Four reasons why the Phillies haven't been able to sustain hot start

Cubs, Phillies kick off series on Monday (1:39)

Tim Kurkjian and Eduardo Perez give you a few reasons to watch Jon Lester and the Cubs take on Adam Morgan and the Phillies on Monday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2. (1:39)

Was it really just 16 games ago that those nutty Philadelphia Phillies were the biggest surprise in baseball? Seven games over .500? Owners of a better record than both teams that played in last year’s World Series? Actually tied for first place in the NL East -- well, for a few hours anyway?

Yep, that’s how 2016 started for the Phillies. The same Phillies who were dead last in ESPN’s preseason Power Rankings. The same Phillies who were projected by Baseball Prospectus to have a zero percent chance to win the World Series. The same Phillies who spent spring training denying they were tanking.

Boy, they showed the world, all right. For 41 games. Then, however, the season kept going. And a long-unbeaten force known as gravity took over.

The Phillies, who will host the Chicago Cubs on Monday night (7 ET, ESPN) aren’t that team anymore. Over the last 2½ weeks, they’ve lost 12 of their last 16 games (and eight of their last 10). Instead of seven games over .500, they now find themselves one game under. Instead of fighting for first place, they’re now glugging along in fourth place, six games out.

So what happened? Reality happened. Funny how that works for teams like this.

What has gone on over these last 16 games has nothing to do with their beautiful dreams of a picturesque tomorrow, where Keith Law’s sixth-ranked farm system will some day work its magic. They’re free to keep dreaming. We won’t stop them.

But why couldn’t they sustain the shocking success of the first 41 games? It’s not that complicated, to be honest. In fact, we’re about to rip off four quick reasons that it was never sustainable, unless the craziest, most illogical winning season in history was about to break out:

1. The 500 club

For a month and a half, they won with pitching. And there’s a lot to like there. They also won with energy. Which always beats the alternative. But face it. The whole run-scoring aspect of baseball isn’t exactly this team’s specialty. And let’s just say that’s getting more and more noticeable.

Four teams in baseball have already outscored the Phillies by more than 100 runs. The Red Sox have outscored them by more than 150. Pretty incredible. But that’s because, until they busted out with 17 runs over the last three games against the Brewers, the Phillies were barely on pace to score 500 runs this season -- and would still wind up with just 523 at this rate. Now let’s put that in perspective.

The 2009 Phillies scored their 523rd run the week after the All-Star break. The 1950 Red Sox scored that many runs before they even popped the fireworks on the Fourth of July. So from the get-go, the 2016 Phillies were so offensively challenged, they were going to have to break the mold of what the lineup of a contender looks like.

For one thing, no team has ever scored so few runs over a full season and made the postseason. The fewest in a 162-game season is 583, by Tim McCarver’s 1968 Cardinals. The fewest since they lowered the mound the next year is 608, by Felix Millan’s 1973 Mets.

But let’s take October out of the equation. It’s almost impossible even to have a winning record when you spend this much time forgetting to score. Since the mound was lowered, no team with a winning record has scored fewer than 570.

So the moral of this story is: You need to score to win. We’re pretty sure Wee Willie Keeler said that once.

2. The final four

In a related development, here is maybe the most mind-boggling Phillies stat ever. How many times would you guess this offense has scored four runs in an inning this season?

Five? Six? Ten? Twelve?

OK, here’s the correct answer: none.

Yeah, you read that right. It took 57 games and 504 innings this season before the Phillies finally put together a rally of more than three runs in any inning.

The Cubs, Red Sox and Mariners have done it 18 times apiece. The Phillies have done it zero times.

Back in their glory days, the 2008 World Series champs had 38 innings of four or more runs. The 2009 team that went back to the World Series had 51. And this team has had zilch.

So how many teams in history have ever gone 56 games into a season without a single four-run inning? That would be none, the Elias Sports Bureau reports. The deepest any team had gone before this team came along was 48, by Bill Bergen’s 1908 Brooklyn Superbas. That team lost 101 games by the way.

3. Differential treatment

But the offensive output wasn’t the only Phillies stat that didn’t compute after 41 games. There was also this: Despite allowing 28 more runs than they scored, the Phillies held a 24-17 record.

Now if you’re into math, the computers tell us that a team with a minus-28 run differential through 41 games ought to have an expected record of 17-24. So if the Phillies had played the way the metrics indicated they should have played, they actually should have been tied for the fourth-worst record in baseball.

Instead, they had the sixth-best record in baseball. The only teams in either league that had won more games than they’d won were the Cubs (who were plus-108) and the Red Sox (who were plus-57). Crazy.

So what precedent was previously set for a team to be pulling off anything close to this Houdini act? There was none. Of course. These Phillies were the first team in the history of baseball to have a run differential of minus-28 or worse after 41 games -- and a record of seven games over .500 or better, according to Elias.

Yes, we understand that humans play the games, not computers. So all those wins counted. They just meant you didn’t need a fortune teller to know that more good times almost certainly were not ahead.

4. Three and out

Finally, we can look back at those first 41 games and find one more thing that clearly wasn’t sustainable. And that was the way this team was winning.

No other team in baseball has played more games this season in which it has scored three runs or fewer. The Phillies have done it 35 times. But that’s not the amazing part. The amazing part is that, for the first month and a half of the season, they were actually winning when they did that. Day after day. Game after game. Week after week. Trust us. It’s hard to do.

Here’s what normally happens, even to good teams, when they score three runs or fewer: The Cubs, Red Sox, Indians, Pirates and Cardinals have scored three or fewer a combined 91 times this season. Want to know what their record is in those games? How about 9-82. That computes to a .099 winning percentage. Now remember, a team that played .099 baseball over 162 games would win 16 games all season. So ... get the idea?

But the 2016 Phillies never got that memo. The first three times they scored fewer than four times, they went 0-3. But then ... they won 12 of the next 21 times they did that. That’s a .571 winning percentage. So for the season at that point, they were 12-12. And how many teams in the live-ball era have ever won as many of those games as they lost over an entire season? That answer would be -- what else? -- zero.

So is it a surprise that they’ve now lost 11 times in a row when scoring three or fewer? No. “Surprise” wouldn’t be the word. Once again, “reality” would be the word. And when baseball teams go mano a mano with reality, over a six-month season, you know what happens? Sure you do. Reality has an even better record than the Cubs. That’s what.