Three weeks and two days ago, the Philadelphia Phillies played their first game of the season in Cincinnati against the Reds. There have already been a considerable amount of ups and downs throughout the beginning of the season, but the Fightins find themselves at a respectable 9-9 record heading into tonight’s series opener against the Miami Marlins. Philadelphia has won 5 of its last 6 games and is currently one game behind the Fish for second place in the National League East.

There are inevitably going to be obstacles to success during a 162-game season, and the Phillies are certainly not excused from that constant. Four weeks ago, if Pete Mackanin had been told that he would be managing a .500 ball club after 18 games, he might have thought that he’d be fired and hired by another organization.

So what has happened in the past 3 weeks for the Phillies to be in this position? Why aren’t they 0-18, or 18-0? What has been good, bad, and just plain ugly about this year’s Phils?

The Good

Jeremy Hellickson has been about as “good” as he could possibly be through his first 4 starts of the season. His record sits at a perfect 3-0, and the Phillies won the start in which he received a “no decision.” J-Hell’s 1.88 ERA ranks 5th in the National League. His 1.1 WAR is 10th among all major league pitchers. His 0.71 WHIP is tied for second in baseball. Jeremy Hellickson has been one of the most dominant pitchers in the league.

For a more in depth look into Hellickson’s hot start to 2017 and how he fits into the team’s future plans, read this article that investigates if he is a legitimate option going forward. But for now, Jeremy has been the literal definition of “good.”

Cesar Hernandez has been the best hitter in the Phillies lineup since the team’s first at-bat of the season. Against the Reds on April 3, Hernandez crushed a home run to lead off the season in the best way imaginable. He hasn’t cooled off since, either. Cesar leads the Phillies in home runs (4), batting average (.338), on-base percentage (.376), stolen bases (3), hits (27), and slugging percentage (.563). He has been an offensive juggernaut and the team’s most important source of offensive production.

Using “good” to describe Hernandez’s start to the season could be undermining his productivity, but that’s the name of the game, so I’ll stick to it. Cesar was written about in the same series as the Hellickson article, so for more on his fit with the team heading into the future, read the feature on the second baseman.

The Bad

Pete Mackanin is widely considered to have done a decent job during his time as the Phillies’ manager. However, there is one situation that he can not seem to get right: selecting a closer. He originally named Jeanmar Gomez the team’s closing pitcher before spring training even began. But after early season struggles, Gomez was pulled from the role, and Joaquin Benoit was called upon to take over Jeanmar’s role.

Since Benoit’s promotion, Hector Neris leads the team in saves, and Mackanin said that Neris would pitch in a save situation, but he does not want to name one reliever the “closer.”

Pete’s hesitance to name a closer is confusing, but he is in charge, and his decisions must be accepted. Hopefully, at some point, he will definitively name a closing pitcher and all speculation about the role will be put to rest. He may also notice that naming one pitcher the closer will limit the amount of blown saves by the team–a stat which the Phillies are currently tied for the lead in in the National League.

The Phillies do not expect Tommy Joseph to become a superstar in the major leagues. He has some big shoes to fill while taking over for legendary first baseman Ryan Howard, and it has been a priority to not put too much pressure on Joseph to become an all-star. If he could continue to do what he did during his rookie season, then Tommy would lock down a job in Philadelphia. However, he is currently failing the low expectations that were set for him.

Through his first 55 at-bats in 2017, Tommy Joseph is batting .200, has hit one home run, and has tallied one more total base than total strikeouts on the season. Fans are already calling for more opportunities to be given to backup Brock Stassi, and Triple-A star Rhys Hoskins is close to hitting his way to the big leagues. Joseph’s start to 2017 has been rough, and he will have to fix things soon to keep his role.

The Ugly

Maikel Franco’s batting average is .171. Yes, he leads the team in RBI; however, many of his runs batted in have come from outs. It is a positive sign that Franco is putting the ball in play with runners in scoring position, but expectations are high for the Dominican, and he needs to raise his average and on-base percentage to stay in the cleanup spot and be considered a player of the future for the franchise.

It is still early, so there must be a hot streak for Maikel somewhere. He needs to get back on track soon for the sake of his career and the Phillies success. His 16 RBI rank among the leaders in the National League, but the rest of his game are in dire need of improvement.

Vince Velasquez looks like the exact same pitcher as he did during the middle and final parts of last season, and that is not a positive observation. VV was notorious for high pitch counts and short starts throughout the entirety of last season, and after only pitching 15 innings through his first 3 starts of 2017, it is fair to worry that he will be cursed by the issues of the past. His ERA is 7.20, but his stuff suggests that he has the potential to become an ace in the major leagues.

The key to sustaining a low pitch count and lasting deeper into games is composure and control. When Velasquez begins to struggle, he panics and wastes pitches, which leads to a higher pitch count and more runners on base. If Vince can remain calm and focus during rough patches, he will find himself out of his funk and pitching deep into games. But if he can’t focus, then there may be a future in the bullpen for the young right-hander.

His 11.40 K/9 indicates the possibility of a future as a closer. But only time will tell.

Photo by palm_goodness (via Flickr)

Jack Pontin

High School Senior from New Orleans, LA. Contributing Phillies and Sixers articles, as well as game coverages.

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