6 Phillies Who Took Big Steps Backward in the First Half

We took a look Monday at the four Phillies who made major strides in the first half - Aaron Altherr's shorter swing has led to more consistency; Aaron Nola looks the best he ever has; Nick Pivetta has shown he's a major-league starting pitcher, and Luis Garcia finally has his control under control.

Unfortunately for the Phils, and this is obviously the case for a 29-58 team, there were more negatives than positives in the first half.

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Today, we take a look at who took steps backward in the first half.

CF Odubel Herrera
Defensively, Herrera has only gotten better. Offensively, he has not been close to the guy we saw the last two seasons. 

Herrera entered the All-Star break hitting .256 with a .292 on-base percentage. In 2015 and '16, he hit .291 with a .353 OBP.

In 84 games, Herrera has 16 walks and 84 strikeouts. He had 23 walks last April alone.

If you remove last April from the equation, though, Herrera has 56 walks in his last 898 plate appearances. That's a 6.2 percent walk rate. The league average this season is 8.6 percent. So if you've thought over the last calendar year that Herrera's selectivity at the plate has been below-average, you'd be right.

This was not the first half the Phillies wanted to see from Herrera after guaranteeing him $30.5 million over the offseason. Beyond the offensive numbers, he also made baserunning blunders, flipped the bat in non-bat-flip situations, and expanded the strike zone with regularity.

Herrera can still hit and cover much of the plate. But a lot of times it looks almost as if he steps to the plate already having decided whether he'll swing at the next pitch regardless of where it goes. Until he gets back to taking bad pitches and fouling off good ones, he's not going to improve.

Herrera has been batting sixth or seventh a lot lately. Even in a down year, he should be batting closer to the top of the order because of his importance to this team's future. The difference in batting 1 or 2 vs. 6 or 7 is about 100 plate appearances over a full season. Don't you want your young, important guys getting as many reps as possible?

It's not an open-and-shut case for Pete Mackanin, who moved Herrera down because he was tired of seeing him get himself out.

3B Maikel Franco
Franco and Herrera, thought to be two of the Phillies' young building blocks, entered the break with a combined on-base percentage of .283. 

That number alone expresses how poor a first half both players had. If two of your top guys post that low an OBP over more than one-half of a season, you're in for a world of hurt. 

Franco hit .217 in 83 games with 14 doubles, 13 homers and 45 RBIs. He actually walked nine times more than Herrera.

But much of that run production came in the first three weeks of the season. Franco hit two grand slams and drove in 20 runs in his first 19 games. He's driven in 25 runs in his last 64.

Franco has been brutal with runners in scoring position, hitting .195 with just five extra-base hits in 95 plate appearances. With a runner on third and less than two outs, he's 2 for 20.

It's not hard to figure out why. Franco, like Herrera, has a habit of expanding the strike zone and getting himself out. There are plenty of holes in Franco's swing. Why any pitcher would ever throw him a middle-in fastball is beyond me, because it's so easy to get him to roll over on an outside fastball or get him to swing over a low-and-away slider.

He still has impressive raw power, and when a pitch is in his swing path he's capable of hitting it out of the ballpark. But there's so much more that goes into being a productive middle-of-the-order hitter. Franco, who turns 25 on Aug. 26, hasn't yet been able to learn and incorporate those finer points. 

The Phillies like to describe guys like Howie Kendrick and Daniel Nava as "hitters," a simplified way of saying "these guys go up to the plate with a plan in place and an ability to adapt."

Franco is not that now, and it's not too early to question whether he'll ever grow into it. He's now reached 1,370 big-league plate appearances and hit .248 with a .302 OBP. Even if you're hitting 25 to 30 homers per year, that doesn't cancel out a batting average and OBP so low and a double play total so high. Franco has grounded into 17 double plays, most in the majors, many of them a result of his trying to pull outside pitches.

Franco is not being shopped by the Phillies but they will listen to trade offers and could act if an intriguing offer materializes. No team ever wants to sell low on a player, but if the Phillies trade Franco, they'd be doing it under the assumption that this is who he is and will be long-term.

C Cameron Rupp
Rupp had a couple good games heading into the All-Star break, going 4 for 7 with a homer in the Padres series. But through 197 plate appearances, his batting average is 32 points lower than it was last season and his OPS is 70 points lower.

Rupp last season hit .252/.303/.447 with 26 doubles and 16 homers. He's not an above-average defender behind the plate, so he needs to earn his playing time by hitting for power. Last season, he did. This season - during which he's hit .220/.310/.370 with eight doubles and six homers - he hasn't.

Rupp's prolonged slump coupled with Andrew Knapp's decent on-base percentage (.355) has resulted in more playing time for Knapp. Since June 1, Knapp has 75 plate appearances and Rupp has 64.

The Phillies will have to decide this winter or early next spring which catcher is the odd-man out. Jorge Alfaro will be up in the bigs next season, and at this point it looks more like he'll be sharing catching duties with Knapp than Rupp.

Closer Hector Neris
Neris owns the third-best ERA on the Phillies' pitching staff at 3.52, but he hasn't been the dominant force he was much of last season.

Neris in 2016: 2.58 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings, opponents hit .202

Neris in 2017: 3.52 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings, opponents hit .236

Neris had the feel and command of his splitter practically all of last season. This season, it's come and gone, and the success of a few outings hasn't gotten him into an extended groove.

The Neris game everyone will remember is the April 29, back-to-back-to-back home run game in Los Angeles. He followed that by allowing one run in 11⅔ in May. But since then, he's been scored upon in six of 14 appearances.

Neris has not adjusted well to the closer's role and there are now questions whether he can fill it long-term. He's still a valuable piece to have in the bullpen but he might be most successful as a team's second- or third-best reliever.

RHP Jerad Eickhoff
Eickhoff finally earned his first victory of 2017 in the final game before the All-Star break. In his return from a DL stint caused by an upper back strain, Eickhoff pitched five shutout innings and struck out eight Padres.

Like Neris, Eickhoff this season has not had consistently great command of his best pitch. Eickhoff's curveball has been there at times but not in all 15 starts, and as a result he's 1-7 with a 4.63 ERA and .280 opponents' batting average.

The second half for Eickhoff is crucial. The Phillies would love to see him revert back to his 2016 form, when he was stingy with walks and effectively throwing three different pitches (fastball, curveball, slider).

I'm more confident with Eickhoff than the others listed above that his first half was merely a blip on the radar. Long-term, he still projects as a No. 3 or No. 4 NL starter.

RHP Jake Thompson
Thompson pitched three games in relief for the Phillies in early May and allowed five runs in five innings. In 16 starts with Triple A Lehigh Valley, he's 3-10 with a 5.79 ERA and 1.60 WHIP. He's allowed 101 hits in 82⅓ innings.

It's tough at this point to have faith that Thompson will be an effective major-league starting pitcher. His repertoire just hasn't looked enough - the fastball has looked average, as has the breaking ball, there isn't much deception in his delivery, and his control has been erratic. 

Thompson was so good last season as Triple A (11-5, 2.50 ERA in 21 starts) because he limited walks and induced a lot of double plays. That hasn't been the case this season. He's already nearly matched his 2016 walk total, and he's induced six double plays compared to 32 last season.

Thompson has fallen behind Nick Pivetta and Ben Lively on the Phillies' organizational depth chart and may be behind Tom Eshelman by the end of the season if things don't turn around.

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