Saturday, July 31, 2010

Schmidt or Roberts?

Sorry to my readers for the overload of posts today, but this is one I've been holding for a few weeks. I decided against running it as a column in my paper, and it was ignored by a blogging site, so I'll share it with all of you now. We're no longer preoccupied with the Trade Deadline, and I think this is an interesting topic over which to mull. Enjoy.

Earlier this year, Bob Costas conducted an interview with Phillies great Dick Allen. As predicted, Costas asked him all about playing during the turbulent 1960s, the controversy he often stirred up as an outspoken athlete and his reputation for hitting tape-measure blasts.

At the end of the interview, Allen gave his opinion on who he thought the better Phillie was, Robin Roberts or Mike Schmidt. It’s generally an unfair comparison between a pitcher and position player, but much like he did during his playing days, Allen gave the controversial answer when he said Roberts. Costas pressed him on that briefly, but Allen simply replied that Roberts took the mound for nine innings every time out and dominated hitters.

In retrospect, Allen’s opinion is understandable, considering that he played when Roberts was already a pitching legend and Schmidt wasn’t on the map yet. It’s not surprising Allen would defer to the elder Hall of Famer.

But who really was a greater Phillie?

Several Top Ten Phillies lists found online all rank Schmidt higher than Roberts, though lists like that always tend to favor hitters over pitchers. Schmidt also helped Philadelphia to win its first-ever World Series title, and he added three MVP awards and numerous Gold Gloves. To be fair, Roberts guided Philly to its first World Series in 35 years in 1950, and the Gold Glove and Cy Young awards didn’t exist during his prime.

The only way to truly compare a pitcher and a hitter from two different eras is to see how they match up with their top contemporaries. Roberts’ were likely Warren Spahn and Whitey Ford, while Schmidt’s top competition were fellow third basemen Brooks Robinson and Darrell Evans.

Roberts was widely considered the best pitcher in baseball from 1950-1955, but his career ERA of 3.41 was significantly higher than Spahn (3.09) or Ford (2.75). His winning percentage was also the worst of the three, but he also had the lowest run support.

Allen wasn’t exaggerating about Roberts’ durability. He led the league in innings pitched for five straight years, and his 346 2/3 innings in 1953 are second-most by a Hall of Fame pitcher in a single season after World War II. He threw more than 300 innings in a season six times.

However, Spahn managed to pitch at a high level later into his career. He only threw more than 300 innings in a season twice, but he was still easily cracking the 200-inning mark into his 40s. Spahn pitched more seasons and innings than Roberts, while allowing 71 fewer home runs. That was perhaps Roberts’ biggest drawback; he wasn’t a ground-ball pitcher. He also never struck out 200 batters in a season – not as dominant as Allen originally suggested.

Saber-metrically speaking, one aspect of pitching that Roberts did dominate throughout his career was control. Though Ford posted the highest career strikeout rate of 5.6 per nine innings, Roberts’ strikeout per walk rate of 2.61 was far ahead of Ford and Spahn, who both posted a 1.8 mark. Roberts had the best WHIP (1.17) among the three, and his BB/9 rate of 1.7 is ranked 45th all-time and ninth among Hall of Fame pitchers.

Those final numbers help Roberts’ case, but Schmidt’s comparisons to Robinson and Evans aren’t nearly as hazy.

Robinson, dubbed “The Human Vacuum Cleaner,” was a better fielding third baseman than Schmidt, with a higher career range factor and fielding percentage, but Schmidt trumps the other two in nearly every offensive category. Phillies fans know about his 548 home runs, but Schmidt’s career OPS of .908 ranks 27th all-time among Hall of Fame hitters. Schmidt also set all-time team marks in runs, hits, RBI, walks and total bases.

According to the numbers, you can make an argument for and against Roberts’ superiority over his peers, but Schmidt was clearly the best. He also played during one of the organization’s most successful periods, further brightening his spotlight.

Sorry, Dick, looks like you got this one wrong. The best pitcher in baseball for a brief time doesn’t compare to arguably the best hitting third baseman in history, regardless of the discrepancy between pitching every fourth day and playing every day. Maybe Costas should have asked Allen’s opinion about a more sensible pitcher-hitter comparison like Schmidt and Steve Carlton. I put it to all of you to hash that one out.

No longer a priv-Lidge

I had just had my mind warped by the dream maze of Christopher Nolan's "Inception" but my mind has never been clearer about the Phillies' missed opportunities before the elapsed Trade Deadline.

True, Philadelphia pulled off the biggest trade of the week by adding Roy Oswalt, but the problem it didn't solve laughed with glee tonight as Brad Lidge was given the ball in the bottom of the ninth to protect a one-run lead against the Washington Nationals. He recorded just one out before Ryan Zimmerman ended it with a monster three-run shot to center field. It was Lidge's fourth blown save of the season, which isn't that many at this point in the season, but he's only appeared in half the games of most closers. That places his effectiveness right around the level of his 2009 season.

As the Phillies dropped yet another game on the road to a last-place team, other teams had just completed deals to help prevent such deflating results. Back-end relievers Matt Capps, Kerry Wood, Will Ohman, Octavio Dotel and Javier Lopez all recently found themselves in new homes. Even before Philly added Oswalt, it's largest weakness was undoubtedly the bullpen. I can't say for certain how hard Amaro tried to get a reliever, my guess is whenever it was brought up, he would start start babbling in unfamiliar tongues, except for a few select words - "Oswalt....Oswalt....must make them forget about Lee...."

We'll spend the rest of the season cringing when we don't have a big lead late in the game. That's actually not different from the norm, and I see now that I was being too optimistic. I suppose I forgot for a moment that I was Philadelphia fan. The Phillies are on the verge of getting swept by the Nationals, so we have to hope the bats sizzle early and Cole Hamels goes deep into the game. It'll do me good not to see Lidge or Ryan Madson warming up for a few days.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Going for the jinx

It's official: the Phillies starting rotation now touts a Roy double feature, and the rest of the National League has to be squirming in their seats over the power shift. Roy Oswalt finally decided that he wanted to experience the bi-polar, battery-throwing bonanza that will surround the elevated stage of the pitcher's mound at Citizens Bank Park. He wants to devour a cheesesteak and sprint like a mad man up the steps of the Art Museum. More than anything, he wants to ride that victory float down South Street in November and help the City of Brotherly Love celebrate its second championship in three years. I salute you, Mr. Oswalt, and I pray your sensitive back handles the stress because with J.A. Happ bravely trying to fill your shoes in Houston, the Phillies have left themselves few options if you or one of the other starters goes down before the end of the season. But don't pay attention to me, that's just my hometown pessimism shining through. Welcome to Philadelphia.

That's just how it happens. The middle of the order had stirred from its two-month slumber, but the canons didn't go off tonight against the Diamondbacks. But with the Phillies winning like they are, it was the little guys who stepped up to keep the streak going. Carlos Ruiz and Wilson Valdez went 5-for-10 with two RBI out of the 7- and 8-holes, and Valdez played hero in another extra-inning thriller that pulled the team within 2.5 games of first place. In their last five extra-inning contests, the Phils have won them all in walk-off fashion.

The red-pinstriped boys also went 7-0 on their homestand. As they've proven time and time again, when the weather gets warm in Philadelphia, there's no place they'd rather play.

Never put it past me to be cynical, though. The Phillies are hitting a rather light part of the schedule. We thought they might have been back during Interleague Play, but that was when they took five out of six from Toronto and Cleveland. All six of those games were played at Citizens Bank Park. The results were turned on their head when the Phillies played bad teams on the road (2-6 at Pittsburgh and Chicago). Things seem different now that Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez are hitting, and Domonic Brown has made an immediate impression, but the next three series (two on the road and all against NL East opponents) will give us a better idea of just where the team stands.

For now, I will risk the jinx and say that the Phillies are back!

Brown Bomber

Last night while I was at work, a colleague in his 60s found a silly, yet mostly mundane moment hilarious (trust me, it's not even worth repeating), and he wondered why the 23-year-old in the next cubicle wasn't laughing with him. The younger employee simply replied, "I found it funny, but not as much as you did." The old man shot back with sarcasm, "No, you just don't have a sense of humor," followed by a Santa Claus-like chuckle. It occurred to me that the younger man and I didn't laugh because we've been differently conditioned by "The Office," "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy." Our grandkids won't get the humor in those shows either. That might have made both of them laugh had it dawned on me to say it quickly enough for it to be timely to their brief conversation. Oh well...I share it with you all now.

