The first managerial scapegoat was sacrificed last week when the Philadelphia Phillies cut ties with manager Joe Girardi, placing upon him blame for at least some of the team’s failures to date.
Philadelphia was one of the biggest underachievers at the time of the firing, sitting seven games under .500 (22-29) despite a plus-one run differential. The Phillies responded by sweeping the slumping Los Angeles Angels over the weekend.
The Angels then made their own move Tuesday, releasing manager Joe Maddon after 12 straight defeats following a 27-17 start.
Can the Phillies or Angels reverse their fortunes? Will other clubs that have fallen short of or exceeded preseason expectations continue on those paths?
Some of the teams expected to improve the most over the rest of the season, according to FanGraphs’ rest-of-season forecasts, are ones that started terribly, such as the Kansas City Royals, Cincinnati Reds, and Washington Nationals. Any modest improvement won’t put them in postseason contention. Other teams such as the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, and New York Mets have played exceptionally well and will likely suffer some regression the rest of the way. Even so, FanGraphs has them all winning at least 96 games.
In this piece, we’ll focus on teams that were expected to compete for a playoff spot and whose performance the rest of the way will make or break those hopes.
FanGraphs expects the Phillies to perform better over the remainder of the season regardless of who sits in the manager’s office, predicting at the time of the firing for Philadelphia to finish 81-81. At that point, only the Phillies, Atlanta Braves, and Boston Red Sox were projected to enjoy winning-percentage boosts of 50 or more points the rest of the way and finish with non-losing seasons. But such an improvement may not be enough for a playoff berth.
Phillies general manager Dave Dombrowski built a curious roster this winter, one overloaded with should-be DHs, especially after adding free agents Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos. Bryce Harper’s elbow injury exacerbated the issue, and both Schwarber and Castellanos are being forced to play in the field.
The Phillies rank last in the major leagues in defensive runs saved by right fielders (minus-12), are below average in left (minus-2), and rank 29th in DRS at third (minus-9) where Alec Bohm is struggling. They are one of the poorest defensive teams in the majors, ranked last with minus-29 DRS. The Phillies also have endured much volatility in bullpen performance.
In short, Philadelphia is a flawed team and will really have to hit. The Phillies are only a slightly above-average offensive club at the moment (102 wRC+). As constructed, they’re no better than a .500 ball club, with or without Girardi.
The Red Sox can challenge the Phillies for the status of unluckiest team to date, being two games over .500 despite a plus-40 run differential. They own a rapidly improving 52% playoff chance, projecting to finish 85-77. That’s was likely to be right on the bubble in the first year of the expanded playoffs with three wild-card berths, but Boston’s six-game winning streak and the Angels’ recent collapse has made 85 wins look a lot stronger.
Complicating matters is Boston’s uneven bullpen. They likely need to upgrade the unit to push into October, though John Schreiber might be emerging as an answer with swing-and-miss stuff and good command coming out of an unusual delivery.
The other big issue for the Red Sox is the schedule: They are in line to play the second-toughest schedule in the majors the rest of the way.
The good news?
Chris Sale is getting closer to a return. He’s set to throw live batting practice this week. The Red Sox can also still really hit, having scored the fifth-most runs in the major leagues, and they might have found another regular bat in Franchy Cordero who owns a rare blend of raw power and speed. He’s cut his strikeout rate by 12.7 percentage points this year, the best such improvement in the majors.
The Red Sox have been unlucky to date but will need health and bullpen improvement to grab a wild-card spot.
The defending World Series champions got off to a slow start and were without Ronald Acuna Jr. until late April as he worked his way back from a torn ACL suffered last July.
FanGraphs expects the Braves to go on a tear over the final four months, finishing 60-46, which would put them squarely in a playoff position with 89 wins. It’s going to be tough to track down the New York Mets for the NL East, especially after Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, and Tylor Megill return to the Mets’ rotation, but the Braves are good bets to play better, as they did last year in the second half.
The Braves are relatively healthy now as outfielder Eddie Rosario and starting pitcher Mike Soroka are the only regulars on the IL.
The Rays are doing what the Rays typically do: exceeding expectations and getting more production out of their roster than name value would suggest.
But FanGraphs is suspicious of baseball’s regularly successful underdogs. The site forecasts significant regression and has the Rays being 60 points worse the rest of the way, That would place them at 88 wins, more than likely good enough for a wild-card berth.
Every win matters for clubs like the Rays, Red Sox, Angels, Minnesota Twins, Angels, and Chicago White Sox. The Rays can foresee help from two of the top internal reinforcements among contending clubs: Shane Baz is expected to rejoin the rotation soon, and second baseman Brandon Lowe will also return at some point.
The Twins, after sprinting to a 32-24 start, are projected to play .493 baseball the rest of the way. They’ll be challenged to hold off the preseason AL Central favorite White Sox, who are forecasted to play better the rest of the way and have the most favorable remaining schedule in the majors.
The Twins have some injury issues. Bailey Ober, expected to be a rotation staple, landed on the IL for the second time this season Monday because of a groin injury, leaving the club with three healthy starting pitchers. Emerging staff ace Joe Ryan is on the COVID-19 IL, though he should return soon. Dylan Bundy’s ERA is nearly 6.00.
Minnesota’s fortunes are also likely tied to the uber-talented but often injured Byron Buxton remaining healthy for most of the season.
The Twins are talented and have promising young position players like Trevor Larnach and Jose Miranda who possess second-half upside. But their starting rotation depth and general health questions mean the division is up in the air. And, remember, the weakest division winner is also no longer guaranteed a bye in the wild-card round. The AL Central could be an extremely close race.
Travis Sawchik is theScore’s senior baseball writer.