Friday, April 28, 2006

So Much For Home Cooking

In conversation over time with some of the better informed bloggers I cannot help notice many of them have much more information about the players on other teams around both leagues than I possess. Indeed, the best informed among them have more familiarity with other teams’ prospects than I do about their 25-man big league rosters.

I was forcibly reminded of my shortcomings during the largely miserable course of the just concluded home stand when I realized I had never heard of the majority of the starting lineups for either Florida or Colorado. “Who are these guys?”, I kept asking myself.

No matter. The Phils dropped five of nine games to these two no-name clubs and a Washington lineup filled with known quantities and limped out of town for a short road trip that begins tonight in Pittsburgh. I can name some of the Pirates’ starting lineup…without having to look it up.

* * * * * * * * *

If nothing else, the Phillies poor start underscores the vital importance of Jimmy Rollins, at least the late 2005 version. J-Roll struggled through a miserable home stand, going 3 for 34. Though he has cut down on his strikeouts dramatically, Jimmy looks uncomfortable at the plate. He isn’t getting good swings from either side at the moment and the results both for him and the club have been disastrous, but I am confident he will find his stroke again.

When Jimmy is on and gets on, the Phillies win. When he isn’t or doesn’t, they don’t. Plain and simple. Rollins remains the key figure on this club as far as I am concerned. Say what you will about his patience or lack of it, he is the igniter.

* * * * * * * * *

I have frequently speculated that Pat Burrell must be one of the premier guess hitters on this club and yesterday’s game reinforced that notion. His two-run producing single in the opening frame came on a first pitch fastball. Later in the game, Burrell took a number of pitches right down Broadway. Nothing wrong with guessing, I suppose, as long as you are right more often than not, but I cannot recall ever watching a player who takes more strikes than Burrell.

* * * * * * * * *

The local blogosphere, posters and commenters alike, have been speculating about what to do with the awful pitching. One favorite subject is Ryan Franklin, who until yesterday had been pitching reasonably well. Indeed, the entire middle of the Phillies’ bullpen has pitched reasonably well overall and led the NL in ERA through Wednesday.

The discussion concerning Franklin focuses on whether he should be inserted into the starting rotation if Gavin Floyd and Ryan Madson continue to flounder. Yesterday’s appearance should put an end to that speculation, at least for now. Franklin arrived in Philadelphia with a reputation for being a fly ball, home run yielding pitcher. The home run he served up to Garrett Atkins, a booming shot to straight away centerfield, produced a sudden and stinging loss.

Five or six innings of Franklin would be hard to take.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Concerns

These are your Philadelphia Phillies, sports fans.

Score lots of runs.  Give up lots of runs.  See who is left standing at the end of the game.   Is this any way to win a division?  

Not likely.

Ryan Madson started last night’s game against the Rockies and to summarize how his season is going, he gave up ten hits, one walk and four earned runs in five innings and lowered his ERA to 8.05.   You could look it up.

Madson hung on for dear life in reality and would probably have been lifted a few batters earlier by manager Charlie if the Phils didn’t want to see him get the win after being staked to a 7 – 1 lead and, more to the point, if they hadn’t been overworking their bullpen.  

Prior to the start of the season Madson, who has always been a reliever in the major leagues after being strictly a starter in the minors, campaigned for and was awarded a spot in the Phillies admittedly weak rotation.  Some argued the slender right-hander didn’t have the stamina to be a starter, pointing to latter part of 2005 when Madson clearly petered out.   Others countered he would benefit from the regular routine of pitching every fifth day rather than the up-and-down routine of the bullpen.

At this juncture it’s difficult to say who is right.  Madson has thrown too many pitches in too few innings in his last two starts to know what to make of his stamina, but to this observer he looked tired last night and, pardon the pun, relieved to get out of the game with his ego let alone his body intact.   Madson’s repertoire hasn’t impressed.  His fastball doesn’t appear to have much on it.  His curve appears to be decent.  His changeup is largely missing in action.

In this morning’s Inquirer Jim Salisbury’s lead read “Even as their starting pitching continues to raise concerns, the Phillies are slowly moving in the right direction.”

Salisbury was referring to the fact that the Phils 9 – 5 win over the Rockies moved them into second place in the Division ahead of Atlanta and behind the Mets.  With a 9 – 11 overall record and the third worst team ERA in the NL, I guess the operative word in Salisbury’s piece is “slowly” rather than “right”.  On second thought, it’s probably “concerns”.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Shell-Shocked

Nearly every night it’s the same old story:  starting pitching puts the Phillies in a hole and they rarely climb out of it.

Before a single at-bat, the Phillies look up at the scoreboard and see themselves trailing, sometimes by 3 or 4 or 5 runs.

Worse, if they begin to claw their way back and score in the bottom of a frame, the starters nearly always go out and give a run or two right back.

It’s maddening, frustrating and, in the end, nearly always fatal.

The pundits had it right all along.  The 2006 Phillies are a mediocre team where it counts the most:  pitching.

Last night’s starter, Gavin Floyd, is pitching on borrowed time.  The scouting reports on Floyd talk of his fastball, curve and change-up.  Well, his fastball doesn’t appear to have any movement on it; his command of his curve is elusive at best; and he rarely throws the change because, as Harry Kalas pointed out last night, he is too often behind in the count.

Floyd looks and acts like the shell-shocked pitcher he is.  Whatever confidence he rediscovered during Spring Training is long gone now.  His is the classic deer-in-the-headlights stare.  His manager insists he will be given another chance or two, but what else is Manuel going to do?  Who, exactly, is waiting in the wings?

Lest I forget, Ryan Madson’s last outing was an even greater disaster than Floyd’s, and John Lieber is 0 – 4.

Come to think of it, even the pundits thought the Phils’ starting pitching would be better than this!!

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Beerleaguer  recently pointed to defense as another culprit in the Phillies’ poor start.  Every night someone blows an easy play.  Last night, Jimmy Rollins threw away a ball and it cost the team an unearned run that proved to be the final margin of defeat.  Too many mistakes by too many fielders reveal a team whose concentration is poor after less than a month on the job.  How will they play in the heat and humidity?