The rookie spoke calmly and confidently (I'm paraphrasing): "You guys print whatever you want, but I'm just here to do what I can to help the team."

What resolve. What conviction. I doubt A-Rod will think to say that after he ends all the speculation with his 600th home run.

Phillies fans finally got what they were looking for, as rookie Domonic Brown made the seamless transition from Triple-A to The Show, and the Phillies made a similar transition from one outfielder to another, stretching their winning streak to seven games in the process.

Brown's two RBI's against the Diamondbacks were enough by themselves to win the game, and Roy Halladay made sure of that. He was his usual brilliant self, and he's got to be thrilled with the incredible run support he's gotten over his last two starts. The Phillies have been scoring a ton of runs no matter who is on the hill, which is what we expect.

Not even the best players in the game can say they started their career with an extra-base hit, and Brown's double was a few feet short of souvenir land in right field. While I was still at work, keeping an eye on the game, I added the rookie to my Fantasy team after his double. It's the most impulsive buy I've made in four years of playing, and wholly unnecessary with three other Phillies sitting in my starting lineup. But I must show respect to the peak of the future of which we all are getting a preview in the next few weeks.

As I watched him during Spring Training, I already felt as if Brown was a part of the major league squad. The spotlight didn't bother him and neither did all the talk of his potential getting stifled by Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez (much like people said about Ryan Howard and Jim Thome). The kid took it in stride like he did with the deafening noise inside Citizens Bank Park Thursday night.

Shane Victorino's injury is a tough break for the team, but it's the break a young star needed, and no offense to Wilson Valdez, Greg Dobbs and Brian Schneider, but Brown is much more than a reserve filling in for a starter. He's getting the exposure at the right time, and it will let the Phillies know how he handles the pressure. Arizona and Washington are small potatoes, but the Marlins and Mets will provide good tests for the kid. Even if he finishes his stint in a slump, it's good to see his name in the lineup. It'll be there for good before we know it.


It's funny that I started this blog with a post about veteran pitcher Roy Oswalt, and by the end of the day, he may be a Phillie. Much has been going around about his hesitation, making him appear like a whiny, selfish child, but most players in his position must carefully weigh the pros and cons of leaving the one place they've known for so long. I don't doubt Oswalt's desire to win a championship, and he can help more than one team toward that goal. He's a great fit for the Phillies, but they have to be the right fit for him.

Apparently, the only thing left to decide is whether or not Oswalt will waive his no-trade clause. It's hard to believe that this deal could go through without giving up Jayson Werth. JA Happ is good buy for the Astros, but if Ruben Amaro is content with fully depleting our farm system's best prospects, it seems out of touch with the organization's long-term goals. Win or lose this year or next, I love how this present crop of Phillies were mostly home grown. The mark of a successful and respectful team is its ability to groom top prospects and hold onto them when they reach their full potential in the majors. Watching this team turn into the Yankees is not something I'll enjoy.

But who am I kidding? I'll still watch. In any case, aside from my unwitting prediction of Ken Griffey, Jr.'s retirement, much of my crystal ball visions in this blog have been wrong. Oswalt and the Braves could be friends, but he's coming to Philly instead. Then again, there's still plenty to time for this deal to crumble and another team to swoop in like the Rangers did to the Yankees when they snatched Cliff Lee.

Now that was fun to watch.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

We will get by

Now THAT was more like it.

The last time Cole Hamels had a shaky outing (June 26 against Toronto) his team scored just one run for him. Tonight, the hitters kept on battling as the lead bounced back and forth.

The Phillies scored multiple runs in four different innings, and a potent, but impatient Diamondbacks lineup couldn't keep up. And the 3-5 hitters in Philadelphia's order, the constant source of scrutiny and frustration since late May? They went 6-for-11 with two bombs, six RBI and five runs scored. Please sir, can I have some more?

Jayson Werth finally went yard again, and you can expect some more of that in the near future. His jacks always come in bunches, and his signature blast is the one that lands in the center field vines at Citizens Bank Park. Raul Ibanez is working on a six-game hitting streak, batting .429 (9-for-21) in the span. He's also driven in at least one run in his last four starts. The 3-hole seems to be agreeing with him.

A 3-0 loss to the Strasburg-less Nationals can't be a good sign for the Braves, as their seven-game lead in the NL East has been chopped in half in less than a week. It's looking more and more like the Phillies will be nothing but spectators as the Trade Deadline nears, so they can't let up.

In the midst of all this success, Philly lost another key piece for at least a few days as Shane Victorino left in the seventh inning with an oblique muscle strain. The way things have been going, I was waiting for the next starter to go down, and I'm not surprised it's Victorino. He made trips to the DL in 2007 and '08 after constantly pushing his small frame to the limit with his blazing speed in the outfield and around the bases. A warning light goes off in my head whenever I hear about an oblique injury. I didn't even know what an oblique muscle was until 2006 when Albert Pujols was sidelined for a month with an injury to his, ending what would have otherwise been a career year (and would probably have cost Ryan Howard his first and so far only MVP award).

The Phillies shouldn't let this stop their current surge, and Jimmy Rollins (sore left foot) should be back on the field by the end of the week. As I alluded to in a post last week, the lineup will do just fine with Placido Polanco hitting leadoff.

The only problem is with Victorino out, Werth is no longer a bargaining chip for an upper-tier starting pitcher, and he's the best one Philadelphia had. Then again, if he really is heating up, would Ruben Amaro want to trade him anyway? The Phillies are still near the top of the list of teams who may land Roy Oswalt, but no matter how interested the Houston Astros may be in J.A. Happ, or how many young prospects the Phillies are willing to part with, I can't see Oswalt wanting to play in Philadelphia. It would give him a shot at another World Series appearance, no doubt, but he can get that much closer to home.

However, if a deal is somehow made and Oswalt becomes a Phillie, Amaro might finally silence his critics.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dog Days ending?

A big congratulations to Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Matt Garza for his no-hitter against the Detroit Tigers Monday night. Holy 1992, that's unofficially six no-nos this year. Offensive numbers in both leagues are down across the board. With nearly two-thirds of the season elapsed, there are still two pitchers (Josh Johnson and Adam Wainwright) with an ERA under 2, and last year's empty barrel of 20-game winners may be filled with multiple names in 2010. Garza got one back for Tampa Bay, as in the first half it endured the dubious honor of getting no-hit twice in less than two months (incredible considering the Rays presently own the second-best record in the majors). I think we can definitely call this the Year of the Pitcher. Step aside steroids, the mound masters are making a comeback to reclaim what you stole. Read more of my thoughts on this topic in a column that will be posted on the Gettysburg Times website Thursday morning.

I've still got a ton of vacation to use this summer, so my blog will continue to provide only general summaries of the Phillies' weekend series. If they keep winning like this from Friday to Sunday, that's just fine by me.

The Phillies finally ran into a team that was struggling at the plate even more than they were, and it's probably a coincidence, but they haven't lost a game since new hitting coach Greg Gross stepped in. Perhaps a serious move like that was the wake-up call the offense needed.

Philadelphia has tied its longest winning streak of the season and scored more than three runs in four consecutive games for the first time in more than a month. Raul Ibanez and Jayson Werth both seem to be warming up, which is absolutely vital during Chase Utley's absence. Kyle Kendrick and J.A. Happ did a good job of saving face for the organization, as trade rumors and vicious accusations have been hurled like D batteries from the upper deck.

Perhaps I'm nitpicking at this point, but I still saw some troubling trends which contradicted the look of a team busting out of a slump, particularly in the final two games against the Rockies. The Phillies went just 5-for-27 (.185) with runners in scoring position. In 15 of those 22 outs Philly hitters were either retired on balls in the air or swinging third strikes. To use a tired cliche, they're still trying to do too much at the plate, and it nearly cost them the last two games of the series.

So did Brad Lidge.

