Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Vibe

It's hard to put it into words right now.

The Phils scored 11 runs in the first 3 innings of the break and have scored 10 in the last 42.

But right now, who really cares what the actual stats are? What matters most is the results in the win loss column and the Phils haven't hung up a W in 6 days. That's an eternity of losing when you're in as precarious a position as the Phillies are right now. They are riding a 4 game losing streak and attempting to avoid a sweep at the hands of what looks like the best team in the NL, the St. Louis Cardinals.

It's one thing to lose 4 games in a row when every game you play is basically "the biggest game of the year" but to lose them in the fashion the Phils have lost them is the most discouraging part. 

Saturday's game started with a leadoff home run from Jimmy Rollins in the top of the first. Then Cole Hamels took the mound and looked like he forgot how to throw a strike. He got hurt by a few bloops in the first, but the guy making  $19.5 million this year with $120+ million left on his deal needed to come out and shut down a team like the Mets even if it was 100 degrees Saturday afternoon. He didn't. He gave up 3 runs in the first and the Phils couldn't rally from 3 runs down in the 9th despite a 2 out 2 run home run from Chase Utley.

Phils lose 5-4.

Sunday was the marquee matchup. The two All-Star Pitchers promoted as the Lee-Harvey (Oswald) matchup was supposed to be a pitcher's duel. Harvey held up his part of the bargain. Old Cliff left the ball over the middle of the plate too much for the second start in a row and gave up another 3 gopher balls in that mammoth ballpark in Queens. At one point Cliff had given up 7 home runs in his last 7 innings pitched. Harvey dominated and the Phils looked like borderline little leaguers striking out 10 times. Harvey went 7 scoreless.

Phils lose 5-0.

Monday was a reprieve and a flight to St. Louis.

Tuesday the Phils never really threatened Shelby Miller. Shelby Miller has 10 wins. Shelby Miller?

Phils lose 4-1.

Wednesday all this stuff happened. If gambling were legal the Cards were a safe bet last night.

Phils lose 11-3. 

It's hard to imagine that an entire era of dominant Phillies baseball could come down to one week of baseball but that's virtually where we are at as I write an hour or so before Thursday night's game.

This team scored 13 runs in the first game after the break. Then Charlie had Hamels and Lee set up for them to begin a run on the Atlanta Braves, who should be losing ground in the NL East but nobody seems interested in catching them. That didn't even come close to happening and the losses have gotten more pathetic it seems each night. 

The doomsday clock I have mentioned is ticking loudly and the team Ruben Amaro constructed is making his job a lot harder than he'd like it to be. The trade deadline is looming less than a week away and Rube will have a lot to think about this weekend.

It's still a hair too early to begin a complete fire sale but it feels like I'll have to talk out of both side of my mouth when explaining that. The fact is the Phils could easily win tonight and then they're back to the Hamels-Lee duo as their road trip continues against Miguel Cabrera and the Tigers in Detroit Rock City. Hopefully those two can earn their paychecks this weekend.

I'll leave you with a glass half full / half empty scenario as we go into what may be the most crucial stretch of baseball Phillies fans could see for a long while. And it's not even August :(

Atlanta has only gained 1 game in the division and have been in a bit of a tailspin as well, so it's nice to see the Braves doing their best to keep pace with the Phils. You can throw the Nats into that mediocre NL East triumvirate as well.

The cynic would say, yeah they're still not out of it but they'd be picking up games just playing .500 ball! Blow this team up!

Man, I don't know what to think. I just wanna have hope.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The 2013 Phillies at the Break

Roy Halladay started 7 games and racked up an 8.65 ERA in 34.1 innings before heading to the DL for shoulder surgery.

Ryan Howard played 80 mostly ineffective games (probably half of which were played on a torn meniscus), batted 4th, hit 11 home runs in 286 at bats, and slugged just .465 before hitting the DL for knee surgery.

Cole Hamels has come on of late, but he managed to rack up 11 losses before July and seemed to lack control and composure on his way to finishing his first half with a 5 and – excuse me Jonathan Papelbon blew Hamels’ latest win – 4-11 record with a 4.05 ERA.

Although it has settled down some in the past few weeks, the Phils much beleaguered bullpen is the worst in the NL with a 4.39 ERA. The bullpen is also dead last in batting average against (.270), and WHIP (1.50). The other stat they are dead last in is innings pitched, which is technically first so those terrible stats are at least being employed for the least amount of game time in the NL.

