Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Proleptic Requiem for the 2013 Phillies


It is May 2, a picture-perfect, sun-splashed 70 degree day here in southeastern Pennsylvania. The tulips, dogwoods and cherry trees are blooming, and the flowers are just starting to bloom on the azalea bushes in my front yard. I should be happy, but I must nevertheless bring bad tidings to the millions of fans of Philadelphia's ever-popular Major League Baseball franchise: the 2013 Phillies are dead.

On the first of April I published my second annual Phillies season projection, forecasting a mediocre, third-place season with 85 or so wins. After enduring 31 days and 28 games (17% of the season) of the Phailin' and Phlailin' Phils, I must say that, for the second straight year, I allowed my emotional attachment to the team to override both my better judgment and my native melancholy pessimism. Simply put, a third place finish in the NL East is still a distinct possibility. That is due, however, not to any genuine mediocrity attaching to the Phils, but to the utter awfulness of the New York Mets and the Miami Marlins, the latter of which has done a more than adequate impression of a AA team thus far. The Phils are, to be blunt, a mess, deservedly destined for the skybala heap of the National League.

After 28 games, they are 12-16, 5.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves and 2 games behind the thus far-underachieving Washington Nationals. The optimist will say that they are still within striking distance and that, with two Wild Card spots to be filled, they still have hope with so much of the season yet to play. No one who actually follows this team, however, could ever be such an optimist unless, of course, such a person has spent most of his or her time this past month emulating ostriches. Indeed, the Phils are a combined 7-2 against the aforementioned hapless Mets and Marlins, outscoring them 41-22 in the process. Against all other teams, they are an embarrassing 5-14, having been outscored 106-59. The last two days they were outscored 20-2 in a pair of losses to the Cleveland Indians—the Indians, for crying out loud!—who entered the series with an underwhelming 10-13 record. And they did this while sending two former Cy Young Award winners (Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee) to the mound, both of whom were shelled mercilessly. Thus far, out of 32 major league teams, they rank 24th in runs scored, 25th in on base percentage (OBP), 28th in walks per game, and 24th in slugging percentage. These stats are bad enough, but they are exacerbated by the continuance of what has been, for several years, an apparently pathological inability of the team's highly paid "stars" to perform in the clutch. Against the Pirates on 25 April, they went 2-16 with runners in scoring position (RISP) in a 6-4 loss. Last night they took the collar, going 0-10 with RISP in a 6-0 loss to 22-year old Trevor Bauer, yet another no-name pitcher who has morphed into Sandy Koufax when he faces the Phillies juggernaut. Despite their expensive starting rotation, staffed with former and supposedly present "aces," they rank 26th in ERA. Their early and middle relief pitchers (Jeremy Horst, Chad Durbin, Raul Valdes) are an embarrassment.

Of all the players on the team, only the seemingly rejuvenated Chase Utley appears able to perform at a championship level. After two injury-shortened seasons which seemed to portend inexorable decline, Utley has thus far played better than at any time since at least the 2010 season. Ryan Howard, on the other hand, remains a shell of his former self. Granted that he has always been a slow starter, the index of his decline is the lack of respect opposing pitchers have thus far shown him. In 2006, when he won the NL MVP by hitting 58 HRs, driving in 149 runs, and batting .313, Howard walked 108 times, 37 of them intentional. This season, in 105 plate appearances, Howard has been walked a mere 3 times, only once intentional. Shallow critics have blamed Howard's supposed "lack of patience" at the plate. Such critics need to look a little more closely. In well more than half of his plate appearances thus far (66/105), Howard has been thrown a strike for the first pitch, the vast majority of which have been fastballs that he has simply looked at as they found their way into the catcher's mitt. This, of course, plays into the opposing pitcher's hand, for Howard's great weakness is an inability to "see" off-speed and/or breaking pitches, which invariably get thrown to him when he is behind in the count. Along with this, his unwillingness to hit to left field has allowed opposing teams to overshift to the right side of the diamond when he bats. Still he refuses to even attempt going the other way. Ted Williams he is not. Hence he should not continue pretending that he is. Howard's numbers thus far (.273, 8 2B, 3 HR, 16 RBI, .444 slugging) have not been a disaster in absolute terms (indeed, most of the team's players have been far worse), but they have been a millstone around the neck of the team who needs far more from a player making $20 million this season.