Most of the Philadelphia closer's saves have been an adventure this season, and he really got the heart racing in his most recent two. Lidge got the third out in each one with the bases loaded after throwing at least 30 pitches (somewhere, Curt Schilling sat with his head buried in a towel). He's averaging 19.4 pitches per inning and 5.95 walks per nine innings in 2010. Lidge has found the bite on his slider again, which has kept his ERA from approaching last year's horrible numbers, but he's no longer dominating enough to deserve the closer's role.

Charlie Manuel is stubbornly choosing to turn the lights on every ninth inning when he could take the pressure off everyone by going with a closer-by-committee. It's not the ideal situation, but it would work better than leaving it all up to a veteran past his prime. Ryan Madson still has closer-type stuff, while J.C. Romero is getting both lefties and righties out this season.

Fortune remains on the Phillies' side as their next two opponents, the Diamondbacks and Nationals, are both making themselves comfortable in last place. Philly looks like it can actually beat those kind of teams, which should cut even more into Atlanta's lead in the East. As both the Phightins' and I will happily attest, there's plenty of summer left.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Throw a Cole on the fire

I would be remiss not to at least share my feelings on the announcement of minor league players now getting tested for HGH. When I first learned about this particular hormone a few years back, I was appalled baseball wasn't testing for it along with steroids. As far as I was concerned, HGH gives players even more incentive to cheat because not only was it not being tested, but it didn't swell the muscles and the head to alarming sizes. The drop in power numbers across baseball would suggest that the steroids policy was enough to deter most players from using any performance-enhancing drugs, but this latest step may help cleanse the sport completely. I'm all for it.

Before Cole Hamels went to bed last night, his next start staring him in the face, he knew that he was now a member of a three-man rotation for all intents and purposes. That's a wild notion, let alone reality, and quite a burden on a young pitcher. No one knows how long these thoughts kept Hamels awake last night, but when he stepped off the mound after eight innings of one-hit ball against the streaking St. Louis Cardinals, he appeared like he'd had the best night of sleep in his life.

It was a performance that should've guaranteed a win for the Phillies, but like so many similar performances this season, they gave Hamels nothing and kept all of us biting our nails. To be fair, the Phillies were facing an elite pitcher in Adam Wainwright, but they hit him all game. He admitted afterward that he didn't have his best stuff, but no pitcher has really needed his best stuff against Philadelphia over the last two months.

As the game moved into extra innings, I still couldn't see this falling the Phillies' way, despite how lost the Cardinals looked at the plate. The game was in St. Louis and the momentum still seemed to fall on the home team's side.

It turned out that nine innings of just one hit were too many beatings on the confidence, and Placido Polanco was due to hit one out. Even after his shot, the Phillies managed to string enough baserunners together to tack on another run. The swing on Jayson Werth's RBI double carried the awkwardness of a man whose name had never been thrown around so much for all the wrong reasons, and who had previously been 0-for-18 with runners in scoring position, but it got the job done. How ironic it would be if this was the win that finally led to the right track for a team Werth might not even be a part of by next week.

I will not make such a claim yet, however. Even the worst teams in baseball don't lose all of their games, and Philadelphia has lost four of its last five series, making an anomaly out of that sweep of the Reds before the All-Star Break. Past experience also suggests that the Phillies were supposed to win this game. The two previous times they fell to two games over .500 this season, they won their next game to avoid a complete collapse. It's almost like the Phils are playing Russian Roulette with their season and they haven't yet pulled the trigger with the bullet in the chamber.

The team is hoping that a new starting pitcher will remove the bullet altogether, but I'm not convinced such a move will sweep in drastic changes. Just looking at the past couple of years, top-notch arms that were traded mid-season went to teams that were already playing well. When CC Sabathia was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers in July 2008, they were sitting in second place nine games above .500 and just 3.5 back in the NL Central. The Phillies weren't far removed from a 10-game winning streak and had a six-game lead in the NL East when they picked up Cliff Lee last year.

The Phils aren't in the midst of a run this time around, and the arms available aren't of the caliber of Lee or Sabathia. They can't even score runs for the two aces they already have.

But there is good news. Philadelphia finally returns home after nearly two weeks, and after a 2-6 road trip, is somehow in second place. The Phillies sport an encouraging 27-18 record at Citizens Bank Park, and their recent victory, the roar of the home crowd and the sight of the Liberty Bell in right center have to stir up some optimism. The Phillies need all they can get right now, because there's a real possibility with the maximized budget and tight grip on the few prospects they have left that no new pitcher will don the pinstripes before July 31.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

St. Louis slugger

I congratulate you, Mr. Ryan Howard.

With your home run in your hometown tonight - and big, big brother watching - you moved into fourth place on the Phillies all-time homer list. I say with certainty that Chuck Klein will not be the last name you pass. Watch out Pat the Bat, you're next.

It's late July and it's almost expected that you're leading the league in RBI by this point in the season. Your ability to drive in runs consistently over multiple seasons is matched only by the man occupying your space for the team you grew up cheering on from your home. People will say what they will about your strikeouts, but it's still fun watching you play the game.

It's been especially fun over the past week as we Phillie fans try and reach for anything positive. Right now, you are the only hitter on the team playing like he wants to make the postseason. You have at least one hit in every game since the start of the second half, and of the Phillies' 25 runs over the span, you have knocked in 10 of them. The way you're seeing the ball at the plate gives off the impression that you're feeling the increased importance of every game as September gets closer. You don't know any other feeling than helping the team win when it matters the most.

What a shame that none of your brethren are feeding off the same passion. What a shame they haven't discovered the ability inside themselves to turn up the intensity. It must not be much fun walking the path alone, but if nothing else brings you comfort in these tough times, you did your family proud tonight and you checked off yet another item on the list of your growing legacy in the history of the Phillies and Major League Baseball.

Again, I say congratulations.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down

It's about time those 80-mph heaters caught up to the old man.

Sad as it may seem, Jamie Moyer is now the latest Phillie to take a ride on the DL carousel, which is becoming so crowded that it's turning into a maniacal game of spinning musical chairs. Kyle Kendrick was the man left standing as he was demoted to Triple-A. I don't see Andrew Carpenter or J.A. Happ changing the team's present fortune. It looks like the Phils are going to limp their way to the Trade Deadline.

It's incredible we got Moyer's services for this long. He's reached double figures in wins every full season he's spent with the Phightins', even leading the squad with 16 in 2008. He hasn't played less than a full season since 2000 when he was already in his late 30s.

After Moyer was forced to the bullpen to make room for Pedro Martinez last season, he proved his value this past spring and made it back to the rotation. He was as consistent as anyone could hope to be at his age, and hitters still admired his deceptive style on the mound. He was the third-best starter behind Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels, and I wouldn't be surprised if his elbow began bothering him well before tonight.

Make no bones about it, this team is lost right now. The impulsive decision to option Kendrick appears like a virtual swing and miss at a bad pitch. The NL East has reverted back to its mid-2000s form with the Braves comfortably sitting in first place and the Phillies wallowing in mediocrity with the rest of the division. They managed to pull themselves out to make late runs in '05 and '06, and I'm wondering if they have the same fight in them this time. I can't make any predictions at this point.

The Phillies aren't going anywhere with their present group, so the only card left to play is a major trade. They need a starting pitcher now more than ever, and the option of trading Jayson Werth before the deadline - judging from the growing noise of frustration from the fans and the media - is becoming more of a possibility each passing day. His - and Happ's - involvement in a possible swap for a right-handed hurler would protect more prospects, but Werth's value is falling sharply with each strikeout. As far as other teams are concerned, 2009 may as well have been a fluke for the right fielder.

Roy Oswalt, Dan Haren and Ben Sheets have all been thrown around as possible names for a trade. All of them are stretches due to Oswalt's full no-trade clause and Haren's and Sheets' inconsistency (not to mention they're both injury-prone). The Phillies are maxed out on payroll so if they're serious about a deal, they're going to give up more than what's comfortable for them, particularly when dealing with the Astros, Diamondbacks and A's, who are all out of contention.

There's no perfect solution to this problem, and Ruben Amaro, Jr., said a pitcher alone is not going to get the Phillies back to the World Series, and he's right. The offense has been stuck in a coma for the better part of the season. But Amaro is dealing with a spoiled fanbase that has grown too accustomed to winning and is still angry at him for letting Cliff Lee get away before the start of this season. Whatever lies ahead for the team after July 31, he will be the scapegoat for any major failures.

