332 and a collective wRC+ of 115. This is quite obviously a top-five offense in all of baseball but we’ve seen what these dudes can do with the bat for going on three seasons now. Bryce Harper is hitting like you would expect him to do but they’ve also received huge contributions from Alec Bohm (who is keeping pace with Harper in terms of wRC+) and Bryson Stott as well. They’ve made a habit out of electrifying Citizens Bank Park and any other ballpark that happens to feel their wrath.

With that being said, the spotlight has been firmly on Philadelphia’s pitching staff. They’re currently sitting on an ERA- of 79 (3.19 ERA) as a unit while also holding the league’s best FIP- of 82 (3.31 FIP). The Phillies have quite easily the best pitching staff in baseball right now. It’s not just a case of the starters or relievers carrying the unit as well — both the rotation and the bullpen have been locking it down. Ranger Suárez has been incredible so far — usually the spotlight on the top of Philadelphia’s rotation has been on Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola but Suárez has truly stolen the show.

He’s currently on track to blow past his career-best fWAR of 3.0 and he might do it before the All-Star break rolls around. It’s not that Suarez has been completely unhittable or anything like that but instead, he’s been able to consistently go deep into games while also keeping runs at a minimum. Suárez has gone at least six innings in eight of his first 10 starts to begin this season and the most runs he’s given up in any given start is three. As such, Suárez currently has the second-best ERA- in all of baseball (34, only behind Shōta Imanaga’s 21 ERA-) while his FIP- is currently just outside of the top five among qualified pitchers.

This isn’t to say that Ranger Suárez has been stepping up in lieu of Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, either. Far from it, in fact — Wheeler is currently on track for yet another big season on the mound and Nola has pitched perfectly fine in his starts as well. They’ve also gotten great work from the likes of Christopher Sánchez and Taijuan Walker has been doing his job at the backend of the rotation. That’s not to mention guys like Matt Strahm and Jeff Hoffman in Philadelphia’s bullpen having absolutely microscopic ERA- and FIP-. What makes this team so wildly dangerous is that it doesn’t matter which point of the game in which you’re facing the Phillies since you’re probably going to be ending up dealing with a pitcher with some nasty stuff.

Another thing that’s also been discussed about the Phillies’ early run of success has been the strength of schedule — or lack thereof. Philadelphia has played 14 teams so far this season and only one of them has a winning record: The Atlanta Braves, who went into Philadelphia on Opening Weekend and picked up a series win. Other than that, the Phillies have essentially been beating up on teams that are mediocre-to-just plain ol’ bad. They’ve played every team that is currently in last place in their respective division except for the Oakland A’s, who they won’t see until mid-July. Philadelphia hasn’t exactly been dealing with Murderer’s Row so far and we have yet to see them deal with a really tricky portion of their schedule.

Also one thing that could end up being an issue for Philadelphia in the future is once the metagame of baseball actually catches up with their pitching staff. Usually in baseball, there’s a very strong risk for any given pitcher seeing a lineup for a third time in any given game. So far this season, MLB average for the first time through the order is currently .238/.303/.384, going up to .248/.309/.410 for the second time through the order and then up to .265/.326/.446 for the third time through. There’s a clear penalty that exists and it has for as long as baseball has been around.

So let’s see how the Phillies are doing (shout-out to Paul Boye of the Phillies Therapy podcast):

That is genuinely astonishing. It’s also something that could go either way — if this continues, then the Phillies may well end up with the best single regular season record in baseball history and the 2001 Mariners will fade away into history. If things finally come back down to Earth (i.e. when they start facing tougher competition) for this rotation, then we might start seeing the Phillies fall off and end up with something a bit more normal and less of the “history-making” variety.

Still, it’s not like the Phillies actively picked out these teams to play. MLB has a balanced schedule now and everybody plays everybody. Additionally, we’d probably all be making fun of Philadelphia if they were struggling against this level of competition, so we have to give them credit for taking care of business. On top of all that, it’s not like wins over teams that are below .500 are worth any less than wins over teams with winning records — they all count the same and the Phillies have done an incredible job of banking this many wins for themselves this early on into the season.

Now, will they be able to pull away from the Braves? That remains to be seen, especially since Atlanta isn’t even firing on all cylinders at the moment and they’re still already comfortably over .500. With that being said, it’s probably safe to assume that the Phillies will be at or around the top of this division for most of this season. The offense has always been there, the pitching has hit a new level and they’ve taken care of beating the teams that they’re supposed to beat. The Phillies are off to a fantastic start and it’ll be fascinating to see just how long they can keep this level of play going.

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