The highest paid reliever in the game, the aforementioned Papelbon, seemed untouchable through his first 25 appearances this season. Then, all of a sudden, he seemed to have lost his mojo and blew 4 saves in an 8 day stretch. That’s pretty hard to do. He recovered to save 6 straight from the end of June until the last day of the break but he then managed to blow that game. At least he kept it tied and the Phils pulled it out in the 10th.

That’s the lowlights of the bad and the ugly of the first half.

Despite all that, the Phillies are in a markedly better position than they were last year at the All-Star Break. They finished a 10 game home stand on Sunday with a 7-3 tally to compile a .500 record of 48-48. The Atlanta Braves jumped out to a 12-1 record (That only loss was to the Phils.) to start the season and have played .500 ball ever since. They hold a 6.5 game lead over the Phillies and a 6 game lead over the Washington Nationals.

If you’ll indulge me and give this link a click, you’ll see that last year’s Phillies squad, as you probably remember, was in a far worse position than this year’s version. That team last year was 13 games below .500 at the break and the Nats ran away from everybody to win the division, so the deficit was 14 games at the break in 2012. Of course, as my biggest critic and steadfastly avid sabermatrician enthusiast Mike Rumbaugh would say, last year has absolutely no bearing on this year. Nevertheless, it’s still nice to see the Phils are in a better spot than they were last year.

So with arguably the three most important players on the team throwing stink bombs onto the diamond in the first half, you have to wonder how the Phillies managed to keep themselves in contention through the first 96 games?

The highlights of the first half:

Dom Brown has emerged! Dom enters the break with a by far team high 23 home runs, a team high 67 RBI, and has added value in left field with a plus arm that has been throwing out plenty of runners looking for an extra base. He is an All-Star and he belongs. During a 12 game stretch from the end of May to early June, Dom swatted 10 home runs and earned back-to-back player of the week honors as well as NL Player of the Month in May. He is now the man in the cleanup spot and he looks comfortable being there.*

Cliff Lee is back to being Cliff Lee. Lee went 10-3 in the first half and enjoyed a 12 game stretch without taking a loss until his final start before the break. He has a 2.86 ERA and is 3rd in the NL in innings pitched with 138.2 innings while striking out 125. When Cliff is scheduled to start that day you feel good about the team’s chances. He pounds the strike zone like you wouldn’t believe, almost to a fault actually. In his recent loss he threw 50 strikes in his first 58 pitches. That’s wild. He will join Dom Brown in Queens for the All-Star Game.

What’s next hurts.

Ben Revere has been stellar at the plate. That’s saying an awful lot for a guy who has 336 plate appearances this year and has yet to hit a home run (He’s at 1400 all time plate appearances without one, for those waiting for Benny to jerk one down the line.) Revere was playing himself out of the lineup during the first month of the season, but since May 1st he has been the table setter for this offense. It just seems like when he comes up for his third or fourth at bat he has one or two hits, damn near every game. Once he gets on he’s a constant threat to steal and causes havoc with his speed. His consistent hitting and speed made you accept the fact that he probably is ranked 2 out of 10 for arm and power in video games.  During the past 2 plus months he’s hitting close to .400 and has his overall average up to a team high .305 while racking up another team high of 22 steals.

Just when the fan base was really starting to turn the tide on the thinking of the Revere acquisition Benny went and fouled one off his foot, breaking it. Ouch! In many different ways. He had surgery today and is scheduled to miss 8 weeks.

So, like I said, it hurts.

Moving on to my keys for the second half:

**Captain Obvious Alert** The Phillies win when they score 4 or more runs. They are 35-12, that’s damn near .750 ball, in games when the score 4 or more runs. The caveat is that they have been scoring that many with more frequency since June 1. In their first 55 games they scored 4 or more 24 times or 43.6% of the time. In those games they went 18-6. In the 41 games they have played since June 1, they have scored 4 or more 23 times or 56.1% of the time. In those games they went 17-6. This is obviously a pretty simple concept, and the Phillies made a living of winning divisions by averaging over 4.5 runs a game year after year, but when you have an offense that catches as much grief from fans, writers, pundits, and part-time bloggers like myself it’s nice to shut your critics up a bit with a sustained period of above average offense.

They’ve been doing this by committee for the most part. Dom Brown has hit 23 home runs but no one else on the team has more than 11. Howard is second with 43 RBI. It seems like every one on the team is capable of getting a big hit on any given night, but certainly not with much frequency.

