Why the Philadelphia Phillies Appear on the Verge of Three-Peating in the NL
Every year as a Phillies fan, I’ve grown accustomed to saying “wait until next year.”
2008 was a year to remember for Phillies fans. And I have a feeling that won’t be the last I’ll see of this championship team.
Even after watching the Phillies capture a division title in 2007 against all odds, nothing could have prepared me for a World Series Championship in 2008.
Everything came together that season. Brad Lidge and his the slider from hell converted all 48 save opportunities, putting together an unprecedented year that ranks up there with the greatest in history by a closer. The big bats—Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins—were hot when it counted the most.
I wasn’t sure what to expect heading into last year, but I was impressed by this team.
The Phillies didn’t miss a beat, capturing a third consecutive NL East crown (this one by a solid margin) while becoming the first National League team since the 1995-96 Braves to appear in back-to-back World Series.
Sure, the World Series didn’t go as planned, but taking two out of six against a team with a payroll the size of Bill Gates’ bank account isn’t too bad.
I have high expectations for 2010. Really high.
There is absolutely no reason in my mind why this team shouldn’t capture a third consecutive pennant and second World Series title in three years.
Everything is there. Everything is in place.
Here are four main reasons why I think the Phillies are in prime position to win the 2010 World Series:
The Nucleus of the Team
How many World Series titles does a team need to be a dynasty? Three? Two titles and three appearances?
Either way, the Phillies have the talent to make it happen.
Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins comprise three-fourths of one of the greatest infields in baseball history. The outfield is composed of several blossoming stars in Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth. And Cole Hamels—when he wants to be—is one of the most unhittable lefties in the game.
Say what you want about his batting average or high strikeout totals, but there are few players in baseball more feared than the 6'4 inch slugger. In fact, outside of superhuman MVP Albert Pujols, Howard is probably the most dangerous hitter in the game.
In just four seasons as a full-time starter, Howard has never failed to hit at least 45 home runs or drive in at least 135 runs. After seeing alarming drops in his slugging percentage from ’06 (.659) to ’07 (.584) to ’08 (.543), Howard put up a .571 mark last year that ranked fourth-best in the league.
Utley represents everything good about the game of baseball. He can hit, run, field, and he is one of the most intelligent men in the game. At the rate at which he is performing, he will go down as one of the greatest second basemen to ever play the sport.
Last year, he hit .282 with 31 home runs and 93 runs batted in. He reached base in almost 40 percent of his plate appearances, set a major league record by stealing 23 bases without getting caught, led the league in hit by pitches, and started in his fourth straight All-Star game.
How Utley has never finished higher than seventh in the MVP voting remains a mystery to me. Other than Pujols, Utley is probably the best player in baseball.
Rollins had a down year compared to his normal standards, struggling to stay above .200 for the first three months of the season. The former league MVP hit just .250 and his .296 on-base percentage was by far the lowest of his career.
It seems almost a certainty for Rollins to bounce back this season. Rollins brings with him a boatload of leadership, experience, and a Gold Glove at shortstop that might be the best in the business.
Victorino and Werth are two of the game’s top all-around outfielders. Each is superb defensively, a fine hitter, and a speedster who would give Usain Bolt a run for his money in a footrace.
And although he certainly wasn’t the Cole Hamels we hoped for last season, Hamels is still an elite pitcher in an era when hitters dominate.
Hamels’ numbers dropped from 2008 to 2009. After posting a 14-10 record with a 3.09 ERA, Hamels was just 10-11 last year with a 4.32 ERA.
The main difference? Bad Luck.
Hamels’ strikeout, walk, fly ball, line drive, and ground ball rates all remained the same. The only difference was his batting average on balls in play, which rose from .270 to .325.
Hamels has been pitching all offseason. And rumor has it, he has added a pretty good cutter to his pitch repertoire. I expect a big year from him in 2010.
And don’t forget Charlie Manuel.
