Friday, July 15, 2016

2016 Phillies at the Break

Maikel Franco has found his stroke.

At the All-Star Break, the Phillies have played to a 42-48 record through 90 games. That performance is borderline remarkable considering several factors. First of which would be that the Phillies were picked to win 66.5 games. In fact they were picked to be the second worst team in all of the Major Leagues. That projected win total would be a .410 winning percentage and their current standing has them winning at a .467 clip and on pace to win about 76 games. Vegas is generally not off on these kind of predictions by that many games so these young Phillies are certainly over performing through more than half the season.

Another noteworthy factor to the Phils’ pleasantly surprising season is the Jekyll and Hyde play of the ball club. Despite one of the worst run differentials in the Majors (runs scored vs runs allowed) this team came out of the gate winning at an unsustainable clip. On May 18th the Phils hit their high water mark of the season at 24-17 and they were right behind the Nationals for the division lead at the time. At one point, each of their prior 12 wins had come by a 1 run margin. This could not last, and it did not.

After that brilliant first month and a half the Phils stingy pitching fell apart and their bats fell even more silent than they had been. In the next 32 games the Phils went 6-26 and looked every bit the worst team in the league that we all kind of expected them to be. Aaron Nola fell apart. Vince Velasquez got hurt. The solid bullpen became a sieve and the bats are the bats, not very good. In those 32 games, which included 7 and 9 game losing streaks, the Phils were outscored 180-100 in total or 5.6 to 3.1 on average every night. The runs scored for the Phils were bolstered by some outlier games, they scored 8 twice and 10 once (in a game they lost!) so in the 32 games they scored 3 or less 21 times and 2 or less 17 times. Yikes.

But then something seemed to happen to cause a spark in Minnesota. After dropping the first two games in the Twin Cities to fall to 30-43 on the season, the Phils finally found their offensive groove. I picture Pete Mackanin having a conversation with Ryan Howard like the one in this clip, Howard is in the role of Crash Davis.  If he did, then it seemed to work. They won the getaway game in Minnesota and headed to San Francisco for the weekend where the Giants and their best record in the Majors awaited.  The Giants may have taken two of three in that series but the two losses the Phils absorbed were hard fought including an 8-7 extra inning loss on Sunday that saw the Phightin’s make several comebacks and show real signs of life on offense for the first time all season really.

With the confidence boost from playing the Giants tough, they rolled in to Arizona and returned the favor of a sweep to the Diamondbacks. From there they took two of three at home from the defending World Champ Kansas City Royals and followed that with a sweep of the hapless Braves.

So how did they turn around a season that looked dead in the water? It’s simple really. They started hitting and they started hitting home runs. In the 17 games since the rough patch, Mackanin’s bunch has gone 12-5 and mashed 23 home runs. For perspective, the Phillies managed 66 home runs in their first 73 games. They are hitting nearly half a home run more per game during this latest stretch.

Peter Bourjos has enjoyed some fairly unexpected success.

The Phils have done it with a collective of contributions. Most surprisingly, outfielder Peter Bourjos has caught fire after not doing much of anything at the plate through the first two months of the season. In the last 30 days, Bourjos is tied for 2nd in the NL with a .397 batting average. The man he’s tied with? Cesar Hernandez.  While Cesar and Bourjos have been doing it with a high average, Maikel Franco and Cameron Rupp have been doing it with power. Franco leads the team with 18 home runs, just a homer shy of top 10 in the NL and 3 shy of the top 5. Meanwhile, Rupp has come in to his own as the every day catcher replacing Carlos Ruiz. Rupp is hitting a stellar .287, has 9 home runs (5 in the last month) and is second among catchers in doubles (17) and third in slugging (.507).

Maikel Franco has done a nice job of righting his ship after really looking helpless at the plate during the Phils’ June swoon. The 23 year old Dominican third baseman reached a season low .235 average during that series in Minnesota and has been on the same tear his team has been on since.  He’s raised his average 24 points in that time to .269 and has been red hot in July while riding a still active 10 game hitting streak that has him with a ridiculous slash line of .450/.476/.875 for the month of July.

Too much of this look from Aaron Nola.

As for the Phillies most important pitcher, that’s another story. Aaron Nola has been the definition of awful for over a month now. After lowering his ERA to 2.65 with 6 shut out innings in Milwaukee on June 5th, Nola failed to finish the 4th inning for four straight starts. This hurts. Nola was looking like every bit the ace we’re hoping he can become through his first 12 starts of the season, but he has lost the pinpoint accuracy he is generally able pitch with and he was/is in danger of being sent down to the minors. In his last start before the break he gave up 5 runs in the second inning to the Royals and it looked like another very short outing was in store for the struggling 23 year old. He was able to pull it together and finish 5 innings without giving up another run and the hope is that an extended break, Mackanin skipped his start during the last series in Colorado, will clear his head and allow him to regain his All-Star caliber play from the first two months of the season.

With Nola struggling the staff has two pleasant surprises on it in Jerad Eichoff and Vince Velasquez. As noted before, Eichoff was acquired in the Cole Hamels deal and Velasquez in the Ken Giles transaction. Eichoff has been the most consistent starter on the staff and had his ERA down to 3.30 after winning 5 of 6 decisions before struggling in the thin air at Coors Field and giving up a by far season high 8 earned runs in Denver. Velasquez has returned from a brief stint on the DL and essentially picked up where he left off. In his three most recent starts he’s allowed the following run totals: 0, 2, 2 and has picked up the win in all three games. His record stands at 8-2 and his ERA is an impressive 3.32, leading all Phils starters. The most seasoned starter on the staff, Jeremy Hellickson, has been a solid calming presence and given himself some trade value with dependable start after dependable start through the first half of the season.