Sal Pasano started at catcher last night.   He may have delivered two hits (and no pizzas to his cheering section), but he is no defensive whiz, especially when throwing to second base.  Why is Pasano catching Floyd instead of Mike Lieberthal?  Is he the superior psychologist?

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The New Look

The Phillies new-look lineup versus right-handed pitching was introduced last night and immediately produced the desired result, a 6-5 win over the Colorado Rockies.  

Lineups are always a popular talking point in baseball, but until this morning I never realized just how many at-bats are gained or lost depending on where a batter hits.  In his Phillies Report Inquirer beat writer Todd Zolecki notes that “each spot a hitter drops in the order costs him about 20 plate appearances over a season.”  That translates to roughly 80 lost AB’s for new sixth place hitter Aaron Rowand and 20 gained AB’s for current fifth place batter Ryan Howard.  

Then, of course, there are the matters of “protecting” hitters, breaking up too many right or left-handed batters in a row, and figuring out where speed, power and contact figure in the overall scheme.

The most intriguing feature of the new-look lineup has Chase Utley hitting second.  The debate here focuses on whether Utley, already a proven RBI man, should be batting in a spot where fewer runners will be on base.  Zolecki points out that he should see more fastballs with Jimmy Rollins leading off ahead of him, a theory whose ultimate proof will depend entirely on J-Roll’s ability to get on base.  Certainly, with Lieberthal and the pitcher’s spot ahead of Jimmy, Utley is not likely to find a lot of men on base when batting second.  It is worth noting that a cursory check at Retrosheet of box scores for the Chicago Cubs showed Ryne Sandberg batting second.  He seemed to do all right as I recall.

Finally, local critics will note that David Bell is still starting in this lineup versus right-handed pitching.  You can’t have everything, even when everything else changes.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Missing Fan Rescued...For Now

Things could be worse, I guess. We could be Marlins fans.

The Fish are a mere shadow of their former intimidating selves, a testament both to owner Jeffrey Loria’s naked desire to get out of south Florida by driving away the few remaining fans there and to Commissioner Bud Selig’s complicity in achieving that objective.

So, the Phils beat up a team comprised of a bunch of AAA players with a few major league veterans sprinkled in. But a win is a win, especially for this Phillies club and especially at home.

Most teams would have smacked their lips at the prospect of playing so many games at home to start the season, especially against the weakest members of their division. Interestingly, owner David Montgomery was quoted recently as saying that the preponderance of early-season games at the Bank meant, ironically, less money in his branch due to the relatively cool and rainy weather at this time of year and the fact that school was still in session for young fans. Given the way the Phillies respond to home cooking, maybe they should start next season on an extended road trip.

This Phillies club has shown precious little life thus far, resembling the moribund teams of the late ‘90’s. They don’t seem to have much fire at the plate or in the field. Worse, they seem absolutely DOA on the bench, a problem exacerbated by Charlie Manuel’s poor handling of his reserves. Alex Gonzalez and Shane Victorino have been buried. Dave Dellucci might as well be. Fans could have filed a missing person’s report on Abraham Nunez before yesterday.

After nearly three weeks of baseball one thing is clear: these guys are not much fun to watch.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Missing Fan Reportedly Sighted

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Search Continues For Missing Fan

Friday, April 21, 2006

Fan Overboard!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Sailing On

To be a Phillies fan this season is not unlike teetering across the rolling deck of a ship as it pitches in a stormy sea.  Over to the portside one moment, starboard the next, hanging on for dear life.

Continuing momentarily with our nautical theme, I was prepared to hang out a simple Gone Fishin’ sign this morning instead of posting anything after Washington took a 6-3 lead late into the game Wednesday night when, all of sudden, Bobby Abreu hits a two run homer in the eighth, pinch runner Shane Victorino scored on a ground out to tie the game in the same inning and Ryan Howard delivered a game-winning RBI single to right in the tenth.

Late rally.  Disaster averted.

It is also bears mentioning that the Reverse Curse is alive and well in 2006.  Having noted the Mets torrid start the other day, I can humbly announce they immediately proceeded to drop the next two games and the series to visiting Atlanta.

The Phils are only four games back.

And their ship and its passengers live to pitch back and forth another day.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Dysfunction All Around

This may currently be the most dysfunctional sports town in America bar none.

On Sixers Fan Appreciation Night at the Wachovia Center, coincidentally the last home game of the season, the Sixers two top stars, Allen Iverson and Chris Webber, showed up very late and never played a minute. In fact, they never even made it to the bench. Rumor has it they knew they would be sitting due to “injuries”, a little known fact withheld from the paying public, some of whom no doubt came just to see them. They certainly weren’t coming to see the rest of the Sixers, who were miserable all season and failed to make the playoffs.

Oh, and by the way, it might also have been the last opportunity to see Iverson and/or Webber appear in Sixers uniforms at home. Both are the subject of numerous trade rumors. How appreciative.

Meanwhile, across the street at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies were returning from a successful road trip during which they managed to crawl back from their disastrous 1 – 5 start to the season at home. The highlight of that opening home stand was the merciless booing of some veteran players during the introduction ceremonies.

So, what did our prodigal sons do for an encore? They promptly went out and dropped an ugly game to the lowly Washington Nationals 10 -3, prompting a whole new round of booing sure to endear both parties to each other.

Meanwhile, back across the street at the Wachovia Center, the Flyers are preparing for the opening round of the NHL playoffs during which they will face old nemesis Buffalo in the Sabres’ building.

The Flyers fell across the finish line to end the season, dropping five of their last ten games and looking completely defenseless on, well, defense. And to top that off, the goalie controversy that dogged the team at least since the Olympic break remains a sore point despite appearances Robert Esche has won the starting nod for the playoffs. In the next to last game of the season, Esche was yanked after given up three goals and arrived at the bench yelling at someone or group as yet unidentified. That’s the spirit!

