Thursday, September 29, 2011


Well, it is finally here, the month we have all been waiting for. October is starting this weekend and so are the Major League Baseball playoffs. The Phillies have finally reached the first weekend of the postseason and they did so in a fashion we all knew they would/could/should. I had to alter my original thoughts after the most incredible night of baseball in my lifetime last night. The night included some of the most insane/ridiculous/amazing endings I have ever witnessed.

The Rays scored 7 runs in the last two innings, and eventually pulled out a walkoff homerun victory courtesy of Evan Longoria’s second home run of the night. This win clinched the wild card for the Rays because the Red Sox and closer Jonathan Paplebon managed to blow a one run lead against the lowly Orioles in the 9th inning. The Red Sox had been 76-0 this season when entering the 9th inning with the lead. In the National League plenty of drama played out as well, directly involving the “playing for not much reason at all” Phillies and the division rival Atlanta Braves. The Braves, like the Red Sox, entered the final game of the season tied with a team (the Cardinals) that they led by more than 9 games at the beginning of the month. After rookie sensation closer Craig Kimbrel failed to reach the strike zone enough times in the 9th inning the Phils tied the score in the 9th on a bases loaded Chase Utley sac fly. Bam! Kimbrel blows the save and the scene in Atlanta resembled air getting let out of a balloon, but uglier. Like kids crying and grown men staring in disbelief ugly. Hunter Pence managed to fist an RBI single between first and second in the 13th inning and that’s all she wrote for the 2011 Atlanta Braves. This win gave the Phillies 102-60 record - the best record in the 129 year history of the team! It also moved Charlie Manuel past the not-so-fondly-remembered Gene Mauch into the number one position on the all-time wins list for Phillies managers (Manuel did it in 195 less games 646-488 compared to Gene Mauch’s 645-684 career record, no big deal). If the Houston Astros managed to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals Wednesday night the Braves could have gotten rolled on one more time in a one-game-playoff Thursday night, but Chris Carpenter and the Cards won 8-0. DING DING DING!! Tell them what they’ve won! A first round date with the best team in baseball starting at 5:07 EST at Citizen’s Bank Park Saturday afternoon. Roy Halladay will take on Jamie (pronounced Hi Me) Garcia.

There are a few things I need to address before we delve into the playoff preview, so let’s get them out of the way. Almost all summer I thought about writing a piece about what it would be like if the Phillies do not win the World Series this year. I know it is an ugly prospect for me, but I cannot imagine how my father would deal with it. He was beside himself last night watching the Phils struggle to score in the final game, which technically meant nothing. In so many ways the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies were built to win in the postseason, and we have known that since December when the Phillies managed to win the Cliff Lee sweepstakes. We knew this team would be the favorite to win in spring training, and in April, and at the All-Star Game, and certainly heading into the postseason. I do not believe there was one point during that time where we felt bad about what the Phils were doing on the field (I’ll get to the losing streak..). They grabbed first place early and then they took control of the best record in baseball by the time summer started and never relinquished. There was a period in June and July where they did not lose back-to-back games for over 50 days. When you have three starters on your squad that comprise half of the top 6 in ERA in the National League , you are bound to win 100 games.

The Phils have faced every challenge they have met head-on and stomped out the competition. In the beginning of September the Phils had built up a solid lead in the division but had still not clinched when they entered into a stretch against the two teams closest to them in the standings, Atlanta and Milwaukee. In games that mattered, they shredded these two teams. They swept the Braves at home outscoring them 18-5 in three games. They then traveled to Milwaukee where the Brewers boasted the best home record in the majors and took three out of four from the team that was supposed to be able to give them fits. They outscored Milwaukee 17-9 in those four games and lost a one-run game in the series finale that prevented the sweep. For all the talk about Milwaukee’s vaunted offense that features the best three-four combination (Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder) since Chase Utley and Ryan Howard (2006-2009); they certainly did not make much noise with their bats in that series, barely averaging over two runs per game. This was the greatest Phillies season on record and has provided us diehard baseball fans with our favorite television show for at least 3 hours every night. If we do not win the World Series, there is no doubt that the disappointment will rival that of the Eagles losing to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX. I have some fond memories from that season though, and as long as this season does not end with a called third strike I will try to look at the season in a positive way (ultimately it is an empty feeling). Having said that, I am confident that the Phillies can win the 2011 World Series if the bats produce like they are cabable of producing.

