6 Phillies who took big steps backward in the first half

6 Phillies who took big steps backward in the first half

We took a look Monday at the four Phillies who made major strides in the first half — Aaron Altherr's shorter swing has led to more consistency; Aaron Nola looks the best he ever has; Nick Pivetta has shown he's a major-league starting pitcher, and Luis Garcia finally has his control under control.

Unfortunately for the Phils, and this is obviously the case for a 29-58 team, there were more negatives than positives in the first half.

Today, we take a look at six players who took big steps backward in the first half.

CF Odubel Herrera
Defensively, Herrera has only gotten better. Offensively, he has not been close to the guy we saw the last two seasons. 

Herrera entered the All-Star break hitting .256 with a .292 on-base percentage. In 2015 and '16, he hit .291 with a .353 OBP.

In 84 games, Herrera has 16 walks and 84 strikeouts. He had 23 walks last April alone.

If you remove last April from the equation, though, Herrera has 56 walks in his last 898 plate appearances. That's a 6.2 percent walk rate. The league average this season is 8.6 percent. So if you've thought over the last calendar year that Herrera's selectivity at the plate has been below-average, you'd be right.

This was not the first half the Phillies wanted to see from Herrera after guaranteeing him $30.5 million in the offseason. Beyond the offensive numbers, he also made baserunning blunders and expanded the strike zone with regularity.

Herrera can still hit and cover much of the plate when he wants to. But a lot of times it looks almost as if he steps to the plate already having decided whether he'll swing at the next pitch, regardless of where it goes. Until he gets back to taking bad pitches and fouling off good ones, he's not going to improve.

Herrera has been batting sixth or seventh a lot lately. Even in a down year, he should probably be batting closer to the top of the order because of his importance to this team's future. The difference in batting 1 or 2 vs. 6 or 7 is about 100 plate appearances over a full season. Don't you want your young, important guys getting as many reps as possible?

It's not an open-and-shut case for Pete Mackanin, who moved Herrera down because he was tired of seeing him get himself out.

3B Maikel Franco
Franco and Herrera, thought to be two of the Phillies' young building blocks, entered the break with a combined on-base percentage of .283. 

That number alone expresses how poor a first half both players had. If two of your top guys post that low an OBP over more than one-half of a season, you're in for a world of hurt. 

Franco hit .217 in 83 games with 14 doubles, 13 homers and 45 RBIs. He actually walked nine times more than Herrera.

But much of that run production came in the first three weeks of the season. Franco hit two grand slams and drove in 20 runs in his first 19 games. He's driven in 25 runs in his last 64.

Franco has been brutal with runners in scoring position, hitting .195 with just five extra-base hits in 95 plate appearances. With a runner on third and less than two outs, he's 2 for 20.

It's not hard to figure out why. Franco, like Herrera, has a habit of expanding the strike zone and getting himself out. There are plenty of holes in Franco's swing that have been exposed. Why any pitcher would ever throw him a middle-in fastball is beyond me because it's so easy to get him to roll over on an outside fastball or swing over a low-and-away slider.

He still has impressive raw power, and when a pitch is in his swing path he's capable of hitting it out of the ballpark. But there's so much more that goes into being a productive middle-of-the-order hitter. Franco, who turns 25 on Aug. 26, hasn't yet been able to learn and incorporate those finer points. 

The Phillies like to describe guys like Howie Kendrick and Daniel Nava as "hitters," a simplified way of saying "these guys go up to the plate with a plan in place and an ability to adapt."

Franco is not that now, and it's not too early to question whether he'll ever grow into it. He's now reached 1,370 big-league plate appearances and hit .248 with a .302 OBP. Even if you're hitting 25 to 30 homers per year, that doesn't cancel out a batting average and OBP so low and a double play total so high. Franco has grounded into 17 double plays, most in the majors, many of them a result of his trying to pull outside pitches.

Franco is not being shopped by the Phillies, but they will listen to trade offers and could act if an intriguing offer materializes. No team ever wants to sell low on a player, but if the Phillies trade Franco, they'd be doing it under the assumption that this is who he is and will be long-term.

C Cameron Rupp
Rupp had a couple good games heading into the All-Star break, going 4 for 7 with a homer in the Padres series. But through 197 plate appearances, his batting average is 32 points lower than it was last season and his OPS is 70 points lower.

Rupp last season hit .252/.303/.447 with 26 doubles and 16 homers. He's not an above-average defender behind the plate, so he needs to earn his playing time by hitting for power. Last season, he did. This season — during which he's hit .220/.310/.370 with eight doubles and six homers — he hasn't.

Rupp's prolonged slump coupled with Andrew Knapp's decent on-base percentage (.355) has resulted in more playing time for Knapp. Since June 1, Knapp has 75 plate appearances and Rupp has 64.

The Phillies will have to decide this winter or early next spring which catcher is the odd man out (if all three are healthy). Jorge Alfaro will be up in the bigs next season, and at this point, it looks more like he'll be sharing catching duties with Knapp than Rupp.

Closer Hector Neris
Neris owns the third-best ERA on the Phillies' pitching staff at 3.52, but he hasn't been the dominant force he was much of last season.

Neris in 2016: 2.58 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings, opponents hit .202

Neris in 2017: 3.52 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings, opponents hit .236

Neris had the feel and command of his splitter practically all of last season. This season, it's come and gone, and the success of a few outings hasn't gotten him into an extended groove.