Meanwhile, across the parking lot from the Wachovia Center, the Philadelphia Eagles followed up their losing Super Bowl appearance by going 6 – 10 for the season and carrying on the most pitiful soap opera in recent NFL annals. It all began in that Super Bowl when receiver Terrell Owens returned from a serious leg injury to play a great game only to believe and announce to the world that his quarterback, Donovan McNabb, crapped out, especially at the end. Their personal feud carried over into training camp and the regular season and was exacerbated by Owens’ insistence that the Eagles rework his contract. They refused, banished him first from training camp and finally from the team in mid-season. Unable to work things out or trade him, the Eagles watched as their problem became division rival Dallas’ potential problem (or salvation) next season through free agency.

Have you got all that?

Welcome Back

This will not be a long post; the Phillies are not worthy of much effort at the moment.  Suffice it to say the opener of a ten-game home stand was unlikely to endear the Phils to the natives.

Last night’s 10 – 3 loss to Washington had it all, virtually none of it good.  The only thing one really needs to know is that the Phillies made their very first out of the game at home plate thanks entirely to the latest indefensibly poor decision by third base coach Bill Dancy.  If nothing else is learned from this game it should be that Dancy must be replaced immediately.  What “baseball man” would take a chance sending a runner home from first base on a hit to left field on the second play of the game when he could have runners at second and third and no one out?  It doesn’t matter if the guy in left field has one arm in a sling; there is no justification unless scoring is an absolute certainty.

The rest of the game featured assorted bad plays including but not limited to:

  1. Ryan Howard dropped a throw to first base.  Though it did not cost the team a run it revealed a recent tendency by the youngster to be nonchalant at times in the field.

  2. David Bell hit into two double plays while Abraham Nunez sat again with a left-hander starting.  (Jason Weitzel pointed out to me during an in-game teleconference that the Phils probably wanted Bell’s defense with an alleged ground ball pitcher starting.)

  3. Bobby Abreu misplayed two straight balls and did cost the team.  He looks more lumbering and helpless out there every day.

  4. Cory Lidle, the aforementioned alleged ground ball pitcher, gave up a lot of long fly balls, some of which left the yard.

  5. The bullpen imploded.

On the one positive note, Pat Burrell made a great throw to nail a runner at second base and hit a home run to pull the Phils to within one run at the time.

I’m done for now.  Have to watch the blood pressure.

Nice to have you back, guys.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Pedro In Personal Perspective

Pedro Martinez won his 200th game last night and in doing so improved his overall winning percentage to an impressive .701 (200 wins against only 84 losses).

In an era when it is rare to find many teams with more than one outstanding starter on the roster who has been a consistent winner over the course of a lengthy career to say nothing of multiple pitchers who fit that description, I am once more reminded of the Orioles of my youth.

In 15 years, eight of them during his prime with the Orioles, Mike Cuellar was 185 – 130 (.587)

In 14 years, all but one of them with the O’s, Dave McNally was 184 – 119 (.607)

In his entire 19 year career in Baltimore Jim Palmer was 268 – 152  (.638)

The Mensch & The King

Time to give Brett Myers his due, not so much for the strong outing at Coors Field where he and the bullpen blanked the Rockies 1-0, only the second time in the history of that stadium that has ever been done, but more for what he said after the game.  Myers has always been hyper-sensitive to fan criticism of the team not just himself and like the rest of the Phillies he couldn’t have been happy with the opening day booing of Mike Lieberthal and Bobby Abreu.  So, like the mensch he hasn’t heretofore been, Myers stepped up after the game and publicly acknowledged Lieberthal called a great game on Sunday.  On a team where pitchers and catchers often don’t seem to be on the same page, this was as big a statement as the line score.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Pitching remains the Phillies biggest concern and the front end of the bullpen its weakest link.  An even bigger problem looms, however.  Charlie Manuel has had to use closer Tom Gordon far too often including in a game the Phillies led 10 – 4 at one point before the middle of the pen allowed the Rockies to make it too close for comfort.  Given Gordon’s age and physical history, all these unnecessary early-season appearances could come back to haunt them by mid-summer.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

It should come as some comfort to Phillies’ fans to see that Albert Pujols didn’t have it in for just their team.  After hitting home runs in four consecutive at-bats over the last two games, King Albert now has nine taters for the season in 13 games to go along with his 19 RBI’s and .364 batting average.  The good news is the Phils will only face him for one more series this season.  The bad news is we only get to watch him for one more series this season other than the occasional game of the week.  Don’t despair.  If the Cards get sufficient pitching and remain healthy they and their astonishing first baseman should be in the post-season again.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The Mets 10 -2 start is precisely the sort of burst out of the chute teams have historically parlayed into winning their divisions.  Think of it this way:  it is only the third week of April and already the third place Phillies trail the first place Mets by five full games.  Meanwhile, the Phillies are hoping to end the first month of the season over .500 and they have an excellent chance to do so with a ten-game home stand coming up against two weak teams (Nationals and Marlins) and one historically weak club that is showing some promise (Colorado).

Prior to the start of the season we mentioned that the Phils play 33 of their first 53 games at home.  Normally, that would be an advantage, but over the last few seasons the Phils have had their ups-and-downs playing in front of the faithful.  Already this season more than a few players and pundits observed it was good to get away from Citizens Bank Park after starting there with a 1 – 5 record.  But if they hope to get back into this race, they have to dominate during the current home stand.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Oddities & Ends

You want a single metaphor for the Phillies topsy-turvy season thus far?

If anyone had told you Ryan Howard would have one home run and three infield singles through the first nine games would you have believed him?

Thanks to his newfound speed, Howard is hitting .355 through last night’s game. Apart from the infield hits, the most noticeable thing about Howard’s season to date is that he is hitting virtually everything on the ground and to the right side. So, the good news is he is pulling the ball, but the “bad” news is he is getting zero elevation, which is, after all, a big part of his game. As for those infield hits? I doubt even he is counting on too many more of them going forward.

