Philadelphia Phillies 2023 Season Preview
Sometimes all it takes is getting hot at the right time. The Philadelphia Phillies had the fewest wins of any NL playoff team and the second-fewest wins of any team to qualify for the postseason. They even went just 14-17 over their last 31 games and sort of backed into the postseason because Milwaukee struggled more during the stretch run.
And, yet, the Phillies won the National League pennant for the first time since 2009 in their first playoff appearance since 2011. This was a good team throughout the season and it would be wrong to call the playoff run a fluke, but it was certainly unexpected. Philadelphia was only 34-47 against teams .500 or better during the regular season, but ripped off a 9-2 run in the playoffs before falling to the Astros in six games.
It is rare to see a World Series participant that didn’t experience heavy losses as the third favorite to win the division, but that is the case here. The Phillies are also just -200 to return to the playoffs. This is something of a top-heavy roster once again, but the top is very good and it sure felt like interim manager Rob Thomson pushed all the right buttons. He certainly pushed enough to get the job for good and his team will now try to win two more games in the playoffs than last year’s version did.
Explanations of the stats used in this preview can be found in my “MLB Stats to Know” article.
2023 Philadelphia Phillies Odds
(odds from DraftKings as of Mar. 15)
World Series: +1700
NL Pennant: +850
NL East: +370
Win Total: 88.5 (-115/-105)
Make Playoffs: Yes -200 / No +170
Philadelphia Phillies Offense
I would have to say that going from Jean Segura to Trea Turner is one of the biggest single upgrades of the offseason. Nothing against Segura, who is a fine player in his own right, but Turner is a game-changer and a bona fide star. He’s amassed 13.1 fWAR over the last two seasons. Segura has racked up 15.2 fWAR over his last six seasons combined. Turner is a plus defender, a terrific baserunner and a strong offensive contributor. With his contact rate and speed, the rule changes are also going to greatly benefit him.
Turner even has 20-homer pop, which slots nicely into a Phillies lineup with a lot of thump. Naturally when you think about the Phillies, you think about Bryce Harper, who actually had something of a down year with a 138 wRC+ in 426 PA, at least compared to his ridiculous 2021 season with a 170 wRC+ and 35 homers. He was the NLCS MVP and hit six homers in the postseason. However, Harper actually had to have Tommy John surgery, which is extremely rare for a position player.
Harper is expected to be out until around the All-Star Break, so the Phillies will have to survive without him. Fortunately, Darick Hall can take over the DH plate appearances and add some power and patience towards the bottom of the lineup. He hit 37 homers between Triple-A and the Majors last season. That will pair well with the 30 jacks that Rhys Hoskins contributed and really well with the 46 homers that Kyle Schwarber slugged.
(Author's note: This was written and posted well before Hoskins suffered the season-ending torn ACL)
Turner’s presence certainly eases the blow of Harper’s ongoing recovery, but this is also virtually the same offense from last year with him in it. The Phillies were 10th in wRC+ and eighth in wOBA this past season and have improved defensively at the margins. Brandon Marsh will be there all season and he is a quality outfielder. Turner is a great defender wherever you put him. The corner outfield spots are still an adventure with Nick Castellanos and Schwarber, but the Phillies dealt with that last season.
They also dealt with a horrible year at the plate for Castellanos, who posted a 94 wRC+ one season removed from having a career year with the Reds in 2021 with a 139 wRC+. Castellanos went from a 46.9% Hard Hit% to a 34.6% HH%. I have no idea what happened. His plate discipline was worse than ever and some speculated that maybe he had an ongoing wrist injury after getting hit by a pitch in May, but no injury was ever reported.
It’s entirely possible that things just snowballed. Or maybe something was taking place off the field. Sometimes we forget that athletes are human beings and they’re susceptible to the same feelings and emotions as everybody else. Whatever the case, I can’t imagine a guy who had been at least 11% better than league average in each of the last five seasons will be as bad at the plate again.