But it's not Amaro's fault. This group was talented enough at the start of the year to become the first National League team in nearly 70 years to appear in the Fall Classic three straight times. Injuries to several key pieces of the puzzle have negatively affected the team more than anyone is willing to admit.

The tone of this post makes it sound like I'm throwing in the towel, but I'm merely explaining the reality of the Phillies' predicament. It's still very possible to snap out of this funk and make a run, but I will not feign shocking disappointment if that doesn't happen. Philly's morale is broken and it can't be restored until the players rediscover the confidence that made them the team to beat.

My Bad

I promised a post about Shane Victorino concerning the rate at which the ball is flyin' out for the Hawaiin this season. This is a lesson to me to never again preview a post based on an assumption.

I figured there had to be some explanation as to why with 45 percent of the season left to play Victorino had already exceeded his season high in home runs. I was planning on making the grand claim that he was drawing from the bad example of Jimmy Rollins, whose power numbers had increased in recent years without regard to his on-base percentage. Referring to the theme of yesterday's posting, I reasoned that Victorino was trying to hit more home runs.

I deferred to Victorino's 2010 stats, expecting to find a significant difference in certain areas from past seasons. Specifically, a player trying to hit more home runs would have a lower ground-ball/fly-ball ratio and would tend to be less selective at the plate, resulting less pitches per plate appearance, more strikeouts and less walks.

Unfortunately, the verdict was not in my favor. Victorino's numbers in all the areas I just mentioned don't differ significantly from past years, and neither do J-Roll's for that matter (comparing his 20-plus home run seasons to the rest). In fact, I didn't even take into account that Rollins began hitting more home runs after the Phillies moved from the Vet to Citizens Bank and he cut down on his strikeouts, which contradicts the assumptions I made about Victorino.

The only significant difference in both their cases is in the years with more homers, their home run percentage on fly balls was much higher. Basically, Victorino is hitting the same amount of fly balls as he always did, it's just more of them are leaving the yard. That could be chalked up to a quicker bat speed, and not to mention that most of Victorino's blasts barely make it over the fence anyway. He's always been a fly-ball hitter and it's paying off for him more than ever.

Victorino has suffered from a lower batting average this season, but that has nothing to do with his increased power. Bad luck is a big factor there as his average on balls in play this season is just .258. He's simply hitting balls right at people more often than before.

If there's one thing I have learned from this rather humbling discovery is Charlie Manuel has the wrong guys in the leadoff spot. He's being blinded by Rollins' and Victorino's size and speed. It's true that the two of them will steal a healthy amount of bags and have a good chance of scoring when they reach base. The trouble is their collective OBP (.333) is far too low, and even though they're both switch hitters, they don't hit to all fields consistently enough. Placido Polanco, on the other hand, sprays the ball all over the place and is one of the best two-strike hitters in baseball. As for reaching base, no one is better at that on the Phillies than Chase Utley. I wonder what would happen if Manuel stuck Utley in the leadoff spot for a few weeks after he returned from the DL. Given the chance, he could definitely swipe more bags and is a smart base runner. The modified lineup would look something like this:

1. Chase Utley (L)
2. Placido Polanco (R)
3. Jimmy Rollins (S)
4. Ryan Howard (L)
5. Jayson Werth (R) (assuming he's still with the team in August)
6. Shane Victorino (S)
7. Raul Ibanez (L)
8. Carlos Ruiz (R)

The two-hole has always belonged to Polanco, obviously, but with Utley in front of him, there's more of a chance he would come to plate with a man on, and the distribution of righties and lefties in the order wouldn't be compromised. After dealing with a patient Utley and a pesky Polanco, a starting pitcher won't enjoy the first inning as much.

I guess this is how you learn and grow from making mistakes. I realized some errors in my logic and the journey to correct them led to a new batting order for the Phillies. At this point, it would behoove them to try anything new.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Stop trying so hard!

The thing that I've grown a greater appreciation for as I've delved deeper into my understanding of baseball is the infinite number of things that can result from a pitch to the plate. I suppose the same is true after a snap of the football, a tee shot or a serve in tennis, but those things don't flood me right to the core with anticipation like baseball...

How lovely - the Phillies hit three home runs tonight. It's just a pity all of them came when the game was already lost and with no one on base. Four of the team's six runs Sunday night came via the fly ball. None of them threatened the Cubs' lead, so the pressure was more or less off in each case. Therein lies the point of my posting, which I'm embarrassed to say was unearthed by one of the game's most despised color analysts, Joe Morgan.

Then again, it makes perfect sense. How else would a team full of sluggers try and rid itself of a slump? Swing for the fences to try and be a hero and get the offense going. This is not the right mindset to have in a slump, but everyone in the lineup (except Placido Polanco) has home run on the brain every time they step to the plate. That may be fine for Ryan Howard, who's in the zone right now, but Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez are in too much of a rut, while Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino (the subject of my next posting) need to worry more about working the count and getting on base.

On the other hand, I can understand how frustrating this long stretch has been. The Philadelphia offense is not known to hit for average, hit well with runners in scoring position or post a high on-base percentage (they're presently among the bottom half of NL teams in all three categories), but they always had the home run to fall back on. Though the Phillies are presently fourth among NL teams in home runs with 98, they're on pace to finish well below last year's league-leading total of 224.

Injuries to Chase Utley and Rollins are partially to blame, but you see the great number of swings and misses at pitches out of the zone, the wasted pitches pulled foul and the countless pop-ups in the infield, it's not hard to guess where the rest of those missing bombs went. The hitters have spent so much time trying to crush every pitch that they've forgotten to look for the right one.

Being down by eight runs can sometimes clear a player's mind. It's easier to focus on your at-bat when the singular act of hitting a home run or reaching base will not affect the outcome of the game. The Phillies got down, way down, and then the home runs followed. The runs arrived far too late and once again, did not help Roy Halladay.

This will be a tough pattern to break, and it's hard to believe it's been going on for two months. A four-game sweep of the Reds is oddly bookended by six losses in eight total games to the Cubs and Pirates. The Reds weren't exactly at their best when the Phils faced them, and the St. Louis Cardinals are entering their series with Philly revitalized from a three-game sweep of the Dodgers that put them back in first place. This is not a good sign for a team that isn't hitting. Maybe instead of swinging for the fence, just aim for patches of grass unoccupied by white uniforms...

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Polly gets his cracker

Wow, guy's first game back from the DL. It almost seemed like it was supposed to happen that way.

It was Placido Polanco's only hit of the game, and it started the Phillies' four-run rally in game that came within one out of their third straight loss to the Cubs. Polly got some help on the other end, as Brian Schneider was out by a mile after trying to score from second base, but Geovany Soto let the excitement of a game-ending tag get the best of him. He barely allowed the ball to deflect off the top of his glove before he went lunging for his counterpart. In Bob Uecker's ironical vain, Schneider would have been "out by an eyelash," at the plate, but he instead scored the Phils' tying run.

Sadly, it's becoming routine in the eighth and ninth innings to beg the Phillies to keep rallies going because you never know which Brad Lidge you're going to get in the ninth. Luckily, patience above all else led to the promised land. Five of the nine batters in the frame drew walks, including a rare one from Jimmy Rollins. And though Jayson Werth couldn't put the ball in play, it was refreshing to see him do something else in a crucial, late-game moment than strike out.

I must also give big props to Raul Ibanez for tearing down the line on a weak grounder to Derek Lee that turned into an RBI infield single when James Russell couldn't cover first base in time. Much has been made of Ibanez's lack of contributions to the team, but he's one guy who will bust out of that batter's box on contact, no matter where the ball is headed. He doesn't look 38 years old running down the line either.

There were so many good things to like about that inning, and the Phillie lineup is nearly whole again with Polanco back in there, but the offense continues to sputter along. Cole Hamels is looking better with every start, but the hitters didn't give him a single run. This was his eighth quality start of the season that did not result in a winning decision. Had Soto waited a fraction of a second longer, Hamels' 2010 record would have fallen below .500 yet again. Roy Halladay can definitely relate.

