Friday, July 25, 2014

The Great Depression

Take a seat, Ryan

I went to the Phillies Business Person’s Special day game today. Cole Hamels tossed 8 innings of 1 run ball in a truly dominant performance to earn a 2-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants. That mattered little in the grand scheme of things.

What mattered was what can probably be considered a watershed moment in the slow burn that is the epically bad end to Ryan Howard’s career in Philadelphia. He was benched for the second game in a row. Phillies’ manager Ryne Sandberg sat the beleaguered former slugger the night before against Giants’ lefthander Madison Bumgarner, which is a completely logical and understandable move. But today’s benching not, not so much.

This afternoon San Francisco sent veteran Tim Hudson to the mound trying to cap off a 4 game sweep of the punchless Phils. If there is one moment in Ryan Howard’s career I will never forget it was the three home runs he hit in three at bats Labor Day weekend 2006 against Tim Hudson and the Braves. I remember where I was. I remember who I was with. I cherish that memory as one of the crowning jewels in the Ryan Howard legacy, I think it was homers 51, 52, and 53 on the season. So whenever Hudson’s turn comes up against the Phillies I jump in a time machine and think remember when..

In his career, Howard has never faced a pitcher more times, a total of 80 plate appearances, a .328 average on 22 for 67 hitting with 7 home runs and a 1.112 OPS. Howard had this day marked on his calendar for three weeks knowing that he might find something against Hudson he could use to his advantage. He’s a streaky hitter who hasn’t seen a prolonged hot streak in 3 years. He has little left to cling to as the strikeouts pile up, the batting average plummets, and the home runs are about as few and far between as the wins these days. Starts against Tim Hudson are something Ryan Howard has earned in his illustrious career.

Ryne Sandberg didn’t agree. The Hall of Fame player, turned manager, decided to show-up the highest paid position player in the game by not starting him against a pitcher with whom Howard has a proven track record of success. You can argue all you want to me about how much Howard has struggled of late. How much Darin Ruf “needs” at-bats. How bad Howard needs to go. I’ll tell you right now you’re not going to win that argument with me. Ryan Howard absolutely 100% deserved to be on that field today, and sitting him was a slap in the face he frankly doesn’t deserve.

But that’s where the depression sets in. Maybe Howard deserved to be on the field today because the Phillies were facing Hudson, still almost assuredly for the rest of his career his presence in the Phillies' lineup sits at “take-it-or-leave-it” status. It was just the day before that Howard tried to put things in perspective by saying “baseball is just a game” in an interview explaining his mindset during this putrid season.

He knew those comments wouldn’t sit well with fans but he said them anyway. Having played for a decade in Philadelphia, he knows damn well that is not what anybody wants to hear out of a guy who’s due to make a minimum of $60 million over the next three seasons ($25 million a year in 2015-16 and a $10 million buy-out in 17).  Drink in that salary for a minute. It’s hard to take.

It’s hard to take because this is technically Howard’s first healthy season since the torn Achilles. It’s hard to take because for a full season he’s on pace to set career lows in the following categories: Home Runs (15), RBI (60), Batting Average (224), On Base Percentage (305), Slugging Percentage (377), and OPS (682).

For chrissake, the guy has two extra base hits in his last 100 at bats. His confidence is shattered. His spirit is broken. The Phillies are desperately trying to trade him by letting other teams know they will eat just about all of his salary for anything in return. If they can’t, Howard will most likely get released at some point in the next 12 months and the Phillies will spend a gargantuan amount of money with zero return on their investment. The Ryan Howard era is nearing its unceremonious end, one benching a time. Nobody wanted it to come to this, but sometimes your hand gets forced.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Started from the Top - Now We Here - 2014 Phillies at the Break

Ruben Amaro Jr.

After having the best record in all of baseball for virtually the entire 2011 season, 2014 will mark the 3rd straight All-Star Break for the Phillies being a .500 or worse ball club. In 2012 they underachieved in the first half and sat at 37-50. In 2013 they overachieved in the first half and sat at an even 48-48. In 2014, they are who we think they are at 42-53 and in last place in the NL East. They gave us one last ball tickle with a 5 game winning streak against first place competition but then went flat, like they always do, on Saturday and Sunday at home against the Nationals. If the Phils had swept the Nats they would be a mere 6 games back of first place with a slimmer of hope.

But these Phillies just aren’t any good, so it was probably for the better that they did not go into the Break on a 7 game winning streak. I’m picturing Ruben Amaro as Hans Gruber in the last scene of Die Hard right now. He’s falling out the window holding on to Holly’s arm and the Phillies offense just took off her watch. He might survive, because the Phillies hold a stubborn highly questionable loyalty to him, but this roster better not survive.