I would not be doing my job if I did not address that minor stumble in the Phillies march to a second championship in four years. After they clinched the division on Saturday September 17th, the Phils managed to lose eight F%#*ING games in a row! Were you panicking? I have to say that I was very frustrated, but I was not panicking. It is hard to imagine that we continued to throw Halladay, Lee, and Hamels out there during that stretch and still managed to lose that many games in a row. I feel that there is a simple explanation for it though. The core group of these guys, Howard, Utley, Rollins, and to a lesser extent Ruiz and Victorino, had not played in a meaningless game in, let me think here? I would say it has been since late 2004 that a Phillies game meant absolutely nothing (In 2005 and 2006 they stayed in the wild card hunt until the last weekends of the season). It has to be a weird feeling for these guys to get up and go to the ballpark and realize that it does not matter whether they win or lose the game that night. Imagine you have been going to work everyday for the last 6 years and at the end of each day your boss kept a score for how you did that day. If you did well, you got a small bonus, if you did poorly, the bonus was taken away. After a set amount of time, if your bonuses add up enough you were rewarded with something, most likely a pay raise. Also, this was not your every day run of the mill job. Your job employs the very best 750 people in the world at your profession and everybody is competing to be the best, because when you are that good at your profession, you need to know these things. If your bonuses did not add up and you did not produce you were most likely fired.

Then one day you come in to work and your boss says, “Hey Johnson, it does not matter how you perform the next two weeks, you have been that good for the past 6 months!”

How would you react to that situation? I might sit a few plays out.. And that is exactly what Charlie Manuel let these guys do, especially the ones that are banged up. During those eight games only one of the Phillies seven every day players (Rollins, Victorino, Polanco, Utley, Howard, Pence, and Ruiz being the seven) played all eight games, and that was the struggling Shane Victorino. The Phillies were putrid offensively during this eight game run, and you can look at Ryan Howard and Hunter Pence playing in one and four games, respectively, for your answer as to why it happened. When Ross Gload, Mike Martinez, Pete Orr, and Wilson Valdez are starting almost every day you cannot expect wins every day. Admittedly, eight losses in a row was tough to take, but once the lineup was back intact for the last four games of the season we saw what the Phils are cable of, especially with Jimmy Rollins racking up hits in the leadoff spot.

The Cardinals are following the blueprint they made for their World Series winning 2006 season (although they do have a better record than they did that year) by getting hot at the end of the season and riding that momentum to a wild card berth. It is a different game now that it was then though. Take a look at all these stats they are coming out with now that the season is officially over: Teams averaged 4.28 runs per game this year, lowest since 1992. Teams averaged .94 home runs a game this year (each team), also lowest since 1992. The major league batting average was .255, the lowest since 1989. The major league ERA was 3.94, once again lowest since 1992. In other words, nobody is taking steroids any more and pitchers are ahead of hitters on this whole learning curve, crazy technology side of baseball. ESPN Baseball writer Jayson Stark wrote a very detailed article about how the iPad was revolutionizing the game. It gives hitters and pitchers so much detailed information via videos, graphs, and spreadsheets that can be sorted every which way it is like Moneyball 2.0 these days.

This technology phenomenon baffles me a bit though. When you take a look at these numbers that pitchers are throwing up you have to assume they have the advantage of knowing how to get players out. But why is that the case if hitters have the same exact information? Bare with me on this and understand my thought process on my favorite player, Ryan Howard. Think about how much you think about why Ryan Howard struggles to make contact at the plate. Then think about how much he must think about it. You know it has to be absolutely killing him to strike out/ground into the shift as much as he does, but for some reason there is a disconnect in his brain when it comes to breaking balls. I’m not going to speculate on why he struggles with them, just know that he does. If he knows that he is going to see breaking ball, after breaking ball, after breaking ball because he can look at reports like this, why does he keep swinging? I am not sure, just know I put way too much thought into it. So, offensive numbers are down this year, significantly. Although it is a rather arbitrary comparison, let’s take a look at the numbers for Howard and the Cardinals super duper star Albert Pujols, in 2006 (The year Pujols led the Cardinals to their most recent World Series title) and 2011.

Ryan Howard
2006: .313 AVG / .425 OBP / .659 SLG / 1.084 OPS / 58 HR / 149 RBI / 108 BB / 104 R / 181 K
2011: .253 AVG / .356 OBP / .488 SLG / .834 OPS / 33 HR / 116 RBI / 75 BB / 81 R / 172 K

Albert Pujols
2006: .331 AVG / .421 OBP / .609 SLG / 1.101 OPS / 49 HR / 137 RBI / 92 BB / 119 R / 50 K
2011: .299 AVG / .366 OBP / .541 SLG / .907 OPS / 37 HR / 99 RBI / 61 BB / 105 R / 58K