Classic Odoobs

I’d me remiss if I did not mention the play of the Phils’ lone All-Star Odubel Herrera. Odoobs is the new Shane Victorino (unfortunately without the arm). He is the guy on the team that other fans definitely do not like. He’s flashy and cocky. He is starting to hit for more power and already has 10 home runs this year after hitting only 8 all of last season. His average has finally dipped below .300 and sits at .294 after a rough weekend in Colorado for him. He will make bonehead mistakes in the field and on the bases but the 24 year old "El Torito" from Venezuela clearly plays with a youthful exuberance that has been missing from the stagnant Phillies for too long. He may lead the NL in bat flips as he likes to celebrate the home runs he hits.

Ryan Howard is literally and statistically the worst player in Major League Baseball. It’s sad and depressing but that’s all I can say about that for now. At least he is not playing much at all these days as he provides negative value whenever he does. He is second on the team in homers with 12. That's all he can do at even close to a Major League level.

My prediction for the rest of the season is that the Phils continue their Jekyll and Hyde ways. They don’t have the talent to sustain the offensive success but they have some arms and some bats that should make them a competitive squad when things are falling right. It’d be hard to imagine the offense of the past three weeks continuing but if it falls back just some it would still be much better than the lack of anything during the 6-26 stretch. I believe the Phillies will finish the season with 74 wins and Maikel Franco will hit 33 home runs.

It should be fun to watch this group continue to grow and even more fun when the talent in the minor leagues joins the big league club.

Werth the Watch

Cole Hamels - Cole was an All-Star for the first place Rangers and is their staff ace. His ERA was down to 2.60 but he's had two straight rough outings and he is now at 9-2 with a 3.21 ERA with 109 strikeouts in 112 innings.

Chase Utley - Leading off and playing 2nd everyday for the Wild Card leading Dodgers. Chase had 6 hits in a 14 inning game two weeks ago. 6 hits! He's hitting .263 with 5 homers and 27 RBI.

Jayson Werth - Werth bats second and plays left for the first place Nats. The Bearded One came on in June after a slow start and is hitting .252 with 10 home runs and 40 RBI.

Jimmy Rollins - Designated for Assignment by the White Sox, no longer in the Major Leagues.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

An Appreciation for Lebron James

As a fan of the Philadelphia 76ers it has been a tough decade and a torturous past three seasons. But that has not stopped me from following the NBA and the other teams and talents during that time. During the past ten plus years, I have come to have a serious appreciation for Lebron James. After witnessing what everyone on the planet not from Cleveland thought impossible over the past week, that appreciation is at an all time high.

Lebron James is my contemporary, in that he was born within a calendar year of me, and in nothing else. I still remember the first time I saw him play, I was a junior in high school and he was a senior from Akron, Ohio playing a nationally televised game on ESPN. He played against fellow senior Carmelo Anthony and won easily, you could see right then that he was ready for the NBA. That was 13 years ago. I’ve been watching him ever since.

During the first seven years in Cleveland he continually made those around him better and carried his team to heights that should not have been possible, unless of course, Lebron James was on the team. In 2007, when I was still in college, there was 22 year old Lebron scoring 29 straight points against a Detroit Pistons team that was in the midst of playing in six consecutive Eastern Conference Finals. James finished that game with 48 points 9 rebounds and 7 assists while guys like Sasha Pavlovic and Drew Gooden played the crunch time minutes for a team Lebron would carry to the Finals. Turned out old Sasha, Larry Hughes, and Big Zydrunas Ilgauskas were no match for an in their prime San Antonio Spurs Big 3 of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. The Spurs swept out the upstart Cavs.

The rest of Lebron’s first stint in Cleveland was spent much like the 2007 year, trying to will mediocre teammates to championships Lebron could not possibly win on his own. In 2008, the Celtics were a juggernaut and it was going to be tough for anybody to beat a possessed trio of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce.  In the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals Lebron played his most complete series to date and still lost to the Magic in 6 games. In that series, James hit a buzzer beating 3-pointer when down two with two seconds left in game two. He averaged 38-8-8 for the series. He had Mo Williams playing at an All-Star caliber level and kept Delonte West’s head screwed on tight for a whole year. Those are accomplishments maybe Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, or Michael Jordan pull off, not anybody else.

Even with all of his individual greatness and clear killer instinct in clutch moments Lebron was always dealing with detractors. 2010 was a good year for the Lebron haters, of which there are many. The season ended with a dejected Lebron ripping off his jersey storming down a tunnel in Boston after the number one seeded Cavs failed to reach the Finals for the third consecutive year despite being clear favorites. That series was the first chink in Lebron’s armor from my perspective. The guy was passive to the point that you could not help but question what he was doing on the court. This was a 6 foot 8 260 pound behemoth that could get to the basket at will, set up teammates, defend, and just overall enforce his will on a game and a series and it was clear that Lebron had checked out during that Boston series.

Lebron did not Handle "The Decision" Well

A month later came The Decision. What a travesty that spectacle was. James was a free agent that summer and somebody in his close knit inner circle of mostly his boys from his home town got in his ear that it would be a good idea to do a television show on ESPN to announce where he was going to go.* I watched because that’s just something I was in to, but I did not like how contrived and forced the entire thing was and it really painted James in an off-putting light. Once he accounced he was “taking his talents to South Beach” all hell broke loose in Miami. The Heat threw a literally insane welcome party for James and Chris Bosh who also came to join Dwyane Wade in Miami. While talking about the titles they would win Lebron literally started reeling off numbers saying “not 2, not 3, not 4,not 5, not 6, not 7” and Wade announced they were the best trio to play the game of basketball before they even played a game together. The arrogance and ignorance in those statements speaks for itself, but let’s just say it didn’t exactly get Lebron any new fans outside of Miami. And in Cleveland they were burning his jerseys and denouncing the King.

