FiveThirtyEight: The Philadelphia Phillies wanted to be Houston Astros. Now they’ll have to beat them for a World Series.

PHILADELPHIA– As hard as it might be to recall now that the Houston Astros were on their way to their fourth World Series in six seasons, the franchise was once known for its ability to take losses through its own hands. As part of a radical recovery plan, from 2011-13 Houston became only the seventh team since 1901 to rack up at least 320 casualties over a three-year period. Such a thorough tanking performance, one of the first of its kind in the current era, proved a surprisingly predictable start to a streak of dominance that led to a championship in 2017 and continues to this day.

As the Astros executed their turnaround, other teams took notice of the strategy — including the Philadelphia Phillies. In 2015, that same season, the fruits of Houston’s defeat helped him return to the playoffs. Philadelphia fired rework-resistant former general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., paving the way for an all-out teardown that certainly looked like what the Astros had gone through. Philadelphia’s rise hasn’t been as rapid, nor has it had the same sense of inevitability as Houston’s dynasty-building march, and the Phillies have put their own spin on the formula — most notably using their financial muscle for outside acquisitions like Bryce Harper, whose clutch eight-inning home run on Sunday propelled Philadelphia to the National League pennant.

For a long time it looked like Philadelphia would never meet Houston here. That’s both literally, as the Astros are a staple of the fall classic, and figuratively, as successful students in the popular MLB tank program in the late 2010s — despite seemingly having all the necessary ingredients. But in the end, Philadelphia’s result finally matched the plan it was trying to follow. And now the emulators will face off against the originators when the Phillies and Astros meet in the 118th World Series.

With the help of some strong drafts late in his tenure, Amaro’s successors (team president Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak) built a farm system that ranked sixth in Baseball America’s organizational rankings and featured a number of prospects including Aaron Nola, Alec Bohm and Rhys Hoskins. Philadelphia knew it also had the payroll budget to supplement farm produce later, having only ranked MLB’s third-highest payroll in 2014. So the perfect rebuild plan seemed like this: design and evolve some of those farmhands into regular starters (or better); Use others in trades to acquire talents such as catcher JT Realmuto (taken in a trade for Jorge Alfaro and Sixto Sanchez) and second baseman Jean Segura (acquired for JP Crawford); break the bank with free agents like Harper and star starter Zack Wheeler; bring in Joe Girardi a manager with championship pedigree; and finally wait for the World Series performances.

But about five years into that plan, smart people like ESPN’s Sam Miller were wondering if the Phillies were first failed Recreating the Tanker era of MLB – and a cautionary tale for other Astros emulators. Philly’s prospects were nowhere near the level of Houston’s celebrated homegrown core of Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, George Springer, Carlos Correa and Dallas Keuchel. (To cite just one example, the club’s unique long-term bet on Scott Kingery flopped.) The sprightly newcomers’ track record has been mixed. (For every Harper, there was a Jake Arrieta.) The team wasn’t winning enough — Philadelphia went 271-275 from 2018 to 2021 — despite the raises. Klentak and MacPhail did not survive the fallout, their tenure symbolizing the potential pitfalls of trying to follow the Astros’ path.

In the aftermath, new president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski — no stranger to successful team turnarounds — appeared to double his predecessors’ blinded spending and signed defense-challenged hitters Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos to big pre-2022 contracts bring season. Early returns were just as mediocre as before; The team was staring at a very un-Astros-like 21-29 record on May 31st. That’s about when Dombrowski cleaned the house and fired Girardi in favor of Rob Thomson, and the turnaround began: Philadelphia went on June 1 66-46, up 9-2 in the postseason. The pieces began to fit, drawing a clear picture of the team’s ceiling. The Phillies would lean on their strengths — great starting pitching led by Wheeler and Nola, and a scary lineup averaging an MLB-high 5.18 runs per game in the playoffs. So what if the defense needed work? (It wasn’t as bad as it seemed anyway.)

Few outside the ranks of die-hard Philly partisans—or perhaps few in those ranks1—would have predicted the formula would work so well when the team struggled early. Even in the playoffs, our model gave the Phillies only a 4 percent chance of making the World Series based on the odds of making it through the gauntlet of the St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta Braves, and Los Angeles Dodgers, New York create Mets or San Diego Padres in the NL bracket. Anyone who tells you they’ve figured out a postseason formula is probably lying — many analysts have died up that hill over the years — and the playoffs’ true secret ingredient is reductive and circular: October’s hottest team wins, and We find out who’s the hottest of all the wins.

But if anyone has really figured it out to any degree, it could be Dombrowski. And even if it doesn’t, there’s evidence that a long recovery plan will eventually run smoothly, even if it took more twists and turns (and dollars) than initially anticipated. It’s fitting that the capstone of Philadelphia’s trial2 is defeating the very team that helped inspire his eventual path to the World Series almost a decade earlier.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.


Neil Paine is Assistant Sports Editor at FiveThirtyEight. FiveThirtyEight: The Philadelphia Phillies wanted to be Houston Astros. Now they’ll have to beat them for a World Series.

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