GM Ruben Amaro, Jr.'s big acquisitions in the offseason were the signing of third baseman Michael Young to replace the decrepit Placido Polanco and that of Ben Revere to fit the team's gaping hole in center field.. Young, a lifetime .302 hitter, is not surprisingly hitting .326 in the early going. But he has done so while generating little power (only 2 doubles, 1 triple, and 1 homer; hence, his .326 average has translated into a mediocre .400 slugging percentage). Moreover, he has struck out an unacceptable 19 times in 95 at bats, and has hit into a league-leading 7 double plays, thwarting more than one potential rally in the process. Revere, however, despite a couple of highlight reel catches, has been a disaster. In 93 at bats, Revere is hitting a mere .204 with only one (!) extra base hit and 5 walks to his credit [an aside: to say he is hitting above the "Mendoza line" is an insult to poor Mario, who had a career .215 average and actually managed to hit 4 home runs; Revere still has none]. This translates into what would be a historically low .245 on base percentage and an even worse .226 slugging average. Revere, who would have a hard time hitting a baseball over the 206-foot fence at the Karakung Little League field in my hometown of Havertown, PA, nonetheless has struck out 14 times and, despite his being a supposed "speedster," hit into 5 double plays. When one adds the continued underachieving of left fielder Domonic Brown and the right field trio of John Mayberry, Laynce Nix, and Delmon Young to the mix, the result is, as David Murphy reported today at Philly.com, baseball's worst outfield.

However, by far the biggest disappointment thus far, and the major hindrance to the team's success, has been the performance of the starting pitchers. Roy Halladay, coming off an injury-plagued 2012, was the biggest question mark. after 6 starts, Halladay has a 2-3 record with an astronomical 6.75 ERA. In 32 innings, he has allowed just 29 hits and has 31 strikeouts. But the still-undisclosed injury to his side/shoulder has decreased his velocity, taken the bite out of his devastating cutter, and wreaked havoc with his formerly pinpoint control. He has allowed 8 homers already, and has walked 13 batters as well. When one compares these shocking stats with those from his excellent 2011 campaign (233.2 innings, 19-6 record, 2.35 ERA, 10 home runs allowed, 35 walks), it is apparent that the old Roy Halladay is gone, and one would be a fool to expect his return. Cliff Lee, likewise, has been adequate (2-2, 3.46) despite the curious lack of run support that he has continued to receive. Lee, however, is making $25 million this season. For that amount of money, more is required that has thus far been forthcoming (yet, perhaps not surprisingly, he has not been vilified to the extent Howard, who makes less money, has).

The biggest disappointment, however, has been Cole Hamels, who last season was made the recipient of a $153 million contract extension, $19.5 million of which he is being paid in 2013. Hamels has always been a good pitcher, especially last year, when he went 17-6 with a 3.05 ERA and 216 strikeouts in 215 innings. With his new contract, however, Hamels was quickly pronounced the number one starter on a team with two former Cy Young award recipients. And, following an excellent Grapefruit League performance this spring, Hamels looked primed and ready to play the part. But he has yet to repay the confidence placed in him. Thus far he has struggled with an unsightly 1-3 record, a 1.33 WHIP, and 4.78 ERA. Like Halladay, his problem has been location: his 4.1 BB/9 innings ratio is almost double his career 2.3 mark. Of all the underachieving Phils, however, Hamels is the one about whom I am least worried.

Of course, it is still early, but what I have seen does not bode well for the season as a whole. I have no doubt that the statistics of at least some of the players will improve and become more "respectable." Like last season, however, when a late rally resulted in a somewhat "respectable" 81-81 record, it will be too late. This team, if my well-trained eyes don't deceive me at all, is going nowhere fast. Long gone are the days when Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard et al. can pick it up during the season's second half and propel the team to divisional glory. For one, the division is now not populated by patsies and the forever-choking Mets. More importantly, the Phillies themselves are much older and deficient in what matters most, viz., talent.

What has frustrated me the most over the past few seasons is the lack of urgency I see during the team's interminable dry spells. That is partly due, of course, to the style of laid back manager Charlie Manuel. Manuel, as all Phils' fans know, was brought in to replace the always-impatient and hot-headed Larry Bowa, who alienated more than one player during his managerial tenure with his grimaces, smirks, and occasional unkind words. But what the team needs right now is a little shot of Bowa to wipe away the financial comfort-induced complacency that holds this team in its grip. The reason the 1980 champions will always have a place closer to my heart than the 2008 squad is exactly the fire in the belly manifested by such players as Bowa and Pete Rose, who complemented the "cool" of superstars Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton perfectly. Maybe I'm being unfair, but I just don't see that fire in the belly of many of today's players. And that is partly the blame of GM Amaro, who constructed this team. Well, as every Phils' fan I know seems cognizant, Amaro has been an abysmal failure, gutting the farm system while wasting untold millions on unwise contract extensions to such players as Howard and Rollins. The future doesn't look bright. Here's to hoping the team's owners realize this and make a bold gesture to start anew: get rid of Charlie and RAJ now, and dump or eat some of the team's unwise contracts. The results wouldn't be pretty. But at least they would show the city's longsuffering fans that they mean business and appreciate their unrivaled support over the past 7 years.

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