While he may not speak the clearest form of English, and while there weren't too many supporting him when he was hired as Phillies’ manager, it’s safe to say Manuel has earned his wings following three consecutive NL East titles, back-to-back World Series appearances, and a championship.
You think Cliff Lee was special? Wait until you see The Doc.
He’s that good.
Prior to joining the Phillies, Halladay spent his entire 12 year career in Toronto. And for more than half of those, he was in the discussion for the best pitcher in baseball.
His credentials speak for themselvessix All-Star selections, a Cy Young award, and a reputation as a guy you don’t want to face.
Halladay is a workhorse. He’s a guy who wants the ball. Halladay has averaged 16 wins, over 200 innings pitched, and a 3.13 ERA over the last eight years. Those are phenomenal numbers.
During that span, Halladay ranks first among all major league pitchers in wins and complete games, second in earned run average, fourth in innings pitched, and ninth in strikeouts.
In an era when most pitchers are content to go five or six innings and let the bullpen take care of the rest, Halladay wants to finish what he has started. He has led the AL in complete games in each of the previous three seasons and five times in his career.
With all due respect to Colbert Richard Hamels, Halladay threw nearly as many complete games (four) in September 2009 as Hamels has in his career (six).
Initially, when the Phillies pulled off the three-team trade that sent Lee to the Mariners and brought Halladay to the Phillies, I wasn’t sure it was much of an upgrade.
Comparing Lee to Halladay is like comparing Donovan McNabb to Drew Brees. Sure, both are good players. But one is the best in the business, while the other is with a class of ten or so in the second tier.
Halladay has no postseason experience, you say. Lee was a machine last season for the Phillies. He was responsible for the club’s only two World Series wins. How could Halladay possibly duplicate that?
All valid points.
Just give Halladay a chance. After 12 seasons in postseason-less Toronto, Halladay must be itching to pitch in the playoffs.
He is a gamer. While Lee posted a 6.13 ERA in his seven starts down the stretch for the Phillies in ’09, Halladay very quietly went 4-3 with a 1.96 ERA for the fourth-place Blue Jays.
As mentioned, Halladay tossed four complete games in the final month of the season. Three of those were shutouts. His only two losses came when his team scored just a single run in each game.
Halladay’s career numbers in September are mind-boggling.
His 2.36 ERA is nearly a full run better than any other month (3.21 in May). His 3.92 strikeout-to-walk ratio is the best of any month, as is his 1.062 WHIP. His .272 opponents on-base percentage is the same as what Hamels posted in the 2008 season, a figure that led the league.
You think Doc tires in September from a long season?
Six of Halladay’s 15 career shutouts have come in September. His 13 complete games are four more than any other month. Simply put, this is a guy you want on your team in crunch time.
Halladay has five pitches he feels comfortable using in any situation—a fastball that tops out around 95 miles per hour, a sinker, a cutter, a changeup, and a curveball. He learned his sinker from Derek Lowe, turning Halladay into a ground ball pitcher, yet still a 200-strikeout guy with pinpoint control.
Halladay led the American League in strikeout-to-walk ratio each of the last two seasons, posting astronomical totals (5.28 in 2008 and 5.94 in 2009). He’s the type of guy who will pitch a complete game and not walk a batter. In fact, since 2002, Halladay leads all pitchers with 54 games of seven or more innings pitched and no walks.
The transition to the NL should only benefit Halladay, who spent the last decade-plus pitching to nine real pitchers. With the pitcher hitting at the bottom of the lineup, Halladay should shine like never before. He already posts a 2.88 career ERA in NL ballparks.
The sky is the limit for Halladay in 2010. He threw two scoreless innings in his spring training debut, and followed that up with three more scoreless innings in his second outing.
He has loads of talent around him—both offensively and defensively. His team has appeared in the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, and there is no reason to suspect it won’t soon be a fourth.
Expect Halladay to play a major role for this team.
The Phillies are no fluke. You can’t make two consecutive World Series and be a fluke.
