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Five Games In… 157 to Go

Posted By Christopher Rowe On Apr 7 2011 @ 4:44 pm In Philadelphia,Philadelphia Phillies | No Comments

In the NFL, it is customary to critically over-analyze and scrutinize every aspect of the precious 16 games per season. In MLB, having 162 games makes it far easier to let a few slide – especially for the casual fan – and especially in April. Opening Day gets bunting and pomp and circumstance with sellouts across the league and then most fans check out until sometime around Memorial Day weekend.

[1]Most of the time, the obvious lesser teams are out of the running by Memorial Day weekend so fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Kansas City Royals, Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners would start focusing toward either the following baseball season or more likely on the upcoming football season.

Overlapping sports seasons is the standard practice in our world of 24/7 news cycles, dedicated sports networks and multimedia streaming. Since there may be no NFL this autumn, 2011 may prove very different. Once the NHL and NBA have their finals in June (ridiculous in and of themselves but not the focus of this article), baseball will once again rule the sports world.

[2]Astute baseball fans are accustomed to sticking it out at the stadium until the final out is recorded even in a 10-3 blowout because it is respectful to the team and the game (and because you probably dropped $50-$100 for the day on tickets, parking and concessions). These are the fans who appreciate the splendor and value of a 12-inning 1-0 victory and want to see a well-executed double play just as much as a walk off homer. These are fans who sat on the edge of their seats to witness Roy Halladay’s perfect game and then went ballistic to see a post-season no hitter. True baseball fans care about the grand scheme but also pay careful attention to the tiny details such as the Infield Fly Rule, the Suicide Squeeze or the outfield assist.

[3] [4]Charlie Manuel is one of these types of fans. He simply appreciates all aspects of the game and the man literally eats, sleeps and breathes baseball. Fortunately for Philadelphia, Manuel manages our beloved Phightin’ Phillies but we would all be well-served to pay closer attention to some of these less-than-sensational details as we asses our team.

[5]Five games into the season the fanbase has already been part of a roller coaster ride. Winning 3 games to start the season and having a dramatic comeback victory on Opening Day was a contact high. We cheered and whooped and hollered about our Comeback Kids, our Cardiac Crew and rightfully so. Granted, we also started saying things like “162-0″ or “Unbeatable” perhaps a little prematurely. Roy Halladay (6IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 6 K, 101 pitches), Cliff Lee (7 IP, 4 H, 11 K, 3 ER, 0 BB, 111 pitches) and Roy Oswalt (6 IP, 5H, 6 K, 1 BB, 88 pitches) pitched their hearts out and we wound up with a 21-11 series. OK split the difference, we’ve got Four Aces, four straight NL East titles, two World Series appearances and one championship over the past four years. We’re entitled to be a little giddy but maybe we need to temper that by pacing ourselves for the long season.

[6]Cole Hamels (3 IP, 6 ER) was booed for stinking up the joint on a cold, dreary night against the Not-So-Amazin’ Mets – resulting in a 7-1 beatdown to the tune of 13 hits, 7 runs and 23 Mets LOB who should have scored a few more. Hamels will be better as everyone has bad days but this will not be his last bad day. The next night Joe Blanton (4.1 IP, 10 H, 7 ER, 2 BB, 6K) was bailed out by a 10-run effort from the Phillies offense. This assault included 16 hits, 10 runs, two HR (Ryan Howard 4 hits on the night, Ben Francisco), 2 hits for Victorino, 3 by Polanco, 2 for Ibanez [7]and the emergence of Pete Orr (2 hits, 2 runs scored in his first start) as Charlie Manuel’s Secret Weapon. What didn’t show up in the box scores was that Ben Francisco hit two bombs the previous night that were knocked down by the insane winds. On a warm night in June, these would have been moon shots instead of warning track outs. Food for thought that Francisco, Howard, Rollins and Ibanez have been hot right out of the gate and the pitching for the most part has been solid. Even Danys Baez (pitched in 4 of 5 games) has taken some of the focus off of Jose Contreras filling in for Brad Lidge.

Please direct your attention to a few areas that have warranted investigation in this very young 2011 season:

[8]1. YOU’RE AS GOOD AS YOUR BENCH

2010 saw a slew of injuries to the starting 8 (only 21 games saw the Phillies full complement of starting players intact). This forced the Phillies’ bench into service which was easily one of their biggest weaknesses last year. As a team, they finished with just 45 pinch hitssecond-fewest in the National League. Phillies pinch hitters had a dreadful .188 batting average for the season. Wilson Valdez filled in for Utley, Rollins and Polanco over 100 games and performed admirably but statistics don’t lie. Paul Hoover, Dane Sardhina, Greg Dobbs, Cody Ransom, Juan Castro, Mike Sweeney and Brian Bocock were largely unimpressive. If not for the work of Ross Gload (36 hits starting and PH) and Brian Schneider (30 hits overall), those numbers would have been even more abysmal.