Howard’s speed isn’t the only surprising development thus far. Aaron Rowand arrived in Philadelphia with a reputation as a guy who runs through walls if necessary and catches everything hit to his zip code, but he hasn’t impressed this viewer with his glove thus far. Indeed, he has misplayed a few balls and failed to reach at least one other that was playable. He seems to play in and rely on his speed to catch up with things over his head, but from the little I’ve seen to date he doesn’t go straight back all that impressively. Rowand also came to the Phillies with the label he had an average arm at best, but ironically his best play to date was the relay to Jimmy Rollins Wednesday when J-Roll nailed Atlanta’s Brian McCann at the plate by a country mile.

Gavin Floyd began the season as an experiment and in his first outing the results were disastrous. Unlike the past, when the Phillies management reversed fields quickly whenever a young pitcher stumbled, to their credit (or maybe because they didn’t have any other options???!!!) they handed Floyd the ball last night for his next start.

Staked to a five run lead in the opening frame, Floyd came right back and yielded single runs to the Braves in the bottom of the first inning and second innings. He was relying mostly on fastballs and the Braves were turning them around just as quickly. Just when it looked like the clinical trials would have to be halted, Floyd found his nasty breaking stuff, settled down and yielded only one more run while going six innings and striking out four for his first win of the season, only the second by a Phillies starter. Floyd’s breaking ball was so sharp the Braves were flailing away at balls at their shoe tops. The win was nice, but the recovery was nicer. Floyd’s and the Phils’ confidence in him received a tremendous boost.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

All-Departed Team

For those of you who haven’t read Paul Hagen’s two-part series in the Daily News that looks at the Phillies’ post-season drought, here are links to both pieces:

http://www.philly.com/mld/dailynews/sports/14266597.htm

http://www.philly.com/mld/dailynews/sports/14275328.htm

Hagen takes a hard look at the organization from top to bottom and quotes numerous sources (few of whom would speak on the record) who fault management for indecision, poor decisions or failures to act altogether.  It is worth reading.

I was reminded of Hagen’s pieces when I read a paragraph in today’s Inquirer by Todd Zolecki subtitled Bad Karma?

Zolecki writes:

The Phillies are 1-6 and need to win tonight to avoid their worst start since 1987. Plus, several former Phillies from last season's team are playing well with their new teams. Here is a sample (stats through Monday's games):
JIM THOME, White Sox:.318 (7 for 22),
4 home runs, 7 RBIs, 8 walks, .516 on-base percentage, .909 slugging percentage.
JASON MICHAELS, Indians: .346 (9 for 26),
1 double, 1 RBI, .393 on-base percentage,
.385 slugging percentage.
VICENTE PADILLA, Rangers: 2-0, 3.00 ERA,
12 innings pitched, 11 hits, 4 earned runs,
5 walks, 8 strikeouts.
BILLY WAGNER, Mets: 1-0, 3.00 ERA, one save, one blown save.
PLACIDO POLANCO, Tigers: .296 (8 for 27), 1 RBI.

Absent from this list, but not forgotten especially following the season opening series, is Scott Rolen.  Also absent but best forgotten is Curt Schilling, who is 2-0 thus far.

Rolen’s line through last night looks like this:

SCOTT ROLEN, Cardinals:  .370 (10 for 27), 2 HR, 9 RBI

What, if anything, do these players have in common other than their former address?  Most but not all of them were viewed as problems to be rid of.  Polanco and Thome were standing in the way of the next generation, as management saw them.  So Polanco was dealt for a three month rental of Ugueth Urbina while Thome may have brought more in return in Aaron Rowand and two pitching prospects.  Polanco made it clear he didn’t like his part-time role in Philadelphia.  Thome never had a chance to make waves when he went on the DL at the mid-point of last season and Ryan Howard took over for him, but the problem would have surfaced in 2006.

It can hardly be argued that dealing Polanco for Urbina improved the Phillies.  School is out on the Thome deal but this much is known:  we still owe him a ton of money.

Wagner never wanted to stay in Philadelphia, having said he wanted to go where he could win but in fact he wanted much more money than the Phils were offering him.  Since his departure Phillies fans have naturally focused on Wagner’s negative comments about them and the atmosphere in Philadelphia, but they forget Wagner complained rather bitterly of how he was handled in his first year here, too. He felt he was overused by Larry Bowa, abused by Joe Kerrigan (who wasn’t?) and even mishandled by the training staff following a few injuries.  Fans also forget he was making noises about leaving as early as the spring of 2005.  It was always about the money for Billy boy.

Michaels was dealt to the Indians this off-season for a variety of reasons, but one that kept surfacing was his relationship to Pat Burrell and his after hours habits.  The Philliles vehemently deny those suggestions, but they continue to surface.  Regardless of his extra-curricular activities, was Michaels a better fourth outfielder to have then, say, David Dellucci or Shane Victorino?  Yes.

And then there is El Enigma.  I predicted he might win 15 games for the Rangers.  Predicted or hoped, I cannot recall which.  The Phillies never knew what to do with Padilla.  They didn’t like his off-season regimen and habits and, frankly, they weren’t too positive about his regular season ones either.  His departure seemed inevitable after his first year in Philadelphia.  It would be easy to dismiss his falling out of favor as a case of wrong guy in the wrong organization or, conversely, as someone in need of a change of scenery.  But the problem with that conclusion is that the organization always acknowledged he had a great arm and explosive stuff.   And let’s not forget this assessment was coming from a team that chronically lacks starting pitching.  It is amazing to consider that an entire organization could not come up with some one or plan to make Padilla more comfortable here.  Instead, they traded him to the Rangers and have already released the guy they got in return.

Are the Phillies unique in their failure to make players happy in Philadelphia?  The Hagen articles hardly paint a positive picture of the organization.  Can every team’s fans play “what if” regarding departed players?  Many surely can.  What is most troubling about the Phillies is the large number of players who have been shipped out only to become fixtures elsewhere and the few players in return about whom the same can be said.


