Monday, September 30, 2013

Notes On A Dismal Season

In an alarmingly short time, the Phillies have gone from being a perennial contender to a very bad team.  Consider that they finished next-to-last in a very weak division.  Consider that the Braves, riddled with injuries and with two high-salaried everyday players hitting under .200, won going away.  Consider that the Phils could not even stay with the disappointing Nationals or inept Mets.  Consider that the Phillies finished just 11 games ahead of the Marlins, one of the worst teams in baseball and one of the worst franchises in all of pro sports with no money, no players and no fans.  Consider that only four teams in baseball had worse records than the home team.  They can no longer  be regarded as just underachievers or even mediocre, they are officially a bad team until they prove otherwise. 

Outside of Hamels and Lee, the pitching staff is in shambles.  The hitting may be worse.  Chase Utley barely hit over .280, the only regular to do so, and he accomplished much of that after his team was out of the race.  Jimmy Rollins had a singularly unproductive year.  While his average has been anemic for years now, at least he had some pop.  This year he had 6 long  balls in 600 at-bats.  As recently as last year he had 23.  Watching him at the plate, he looked totally lost.  Ruff and Asche are still huge question marks.  Dom Brown may be an emerging star but the jury is still out and he still demonstrates frustrating inconsistency and mental lapses in the field and on the bases and it's well past time when you can blame that on youth or inexperience.  A healthy Ben Revere should be a plus but Ryan Howard's status is an unknown. 

The Phillies are not the first team to fall from grace precipitously.  Look no farther than the Giants of 2013.   Sandberg and the front office have work to do but given that there are no apparent nascent dynasties in Atlanta, Washington, New York or Miami, it may not quite be mission impossible, but its close. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Phillies Post-Mortem

That the Phillies got eliminated early in the playoff process was a huge disappointment, but it should not have been shocking, or even particularly surprising. 

It should have been recognized going in that the Cardinals were a dangerous team.  This is a team that was hot going into the playoffs with lots of momentum, having come from way back to catch the Braves.   St. Louis has three of the best hitters in baseball in Pujols, Berkman and Holliday as well as some key role players, particularly one of the best catchers in the game in Molina.  Their relief pitching had been their prime weakness all year but their starters had been adequate.  And when Chris Carpenter is healthy, he is one of the best in the game.  Moreover, the Cardinals had taken the season series from Philadelphia so they had no reason to believe they didn't match up with the Phils. 

The conventional wisdom was that it didn't matter whom the Phillies played in the first round.  The home team's overwhelming starting pitching would trump all.  But the conventional wisdom was probably misplaced.  The Cardinals hit better than the Braves who have nothing to compare with St. Louis' Murderer's Row.  Of course, the irony is that the Phillies were instrumental in helping the Cardinals pass the Braves on the last day of the season.

When Cliff Lee was re-acquired, the mantra all year was that the Phillies were pre-ordained for a World Series victory.  Yes, they were the favorites and the 102 regular season wins seemed to confirm that.  But in the past 20 years, the history of the Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees provides numerous examples of regular season dominance failing to translate into post-season gold.  There are just too many vagaries in short series, particularly of the five game variety, to contribute to unpredictability.

As good as Halliday, Lee and Hamels are, they don't throw shutouts every night.  And as Phillies' fans know too well, their team's offense has a tendency to shut down for long stretches.  When Hunter Pence was acquired, it looked for a while that this might have been remedied but the last few weeks of the season punctured that balloon.   Victorino's average fell 35 points in a few weeks,  Utley finished with a batting average of .259 and  Howard .251.  Polanco appeared to be barely able to hold a bat in his hand.    Utley and Rollins hit well in the playoffs, but it wasn't enough.

But the reality is, no matter how much Ruben Amaro wheels and deals,  there is no sure-fire formula for post-season success. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Domonic Brown's Lack of Hustle

Domonic Brown was roundly criticized by announcers Tom McCarthy and Gary Matthews for not running out a ground ball to second base which turned out to be misplayed by the infielder. Brown probably would have been safe had he busted it down the line. Manager Manuel is supposed to have expressed his own displeasure to the young outfielder, as did the fans.

McCarthy and Matthews sermonized at some length about a player's obligation to go all out at all times. But interestingly, after concluding that Brown had indeed learned his lesson, Domonic hit another routine ground ball late in the same game and again loafed down the first base line and there was no mention of it. This time, the second baseman handled it cleanly so apparently it was not worth noting.

More interestingly, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, and some others, have made a career of not running out ground balls. Rollins frequently fails to even make it all the way to the first base bag. And yet it's almost never newsworthy. Rollins and Howard are probably heroes to Brown so can he be blamed for emulating them?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Is The Big East As Good As Advertised?

