Back on March 31, I wrote a fateful post entitled, "Why the Phillies won't make the playoffs."
And, yes, a certain group of fans have not let me forget about it. Nick Pietruszkiewicz, one of the baseball editors here, warned me; he gave me a chance to change my stance. I was stubborn. I should have listened.
So I'm here to apologize, to face the Phillies' faithful, to admit I was wrong and that I hope the ESPN cafeteria has crow on the menu today. Because I need a big, fat serving of it.
In my original post, I explained why I had the Phillies winning 90 games, losing the NL East to the Braves and the wild-card race to the Rockies and Giants. Where did I go wrong? (Besides thinking the Rockies were a good team?) The Phillies are on pace to win 105 games, which to be fair not only exceeded my expectations but those of nearly everyone outside the greater Philadelphia metropolitan area. The Vegas over/under line on the Phillies was 96.5 wins. At the start of the season, I asked the SweetSpot bloggers to predict if the Phillies would achieve the over or under on 96.5 wins; all 10 predicted the under. Baseball Prospectus projected the Phillies to win 91 games.
Still, I was off by 15 wins, although I did also write this: "Now, look ... there is a more optimistic view here: (Ryan) Howard could be better, (Jimmy) Rollins could turn back the clock and hit better, even (Roy) Halladay could be more dominating. (Joe) Blanton could be inspired by rotation-mania and have a career year. Maybe the bullpen will be fine. (Chase) Utley returns sooner than expected and plays great. It could be a 105-win team, maybe a 110-win team in a dream scenario."
So why will they win 100-plus games instead of 90? Here's what happened:
At the start of the season, it was believed Chase Utley would be out until after the All-Star break; instead, he returned May 23, so that was two months of a good player instead of two more months of Wilson Valdez.
Shane Victorino has had the best season of his career, with an OPS 122 points higher than 2010.
Cole Hamels entered 2011 with a career ERA of 3.53. He did have a 3.06 ERA in 2010, but he's been even better in 2011: He's pitched deeper into games, his home runs allowed have dropped from 26 to 15 (in just nine fewer innings so far), and his opponents' on-base percentage fell from .299 to .258.
Joe Blanton got injured ... but Vance Worley stepped in and the Phillies won his first 14 starts. Nobody could have expected that, not even Vance Worley's mother. Kyle Kendrick, much-maligned even by Phillies fans, has a solid 3.50 ERA in his 13 starts.
Hunter Pence provided a huge midseason boost to the offense, hitting .323/.394/.563. You can argue that I should have accounted for a trade, but he has also hit better than he ever did with the Astros.
The bullpen has been much better than expected, posting a 3.40 ERA, more than a half-run better than last season's 4.02. Ryan Madson has been terrific as closer, which isn't necessarily a big surprise, but Antonio Bastardo turned into one of the best-setup men in the league, holding hitters to a .119 batting average. That's the lowest ever for a pitcher with at least 50 innings. So, no, I didn't quite expect that. The Phillies are 74-5 when leading after seven innings and 81-3 when leading after eight.
Cliff Lee has been great. But six shutouts? That's sick. He had five career entering the season.
The rest of the National League turned out to be less competitive than I anticipated. Maybe this is a lame excuse, but I think it's defensible. Just look at the NL East: the Mets had a rash of injuries to several of their best players; the Marlins had major injuries to their two best players, Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson; Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals' best player, missed nearly 50 games, and Jayson Werth had a disappointing season.
The Phillies, meanwhile, have had a few dents and dings -- but that stuff should be expected from a lineup full of 30-somethings. For the most part, most of the players performed as expected -- Ryan Howard continued his decline, Raul Ibanez was worse, Carlos Ruiz couldn't match his superb 2010, Jimmy Rollins was better than 2010. Blanton was the only major injury, and the guy who stepped in was unbelievable. Roy Oswalt is really the only guy who wasn't as good as projected.
In the end, any team will have a wide range for a likely finish. I took the low end, and was wrong. Congrats to the Phillies for a terrific, fun, dominant season. They'll enter the playoffs as the World Series favorite and will try to break an odd trend: the team with the best record in the National League hasn't won a World Series since the 1995 Atlanta Braves. And the National League team with the best overall record in the majors hasn't won the World Series since the 1986 New York Mets.