Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Blame Game

The Phillies began a 10 game road trip with Cliff Lee on the hill Monday night in San Diego. Lee was his usual self through 8 innings, dominating the Padres lineup. Chase Utley homered in the 8th to give the Phillies a 3-0 lead heading into the 9th. Charlie Manuel allowed Lee to bat with a man on 2nd in the top of the 9th when Lee had already thrown 109 pitches.

Lee gave up hits to the first two batters he saw in the bottom of the 9th and in came the once infallible Jonathan Papelbon to earn his pay and his 14th save. A half hour later the Phillies went home losers, yet again. Falling to the Padres 4-3 in 10 innings. It was Papelbon’s 4th (!!!!!) blown save in 8 days. 8 days. 4 blown saves.

It’s official, things really could not be any worse and the blame for the shlop on the field has so many targets to land on it’s hard to say who should have it piled on the most. Cliff Lee is probably the only player on the team you can’t blame right now, but I got a list, here’s the order of my list and it goes:

Ruben Amaro. Maybe some of the moves he made during this offseason we as fans agreed with but basically every single acquisition has blown up in his face. As Phillies beat writer Matt Gelb recently pointed out, how would you rate each one of these moves?

Ben Revere

Mike Young

John Lannan

Chad Durbin

Mike Adams

Delmon Young

I’d say Revere and Young are serviceable at best, and the other four have been abject failures. Adams can’t stay healthy, Durbin is some sort of sick joke being played on the fan base, Lannan hasn’t played enough to make in impact, and Delmon Young. My God, I can’t stand Delmon Young. He epitomizes what is wrong with this ball club. He’s slow. He seems lazy. He doesn’t care about anything but himself, as evidenced by his almost utter refusal to take the first pitch of an at bat no matter the situation, and he’s hitting .220.

We’re a brilliant flash in the pan two weeks out of Domonic Brown from Ruben assembling one of the worst Major League Baseball outfields you will ever see. That’d be all fine and dandy if this was 2007 and the Phillies infield was churning out 100+ home runs and making up for anything any other aspect of the team lacked,  but no, that’s not even close to the case.

Cole Hamels. Hamels signed for $144 million last season and he’s 2-11 this season. He’s the first Phillies pitcher to rack up 11 losses before the All-Star break since 1937, and he’ll make at least 3 more starts before that break. Please excuse me while I go ram my head into a cement wall. If you bring up run support and Hamels to me in the same sentence I might just tell you to go have some fun with yourself. I could care less, at this point, what kind of run support Hamels gets. He’s acting like a prick out there and can’t hold a lead even when he’s given one. He got paid top of the line ace money, and he’s pitching like you’d expect Kyle Kendrick to pitch. He has a 4.50 (!!!!) era. You can’t complain about run support killing your win-loss record when you have an ERA like that. This season has been reminiscent of Hamels’ 2009, so hopefully Hamels can bounce back but at this point he just needs to remove his head from his ass and start pitching like he is capable of pitching.

Ugggghhhh. Where to next?

Charlie Manuel. If we were playing 5 card draw, Charlie would keep Cliff Lee and hand the dealer four cards. Having said that, it just doesn’t seem like Charlie knows how to get it done any more. He was a great manager for this ball club but without 4 guys hitting 30 or more homers every season each decision is magnified, and every one that goes wrong gets scrutinized by assholes like me to the enth degree.

My main gripes on Charlie, other than him refusing to wear his hat like a normal person, is that he just can’t seem to get this team motivated or change their approach at the plate. The Phils are drifting listlessly through this season with a bunch of overpaid, over-the-hill, has-beens for lack of a better word. He can’t seem to generate any fire out of these guys. It used to be, no big deal if we’re down late we can still rally and win this ball game. Now it’s; oh no, we have a lead late what are we going to do with this trash bullpen coming in? Listen, it’s not Charlie’s fault he has to send out Jake Diekman and Justin De Fratus in big situations. Who do you want to see him trot out there? And now it looks like he can’t rely on Papelbon, so I wouldn’t even be surprised if Manuel just flat out retired at the end of this season the way it’s currently going.