The whole teaming up with other superstars thing is not a new concept to the NBA. A lot of the hate coming at Lebron stemmed from his willingness to go play with Wade in Miami to have a better chance to win a championship. Cleveland’s front office was not exactly endearing themselves to Leborn with the cast of has-beens and never-will-bes they saddled him with.  I’ll concede that seeking out other superstars via free agency was not something you’d expect Charles Barkley or Karl Malone (shout out John Stockton) to go do, but then those guys never won a title now did they? Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen for all six and Dennis Rodman for 3 of his titles, both Hall-of-Famers. Magic Johnson played with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy, both Hall-of-Famers.  Bird, McHale, Parish – Hall-of-Fame. Kobe and Shaq. Duncan and any list of guys he’s played with from David Robinson to Kawhi Leonard. You don’t win in the NBA without  at least two superstars and Lebron went to Miami and came away with two championships.

Since The Decision, there has not been an NBA Finals played without Lebron James.  Lebron’s time in Miami appeared to be on cruise control as the game came easily to him there. A lot of credit has to go to his coach, Erik Spoelstra, for coming up with ways to maximize what James could do on the court in tandem with two other guys who were used to leading their teams. 

This Welcome Party Was Also Bad News

Lebron’s game was the picture of efficiency in Miami. He developed what we all said he needed to develop during his time in Cleveland, a low post game. If you haven’t been paying attention to the NBA for the past five years or so, you will notice that the game has morphed into a “pace and space” league. The three point shot has become the biggest weapon in the game and the speed to guard these three point shooters has forced teams to play “small ball” where Lebron is generally playing power forward and can use his skill set to do basically anything he wants on a basketball court.  With teams going small to match speed with speed James became lethal in the post as a scorer and a facilitator. It didn’t hurt that he was also an all-world defender. Watching the Heat defend the pick and roll in those years was a thing of beauty. The pick and roll has been and always will be the best play in basketball and the Heat were better at defending that with frenetic pace than any one I can recall seeing. The Heat defense formed like Voltron and James was the head.

James had shot over 50% from the field once in seven season in Cleveland. He did it all four in Miami and shot an incredible 57% his final two years there. For a guy that does not dunk more than 50% of his field goals that is just an incredible stat. I’m of the opinion that he recognized his true calling as a basketball player in Miami. He’s never had the jump shooting ability of Michael Jordan, but he has the same body as Karl Malone. He belongs on the block where he can play bully ball and wreak havoc on a defense in any number of ways.

His four finals appearances in four years in Miami were up and down as you would expect considering he won two and lost two.

The loss in 2011 to the Mavericks was puzzling.  He once again played passively, similar to his 2010 loss to the Celtics, and Dirk Nowitzki was playing at another level. Regardless of how well Dirk played the Heat should have won that series. Jason Kidd was playing 40 minutes and scoring zero points for that team. That loss was on Lebron for not getting it done.
James' First Championship

The next year he exercised his demons and put a firm beat down on the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder who were just a bit too young and unseasoned to compete in that Finals. “About damn time,” Lebron said when clutching his MVP trophy. Yeah, it was.

It’s hard to say a title was won by luck but the 2013 championship win for the Heat was awfully lucky. The Heat were down 3 with less than 10 seconds to go when Ray Allen hit a series saving three off of a ricocheted loose ball offensive rebound. The Heat still had to take care of business at home in game 7 against the Spurs but one bounce the other way and Lebron only has one title in four chances in Miami. Heat fans were famously pouring out of the arena when Jesus Shuttlesworth sent that game to overtime. Shame on those punk fans.

In 2014, the Spurs came back with a vengeance and steam rolled the Heat who looked tired and worse for the wear. James saw the writing on the wall in Miami between Wade’s chronic knee issues and Bosh’s scary health issues and had structured his contract in a way that allowed him to once again test the free agent waters.

I was standing in line in Chick-Fil-A in the summer of 2014 when texts started pouring in that Lebron announced he was going home to Cleveland. I said to the guy next to me that James was headed back to Cleveland. He already knew. That’s how you know a guy is a superstar.

Lebron Announced he was Coming Back to Cleveland with an Essay he Wrote

James framed his decision to return home as being for the city of Cleveland and the Northeast Ohio region. I’m sure some of that is true, but if we’re being honest, James real reason to come back home was because it presented him with the best chance to win more championships. When he left, the Cavs obviously fell on hard times and that allowed them to (luckily) acquire two number one picks. Kyrie Irving, from Duke, was a budding superstar point guard on the rise (Lebron had never played with that kind of talent at point guard) and the Cavs had just selected number one overall pick Andrew Wiggins when James said he was coming back. De Facto GM Lebron quickly sent Wiggins out of town in return for Kevin Love. Whether or not that was a good move has been rendered moot.

The past two seasons in Cleveland and in particular the past two Finals have all been taken directly from what can be considered the Lebron James playbook. After 40 games last season, the Cavs were 19-21 and had lost 9 of 10. A team that talented clearly had some inner turmoil going on if that was the kind of results they were putting up in the NBA’s LEastern Conference. During that awful run, Lebron, as only Lebron can do, took a sabbatical. A what? A sabbatical. That’s right, James took two weeks (mid season!) to rest and recharge his batteries reportedly in Miami. He came back and the Cavs reeled off 12 straight and 18 out of 20. People were fired up about his absence, but when he came back and led the team to that kind of success it tends to silence the nay-sayers.

It was a foregone conclusion the Cavs would make it to the Finals but still up in the air as to who they were going to play. The “shoot the lights out” Golden State Warriors made it through the difficult Western Conference after a stellar season and held home court advantage for what was Lebron’s 5th straight NBA finals appearance. Kevin Love was lost in the first round of the playoffs after he separated his shoulder. After a solid NBA Finals debut in game 1, Kyrie Irving broke his knee cap in the 4th quarter and that left just the chosen one to take on a team that had yet to be stopped all season.

