Thursday, April 28, 2011

76ers - A Nice Start

It was a warm afternoon at the end of the 2010 summer. I stopped at Wawa in Conshohocken to grab some milk on my way home from work. I noticed a ridiculously tall slender man enter just in front of me. He was wearing sport sandals and high white socks. He had on basketball shorts and a 76ers t-shirt. As soon as I got a good look at his face, I realized immediately that it was 4th year Philadelphia 76ers forward Thaddeus Young. He entered the small convenience store and made a left towards the ATM. There was a line for the machine at the time and you had to stand in small corridor created by the aisles of the store. I did not need to get any money out at the time, but I decided it would not be a bad idea to get in line behind him to possibly have a chance to talk to him. I knew I had to break the ice with something that would grab his attention and identify me as a fan of the team.

“Have you talked to Andre at all?” I asked. At the time, Andre Iguodala was busy in Turkey helping the USA International team win a gold medal at the World Championships. He smiled and told me that he had spoken to him a little bit, but it was difficult because of the time difference. I then asked him how he liked the Sixers' new coach, Doug Collins. This was Thaddeus’s 4th coach in as many years in the league and he had to be getting pretty wary of the constant change. He smiled again, a little bigger this time.

“Man, he’s good. I guess he’s good. He’s texting me all the time. He’s got us running like crazy. I’m tired man.”

This had to be a good sign I thought. I then asked him how the available balance was looking on that ATM receipt. Just kidding, but if I were him I would tape that receipt to the screen before I left every time. Just for fun.

Thaddeus had a great second year in the league (15 ppg) when the Sixers challenged the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Orlando Magic in the first round of the playoffs. He regressed a bit in his third year, mainly due to the departure of crafty veteran point guard Andre Miller and the lack of experience of rookie point guard Jrue Holiday.

Sixers Coach Doug Collins rejuvenated Young and the rest of the 76ers en route to a terrific turnaround year. When you take a look up and down the Sixers roster there is not a lot of star power. Still, you can analyze each and every player on the team and argue that they had a better year this year, than they had the year before. In the cases of Young, Holiday, and Elton Brand that was evident. The Sixers best overall player, Andre Iguodala, changed his role on the team considerably this year. He became more of a point forward and looked to distribute and create more, rather than looking for his own shot. Considering Iguodala’s shaky jump shooting this was obviously the best move for him.

The 2010-11 season started about as bad as it possibly could for the Sixers. They were 3-13 before you could blink and were snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in seemingly every game they played. They lost twice to the Washington Wizards on buzzer beating threes. For some reason, they never wavered. You have to look at Collins and the leadership provided by Iguodala, Brand, and veteran combo-guard Lou Williams as the reason the Sixers continued to out hustle, out energize, and out score the majority of their opponents for the rest of the season.

Sophomore point guard Jrue Holiday grew up before our eyes. In his rookie season Holiday was just 19 years old, the youngest player in the NBA, and lived with his grandmother. This season he sent grams home and started to take control of this very young squad. The Sixers had been playing good ball for a bit over a month when the San Antonio Spurs came to town on a Friday night in February. The Spurs were rolling at the time and held the best record in the NBA by a solid margin. The Sixers, on the other hand, were beating some decent teams but still had not beaten an elite team in the league. I attended this game and watched as Holiday decimated the Spurs. He scored 27 points on only 14 field goal attempts and nailed a clutch three in the waning minutes to ensure the victory for the Sixers. He looked composed and confident for such a young unproven player. In fact, with Holiday being the primary ball handler for the entire season the Sixers led the NBA in fewest turnovers committed. I felt that our team was in good hands with Holiday.