Conventional wisdom has it that the Big East Basketball Conference is the most formidable in the country and has been at least for several years. But the Big East has also underachieved in the Big Dance and the conventional explanation for this is that the conference members beat each other up during the regular season and end up running on empty as they enter March Madness.

On opening day, 2011 Madness continued this trend. Louisville, an elite team in the conference, was knocked out by a low seed. And St. John's, coming off a cinderella renaissance season, was thrashed by Gonzaga. West Virginia and Pittsburgh beat teams they were supposed to beat.

But it's time to reconsider the theory that the Big East devours itself during the regular season. It may have more quality teams than any other conference, but there are at least a dozen teams around the country that are at least as good as the best the Big East has to offer.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Fire the Trainers

One of the more classless actions of the Phillies' organization in recent years was the firing of Milt Thompson as hitting coach in mid-season. The notion that the team's extended hitting slump could be attributed to one man is absurd. And to throw a coach overboard in the middle of the summer for anything but the most egregious of actions (say, stealing the Philly Phanatic's costume) is particularly insulting. If a change needs to be made, it is more appropriately done in the quiet of the off season.

But if you must find a scapegoat, how about the Phillies' training staff. With Jimmy Rollins and Brad Lidge down again, and the innumerable other injuries this year throughout the roster, one has to question the overall conditioning of this team.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Phillies Should Forget the Swagger and Try Hustling

Two years ago, Jimmy Rollins was benched by Charlie Manuel for not running out a fly ball. Earlier this year, Shane Victorino was benched for failing to run all out after a third strike passed ball. These incidents were supposed to show that Manuel, for all his player's manager reputation, was not afraid to come down with the hammer when needed. This fit in nicely with the media-perpetuated myth that Manuel had this mystical ability to press all the right buttons at the right time.

But the Philly hitters fail to run out grounders and pop-ups all the time. In the week before the All-Star Game, on at least two occasions, Rollins failed to run out ground balls to first base. In each instance, they were slowly hit balls where the pitcher had to cover first. In these situations, there's always the chance of a bad exchange and the pressure of Rollins' speed should increase the odds of a fielding miscue. But in each case, J-Roll broke into a trot halfway down the first base line.

Rollins' defenders might counter that he is gun shy about re-injuring his leg. One response to that is that if he is that tentative, maybe he shouldn't be in the lineup at all. Another is that he has been doing this for years.

Jimmy Rollins hit .250 last season and is currently barely above .230. You might think that he would want to run out every ball as if his life depended on it. He is not the only culprit on the team but he is supposed to be their leader and spokesman.

This issue of course is hardly unique to this squad. But that shouldn't make it acceptable. We are repeatedly told that Philadelphia fans hold their teams and players to a higher standard. Right now, too many Phillies are playing like spoiled millionaires who think that if they just show up, great things will happen. The reality is that this team is posing a serious challenge to the title the Sixers currently hold - The Most Boring Team in South Philly.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Hiring Doug Collins Is No Reason to Break Out the Champagne

There are not many lines of work where someone fired three times in 8 years is considered a hot commodity. But such is the case with Doug Collins. In his brief coaching career, he was let go by the Bulls, Pistons and Wizards before he went into broadcasting. He also has the distinction of being the only NBA coach to fail to win a championship with Michael Jordan. Now we're told he has a brilliant basketball mind and is the man best suited to lead the Sixer franchise back to the glory days.

For a while, it seemed that it was the beautiful and complicated mind of Larry Brown the Sixers coveted, but perhaps because of Brown's age and assorted personal baggage, the Philly franchise opted for a younger version of their former coach. Like Brown, Collins is also described as a consummate teacher. And while Collins is a fast and glib talker, he, again like Brown, has been to known to antagonize quite a few people along the way. Ironically, it is this latter trait which is supposed to have led to the foreshortening of Jim O'Brien's tenure in South Philly.

At his first press conference at the Wachovia Center, Collins singled out defense as priority one. Whether that was an indication of brilliance I'm not sure. Anyone who saw the Sixers for more than 5 minutes in the last couple of seasons should have been able to identify the team's defense as porous at best.

But the question is what do you do about it. This is not plugging an oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. This is convincing highly paid young athletes to contest the other team's jump shooters. In other words, running at a shooter with your arms in the air. Very sophisticated stuff.

Why these players should pay more attention to Doug Collins than Randy Ayers, O'Brien, Mo Cheeks, Tony DiLeo or Eddie Jordan is not immediately obvious and we should not be surprised if down the road Collins becomes another ex-coach still on the team's payroll. Larry Brown may end up running this club after all.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of all of this is that Ed Stefanski still has a job with the franchise. Harry Houdini would be impressed.