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Rootless and Impersonal

[Editor’s note:  Despite the introductory paragraphs, this is not another post about Barry Bonds.  Like the game itself, the issues are bigger than Bonds.]

Remember Barry Bonds?  Of course you do.  The strange thing is that without any home runs to date, Bonds has temporarily receded from our consciousness, especially among Phillies faithful who have a lot more on their minds at the moment.

No doubt Bonds will resurface when he hits the first ball into McCovey Cove and the chase for 714 and 755 resumes.  But even when he does and inevitably passes the first of these milestones at the very least, the record won’t mean much to us anymore.  That’s the real fallout from the steroids era, a sabremetric shift if you will, away from traditional strongman records to park factors and Win Shares and the like.

Whatever your perspective, it’s especially hard to care for statistics that seem tainted or, at the very least, suspect.  Ho hum, another fifty home run season by so-and-so.  We can largely thank Mssrs. McGwire, Bonds, Sosa et al for this transformation.  Until they arrived and cast doubt on power numbers, succeeding generations cared deeply about the relative performances of their contemporary heroes compared with those of the legends of the game.  Now, as in so much else within American life, statistics have become even more impersonal and rootless.

This notion has slowly occurred to me for some time as I witnessed and lamented the fungibility of rosters and wholesale migration of players from one team to another, often in successive seasons.  We still root for the home team but less so for the individual players who will be here today and more than likely gone tomorrow or the next day.   It’s only natural to hold back.  The uniform, not the individual inside it, must be the object of our desire if we are to preserve our dignity if not our mental health.

Somehow the new statistics emphasize the universal not the individual.  Home run statistics are individual, win shares are not by definition.   Go ahead, name the all-time leaders in win shares in each league.

Something has been lost in the one sport where the numbers matter most.  For all the Pythagorean calculations applied to bat and ball today, things simply don’t add up for me.  You can assemble a team based on money ball theories or old-fashioned scouting or some combination of the two, but in the end the players are merely rented for a few seasons.  Bring in a new guy and give him so-and-so’s old number.  Don’t fall in love with Chase Utley; he’s going to leave at the first opportunity.  And what does it matter anyway if he doesn’t have a high enough relative range factor.

This notion was brought home to me forcibly  in another way only last week when Ken Griffey passed Mickey Mantle on the All-Time Home Run List.  (For once, a home run did not immediately evoke steroids; Griffey has always been seen as clean.)

That news item affected me far more than the bigger milestones Bonds threatens to pass shortly.  The reasons are many and in some respects personal.   Mantle was a prominent baseball figure during my youth, a palpable presence made very real when I saw him play against my hometown Orioles.  Every year Mantle began the season a threat to overtake Ruth’s single-season record for homeruns that stood until his teammate Roger Maris barely superseded it in his asterisk fashion and McGwire, Sosa and Bonds positively brushed both aside as they leapfrogged to new enhanced heights.

Mantle played his entire career for the Yankees, indeed became the symbol of the franchise for many years.  Each season began with Mantle a fixture in centerfield for New York like DiMaggio before for him and Ruth and Gehrig before him.  Those days are gone and in some respects it is a good thing.   Baseball players are no longer indentured servants albeit well-paid ones, free to sell their services after at a certain stage of their careers to the highest bidders.  Still I remain convinced the continuity and commitment were good for the game because as Roger Angell put it so aptly many years ago, where else in life but baseball can we watch the individual fortunes of our heroes ebb and flow daily and permit us to care so deeply?

On The Clock

My recent recollections of the dismal start to the 1988 season by the Orioles may not be as far-fetched as I first thought in at least one regard:  en route to their 0-21 start that year, the Birds fired manager Cal Ripken Sr. after only six games.  Not to be outdone, the 2002 Tigers pulled the trigger just as quickly on Phil Garner after his team began the season with six losses.

Charlie Manuel has overseen seven games already but nevertheless he is on the clock.  As I see it, he has a margin of five more losses in April before being shown the door.

Count last night’s 5-3 loss to Atlanta as the first of those five losses.  If nothing else it was vintage 2006 Phillies baseball: lousy starting pitching, no clutch hitting, and a bullpen that couldn’t do its job.

Brett Myers failed to deliver again and after the game uttered the usual platitudes about not liking losing.  It is worth noting that during Myers’ five innings of work color analyst Larry Andersen pointed out repeatedly how Myers would get two strikes on a hitter and come in with a curve to try and finish them off.  Mixing in the curve is one thing, but as Andersen correctly observed, Myers went to that well over and over again and, like all good major league hitters, the Braves started sitting on it.   Don’t blame Mike Lieberthal for this.   Even if he was calling for the hook, Myers can shake him off.  But he didn’t for the same reason Myers always fails in the clutch, he is stubborn and hasn’t got a clue.

Except for Aaron Fultz’s meltdown on Sunday, middle relief has been surprisingly decent during much of the first week of the season with the exception of opening day.  Last night, however, Ryan Franklin came in after the Phils tied the game at three apiece and promptly gave up a home run to Marcus Giles.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, deflates a team faster than giving back the lead a half inning after tying a game, particularly on the road.

Still, the Phils had their chances to break through and failed to deliver.  Will someone please remind me again why we pried David Dellucci from the Rangers for Robinson Tejeda?  We needed a left-handed bat off the bench more than we needed pitching, right?
There are those who speculate Pat Gillick has been very successful at dumping unwanted pitching on the Rangers through a series of deals in the last six months.  Ah, the Rangers, dumb like foxes.   I’m sure their eyes widen whenever they see Pat’s number come up on the Caller ID.

Finally, can anyone explain to me slowly what portion of David Bell’s 2005 season versus right-handed pitching apparently does not count this year?  And while we are at it, let’s not have any more articles (including from yours truly) about Charlie’s loyalty to veterans.   We are treated to another one today in the Inquirer in which CM explains how fourteen at-bats (prior to last night’s game) is hardly sufficient data on which to judge Bell thus far this season.  I guess the one hit in those fourteen at-bats is also statistically insignificant.