If you thought the Phillies had a chance to contend this year you were kidding yourself. If you thought the offense, read Ryan Howard, would somehow turn it on and put the Phillies in a position to make the playoffs you were kidding yourself. I fall into these categories at times, but I’m a sad homer who still looks forward  to every Ryan Howard at bat. You should see my future wife's disgust at this fact, it’s comical.

So how did we go from a team that was the favorite to win it all for three years running to a team that can’t score a run at home? Let’s look at it from a replacement perspective compared to the 102 win 2011 team. We’re going to jump into the world of WAR – Wins Above Replacement – for a moment. WAR is a stat that uses different calculations based on all stats to say how many wins a player is worth compared to a “replacement level” player. A replacement level player is worth 0.0 wins and that number is determined by the average of all players and what they are worth. Yes, it’s complicated to understand but when you see that Mike Trout and Troy Tulowitzki lead their leagues in WAR you can understand that it works. WAR takes into account hitting and fielding for position players, so a guy like Ryan Howard who isn’t bringing much to the table at first base other than a lack of coordination and slow feet, is not going to add much to his WAR with his fielding.

Keep in mind, WAR is a cumulative stat so the 2014 numbers are subject to change, but most likely not a large fluctuation. It is possible to have negative WAR. If you have negative WAR that means that the most average player possible is playing better than you. Here we go..

Position Players

2011                       Player                                                       2014
2.8                          Carlos Ruiz                                                  1.8
1.2                          Ryan Howard                                               -.4
3.8                          Chase Utley                                                 3.0
1.9                          Placido Polanco/Cody Asche                           .7
2.6                          Jimmy Rollins                                               2.4
-2.0                        Raul Ibanez/Dom Brown                                -1.4
5.4                          Shane Victorino/Ben Revere                           -.4
2.3                          Hunter Pence/Marlon Byrd                              2.0
18                                                                                              7.7


2011                       Player                                                         2014
8.9                          Roy Halladay/Roberto Hernandez                     .7
8.6                          Cliff Lee                                                        1.1
6.6                          Cole Hamels                                                   2.7
2.2                          Roy Oswalt/AJ Burnett                                   1.4
3.4                          Vance Worley/Kyle Kendrick                            .4
29.7                                                                                           6.3

It bears repeating that this stat is cumulative, but almost all of that, save Utley, Rollins, and Byrd is borderline horrifying. The combined WAR for the 2011 starters (even with Raul Ibanez out-sucking Dom Brown) was 47.7. The three headed monster at the top of the rotation is taking most of that credit. The brilliant pitching in 2011 that saved a sorry offense (in the regular season!) was apparently unsustainable despite virtually no warning signs. If somebody told you Roy Halladay would make only 21 more quality starts in his career after 2011 you would have laughed in their face.*

As for 2014, the total WAR for the starters on this squad (and it will go up) currently sits at 14. To speak in generalizations let’s assume that the current starters get this WAR up to 23 for the season. That would still leave a gap of 24 wins and 24 less wins would be a record of 78-84. Probably the ceiling for this current bunch.         
Breaking it down further, you can clearly see where the big gaps lie. The Phillies still have Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels (not having career years like they did in 2011), but when you replace an all-time great like Roy Halladay with an all-time hump like Roberto Hernandez your team is going to slip.

Then there’s the current situation in centerfield. For every positive Ben Revere brings to the table: solid batting average, steals bases, fastest guy on the team; he takes something away, zero power, zero arm, mediocre outfielder especially considering his speed. Most of you remember Shane Victorino and his cannon for an arm. How many runs do you think Victorino would have saved the Phillies pitching staff this year in an exact comparison with Ben Revere? Every possible extra base is taken on Revere’s arm. Every single to center scores a man from second. Any deep fly ball a player is tagging to any base. I’d venture that Revere has cost the Phillies easily 20 runs compared to what Victorino would bring.

There just isn’t much about the Phillies lineup that isn’t depressing these days. They bat some combination of Revere, Rollins, Utley, Howard, and Byrd in the first 5 positions every day. If we’re being honest with ourselves we’d probably only want Utley and Byrd to return next year when they are both over 36. There isn’t one guy in the top 5 spots in the lineup that you’d want starting for the Phillies in 2016. I can’t imagine there is another team in baseball that can say that same thing.

So what is Ruben waiting for? A firesale needs to begin in earnest and any player of talent on this team, excluding Ken Giles and Jake Diekman, should be on the trading block. If I’m Amaro I’m hesitant though. What do you think his confidence level is like? Nobody on the Phillies seems to know how to judge young talent. Here is the list of first round picks the Phillies have made since they selected Cole Hamels in the first round of 2002.

2003: No pick
2004: Greg Olson
2005: No pick
2006: Kyle Drabek
2007: Joe Savery
2008: Anthony Hewitt
2009: No pick
2010: Jesse Biddle
2011: Larry Greene
2012: Shane Watson
2013: JP Crawford
2014: Aaron Nola

The best of that group might be from 05, I’m not sure.

