The baseball season is a marathon, and the Phillies have covered only a little more than 6.55 miles of ground. Is it too early to tell anything? Is it too soon to declare manager Gabe Kapler's team a contender?
We knew a few things coming into the season.
- The Phillies are young. In fact, according to ESPN.com's roster analysis of every team, they entered this season as the youngest team in baseball.
- The Phillies would be better. They finished with the third-worst record in baseball last season and added two of the best free agents available in pitcher Jake Arrieta and first baseman Carlos Santana, so that was a given.
- The first quarter of the season provided a favorable schedule that could allow a young team to build confidence. The Phillies passed that test by pushing their record to nine games above .500 for the first time since the 2011 season with Thursday's win over St. Louis.
As general manager Matt Klentak discussed the Phillies' work through the first quarter of the season Tuesday night in Baltimore, he sounded like a driver doing what he's supposed to do at a yellow light.
"All we can do right now is evaluate what we've done so far," Klentak told reporters. "I'll take you back to the way I answered a similar question in spring training. I think the success of this team is going to be determined by the development of our young players. What I said in spring training was that if some of our young players take meaningful steps forward, this team can be pretty good. And if some of them regress or are injured, then we may not be quite as good. And with so many young players on this team, that's a hard thing to project."
Fair enough, but one-quarter of the season is a good amount of time and there are some things that are clear now. With the addition of Santana and with Rhys Hoskins in the lineup from the start, the Phillies figured to be a more selective team with an improved on-base percentage.
Even with Santana struggling through the first month of the season, the Phillies still ranked third in baseball in walks per game entering Friday's game at St. Louis, and their .331 on-base percentage was sixth in baseball and fourth in the National League. It was also 16 points higher than the .315 on-base percentage they posted last season, which was their best mark since 2011. No team in the National League has improved by a greater margin.
Three big reasons for the elevated on-base percentage are Odubel Herrera (his .431 on-base percentage is first among National League centerfielders); Hoskins (his .401 OBP ranks first among NL leftfielders); and Cesar Hernandez (his .384 OBP is first among NL second basemen). All three hitters are quite capable of remaining in those top spots and it would be surprising if Santana's .309 on-base percentage does not rise considerably before the end of the season.
The math here is simple: More men on base equals more scoring opportunities and more runs. The Phillies are fourth in the league in runs scored per game at 4.73 and that's as a team that has not hit for much power this season. Add Baltimore's Manny Machado to this mix now, and the Phillies would have an offense capable of winning the World Series.
As for pitching, the Phillies ranked third in baseball through Thursday with a 3.34 ERA, and the duo of Aaron Nola (1.99 ERA) and Jake Arrieta (2.59 ERA) is the big reason. Is there any reason not to believe those two will remain among the best starting pitchers in baseball? Lately, of course, Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, and Zach Eflin have provided even more hope for the rotation. They all have the stuff to be talented big-league pitchers, but that's not always enough.
The bullpen, despite Hector Neris' blown saves, ranks seventh in baseball and fourth in the National League with a 3.37 ERA. With Seranthony Dominquez, Edubray Ramos, and Luis Garcia, the pen features some of the best power arms this organization has ever had.
Look at triple-A Lehigh Valley and you'll see that the Phillies also appear to have pitching depth. Enyel De Los Santos (4-1, 1.41) and lefthander Cole Irvin (3-0, 2.00 in his last four starts) appear to be capable starters, and Mark Leiter Jr. was an unfortunate victim of a numbers game when he returned from the disabled list earlier this week. He has proven capable of pitching in the big leagues. IronPigs lefty Brandon Leibrandt has not allowed a run in 24 innings and is back pitching in relief after making three starts.
"What we have seen through the first 40 games or so is that we have had some players take big steps forward," Klentak said. "Not all of them — we haven't batted 1.000. But Odubel's batting .360, [Jorge] Alfaro's developed into a real presence behind the plate, Pivetta and Velasquez have demonstrated that their performance can match their stuff, and our bullpen has really been solid one through eight. If we continue to get those kinds of contributions, I would expect that we'll remain competitive."