Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Leadoff Man

Just taking a look at Jimmy Rollins Baseball-Reference page will not tell you nearly enough about the constant that is Jimmy Rollins. He is entering his 13th full season as the opening day shortstop in Philadelphia. When you have been around for that long the numbers start to pile up. The best way to describe him is consistently above average. He has never been a superstar despite the fact that he has more MVPs than Derek Jeter. Things came together for Rollins in 2007, but other than that year he’s just been above average with remarkable consistency.

For the vast majority of his 1792 games played he has been the leadoff hitter. The prototypical leadoff hitter is scrappy. The prototypical leadoff hitter will make a pitcher work to get him out. The prototypical leadoff hitter should be cerebral at the plate, almost thinking his way on base. Think Lenny Dykstra in 1993. Lenny led the NL in walks in ‘93 and was on base 42 percent of the time. Jimmy Rollins is not a prototypical leadoff hitter.

Dykstra never posted an on base percentage less than .353 for the Phillies and was above .387 in four of six seasons. Rollins' career high in on base percentage was .349 in 2008. He did not even crack .350 in his MVP 2007 season. Rollins’ career on base percentage is .328 and he posted a dismal .316 last season. Dykstra could probably walk out of prison right now and crack .300.

But you know what? It flat out didn’t matter that Jimmy did not get on base as much as you would like him to. The intangibles he brought to the table tipped the scales heavily back into his favor. He is a shortstop that will make every single routine play without fail. He hits Ryan Howard in the neck with any throw it seems. He has lost some of his range but he is still capable of making the jaw dropping plays Phillies’ fans have almost taken for granted for over a decade. He has racked up four gold gloves including another one this past year. His defense may be the best of the five tools Rollins possesses.

What most people will remember about Jimmy Rollins’ Philadelphia tenure though is the aplomb with which he carried himself. The Phils were knocking loudly on the playoff door in 2005 when he carried a 36 game hitting streak into the next season (It ended at 38 the next April). Obviously, he did not shy away from the first real pressure month he every played. No one will forget his “We’re the team to beat,” comment at the start of the 2007 season. The Mets had shellacked the division in 2006 and the Phils fell just short of the Wild Card. Well, Rollins went out and put up by far the best season of his career. His play in the 2008 playoff run coupled with one of the most clutch hits you will ever see in the 2009 NLCS should have cemented him as untouchable.

But it’s weird, if you ask almost any Phillies fan whom their favorite player is you might hear “Jimmy Rollins” one out of 20. And that’s being generous. He does not have the clout like so many other players on this team despite the fact that he has been here by far the longest, basically double most of the core talent that has carried the team to five NL East titles and of course the World Series championship. He should be in the pantheon of Philadelphia sports and infallible like Brian Dawkins. Still, you get the feeling he is just a step above Donovan McNabb status in the city he calls home.

Fans are quick to turn on him, myself included. It’s because he is unwilling to change his all or nothing approach at the plate. For the first 13 years, Rollins got by on everything that has just been mentioned. He got hits (2024), clutch hits. He stole tons of bases (403). He showed pop from both sides of the plate (193 HR). Jimmy Rollins has done it all for the Phillies, but one of two things will need to happen for him to stay in the leadoff spot for the entire season.

First, he will need to be more selective at the plate. Last year Rollins enjoyed getting himself out, or so it seemed. He just did not show enough discipline early in at-bats. To borrow yet another Major League reference, Charlie Manuel needs to institute a Willie Mays Hayes type situation with Rollins when it comes to popping the ball up. Every time Rollins pops a ball up in the infield he should need to do 20 push ups. This would extend to 40 push ups, if he popped up on the first or second pitch as Rollins is wont to do. If he could work on that propensity, and build on the career high (62) in walks he had last year he could potentially continue to wreak havoc on the base baths. After all, he smacked a more than respectable 23 home runs from the plate last year.

Second, the Phils just need to win. If they are winning ball games and Rollins is not preventing them from doing so, it is hard to imagine Charlie yanking him out of the spot Rollins has earned.  Rollins prospects this season, like so many other Phillies, seem to be swinging on a hinge. It can go either way, hopefully it will be fun to watch at least.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Missing Piece

During this entire Philadelphia Phillies run of dominance, it has been no secret to most that know me that Ryan Howard is my favorite player. I have been an ardent follower, supporter, admirer, and most of the time lately, defender of The Big Piece. When Scott Rolen left town there was a void in the Phillies lineup in my opinion. Jim Thome and Bobby Abreu were not providing me with enough excitement in the middle of the lineup; not enough wins for that matter either. Rolen’s at bats I savored. I studied everything about them. For a season or two there was a void.

Enter Ryan Howard. He became the new “it guy” almost immediately. In his rookie season he only played 88 games. He swatted 22 home runs, knocked in 63, and hit .288. He played the second half of that season and seemed to get every big hit the Phillies needed. Almost willing them to the playoffs. His clutch hitting that year gave him the nod for Rookie of the Year despite barely playing more than half the season.