Doc and Hamels are the Philly's two best pitchers, but they are a combined 17-14 on the year. The Phillies have given them each an average of less than four runs per game, compared to nearly six for Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick. You can't expect the aces to keep piling up the goose eggs on the scoreboard every single time out.

OK...I expect that from Halladay, and we'll see what the Phillies give him tomorrow against Cubs hurler Tom Gorzelanny. The odds don't look good as the Philly bats mustered just three hits off him in a loss on May 19, and that was in one of the seven games this season they had all the regulars in the lineup. They need to break their current trend soon or they'll need binoculars to see how far ahead the Braves are in the division.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Pass the mustard

A throwaway title seemed fitting as I'm running out of unique ways to describe the Phillies' inconsistency. We're only two games into the second half, but the team has nothing on their plate but baseball for the next 16 days. Every subsequent loss is going to make that journey stretch out even further.

I admit that Philadelphia would not be playing with such off-and-on success with all of its pieces in place, but like Ryan Howard said, this team can still win even with all of these injuries. Maybe the players don't remember what its like to have so many of their teammates missing at one time. They're clearly not coping with it as well as the Boston Red Sox.

Howard has seemed to fool himself into thinking it's already late August in these first two games, smoking three two-run jacks, two of which have given the Phillies the lead. Thus far, he's provided two-thirds of the Phightins' total offense in the second half, and he can't be expected to carry the load on his own. The Cubs have suddenly forgotten that they're a team in a freefall, so the rest of the Phillie bats need to follow Ryan's example over these last two games.

When it comes to the Phils, I've never subscribed to the wait-and-see approach, but after following them more closely than I have before, I'm reaching that ambivalent point. The Phillies will either snap out of this for good at some future date or ride the seesaw through the rest of the season and likely miss the playoffs. They need several core players back and shop aggressively at the Trade Deadline (Ruben Amaro, Jr.'s moves last season basically got the Phillies back to World Series). Only then will the team be able to prevent one different aspect in every game that prevents it from winning.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Big Stein demands final calzone

The baseball gods have been rewarding my patience over and over again for the past several years. Some presents have satisfied trivial hopes, others have been monumental. I got to see two Phillies win back-to-back Home Run Derbies. Two Phillies won back-to-back MVPs. The Phillies made the playoffs for three straight years and won their first world championship in my lifetime. An unbelievable five Phillies took the field for the 2009 All-Star Game in St. Louis. And now after 14 years of waiting, I finally see the National League win the Midsummer Classic this year. As an introverted, hometown Phillies fan with a lower class background, I was born to be an underdog, and the NL underdogs finally pulled one out.

Those same baseball gods opened their gates this morning to welcome home a true giant of the game, George Steinbrenner. Despite the hostility I feel toward the New York Yankees, particularly after watching my team lose the World Series to them last year, I must pay grudging respect for a man whose death at the age of 80 dealt a huge blow to the game of baseball.

Grudging respect is what I conveyed to the TV screen when I watched the last All-Star Game ever played at the old Yankee Stadium, and when I saw the last-ever game played there two months later. Grudging respect was what I gave to Yankee captain Derek Jeter in a column I wrote about the second World Baseball Classic, when he led a determined United States team with his words and his bat.

I have to try hard to fathom the loss that the Yankee organization and fans are feeling because for everything there is to love about Steinbrenner, there are an equal number of things to hate. I don't subscribe to the notion that winning is everything, and I despise the practice of trying to win a World Series by filling your roster with over-priced free agents. I question Steinbrenner's morality due to many of the decisions that he made during his four decades as the owner of the Yankees.

However, I'm certain that when Steinbrenner took the job in the early 1970s, he knew it would be his last. All die-hard baseball fans understand the great tradition of baseball and the significant place it holds in the fabric of American history. Much of that tradition can be associated with the Yankees, and Steinbrenner put his heart and soul into returning the team to prominence and carrying on the torch.

The Boss also softened up in his final 15 years as owner. I actually rooted for the Yankees in the World Series during their dynasty years in the latter half of the 1990s, and those Yankees were built the right way with a significant number of their contributors coming from their farm system.

Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly can't make this claim, but today's Yankee players admired "Mr. Steinbrenner" for the care he showed to them, the fans and the organization. Until his health declined, he was a visible, accessible owner who wanted nothing more than his players to win and take pride in donning the New York pinstripes. The legacy of the Yankees was one he understood, cherished and helped continue into the new millennium.

I still can't wait for the day when the New York Yankees are no longer the best team in baseball, and millions of fans agree with me, but I can't ignore the lost presence of such a giant to the team and to the sport. We can hate the Yankees all we want, but we must all admit that we would love to have the vision and success of George Steinbrenner.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Why does the AL always win?

I've got some more Trek geek trivia for you, which compares to the National League's current plight. I noticed a long time ago, and it's probably noted on several Trekker blogs and message boards, that during the entire seven-year run of Next Generation, Geordi LaForge was the only regular who never won a poker game. Seven years without winning once - that sounds familiar...

Ah, the age-old question.

It may seem strange to categorize the question as age-old considering that the NL dominated the Midsummer Classic for the majority of its history. But I think the adjective fits in my case, since the AL turned the tables in 1988 when I was only six years old. In that time, the AL has gone 18-3-1 in the All-Star Game and is presently maintaining a 12-game winning streak (excluding the 7-7 tie in 2002).

I’m on a fool’s errand to try and find an answer to the AL’s success, but that has never stopped any of my previous endeavors. In my research I used a combination of my own observations and expounded upon the opinions I heard and read from various sources. As always, it’s up to my audience to decide whether or not my findings carry any weight.

The first thing I did was to limit my research to the past seven All-Star Games, since the ridiculous decision was made that the winner of the mid-July showcase would be rewarded home-field advantage in the World Series (a decision that hasn’t really hurt NL teams, which have won three of the last seven Fall Classics without home-field advantage). The All-Star Game shouldn’t affect anything during the regular season or playoffs, but it’s good to study the games that have actually mattered. Steroid use has also been on the decline since 2003.

With the parameters set up, I started searching for a pattern of dominance. I knew this would be no easy task, given the inherent randomness of one baseball game, let alone seven. There was also the fact that the AL had won each of the last four All-Star Games by just one run.

Luckily, I happened to catch an interview Bob Costas conducted with Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard. He asked them why they thought the AL kept winning, and they said the designated hitter gave the Junior Circuit all the advantage. That argument seemed pretty weak, but Costas led me down a more concrete path of reasoning when he pointed out that the Phillies offense struggled mightily against New York Yankee pitchers in the World Series. Howard particularly looked bad against a continuous string of breaking balls low and away.

It then dawned on me; why don’t NL pitchers throw Howard more off-speed junk? I’ve also read that AL pitchers in general throw more breaking balls, maybe because they don’t have to worry as much about small ball with the designated hitter. When you’re not throwing to poor-hitting pitchers or worrying as much about the bunt or hit-and-run, you don’t rely as much on the fastball. All major league hitters are looking for the fastball, so could the AL just be getting better pitches to hit from NL flame-throwers?

A general look at total baserunners and strikeouts over the last seven years turned up no patterns. The AL didn’t dominate either category.

As I continued my search, I read a theory online (with no numbers to back it up) that said the American League had better relief pitching in the All-Star Game. I immediately tracked down those numbers and on the surface, they appeared to support the claim.

In the past seven All-Star Games, AL relievers have posted a 3.91 ERA, compared to the NL’s 5.49. The disparity grows even more in the four one-run contests, three of which were decided in the last two innings. Since 2006, AL relievers have allowed just two earned runs in 15 innings, while striking out 16. In that same stretch, NL relievers have surrendered eight earned runs on 16 hits with just eight strikeouts.

This might explain the NL’s tendency to lean on starters much later in the game. The AL always seems to come up with the big hit off the guys whose job it is to shut down late rallies.

However, this explanation is hurt quite a bit by the fact that AL relievers have also walked eight batters in the past seven Midsummer Classics, compared to just three by the NL. The last thing you want to see late in a tight contest is a bunch of free passes. The AL is simply picking up the key outs, while the NL keeps getting hit.

In the end, this all seems to come down to a lot of luck. The AL stars keep calling heads and at the end of each game, George Washington’s profile continues to shine up at them.