Monday, April 10, 2006

April Founderings Bring May Firings

A few more weeks like the first one and I expect GM Pat Gillick to lower the boom on Charlie Manuel.  

Much as I hate to see anyone lose his job, especially someone as dedicated to the game as the Phillies skipper clearly is, the move may already be overdue.  We can endlessly debate how many games a manager actually wins or loses, but the growing perception is Charlie is painfully overmatched at the helm.  

In his first year in the National League Charlie often seemed stumped by certain in-game decisions, especially the double switch, but his problems are more fundamental than that.  

Manuel’s well-known loyalty to veterans, especially those whose natural abilities are “limited”, is an admirable personal trait but an ongoing disaster from a team standpoint.  No one better represents this ill-considered approach than David Bell, whose continued presence in the starting lineup, particularly against right-handed pitching, is beyond inexplicable at this stage; it is inexcusable.  To wit: what could Manuel possibly have been thinking yesterday when he let David Bell bat in the bottom of the eighth in game one against a right-hander when he had David Dellucci on the bench?  The results were predictable: 1-6-3.  Bell is now 1-14 for the season.

The move begs the larger question:  Gillick must have thought the Phils needed another left-handed bat off the bench when he acquired Dellucci on the Sunday before the regular season began, but did Manuel concur?

You want more?

The decision to sit several key players in the second half of yesterday’s twin bill against the Dodgers is difficult to explain when one looks at the details.  Why would Manuel sit Aaron Rowand, a young enough guy who finally got untracked in the first game yesterday, so early in the season?  To rest him?  To give Shane Victorino a start?  If the latter, try left field, then, where Pat Burrell and his nagging foot problems could have used the rest.  Why sit Ryan Howard, another youngster with the stamina to play two in one day, when he is one of your premier power hitter and the Dodgers were starting the right-hander Brad Penny?  Providing everyone a chance to play is an admirable idea, but not when your team was the last one in the majors to win its first game of the season a week after getting underway.

Keeping a 25-man roster happy by giving everyone a chance to play is one thing; keeping them happy by giving them the best opportunity to win is something else.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

On Second Thought....

Ouch!

Throughout last night's 5-3 loss to the Dodgers I couldn't shake the memory of the the Baltimore Orioles 0-21 start in 1988.

These Phillies are a far better team than those lowly Birds but it won't take 21 losses to put them behind the 8-ball. At this point they need a win, ugly or otherwise.

Despite being roughed up badly, I was more impressed with Gavin Floyd's outing than his line would seem to merit. Make no mistake about it, he gave up some real shots, but if he had a little more support from his defense, things might not have been as awful. His mechanics looked better to me and his command wasn't as bad as last year. As long as he sees his performance in a similar light he could be on his way.

Or not.

At this point the Phillies are in a tight race with the Pirates for the dubious distinction of last team in the majors to win its first game in 2006.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Cue The Optimism

OK, enough wallowing in self-pity and loathing.

The Cardinals have departed, taking Albert Pujols with them fortunately, the sun would have come up over Citizens Bank Park this morning had it not been overcast, and the Phillies expect to show up tonight when the Dodgers hit town.

For all that went wrong in the opening series of the season, this is still an exciting team.  

But make no mistake about, it is a team in transition.

If you read the national media there are stories everywhere about J-Roll and Ryan Howard.  Those who jump all over Jimmy for that uppercut swing and lack of patience should remind themselves he carried this team for the last two months of 2005, is a tremendous shortstop, loves the game, and is happy when the camera is on the Phillies, not just him.  He hit .375 during his 38-game hitting streak and, still, some are taking him to task.

Howard?  What can you say about this kid?  He has all kinds of talent and the most even disposition I’ve ever seen in a player of whom so much is expected.

Everyone in baseball speaks of Chase Utley as a throw-back player in the best senses of the term.  He came up with a great reputation as a hitter and a no-so-great one as a fielder and has made himself a fine second baseman through dint of hard work.  His glove alone should tell us everything we need to know about Chase.

Pat Burrell is still young and should be coming into his prime.  Aaron Rowand is a bulldog with the fielding grace of a gazelle.   Madson, Floyd and Hamel are young and full of promise albeit raw and unfulfilled with the latter two.  Brett Myers is still young and by all accounts has the best stuff on the entire staff but he is forever failing to deliver when it counts.  He alone among all the young players is the most frustrating to watch.

The flip side of this group of young players is the list of aging veterans, some of whom are well past their primes and others of whom have been around so long they are taken for granted.  No one better fits that description than Bobby Abreu.   The opening day booing when he was introduced was unseemly and uncalled for.  When he pulled up short on the fly ball in Wednesday night’s game, he wasn’t doing anything he hadn’t done for years and, in that case, was the correct play anyway.  Until he shows otherwise, Abreu is an adequate outfielder who is going to draw 100 bases on balls, get between 175 – 200 hits, and hit between .285 and .300.  I’d take that any day.

The pitching staff is loaded with middling starters, young and old, and the bullpen with journeymen of similar age discrepancies.  More than any other facet of the team, it is a staff cobbled together from too many disparate sources.  Again, the youngsters represent the best hope:  home grown and developed.

It’s tough to accept this team is in perennial transition, but the truth is next year they should begin to see their way clear of a number of contracts that have limited their options of late and when they do they should be able to point to the core youngsters and tell any free agent or draft pick, you will have a lot of good people around you if you sign here.

In the meantime, it’s going to be an up-and-down season with the cast of characters currently in residence.  Get used to it.

Hard Times Already

It isn’t easy being two games out of first place five days after the season gets underway.  I guess it is a good thing the Phils aren’t playing in the NL Central or they’d be three back.

It’s even more daunting to realize the Phils will look to a previously shell-shocked deer-in-the-headlights young hurler to stop the bleeding when the Dodgers come to town this evening.  Who knows, maybe a kid without much history or perspective on it will be an improvement.