With the Cavs down 0-1 in a series where they were woefully over matched, Lebron James cemented his legacy in my mind. The Warriors are a team that can go on a 12-0 run in 46 seconds, they are a team that can switch defensively on almost any screen and not lose a beat, they are a team that has perhaps the best two shooters in NBA history. The Cavs had Lebron and Matthew Dellavedova and Timofy Mozgov. James went to work.  In a league where you almost always see pick and rolls, ball movement, and finding the man for the open shot the Cavs shunned all of it.

Lebron James was the Cavs offense in a game two overtime victory. On more than half their possessions he would get the ball on the wing and go to work one-on-one against a bevy of different defenders. Andre Iguodala seemed to be the best one to slow him down, but if you consider 39 points 16 rebounds and 11 assists slowing him down then that can be your prerogative. Back in Cleveland in game 3, we saw another genius performance from the only guy on the Cavs who would even start for the Warriors. You could argue that James was the best player in the series and the Warriors had the next best five players. James threw up an insane 40-12-8 line in game 3 and miraculously had his team leading the NBA Finals all by himself.

It fell apart for the Cavs from there but if you didn’t walk away from that series thinking Lebron James was the best player on the planet and the best player since Michael Jordan you were kidding yourself or an outright hater.

Then came the 2015-16 season and more controversy. Lebron James wasn’t getting along with his second year head coach David Blatt and had him shipped out of town on the first flight to Tel-Aviv (Blatt was a coach in the Israeli League for 15 years). Was it that he wasn’t getting along or just didn’t like Blatt’s coaching style? It does not really matter, the fact is de facto GM Lebron had Blatt sent packing and hand-picked his predecessor in former Allen Iverson nemesis Tyronn Lue.  Was Lebron’s primadonna presence submarining the Cavs? Did his recruiting of Kevin Love and his lack of fit in the Cavs system hinder his chances for a title? Did Lebron overvalue Kyrie Irving and his talent? Lebron answered all those questions with a virtuoso performance in the 2016 NBA Finals.

Heading to Cleveland after getting spanked in games one and two in a rematch of the 2015 Finals the Cavs were dead in the water. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson hadn’t even played well and the Cavs were blown out of the building and it looked like Lebron’s 7th finals appearance would leave him with a 2-5 record on the game’s biggest stage. Steve Kerr was coaching circles around Tyronn Lue. Kyrie Irving was wilting in the spotlight. JR Smith forgot that he’s allowed to shoot the ball and Kevin Love was concussed. Even James had pedestrian stat totals.

Not Quite Human

After blowing the Warriors out in game 3 the Cavs had a shot to really make it a series and even things up in game 4 in Cleveland. It was not to be. The Warriors never allowed the Cavs to make game 4 a game and with a 3-1 advantage the series was  all but over. In fact, 32 teams had gone up 3-1 in an NBA Finals and all 32 teams won the championship. Only two teams had even forced a game 7.

The Warriors controversial and outspoken leader Draymond Green messed up in an already over game four though. After a tussle with James, Green fell to the floor and James stepped over him. While James stepped over him Green took a swipe at Lebron’s man area. Classic Draymond Green if you’ve been following him this year. Enough was enough and Green was over the threshold for flagrant fouls and he was suspended for game 5. Game 5 tipped this series on its ear.

Back in Oakland, Kyrie Irving got his groove back. Lebron was not going to be able to do this all himself and thanks to Kyrie he didn’t have to. In game five Kyrie Irving could not miss. In 40 minutes he scored 41 points on 17-24 shooting including 5-7 from 3 point range. Irving’s game is significantly different from what you see for the most part in the NBA today. He has a whole lot of Sidney Deane in him. Irving is a wizard ball handler in traffic and is easily a top 5 finisher and pull up jump shooter in the game. I’d like to get somebody to run a reel of how many times play-by-play announcer Mike Breen said the phrase “Irving, shakes, bakes, gets two” during the last three games of the series. Not to be outdone, Lebron matched Irving’s 41 points and added 16 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals, and 3 blocks for good measure.  It was the first time in NBA Finals history two teammates went for 40+ in the same game. No big deal. The series would head back to Cleveland where the James gang would have a chance on their home court to force a game 7.

Game six was over before it even got started really. All the Cavs had to do was hold on, and the Warriors didn’t even make them hold on for dear life.  James was everything out of the gate and the Cavs were up 20 after the first quarter. After a reluctance to shoot jumpers due to a faltering shot James found something in game 5 and still had it in game 6. James shot 16-27 from the field and toyed with the Warriors in the 4th quarter making Tristan Thompson look like a world beater on impressive assist after impressive assist. Thompson went 6-6 from the field and I have to think James assisted on a minimum of 4 of those buckets, all dunks.

Then came game 7. A legacy defining game. A game that could have been considered the biggest game in NBA history, if not in the top 5. It would mean Lebron not getting it done yet again with Warriors winning their second straight title and capping off the greatest season in NBA history, or Lebron officially becoming immortal in the annals of the NBA. So there was little bit riding on this.

 For years and years Charles Barkley has said that jump shooting teams can’t win championships. Even though the Warriors proved him wrong in 2015, he was right on the mark in 2016 because the best jump shooting team of all time could not buy a three pointer in the second half of the biggest game of their lives. The Warriors clung to a 1 point lead heading to the fourth and the game got knotted at 89 all for what seemed like an eternity. The defense was ratcheded up as high as it could go and nobody was getting clean looks at the basket. It felt like the next bucket could win the game or at least put a stranglehold on who would win.  After more than 3 minutes of game time at the same score, Andre Iguodala got out on a break and looked like he’d be coasting in for the go-ahead layup with under two minutes to play.

                                                     Then Lebron happened.