The American League does have one clear advantage in relief pitching, though. Of the eight saves it has recorded since 1997, Mariano Rivera has four of them. Arguably the best relief pitcher in baseball history, Rivera has yet to allow an earned run in the All-Star Game.

The NL won’t have to worry about Rivera tomorrow due to his opting out, but his mentioning leads very well into my only other explanation: the AL always wins because the Yankees and the Red Sox are the two best teams in baseball. No other teams have enjoyed such a prominent presence in the Midsummer Classic. Since 2000, no fewer than a combined seven players from the two squads have been selected as representatives of the AL elite, and the pair also made up more than half of the starting lineups in ’02, ’05 and ’08.

Not only did New York and Boston feature some of the best pitchers of the last decade, but their hitters are notorious for working the count and getting on base. Stability breeds success and with so many Yankees and Red Sox taking the field every year, not to mention the pesky Ichiro cementing himself at the top of the lineup, it’s a winning formula. Aside from Albert Pujols, the NL can’t maintain that kind of consistency.

Whatever help the NL needs to break the pattern, it won’t get it from second-year manager Charlie Manuel. The Phillies skipper, in his infinite wisdom, decided to fill his roster with Atlanta utility infielder Omar Infante and Houston Astros centerfielder Michael Bourn (.255 batting average, 66 strikeouts and .661 OPS). Manuel apparently doesn’t pay attention to anyone in his league outside of former Phillies and players from his own division. Two guys who have no business making an All-Star Team, and probably never will again, were chosen outright, while the Reds’ Joey Votto – the best hitter in the NL right now – needed to squeeze in with the fans’ final vote. Votto is a guy who could easily come up with a couple of big hits, and he might not even leave the dugout.

This isn’t the first time NL managers have made poor decisions in the All-Star Game. King Albert Pujols was kept away from his batting box throne in the ’07 Classic by his own manager, while the vastly inferior Aaron Rowand (even in his career year with the Phillies) was given a second at-bat and flew out with the bases loaded to end the game.

The odds don’t seem to be in the NL’s favor with all of these mitigating factors, but if the closeness of the past four games is any indicator, the coin could still fall the Senior Circuit’s way by the time the last out is made tomorrow in Anaheim.

Unfortunately, I see the gap widening and Washington’s face shining brighter than ever. The AL will take this one by a final of 6-3.

I can't keep up!

From Lewis Black's 2006 HBO Special, "Red White and Screwed" - The past year-and-a-half is the toughest time I've ever spent as a comedian. It's just become more and more difficult. I just can't keep up with all this sh*t. It used to be easy. One or two things might happen in a week, but now something will happen and I'd read about it, and I'd go, "I'm gonna make that funny," and the next day, THIRTY OTHER THINGS HAVE F#!&ING HAPPENED! I don't even have a Ports of Dubai joke, and we're on to immigration!

It’s unfortunate I don’t have access to the Internet whenever I spend a weekend in my old stomping grounds (northern Delaware as most of you know). The Phillies tend to pull off the most memorable and improbable feats during those weekends, so excuse me once again for this untimely posting.

You know you’ve seen a great baseball game when it enthralls you to the point that you don’t much care who wins. Such a game took place Saturday night. I happened to make a trip to the batting cages and after a few unsuccessful sessions of trying to hit the ball the other way, I began watching the pitching masterpieces of Roy Halladay and Kevin Wood. One thing is for certain, if the Reds continue to bring up prospects of Wood’s quality, they’re going to be a contender in the NL Central for years to come.

I watched in awe and disbelief as Wood took a perfect game into the ninth inning. My adrenalin had already been pumping from hitting some live balls, and now I had to keep myself from shaking with excitement. It would have been worth a Phillies loss if it meant I was going to witness this unprecedented event. If all of these standout performances on the hill across baseball were the result of cleansing the game of steroids (assuming it was primarily the hitters who were cheating), I’m not complaining.

Wood came within three outs of perfection, narrowly out-dueling his veteran opponent. Halladay arguably had his best outing of the season, aside from his own perfect game, keeping Cincinnati from rewarding its rookie hurler’s dominance with any runs. Perhaps Halladay felt more himself on the mound with his battery-mate, Carlos Ruiz, back behind the plate.

Ruiz was apparently itching to return as well. Not only was he a key part of Halladay’s memorable night two months ago, he ended Wood’s bid with a leadoff double. Even Phillie fans at Citizens Bank Park would not have minded cheering on history for the other side, but when that hit found grass in left center, their screams conveyed a different message: Chooch is back!

Unlike Armondo Galarraga’s denied glory, this near-perfect game was legitimate, and Wood displayed the mental toughness of a veteran, stranding Ruiz on base and preserving his nine-inning, one-hit shutout.

They call it homefield advantage for a reason, though, and the Phillies finally provided for the bullpen the run that would have been enough for Halladay. After Ruiz’s second double, Jimmy Rollins came through with a walk-off hit. In the end, Philadelphia denied Wood a rare accomplishment and achieved one of its own, winning its third straight game in walk-off fashion. Who could’ve imagine packing so much into a 1-0 game?!

The Phillies are becoming an authority of 1-0 games, as they swept the Reds on Sunday with their second straight win of that score. It's been 97 years since Philly pulled that off, and that was 10 years before Babe Ruth made the home run popular.

J-Roll provided the only run in both games, slapping in the latter with an opposite-field hit like I wasn't able to do in the cage. Since his return from the DL, Rollins has definitely come through in big spots for the Phitins.

In four games, the Phillies beat the Reds by just five total runs. You hope the All-Star Break won't stop the momentum because it's wins like this that will lead to ones of larger margins down the road. I can certainly see a half-full glass. Placido Polanco and J.A. Happ will be back soon, and Philadelphia is generally a second-half team.

Good luck to Halladay and Ryan Howard in Anaheim tomorrow, and I hope the rest of the team enjoys the break. Three days don't seem like much after 20 straight games, and the Phillies have 18 straight more to begin the second half. If they stay on this winning track, it'll have to come on the road with back-to-back, four-game series against the Cubs and Cardinals. Philly just improved its record against the NL Central quite a bit, so watch out, Carpenter and Wainright.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Paying the ransom

Holy Howard, they did it again!

This team is certainly capable of the comeback they pulled off tonight, but who would have expected to see it? The way this season has gone, it's completely unlike the Phillies to suddenly figure out a pitcher who had been dominating them for eight innings.

And while it was Ryan Howard's blast that won it against the Reds in the 10th inning, the thanks really goes to Cody Ransom, who entered the game with just six at-bats this season and seven big league homers in his career. He hadn't gone yard in nearly two years, but he made sure he didn't miss Francisco Cordero's fastball that caught too much of the plate. His blast followed Greg Dobbs' three-run shot that breathed some life into a down-but-not-out offense. Give it up for the bench guys! Praise for them has not been a common occurrence this year.

Though the Phils couldn't finish it in the ninth, you could not have asked for a bigger momentum shift. It was the perfect time for Ryan Madson to make up for his rocky return from the DL on Thursday, and push that ERA back down. The deflated Reds were retired in order in the 10th - two by strikeout. It was a pleasant reminder of the '08 Madson.
It's all but a certainty that the Phillies will go into the break in third place, but these last two wins have to fill them with more confidence than they've felt in several weeks. I recall another team a few years back that won two straight games in walk-off fashion after some horrible defeats, and they went on to pull off the biggest postseason upset in baseball history before going on to win the World Series. This obviously isn't the same situation of the 2004 Red Sox, but this would not be bad time at all to turn the ship around.

Never a dull moment

I'll never admit it when the they lose, but the Phillies always have a flare for the unusual, and all the quirky ways they win and lose games give me constant reminders of why I love baseball so much.

No one could have predicted this outcome.

It's early July and Shane Victorino now has more home runs than Jayson Werth. In Thursday night's game, the Phillies lost the lead twice after the seventh inning, Brad Lidge blew a save (stirring up horrible memories of last season) and they still managed to win.

How was this possible? Brian Schneider became the second Phillies catcher this year to hit a walk-off home run in extra innings. Philadelphia has not been used to homers from No. 2 on the field since a man named Lieberthal. Phillies catchers only have a combined eight bombs this year, but this one felt so good. It laughed in the face of the logic that was so certain the team would lose this game.

