Monday, July 9, 2012

Reflections on the End of the Phillies' 2012 Season


Hunter Pence colliding with third base coach Juan Samuel,
7 July 2012 (photo @the700level.com)


Today is July 9, 2012.  I would like to declare it to be the official end of the Philadelphia Phillies' 2012 campaign.  Perhaps this post can serve as something of a (temporary) Declaration of Independence of sorts from the emotional roller coaster that has always accompanied Philadelphia fandom.  I'm not optimistic about that possibility, however.  The bond between this aging sports fan and his Philadelphia teams is unbreakable.  'Til death us do part, indeed.

Of course, the official National League schedule has the Phillies playing until an October 3 game in Washington against the Nationals.  And columns in today's Philadelphia papers by Phil Sheridan and the great Bill Lyon persist in speaking of the all-star break as the close of the "first half" of the season (and the less said about the mindless cheerleading by broadcaster Tom McCarthy, the better).  But who is kidding whom?  Anyone who has watched this team play surely has noticed the second division body language emanating from the dugout, not to mention the second-rate baseball intelligence manifested by players, coaches, and manager Charlie Manuel.  There is simply no way that this team will recover and make the playoffs this season, let alone win their rejuvenated division for the sixth consecutive season. (If they do, I promise  to be more forthcoming in issuing a mea culpa than Bill O'Reilly has with regard to the Supreme Court's handling of the ACA).

Anyone with a modicum of baseball knowledge and acquaintance with the team's injury situation had reason to be fearful about this season.  Many of us vainly tried to calm our worries by "logically" pointing to the pitching triumvirate of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, considered by most Philadelphians to be "aces" (for illustrations of what real aces could do, see here).  Indeed, I even suggested that hope could be had in considering the 1965 Dodgers, an offensively anemic club who snuck past the offensively formidable Giants on the arms of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and Claude Osteen.  Even then, I had the nagging feeling that I was simply trying too hard to overcome my native and enculturated Philadelphia pessimism.  Three months later the depths of my delusion are painfully obvious.  Eighty-seven games into the 2012 season, a number of truths about the Phillies are self-evident:

1.  The Phillies are not in last place primarily because of injuries.

Yes, the injuries to Chase Utley (11 games played), Ryan Howard (3 games played), and Roy Halladay (11 starts) have hurt greatly.  Great teams, however, are able to overcome injuries.  The Dodgers are currently in first place despite their Willie Mays reincarnation, Matt Kemp, having been limited to 36 games.  Even more to the point, the 1963 Yankees won the pennant despite their best players, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, being limited to 65 and 90 games, respectively.  To gauge how much these two sluggers were missed, consider that in their combined 484 at bats, the M&M boys hit 38 homers, scored 93 runs, and drove in 88.  Howard and Utley, at this stage of their careers, are simply not players of that caliber. 

Utley, from 2006-2009, was arguably the best overall player in baseball.  Even by that time, however, perceptive observers would have noticed a drop-off in his performance, though the excessive secrecy that has characterized Utley's relation to the public was at work even then in hiding the severity of his physical issues.  His best season was 2007, when he hit .332 with 48 doubles, 22 homers, and 103 RBI despite being limited to 132 games because of a broken hand courtesy of  Washington's John Lannan.  For the first 59 games of 2008, he was even better: .320 with 20 homers and 50 RBI.  Then he fell off significantly, hitting only .275 with 13 homers in his final 100 games that season.  That off-season, he had major hip surgery which, in hindsight, he should have undergone as soon as he was aware of the problem.  In 2009, though Utley's numbers still were good (31 homers, .282 average), he was clearly not the same hitter.  He adapted to make use of Citizen Bank Park's criminally short fences, but the ball didn't jump off his bat as it previously had; as a result, he was far from the gap-hitting doubles machine he had previously been.  Subsequent years have been marked by a progressive decline.  Last year he hit .259 with only 11 homers in 398 at bats, and in his first 11 games this year (in which the team has a 1-10 record!), he has batted at a mere .235 clip.  This is very sad.  Chase was my favorite player on the 2008 World Series team, but any evaluation of his abilities and potential impact must at least try to banish such subjective factors from the discussion.  Utley is, in my view, this generation's Don Mattingly, a hall-of-fame talent whose path to Cooperstown was cut short by injury.  He is, however, done.  Or so it would appear to me.  Any fan (or general manager, and that means you, Ruben Amaro, Jr.) expecting a return to the old days with Utley is simply living in self-delusion.

