Thursday, July 14, 2011

The 2011 Philadelphia Phillies - At the Break

Editor’s Note: This post was written over the course of several days during the All-Star break.

At the official midpoint of the season (81 games), the Phillies were the only team in Major League Baseball with 50 wins. There were 50-31. Now that we are at the unofficial midpoint of the season, the annual midsummer classic that is the All-Star game, the Phils still have the best record in all of baseball at 57-34. They have won 6 straight series 2-1. Although they could not break through with a long winning streak in the last 21 games, they lost two in a row only once (to the Mariners 7 series ago). They won the first game of each of the last 6 series. When you do that, you have a good chance to take two of three and a .667 winning percentage would translate to 108 wins. Two teams in Phillies history have won 100 games and this team seems poised to do just that despite the following.

Number one closer Brad Lidge has yet to pitch in the Majors this season.

Jose Contrares was named as the closer at the start of the season but soon landed on the DL.

Ryan Madson took over the closer’s role and was doing an admirable job until he landed on the DL a few weeks ago.

Fourth ace Roy Oswalt has only made 13 starts and was not overly effective when he did pitch, 4-6 with a 3.79 era. He has landed on the DL as well with back issues and his commitment to the team has been questioned.

Fifth wheel starter Joe Blanton has only made 6 starts and has been sidelined for almost all of the season with elbow issues.

Chase Utley missed the first two months of the season with knee tendinitis and has played 41 of a possible 91 games. He just recently started playing every single day and his production has gone up.

The Phillies have 5 all-stars this season; none of them are named Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, or Chase Utley. (Thanks Bob)

Despite their best two offensive games occurring in the last week (18 hits and 14 runs vs. the Marlins, and in the rubber match of the three game series against the division rival Braves they threw up 14 runs and 20 hits) the Phils are still hitting only .250, good enough for 10th out of 16 teams in the NL. They are 9th in home runs (78), 9th in slugging percentage (.382), and 8th in OPS – on base percentage + slugging percentage (.705). They were first or second in these categories from 2006-2009. They are averaging 4.2 runs per game, down more than half a run from their offensive glory years.

Of their five all-stars, the only position players that made the squad were voted in by fans rather than peers. Placido Polanco was voted to become the starter at third base but will not play due to injury, and Shane Victorino won the final All-Star vote and became the fifth Phillie to join the team.

So far I have gone through only discouraging aspects of the season. We all know why the Phillies can S the B as bad as they have on offense and still toy with the National League like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen did to the NBA in the 90s (Quick NBA tangent. Did you realize the Bulls went 25-1 in playoff series in the 90s when Jordan played? Trivia Question: Who was the only team to beat a Jordan/Pippen led Bulls’ squad in the 1990s? – Answer at the end) The Phillies have amassed the best array of starting pitching on the planet, and boy has it paid off. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels all earned their way on to the All-Star team through beyond stellar play. Each player seems to bring a different aspect of cool to the table. While being dominant, they all have unique personalities, but one common trait; a serious desire to win. If you would describe each pitcher and their style in one word, each would be: Halladay – Grinding! Lee – Smooth! Hamels – Sunshine.. Okay, maybe the Hamels one was a stretch, but he is from California and has a much better disposition compared to years past while on the mound.

Roy Halladay is the number one person you can thank for the attitudes the Phillies pitchers carry. He leads by example. Have you seen his demeanor on gameday? He looks more serious than this guy. But, instead of stalking Sarah Connor, he’s stalking the World Series ring his All-Star teammate, Cole Hamels, already has. Players like Halladay and Chase Utley set the tone for greatness with their intensity. Why do you think you see Dom Brown busting down the line on every measly ground ball these days? Because he dogged it a month ago and got a stare like this from everybody in the clubhouse, and to top it off, Charlie Manuel set him down the next day. There is no room for complacency on this squad and this veteran experienced group lets it be known.

So with a three-headed-monster leading the way for the second half this season, let’s give each pertinent Phillie a grade and a breakdown for the first 91 games of the season. The grades will be more based on opinion than stat. Out of the 91 games I would venture to guess that I have watched the majority of 70 of these games. I live with these guys. I see their body language. I see how they react when things go well and when things don’t go well. You cannot look at a stat sheet and think you know everything about a ballplayer’s season. Having said that, Jayson Werth is hitting .215 with a .319 on base percentage, 31 RBI, 10 home runs, 70 hits, and 87 strikeouts in 88 games. No comment.

