Sunday, March 28, 2004
The final season at Veterans Stadium was a disappointment to Phillies fans. Despite Kevin Millwood hurling a sterling 1-0 no-hitter against the Giants, the Phillies suffered from a disappointing campaign: the acquisition of Bell failed to pan out, the final year at the Vet ended with another third place finish to the hated Atlanta Braves, and Leftfielder Pat Burrell, after breaking into the Phillies line-up in 2001 and having a strong 2002 season, badly slumped in 2003. Much was made of Burrell’s statistical implosion:
HR RBI AVG
2001 27 89 .258
2002 37 116 .282
2003 21 64 .209
It was very dramatic, and Phillies can only hope that their future MVP candidate can weather the storm.
Thus, 2004 dawns with mixture of hope and dread for Phillies fans: will this be another season of botched dreams? Or will the Phillies be the first team to dethrone the Atlanta braves from their perch atop the NL East (which they’ve occupied since 1995) and go to the World Series for the first time since 1993?
A close look at the 2003 statistics yield 2004 clues for Phillies fans:
Pitching: The Phillies had a strong pitching staff in 2003. The starting four of Vincente Padilla, Brett Meyers, Kevin Millwood and Randy Wolf notched a 58-43 (.574) record. Statistically, they weren’t as impressive as they seemed (aside from Padilla, all had ERAs over 4.00 for the season), but the stress of having to hold slim leads without confidence that the bullpen could save the game wore on them as the season wore on. The starting four looks stronger now with the addition of Eric Milton from the Minnesota Twins.
Speaking of which: the Phillies bullpen was awful in 2003. Closer Jose Mesa had an ERA of 6.52. That is not a misprint. Mesa’s implosion was as dramatic as Burrell’s:
As a result, the Phillies let Mesa depart town and signed Billy Wagner from the Houston Astros and grabbed Todd Worrell to set up the bullpen. With Wagner coming out of the pen, hopefully the starting rotation can enter a game secure in the knowledge that their leads will be safely protected:
Starting lineup: the decline of Burrell and the injury-ridden collapse of David Bell (4 HRs, 37 RBIs, .195 Avg in just 85 games) took its toll on the offense. The Phillies often found themselves in close games and were forced to shuffle their lineup: Burrell dropped to seventh and eighth in the order, from his customary fourth, opening up a huge hole.
Meanwhile Jim Thome, despite a slow start, virtually carried the team: slugging his way to 47 HRs, 131 RBIs, 111 walks, a .266 Avg, and an On-Base-Percentage (OBP) of .385. Thome’s numbers are made all the more impressive by the fact that he had little protection in the Phillies lineup.
The key to the 2004 Phillies, in addition to a return to 2002 form for Burrell, will be finally settling the team’s need for a lead-off hitter: SS Jimmy Rollins, the incumbent leadoff man, held the position at the start of the season but his high-strikeout rate and low OBP led him to be moved to a lower spot in the phillies order. Bobby Abreu, the Phillies right-fielder and No. 5 hitter, agreed to move up in the order and lead-off even though he clearly didn’t enjoy the experience. Abreu moved down after the phillies brought Marlon Byrd, the highly touted centerfielder, back from the minors to lead off. Byrd went on a tear and became a dependable lead-off threat the Phillies have lacked:
BB K Avg OBP
Rollins 54 113 .263 .320
Byrd 44 94 .303 .366
Whether or not Byrd can improve on his equally high-strike-out rate in 2004 remains to be seen: the ability of Byrd and 2B Placido Polanco to get on base and set up the Phillies (potential) murders-row of Thome, Burrell, Abreu and Catcher Mike Lieberthal is vital.
Sabermetrics types take-note: the Phillies led the National League in walks in 2003, with 651. The Phillies ability to draw walks enabled them to finished fourth (.343) in On-Base-Percentage (OBP), despite finishing ninth (.261) of sixteen teams in batting average. The Phillies were also third in doubles and fifth in runs. Despite finishing ninth in home runs with 166 and eighth in slugging percentage (.419), the Phillies had considerable power which didn’t show up in the box scores due to the declines of Bell and Burrell. It is strongly suggested that the Phillies offense will bounce back with a strong performance in 2004.
More Sabermetrics: the Phillies pythagorean Won-Loss record* for 2003 was 90-72, better than their 86-76 record.
* I think this link sums up pythagorean records better than I can.
The opposition: the Phillies excitement is fueled by the fact that the 2004 NL East looks ripe for the plucking:
The Montreal Expos, especially with the loss of Vladimir Guerrero to the Angels, appear to have no shot at contending and seem fated to forever life their life in limbo in Montreal, not knowing if they will call Portland, Mexico City, Puerto Rico or Washington D.C. their new home. The New York Mets appear to be in an extended rebuilding process. The Florida Marlins are the wildcard: a team that jelled after the addition of Manager Jack McKeon to win the World Series, but seems unlikely to repeat the feat.
Which leaves control of the division down to the Phillies and the Braves, the twelve-time division winners (1991-1993; 1995-2003). The once-mighty Braves lost CY Young winner Greg Maddux to the Cubs and MVP candidate Gary Sheffield fled for the New York Yankees, leaving the Braves to replace his production with J.D. Drew, (a man who is to Phillies fans persona non grata). The Phillies 2004 upgrades (Worrell, Wagner, Milton) seem to give them the upper-hand for the first time.
2004 could be a special year, Phillies phans...