Nobody Else in the World Makes this Block

Iguodala was taking off from just past the free throw line and James was still outside the three point line and closing in on the ball like a heat seeking missile. Iguodala got the lay up out and high off the glass. In came James soaring above the rim, his head even with it, as he pinned the ball against the glass an inch before it hit the backboard and it was a play that will live in infamy. I didn’t watch any Bill Russell Finals games but I have to believe that was the best block in NBA history considering the athleticism it took to do it and the magnitude of the situation in which it came . That was a “nobody else on the planet can make that block” block and that’s why you have to have an appreciation for Lebron James.

Irving wound up hitting the game winning three, and even Kevin Love played nice defense on Steph Curry in the waning moments, but none of it happens without The King. James finished with a triple double, just the third ever in an NBA Finals Game 7. I’ve written about it before but I’ll say it again. If the Sixers don’t have what it takes, I just want to watch greatness. This Finals was just that. There’s not much left for the detractors to discuss after an all time performance from an all time player and I’m just glad I got to witness it and say I watched James in his prime and there was nobody better.

The guy led the entire Finals in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals. Read that sentence again, and then maybe one more time for good measure. There's barely adjectives that exist for a performance like this. Astonishing.

He was just locked in. Once he caught fire with Kyrie in game five, whether he said it to his teammates or not, you could see it on his face, he was in no way we’re going to lose this title! mode.

And he didn’t.

* I believe millions of dollars were raised for the Boys and Girls Club of America for that show so it was not all bad.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Are These Guys For Real?

Odoobs, He's a Rule 5 guy.

The Phillies just finished a 10 game road trip, which included a 4 game losing streak, with a 5-5 record. They managed to take two of three from the putrid Braves and put a halt to the Marlins hot streak with late inning clutch hitting. A blown save in St. Louis kept the Phils from splitting the four game set in the Show Me State.

They’ve played 16 of their last 19 on the road and during that stretch their record improved from 7-9 to 20-15. These road warriors have played more games than any Major League team away from their home park and still have the 4th best record in the NL to show for it. We’re nearing the quarter point of the season and the Phils are currently holding on to a Wild Card spot (yes, it’s too early to even discuss really). So their somewhat sustained success begs the question: Are these young kids for real or not?

Well, I don’t want to throw cold water on my readers but most of the data and stats we see coming from this bunch would suggest that they are not. Despite having a record that sits 5 games above .500, these Phils have a -27 run differential. If you’re reading this you probably know that the Phililes have been borderline unstoppable in one-run games this season.  They have played 15 one-run games and hold a 12-3 record in those contests. When they win, they win small, when they lose, they lose big. 

Let’s add some historical context for the kind of ball the Phils are playing. This overachieving team is currently averaging 3.29 runs per game. If that sounds like a small number, it’s because it is. At that pace, the Phils would score 533 runs this year. In the last 10 years, only two teams averaged less than that for a season. The 2013 Miami Marlins (62-100) and 2010 Seattle Mariners (61-101) both scored on average 3.17 runs per game. Since the second wild card was added in 2012 (4 seasons), the ten teams to make the postseason each year have combined to average 4.46 runs per game.  Even further, not one of the playoff teams from the past four years has ended the season with a negative run differential.  Just from a layman’s perspective, it’s hard to win more games than you lose over a 162 game season and wind up with less runs scored than your opponents. These current Philies are defying logic.

The smoke and mirrors the Phillies are employing revolve around a precocious pitching staff performing at a level none of us thought possible.  The staff, led by Aaron Nola, have done a tremendous job of limiting base runners and striking out opposing batters. The Phils have given up the third fewest walks and limited opponents to a .236 batting average, good enough for 4th in the NL. Those stats combined have given the Phils’ arms the third best WHIP (Walks and Hits per Inning Pitched) in the NL at 1.19.  The biggest key to the success of the starters as well as a surprisingly impressive bullpen have been the strikeouts. All season long the Phils had led the NL in strikeouts until the Nationals Max Scherzer whiffed 20 Tigers this week. As it stands they are second to the Nationals in total Ks, 315 to 316, and K/9 at 9.09 to the Nats 9.10.

In 2015, the Phils staff ranked 12th in the NL in strikeouts,  14th in batting average allowed (.280 – yikes!), 14th in strikeouts per 9 innings, and 14th in WHIP. The NL has 15 teams and the Rockies were the only team worse than them in several categories and they play 81 games in the thin air at Coors Field. It’s been clear that the Phils early turnaround has been pitching driven but when you take a look at last year compared to now the numbers really are eye-popping.

As far as individual play is concerned the Phils are playing two, maybe three*, players everyday that you hope to see still playing every day for them come next season. You have to marvel at what Odubel Hererra is doing at the plate, though his defense has been a bit shaky of late. Through 35 games Odoobs is clearly playing at an All-Star caliber level. His. 339 batting average is 6th in the NL while he ranks 4th in walks (26, he had 28 all of last year), second in on-base percentage (.450),  4th in steals (6), and second in pitches per plate appearance (4.50).  He’s been the only consistent hitter on the team and as you can tell by his on base percentage, he always seems to be on base. Last night, he led off the 10th inning with a one-handed golf swing triple that allowed him to eventually score the go-ahead run for the Phils 4th win in 4 extra inning games this season. He finished the game 4-4 with a walk.

Maikel Franco has been up and down at the plate while continuing to play stellar defense. His inconsistency clearly comes from his approach and wild free swinging philosophy at the plate. I can’t recall a guy swinging as violently or haphazardly as Franco since Vladimir Guererro used to terrorize the Phillies north of the border. The problem is, Guererro was a one in a billion talent. Franco takes hacks like he’s trying to hit a 10 run home run, and that’s with nobody on base in a game where the Phils need base runners. Somebody needs to get through to the kid to tone that swing down and take a cue from Axl Rose and have a little more patience at the plate (yeaaaahhhh). His 5.4% walk ratio is between bad and awful. Of course, when he does connect he can send moon shot home runs soaring deep into the stands. That happens too, but we need to see more consistency out of the Phils’ best power bat.