Roy Halladay – A

What can you say about Doc? We’ll get to the stats… When you wake up in the morning and you know Doc is pitching that day it puts a smile on your face. You know the other team is pretty much screwed if Doc isn’t way off. He is going to give up three runs in seven innings on a bad day, and if the Phils can push across a run or two, three even(!), that they are going to win the game. If he is on? Forget about it. He will break at least four bats and throw cutters that literally saw you off. He goes into the dugout, fresh trim on the red beard, sweating non-stop, throws one arm into the sleeve of his Phils’ jacket, and nobody even thinks about talking to him. The bull likes to finish what he starts. Charlie has gone to the mound two separate times in the ninth inning this season after Halladay allowed baserunners in a tight game and some how Roy stayed on the mound. Charlie knows better than to pull Roy when he still feels good. He lost two straight complete games on the road because the Phils couldn’t score for him, he could easily have 14 wins. As it is, he is tied for second in the NL with 11 (Jair Jurrjens, having a career year, has 12). What else for his stats you ask? Well, they are better than good. He is 1st in innings pitched (143.1), 2nd in strikeouts (138), 1st in complete games (6), 3rd in WHIP – walks and hits per inning pitched, (1.02), and 4th in ERA at 2.45. He is certainly in line to earn back-to-back Cy Young Awards, although he does face some stiff competition in…

Cole Hamels – A+

Man, how far have we come with Cole Hamels? I’d like to see a graph of the Phillies fan’s attitudes on Hamels over the past 5 years. It’s been going up and down more than this guy. He started with an unreal amount of hype and quickly broke his pitching hand in a barfight while in the minors (2006). He had a meteoric rise to the top of the baseball world while winning NLCS and World Series MVPs in 2008. He fell apart by the end of the 2009 postseason and fans labeled him as a head case, but he regained his form in the second half of the 2010 season and threw a complete game shut out to finish off the Reds in the 2010 NLDS. So far this season, he has rode that momentum into the best stretch of his career and he is about to get paid son! Right now Hamels is not worried about the money (but he knows he has plenty of it coming his way). Cole looks like a different person on the mound than he did in prior years. He has finally learned that he cannot control everything in a game, so he concentrates on the things he can control. Namely throwing first pitch strikes and making batters look stupid as they wave at his baffling changeup. As for his numbers, they give the defending Cy Young winner a run for his money. By the way, Halladay is making 20 this year while Hamels is pulling in 9.5, mmmmiilllllliiooonnnnn dddolllllaaarrrrssss . Hamels’ numbers: 2nd in wins (11), 3rd in innings pitched (132), 5th in strikeouts (121), 1st in WHIP (.93), 2nd in ERA (2.32). Yikes! Those are some numbers. Hamels may have been the most consistent lefthander in the NL so far this season, but this guy may have the highest ceiling of everybody in the league.

Cliff Lee – A

Despite the fact that Lee has dazzled more than any other pitcher in the Majors has for a stretch this season, he still has been shaky during more than a couple of starts. Lee had one of the most dominant months a pitcher can have when he went 5-0 in June and threw three straight complete game shut outs and did not allow a run for 34 innings. In the game the streak was broken, at Toronto, Lee gave up three monster home runs in the 8th inning and took the loss. His bad outings like that one, have been more than made up for with the Phillies second longest scoreless innings streak ever and a career high 16 strikeouts in a May game against the Braves (In 7 innings and he took the loss no less). Lee is a strike thrower, first and foremost, and when he misses his spots he can get hit hard and it generally happens quickly. Lee also has impressed at the plate this season. During that stretch in June he had given up zero runs in three straight starts and had 2 RBI. Read that sentence again. Just this past weekend he was the first ace to break through with a home run, sadly it was the only run the Phils scored in their lost to the Braves Saturday. Lee’s stats, like the other two, are impressive. 7th in wins (9), 2nd in innings pitched (137.1, if you’re counting, we have the top three in this category), 3rd in strikeouts (137), 2nd in complete games (4), 5th in WHIP (1.06), and 7th in ERA (2.82).

Flabbergasting – is the only word I can come up with for the numbers these guys put up in the first half. It feels good to have them out there.

Jimmy Rollins – B

Every time you think Jimmy may have lost it he makes “an-unbelievable-no-way-he-can-get-him-deep-in-the-hole-backhand-plant-and-fire-play” and you know.. that Jimmy Rollins can still do the things he has for the past 10 years in Philadelphia. Don’t get me wrong, Jimmy has lost a step, but his defense is still well above average and for some reason, I can’t quite explain it, but I feel good when he is up in clutch situations. There might not be another guy I want up there with the game on the line. All of the Phillies have come through with their share of clutch/game-winning hits, we wouldn’t be the kind of team we are if we did not have everybody contributing, but I like Jimmy’s “sense of the moment” mentality more than the rest of the guys. Utley approaches all at-bats the same it seems, Victorino is too nuts to feel the gravity of big time situations, and Howard is not quite a good enough hitter average wise, although he comes through even when you think he won’t, doesn’t he? Back to Jimmy, like I said in my season preview, we know that he likes to swing at the first pitch after the pitcher walked the last two guys on 9 pitches. We know he swings for the fences a bit and does not work counts enough, but when he is on we are tough to beat. Jimmy has put up a tad below average numbers, but going into this season we had no clue what to expect after he played in only 88 games last year (he has played in 87 games this year) and his production had dipped a bit. As it stands right now, Jimmy is projected to have approximately 90 runs, 170 hits, 25 doubles, 15 home runs, 60 rbis, and 35 steals if he finishes the season playing every day. I would take that in a heartbeat. He is currently hitting .268 after riding his hottest streak of the season into the break, hopefully he can continue it on to a big second half. He earns a B because his ceiling is obviously higher, but he could be playing much worse or not at all if he continued to get injured.