After the 3-13 start, the Sixers finished the season with a 41-41 record and reeled off a .578 winning percentage during the last 66 games of the season (38-28). That record landed them in the 7th spot in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. This meant that the Sixers would be “taking their talents to South Beach” for a date with the Heatles. The Moheatos. The Big 3. Lebron (I quit on Cleveland during the Celtics series last year) James, Dwyane (That’s not a typo on my first name) Wade, and Chris (I should have stayed with the Raptors because I look like one) Bosh. The Sixers had the same chance of winning this series as Lloyd Christmas did winning over Mary Swanson. Nevertheless, the Sixers came roaring out of the gate in the first game and took a 31-19 advantage after the first quarter of game one. This proved to be a theme for the series as the Sixers got out to big leads in four of the five games. In every game the Heat came storming right back by the end of the first quarter or the beginning of the second quarter and the games would be back and forth for the duration. In games one and three the Sixers had no answer down the stretch for the combination of James and Wade. Not many teams do. They fell behind in the series 3-0 and had a date with a broom on Easter Sunday.

Game four will prove as invaluable experience for the young players on this Sixers team. After a very slow start and sporadic playing time in the regualr season, second overall pick Evan Turner had his best game as a pro. He recorded 17 points and 7 rebounds, collecting several of each in the pivotal fourth quarter. He showed the same sort of confidence Holiday showed all season long, which should mean good things for Turner next season. With the Heat leading 82-76, and Lebron’s sizeable shoe stepping on their collective necks, the Sixers went to work. Holiday hit an incredible step-back three pointer to trim the lead to one with just under a minute to play. After the Sixers got a stop on the defensive end, Lou Williams found himself with the ball and the game on the line. He received a pass from Turner in the middle of the floor near half court. He took a dribble towards the basket and he had Wade on his heels a bit as he moved closer. In the blink of an eye, Williams rose up from 25 feet and let it fly with Wade’s hand in his face. Buckets! With nine seconds left the Sixers took a two point lead, 84-82. The Heat went to James on their final possession. With Iguodala draped all over him, he drove right and studder-stepped in the lane. Brand came over from the weak side and altered the shot. Turner came down with the rebound and made both free throws to ice the game. The miss dropped their effort to hit a game-winning and/or tying shot in the final ten seconds of a game to 1 for 19 on the season.

Obviously, this was just one win and the Sixers lost to the Miami Heat 4-1 on Wednesday night. They did not go down without a fight in that game either. They trailed by one with under a minute to go in that game but could not stop Wade when it counted most.

This Sixers team is young, exciting, energetic, and tenacious. It does however, lack a go-to scorer at the end of games. It is basically the opposite of the Allen Iverson era. The 2011 Sixers have depth and plenty of guys who can score but not a guy who is going to pour in 25 on a nightly basis. The 2001 Sixers (the year they lost to the Lakers in the finals) had Iverson, who could drop 35 on a nightly basis and was a threat to score every time he touched the ball. The current team does not need a player of Iverson’s expertise, but they are going to need to find a more potent go-to scorer to make the next leap to winning playoff series and championships. Most of the pieces are there, but they are still missing a big one.

Phillies Update –

The Phils lost two out of three to the Arizona Diamondbacks to start the week. They took the last game of the series, 8-4, behind a strong pitching performance from Cole Hamels. The Phils are now 9-0 in day games in 2011. The offense seems to have finally awoken as well. They hit three home runs Victorino (3), Rollins (1), Howard (4), and got four hits from Placido Polanco who now leads the National League in batting average at .389. The Phils are 16-8 on the season and are ½ game up on the Florida Marlins.

Roy Oswalt struggled in his last outing. His mind may have been elsewhere as he left the team shortly after the game to be with his family in Mississippi. His home town was ravaged by the recent string of tornadoes in the South.

Carlos Ruiz exited yesterday’s game after his first at bat with back spasms. I would hope that an injury is the excuse for his recent streak at the plate. He has not recorded a hit in his last 20 at bats. A trip to the DL may be looming. Brian Schneider is a serviceable backup for the time being.

Backup closer Jose Contrares, 5 for 5 in save opportunities, has been sent to the disabled list to join number one closer Brad Lidge. Ryan Madson will assume the closer role. He pitched a scoreless 9th yesterday but it was not a save situation.

Domonic Brown went 2-4 with a HR in his first rehab game after breaking his hand.