Then comes the Big Piece. All he does is hit home runs. Literally. That is the only thing left that Ryan Howard can do. Somehow, some way,  Howard reached 7 home runs in fewer at bats than he ever has before in his career. His 8 home runs on the season rank 9th in the NL. For his career, Ryan Howard is 12th all time with a home run every 15.0 at bats. This season he is ranked 8th with a home run every 12.8 at bats. Over the past 5 seasons (since the Achilles injury), Howard has averaged a home run every 21.3 at bats, so it is nice to see The Big Piece homering at a clip more consistent with his heyday. His homers have also been mostly of the clutch variety as he has hit a walk-off home run, accounted for the only run in two separate 1-0 Phillies wins, and put the Phillies ahead with 5 of the 8 he’s hit.

The Big Piece After a Walk-Off Homer vs the Indians

So that’s the good news for Howard. The bad news is legitimately everything else. He is slashing .176 / .243 / .422. He’s gotten multiple hits in two, count em, two games this season. He is 3 for his last 32 and all three of those hits are home runs. He’s gone 12 games now without a hit that wasn’t a home run. The best he can possibly be at first base is below average. He’s a polarizing figure but from all accounts he’s been a positive influence in the clubhouse and been a professional when sitting against lefties even though Darin Ruf may be the only 1st baseman in the Majors worse than him.

In reality, this Phils team almost certainly is not for real this season but that should not take away from anything they’ve accomplished during this incredible first month and a half. The experience these young guys are getting winning ball games while building and growing together is exactly what the organization needs. I went back and read my season preview for the 2015 season. That was the most morbid piece I may have ever written. At the time, it felt like we’d be waiting for the roaring 20s until the Phils were relevant again. Well, even if the stats don’t quite add up, the Phils are relevant right now. The chemistry manager Pete Mackanin has helped foster because he seems to understand the makeup of his young squad a 1000x better than his hall-of-fame predecessor can only bode well for the future when more reinforcements can replace the lack of talent currently sprinkled around the diamond for our Phillies.

They may not actually be for real right now, but a positive future is coming much sooner than expected. In the mean time, let’s enjoy the ride this summer as much as we can.

Werth the Watch:

Cole Hamels (Rangers)

W-L: 4-0 (11-1 with Rangers) ERA: 2.95 SO: 45 BB: 17

Chase Utley (playing every day for the Dodgers)

Avg: .296 On Base: .392 Slugging: .454 HR: 2 RBI: 10

Jimmy Rollins (playing 4 out of 5 games for the White Sox)

Avg: .247 On Base: .315 Slugging: .361 HR: 1 RBI: 5

Jayson Werth (playing every day for the Nationals)

Avg: .196 On Base: .258 Slugging: .411 HR: 6 RBI: 19

Shane Victorino - I did a little research. Shane was in spring training with the Cubs and hurt his calf. He is back healthy and playing with their AAA team in Iowa on a minor league contract. You ready for him to win a World Series with 3 different teams? 

Is this Heaven? 

No, it's Iowa.

*Cameron Rupp

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Taking Stock of the Phillies

A serious Web Gem from Maikel Franco

We’re twenty games into the baseball marathon and the Phillies are miraculously playing .500 baseball.  Anybody betting on this kind of early season outcome would have been deemed off their rocker three weeks ago.  Last night this young scrappy squad prevailed over the Nationals in Washington with Nats' ace Max Scherzer on the mound. The Nationals had the best record in baseball entering the game and the Phils handed them just their fifth loss of the season.

After beginning the season losing four straight games, the Phils are 10-6 since and the young players have showed signs and glimpses of what could possibly be a bright future sooner rather than later. So after a mere twenty games, allow me to take stock of what I’ve gleaned from Pete Mackanin’s youngsters.

You have to start at the top with two most important players on the roster currently. Maikel Franco is firmly entrenched as the best offensive player on the team and the best right handed bat in who knows how long for a team that has lacked power since the glory days that ended at the beginning of the decade. Franco has been just shy of outstanding and has really come on over the past week. During the three game set in Milwaukee, Franco went 7-13 with 3 home runs, 8 RBI, and he is currently slashing .286 / .325 / .526. The slugging percentage is good for 6th in the NL.

Maik has had a flare for the dramatic as he now has four go-ahead RBIs including a blasted double to center field off old foe Oliver Perez that allowed the Phillies to climb ahead of the Nationals 4-3 last night. His glove has also been stellar at the hot corner where he’s made a number of beautiful picks and nice throws. On Sunday in Milwaukee Franco made a – you have to see it to believe it – play where he dove to his left to field a ground ball and spun on to his back side where he sat and threw a bullet across the diamond to Ryan Howard to get the out (video below). So far so good for the Phillies best position player.


Meanwhile, Aaron Nola is attempting to establish himself as the staff ace and has three solid outings and one forgettable appearance under his belt in 2016. Nola has limited base runners with a 1.00 WHIP (10th in the NL) and .219 batting average allowed. In two of his four starts he has allowed just one run. His 4.50 ERA is not where you want it to be but that was due to the bad start last week against the Nationals where he gave up 7 runs in 5 innings. His other three starts have kept the Phillies in the game and he was able to pick up his first win of the season in Milwaukee Friday night. His strikeout to walk ratio is fantastic at 30 to 5.  

The consistent theme for the staff so far has been high strikeout totals coupled with a dearth of walks. Nola, Jerad Eichoff, and Vince Velasquez are ranked 5, 6, and 7 respectively in the NL in strikeout to walk ratio.