Don’t even get me started on these me-first hitter’s at the plate. But I will say I blame Charlie for their lack of discipline and gameplan at the plate. Who else do you blame?

Trust me, there’s plenty of more blame to go around but we’ll stop it here for now just so I don’t have any readers feeling any worse about things than they already do.

I will say this, miraculously the Phillies have not played their way out of the division race. The Atlanta Braves began the season 12-1 and have been taking on water ever since. If Hamels could have won half of his games and Papelbon could have saved 2 of the 4 he blew in the last week the Phillies would be over .500 and less than 5 games out.  As it stands they are at their low water mark of the season, 5 games under at 36-41 and are 8 games back. The Braves are 3 games under .500 since that 12-1 start.

The Phillies are traditionally a second half team, but these are not the traditional Phillies.

And so it goes..

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Ryan Howard Saga

Around 9:00 PM Friday night it really felt like the Phillies had turned the corner. They had won 5 straight. They were above .500 for the first time all year, Cliff Lee was on the mound and they were leading 4-0 in Milwaukee against a team that for lack of a better word stinks. Not counting games played against the Phillies, the Brew Crew have won 7 of their last 30 games, yet they’ve taken 5 out of 7 from the Phils. Since then, everything has gone wrong for the ball club, but right now I’m turning my attention away from the team as a whole and focusing on one individual in particular.

That individual is Ryan Howard.

There are a number of ways you can break down what is happening with the athlete formerly known as The Big Piece. You can’t really call someone who is doing what Ryan Howard is doing The Big Piece, it just doesn't fit. Anyway, for all intents and purposes Ryan Howard’s career as an effective power hitter ended as he lay writhing in pain between home plate and first base when the Phillies lost the decisive game 5 of the 2011 NLDS. He just has not been the same player since and the Phillies are not the same in part because of it.

He came back right around the All-Star Break last year and if you want to call that season a wash Howard would not stop you. He played 71 games and collected 57 hits while striking out 99 times. Wait.. What? He hit .219 and couldn’t even crack a .300 on base percentage, reaching base just 29.5 % of the time. Despite the bad averages Howard did show a little bit of pop as he hit 14 home runs and seemed to only get hits with runners in scoring position because he managed to knock in 56 runs in those 71 games. Still, he hit .173 against left handed pitching and the fan base was wavering in it's confidence that he could still get the job done.

This season the thought was Howard had a full regular off-season workout regimen to get him ready for the grueling marathon that is a Major League Baseball season. Well, one can only hope that there is something ailing Howard because he flat out can’t hit anymore. The level at which he is performing is just below what an average every day run-of-the-mill ballplayer can do at 1st base, and average defense would be an upgrade. Average players don’t get paid $25 million a year, in case you were wondering.

We’ll get into the numbers more in depth shortly but let me just take a minute here to talk about the trials and tribulations that I’m going through this season as an ardent Ryan Howard supporter. First of all, let me say that I still look forward to a Ryan Howard at bat more than anyone else on the team, even the white hot Dom Brown. Howard is just more interesting to me and I’m rooting so hard for him to pull out of it that it really pains me to watch about .750 of the time, and that’s being generous.

He just never seems to have a plan or a clue when he gets to the plate. When you’re in your 10th year in the Bigs, that is depressing, sad, and maddening to the fan that has allowed you to collect money most of us can’t even comprehend. I have heard Dom Brown interviews of late where reporters basically give him a pop-quiz on the starters he’s about to face, and what his approach will be. You hear the question, you can feel the wheels in Dom’s head start to turn when he says, “Gallardo… fastball, slider guy, I need to look for something in and hopefully he leaves it up.” Sure enough, Yovanni Gallardo hung a slider to Brown that night and he executed his game plan by sending one over the fence.

Does Ryan Howard have a similar game plan? Does he do the homework to know what pitchers are going to throw him in what counts? What their tendencies are? What his tendencies are? Can’t somebody else do the homework for him and tell him everything he needs to know before an at bat? Or maybe he knows all this stuff and a combination of injury, age, and skill regression have taken their toll on Howard and he can no longer get his body to execute what his mind is telling him to do.