Raul Ibanez is mired in a serious slump. He is 4 for his last 45 and has not gotten a hit in 26 straight plate appearances.

Chase Utley. Chase Utley. Chase Utley. Ummm… we need him back.

Despite all this seemingly bad news, apparently pitching still prevails. The Phils have the best record in baseball. Just wait until they get healthy…

Werth Watch –

Since our last update, Werth has raised his average to a paltry .233. He has homered twice in his last eight games to raise his total to four on the season. He has just six RBIs. The Nationals lost both games he homered in and have lost six of their last seven which includes two out of three to the Pirates and the first two of their current series with the Mets. The Nationals are now 10-13, ½ a game behind the Mets for the worst record in the NL East. They also guaranteed $126 million to Werth over the next seven years, in case you forgot. He now has 124 career home runs, so almost 1 million for every homer in his career.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Power Outage

After Monday’s 12 inning 6-3 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers I thought it was time to comment on the struggling Phillies’ offense. Instead, I thought I would give them one more game to see if they had any spark. Roy Halladay took the mound Tuesday night and if that does not give your offense a little pep, what does?
If you told me the Phillies score was 9-0 after 9 innings I would have put good money on the Phillies being on the winning end of that one. Unfortunately, this season is already starting to get the feel of last season as far as the Phils’ bats are concerned. This is not exactly time to push the panic button, but it sure would be nice if the Phillies offense was showing more signs of life. Especially considering Jayson Werth is not walking through that door, and Chase Utley is not walking through that door any time soon, to steal a phrase from former Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino. Considering the Phils are still a half game up on the Florida Marlins for the division lead in mid-April it is safe to say we are still nit-picking when it comes to complaints about the Phils. This is not September. The Phils are notoriously a second half team, but with all this pitching the expectations are outrageously high.
Let’s dissect this thing a little bit shall we? When you just take a look at the batting average of the Phillies as a whole, things do not seem all that bad. They are hitting .277 (down from over .300 less than a week ago) but that is still good enough for fifth place in the National League. Batting Average is not the issue with this squad, not yet anyway. Their on base percentage is also a respectable .332, good enough for sixth in the NL. Here is where things start to tail off for the boys in red pinstripes. They are slugging only .387 which lands them in 10th place. Their OPS (on base percentage + slugging percentage) is .719 which is bad enough for ninth in the league. Some baseball gurus consider OPS one of, if not the most, important stats for an offense in baseball. Just try to get through a Peter Gammons segment on ESPN without him slobbering over Mark Teixeira’s or Kevin Youkilis’ OPS. Does he ever talk about any player outside of the AL East? The major bomb gets dropped when you see that the Phils only have 11 home runs in 16 games. Ryan Howard has not hit a home run in 23 at bats and is not receiving much protection in the form of Ben Francisco and Raul Ibanez (Howard is 3rd all time in at bats per home run at 12.88 just ahead of Barry Bonds, and behind Mark McGwire and Babe Ruth.) The power outage is evident. Francisco has not homered in 11 games and Ibanez has one home run (in an 11-0 win vs. the Mets). Meanwhile, in front of Ryan Howard the batting averages look good and Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco are producing. Jimmy Rollins is hitting .277 but he has just four doubles and zero home runs through 16 games. This is a guy who once hit 30 home runs from the leadoff spot. Every game McDonald’s sponsors the Phillies Lucky Home Run Jackpot, and the winner receives $100 if the Phils homer in that game. If the Phils do not homer in that particular game the money would carry over like skins in golf, and the next game would be worth $200 and then $300 and so on until the Phils put one in the seats. Back in the glory days of this offense (2006-2009) that jackpot never went above $100. These days it seems as if I hear about a $200 or $300 jackpot every other game. This is not going to cut it.
Obviously, the Phils have the four horsemen who have all shown their typical signs of brilliance this year. But they have also showed that they are susceptible to the occasional bad outing, which is commonplace. It is up to the Phils’ offense to keep the pressure on other teams because our pitching will win out if the offense can do their job.
The way I see it, the Phils have to average a little more than four runs per game to win the division with the surplus of pitching they currently enjoy. Their average runs per game since 2007 are as follows: 2007 – 5.34, 2008 – 4.93, 2009 – 5.06, 2010 – 4.77. Obviously, scoring a little more than four runs per game should not be an issue for a ballclub that has been well over that mark for years. They are currently averaging 4.94 but take a look at their run production over the last week and a half – 3, 4, 3, 4, 3, 3, 3, and 0. Basically, since Chooch hit that pinch-hit grand slam against the Braves this offense has taken a nose dive. Hopefully, Charlie has what it takes to get this team back on track. Do not be surprised to see some shakeups in the lineup, especially during a day game like we have today. Cliff Lee takes the mound in attempt to avoid getting swept by left hander Chris Narveson and the Brewers.
This is only the first two game losing streak of the season. I figured it was time to criticize the best team in baseball…