Shane Victorino – B+

Do you get the feeling that Shane is the guy that non-Phillies fans dislike the most on the Phils? I could see where some of Shane’s antics would get annoying to fans of other teams, but that is what I like about him. He gets under your skin, just ask Dodger fans. It helps that he has backed up his swagger with gold glove caliber defense. The only reason he does not have an A is the fact that he has landed on the DL twice so far this season and has only played 68 games. We need him healthy, he adds more danger to the lineup. He leads the Phils in batting average (.303), on base percentage (.376), slugging percentage (.524), and OPS (.900). Yes, he is ahead of Ryan Howard in all of these categories.

Ryan Howard – B –

Ryan Howard, the Fat Man (not really anymore), the Big Piece, is the most important part of the Phillies offense. He is not without faults (too many strikeouts, can’t figure out how to beat the shift, too many strikeouts, shaky at times defense, and of course too many strikeouts) but he makes up for them with what he brings to the table. One new thing he has added to his defensive arsenal is the ability to throw the ball to second base. In years past, Jimmy was lucky to keep his throws from going to leftfield but this year the throws have been on the money, which is nice. Although, he may not be feared as much as he was from 2006 to 2009, he is still the most feared batter in the lineup hands down. It is interesting to see how he reacts to the strikeouts in big situations. You can tell he is beyond frustrated with the fact that he can’t pick up the spin on a breaking ball and continues to swing over top of it again and again. I know that he cares, and I respect that especially having to go through the reactions of Travis Lee when he struck out with the game on the line. His batting average is only .257 while he has knocked out 18 home runs. His .317 batting average with runners in scoring position has helped him accumulate 72 RBIs, good enough to tie him for first in the NL with Prince Fielder and he is on pace to have 130. The fact is that Howard put up A-Rod on the sauce type numbers for the first four seasons of his career. Only Albert Pujols has ever set such a ridiculous pace at the beginning of a career and kept his foot on the throttle in recent memory (Home Runs for Pujols since 2006: 225 and for Howard: 247). For all the Howard haters out there, believe me we have a great player at first base for the next how-ever-many years and it could be a lot worse. You will never question his effort, and when he gets hot during the second half of this season, like he always does, don’t be surprised if he makes a run at his second MVP if he can hike that batting average up somewhere north of .270. He gets the B – because he hasn’t hit home runs in back to back games since April 27th and 29th when he hit one against the Dbacks and two against the Mets. It is time to get hot Ryan…

The rest of the team obviously has had an impact on their record, most notably the young bullpen duo of Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes, but seeing I am nearing 3000 words on this entry I will spare you the details on the rest of the team and just give a much more brief synopsis and letter grade for the players that remain.

Chase Utley – B Chase has not played enough yet this season to have a significant impact on the team, but just having him in the lineup everyday is a pleasure to see.

Placido Polanco – B Polanco was voted into the All-Star game but after a torrid start in April he has fallen off tremendously, possibly due to a bulging disk in his back that has sidelined him for the past week.

Carlos “Chooch” Ruiz – B+ Chooch is an invaluable member of the ball club and what he does for the pitching staff is his key contribution. His offense has been intermittent and it would be nice to see a little more consistency from his bat.

Antonio Bastardo – A+ This Bastard(o) has come out of nowhere to be the most impressive member of the bullpen this season. Opponents are hitting (I couldn’t find the
stat) but I believe it is in the neighborhood of .120 off of him (He has given up 11 hits in
33 innings of work) and is ERA is a miniscule 0.82.

Domonic Brown – C+ Brown was on the DL to begin the season with a broken wrist but Ben Francisco could not take the starting rightfielder job from him. Brown has a ton of hype but his swing and his outfield play have been far from smooth. He has showed speed and potential, but not much else.

Ryan Madson – B + Madson was nearly unhittable in the closers roles mixing a mid-90s fastball with a changeup that leaves hitters clueless. He was 15 for 16 in save opportunities and has a B + only because of his recent DL stint.

Other players that have filled in and done serviceable to terrific work are from most important to least important, Michael Stutes, Wilson Valdez, John Mayberry, Michael Martinez, Brian Schneider, and Pete Orr. Ross Gload has done a nice job as the primary pinch-hitter. If David Herndon or Danys Baez are on the hill, close your eyes.

The second half of the season is generally when the weather and the Phillies get hot. If it has averaged just about 90 for the past two weeks in the Philadelphia area and the Phils already have the largest division lead in baseball at the break, what can we expect for this second half?

Trivia Answer: The Orlando Magic beat the Chicago Bulls in the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals. Shaq and Penny handed it to Mike and Scottie.

You might want to take a look at this, just for fun.