When handicapping win totals and season-long bets, these are the things you have to examine. Every potential improvement is a positive in the aggregate. Every potential decrease is a negative in the aggregate. Do I think Schwarber hits 46 homers again? No. Do I think Alec Bohm has a better offensive season than last year’s 98 wRC+? His minor league track record suggests it’s a big possibility, especially if he can walk more frequently. Castellanos should be much better. As mentioned, Turner is a huge upgrade over Segura.
Given that Harper’s return will be the biggest July acquisition of them all, I’m expecting another top-10-ish season for the Phillies offense and really look forward to Turner and Harper in the same lineup for the dog days of summer.
Philadelphia Phillies Pitching
The 1-2 punch of Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler returns after racking up 10.4 combined fWAR. The only teammates to exceed that were Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez, though Carlos Rodon and Logan Webb tied it. When you consider that Wheeler only made 26 starts, this could have been the best starter tandem in baseball. Nola actually did lead the NL in fWAR with 6.3 with a 3.25 ERA and a 2.58 FIP over 205 innings of work.
The workhorse right-hander posted a career-best FIP and BB%. He also had his lowest Hard Hit% since 2018 and the best HR/FB% of his career. It was a dominant season for Nola and I would expect his age-30 season to be in line with most of his past seasons. He may not be quite as good, but another low-3s ERA and a FIP around 3.00 seems very plausible. I will say that his fastball command was far and away the best of his career and only one other season (2018) comes close. I do wonder if he has the same success this year with that pitch, but he must have altered something with the grip to throw it at a higher spin rate. He also moved it around the zone better and used the upper part of the zone more.
One last note on Nola is that he is an impending free agent. If the Phillies are out of it, he instantly becomes the best available pitcher on the market (unless the Brewers are shopping Corbin Burnes). It’s also possible that they extend him before the season starts. Wheeler is a free agent after the 2024 season, so it could be an “either or” decision. I would take Nola, personally.
Wheeler, who spent part of the season as the NL Cy Young favorite, has deepened his arsenal with a “sweeper”, which is a growing trend among MLB pitchers and it seems that pitch will be added to PITCHf/x and Statcast moving forward. Wheeler had the second-highest O-Swing% of his career last season with his best F-Strike% and second-best SwStr%. That means hitters chased a lot of pitches, he got ahead in the count a lot with first-pitch strikes and got a good portion of swings and misses. That didn’t translate to as many strikeouts as it probably could have, but it led to a ton of weak contact, as Wheeler ranked in the 94th percentile in average exit velocity against.
Wheeler and Nola should continue to be outstanding pitchers, so it comes down to what happens with the rest of the rotation. Ranger Suarez is a guy I have some concerns about. He’s a low-strikeout guy with a heightened walk rate and a high ground ball rate that lessens the blow of all the balls in play and the walks. However, in a post-shift world, with a fairly suspect defense, I’m worried about what happens with him.
Nearly 58% of the pitches Suarez threw were fastballs or sinkers with a low swing and miss rate. His changeup was a weapon, but his low spin rates don’t encourage me about adding more swing and miss to the repertoire on his other offerings. He did rank in the 73rd percentile in both average exit velo and Hard Hit%, so those were good numbers, but he did allow a good amount of pull-side contact on the ground. He had noticeable platoon splits, as righties hit 13 of the 15 homers he allowed and posted a wOBA that was 95 points higher.
Suarez might have the command to offset the shift ban and some of the red flags I see in his profile, but I think he’s going to have to exceed expectations for the back of this rotation to be any good. Suarez also had some left forearm issues in Spring Training. As much as I’m not sure about him, he’s the guy with the most upside between the top two.
Taijuan Walker’s numbers are better than my opinion of him, but he’s been hurt a ton throughout his career. Last season, he was backed by an outstanding Mets defense and posted a 3.49 ERA with a 3.65 FIP despite a noticeable drop in K%. The chickens came to roost in the second half when Walker posted a 4.80 ERA over 65.2 innings with a .446 SLG against and 11 of the 15 homers he allowed.