Here is a fun baseball related video to brighten your spirits, you mean Rick Vaughn? (Skip to 1:25 in this video)

Werth Watch:

Jayson Werth's Washington Nationals are treading water so far this season. They are 8-7 and certainly right in the thick of things after winning three straight. Werth himself is struggling big time. He is hitting .150 over his last 10 games and his average has dropped to the Mendoza line - .200 on the nose. He is walking quite a bit, 8 walks, but that is about his only positive offensive stat. He even sat out Monday's game as a healthy scratch.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Phillies Sweep Astros to Begin Season

“Really excited about Phils, could not have gone better this weekend!”

“Halladay could have gotten the win Friday”

The first line is a text I sent to my dad after the Philadelphia Phillies completed a three game sweep of the Houston Astros Sunday afternoon. His response was laden with sarcasm, which is hard to decipher through a text, unless you know my dad.

Before this season, the Phils had lost four of their previous five opening day games. Since the Phillies became a power in the National League, they have gotten off to slow-starts in April nearly ever year. Their records in the first 10 games of the season since 2007 are as follows: 2007 – 2-8, 2008 – 4-6, 2009 – 4-6, and they finally came around in 2010 to start 8-2.

The notoriously slow-starting Philadelphia Phillies took eight innings to get going for the start of the 2011 season. Defending Cy Young winner Roy Halladay took the mound Friday afternoon against former Phil, Bret Myers. Both starters were effective but the Phillies could not muster any offense against Myers. Halladay gave up one run in 6 innings, but the bullpen (JC Romero and David Herndon) gave up three runs in the seventh and the Phils quickly found themselves down 4-0. Entering the 9th inning, the home team had cut the deficit in half and trailed 4-2 against Astros’ closer Brandon Lyon. The Phils had only managed two hits in the first eight innings of the game, but they put their bats to work in the bottom half of the inning. Consecutive singles by Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard started the inning and set the table. Raul Ibanez then popped out, but that would be the only out Lyon recorded as the Phillies kept the singles train rolling. Ben Francisco, Carlos Ruiz, Wilson Valdez, and finally pinch-hitter John Mayberry Jr. all singled to take the opening day game by a count of 5-4. Mayberry Jr. recorded his first walk off hit and has been up to the big club a few times but spent most of last season in the minors. It was complete pandemonium in front of the sell-out crowd at Citizen’s bank park and an incredible way to start the season.

It did not get any easier for the Astros as the weekend wore on. Former Cy Young winner, and former Phillie, last seen in a Phils' uniform racking up a 2-0 record in the 2009 World Series against the Yankees, took the bump Saturday evening. Your Hitter’s Count Blog correspondent was able to take in pregame festivities in the K Lot before this game. I arrived at 4 pm for the 7:05 start time and the parking lots were already jam packed. There is a huge buzz for this team and the people are coming out in droves to support it. The Phils jumped on Astros’ starter Wandy Rodriguez for two runs in the first inning with RBIs from the white-hot Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez. Staking Cliff Lee to a 2-0 lead in the first inning is like a shark smelling blood in the water. Lee was seemingly in control all-game, pounding away at the strike zone. Lee normally gets outs early in the count, but tonight he was finishing batters off with strikeouts. He racked up 11 Ks in 7 innings and is currently second in the majors to only the Cubs’ Matt Garza who recorded 12. His only hiccup was a fastball left out over the plate to Houston’s Carlos Lee. Lee sent a 2 run moon-shot deep into the left field stands but the Phils had already built a comfortable lead and that only cut the score to 7-3 good guys. The Phils tacked on two more insurance runs and Houston added another as well as the boys in the red pinstripes upped their record to 2-0 with a 9-4 victory.