The most pleasant surprise so far has been the live young arms starting games for the Phillies. Jerad Eichoff, who came over in the Cole Hamels deal,  showed promise at the end of the 2015 season and continues to show it at the start of 2016. He was sporting a 1.89 ERA through three starts until he got knocked around in Milwaukee Sunday. The 25 year old has a devastating curveball that has buckled the knees of several unsuspecting batters this season.  In his first three starts he allowed the following run totals; 2, 0, 2.

Vince Velasquez celebrates his 16 K 0 BB complete game shut out

Aside from the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter last week, Vince Velasquez is the author of the second best start from any pitcher this season. In his second outing of the season, Velasquez threw a complete game shutout with 16 strikeouts and no walks against the Padres. He blew away the last batter with a 96 mile per hour fastball. Through four starts Velasquez is 3-1 with a 1.78 ERA and that includes picking up the win last night in DC. Velasquez came over in the Ken Giles deal and is looking like a steal and half, although it is still very early.

The bullpen remains unsteady but has not been the tire fire it was the first few games of the season. Still, the bullpen ERA is 5.02 and that is not going to keep this team at .500 or better if it does not come down some from that number. After Dalier Hinojosa blew the Phils first save opportunity of the season in the second game of the year, Pete Mackanin quickly changed the closer’s role to Jeanmar Gomez who has converted all five of his opportunities. Last night, Gomez got the first two outs in the 9th of a one run game but gave up a single to Anthony Rendon to bring up the most dangerous hitter in the game in Bryce Harper. Harper had already been issued 3 free passes, two intentional in the game, but Gomez got him to bounce out to third to preserve the victory. Harper has homered in six straight games at Citizen’s Bank Park, a feat no one else has accomplished, thankfully this game was played at Nationals Park.

Until this past weekend in Milwaukee the offense for the Phils was really doing nothing but sputtering. The pitching was winning them some games, but it took an extra inning win against the Mets in the 16th game of the year for the Phils to finally reach the 10 hit plateau in a game. As it stands they currently have the following totals (NL average in parenthesis) and ranks (out of 15) in the major offensive categories.

Runs – 66 (92) 14th
Hits – 152 (176) 14th
Home Runs – 18 (21) 10th
Batting Average - .232 (.254) 13th
On Base Percentage - .291 (.325) 15th
Slugging - .376 (.412) 13th

These totals and averages are coming after an offensive onslaught (at least by the Phillies standards) over the weekend in Milwaukee. The Phils had been dead last in runs by a good margin prior to that series. The Atlanta Braves are the only offense that can be considered worse than the Phillies in the NL. Inconceivably, the Braves have three home runs on the season!  Andrew McCutchen hit three home runs in 6 innings last night for the Pirates. You’ve got to be pulling your hair out as a Braves fan, wow.

The bright spots on offense are few and far between save Maikel Franco. The biggest stat of note is borderline astonishing though. I think Odubel Herrera may have read my season preview blog and taken it to heart. El Torito – The Little Bull – has 19 walks in 20 games. The kid played in 147 games last year and only drew 28 free passes. He won’t end up with 150 walks like his pace suggests but his walk total is good for 2nd in the NL and his .442 on base percentage ranks 4th. That kind of change in approach is something I’ve been calling on the Phillies to do for years and some credit has to go to the coaching staff to get Odoobs to change his free swinging ways.

Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez have been serviceable at the plate. Hernadez is hitting for a higher average at .293, but Galvis has shown a bit more pop with 7 extra base hits, good enough for second on the team behind Franco. The platoon in left and right field consisting of Peter Bourjos, Tyler Goeddel, and the now cut Cedric Hunter has been dismal. The Phils are missing Aaron Altherr, who is out with a broken wrist, in right. Cameron Rupp has been average while Carlos Ruiz has smacked two homers in very limited playing time.

Darin Ruf is 5-26 on the season with a double. That .192 average has kept the atrocious Ryan Howard on the field for the majority of the season, in fact he and Odoobs are the only two players to appear in every game so far. Howard hit four home runs in the first 11 games but he has gone 9 now without one and his slash line is an abysmal .177 / .254 / .371. Freddy Galvis is slugging 45 points higher than the Big Piece. To make matters worse, he’s easily the worst first baseman in the game. I’ve seen him drop two routine put outs at first base. A major league first baseman. Dropping throws at first base. Wow. Unfortunately for the Phils, he is their best option at first and since they’re paying him all this money why not start him? Hopefully he is maintaining a positive attitude and influence in the clubhouse because sadly that may be all that is left for the Piece to contribute to a team he’s played for his entire career.

Right now this squad is certainly overachieving but winning can be contagious in baseball and I’ve always been a firm believer in good vibes, mojo, what the French call a certain – I don’t know what – actually helping a team. For the first time since 2012, this team is exciting to watch. Franco and Odoobs, and Nola and Velasquez, these are all guys you can look forward to watching, especially when you see them play with a youthful exuberance that has been missing for too long at Citizen’s Bank Park. As a fan, you just want to have at bats, starts, and games to look forward to. For the first time in a long time, I can say I’m eager to watch this team play. That’s all we can ask for right now.

Werth The Watch:

Cole Hamels (Rangers)

W-L: 3-0 ERA: 2.52 SO: 23 BB: 11

Chase Utley (playing everyday for the Dodgers)

Avg: .301 On Base: .370 Slugging: .438  HR: 0 RBI: 5

Jimmy Rollins (playing everyday for the White Sox)

Avg: .262 On Base: .313 Slugging: .410  HR: 1 RBI: 4

Jayson Werth (playing everyday for the Nationals)

Avg: .199 On Base: .299 Slugging: .414 HR: 3 RBI: 8

Shane Victorino (not on a Major League roster at 35 years old)


Monday, April 4, 2016

Who Are These Guys?