Howard, who in his first full season (2006) hit .313 with 58 homers and 149 RBI (at the ripe old age of 26, but that's a story for another time), has steadily gone downhill ever since, especially after his weaknesses were exposed for all the world to see in the 2009 World Series.  Last season, the hulking first baseman hit 33 homers and drove in 116 runs, but only slugged .488, a far cry from his .659 in 2006.  Coming off Achilles tendon surgery, did anyone seriously believe he would come back this season, if ever again, in 2006 (or even 2009) form?

The injuries to Utley and Howard have hurt, but we kid ourselves if we think they are the second comings of Joe Morgan and Lou Gehrig.  Perhaps the real measure of their value came in the form of attitude, for their absence has certainly exposed the lack of clothes worn by their previously royal teammates.  Again, however, this should have come as no surprise to any more-than-casual fan.  A perusal of my facebook posts (often a humiliating experience!) over the past two summers confirms how my own frustration with the team's drawn-out periods of offensive ineptitude often bubbled to the surface.  They would go for games being unable to hit with runners in scoring position, but then would explode for 10 runs after building a comfortable lead (i.e., when the pressure was off).  This season it has gotten even worse.  After 87 games, the team still has a total of zero wins in games when it was behind in the 8th inning.  It has a grand total of two walk-off victories, both in games where they had blown an earlier lead.  Hunter Pence, despite his superficially fine statistics (16 HR, .285 BA), has been abysmal with runners in scoring position.  In 106 at bats, he is hitting but .226 with 3 homers.  With two outs and runners in scoring position, he has been even worse: 47 AB, 1 HR, .213).  Sad to say, but I would maintain that the only players carrying their weight have been catcher Carlos Ruiz (who is playing like Pudge Rodriguez in his prime) and surprising leftfielder Juan Pierre. 

Whatever the cause of the team's malaise, it cannot be wholly attributed to the injuries suffered by its best players.  Indeed, I attribute it to two factors.  First, the current edition of the Phillies has a very low baseball IQ.  Pence, for all his hustle, is one of the worst offenders, both wildly swinging at pitches over his head and threatening to play rightfield like Jose Canseco (I wouldn't be surprised one day to see him head a ball over the fence for a homer).  But no one surpasses supposed mainstays like Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins in this regard.  Neither has any plate discipline whatsoever, and both somehow imagine that a couple of homers means they are Ernie Banks and Willie Mays, leading to prolonged slumps filled with harmless pop flies.  Both of them need to heed the advice of Dirty Harry Callahan: "A man's got to know his limitations."  Both clearly don't.

More importantly, and I don't make this accusation lightly, is that the team's struggles this season are due even more to the its collective heart or, to be more precise, its lack of one.  Baseball is a cruel game in which luck often determines outcomes.  That is why the 162 game season is so crucial and often a better barometer of greatness than any short series of games.  What proves to be the measure of a player's heart is how he responds to the adversity the game delivers in hefty doses.  Thus far the Phillies have dealt with their adversity very poorly indeed.  One would hope that the size of the players' contracts hasn't come into play here, but the unmistakable feeling I get when watching them is that the all-consuming fire in the belly to win simply is not there.  And that is inexcusable.

2.  The pitching staff has thus far failed to uphold its end of the bargain.

This was always to be the Phillies' strength.  They were down one "ace" from 2011 (as if "John Deere" Roy Oswalt deserved that label), to be sure.  But surely, so the conventional wisdom was, Halladay, Lee, and Hamels would prevent the type of fall from grace we have witnessed this year.  But, of the three, only Hamels (10-4, 3.20) has come even remotely close to expectations.  Halladay, of course, has been shut down because of a strained shoulder, the effects of which had been evidenced by decreased velocity and effectiveness dating back to Spring Training in Clearwater.  He promises to be back soon.  Hopefully, his grit and tenacity will wear off on his stable mates.  Lee, however, has been the greatest mystery.  If anyone had suggested before the season that Lee would win his first game in his 14th start, I would have laughed at him to his face.  But so it was.  Of course, this is not all Lee's fault.  After his ninth start, on June 5, Lee had a 2.92 ERA to go along with his 0-3 record.  But, as his tendency to streakiness should have caused us to expect, an abysmal June led to his current 3.98 ERA: not terrible, but not good, either, certainly not worthy of his annual $20 million paycheck. 

The big fallacy involved in this naive trust in three "aces" is the simple fact that starting pitchers, especially "aces," do not have the same effect on games they once did.  There are no Koufaxes, Marichals, or Carltons pitching today who pitched every 4th game and demanded they finish the games they started, thus lessening the possibility that shaky middle relievers and "set up men" would ruin a well-pitched game by the starter.  The Dodgers of 1965, for example, got 336, 308, and 287 innings from their "big 3."  By contrast, last year's Phillies, whose 102 wins were entirely attributable to the work of Halladay, Lee, and Hamels, got 233.2, 232.2, and 216 innings out of its "big 3."  Where do all those extra innings get allocated?  Well, to such substandard starters as Joe "Plankton" Blanton and Kyle Kendrick, and to a revolving door of AAA-level relief pitchers, that's who.