Yikes, from the looks of these stats both these guys are falling off quite a bit. Good thing for Ryan Howard (maybe not necessarily the Phillies in some people’s opinion) he already got paid. I believe Albert turned down something in the $250 million range at the beginning of this season. Good luck having that work out after setting career lows in such notable categories as hits, doubles, triples, RBI, BB, Batting Average, On base percentage, slugging, and OPS (OPS goes without saying when on base and slugging are both career lows, but I wanted to throw that on there too). I assume, no I actually know, that most people I interact with are very scared about a Ryan Howard decline. How do people in St. Louis feel about giving Pujols 200+ million after a season like that? Before you call me out by saying that Pujols spent time on the DL this season I will point out that Pujols did not set a career low this year in games. He played in 147 games this year compared to 143 in 2006. Wow, 49 home runs in 143 games that year, not bad!

So offense is down, we’ve gone over it, ad nauseam. The Phillies pitching staff contributed quite a bit to those believe-it-or-not offensive numbers mentioned earlier. The combination of Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt starting the first four games of this series is a daunting prospect for the National League’s best offensive team. The combination of Albert Pujols, and Matt Holliday, and Lance Berkman is also not something I am looking forward to, but the Phils faced the best offensive team in the National League last year in the first round and most of us can remember how that series went. If not, I can refresh your memory.

The first game of the series looks to be a pitcher’s duel. Roy Halladay will be pitching on extra rest in game one against Jamie Garcia, like I mentioned earlier. Halladay went 0-1 with a 3.14 ERA in 14 innings pitched against the Cardinals this year and is 2-1 with a 2.28 ERA in 4 career starts. Jamie Garcia has had an impressive run in his career against the Phils. This year he did not receive a decision but posted a .60 ERA in 15 innings, and during his career Garcia is 2-1 in 6 games (4 starts) with a 1.20 ERA over 30 innings. Garcia is left-handed and does not have any postseason experience.

I would love to go into more detail on all of this and take a look the other pitching matchups but the Cardinals have not announced who will start games two and three at this point. It will most likely be Kyle Lohse and Chris Carpenter but not necessarily in that order. Cliff Lee will take the mound Sunday night for the Phils and Cole Hamels will toe the rubber Tuesday night in St. Louis.

I hope to get a review of the two weekend games out in between games two and three. My prediction is the Phillies in 4. Until next time… Go Phils!

*** My good friend Dusty just pointed out some breaking news for game 1. The Cardinals have decided to throw Kyle Lohse (14-8 3.39 ERA) in game 1. Lohse went 1-1 with a 1.76 ERA in 15.1 innings against the Phils this year. Lohse is a former Phllie who pitched in the 2007 NLDS sweep at the hands of the Rockies. He does not strike fear into the Phils batters quite the way Garcia has and he does not have dominating stuff. This matchup just tipped much heavier into the Phillies favor in my opinion. ***

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Vanimal

I have gotten several requests from my readers to write an entry about the Phillies fifth starter, Vance “The Vanimal” Worley. After last night’s rain drenched victory, I have finally decided to relent.

Where do you start with this guy? Well, we can start at the beginning of the season when he was not on my, or really anybody else’s radar for that matter. Save probably Ruben Amaro and Charlie Manuel. Do you get the feeling that those two may be the smartest baseball guys in the room at all times? Just figure that Worley, and moves like playing John Mayberry Jr. during his recent hot streak, while still giving Raul Ibanez enough at bats are not things to be taken lightly. These guys have a plan, and they are executing it.

Needless to say, the plan at the beginning of the season did not involve a bespectacled mohawked rookie running rampant all over the National League. The guy is rocking the 2010s version of Kurt Rambis rec specs, and yet, manages to pull it off. The Phillies looked to be set at starting pitcher with the obvious big four, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt. Joe Blanton would be the fifth starter and Kyle Kendrick (all he does is win games, 42-30 career record) would be insurance if they needed it. A myriad of injuries to the bullpen, as well as Oswalt and Blanton, thrust Worley into the rotation a month into the season.

Worley made his Major League debut April 29th against the New York Mets in Philadelphia. He went six innings of scoreless ball, gave up two hits (two hits!?!?), four walks (tied for the most he has given up all year), struck out five and picked up the win in a 10-3 victory over the queens from Queens. He picked up three more wins in May, one as a starter, and two in relief.