The Neris game everyone will remember is the April 29, back-to-back-to-back home run game in Los Angeles. He followed that by allowing one run in 11⅔ innings in May. But since then, he's been scored upon in six of 14 appearances.

Neris has not adjusted well to the closer's role, and now there are questions whether he can fill it long-term. He's still a valuable piece to have in the bullpen, but he might be most successful as a team's second- or third-best reliever.

RHP Jerad Eickhoff
Eickhoff finally earned his first victory of 2017 in the final game before the All-Star break. In his return from a DL stint caused by an upper back strain, Eickhoff pitched five shutout innings and struck out eight Padres.

Like Neris, Eickhoff this season has not had consistently great command of his best pitch. Eickhoff's curveball has been there at times but not in all 15 starts, and as a result, he's 1-7 with a 4.63 ERA and .280 opponents' batting average.

The second half for Eickhoff is crucial. The Phillies would love to see him revert back to his 2016 form when he was stingy with walks and effectively throwing three different pitches (fastball, curveball, slider).

I'm more confident with Eickhoff than the others listed above that his first half was merely a blip on the radar. Long-term, he still projects as a No. 3 or No. 4 NL starter.

RHP Jake Thompson
Thompson pitched three games in relief for the Phillies in early May and allowed five runs in five innings. In 16 starts with Triple A Lehigh Valley, he's 3-10 with a 5.79 ERA and 1.60 WHIP. He's allowed 101 hits in 82⅓ innings.

It's tough at this point to have faith that Thompson will be an effective major-league starting pitcher. His repertoire just hasn't looked good enough — the fastball has looked average, as has the breaking ball, there isn't much deception in his delivery, and his control has been erratic. 

Thompson was so good last season at Triple A (11-5, 2.50 ERA in 21 starts) because he limited walks and induced a lot of double plays. That hasn't been the case this season. He's already nearly matched his 2016 walk total, and he's induced six double plays compared to 32 a year ago.

Thompson has fallen behind Nick Pivetta and Ben Lively on the Phillies' organizational depth chart and may be behind Tom Eshelman by the end of the season if things don't turn around.

Phillies pitching prospect Zach Warren has a dirty car but a bright future

Phillies pitching prospect Zach Warren has a dirty car but a bright future

Every one of the 15 minor-league prospects that the Phillies have invited to big-league spring training camp has a story.

Zach Warren’s is unique because (in his heart) he was a Phillie before he was technically a Phillie.

Warren grew up in Vineland, New Jersey, in the “glory era,” as he correctly called it, when the Phillies were racking up National League East titles, going to two World Series and winning one of them. Young Zach rooted for Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, but his eye always drifted toward the work being done by Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, not surprising because Warren was a left-handed pitcher on the rise in those days.

After successful runs at St. Augustine Prep in South Jersey and the University of Tennessee, Warren is still a pitcher on the rise. Three strong seasons in the Phillies’ minor-league system earned him an invite to major-league spring training camp next month in Clearwater.

At the Phillies’ prospect-education seminar last week at Citizens Bank Park, Warren recalled the pinch-me moment when he got the phone call from Josh Bonifay, the Phillies director of player development, telling him he’d been invited to big-league camp, and following up that thrilling news with a phone call to his dad, Geoff.

“I had dropped off my car to be worked on in Vineland the day before,” Zach recalled with a laugh, “and my dad was a little unhappy because it was dirty and had no gas. I told him the news and that cheered him up.”

Warren, 23, is one of a handful of left-handed relievers coming to big-league camp on non-roster invites. Most, if not all, will open the season in the minor leagues, but team officials, including new manager Joe Girardi and new pitching coach Bryan Price, clearly want to get a look at what they have for future reference. The Phillies, under general manager Matt Klentak, have been aggressive running relievers in and out from the minors so it’s likely several of these relievers will get a shot in the majors this season. And if they throw strikes and get outs – well, they’ll stick around.

Warren, 6-5 and 200 pounds, was selected in the 14th round of the 2017 draft. He features a mid-90s fastball, a slider and a changeup. He has racked up double-digit strikeouts-per-nine innings in each of his three pro seasons. He spent the last two seasons working late in the game, including closer, at Lakewood and Clearwater. In 116 2/3 innings the last two seasons, he allowed just 76 hits and 34 earned runs (2.62 ERA) while striking out 180 and walking 66.

The 2020 season will be a prove-it one for Warren. He projects to make the jump to Double A Reading and be an important part of that club’s bullpen. Double A is the level where they separate the men from the boys. Have success at the level and you can rise quickly to the majors.

“I’m not thinking too far in advance, where I’m going to be and things like that,” said Warren, showing a healthy perspective. “All I can control is working on what I need to work on to get better and becoming the best player I can be. My ideal blueprint for this season is to make strides and get better and help my team win games and get to the playoffs.”

First-timers in big-league camp are like sponges. They soak up the experience and try to learn from the players who’ve walked the miles they hope to one day walk. Warren has a healthy respect for Adam Morgan, another lefty reliever and SEC product from the University of Alabama, and is eager to speak with him.

“I want to learn from Adam Morgan,” Warren said. “He was up as a starter and had to go to the minors to learn, adapt and change, and he developed and got back. I think there’s a ton I could learn from someone like that.

“I’m just looking forward to learning from everybody. I think it’s going to be a great experience and I can’t wait to get down there and get going.”

With a clean car and a full tank of gas, of course.


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