Walker bounced back in September, but he goes to a worse park factor as a guy with a career 12.7% HR/FB%, which ranks around league average. I’m also iffy on the health profile, as he hasn’t exceeded 160 MLB innings since 2015. When you put Walker and Suarez in a rotation with Bailey Falter, who hasn’t been a full-time MLB starter and only threw 131 innings between Triple-A and MLB, you really start to get worried.
Perhaps the Phillies have just made some smart adjustments internally. The internal options are thin. One tough blow in Spring Training was the news that 19-year-old flamethrower Andrew Painter tore his UCL and will try rest and recovery before going the surgical route. Maybe Mick Abel makes his debut later this year. I really think the Phillies are low on rotation depth beyond an elite top two.
The bullpen was rebuilt on the fly last season and went from a weakness to a weapon. This season, Seranthony Dominguez and Jose Alvarado still hold down their spots, but the Phillies signed Craig Kimbrel and Matt Strahm, along with a trade for Gregory Soto. This bullpen has a lot more upside at the start of the season than it had last year. Philadelphia was 23rd in reliever ERA, but 12th in FIP last year, which represents a commentary on the defense and also the bad early-season performance.
Ironically, the Phillies had the top pitcher in fWAR and still went just 15-17 in the 32 games started by Nola. To make their playoff appearance even more crazy, how about the fact that they went 14-12 in the 26 games started by Wheeler. Imagine going 29-29 in games started by Nola and Wheeler and being 58-46 in the other games. Part of this certainly has to do with the opposing starters they went up against with their aces. Some of it is also just random.
The Phillies scored four or fewer runs in 22 of Nola’s 32 starts and 19 of Wheeler’s 26 starts. How about another crazy stat? The Phillies lost all nine games against the Mets started by Nola (0-5) or Wheeler (0-4). They were 5-3 against the Braves in those guys’ starts.
Player to Watch
SP Bailey Falter: I was really critical of the Phillies’ rotation beyond Nola and Wheeler, so I wanted to say something positive about Falter. Over his final 45 innings, Falter posted a 3.00 ERA with a spike in K% and a decrease in BB% from what he had done in the first half of the season. We’re talking about small sample sizes here, but the Phillies made some alterations to his arsenal, as they used his curveball more, four-seam fastball more and sinker less. For being 6-foot-4, Falter has 100th percentile extension, so that allows his low-90s fastball to play up. My guess is that we see a spike in curveball usage from Falter this season in hopes of getting more swing and miss and more fastballs up in the zone.
He was pretty dominant in Triple-A over nine starts and had more good outings than bad at the MLB level. I think there’s a little bit of upside with him going into the season.
Philadelphia Phillies Season Win Total Pick
I’ve run a lot of scenarios through my head about how this season might go for the Phillies. That starting rotation is something I just can’t get past. I like the offense, though I’m not terribly fond of the defense. I like the bullpen and I have no reason to believe that Nola and Wheeler aren’t one of the best 1-2 punches in baseball. But, the rest of the rotation does not inspire confidence.
It’s also still so insane to me that the Phillies were a .500 team when Nola/Wheeler started, so they really got fortunate with a lot of other games. Going 16-3 against the Nationals certainly helped, as they were one game under .500 against everybody else. The more I think about the Phillies, the more I want to bet an under. My convictions aren’t fully there as of yet, but it’s one I may add before the season starts.
The margin for error is actually rather thin for this team. They’re already missing Harper until midseason. I’d say 60% of the rotation is in flux. This was already a sub-.500 team against anybody but the Nationals. While they are better with Turner, I’m not sure they’re win 90+ games better. Maybe a lot of the slow start to the season can be pinned on Joe Girardi. His relationship with the team was tenuous at best. They were clearly better with Thomson and with some good moves by Dave Dombrowski. I don’t know that I like this team a ton going into the season, but I have a couple weeks to make a final call.
Stronger Lean: Under 88.5