In mid-May Roy Oswalt returned from his first stint on the disabled list so Worley was sent back down to Triple-A Lehigh Valley to continue starting games. Oswalt’s return to the able list was short-lived and Worley found himself back with the big club within a week or so. He had a tough start against Cincinnati on May 24th, when he gave up three runs in five innings and received a no-decision in a Phillies loss. Another rough start followed, his second worst of the season. He gave up five runs in just three innings to the Mets in a 9-5 loss. His record dropped to 2-1 for the season. That game was played on May 29th. Since that game, Vance Worley has made fourteen starts for the Phillies. The Phillies record in those games: 14-0. I have to blink a few times whenever I read that somewhere else, so I hope you are doing the same.

Let’s list some records shall we? No team has won 14 consecutive games started by a rookie since Cincinnati did it for Joe Simpson in 1970. The Phillies have not won this many consecutive starts for any pitcher since a guy named Steve Carlton won 15 straight for the hapless 1972 Phillies. Those are triple-take stats. At this point in the season, Worley is 11-1 with a 2.85 ERA.

Obviously, on the surface Worley has been an outstanding pitcher this season, but it is also the way he has gone about it that makes him unique in my mind. He was born in 1987 and will celebrate his 24th birthday later this month. He stepped into a rotation that already had two Cy Young winners (Halladay, Lee), an NLCS/WS MVP (Hamels), and the guy who leads the National League in wins over the last ten years (Oswalt). I haven’t even seen Vance flinch under that kind of intimidating presence. Obviously, I am not in the clubhouse with these guys, but I have to figure that the veteran staff has taken Worley under their wings and made him one of their own. He is always smiling in the dugout with his hat not quite on all the way, chewing on sunflower seeds, and most likely scoping chicks in the crowd with Shane Victorino. If you’re 23 and killing it for the Phillies, wouldn’t that be what you were doing if you only played once every five days?

On the mound, Worley is all business. This is one of the most impressive pages I have seen on He picked up three straight inter-league wins in June. The Phllies have historically been between not-good and awful in inter-league play so this was pretty good. The way he did it was borderline unbelievable. He picked up the only win the Phillies got in a three game series in Seattle, a 5-1 victory in which he went five innings and gave up just the one run. In his next start against Oakland, he went six innings and gave up a goose egg in a 1-0 Phillies victory. The Phillies offense was not exactly clicking during this part of the season so the pitchers knew there was little margin for error. This obviously did not faze The Vanimal. His third and final start in June was against the perennial AL East power Boston Red Sox. What did he do against the best offense in baseball you ask? He went seven innings, gave up one measly run and struck out five in a 2-1 Phillies victory.

Turn the page on the calendar to July and things really just got better for this young man from Sacramento. Worley went 4-0 in five July starts. He pitched 35.1 innings, struck out 29, and recorded a 2.04 ERA. The highlights of these starts included a marvelous eight innings of one run ball in the most oppressive heat of the year in Chicago. This was the series that Roy Halladay finally snapped his streak of pitching at least six innings in road starts that spanned over 50 starts due to heat frustration. Worley shrugged off the day game 100 + degree weather and went to work. I remember tweeting after the Cubs series “Vance Worley was better than Halladay and Lee in this series.” That is pretty much the highest praise you can get in baseball. His next start, against the defending World Series Champion San Francisco Giants was his best of the season. He pitched a complete game in San Francisco while giving up two runs and striking out five and improved his record to 7-1. I kept texting my friend Bob before every Worley start. “I know he cannot keep this going. He is going to get blown up.” Bob agreed, but for some reason it just has not happened. Even in his worst start of the year, a day game in Los Angeles against the Dodgers in which Worley gave up six runs in four innings, the Phillies rallied behind him and came back to win 9-8.

After this many impressive starts, Worley can no longer really be considered a fluke. If he had enough starts to qualify for the league leaders only eight starters that are not on his team have a better ERA than he does. Unfortunately for Vance, the Rookie of the Year race is out of control this year. The Braves have a pair of guys, in first baseman Freddie Freeman (.291/ 18 HRs / 64 RBI) and closer Craig Kimbrel (rookie saves record at 42 and counting – tops in the NL) who are possibly more deserving of the award than he is.

Having said all this about Worley, it is crazy to think about just how good the Phillies pitching staff is. There is little to no chance, despite all of the numbers and wins he has racked up, that Worley will get a start in a playoff game for the Phillies. It is a testament to the pitching staff that they can afford to leave a guy who is pitching this well out of the rotation. The big three of Doc, Lee, and Hamels will certainly start the first three games of every playoff series, and with a ton of postseason and big game experience, Roy Oswalt will almost certainly get the nod for a game four start in the playoffs. It will be nice to know that we have Vance waiting in the bullpen, ready to go if a starter is having an off night, or if the Phils have to go through some god-awful rain delay that would force a starter from the game. Confidence is the key out there, we know Vance has it, and as a fan base we should have it in him.