A few things are already clear after the series with the Cardinals.

If I were Charlie Manuel I would cringe should some reporter raise the “vote of confidence” issue any time soon.  This manager is definitely on the bubble.  It isn’t unheard of for a team to jettison its manager in the first month of the season and from all appearances GM Pat Gillick is not timid or sentimental when it comes to making dramatic decisions.

It is astonishing how quickly the Phillies have squandered the good will and expectations of the local fans, especially given the opportunity they had in light of recent local disaffection with the Eagles.  But they have.  In today’s Inquirer, the most prominent story on page one of the sports section is the Eagles schedule for next season.   Schedule!!  Not even practice.  Stories about the end of J-Roll’s streak and the third straight loss to the Cards are at the top of the page, but the banner headline above the fold is still all Eagles all the time.

As if things were not bad enough in the stands, I imagine more than a few players took note of the opening day introduction booing of Bobby Abreu and Mike Lieberthal.  I’m sure Pat Burrell noticed.  And I’m sure newcomers like Aaron Rowand and Ryan Franklin noticed, too.

Finally, I know every blogger with an internet connection will have something to say about this, but I cannot refrain from asking what in the world is David Bell doing in the lineup versus a right hander?   Hasn’t Manuel learned anything from experience?   And can any of you who maintain he is a very good fielder still, pardon the pun, defend that position?  Abraham Nunez should be playing against right-handers, which is to say, nearly every day.  If nothing else, the lineup, which has been debated ad nauseu, still finds George S’s Black Hole intact at the bottom.  It is imperative Manuel break it up and he can start by sitting Bell.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

It All Seemed Inevitable

After the opening day debacle everyone, yours truly included, had to step back and take a deep breath.

After last night’s tough loss, however, I am not so inclined.  As noted here and elsewhere many times before, a good jump out of the gate is critical to any team’s long-term success.  Compounding my gloom this morning is the realization that the collective wisdom that worried about the Phillies pitching appears well-founded.

The cold weather notwithstanding, Brett Myers showed us again last night why he is unlikely to become the ace of this or any other staff.  For those who would argue how difficult it was to get a good feel for the ball under the circumstances, just take a look at Geoff Geary and Ryan Franklin.  Neither of them had a problem.  Neither did the Cardinals’ contingent.

Myers allowed ten base-runners in five innings, equally divided between walks and hits.  He was consistently high and outside to left-handers when throwing the fastball, which he relied on because the curve wasn’t there either.  Worse, he just seems to grab the ball and throw without the slightest indication he has a plan or, on the off chance he begins with one, can make adjustments.  Always quick to lose his focus if not composure, color analyst Larry Andersen wondered at one point whether it was time for Mike Lieberthal to go out to the mound and calm Myers down.  I can imagine Myers greeting him with “What the &%#!@ do you want?”  Rich Dubee drew the short straw and the assignment but it was to little effect.  Myers is a thrower not a pitcher.

Lost in the process was the small advantage gained by his mates in the opening frame when J-Roll doubled to lead off the game, extending his hitting streak to 38 straight games, and Aaron Rowand dropped a beautiful sacrifice bunt to move Jimmy to third and Bobby Abreu drove him in with a sacrifice fly.  Just like that, one, two, three and the Phils had manufactured a run in a fashion to which they were unaccustomed all last year.

Then Myers went right back out there and gave it back to the Cardinals.  The Phils tied the game on David Bell’s two run homer in the late innings, but closer Tom Gordon blew his inaugural appearance as a Phillie and in the bottom of the ninth Mike Lieberthal grounded out with the bases loaded to end the game.  I could see it all coming right after Myers gave up the tying run in the top of the second.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

King Albert

If there is a better hitter in baseball than Albert Pujols please report to the office immediately.

Only twenty-six years old, the same as Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, and already five full major league seasons under his belt.  A base hit every third time he stands in.  One home run roughly every fifteen AB’s or every fifth hit.  Less than one strikeout per every nine plate appearances, remarkable for a power hitter.  And get this:  the guy stole sixteen bases in 2005, an uptrend from the five he stole in both 2003 and 2004.

And let’s not forget one more item:  no one in baseball strikes more fear in the opposing pitcher every time he walks to the plate with the exception of Barry Bonds.

All hail King Albert, in town for two more nights.

Never Too Early To Be Crucial

I begin today with an acknowledged exaggeration: tonight’s game against the Cardinals is a big one.  

The Phillies simply have to get off to a good start this April.  History, theirs as well as nearly everyone else’s, suggests that a fast start in April is critical to success.  Last year the Phils stumbled out of the gate to a 10-14 record for the first month of the season and never really caught up, finishing one game out of the playoffs on the final day of the season.

The encouraging news is that despite being shellacked in the season opener, the Phils didn’t tuck their tails as they battled back.  For all the frustration of watching J-Roll pop up in his and the team’s first AB of  2006, he and the rest of his mates hung tough.  Jimmy’s double down the line in his fifth and final plate appearance may have done more than extend his 37-game hitting streak; it may have provided just the sort of spark that can carry over.

Tonight’s opposing pitcher, Mark Mulder, is a lefty, which should produce a challenge for a significant portion of the Phils’ batting order.   Brett Myers makes the start for the Phils and there is little doubt this game and season are critical to his ascension to leading status on this staff.  Myers is the ace-in-waiting and, frankly, the time is now for him to assume the role.  He can begin by stopping the Cards in their tracks now and giving a jumpstart to his team.

A fast start may not only be critical to their collective fortunes, but as I suggested in my pre-season predictions, manager Charlie Manuel’s job may be on the line early.  GM Pat Gillick is well along in putting his stamp on this club and as we all know, the manager was inherited not chosen.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Meanwhile, El Enigma made an impressive debut over the American League last night.  The fact that Vicente was even pitching this early in the season was noteworthy given his history of overdoing the off-season (on and off the field) and starting the regular campaign on the DL.

