The Philadelphia Phillies' Hot Start Is No Fluke

The Phils have jumped out to a winning record after an impressive sweep against the Nationals. Here's how they've done it.

Scratch your heads if you must, world of baseball, but the rebuilding Phillies are doing a pretty terrible job of tanking.

Yes, the Phillies, who virtually everyone in the game said would finish with the worst record in baseball, are guaranteed of finishing the month of April with at least a .500 record. And after a three-game sweep of the Nationals in Washington, the Phils are 12-10.

Just as everyone predicted.

How are they doing this? How are they managing to stay competitive when virtually no one thought it was possible? As in most cases, the most obvious answer is in the rotation.

Starting Pitching

They finished up their series against the suddenly struggling Nats by holding them scoreless for the final 22 innings.

Jeremy Hellickson and Aaron Nola were both terrific in the final two games of the series, both 3-0 shutouts, and Vincent Velasquez also pitched very well in the first game of the series.

All told, during their six-game road trip against the Brewers and Nationals, the rotation was especially good.

I mean, just look at what Nola was doing yesterday.

And it has been the rotation that has fueled the Phils' respectable start to the 2016 season.

Mets 10 5 9 1.78 3.10 2.45 3.8
Cubs 14 4 8.16 2.26 2.32 2.93 3.5
Phillies 8 8 10.36 2.21 3.43 2.96 3.4
Nationals 10 4 8.53 2.98 2.30 3.05 3.3
White Sox 13 7 7.61 2.75 2.94 3.48 2.9
Giants 10 7 8.07 2.22 4.32 3.31 2.9
Rays 4 9 10.13 2.08 3.52 3.20 2.8
Dodgers 7 7 7.67 2.42 3.47 3.48 2.7
Cardinals 8 7 7.07 3.13 4.15 3.70 2.0

The Phillies enter the weekend with the third-most fWAR among MLB rotations, 3.4. They have the sixth-best ERA at 3.43 but the third-best fielding independent pitching (FIP) at 2.96.

The rotation of Hellickson, Nola, Velasquez, Jerad Eickhoff, and the injured Charlie Morton have been doing a heck of a job missing bats, averaging 10.36 strikeouts per nine innings, the highest rate in baseball.

They also have been stingy with free passes, just 2.21 walks per nine, third-best in the Majors. And check out their individual numbers.

Aaron Nola 1 2 5 33 10.09 1.64 3.55 2.59 1
Vincent Velasquez 3 1 4 25.1 11.72 2.13 1.78 2.36 0.9
Jerad Eickhoff 1 3 4 24.1 10.36 1.85 4.07 3.15 0.7
Jeremy Hellickson 2 1 5 26 9.69 2.08 3.81 3.76 0.4
Charlie Morton 1 1 4 17.1 9.87 4.15 4.15 3.05 0.4

Velasquez has pitched what is considered to be the game of the season thus far, a 16-strikeout, no-walk complete game shutout of the San Diego Padres that generated a Game Score of 97 (tied with Jaime Garcia's 97 against the Brewers the same day).

It is a rotation of curveball masters, with Phils' starters throwing the hook an astonishing 27.5% of the time, far and away the most in baseball (the A's are next closest at 18.9%). And the pitch has been particularly effective, saving the team 2.49 runs per 100 pitches according to FanGraphs, the second-best mark in baseball behind the Rangers.

The Offense

The Phillies have compiled a winning record despite some struggles on offense. Their -0.4 fWAR among position players is second-worst in baseball (only Atlanta is worse), and their 72 runs scored is also second-worst, just a single run ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Phils' right fielders have a combined .177/.190/.290 slash line with a -0.7 fWAR, and their left fielders are slashing .152/.207/.212, for a -1.7 fWAR. Those two positions have been manned by Tyler Goeddel, Peter Bourjos, David Lough, and the recently-demoted Cedric Hunter. However, the outfield has been saved by the remarkable performance of center fielder Odubel Herrera.

After walking just 28 times in 537 plate appearances last season, for a walk percentage of 5.2%, Herrera has become a completely different and more patient hitter, already at 22 bases on balls in 72 plate appearances, walking in 23.2% of his plate appearances. Those 22 walks are second-most in baseball behind Paul Goldschmidt's 23, but three of Goldschmidt's are intentional, while just one of Herrera's is intentional. And his walk rate is the best in baseball, ahead of Goldschmidt and his 21.7% rate.

Herrera is also batting .292, with a .453 on-base percentage and a .417 slugging percentage, good for a weighted runs created (wRC+) of 138.

Since moving him to the leadoff spot, the Phillies have won six of seven games, thanks to plays like this.

Maikel Franco has also continued where he left off, batting .284/.341/.506 with 5 homers, 14 RBI, and 7 runs scored, with a wRC+ of 121 and an fWAR of 0.5. And the Phillies have gotten surprising production from the catcher position, with Carlos Ruiz and Cameron Rupp combining to put up a wRC+ of 122, fifth-best among MLB catchers.

The Improving Bullpen

After a brutal first week of the season, blowing two late leads in their first two games, the 'pen has seemed to shake out. Their 4.73 ERA and 5.10 FIP are clearly not very good, 25th in baseball, but over the last week, they've been better. Over the last seven days, their 3.20 ERA is 14th, and they've struck out 10.07 batters per nine innings.

For the season, the bullpen is striking out 9.85 batters per nine, which is a great sign. Less great are the 4.09 walks per nine they're giving up. But the later innings have been shored up by the emergence of Hector Neris, who, in 12 appearances, has given up one earned run on 6 hits with 20 strikeouts and 4 walks in 13 innings.

Jeanmar Gomez is seven-for-seven in save opportunities, with a 1.93 ERA, and young pitchers Dalier Hinojosa and Elvis Araujo have been getting better with each appearance.

The bullpen needs to cut down on the walks, but happily, they haven't been needed much thanks to the excellence of the rotation.

Can They Sustain It?

The Phillies still have a lot of holes. Their offense is woefully short on run producers, and the relievers are unproven. Also, because of the youth of the rotation, expect the Phils to limit their innings as the season goes on. In fact, they've already lost Morton for the season with a torn hamstring. He'll be replaced by Adam Morgan, who had a very good spring.

And while they're 7-5 against the Nats and Mets so far this year, they're likely to struggle against some of the really good teams in the National League.

But they are a team no one wants to play right now, led by a rotation that can be nasty for anyone. It's not unreasonable to think those young arms can prevent long losing streaks from happening, which could help keep them close to .500 all season long.