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3 somewhat overlooked storylines in this Phillies season
by Scott Butler 5/28/18

Jorge Alfaro

A win today coupled with a Braves loss will put the Phillies in first place on Memorial Day. It's a completely foreign concept for a club that hadn't been in first place since 2011 and a team that was 17-32 on Memorial Day last year.

There are plenty of reasons for the success of this Phillies team, namely the starting pitching and the bullpen, but let's focus on three storylines you might not be thinking of.

1. Jorge Alfaro's defense

From a scouting standpoint, there was always a lot to like about Jorge Alfaro. His arm strength was enough to cause a double-take. He has also had raw power at the plate and the type of athleticism rarely seen from a catcher.

There was also a lot not to like. His defense was a mess, he struck out too much, and he rarely walked.

Much of those concerns still remain. Alfaro has struck out in 43% of his at-bats this season and has walked only 8 times. He has shown flashes of his power, but it has only resulted in 6 extra-base hits so far. In other words, he still has a lot of room to grow. But he is hanging in there offensively and still has enough tools to do some real damage in the major leagues.

Of course, none of that matters if his work behind the plate didn't improve from last season.

Well, it has improved. A lot.

I am no catching expert by any stretch, but I can even notice that Alfaro looks much smoother behind the plate and he does not have the appearance of a defensive liability as he was last year.

He has also improved tremendously in his pitch framing. According to statcorner.com, pitches in the strike zone have been called balls 11.9% of the time for Alfaro, which ranks 27th of 82 catchers. Pitches outside of the strike zone have been called strikes 7.7% of the time, which ranks him 39th out of 82. Those rates have improved dramatically from 17.7% and 5.6% last season, rates that ranked him 90th and 93rd of 118 catchers.

Alfaro also seems to have a great rapport with his pitchers and there haven't been many questionable decisions in his pitch selection. Add to that his amazing arm and tremendous athleticism, Alfaro has the look of a guy who can stick around for a while.

2. Gabe Kapler's turnaround

Can we just forget about those first three games in Atlanta to start the season? Gabe Kapler looked overmatched and overwhelmed in those first three games, but he has looked pretty darn good in the 47 games since then.

His drastic shifts and bullpen usage is certainly different from what we are used to, but it's hard to argue that he has done things all that drastic, and very little to the detriment of the team.

His positivity is infectious and he seems to have everyone playing with energy. It doesn't hurt that his team is 29-21 through 50 games. It is quite impressive how Kapler was able to turn everything around. Or let me put it this way: when is the last time you heard someone boo Gabe Kapler?

3. Nick Williams' maturation

You surely remember when Nick Williams said this:

“I guess the computers are making it [the lineup cards], I don’t know. I don’t get any of it but what can I do? I’m not going to complain about it because I have zero power. I’m just letting it ride.”

Nick Williams was upset with his lack of playing time and he made his opinion known publicly. Williams, who is normally all smiles and about as upbeat as they come, learned a tough lesson about just how quickly a few simple comments can become the number one topic in the Philadelphia sports world.

Since that time, we have heard nothing but positivity from Nick Williams, which is exactly what his manager had hoped.

“I personally think right now he’s learning a lot every day,” Kapler said. “He’s learning a lot about how to come off the bench. He’s learning a lot about how to prepare. He’s learning a lot about how to be professional and be an exceptional teammate, and those are important lessons for that mid-20s outfielder. He’s also learning lessons in early [pregame] work. There is development happening.”

Here's a young kid who has been relegated to mostly a bench role for the first time in life who turned him into perhaps the best bench player in the league. He is batting .474 (9 for 19) as a pinch-hitter this season and leads the majors in pinch-hit homers (3), RBI (8) and extra-base hits (4). All three of his pinch-hit homers have given the Phillies the lead.

He deserves a lot of credit, and hopefully his good attitude pays of for himself and the team.

Happy Memorial Day Everyone!

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