In either case, he still displays an unfathomable lack of discipline at the plate. If Ryan Howard gets behind in a count, and trust me he gets behind in plenty of counts, he is basically done for. I’m constantly seeing him looking at strikes and swinging at balls. I know I’ve said this before in the blog, but it’s almost as if he makes up his mind before the pitch is coming that he is swinging fastball. If it’s a breaking ball, oh well. It seems to me that pitchers and managers have figured out this tendency and just throw Howard more than his fair share of breaking balls out of the zone because they know he will chase.  I can’t come up with an excuse as to why he refuses to work on his pitch recognition and plate discipline. That part of his game might be the most frustrating, if it weren’t for his serious lack of power.

It used to be that Ryan Howard would be able to hit 30 home runs in a season by accident. He’d flick his wrists and balls would fly over the left field fence. He just doesn’t do that anymore. Even when he does get ahead in counts and possibly even sees a fastball in the hitting zone he doesn’t square it up with enough regularity. He swings and misses. He fouls it back. He hits a screamer with top spin that has no chance to make it out of the yard; that’s basically best case scenario right now. And it has obviously been forbidden that he would slap a ball the other way or maybe even lay down a bunt to keep the defense employed against him a bit more honest. At least I assume it's forbidden, because he certainly doesn't do that. He loves a ground ball into the shift if you ask me.

I can’t even speak on how bad he is against left-handed pitching. That’s all I’m going to say about it actually.

So let’s take a look at the numbers that will really illustrate the unreal drop in production Howard is experiencing this year. His first month of the season was actually somewhat decent. He hit .297 in 25 games. He had 27 hits and 24 strikeouts while knocking in 16 and managing 3 home runs. Not great numbers but certainly nothing to be upset about. A good benchmark for Howard’s hits and strikeouts are his games played. You’d like to see him get at least a hit a game and less than a strikeout a game. Historically, he averages about 1.17 strikeouts a game and almost exactly 1 hit per game.

Since that first month of the season, everything has gotten worse, much worse. How bad is it? Since May 1st, Howard has 26 hits in 116 at bats (.224). In those 116 at bats he’s struck out 45 times (.387). In those 116 at bats he’s homered 4 times, for a total of 7 on the season. Seven home runs in 211 total at bats, that’s one every 30 at bats or a little less than 1 a week. For his career, Howard has averaged a home run once in every 13.89 at bats (and climbing steadily). How bad has it been? In the last 30 days he’s tied for 189th for home runs with 1. One! Uno! The Big Piece has managed to hit one goddman home run in the last 30 days. He has played 24 games in that time. He's not even second on the team in home runs! Erik Kratz has 8 to his 7. He's tied with Chase Utley, who has been out for 3 weeks, for third on the team in home runs. Please excuse me while I go throw up.

Even the one thing he always seemed to be able to do; knock in runs. He can’t do any more. Howard has 30 RBI on the season and is hitting .245 with runners in scoring position. He has never finished out of the top 5 in the NL in RBI when he has played more than 140 games but as of right now he’s tied for 26th.

This old and unimproved Ryan Howard has become the symbol of the Philadelphia Phillies. Howard, combined with a slower Jimmy Rollins, a perpetually banged up Chase Utley, a mortal Roy Halladay, and a manager and team that seem to lack the will, drive, and most importantly skill to still contend are what these Phillies are. I love them for better or worse, but man it’s just sad to watch these all-time greats go through what they are going through. It’s just not fun anymore.

At this point in his career, damnit it hurts to write this, but I just don’t see Ryan Howard having a renaissance at the plate. He plays every day and just does not show the capability to do so. Obviously, I’m hoping against hope he can somehow find a spark that will lead to more hits, more home runs, and in turn more wins but Ryan Howard’s window to do that is emphatically getting slammed shut it seems. Unfortunately, his behemoth contract is immovable. He will spend the next two summers in South Philadelphia flailing away; most likely hearing a lot of boos if he continues along this current path. Here’s to hoping I am wrong.