Then, he’s consistently whiffed on getting prospects back from other teams in trades (Cliff Lee to Seattle) and sent some of our promising talent out the door when trying to get over the hump for another title (Hunter Pence from Houston).  It’s no wonder Ruben has been gun shy so far about sending away players with serious attachments to the team. The scouts and advisors are clearly not doing Ruben any favors at this point. Maybe it is time for them to go as well. The Phillies were killing drafts from the late 90s to early 2000s as their core of stars are all home grown talent but that well has run dry. Something needs to give.

The Phillies may want to take a look across the street at what the Sixers are doing to build a championship caliber team. Of course, building teams in these two sports is like comparing basketballs to baseballs, but a slow, analytical, and methodical approach may suit the Phillies going forward. The next few years are going to be painful regardless of how the team gets rebuilt. Let’s just hope Ruben and company  can mastermind something like Sam Hinkie seems to be doing.

For posterity sake – here are the 2014 numbers at the Break compared with 2011-2013 at the Break.

2011:     AVG        HR        R          SLG         OPS               91 games
          .250 (10)   78 (9)   4.0 (9)   .382 (9)   .705 (8)

2012:     AVG        HR        R          SLG         OPS               87 games
           .262 (4)     84 (9)  4.2 (7)   .403 (9)    .719 (9)

2013:     AVG        HR        R           SLG         OPS              96 games    
           .257 (5)    90 (5)   3.9 (10) .402 (6)    .714 (5)

2014:     AVG        HR         R          SLG         OPS               95 games
          .238 (13)   77 (9)   3.9 (11)  .362 (14)   .662 (14)

Well that oughta sum it up for you right there. They. Can't. Hit. The. Ball. There's 15 teams in the NL but the Padres offense is not Major League  Baseball to be honest. So the Phils might as well be dead last in slugging and OPS. What does that mean? That means not only do they not hit any doubles (this can be surmised since they are 9th in home runs) but they just don't walk at all. In order for the Phils to score runs they have to string together singles. When your entire team is batting .238 it's hard to string together enough singles to win ball games. Case closed, season over, start selling Ruben. Not bad for the highest payroll in team history, eh?

*Roy Halladay had 50 quality starts in 2010 and 2011 for the Phillies. He started 65 games.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Coming to Grips

The End of This Era is Looming

When you’re growing up as a kid, you tend to idolize sports players. Calogero, in a Bronx Tale, loved Mickey Mantle more than anything. If you ask my dad about Richie Allen he will wax poetic for hours on end if you let him. “Tape measure home runs. You wouldn’t believe the power he had.”

The same is true for a slightly younger generation and Mike Schmidt. For me, I worshipped Allen Iverson for the 10 brilliant years he starred in Philadelphia. To the same extent, I’ve put my heart and soul into rooting for Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard. The writing was on the wall in 2012 but as a fan I’ve always held at least a sliver of hope that these guys could take the Phillies back to postseason baseball. Sadly, it’s officially time to come to grips that this group will never be able to get it done again.

I’ve written about this experience before, and I know that it’s going to happen again. When Allen Iverson left town he left a void in my Sixers’ fandom. He came to Philadelphia when I was in 5th grade and was still leading the league in scoring when I was in college. Those are formative years for a fan. It’s what shapes your thoughts and expectations about what an enjoyable sports experience is. You build an artificial relationship with someone you don’t even know, but it’s someone who comes through for you more often than not. Iverson was not a role model, but he was someone I looked up to. He is 10 years older than me and it’s always easier to look up to a guy that is older than you.  So when he left, it was almost impossible for me to be able to build a bond with the Sixers like the one I had from 1996 to 2006.

There comes a time in every sports fan’s life when you start to see the years these professional athletes were born and the landscape changes a bit.  Your mindset, and that relationship with the players, shifts. Lebron James was born within a year of me. Just about every player on the Sixers roster was born in the 90s. The Eagles best player, LeSean McCoy, is three years younger than me. That doesn’t make me any less a fan of Shady, but you just fundamentally can’t have the same kind of hero worship for these guys when they are considered your peers. Or even younger than that!

That is what makes the end of this Phillies era of dominance so difficult for a fan in their late 20s. The aging core of former superstars on this team is my last grasp at having the same idolization I felt as a kid watching The Answer. Jimmy Rollins has been around since my freshmen year of high school. Utley and Howard burst on to the scene a few years after that. I could still look up to these guys. I was in college when they were having their really big years and just out of college when they won the World Series. They were all born in the 70s and I revered these guys who were a generation older than me. Ryan Howard hitting a home run was the equivalent of Iverson dropping 35 at will for me.

I know I will always be a fan of Philadelphia sports teams. Those types of allegiances cannot change. I know that all of the franchises will have championship caliber teams that I will put all of my rooting interests in as the years go by. But I also know I’ll never feel the same way about the Phillies as I do for this group of players. That's something that's tough to come to grips with.