For the record, Padilla pitched six innings, allowing one earned run on four hits while walking two and striking out five.  As if his line wasn’t unfamiliar enough, the oddest thing was to look at his photo wearing a cap with a big T on it.

Did I mention it was a terrible trade?  (Yeah, I know; let’s see how he does down the road.)

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Lack of Class

Until yesterday I was frankly sick and tired of hearing how tough Philadelphia sports fans were, but the booing of Bobby Abreu and Mike Lieberthal during the pre-game introductions changed my mind.  It was inexcusable and contemptible.  

Last year many fans booed Placido Polanco during the introductions for having the temerity to want to keep his job at second base.   Polanco earned the right to start on merit, but even had he been a shade behind Chase Utley at that point, manager Charlie Manuel remained firmly committed to the principle that veteran starters didn’t lose their spot in the lineup because of injury or fan pressure.

Phillies fans could learn something from Manuel.  Their lack of loyalty to Abreu, one of the best hitters in baseball over the last several years, and to Lieberthal, whose career numbers put him among the club leaders not only for his position but overall, is one thing; their utter lack of class is something altogether different.

For Openers

The best thing to do is just forget this one and move on.

But for those of us who are better at giving advice than taking it, the first game of the season was full of portents.

The good news is the youngsters came through again, just like they did so often in 2005. Chase Utley had three hits and knocked in a run; Ryan Howard homered; Pat Burrell homered and had two rbi’s; Aaron Rowand had two base hits; and JRoll hit the ball hard but out before doubling in his last at-bat, extending his hitting streak to 37 straight. Newcomer Abraham Nunez had a base hit and looked sharp at third base.

Then, there was the pitching. Jon Lieber didn’t have it today. Neither did the most of his “relief”. The Cardinals treated the first three Phillies hurlers like batting practice pitchers. It was ugly, pure and simple. The Cardinals are a great hitting team, but this debacle was more about lousy pitching than good hitting.

It would be tempting to say Lieber and the Phils almost escaped. After striking out the first two batters of the game, the quick-working right-hander had Albert Pujols 0-2 before walking him. And just that quickly it was “uh oh” time. Pujols would eventually come around to score the game’s first run before later going on to hit two of the Cards’ three home runs. Fan favorite Scott Rolen provided the other one, a grand slam. The Cards scored eight runs in the fourth inning providing many of the local patrons seated in soggy CBP their first excuse to make a quick get-away.

To the Phillies’ credit, they did not tuck their tails. The most wide-eyed optimist would even note they outscored the Cardinals after that fatal fourth inning. What they might have also done is give us a preview of coming attractions. These Phillies can and will hit, but as everyone is well aware, it isn’t at all certain they can stop the other guys from doing the same.

Monday, April 03, 2006

In Game Report

When Jon Lieber opened the game with two quick strikeouts and had Albert Pujols in the hole 0-2 and lost him (Pujols would eventually score the first Cardinal run) I shook my head and muttered "this hurts".

But when JRoll swung at the second pitch he saw this season, a pitch that was up around his shoulder, and fouled out to David Eckstein (who made a spectacular play) I thought of this prediction and suddenly I sank into mid-season despair.

Play Ball!

It’s time for eternal hope to morph into reality.

Yours truly, Beerleaguer and Balls, Sticks & Stuff were in attendance at the Bank yesterday enjoying the final Spring tune-up as the Phils blanked the Red Sox 4-0.

The temperature was in the upper ‘60’s, the sky crystal clear, and the field emerald green. We took note of the new outfield dimensions and were unimpressed. The Phillies Phanatic wore red, not green, in honor of the team’s current PR campaign, “Paint the town Red.” We all agreed he looks much better in green.

Our tickets were free, the generous donation of a neighbor who holds season tickets. Reports that some of the region’s best microbrews are now available at the Bank will have to be taken on faith. Our seats were located in the Hall of Fame Club, a semi-precious section with its own concessions but not, apparently, the aforementioned microbrews.

The talk, naturally, focused on the team’s prospects.

From my perspective it will all still come down to pitching. If the back end of the starting rotation produces, if the health of Arthur Rhodes and Tom Gordon does not become an issue, the Phils will do well. There is no doubt they can score runs and catch the ball.

* * * * * * * *

By the end of yesterday’s exhibition manager Charlie Manuel was shuffling in minor league players wearing wide receiver numbers (80, 82). I didn’t recognize a single one of them but Beerleaguer knew them all and BS&S knew his share. Only one Phillies regular was still in the lineup when the team came to back in the bottom of the eighth: Ryan Howard. Manuel probably left him in there because the Red Sox trotted in a lefty to pitch and, after all, this was still practice. Howard bombed a home run deep to right centerfield; no other way to describe it. It was a majestic, no-doubt-about-it shot. Howard also stroked a solid single in the opening frame to drive in the first two Phillies runs.

I said to my fellow bloggers that opposing managers must sit in the dugout marveling at Howard and reminding themselves he is going to be around for a longtime. And the Phillies must sit there reminding themselves, he’s all ours.

Earlier in the game, Chase Utley made a terrific play behind the bag and nipped the runner at first base. Chase is going to hit and he is steadily making himself into more than the adequate second baseman he was when he took over the position permanently.

* * * * * * * *

There were the usual late stage comings and goings including the acquisition of Dave Dellucci from the Rangers for Robinson Tejeda, the release of player favorite Tomas Perez, and the demotion of and end to the Spring’s best field-good story, Chris Coste.

The Dellucci-Tejeda deal mystifies me. The Phils need pitching more than they need a journeyman outfielder. The release of Perez came as no surprise. What did surprise me was the depth of feeling for this popular cut-up in the locker room. A number of players were quoted this morning as saying he was one of their favorite teammates….all time.

The Coste demotion was, frankly, something of a heartbreaker, a reminder that at least on the Gillick watch, there will be little room for sentiment.

But it’s Opening Day, and there is plenty of room for sentiment in this corner. Play Ball!!