I dare any player from any other team to say they got a better welcoming reception at home plate, too. The crazy Hawaiin was at the center of the celebration, beckoning the hero with a few pounds of the bat that sent his team and the home crowd into a frenzy. Regular season baseball doesn't get much better than that.

Even if Philly was sitting in last place, wins like this make anyone feel like they're walking on air. There are still three crucial games left before the break, but I'm not going to ruin the moment. Let those guys enjoy the present and the present is the rush of victory. Way to go.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Deception Island

Brady Anderson, you'll never know it was me because you'll never read this blog, but I apologize for taunting you from the stands at that Orioles game my dad and went to nearly nine years ago. You were a great player nearing the end of your career, and I was too immature and disrespectful to realize that. A thousand pardons.

Though my blog title does reference today's topic, I would like to brag that I also have been to that island on the Antarctic Peninsula. It was amazing.

Admittedly, I'm finding it harder to blog about every Phillies game because I don't want to keep spewing out the same material over and over. There's not much point if I can't touch on something original, something new that hasn't occurred to me or - if I'm really lucky - anybody else. I've got to keep this thing fresh so it continues to be a product people want to continue to invest their time in, even if my audience is just a few crazy baseball fans. It's true that Jamie Moyer picked the worst time to have another bad outing when the Braves are starting to feel comfortable at the top, but today I'd like to talk about the Big Man.

I've held off blogging about No. 6 because more than anyone else on the team, his role is clear and simple: hit home runs and drive people in. Over the past four years, no one has been better at doing that than Ryan Howard. The only other three players to put up his numbers in four straight years - Babe Ruth, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Sammy Sosa - are either dead, suspect or retired. Ryan is, dare I say, an island unto himself.

Though he's been just as bogged down by the Phillies' struggles this season as anyone else, a quick glance at his present stats does encourage a little optimism. Howard seems to be continuing on last year's track of approaching the hitting success of his rookie season. The month of April notwithstanding, it's been a long, long while since we've seen Howard's batting average at .298. He's finally starting to understand why there are always three hitters on the right side of the infield when he steps to the plate. He's hitting the ball the other way with more regularity, especially on the ground.

And therein lies the deception...

Upon closer inspection, Howard is on the track toward the least productive season of his career. No one could expect him to maintain the freakish numbers forever, and he'll still probably hit more than 30 homers and knock in and score more than 100 runs. But all around, he's not taking the same approach at the plate as in years past. Consider these numbers in a "if the season ended today" scenario:

- Though Howard is striking out less (a career-low mark of 23.1%), he's also walking a lot less, just 7.3% of the time. Pitchers would consider themselves lucky to get Howard out when he first got to the bigs, but the task is not so hard anymore.

- Not surprisingly, Howard's discipline at the plate is also wavering. While teammate Jayson Werth is presently tied for second in the league in pitches seen per at bat (4.38), Howard's 3.79 is barely a blip on the radar. He'll still see his fair share of 2-2 and 3-2 counts from less experienced pitchers who just want to stay away from him, but Howard used to work the count a lot better than he does now.

- Howard's line drive rate remains steady in the 20s, but many more of those line drives are falling in for singles. We're used to seeing much more pop from Howard. If the ball didn't go out, it would at least be caught at the warning track or crushed deep into the alleys for a double. His present extra-base hits rate of 9.6% is not the inconsistency you'd expect from your cleanup hitter. It could be the pressure to perform from his new contract or the extra weight he lost in the offseason. Whatever the reason, Howard just isn't driving the ball with the same authority.

- Relative to the rest of the league, Howard's OPS of .854 is quite respectable, but it's not the figure you want from your power-hitting first baseman and sits 100 points lower than his career average.

- Despite his higher batting average, the big man's on-base percentage is only .349. There was one season in which he got on with less frequency, and that was 2008 when he batted just .251. That year, his numbers in all the other categories I previously mentioned were markedly better than in 2010.

Of course, we're only halfway through the season, and we all know what happens to Ryan in August and September: nobody can seem to get him out. If the Phillies continue to struggle, they'll need him to step up more than ever as the postseason looms. All these singles just won't cut it.

With Placido Polanco and Chase Utley out, Howard also needs to work the count a lot more. Werth's the only one doing a good job of that in the lineup right now, and many of his counts seem to end fruitlessly with strikeouts in key situations that only build a pitcher's confidence back up. The pitcher won't even experience that good feeling if Howard battles until he gets that mistake pitch and crushes it onto Ashburn Alley. Man, I sure miss that.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A clean victory

I hope millions of other people are just as outraged as I am by the latest commercial Pizza Hutt has dished out. Two Little Leaguers are sitting in their team's dugout after a game, giddily telling the viewers that their coach rewards every loss with a trip to the famous restaurant. They all but admit that this mouth-watering gesture gives them incentive to lose. This is some of the worst marketing I've ever seen, and I curse the people that allowed it to see the light of day. Viewed another way, the commercial is a biting critique on how the Unites States educates its children. It's no secret that child obesity is reaching epidemic levels, and the amount of unhealthy food ads thrown at our youth today is appalling. No wonder they're lagging behind almost every other developed nation in the classroom. We see our unfit, uninspired preteen slumped on the couch surrounded by half-eaten snacks and lost in whatever world Playstation has dreamed up, and rather than pulling the plug and encouraging him/her to get outside and experience life, we laugh to ourselves, marvel at the child's hand-eye coordination and say, "We never had anything like that when I was growing up." Believe me, you're better off without it, and so is your kid.

It's good to see the Phillies win with Roy Halladay on the hill like they're supposed to. They only gave him three runs, but that was enough tonight against the first-place Braves. It was also good to see two of those runs supplied by Greg Dobbs' two-run shot that gave the Phils their first lead in the sixth inning. If anyone needed to come through, it was him. He was able to straighten out yesterday's monster foul ball in Pittsburgh.

More importantly, Philadelphia had its first error-free game since Halladay's last start June 30. Four straight games with at least one defensive miscue is not very Phillie-like, and nothing gets under a pitcher's skin more than the guys behind him giving the opposition an extra out. Just ask Cole Hamels about Game 2 of last year's NLCS.

Speaking of Hamels, he's on tomorrow night and he'll need to be just as sharp as Halladay. You never know how many runs the Phillies will score these days, and you can't break this momentum. The Reds are next in line and are just as determined to keep their lead in the Central.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Cloudy skies

Roy Halladay and Ryan Howard didn't have much to celebrate today.

This was a day to reflect upon the freedom we enjoy in this great nation and the men and women who are serving in the military for us, and for a few select baseball players, this was a day to enjoy being selected to represent their team and their sport in next Tuesday's All-Star Game. Any pleasant feelings brought on by those events were destroyed in the bottom of the seventh inning when six Pirates triumphantly crossed the plate and completed a demoralizing Keystone Series for the Phillies.

It would be unfair to say that the team is playing as bad as it did during that horrific stretch in late May/early June, but it is hard to remember how much worse that was when you lose three out of four to Pittsburgh. That kind of failure would be understandable if this was football or hockey, but the Pirates are a team not playing for anything. The team that just passed them in the NL Central standings started the season 0-8, and who knows how many of their players will still be taking the field at PNC Park this time next month.

It was shocking how quickly Joe Blanton's motor went from cruising to stalled out. The pitcher who closed the sixth and then opened the seventh seemed like two different people. Three of Blanton's first four pitches in that crucial inning were crushed, and suddenly the go-ahead run was at the plate. To add insult to injury, his catcher had just given him some insurance in the top of the seventh with a solo homer (Dane Sardinha has turned plenty of heads during his short time with the major league club). It was an ugly meltdown to watch, and we've all seen more than our fair share this season.

Now the Phillies have to carry this burdensome load into a three-game series with the division-leading Braves. In the absolute worst-case scenario, Philadelphia could be eight games back by the end of it and just one game above .500 (a place the team has not fallen to since the third game of the season). Then again, the Phillies were in this spot just three weeks ago. They were fading fast before they managed to take two of three from the Yankees and start a brief resurgence. Should they pull that off again, they could still end the first half feeling good about where they are.