At this point the pitching staff includes a litany of unproven talent and proven mediocrity starring Jonathan Pettibone, John Lannan, and a struggling of late Kyle Kendrick as starters. Couple that with a bullpen that has regulars of an always adventurous if not effective Antonio Bastardo, Justin De Fratus, Jeremy Horst, as well as new edition JC Ramirez and the offense will still need to produce like they have for the past 40 games.

With Revere going down, the Phillies will really need to lean on the guys who have done it before to pick up the slack. Jimmy Rollins has hit 4 home runs this year after hitting 23 a season ago. He has been the subject of plenty of ire of late for continuing to do the things that every one dislikes, swinging early in at-bats, popping up in the infield, and not hustling on ground balls. He still gets it done in the field with the best of them, but the hitting for extra bases and power needs to start happening in the second half for the Phillies to contend.

Chase Utley has to be circa 2007-2009 Chase Utley. Can it still happen?

My take is that the Phillies have at the very least put themselves in the position to make a move for the playoffs with 66 games remaining even with more going wrong than right. At the start of the 2012 season all of us would have been disgusted if we were told that the Phillies missed the 2012 playoffs and had played to a dead even 127-127 record in a little over a season and a half. These Phillies were built to last with the pitching they had amassed, they couldn’t possibly fall off like this. The new faces that go with Utley, Rollins, Hamels and Chooch have earned the chance to not have this team dismantled with their play in the first half despite endless rumblings from every one who had an opinion. They should be laying pride on the line for the next 3 months as they have to be thinking that this will be their last shot with the core group still intact. Needless to say.. I’ll be following along so I hope you will too.

**Addendum for the stat geeks like me**

Here's a little show and tell on how the offense is stacking up compared to the last two years at the break. Their NL rank is in parentheses.

2011:      Avg.         HR          R               SLG              OPS           
         .250 (10)      78 (9)     4.0 (9)       .382 (9)       .705 (8)

2012:      Avg.         HR           R              SLG              OPS
         .262 (4)        84 (9)     4.2 (7)       .403 (9)       .719 (9)

2013:      Avg.         HR           R              SLG              OPS
          .257 (5)       90 (5)     3.9 (10)      .402 (6)       .714 (5)

Here's a hey-day year just so you can reminisce on the good old days. This is a full season as opposed to numbers at the break which are above.

2007:   Avg.            HR            R              SLG             OPS
        .274 (5)        213 (2)      5.5 (2)      .458 (1)        .812 (1)


*I hold a little skepticism about this but I can’t voice that in the main column.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Sitting on the Fence

It’s a weird time to be a Phillies fan right now. It feels like every day is Doom’s Day and we’re not even at the All-Star Break. The fan base has been sitting on top of a fence leaning a different way each morning based on what the result was from the game the night before. If the Phils win, there is hope that maybe the Phillies can hit a bit, maybe their adolescent bullpen isn’t so terrible, maybe Charlie Manuel and Ruben Amaro do know what they are doing. But if the Phillies lose it’s cataclysmic. They can’t hit, or don’t even seem to know how. Their bullpen will almost certainly do them in, and Manuel and Amaro are bumbling blockheads.

Obviously, the day-to-day outcome of each Phillies game will not technically be indicative of how the rest of the season will go. That has not stopped most fans from jumping on and off the bandwagon about 10 times more than usual.

Just over a month ago the Phillies got up over .500 for the first time and it felt like they should be poised to make a run for the first place Braves. They were up 4-0 in a game in Milwaukee with Cliff Lee on the mound and wound up losing that game, and the next 4 that followed. Since then it’s been an arduous climb back to the .500 mark. Of course, the .500 mark doesn’t mean much of anything, but I have sort of looked at is as the possible jumping off point they need to be at to make a second half run.

Since losing 3 of 4 to the Dodgers in LA during the last week of June the Phillies have played their best stretch of baseball arguably since the 2011 season. They have won 3 straight series over teams with better records including 2 of 3 from the Pirates and Braves and 3 of 4 from the Nats. They enter the last series before the All-Star Break against the hapless Chicago White Sox at 46-47. They have the chance to reset for the second half of the season on a high note as well as  give Ruben Amaro more of a reason to buy than to sell in the coming weeks.

With the rain out last night the Phillies have the opportunity to win 3 games over the course of a 24 hour period. They need to prove their mettle and at the very minimum take 2 of 3 from a White Sox team that has clearly fallen on hard times while residing in the cellar of the AL Central at 36-53. If they can win one game in the double-header today with Jonathan Pettibone and John Lannan on the mound, Cole Hamels will get his shot to put the Phillies at .500 while the fans can take a 4 day respite from worrying about whether or not the Phillies can win that day.

