Michael/Male/26-30. Lives in United States/Pennsylvania/Wexford/Christopher Wren, speaks English. Spends 20% of daytime online. Uses a Fast (128k-512k) connection. And likes baseball /politics.
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Monday, July 09, 2007

State of the Phillies 

A few years ago … well, specifically on July 11, 2005 … I wrote a State of the Phillies address that I imagined Ed Wade, then the Phillies General Manager, delivering to the media, a la the State of the Union, inside of Citizens Bank Ballpark. It was generally well-received, but I thought that I might turn that a little on its ear this year.

Few people know this, but the State of the Union used to be delivered in written form, in massive bound volumes where the President laboriously laid out how wonderful things were in the U.S. thanks to their leadership. The first State of the Union, delivered by George Washington in 1790, was given as a speech, but that was discontinued when Thomas Jefferson became President in 1801. Thereafter, the State of the Union was given in written form until Woodrow Wilson traveled to the Capitol in 1913.

Today’s State of the Phillies will be a Jeffersonian document, laying out the Phillies perspective from the point of view (basically) of current Phillies G.M. Pat Gillick. If Gillick was giving / writing the speech, this is what it might say:

The State of the Phillies is much the same as the State of the game of Baseball, in flux, unknown, undetermined. We stand here today, at the All-Star Break, a team in search of our first playoff berth since 1993. Our circumstances could be better, they could be worse.

In case everyone is wondering how the Phillies have fared at the break in recent history:

2004: 46-41 / 1st Place / 0.0 Games Back*
2005: 45-44 / 4th Place / 7.5 Games Back
2006: 40-47 / 2nd Place / 12.0 Games Back
2007: 44-44/ 3rd Place / 4.5 Games Back

* At the 2004 All-Star Break the Phillies sat in first, with three teams grouped behind them within two games of first place. After the Phillies were the Braves (1.0 GB), the Marlins (1.5 GB), and the Mets (2.0 GB).

So the Phillies current predicament is basically what they’ve done for the last three years.

I will start by addressing our pitching situation. You can never have too much pitching. This is a lesson I learned in my time building the Toronto Blue Jays and the Seattle Mariners into contenders. A solid pitching staff will form a fortress around a team, enabling them to survive struggles on offense, shoddy defense or simple bad breaks. I tried, this season, to build a rotation that would ward off all assaults: Cole Hamels, a rookie last season, is off to a terrific start in 2007 (10-4, 3.72 ERA) and shall one day be mentioned in the same breath as Robin Roberts and Steve Carlton. Hamels is a fearsome strikeout artist (9.8 K/9, second in the N.L. to Jake Peavy) and is already, in just his second season, a dominant pitcher.

The rest of our staff has been, candidly, a mess. We have seen injuries fall Tom Gordon, Brett Myers, Jon Lieber, and Freddy Garcia. We have lost our closer and three of our starting pitchers. Only Myers has any realistic chance of returning to the rotation or the bullpen by the end of the season.

As a consequence, we’ve had to rush some of our promising arms into the rotation. J.D. Durbin, J.A. Happ, Kyle Kendrick. The fact that we went into a critical series with our nemesis, the New York Mets, with three rookie pitchers illustrates how dire our pitching situation really is.

The flux with our pitching staff means that we still haven’t improved over our recent showings. We still rank near the bottom of the National League in terms of some pitching statistics. We are dead-last in the N.L. in ERA. We have allowed 113 home runs this season, by far the worst in the N.L. Sadly we have also allowed 295 bases on balls, fifth-most in the N.L. While our pitchers have done well in getting strikeouts – 589, fifth-best in the N.L. – our inability to keep cheap runners off the bases and to allow the big bombs has been killing us.

Defensively, we have been a disappointment. Yes, our fielding percentage respectable - .984, seventh in the N.L. – but we know that success is measured in the plays that we make, not the mistakes that we avoid. We have not been making enough of those.

Revised Zone Rating on The Hardball Times says that the Phillies as a team are .820, which is .003 behind the N.L. average. The Phillies are at +2 in terms of Plus / Minus, which is exactly what the N.L. average is. The Phillies problem is that while they are pretty decent in terms of infield defense - .793, which is .012 better than the N.L. average – they are really struggling in the outfield. The Phillies have a .859 RZR in the outfield, which is fourteenth in the N.L. Only the Cardinals and Pirates have worse outfield defensive alignments. Clearly, either Pat Burrell is a major, unmitigated disaster in the outfield, or Aaron Rowand is continuing to struggle, or both. I looked up Burrell and Rowand’s numbers on THT and sure enough, both rank near the bottom.

Offensively, we have continued to be a juggernaut. Once more, we lead the N.L. in runs scored. We rank near the top of every major statistical category.

This season we have tried to move into the realm of small ball. Some may disagree, but this station-to-station baseball we have played in the recent past has led sloppy play and squandered opportunities. We are trying to manufacture runs more this season and have been helped by the terrific play of Shane Victorino and Michael Bourn on the basepaths.

The Phillies rank third in the N.L. in successful steals with 70 in 80 attempts. They are 37 attempts away from equaling what they did last year. Expect the Phillies to have somewhere in the neighborhood of 150-165 attempted steals this season. I have no idea how many bunts / sacrifice bunts the Phillies have tried, but I suspect it is a significant increase over last season.

Victorino ranks third in the N.L. in stolen bases with 27 in 29 tries, an exceptional 93% success rate. Bourn, who has barely played except as a pinch-runner, is 13-for-13. Jimmy Rollins is 15-for-18. Lots of speed on the roster right now. Expect to see Bourn dangled to teams as bait for a starting pitcher closer to the trading deadline.

That said, we are still scoring runs with the long ball. With a roster boasting Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell, Aaron Rowand, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, how can we not?

The Phillies rank third in home runs with 102. We rank second in slugging percentage at .443 and third in terms of raw power at the plate (.175 ISO). The Phillies lead the league in walks drawn and are second in OBP. The power numbers are still really good for the Phillies. Consider that Burrell has been struggling and that Ryan Howard missed big chunks of the season, and you can see that the Phillies still have probably the most dangerous offense in the N.L.

And there we are. Last season we went 45-30, a winning percentage of .600, and nearly made the playoffs. If we do that again this season we will finish with 88 wins. That could be enough to win the N.L. East, and it ought to be enough to take the wildcard. Yes, we are just .500, but we are well-poised to finally make the playoffs. And remember that anything that happens in the playoffs is a crap-shoot. The Cardinals won just 83 games in 2006 and were champions of the world. Have faith, Philadelphia. Good day!

Whenever I talk about the Phillies or get comments it is always from people pessimistic about the direction the team is taking. There isn't enough optimism out there. Be optimistic, darn it!

Enjoy the All-Star Break. I'll be back tomorrow or Wednesday with some more thoughts.

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