Roy Oswalt started opening day for the Houston Astros for the last eight years. This year, he started the third game for the Phillies and took the mound against his only former club. Once again, the Phillies got off to a hot start in the first inning. Placido Polanco and Jimmy Rollins reached base safely to set up The Big Piece – Ryan Howard. Astros’ starter, Bud Norris, fell behind the big man 3 balls and no strikes. Now I do not know if Astros’ manager is unaware of Phillies manager Charlie Manuel’s free-swinging attitude when it comes to allowing his hitters the freedom to have a green-light on a 3-0 count, but he certainly is aware after Sunday’s game. Bud Norris grooved a fastball down the outer half of the plate and Howard took care of the rest. Not surprisingly, the man who leads all of baseball since 2005 with 254 home runs, hit the Phillies first long ball of the season. It was a blast to center-field that landed in the home team’s bullpen. 3-0 Phillies. Two batters later Ben Francisco sent out a solo shot to left field, and Roy Oswalt had all the support he would need. Falling behind early and playing catch up against the arms this team has going each and every night is going to be a very daunting task for Phillies’ opponents. There was not much drama left in the game after the Phils built their early lead and Oswalt's day was finished having allowed two runs in six innings. The Phils tacked on more runs throughout the game with another 3-0 green light smash from Howard. This time he nailed one off the top of the fence in right field for an RBI double. He added a single in his third at bat and was robbed of a bases loaded hit by the shift he faces so often in his fourth at bat. The Astros managed three runs, one on an opposite field home run by Hunter Pence, and fell victim to the first sweep of the 2011 season for the Fightin’ Phils.

Just to get an idea of the respect the Phils are being shown this season, here is a quote from the Astros’ manager after Sunday’s game was completed. ''I thought we played well,'' manager Brad Mills said. ''We just got behind the 8-ball in a couple of games. I was very pleased with the way the guys battled.'' In other words, he was not all that disappointed in dropping the first three games of the season. That ought to tell you something about what the Phils are capable of this season.

From the amazing stats department:

Halladay, Lee, and Oswalt had a combined strikeout to walk ratio of 23 to 1.

Halladay, Lee, and Oswalt had a combined WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) of .79. To put that in perspective Lee led the majors last year at 1.003.

The Phillies are batting .349 as a team.

Ryan Howard is 7-13 (.538 average) and leads the National League with 6 RBIs.

Jimmy Rollins is 6-12 with a .571 on base percentage.

Ben Francisco is 6-13 with a .500 on base percentage.

Obviously, these stats are skewed so early in the season, but they are impressive nonetheless. As per my statements in the season preview, Howard and Rollins certainly came through big time this weekend, which allowed the Phils to get off to the hot-start they are currently enjoying.

Next up for the Fightins is a visit to Queens and Citi Field to take on the division rival New York Mets.

From the former Phillies department:

The 126 million dollar man Jayson Werth had a solid first three games with the Washington Nationals who lost two of three to the Atlanta Braves. He is batting .400 with 2 walks and two doubles in the early going.

Bobby Abreu went 5-5 for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (or whatever they are referring to themselves as these days) Sunday and is batting .412 with a .524 on base percentage. He has drawn 4 walks in the early going and is tied for the American League lead in that department.

Pat Burrell is one of four players in the National League with two home runs.

Perhaps the most impressive former Phillie was young Kyle Drabek; the centerpiece of the Blue Jays end of the Roy Halladay trade. Drabek went seven innings, striking out seven, and allowing only one hit. He picked up the victory for the Blue Jays over the Twins.