Major League Baseball franchises have gotten smart enough in the past 20 years that it’s now quite difficult for a team to moneyball its way to success. Every team is trying to do that, and the sport has been so thoroughly spreadsheeted that it takes real genius to find a competitive edge year after year. The Houston Astros seem like they’ve pulled it off, though, even in the few years since MLB forced them to stop banging trash cans and threw out the general manager and coach who had run the team. They have become World Series regulars by identifying an approach that works for them—prioritizing contact at the plate, shifting teams into oblivion in the field, and getting lots of strikeouts—and making it work time and again. It’s worked so well that they haven’t hesitated to let stars walk out the door in free agency, and they haven’t yet paid for it, either. No Gerrit Cole, Carlos Correa, or George Springer? Fine. The Astros keep one of the league’s bigger payrolls anyway, but they believe in their plan and follow it.
But sometimes, you may not be interested in a team that’s so obsessed with outsmarting everyone else. Sometimes, you may want something more old-fashioned: a team that’s been bad for a long time and has passionate fans lusting for recently elusive October success. A team that pursues that goal in the simplest way possible: by paying a bunch of money for a guy who hits a bunch of home runs, and surrounding him with a lineup that is fundamentally geared toward the same end of launching as many nukes into the outfield heavens as possible. You want a team unconcerned with concepts like “playing sound defense” or “showing discipline at the plate.” You just want taters. You crave a team that will ride lightning bats to the World Series while lighting a flame under a great sports city as cigars hang out of their mouths. If a team like this one suits your taste profile, then you want the 2022 Philadelphia Phillies.
The Phillies are heavy underdogs in this World Series against the Astros. It might be more likely for the Astros to sweep them and finish off an 11–0 postseason than for the Phillies to find four wins in seven games. Houston has a juggernaut, with five bona fide stars in the lineup, three more in the starting rotation, and a dominant bullpen. They are masters of defensive positioning to help those pitchers. They draw walks, rarely strike out, and are close enough to a perfect baseball team. They won 106 games. The Phillies won 87 and wouldn’t have made the postseason at all if it hadn’t expanded before the season. They have two frontline starting pitchers and a pretty good bullpen. They have a couple of star or star-adjacent hitters, but the best of them, Bryce Harper, wasn’t even having much of a season until recently. (Now he very much is.) The Phillies are the big-league equivalent of an elite beer-league team with a few ringers dragging along everybody else. They love the longball, aren’t that interested in fielding, and have an incredible time with their friends. That they are in the World Series is awesome.
That the Phillies are overmatched on paper might not kill them. The playoffs are not the full-on crapshoot that some people pretend they are, but they’re short enough and variable enough that a pretty good team like the Phillies might be able to find four wins up their sleeve against a superior Houston team. If it happens, the Phillies will get the Astros the same way they got the St. Louis Cardinals, the 101-win Atlanta Braves, and the San Diego Padres: They’ll hit a lot of home runs, and they’ll get big pitching performances from their staff horses, Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola. The Phillies have hit 16 homers and slugged .442 to lead the playoffs, following a regular season in which they were sixth in both. Wheeler and Nola have started seven of the team’s 11 postseason games and posted ERAs of 1.78 and 3.12 while striking out about a batter per inning. Homers and two staff aces: That is the simple, effective formula.
To say that the Phillies hit a lot of home runs doesn’t quite capture their essence, though. They hit home runs in a particularly fun way. Kyle Schwarber, who hit 46 in the regular season, has hit three more in the playoffs at an average of 441 feet. The biggest was this mammoth 488-footer in San Diego, which reached the second deck of one of the league’s ultimate pitcher’s parks:
It was huge, but it probably wasn’t even in the top two of the most memorable Phillie homers of the playoffs’ first three rounds. That is because the Phillies’ postseason also included this bat slam by first baseman Rhys Hoskins while the Phillies were taking care of the Braves …
… and, more pressingly, the two-run Harper home run that put the Padres to bed in the NLCS:
The real joy in the Phillies’ avalanche of dingers is not in the quantity, but in the distance, the emotion, and the flair for the dramatic. The most suspenseful of all was that last one by Harper, his fifth of what’s been a historic playoff run. Harper is hitting .419/.493/.907 (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage) in the postseason, one of the handful of best performances by any hitter since MLB first had wild cards in the playoffs in 1995.
Harper was one of the biggest signings in baseball history when the Phillies brought him on in free agency in 2019 for 13 years and $330 million. What he’s doing now is what delivering looks like. The same is true of Wheeler, who signed for five years and $118 million before 2020. There is something satisfying about an old-fashioned exchange of goods and services, and the Phillies are a good example of how the easiest way to get great players is just to pay premium rates for them. (Their baseball operations president, Dave Dombrowski, had a reputation for successful high-dollar acquisitions during his stints with the Florida Marlins, Detroit Tigers, and Boston Red Sox. But funnily enough, he arrived after Harper and Wheeler.)
Part of what is refreshing about the Phillies is that they feel a little bit old-school in their underdog-ishness. They don’t have a murderer’s row up and down their lineup, but Harper, Hoskins, and Schwarber make up for a lot of that by hitting for power. Catcher J.T. Realmuto was one of the best players in baseball this season, and together, those four cover up a lot of deficiencies. They don’t have much of a bottom of the order. They don’t have much starting pitching beyond Nola and Wheeler, though No. 3 starter Ranger Suárez has given them good mileage. While the Astros’ defenders were fifth in MLB in Defensive Runs Saved (mostly due to smart positioning), the Phillies’ fielders were sixth worst. That’s enough problems that the Phillies were not many people’s bet to get this far. But it turns out that the longball can take a team a long way—maybe, in the Phillies’ case, even farther than 488 feet.