If they lose the series that Doom’s Day Clock inches closer and closer the end of it all.

Stay tuned for an in depth midseason report coming later this week on the Phillies first half.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Sentimental Value

I probably got the first few suggestions from my friends/readers over a month ago.

“When are you going to write a ‘blow it all up’ piece for the blog?”

“They just need to trade everyone but Hamels and Lee!”

“This is what Amaro should do…”

It’s a ridiculously narrow tight rope that Phillies GM, Ruben Amaro Jr, has to walk to please this insatiable fan base. You can’t turn on 94.1 WIP or 97.5 The Fanatic right now and not listen to somebody who thinks he knows it all screaming his head off about needing to blow up this team. Everyone who has an opinion seems to think theirs matters more than the next person and that their opinion should be the one that Ruben follows. And for the most part that would include old Rube exiting stage left along with just about each player on this roster.

The Phillies are in a unique position in their franchise’s history. It’s probably similar to how things were in about 1985 when Mike Schmidt and pals were on their last legs. The Phillies roster is currently chock full of players with sentimental value. Sports has become a business that has zero room for this type of mentality, but when you’ve watched Jimmy Rollins go out and take his position at shortstop damn near 2000 times it’s hard to imagine him not there. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard have taken their spots on the other side of the diamond for close to a decade at this point. These are three home-grown bonafide superstars that every Phillies fan over the age of 15 has watched come up through the ranks, have meteoric rises with unbelievably high peaks, and are now all on a precipitous fall from grace.

It’s depressing.

We thought in 2013 that maybe these guys entering their mid-30s would all be able to, well maybe not turn back the clock, but at least stop it from ticking. That has been far from the case. Rollins can still pick it at shortstop but he is just not effective at the plate and this horse has been beaten to death by me, but he just does not “get it” at the plate. He still swings and pops up early in the count way more than he should, and I just can’t get over it every time I see it. Howard, despite having a decent batting average even riding a current ohhh for 19 streak (with 10 Ks for good measure), has had about the worst possible season you could expect from him considering he’s played almost every day. I won’t get into the Big Piece’s defensive woes, just know they are woes. Utley, well Utley still seems to be able to mash the ball and play with his usual reckless abandon, but he spent a month on the DL to make it however many seasons in a row for him not getting to the 140 game mark. These guys not pulling the weight that’s expected of them, coupled with (really its way more than coupled) Hamels being borderline awful, Halladay being awfully hurt, the Young acquisitions being bland, and the bullpen basically self-destructing has led the Phillies to the current state they are in. 10 games back at the beginning of July.

So should Ruben pull the trigger and blow it up? You’ve heard the line that rooting for pro sports teams is basically rooting for laundry, but that hasn’t been the case in Philadelphia for close to a decade. It’s basically a lose-lose situation for Amaro. If he trades Utley, he’s most likely not going to get back any talent that will pan out on the Major League level right away. Then, of course, there will be a serious backlash for trading one of the most beloved sports figures this town has ever seen. Rollins could garner some attention but he’d attract even less talent than Utley would. Howard and his contract are immovable.

It comes down to one thing really. Are you ready to say goodbye to the Phillies as we know them? You’ll be hard pressed to come across a team again in your lifetime with more sentimental value than these guys we’ve had the absolute pleasure of watching night in night out for years. Allen Iverson’s tenure has almost ruined the Sixers for me, I feel like I’ll never care about the Sixers like I did when he was with them. He was the standard bearer and Nerlins Noel will have to turn out to be one hell of a ballplayer for me to come even close to caring now like I did for AI. It will most likely be a similar feeling with these Phillies. It takes a ton of invested time to come to love a team like I love these Phillies. To watch it all taken from us a bit before we we're ready will be sad, but it is inevitable.

So Rube, do what you have to do, this team is not going to be any better than .500 for a few years regardless. If it means we have a better chance to win next year or the year after by dealing Chase Utley then so be it, just make sure nobody ever uses Kashmir as their at bat song ever again.

As an addendum – Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee absolutely must stay. We’re not gaining a single thing if either one of them goes.  I realize that Hamels isn’t really on the block, but if Rube trades Lee then Rube is dead to me. Lee must stay for the future.

Also as an addendum – I have not written off this team yet. They’re one 17-3 stretch from turning this town on its head, and if more than 1 guy could catch fire at a time I think they have the pitching to do it. Hamels and the big sentimental 3 will have to drive it though.