Saturday, October 6, 2012

The 2012 Phillies: My Post-Mortem Evaluation

Some concluding thoughts on the 2012 Phillies while reflecting on the inanity of one-game wild card playoffs and inexcusably bad umpiring ...

I was not surprised.  The 2012 Phillies, as most of the 6 million people in the Philadelphia metropolitan area already know, finished with what, for them, was an embarrassing, 81-81 record, third in their division behind the upstart Washington Nationals (!) and the perennially star-crossed Atlanta Braves.  This season marked the first time since 2002 that the team did not finish with a winning record, only the second time in the team's 130-year history that it has managed to record 9 consecutive winning seasons (the other being the Mike Schmidt- and Steve Carlton-era 1975-83 teams, which likewise failed to achieve a 10th winning season by falling to 81-81 in 1984).  I suppose, given the fact that the Phillies are the losingest franchise in American professional sports history —  at present they have recorded 10,373 losses, 278 more than the second place Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves — I should be satisfied.  After all, I have followed the team during both of these streaks.  They have posted winning seasons in 21 out of the last 38 seasons, and in 25 of the 49 seasons I have been counted as one of their fans.  But in Philadelphia, as in Ireland, collective memory extends far back into the mists of time, and the emotional detritus of 1918-1948  seasons strewn with such records as 42-109, 43-109, and 43-111 — remains even with those of us who weren't around to "enjoy" the teams of that era.  And so ... I am not satisfied.

Like Abraham, back in March I hoped against hope by pointing to the 1965 Dodgers as a possible path to success for the 2012 Phils.  In the back of my mind, I knew this was a stretch  after all, no matter how strong the team's starting pitching is, who can, with a straight face, suggest that anyone on the staff could ever approach the total dominance achieved back in '66 by the immortal Sandy Koufax?  And so even then I admitted, "I wouldn't be overly surprised if they finish with between 80-85 wins and fail to reach the playoffs."

In ignominiously failing to post a winning record a year after winning a franchise-record 102 wins in 2011, the 2012 Phillies join a select few teams in MLB history to have fallen from grace so precipitously.  The 1971 Cincinnati Reds finished 79-83 a year after bursting on the scene with a 102-60 record in 1970.  That season was an aberration, however.  In the next 5 seasons, the Big Red Machine never failed to win less than 95 games, culminating in the World Series champions of 1975-76 who won 108 and 102 games, respectively.  One can reasonably attribute the failure of 1971 to the team's relative youth (Tommy Helms and Pete Rose, at 30, were the oldest regulars) and off seasons by catcher Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, and 22-year old George Foster.  More relevant are the 1965 New York Yankees, whose demise was even more shocking, in that their 77-85 record came on the heels of 5 consecutive pennants during which the team had averaged 101 wins.  Indeed, a diagnosis of the ills of the 2012 Phillies and the 1965 Yankees shows some striking similarities, all revolving around one major problem: an aging core of players with insufficient roster rejuvenation.  Age not only diminishes skills, but raises the possibility of debilitating injuries.  The '65 Yanks were not as old as commonly understood: of their regulars, only 3 were more than 30 years old (Ellie Howard at 36, Mickey Mantle at 33, and Hector Lopez at 35), and mainstays Joe Pepitone and Tom Tresh were only 24 and 26, respectively.  What knocked the Yanks off their pedestal, more than anything else, were injuries to their two best players, the immortal Mickey Mantle and fellow outfielder Roger Maris.  Mantle, though only 33, finally showed the full effects of an injury-ravaged career, and managed only 19 HR and 46 RBI, while hitting a pedestrian .255 in 361 ABs.  Maris, for the second time in 3 years, had a severely shortened season due to injury.  In '65, he was limited to 46 games, during which he managed a mere 8 HR and an anemic .239 average.  Despite being only 30 years old, never again would he be the Maris of 1962 or 1964, let alone the beast he was in 1960-61.