[9]With a markedly different bench this season — one that includes Michael Martinez, John Mayberry and Pete Orr — the Phillies’ pinch hitters are 6-for-11 on the young season, and have reached base in 7 of 12 trips to the plate. So yes, it’s a small sample size, but it’s nevertheless encouraging that in just five games, the Phillies already have nearly 14 percent of their total pinch hits from a year ago.

[10]2. PLATE PATIENCE

Not referring to table manners at the post-game buffet. The more pitches you see, the easier it is to solve an opposing pitcher. Jayson Werth and Chase Utley were routinely among the best players in the NL at seeing pitches – benefitting each of them and the rest of the team. Without them in the lineup, there was some concern about who might pick up the slack.

[11]Ben Francisco (Werth’s replacement) ranks fourth in the NL through five games with 4.43 pitches per plate appearance thus far — four spots ahead of Werth. Francisco has posted a 1.058 OPS to boot. According to Ryan Howard (11 H, 2 HR, 8 RBI, .575 SLG in 21 AB), Ben Francisco (7 H, 2 HR, .667 SLG) is as “locked in” as he’s ever been.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Rollins has never had a reputation for patience, but the Phillies’ de facto [12]No. 3 hitter has walked four times and ranks 10th overall in the NL in pitches per plate appearance (4.35). That’s up from 3.71 a year ago. While Rollins’ numbers were down across the board last year, his walk rate was actually a career best 17.4 percent — nearly triple that of his MVP season in 2007. Jimmy may finally be growing up as a hitter, team player and team leader!

3. RYAN HOWARD’S BATTING EYE

[13]All the rigmarole and rumor-mongering throughout the spring was that, without Utley and Werth in the lineup, pitchers would focus on Ryan Howard as the one guy they wouldn’t let beat them. That meant a steady diet of off-speed stuff and balls out of the strike zone – also known as “The Barry Bonds Treatment.” That’s all well and good when you can pitch around The Big Guy.

[14]Howard has actually seen fastballs on 52.9% of all pitches thus far. Thirty-two NL hitters (including Francisco) have seen fewer – up from 47.5 percent last season. After just three games, That number was 37%.  Such is the problem with extremely small sample size: Results can change quickly as contents may have shifted during the trip. Howard isn’t seeing a lot of strikes. 42.9% of the pitches he’s seen so far have been in the strike zone, just about his average for all of 2010 – when Utley and Werth sandwiched Howard in the lineup.

Howard is staying patient. Just 32%  of the pitches he swings at are out of the zone, and he’s made contact on 77% of those. Last year, he made contact just 48% of the time on pitches out of the strike zone and has a career average of 41%.

4. OFFENSE PRODUCTION

[15]Despite all the spring panic about the offense, the Phillies hitters have managed to find their way on base over the first five games. The Phillies have an NL-best 60 hits and an .873 slugging percentage, good for second in the league. Over 162 games they will never keep up that pace. Over 5 games, the Phillies have a .400 batting average on balls in play — far and away the highest in the NL and nearly 100 points better than the league average.

[16]The offense will benefit as the Phillies have shown their willingness to settle for singles, lay down bunts for hits, take pitches and play “Smallball.” Placido Polanco scored from second on Ryan Howard’s infield single (how many infield singles does Ryan Howard get????) proves that this team is fundamentally sound.

5. ACES ERA

One turn through the rotation, and the Phillies’ are sporting a 4.80 ERA, third highest in the NL. Were we all wrong about them? Don’t panic. Four games does not a season make! Take away each pitcher’s worst inning from their individual starts and [17]the rotation’s ERA is 2.04. Moreover, that ERA number is completely inflated by Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton. Their nightmare innings against the Mets — Tuesday’s third for Hamels and Wednesday’s fifth for Blanton — resulted in 9 singles, 2 doubles, 4 walks and 2 errors. The Mets offense wasn’t knocking the cover off the ball. Again, it’s five games. None of this amounts to a much of anything until the sample size doubles or triples. The Phillies are 4-1 and wins are what counts in the standings.

PHILLIES OUTLOOK

No one is suggesting that the Phillies (or anyone else) will go 162-0. No one is suggesting that the Mets, Braves and the rest of the National League will kneel down to forfeit the season to the mighty Phillies juggernaut by sheer force of reputation. All that is certain is that there will be ups and downs over the course of what should prove a successful 2011 season. The offense will have its share of 10-run games while every one of the Four Aces will experience the occasional bad game. Any smart baseball fan knows that the season is long, success is cyclical and there is just as much luck as skill required in the formula for winning. 4-1 start is good by me.

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