Score one for the schedule-maker. The Phillies were conveniently idle Thursday, their penultimate day off in the regular season, and the respite from the playoff race enabled local fans to kick back, relax, and bask in the Eagles' banner-raising season opener at Lincoln Financial Field. Now, though, it's back to the grind. Beginning tonight in New York, the Phillies will play 23 games in 24 days. And at the end of that stretch, they will either continue their season in the playoffs for the first time since 2011 or head home after a near-miss. Are you ready for some drama? Buckle up.
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Pitchers rarely win MVP awards. According to Justin Verlander, there's a good reason for that.
"Having the chance to play in 160-some games, [position players] can have a huge impact every day," Verlander said in 2011 after being crowned American League MVP. "That's why I've talked about, on a pitcher's day, the impact we have is tremendous on that game. So you have to have a great impact almost every time out to supersede it, and it happens on rare occasions."
It happened in 2014, when Clayton Kershaw went 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA and 239 strikeouts and edged out Giancarlo Stanton as National League MVP. Before that, it hadn't happened in the NL since 1968 (Bob Gibson). It's been slightly more common in the AL over the past 50 years, with Verlander, Dennis Eckersley (1992), Roger Clemens (1986), Willie Hernandez (1984), Rollie Fingers (1981), Vida Blue (1971) and Denny McLain (1968) each copping MVP honors.
Aaron Nola probably won't join that list. But if the Phillies make the playoffs, he will merit at least some consideration.
The Phillies are trying to become the first NL team ever to reach the postseason despite a sub-.240 batting average (they are at .237, third-lowest total in the league). That they are even in contention is a testament to their pitching, specifically the starting rotation, and Nola is their undisputed ace.
In 28 starts entering tonight's game against the Mets, Nola is 15-4 with a 2.23 ERA and 188 strikeouts in a career-high 181 2/3 innings. He also leads all pitchers with 9.2 Wins Above Replacement, a metric recognized as a measure of a player's overall value to his team. The Phillies are 19-9 in Nola's starts. Nola is 7-1 in 11 starts after a Phillies loss.
"It has seemed like in the biggest games with the brightest lights against the toughest opponents — and I'm thinking about Fenway [Park in late July]; I'm thinking about the starts against [the Nationals' Max] Scherzer — he just elevates his game," Kapler said. "He becomes a more special version of an elite pitcher."
A handful of everyday players are NL MVP candidates, including Colorado's Nolan Arenado, Atlanta's Freddie Freeman, Milwaukee's Christian Yelich, St. Louis' Matt Carpenter and the Cubs' Javier Baez. Nola isn't even considered the Cy Young favorite. Scherzer, the two-time defending winner, is having his best season yet for Washington, and Jacob deGrom will take a 1.68 ERA to the mound Sunday for the New York Mets against the Phillies.
Does Nola belong in the MVP conversation even if he doesn't win the Cy Young?
"I think that's a much better question for the end of September," Kapler said. "There's a good portion of the season yet to go. But he's been as valuable as anybody else, let's put it like that."
It's not a coincidence that the Phillies are 10-18 during a 28-game stretch in which Rhys Hoskins is batting .180 with a .640 OPS. A Hoskins hot streak could be just what the Phillies' slumbering offense needs to get over the hump and into the playoffs.
Turns out, the schedule worked out for Mike Trout, too. The Angels were off Thursday, so the Eagles superfan — who doubles as the best baseball player in the world — flew home for one night to check out the game and give his best to Carson Wentz.
The Braves won their series opener in Arizona, but not before they blew another ninth-inning lead, as you can read about here in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. They have a 3 1/2-game lead in the NL East.
Tonight: Aaron Nola Day! Phillies ace starts opener at Mets, 7:10 p.m.
Tomorrow: Phillies face hard-throwing Noah Syndergaard, 7:10 p.m.
Sunday: Jacob deGrom Day! Mets' Cy Young hopeful starts finale vs. Phillies, 1:10 p.m.
Monday: Phillies return home to face the Nationals, 7:05 p.m.
How fast is Phillies rookie outfielder Roman Quinn? Blink and you might miss him. But don't believe only your eyes. One of the newer metrics — sprint speed — reveals that Quinn is one of the fleetest runners in all of baseball.
Quinn is tied for the seventh-fastest sprint speed at 30.0 feet per second, according to Statcast. The major-league average is 27 feet per second. The only players who rank ahead of Quinn are Minnesota's Byron Buxton (30.5), Miami's Magneuris Sierra (30.1), the White Sox's Adam Engel (30.1), Cincinnati's Billy Hamilton (30.1), St. Louis' Harrison Bader (30.1), and Washington's Trea Turner (30.1).
Question: Love the newsletter! Here's my question: Has Kapler regressed as a manager? He had a bumpy road in his first week but seemed to adjust and trust his instincts. Lately it seems as if he's strictly using analytics by mixing the lineup every game. In the postgame, [TV analyst Ricky] Bottalico stated it also looks as if he doesn't trust his offense by pulling [Nick] Pivetta after four innings on Wednesday night when he was pitching well. What's going on? I'm afraid they are trusting analytics too much and not using enough of baseball instincts. Can the season be salvaged at this point? –Mike B., via e-mail
Answer: Glad you're enjoying Extra Innings, Mike, and thank you for the question. I do think Kapler learned early in the season that analytics aren't everything. Like it or not, though, he's always going to be influenced by the numbers. It's who he is. And it will certainly raise eyebrows from time to time.
That said, the daily shuffling of the batting order is merely Kapler trying to find lineup combinations — often based on matchups against an opposing starter — that will spur offense at a time when the Phillies are struggling to score runs. Old-school managers who aren't as analytically inclined would surely be doing the same thing.
As for the Pivetta move, the Phillies were trailing by two runs after the fourth inning. With an expanded bench, Kapler needed to utilize every available pinch-hitter in the hope that one of them might be able to drive the ball. And with an off day Thursday, he wasn't afraid to burn through his bullpen, either. Kapler often manages by analytics, but in this case, he was using common sense.