The 2012 Phillies, so it could be argued, were likewise felled by unfortunate injuries.  Their two best players, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, each missed the first half of the season due to Achilles' and knee injuries, respectively.  Their best pitcher, Roy Halladay, spent considerable time on the disabled list, and in reality never was healthy the entire season because of an unspecified shoulder problem that altered his arm angle and flattened his previously often-unhittable cutter.  Indeed, some attribute the team's fall entirely to the injury bug.  Shortstop Jimmy Rollins, for instance, claimed that, were it not for injuries, the Phils would still have prevailed in the division.  That is not merely poor sportsmanship, it is a prime example of ostrich-style reasoning as well, considering the injuries Nationals' players such as Jayson Werth, Michael Morse, and Ian Desmond suffered, not to mention the limitations placed upon Stephen Strasburg, perhaps the best young pitcher in the National League.

The fact of the matter is that the Phillies' problems entering the season were well-known, yet general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. (RAJ) failed to address them adequately, preferring instead to lavish closer Jonathan Papelbon with a $50 million contract.  Papelbon performed adequately, with 38 saves in 42 opportunities, a 2.44 ERA, and a 1.06 WHIP (though his performance will not make anyone forget the work of Tug McGraw in 1980 or Brad Lidge in 2008).  But RAJ did nothing to bolster the rest of the bullpen or prop up the team's offense which, in reality, had begun to falter the previous two seasons.  And with the injuries to Utley, Howard, and Halladay (not to mention Cliff Lee, rookie Freddie Galvis, and the washed-up Placido Polanco), tendencies masked by outstanding starting pitching a year ago flourished unchecked in 2012.

Primary among these are impatience at the plate and a striking lack of timely situational hitting.  Their 454 walks ranked 13th in a 16 team league, a stat that would have been worse had hackers Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence not been dealt away prior to the July 31 trade deadline.  More problematic was their pathological incompetence with runners on third and less than 2 outs.  In 173 plate appearance with runners on 3rd base (alone), they managed to plate the runner only 61 times while compiling an sOPS+ of only 83 (100 is average).  With runners on second and third, they scored only 55 runs in 140 plate appearances, with an sOPS+ of 64.  With no outs and runners on second and third, they managed only 6 runs on one hit in 12 opportunities (with an sOPS of -4 [!]).  With one out and runners on second and third, they managed to score a mere 24 runs on 9 hits in 56 plate appearances, with an sOPS+ of only 44.  Twenty-eight times they left 10 or more runners on base in a game, including an astounding 6 times in a nine-game stretch between September 7-15, when they were fighting for their playoff lives.  For the team to improve its chances for success next season, such tendencies as these must be addressed.

Besides these, a number of personnel issues must be addressed.  These include the following:

1.  What can the Phillies do about Ryan Howard and Chase Utley?  

In one sense, they can do nothing.  They owe Utley $13 million and Howard $25 million next season, making them both effectively untradable.  Indeed, the contract extension RAJ gave Howard back in 2010 may turn out to be the worst, and most damaging, in team history.  But they are stuck with him  and his salary  for four more years.  Howard turns 33 in November, and even before his unfortunate Achilles' tear in last year's playoffs, was already showing the unmistakable signs of inexorable decline.  This season he hit .219 with 14 HR and 99 strikeouts in 71 games following his return.  His anemic .295 OBP and .423 slugging percentage are simply unacceptable, as his OPS+ of 91 and offensive WAR of -1.2 clearly show.  To be sure, some of this can be justly attributed to his return from a devastating injury.  But not all of it.  Even before his injury, Howard was not the slugger who terrorized the league from 2006 - 2009.  Simply put, Howard no longer strikes fear in the hearts of other National League pitchers.  The man who walked 215 times (72 intentional) in 2006-07 was walked only 25 times in this half-season (7 intentional).  His resolute refusal to beat the shift by hitting to left field is more than irritating.  He either can't, in which case he has less native ability than I expect he has, or he won't, in which case he apparently considers his home run totals to be more significant than the good of the team.  His constant flailing away at breaking balls out of the strike zone has often made me wonder why any pitcher ever throws him a fastball.  And, most importantly, Howard simply cannot hit lefthanded pitching.  It was not always so.  In his monster 2006 season, Howard actually hit .279 with 16 HR in 197 at bats against lefties.  But consider the following three seasons:

(1) 2009  Total:        616 AB, 45 HR, .279 BA, .571 SLG
                    vs. RHP:   394 AB, 39 HR, .320 BA, .693 SLG
                    vs. LHP:   222 AB,  6 HR, .207 BA, .356 SLG

(2) 2011  Total:         557 AB, 33 HR, .253 BA, .488 SLG
                    vs. RHP:    387 AB, 30 HR, .266 BA, .550 SLG
                    vs. LHP:     170 AB, 3 HR, .224 BA, .347 SLG

(3) 2012  Total:         260 AB, 14 HR, .219 BA, .423 SLG
                    vs. RHP:    162 AB, 8 HR, .247 BA, .451 SLG
                    vs. LHP:     98 AB, 6 HR, .173 BA, .378 SLG

The solution fairly screams to be heard: Ryan Howard should be a strictly platoon ballplayer.  I don't care how large his contract is, or what size hit his ego would take. He simply should not play against most southpaws.  Failure to acknowledge this by management has resulted, and will continue to result, in harm to the fortunes of the team.  Fortunately, in the Phillies' case, there is a simple solution close to hand in the person of John Mayberry Jr.  The team (at least publicly) had high hopes in Mayberry's ability to step in and limit the damage done by Howard's absence.  In the end he failed, hitting only .245 with 14 HR, and .395 slugging percentage and 111 strikeouts in 441 ABs.  But against lefthanders, Mayberry hit .271, with 8 HR and a .494 slugging percentage in 166 ABs.  When one factors in Mayberry's better baserunning and defense into the equation, the solution is a no-brainer.  But that probably means that it has no chance of ever happening.

With regard to Utley, I think the team needs to acknowledge that what they saw from him this year is all they can ever expect from him.  And this is sad for the simple reason that Utley was the team's best all-around player from 2005-09.  But the (at the time unacknowledged) hip injury  not to mention the dodgy knees that have hindered him each of the last two seasons   he suffered in the second half of the 2009 season has had a permanent, deleterious influence on Utley's ability to turn on the ball.  The line drives he used to hit into the gaps and over Citizen Bank Park's short fences have all too often turned into ground balls and lazy fly outs.  Nevertheless, Utley continues to bring a healthy intensity to the game, and his production (11 HR, 43 BB, .256 BA in 301 ABs) is perfectly adequate for a second baseman.  If only people will refrain from expecting the Utley of his prime years to return (let alone Rogers Hornsby), Utley can still contribute to a winning club.

2.  What can the Phillies expect from their starting rotation next year?

Fortunately, all the silly talk about "four aces" has gone by the wayside.  Re-signing 17-game winner Cole Hamels to a contract extension was the smartest thing RAJ has done in quite a while.  Cliff Lee's 6-9 record is the most deceiving of any in my memory.  Lee's 207 strikeouts in 211 innings, his league-leading 7.39 SO/BB ratio, his 1.114 WHIP and 3.16 ERA all suggest he had a very fine season indeed.  As always with Lee (and Hamels, for that matter), the major concern is his penchant for allowing home runs (26 this season), a very present danger in the cozy Bank.  

The team's biggest concern has to be Roy Halladay, who followed his first two sensational seasons with the Phils with a forgettable, disappointing, and injury-plagued one this season.  His 11-8 record is less eloquent than his 4.49 ERA, which was worse than that of journeyman Kyle Kendrick by more than half a run.  To be sure, a mysterious shoulder issue is responsible for Halladay's slippage, but at 35 there is no guarantee we will ever see the old Roy again.

