The Phillies Are Ahead When They’re Behind

Written by: Justin Choi (@justinochoi)

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Yesterday, the Phillies were the talk of the baseball town, but not for reasons they wanted. Their 9-10 loss against the Orioles was one of the more wild games we’ve had this season – after establishing a 5-2 lead by the 7th inning, the bullpen came undone, a pop-up with an xBA of .000 (seriously!) fell in for a ‘hit,’ and Austin Hays legged out a go-ahead inside-the-park home run to give his team a stressful victory. 

The dust has settled, and the Phillies still aren’t where they want to be. With a 5-7 record, they’re behind division rivals Marlins, Braves, and Nationals. The starting rotation, which has been the 9th-most valuable in baseball by fWAR, is passable, but the bullpen carries an atrocious 10.19 ERA, the worst by a considerable margin. 

But this article’s purpose isn’t to roast the Phillies. It isn’t a compliment, either; it’s more an observation of a potentially good thing, or a potentially meaningless thing. For now, let’s reset and start off on a brighter note: the Phillies’ offense has the second-highest wRC+ (120), behind the dinger-mashing Yankees. What sets them apart, however, is their reliance on plate discipline to generate offensive value. How do we know this? The Phillies have the highest BB% and the second-lowest K% of all major league teams.  

Considering that the team was almost exactly average in these metrics last year – 14th in BB%, 15th in K% – the sudden turnaround is worth an analysis. So what changed? After fooling around on Fangraphs and Baseball Savant, I found a change from last year worth discussing. Here’s a bar graph showing how more/less teams are swinging in 2020 when behind in the count compared to 2019: 

The bar on the very right represents the Phillies, whose swing rate when behind in the count has decreased by 7.9% – from 52.1% to 42.2%. By absolute value, that’s the biggest difference between a team’s 2020 and 2019 rate. 

Is there any advantage to being more patient when you’re behind? To answer this question, let’s use an 0-1 count as a foundation and branch out from there. When hitters swung with an 0-1 count last year, they produced a .358 wOBA. If they took a ball instead, bringing the count to an even 1-1, they improved to a .378 wOBA. However, if they took a strike, their expected production plummeted to a disastrous .166 wOBA. Yikes! 

Based on these context-neutral values, the safe option would be to swing. Bringing the count to 1-1 earns the most wOBA, but there’s also the risk of ending up at the dreaded 0-2 count. Taking a pitch and ending up with a profit requires the hitter to have considerable confidence that it will be a ball. 

Are the Phillies getting to plenty of 1-1 counts? More often than not, at least. Their total is the second-smallest due to coronavirus-related setbacks, but on a rate basis, they’re tied with the Braves and Reds for fifth. That being said, this discovery isn’t particularly meaningful, as the difference between last place (Dodgers, 9.2%) and first place (Angels, 11.2%) is small enough to suspect statistical noise. The Phillies have also seen the second-fewest 0-2 counts on a rate basis, but again, noise is a concern. Still, these are somewhat encouraging signs that the team’s changes are being reflected in actual results. 

We’ve touched upon 0-2 counts, but let’s expand our analysis to all two-strike counts. They do crazy things do your breakeven because taking a strike is, well, the end of the world. Taking a ball sounds fine, but it doesn’t help you all that much since there still are two strikes afterwards. The best option for a hitter, therefore, is to swing and hope he makes contact, instantly saving him from the deep, deep hole he was stuck in. 

Because the Phillies are swinging less when behind in the count, you might think they’re also swinging less when there’s two strikes. But much to my surprise, they’ve actually become more aggressive, increasing their Swing% from 59.8% in 2019 to 63.4% so far this year. Phillies hitters are making the smart distinction between simply being behind and having two strikes. Could be intuitive, could be the work of an analytics team, but regardless of the reason, the Phillies have figured it out. 

Now onto the most significant, yet mysterious takeaway from all this. In 2019, Phillies hitters produced an .239 xwOBA by swinging during counts in which he was behind. But in 2020? It’s jumped to a .276 xwOBA. And their actual wOBA? Pretty similar, at .265. So the fact that the league-average xwOBA is 20 points higher than the average wOBA doesn’t seem important. 

For comparison, here’s how other teams fare when swinging while behind. 

There are three teams ahead of the Phillies, sure, but there’s a catch. The Padres and Twins especially produce great power at a cost: strikeouts. We’re focusing on the fact that the Phillies are striking out less and walking more, so here are the same five teams, ranked by K% (from the swings): 

The Phillies are on equal footing with other offensive juggernauts without experiencing the potential drawbacks of doing so. That’s a huge advantage in today’s game, or what I like to call ‘selective aggression.’ As in, the team has reduced their overall swing rate, but when they do decide to swing they’re going all out. 

Here’s a beautiful line drive home run hit Bryce Harper on an 0-2 count: 

And the unexpectedly fabulous Phil Gosselin smacking a double into center field: 

But I did say this change had an element of mystery to it. That’s because looking at EV, LA, Z-Swing% and O-Swing% or any of those metrics explain why; they are merely descriptive. If this was a breakdown of one Phillies player, there’d be a discussion of possible batting stance changes, but a whole team consists of many, many hitters. Unearthing changes, if any, would be a major hassle. 

What we can do is marvel at the fact that the Phillies are ahead, even when they’re behind. That could be due to a reluctance to swing, or a disposition to be selectively aggressive, or perhaps some other factor I’ve overlooked. Top offenses in baseball deliver no matter what the situation is, and right now, Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, and yes, Phil Gosselin are the driving forces behind that characteristic. If only the bullpen would learn too.

Follow P365 MLB and KBO Analyst Justin Choi on Twitter! @justinochoi

Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365

Featured image courtesy of photographer Rich Schultz and Getty Images

All statistics from Baseball Savant and Fangraphs 

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