And Halladay and Howard could feel good about being All-Stars.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Would you like to ride with Batman?

I don't know if anyone remembers this commercial, but it was from the mid-1990s, and it involved a football coach checking on one of his players who was on the receiving end of a shell-shocking tackle. The coach asks him, "Who am I," to which the player responds plainly, "You're coach." The coach then asks the player, "Who are you?" The player beams at him with confidence as he proclaims, "I'm Batman!"

The Phillies offense has been afflicted with a case of mistaken identity, though the new person is not a masked vigilante with a killer suit and a car that fills the military with envy (I just wanted to share the memory of that hilarious commercial). Philly is more akin to Two Face, dominated by an evil side that can't score runs. The only upside is that every once in a while, Harvey Dent re-emerges to dispose of enemy pitching.

I guess Daniel McCutchen and Ross Ohlendorf were like the Joker, a new threat the Phillies had no idea how to overcome, and Paul Maholm was the familiar crime boss who was easy to put away (despite the lefty coming in with a 3-1 record and 3.29 ERA against Philadelphia). The Phillies jumped all over him early in a 12-4 thrashing that finally gave them a win at PNC Park. No matter what team the Phils face, when they hit the cover off the ball like they used to do on a regular basis, it seems to occur at random, and these outbursts are surrounded by three- or four-game stretches of bewilderment. It's a dizzying pattern to follow and is not making much of a dent (no pun intended) in the division.

I'm glad Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth finally listened to my pleas, ending their respective RBI droughts of six and eight games. They combined to drive in four runs - the kind of production you want to see out of at least one of them every game with Utley and Polanco out of the lineup. Ironically, their help wasn't really needed tonight, but J-Roll and Victorino aren't going to combine for six hits and the cycle too often.

Ben Francisco finally got the home run monkey off his back, and his increased playing time over the last few weeks has helped his hitting. I'd expect to see him out there more and more. It may still be too early to tell, but it appears as if 38-year-old Raul Ibanez is on a career decline.

Kyle Kendrick is dealing with his own Two Face issues, but the better half that he showed throughout all of Spring Training - and easily won him the fifth spot in the rotation after J.A. Happ went down - returned in his first-ever complete game. This is the fifth straight game in which a Philly starter has gone at least seven innings, but the team is just 2-3 in that stretch.

This is a group that is fully capable of winning, even regaining first place in the East, without Chase Utley or Placido Polanco. There's no doubt in my mind of that. I'm just not sure they believe that right now. I feel like I've said this way too much, but tonight's win was a good start back to that confidence. They need to find their inner-Batman and continue to take care of the bad guys.

Rolling the wrong way

My initially-shallow well of useful information to dispense about a Phillies loss has been now been completely tapped, so I won't even make the effort this time.

I will instead reveal a troubling realization I made a mere 12 hours ago: Jimmy Rollins does not represent what I believe to be a model baseball player - particularly as a leadoff hitter, the role he's occupied for the majority of his career.

My discovery of this was first made possible from Jimmy's own mouth and strengthened by my current reading of "Moneyball," Michael Lewis's bestseller, which I'm utilizing to sharpen my baseball knowledge and observations of the game. The information I've soaked in has cast the game in an even more negative light than the Steroids Era.

It started with an interview Bob Costas conducted with Rollins and Ryan Howard for MLB Network in late May. It aired a month later and I finally caught it yesterday afternoon. The interview, like many before it, fell short of my expectations. The majority of Costas's questions were fluff-dominated, and Howard gave his usual cliche answers without a hint of clarity or intellect (I get more substance out of high school athletes), while J-Roll did his typical job of looking cute for the camera and the audience.

The only meaty question Costas aimed at the stars concerned an infamous incident in 2008 when Rollins got chewed out by Charlie Manuel for not hustling down the line on an infield pop-up that was dropped. At the time, Rollins didn't question his manager's disappointment and immediately owned up to his mistake. While he repeated those words to Costas, he then tried to justify why he didn't charge out of the batter's box. I can't recall his exact words, but no justification should have ever been attempted. You don't hustle, you hurt the team. Period.

Costas remained on this topic for a few minutes and asked Rollins what the point was of walking out of the batter's box and admiring a home run, rather than running on contact to try and reach second base in case the ball didn't leave the yard. Jimmy's response was something like this:

"When you've been around long enough, you get a good feel for which balls are going to be home runs. Sometimes you hit balls that you're not sure if they're going to go out or not, but you've got to make it look like you know."

Before making that ridiculous comment, Rollins had already said what most devoted Phillies fans knew, that his idol growing up was Rickey Henderson. The thing Jimmy loved the most about Rickey was his showmanship; how he worked the entertainment aspect of the game. His cocky statement about admiring home runs only confirmed the fact that he didn't adapt the right aspects of Rickey's game to his own.

It's true that Rickey showed off and he displayed a remarkable mix of power and speed, but the area of the game he absolutely dominated was the very definition of a leadoff hitter - getting on base. In addition to all of his stolen bases, runs and homers, Henderson walked 2,190 times in his career, which was briefly an all-time record before being broken by Barry Bonds (a ton of Phillies fans, including myself, saw his record-setting free pass with the Padres in 2001, as it came in a game against the Phils). Jimmy Rollins' 484 walks barely scratches the surface.

In even more glaring example of the colossal gap separating the two players, Henderson's career on-base percentage of .401 ranks 43rd all-time among non-active players. Jimmy Rollins does not even have the highest career OBP on his team. In fact, of all the starters in the lineup, J-Roll's career OBP of .330 is dead last. As the students of the Bill James School of Baseball will tell you, OBP is the best tool we have of measuring a hitter's performance for his team.

This realization is damning to say the least, but I have always believed that hustle and putting forth your absolute best effort all the time are the highest responsibilities of any athlete. Many baseball players today are too blinded by their bank accounts and star status to give their all on the field, and J-Roll is no exception. We've all watched as his home run totals have ballooned over the past four years (an average of 12 in his first five seasons to an average of 22 from '06-'09), and he most likely stood and stared at each one with a smugness Rickey would applaud. Unfortunately, those shots don't mean much when he's not reaching base with any kind of regularity.

I'm not saying that Rollins isn't a valuable piece of the team, as his MVP year in 2007 will prove, but he could be helping out the Phillies so much more just by making small adjustments most leadoff hitters should perfect in the minor leagues like working the count better and hitting to all parts of the field.

And Jimmy, don't stand and watch the ball. Bust out of the box and think about second base.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

That don't make no sense!

OK, people, explain this to me.

A shuffled lineup and the overwhelming presence of backup players did not seem to hurt the Phillies on Thursday night. The top three hitters in the order all reached base at least once. Greg Dobbs showed some life with just his second two-hit game of the season, and Jimmy Rollins displayed some necessary power from the three-hole with a double. Wilson Valdez went yard again and is now 7 for his last 22 (.318) with two bombs, 8 RBI and 6 runs scored.

Cole Hamels rebounded from his ugly start last Saturday, pitching seven quality innings. He allowed just five hits, struck out eight and didn't allow a home run for the first time since May. He also took a page out of Roy Halladay's control book, throwing 75 percent of his pitches for strikes.

And yet, the Phillies lost 3-2 to the Pirates, who are fading away toward their 18th straight losing season. They were beaten by a McCutchen, but not the one who is presently the only Pirate anyone outside of the Pittsburgh area can name. Daniel McCutchen was making just his second start since returning from a demotion to Triple-A (a return only made possible by an injury to Zach Duke). Before Thursday, McCutchen had yet to see his ERA fall into the single digits this season, but he is now the latest in a long line of pitching nobodies that looked like a somebody against the Philly lineup.

With so many injuries plaguing the team, the Phils needed their three-headed monster of Howard-Werth-Ibanez to do some damage, but tonight they looked like the three blind mice. 1-for-11 with no RBI, four strikeouts and seven runners stranded is not going to get the job done, guys. Everyone else did their job, but you left them hanging. Against the Pirates of all teams!

To be fair, things being the way they are, I wasn't expecting a sweep. The Bucs got themselves a win at home against the reigning NL champs. If the Phillies don't win these final three games, it'll be a long wait until the Trade Deadline.