3.  What will the Phillies do to improve their bullpen?

The team placed great faith in Michael Stutes, Antonio Bastardo, and Chad Qualls to bridge the gap between their starters and closer Papelbon.  That faith was misplaced, as the team's horrible 4.67 8th inning ERA attests.  They received Josh Lindblom from the Dodgers in their trade of Shane Victorino, but he showed me nothing more than AAA stuff at best.  In his 23.1 innings, Lindblom walked 17 batters and amassed a 4.17 ERA with a 1.543 WHIP.  Even worse, he allowed 5 of the 10 runners he inherited to score.  Perhaps that is too small a sample size, but I, for one, saw enough.  The bullpen simply must be upgraded over the winter for the team to compete next season.  My suggestion: try to bring back Ryan Madson, assuming he can swallow his pride and bitterness over having been snubbed by the team last winter.  That would solve the 8th inning problem in a hurry, assuming of course that he recovers fully from the elbow injury he suffered in spring training.

4.  Will the Phillies be able to solve their holes in the outfield and at third base?

The departure of Shane Victorino, third only to Whitey Ashburn and Garry Maddox in the annals of best Phillies' centerfielders, left a huge void.  Free agency is unlikely to fill the hole.  Former Phil and three-time stolen base champ Michael Bourn is available, but his .274 BA and only 9 HR to go along with 155 strikeouts would make him only a minor upgrade at best.  B. J. Upton has both power (28 HR) and speed (31 SB), but hasn't hit as high as .250 in 5 years.  And he is even more of a strikeout machine than Bourn is, as his 169 strikeouts attest. Indeed, centerfield is a problem without an elegant solution.  One option the Phils might attempt: bring back free agent Victorino, whose underperforming season will deprive him of the big contract for which he was hoping.

The fortunes of the Phillies' outfield will likely depend on the mileage they get out of two prospects: Domonic Brown and Darren Ruf.  Brown is a former top prospect who has yet to demonstrate an ability to fulfill his athletic potential.  His .235 average and .396 slugging percentage in 186 AB this year are roughly similar to those he put up in 2011.  With each passing year, it looks more likely that he is another player overvalued because of "natural" athletic ability and unlikely to achieve the level of skill necessary to reach his potential.  Ruf, at 26  yet another Phillie prospect who is allowed to languish in the minors until his prime years  was a revelation when he was finally given the opportunity to play in September, with a .333 average and 6 extra-base hits in 33 ABS after setting a Phillies record by hitting 38 HRs at AA Reading.  Defensively, Ruf reminds me of Raul Ibanez in left field, but I have hopes that, by the middle of next season, Ruf's powerful right-handed bat will become a long-lasting fixture in the Phils' lineup.

There is no easy solution to the mess at third base.  Placido Polanco has, despite his glove, been rendered offensively punchless because of injuries the past two seasons.  He will not be back.  In his place Kevin Frandsen hit a surprising .338, but his lack of power and suspect defense point to his being a bench player in the long term.  Rookie Freddie Galvis, who replaced Utley at second for most of the first two months before a back injury ended his season, is a natural shortstop, but his defensive prowess at second begs the question as to whether he could make a similar transition to third.  But to be a long-term solution, his bat will have to improve significantly.  Can he do it?  I hope so, but I am not confident he can.

Much more could be said: my pleasant surprise at the play of veteran Juan Pierre (unlikely to be retained), the career year enjoyed by catcher Carlos Ruiz, the rise of powerful 32-year old rookie Erik Kratz to become the second string catcher, the disappointing debut of starter Tyler Cloyd after his 13-1 season at Lehigh Valley.  All in all, 2012 was a frustrating year for this increasingly spoiled Phillies fan.  As a student of the history of the game, I will be surprised if the team comes back to win the division next year.  The Nats are young, and their success this year was no fluke.  But I expect the team will rebound somewhat and avoid the fate of the 1985 Phillies, who continued their slide from the mediocrity of 1984 with a 75-87 mark in 1985.  If they don't, heads will certainly roll in South Philly.

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