Then came 2006. Ryan Howard’s MVP campaign that year has become mythical lure in my mind. He was the most destructive, feared, and powerful hitter I ever got to watch play on a daily basis. He won the Home Run Derby (without being selected as an All-Star) and then just blistered his way through the next two months. I watched in awe. In August he hit 14 home runs and had 41 RBI in 29 games. Labor Day weekend he hit three home runs in his first three at bats against Tim Hudson and the Braves. By September nobody wanted to pitch to him. He racked up 36 walks, 16 intentional, in the last month of the season but still managed to hit 9 home runs to leave him with a Phillies team record 58. He ended the season with career highs in just about every category. Numbers he will never touch again.

Howard continued to be a force in the cleanup spot from 2007 to 2009. His power numbers were in the top 3 in the league each of those years.

2006: 58* HR 149* RBI (159 games)

2007: 47 HR 136 RBI (144 games)

2008: 48* HR 146* RBI (162 games)

2009: 45 HR 141* RBI (160 games)

* Led the NL

Obviously, he struck out a ton during all of these years. But every fan was willing to look past that with those gargantuan numbers. You know who else was willing to look past it? Ruben Amaro Jr. A month into the 2010 season, at age 30, The Big Piece inked a 5 year contract extension worth $125 million that would begin in 2011. The only problem is, his numbers have steadily declined from his prime of 2006-2009.

2010: 31 HR 108 RBI (143 games)

2011: 33 HR 116 RBI (152 games)

2012: 14 HR 56 RBI (71 games)

Another category that is hugely important when defining the impact of a slugger on a baseball team is OPS. OPS is the combination of on base percentage and slugging percentage. Basically, is this guy getting on base? And if so, is he getting extra base hits when he does it? Well, The Big Piece has fallen on hard times lately when combining those two stats for OPS. Last year he finished at a dismal .718 OPS.

OPS is one of the many sabermetric stats that baseball analysts have become borderline obsessed with. They really started to catch on with “Moneyball” in Oakland when employed by their GM Billy Beane. They turned it into a movie starring Brad Pitt and this kid, it wasn’t half bad. Anyway, I have never really come to fully embrace the sabermetric revolution dedicated to graphs, advanced stats, and a cold calculating approach to how to win a game that has been around for 150 years.

Stats are stats and facts are facts (as cliché as it gets right here) but sometimes they don’t tell the entire story. In my opinion baseball is more than just numbers, it has a soul. It has something that you don’t see in an excel spreadsheet. It has charisma. It has something indescribable that allows fans like me to get caught up in grown men playing a little kid’s game for money you can’t even fathom.

I’m of the opinion that that’s where Ryan Howard comes in. He has that charisma in spades, or he had it at least. When Ryan Howard comes up to the plate you just never know what’s going to happen and that’s what makes it so exciting. He was and still can be a helluva a ballplayer capable of great things. However, it remains to be seen if he can still perform at a level close to being worth the $105 million left on his contract.

We’re about to get real heavy into the Major League references here, so hopefully you can stay with me.

I don’t understand why Ryan Howard can’t lay off low and away sliders from left handed pitching. He reminds me of Pedro Cerrano “Straight ball I like very much, curve ball not so much.” Can someone explain to me why he continues to flail away at pitches that he has no business swinging at? Does he not understand that lefties are not going to throw him fastballs anywhere near the plate? What would be the point? He’s going to swing at the down and away breaking balls anyway. He swings fastball and hopes. That’s not a very good strategy.

In the beginning of Major League, Rick Vaughn (Charlie Sheen) had a cannon for an arm but lacked control. His manager, Lou Brown, quickly realized that Rick had a vision problem. He could not even see across the room. Rick got a spiffy new pair of glasses and everything fell into place for him. Now, a lot of hitting at the major league level is dependent upon eye site. Curve balls, sliders, and any ball that does not go straight will have a distinctly different spin on it than a fastball. Hitters identify this spin and can react better to what the pitch is going to be.  This is why you always hear Wheels say that hitters will struggle when there are shadows between the mound and home plate because its tough to pick up the spin. So is this possibly Ryan Howard’s problem? Can he not see the spin on the ball and identify pitches he should not be swinging at? I’m sure I’m not the only person to come up with this theory, but something is missing.

Late in Major League 2, Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) pays a visit to Rick Vaughn. Rick had been scuffling with his game and his identity all season. Taylor took it upon himself to go see his friend and tell him in so many words to “Get his sh_t  together” for the sake of the team. Everyone was counting on him.

The Phils’ closer, Jonathan Papelbon took it upon himself to say that he had not seen much leadership in the clubhouse during his Phillies' tenure. Well, maybe its time for Chase or Jimmy to go have that same talk with Ryan. He literally needs to “Get his sh_t together” for the sake of the team. That would show some leadership.

The 2013 season can be the turning point in quite a few careers on the Phillies roster, maybe none more than Howard. They employ 6 guys that make more than $15 million per season. You can argue that only one is still in their prime. If Ryan Howard does not come up with a throwback vintage monster season, the odds of this contract he signed not being a total catastrophe are going to skyrocket. Not only that, the Phillies just won’t be any good without him mashing the ball out of the ballpark. So yeah, there is a lot riding on his broad shoulders this season. Let’s hope he’s ready.