Maikel Franco 

The Phillies will play meaningful baseball today, not that too many people have seemed to take notice of a team that is predicted to lose over 90 games and has literally one household name left on it. I’ve been following spring training with a modicum of interest, really just in an effort to figure out who even plays for this big league club any more.

Last year Jimmy Rollins did not take his spot as the opening day shortstop. This year there will be no Chase Utley playing hard but not playing well at second base. Next year, thankfully, Ryan Howard will not be taking his spot at first base. You’ll see him there plenty this season though.

As for the rest of this team, it’s literally the scene straight out of Major League when fans around the city discussed what the Indians looked like that year. “Who are these ____ing guys?” It’s what they say in the movie, and it’s certainly what any of you looking at a spring training box score were thinking.

Without looking anything up, there’s really only a handful of guys I can name on this roster, and it’s actually the way it needs to be after seeing so many familiar faces not getting the job done the past few years.

Ryan Howard and his contract will be the elephant at first base for the majority of the first half of the season. His play will determine how much, if at all, he'll play post All-Star Break.  Howard is on the books for $25,000,000 this season which accounts for almost 30% of the Phils’ total payroll. Current GM Matt Klentak and to a larger extent, former GM Ruben Amaro, cut $60 million in payroll from 2015 to ’16 ($148M to 88M) when Utley, Jonathan Papelbon, and Cole Hamels were all making 8 figures.

Howard figures to platoon at first base with Darin Ruf when left-handers pitch because Howard has hit lefties just a shade higher than I’ve hit lefties the past few years. Howard stands to make per paycheck what half the team makes for the season, roughly. Watch for some animosity there if Howard isn’t producing much.

Recently extended manager Pete Mackanin’s issues are far from over when it comes to his first baseman. I can name three starting pitcher’s for this team, I wonder if Pete can name more than that?

Jeremy Hellickson, a free-agent brought over from Arizona, will start the season opener today in Cincinnati. Hellickson went 9-12 last year with a 4.62 ERA. It’s the first time since 2008 somebody not named Halladay, Hamels, or Lee will start on opening day for the Phillies. And last year they were the worst team in baseball.

Aaron Nola

Following Hellickson will be the real headliner of the staff, Aaron Nola. Nola is in his first full season in the Bigs and will turn 23 in June. He was the 7th overall pick in the 2014 draft and his starts will matter more than anybody else on the roster this season. It’s a ridiculous comparison, but think Greg Maddux when you think of Aaron Nola. He’s not going to blow that speedball by you and make you look like a fool, boy. He’ll work with pinpoint accuracy and subtle change of speeds to keep hitters off balance.

Every time I hear or read anything about the bullpen it’s that “every spot is up for grabs.” With the departures of  Papelbon and Ken Giles, the Phils will most likely be closing games by committee early in the season until somebody proves their worth. Bullpen names include Jeanmar Gomez, David Hernandez, Dalier Hinojosa, Hector Neris, Brett Oberholtzer, and James Russell. You get all that?

Rounding out the early season rotation will be Jerad Eickhoff, Charlie Morton, and Vince Velasquez. Sounds like runs.

For a team that hopes 4 of the 5 best position players in the organization are not yet in the Majors, it’s hard to look for bright spots. Maikel Franco is the Phillies best player, hands down. Franco led all of spring-training in both homers (9) and RBI (23) and appears to have a pretty slick glove at third base. He’s the best right handed power bat since Jayson Werth and he needs to put together the kind of season that gives Phillies fans hope for the future. I’d like to see Franco hit .270 with 25+ homers and 80+ RBI. That would be a season we can all live with.

The four guys I refer to above are the future of the team, and waiting in the wings at either AAA - Lehigh Valley or AA - Reading.  JP Crawford (21) is the shortstop heir apparent to Jimmy Rollins. Nick Williams (22) is the power hitting outfielder the Phillies haven’t had for half a decade. Outfielder Roman Quinn (22) opened some eyes in spring training with some power and defensive prowess. Meanwhile, Jorge Alfaro (22) will be looking to eventually replace the current second oldest tenured Phillie in Carlos Ruiz.

The Phils will run back Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez as their double play combination. A duo that can turn a double play if you hit it sharply at them with a man on first and less than two outs. A duo that will collectively slug lower than what Miguel Cabrera averages this season. A duo that strikes fear in their fans. A duo that can hopefully be replaced sooner rather than later.

Odubel Herrera will be the starting centerfielder for the second straight season. Odoobs showed some promise with the bat last year, and also proved to be a half-decent center fielder considering he was a second baseman his entire career until 2015. He will need to be a bit more patient at the plate as he walked only 28 times in 147 games last year. A 5.2 % walk ratio is no good for anybody, let alone someone with his speed who bats at the top of the order.

I expect plenty more names to come and go this season as the Phils look to essentially just get older this season, and for the first time in a while that’s a good thing. The offense will be in short supply with the everyday players the Phils are employing, especially if Ryan Howard continues at his current clip. The pitching will be scary at times, with starters that lack talent. To a greater extent on the scary scale will be the bullpen, where even more unproven talent will attempt to hold leads and keep the Phils in games without much of a calming veteran presence. 

Fans have to hope for flashes of brilliance from the guys who can provide value to this team when it has a chance to be a winner down the road. We want home runs out of Franco. We want shut down innings from Aaron Nola. We want it to be 2020 and have Crawford and Williams reporting to South Philadelphia not Lehigh County.

But for now, let’s just enjoy the wins this young squad will provide us with this season. I’m saying they can get to 70 of them, if things fall just right and they take care of business against the only team in the Majors predicted to be worse than them: The Atlanta Braves.

Also, do yourself a favor and listen to Scott Franzke and Larry Andersen as much as possible. They are as good as it gets. It's easy to play Scott.