That is quite simply the point.  If they played by same conventional wisdom as they do today, with 5-man rotations, closely monitored pitch counts, and clearly defined relief roles, the 1965 Dodgers never would have finished ahead of Mays's Giants, Clemente's Pirates, Robinson's Reds, or Aaron's Braves.  But they didn't, and thus they did, receiving 56 complete games from the "big 3," 47 from Koufax and Drysdale alone.  Moreover, the bullpen they did use was effective precisely because they were used differently from how relievers are today.  Ron Perranoski, the unquestioned leader, saved 17 games, but threw 105 innings in his 59 appearances.  Bob Miller saved 9 games while pitching 103 innings in his 61 appearances.  Six other pitchers had saves, including both Koufax (2) and Drysdale (1). 

The Phillies' bullpen arguably has been its weakest link, like a squeaky, out-of-tune second violinist in an otherwise admirable orchestra.  The ERAs of the Phils' relievers tells it all: Papelbon, 3.34; Diekman, 3.57; Schwimer, 3.60; Valdes, 3.80; Qualls, 4.60; Herndon, 4.70; Contreras, 5,27; Bastardo, 5.34; Savery, 5.87; Stutes, 6.35; Sanches, 8.53; Rosenberg, 23.14.  The upshot?  The Phillies' bullpen has the second highest ERA of all major league teams.  It doesn't matter if a starter pitches 6 or 7 shutout innings.  No lead is safe with these stiffs in the pen.  Adding to the insult is that the only major league-quality reliever on the roster, Jonathan Papelbon, has failed to be used in a number of situations by manager Charlie Manuel because they weren't "save" situations.  The result, every time, was a Phillies loss.  I ask: in a tie game in the 9th or 10th inning, would you rather have Joe Savery or Jonathan Papelbon pitch?  Here is one instance where the inanity and worthlessness of the "save" as a statistic has had a deleterious influence on game strategy and the fortunes of the club. 

3.  It is past time for change in both the front office and in the team's managerial and coaching staffs.

All Phillies fans are seemingly in agreement on this one.  Charlie Manuel obviously played a big roll in the startling rise of the Phillies to powerhouse status in 2007 and subsequent years.  His style was the direct opposite of Larry Bowa, whose fiery prickliness had been the scourge of the team's underachievers for years. Particularly with a young roster, Manuel's quiet, encouraging ways and loyalty to "his guys" payed off big time.  But things have changed.  Manuel's "guys" have seemingly aged poorly and prematurely, and many have received hefty salaries that made them impervious to change, even were Charlie to suggest it.  And Manuel's stubbornness has been exacerbated by his obvious deficiencies in terms of game strategy.  Hitting coach Greg Gross has improved no one's hitting, and has positively hindered the development of former phenom Dom Brown, currently languishing in AAA Lehigh Valley.  The same goes for pitching coach Rich Dubee, whose only accomplishments I can think of involve "coaching" his hurlers onto the disabled list.  Pride of place, however, must be given to third base coach Juan Samuel.  Never in my 49 years of following baseball have I witnessed a coach so inept at determining whether or not to send a runner home.  But the coup de grâce had to be Saturday's game against the Braves, when Samuel got in the way of Hunter Pence as the latter was attempting to score.  I can think of no better Keystone Cops routine to summarize this lost season.

The one whose head needs to roll first, however, is General Manager Ruben Amaro, Jr.  Amaro's condescending manner is irritating enough, but he must be judged by his work.  And on this alone he must be judged a colossal failure.  He inherited the 2008 World Series champions, and in only four seasons has turned them into a last place team with the highest payroll in the National League because of cripplingly disastrous contracts to players such as Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee, and Jonathan Papelbon.  Amaro resolutely failed to consider the declining production of Utley and Howard.  To land Halladay and Lee he emptied the farm system of almost all its best prospects.  He spent $50 million on a closer (Papelbon) who is a glorified Mitch Williams.  And, worst of all, he did nothing to enhance the roster of a team he knew would be without at least its best hitter for much of this season (unless one counts the addition of such hulking, one-dimensional players as Ty Wigginton, Laynce Nix, and Jim Thome as something, which I don't).

It's time to clean house.  Sure, the team might rebound next season with a winning record, but without major restructuring, will never come close to winning another series.  Better to start sooner rather than later.

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