It is just twelve games into the baseball season, and some people are already prepared to sound the panic alarm when it comes to the Philadelphia Phillies. Currently sitting at 5-7, 4.5 games behind the Nationals for first in the NL East, the Phillies are in an unenviable position—the cellar.
Typically, this early in the season, it is easy to discount the doubters and those ready to give up on the Phils' season, but this year, the circumstances are different. Ryan Howard and Chase Utley aren’t on the field, and the lineup, which has served as a revolving door, has been anything but consistent.
In Philadelphia, fans don’t want to give up on this team, but when they see what is going on within the division and the offensive futility, it is not that strange to see people starting to worry. It may still be too soon to hit the panic button, but if this offense continues to struggle, even Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels won’t be able to save the Phillies' season.
It All Begins with the Offense
I think it is clear that no one really expected the Phillies to be an offensive juggernaut this year as they have been in the past. Coming into the season, the organization knew Ryan Howard would be out until at least mid-May and then also had to deal with the somewhat surprising news that Chase Utley, too, would not be in the lineup for the foreseeable future.
Obviously, replacing these All-Stars—in addition to replacing the powerful yet sometimes inconsistent bat of Raul Ibanez, who left in free agency—the Phillies knew it wouldn’t be easy.
Making matters worse was the fact that even with Utley and Howard on the DL, the Phillies were still operating close to the salary cap because of the millions of dollars owed to these two players.
So with not much money to work with, Ruben Amaro brought in a handful of second-tier players. Some may have been overpaid, and others seemed to only be brought here for versatility, to fill in at short and third in case the aging Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco could not go.
Needless to say, not only did the team get increasingly older, but it also didn’t really improve in terms of offense.
With the new players, the world of Phillies baseball that fans knew underwent a facelift. Unlike in the past when the team lived or died by the home run ball, this year relying on the long ball would be a mistake.
Unfortunately, having known this method for so long, it isn’t exactly going to be easy to change. The term “small ball” was practically foreign to fans and the team before this year. So far, with runs coming in few and far between, attempts to play this way clearly are not working.
Numbers Can Be Deceiving
If you look at the Phillies offensive numbers, some of them aren’t as bad as the record and lack of run scoring indicate they would be.
Where averages are down across the board in major league baseball, the Phillies are hitting right around the NL median of .244. Their .248 offense, which was a few points higher before last night’s quagmire, is good enough for seventh best in the National League. As far as hits go, the Phillies are also in the middle of the pack, with their 101 hits good enough for eighth best.
The numbers may not jump out at you, but in terms of the rest of the league, they are not that bad. The problem, however, is that numbers don’t tell the whole story.
In fact, as far as the Phillies average goes, the numbers are somewhat skewed. The .248 mark is only as high as it is because of the boost it receives from the .326 average of Hunter Pence, the .306 average of Carlos Ruiz, the .300 average of Juan Pierre, the .286 average of Jimmy Rollins and the .277 average of Shane Victorino.
Now, I know it is early in the season and averages are still taking shape, but after these five guys, the team average drops off dramatically. The next highest average is Pete Orr, who has only had one at-bat, at .250. After that, the entire rest of the lineup is hitting below .240.
In addition to deceptive averages, another stat which doesn’t tell the whole story is hits. Sitting eighth in the league in hits (101) does not appear to be that bad.
What that number doesn’t tell, however, is how many bases the Phils are accumulating with these hits. Their 16 total doubles ranks them in at 15 of 16 teams. Besides the Mets, they are the only team yet to hit a triple. Their six home runs is tied for second worst.
Doing the math, only 22 of the Phillies' hits have gone for extra bases, which in terms of percentages is 15th worst. At only 21.7 percent of their hits going for extra bases, it is not surprising that the Phillies have failed to score runs.
Couple that with the amount of runners that they strand on base, and it is clear why they rank near the bottom of the NL in runs (14th) and RBI (14th). They also are not working out that many walks (15th), contributing to an OBP of .284 (14th).
The Need to Play Small Ball
There is no simple answer for why the Phillies have struggled so much offensively this year. It could be the inconsistent playing time for some of the guys; it could be the lack of firepower; it could be uncertainty of playing time. Most likely, it is a combination of all three of these things.
Right now it doesn’t look good for the Phillies, but there are signs to indicate things could turn around.
The Phillies likely won’t be scoring five-six runs a game like they did last year, but nevertheless, they still can have a chance to have an average offensive season and to make the playoffs. There are signs of hope, including their top-of-the-league stolen base percentage and their surprisingly low strikeout numbers.
It may not indicate much, but what it does show is that if the Phils can string together more singles, even if they are not hitting that many extra base hits, they can still score runs.
It won’t happen overnight, and it needs to happen soon if they want to win their sixth consecutive NL East crown, but the Phils could be on their way to discovering how to play small ball effectively.
Getting By With the Help of Three Aces
Even with only five wins on the season, three of which come from the combination of Roy Halladay’s first through eighth innings and Jonathan Papelbon’s ninth, the Phillies would not be where they are if not for the three aces.
Each start, the pitchers have kept the Phils in the game. In fact, eight of the twelve starts by the starting staff have been considered quality starts (7 IP, 3 ER). There is no reason the Phillies should not win these games, but so far mustering just one run a game has been difficult.
Run support will be at a premium this year, so the aces will have to be nearly perfect to reach 14-plus wins as they all did last season.
So far, Doc Halladay is leading the charge. The 2010 Cy Young Award winner is putting his name in the hat to win it again as his first three starts have been masterful.
Each start Halladay has gone eight innings and hasn’t given up more than two runs. When the Phillies have needed a win, Halladay has been there. Luckily enough for the Phils, Doc doesn’t give up too many runs and, as a result, does not need that much run support.
Both Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee had forgettable first starts, but since then, the two have settled down. Hamels has a record of 1-1 in three starts while Lee is still winless, but really shouldn’t be.
It should worry the Phils and their fans that they could not muster just one run, especially when Lee gave up nothing. The Phillies had their opportunities against Matt Cain, but nothing came of it. As a result, Lee went ten innings, throwing 109 pitches, 83 of which went for strikes. He was barely short of perfect and deserved a better fate than a ND.
“Getting By” Won’t Equal Playoff Birth
The aces have been spectacular this year, but with the offensive futility, masterful pitching won’t be enough.
It was evident in Cliff Lee’s gem against the Giants that even if you give up no runs, it won’t equal a win. Even though the great pitching has helped them out this season, in order to make the playoffs and advance in the playoffs, there has to be some sort of consistent contribution on offense.
If the Phillies' offense does not find a solution soon, then even the aces won’t be able to save the season. The three pitchers whom each team would love to have as the playoff rotation might not even get a chance to throw an October pitch.