I leave with you this.. "I got a hunch he's due.."

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Welcome Back.. 2013 Phillies' Storylines

Hello every one, I'd like to welcome all you Wahoo-Maniacs to another exciting season of Indi- Excuse me - Hello every one, I'd like to welcome all of you to another roller-coaster Philadelphia Phillies baseball season!

As many of you have realized, the Phillies' pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in Clearwater last week. The Phils are still over a month away from starting their 2013 season but I figured why not get things started with a bit of a new format to gear up for what figures to be an interesting season. The Sixers and Flyers are certainly not satisfying most people's hunger for exciting Philly sports these days.

My goal for the new format is to put out at least one mini blog per week chronicling one of the Phillies' numerous story lines. When I start thinking about what this season is going to be like there are so many "ifs" and giant glaring question marks. Since that is the case I thought it would be hard to put together a comprehensive season preview and take an in depth look at all of the different trials and tribulations this team will no doubt have to endure over the next eight months. I've put together a list, in no particular order, for all things Phillies that I'd like to go over with my loyal readers. Feel free to post comments or suggestions about what you'd like to hear about most.

Charlie Manuel - Manager

Ryan Howard - Slugger

Jimmy Rollins - Catalyst

Chase Utley - Nails

Roy Halladay - Is the Doctor in?

Ruben Amaro - Downward trending GM

Ben Revere - Speedster

Cliff Lee - Enigma

Cole Hamels - Hollywood

The Platoon - Dom Brown, Darren Ruf, John Mayberry, Delmon Young

Chooch - Juicing

The Competition - Lots of it

As you can see, the Phillies are not exactly short on story lines as pretty much every topic above could warrant in depth analysis and prognostication.

Charlie Manuel

It is hard to place a large burden of last season's undoing on the amiable West Virginian. Cholly played the hand he was dealt last year. That hand included his best two position players playing a combined 154 games and only 11 before the All-Star break when the Phillies had all but played themselves out of contention. He also got dealt a banged up Ace in Roy Halladay. Halladay had not missed a start and had been brilliant for his two seasons with the Phillies. When he did come back, it was clear he was either not the same pitcher or not quite 100% (here's to hoping its the latter). More injuries and lackluster play from players that were counted on to do more contributed to an 81-81 season for a team with the second highest payroll in baseball.

Having said all that, some blame can certainly land on his 6 foot 4 250 pound frame. The decisions that always seemed to work out for Charlie in the past did not seem to come up roses last year. His bullpen tactics were questionable. He is clearly afraid and/or not willing to use Jonathan Papelbon in anything but a save situation. The guy is making $50 over 4 years, let's make it count. He never seemed to come up with a lineup that produced consistently despite constant tinkering.

My two biggest issues with Charlie, however, could make or break this season for the Phillies.

1. Jimmy Rollins must be removed from the leadoff spot if he can't get on base more than Ben Revere.

Jimmy Rollins has never been the prototypical leadoff guy. I could get into the stats right now, but we'll save that for the Jimmy Rollins post. Charlie can no longer be reluctant to remove Jimmy from the leadoff spot. The Phillies do not have another season to waste with Jimmy popping up the second pitch of the game forty times this year. I have absolutely no issue with Jimmy starting the season batting in the 1 spot, but if the Phillies are not winning and he is not producing come Mid-May; push better start coming to shove Charlie Manuel for a better option at leadoff.

2. The Phillies' hitters must have a more disciplined approach at the plate and that has to start with him.

When the Phillies went down (swinging at least) in the 2011 NLDS to the Cardinals it was evident that their approach at the plate was lame at best. They did not work counts. They did not take advantage of hitter's counts (which they saw few of because of the last sentence). They lacked discipline by swinging at balls instead of strikes.

All of that was supposed to change for the 2012 season but I just saw more of the same. What are these guys doing when they aren't actually playing baseball? Are they eating, drinking, sleeping and living for baseball? If they are they better all be studying film on their iPads for hours on end. If I'm Ryan Howard and I'm due $25 million each year for the next four years and my name shows up as Number 3 on the list of worst contracts in baseball I'm doing everything in my power to prove the naysayers wrong, not to mention win another title and cement a Hall of Fame legacy. I'm doing everything in my power to figure out how to stay above .250 against left handed pitching. If I'm any hitter on this team I want to be more prepared than whom ever I am playing against when it comes to pitchers' tendencies. This type of approach must be employed for the Phillies to be a winning ball club. That starts with Charlie Manuel telling these guys what needs to be done.

Charlie Manuel has always been the "hitting" manager. He was the hitting coach in Cleveland when Jim Thome, Albert Belle, and Kenny Lofton were killing the ball at the Jake. He values hitting more (it seems), so he needs to start changing the mindset and approach of some of the Phillies most important hitters in order to breed more success at the plate.

If Charlie can handle those two situations correctly, and about 40 other things fall into place, the Phillies could be taking home their 6th division title in 7 years.

Until next time folks..