The good news?
We’re about a third into the season, and the Philadelphia Phillies are only four games out of first. A few breaks here or there, and we’re talking about a first-place club.
They are in the top half of the National League in batting average, slugging percentage, ERA and fielding percentage. The pitchers have struck out the third-most batters in the league, and the hitters strike out less frequently than those of any other team. Carlos Ruiz is in the MVP discussion, like Cole Hamels is with the Cy Young.
Now, forget everything you just read.
A look at the stat sheet doesn’t begin to tell the story of the 2012 Phillies. This team has been one of the most painful to watch in recent memory (save for the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles, but that’s another article). It has been a constant, collective letdown—seemingly night after night.
The worst part of watching a team that won 102 games last season mosey along to a 28-28 record has been the inconsistency of the units.
For the first month, the pitching was outstanding, and the Phillies couldn’t score any runs.
Then, for a while, the offense picked it up, and the bullpen starting blowing leads.
Once the bullpen got it together, a combination of ineffectiveness and injury seemed to dismantle the once daunting rotation.
As the calendar turned to June, we appeared to be back to square one. This is a club with no identity, and that’s something that can mitigate the success of even the most talented teams.
The only thing that will restore the Phillies to the game's elite are the healthy, productive returns of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay. Anything short of what those three All-Stars gave in 2011, and this is an 84-78 team.
Luckily for them, the National League East, while stronger than it has been in years past, might be full of a lot of 84-78 teams when all is said and done. It’s about finishing ahead of the other clubs in the running, and a few quick fixes might give them a leg up in the short term to do just that.
First and foremost, they need to figure out a way to win close games. They are 0-22 in games in which they trailed at the start of the eighth inning, the only team yet to win one of those contests. They are also 1-6 when they go to the ninth inning tied with the opponent.
This points to two problems—one, the thinness in the bullpen, and two, the ineffectiveness of the hitters against late-inning relievers.
The first can only be solved one way—trade for a reliever. Baseball writers have discussed the options, should the Phillies be buyers at some point before July 31, of adding a bat at either third base or left field.
These needs are infinitely less pressing than the need to have an arm ready to go in a tight game in the eighth or ninth. We’ve seen the scenario far too many times this season—tie game on the road, Bastardo already used up, and Chad Qualls or Joe Savery or some other schmuck comes in and gets banged around.
There needs to be another reliable arm in the bullpen, period.
The second problem can be solved by—gasp!—being more aggressive at the plate late in the game. The whole world knows that the best pitchers in baseball, both starters and relievers, beat you by getting ahead in the count and then finishing you off on junk.
Much like the way hitters have adjusted to Halladay over the years and learned to swing early in the count, a swing a 0-0 might put a guy on second to start the inning. Move the runner over, then a ball to the outfield, and “Let’s Go Eat.”
The other way the Phillies get themselves back to the top of the standings in the short term sounds crazy, but hang in there—stop challenging good hitters.
The Phillies have allowed hitters to homer (3.1 percent of the time) more than other team in the NL. The have surrendered extra-base hits more frequently (8.8 percent) than any club below 5,000 feet.
Now, that sounds like the fix would be just to keep the ball down. But they are doing that—sometimes. Opposing hitters have hit into a Major League-leading 50 double plays against the club, and they are converting them at a higher rate than anyone.
So, that means they are going soft and away with men on base and fewer than two outs, but leaving balls up or in the rest of the time. Why not just pitch cautiously to everyone? Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Ok, the last quick fix might be the most painful of all.
Jimmy Rollins need to get off of the field.
The 2007 NL MVP has been a train wreck since signing his new deal last offseason. He is hitting .237 and slugging .312. Twenty-two percent of his at bats have resulted in infield flies. Another 13 percent have been strikeouts.
That means that over a third of the time, he is an absolutely wasted at-bat. His defense, while not to the excruciating extent of his offense, has declined a bit too. Plus, he’s lost a step.
Tell me this: What happens to Freddy Galvis when Chase Utley returns from the disabled list?
Galvis was groomed to be a shortstop. He is better than Rollins defensively (if you don’t agree with that, than you haven’t been paying attention), but that isn’t really a shock. He has hit for considerably more power than the artist formerly known as J Roll in 2012.
The 22-year-old is slugging .068 points higher than Rollins, banging out 19 extra-base hits to Rollins’ 12, in 34 fewer at-bats.
Rollins trails Galvis in every major statistical category except average, OBP and runs. His average and OBP are still laughable for a leadoff hitter, though.
And Rollins would struggle to score too if he was batting in front of a pitcher and the worst offensive player on the team. (The thought of Rollins trying to drive himself in might rediscover the dead-ball era, so I’ll stop there).
While it wouldn’t be perfect, if the Phillies can do these simple things—acquire a late-inning reliever, be aggressive against good pitchers, stop challenging good hitters, forget Jimmy Rollins at the airport—then they might be able to get back to the top of the division by July.
If they are in that position when the cavalry arrives, we might be in for another great summer. Let’s just hope the fall is better this time.