No one had a career year for the Phillies last season. That is exciting. This team isn’t a one-year wonder. It is a talented group of 25 ballplayers.
Ryan Howard hit 45 home runs and drove in 141 runs last year, but those aren’t unusual numbers for Howard. That is just a typical season for the big man.
Utley didn’t set a career-high in any statistic. In fact, of the five years he has been a full-time starter, Utley actually posted career lows in doubles (28), runs batted in (93), batting average (.282), slugging percentage (.508), and OPS (.905).
Rollins couldn’t keep his batting average above .220 until the All-Star break, and finished the year with by far the lowest on-base percentage (.296) of his career.
The entire outfield—Raul Ibanez, Victorino, and Werth —made the All-Star team, but then again, all three are All-Star caliber players. Ibanez started the season on fire, but cooled off to the point that he wouldn’t have made the team if the voting was conducted at the end of the year.
Victorino probably didn’t deserve the final spot (San Francisco’s Pablo Sandoval was a little better), but he is a guy who is going to be a .292 hitter with 25 steals for years.
And Werth? Well, he’s as good as his numbers (36 home runs, 20 steals) indicate. He’s one of the game’s top five-tool players, even though he doesn’t get a lot of credit.
In the rotation, Hamels struggled to find his groove all season. Jamie Moyer lost his starting spot late in the year. Brett Myers missed extended time with an injury.
With the possible exception of J.A. Happ, a Rookie of the Year candidate who won 12 games while posting a 2.93 ERA, no one exceeded expectations. And it is too early to tell for Happ, a first-year starter in ’09.
After a lights out season that propelled the Phillies to the World Championship in ’08, the ’09 Brad Lidge put together the worst season by a closer in the history of major league baseball—by far.
His 7.21 ERA is the highest ever by a closer with at least 20 saves. He lost all eight of his decisions and yielded 11 home runs in just 58.2 innings pitched. Oh, and he blew 11 saves in just 42 opportunities.
And the Phillies made the World Series.
That’s how good this team is.
Rollins slumped for half the season, Hamels couldn’t regain any sort of the form he displayed in ’08, Myers spent most of the year on the DL, Moyer lost his starting job, and Lidge turned an entire city against him—and the Phillies still reached the World Series.
As long as everyone does what it is expected, the Phillies are in good position for 2010.
Experience helps in October. And the Phillies have it.
All eight starters in the field have played in a World Series. All but Ibanez and Placido Polanco have played in each of the last two World Series.
These aren’t guys who are new to playoff baseball. Utley hit five home runs in a single World Series last year. Howard would have won the World Series MVP in ’08 had it not been for Hamels’ dominating performances on the mound. And Rollins had the biggest hit of the playoffs last season, when his two-out two-run double in Game Four of the NLCS gave the Phillies a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.
Other than Halladay, the pitching staff is loaded with guys who have experience in the postseason. Hamels earned both the NLCS and the World Series MVP award in ’08.
Blanton has started five games in the playoffs over the past two seasons. Moyer, although he was left off the postseason roster last season, played an instrumental role in the Phillies’ championship run in ’08.
And don’t forget Lights Out, who has still yet to blow a postseason save as a member of the Phillies, converting all ten since ’08.
Breaking Down The Competition:
When you win the division three years in a row and appear in back-to-back World Series, it adds some pressure. People follow you more closely. You’re expected to do well.
That’s okay. The Phillies are this good.
In Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, and Tim Hudson, the Braves have a pretty solid pitching rotation. In fact, I would put their rotation up with almost every team in the league but I can’t see their lineup producing enough to keep this team going into October.
The Mets finished just 70-92 last year. They were decimated with injuries. I would be surprised if that makes the difference between a fourth place finish in the NL East and a run at the playoffs.
The Marlins, unfortunately for them, don’t have the money to keep around their best players. While they finished 87-75 last season, they were only projected to win 82 according to Baseball Reference. I can’t see them competing.
And the Nationals? No comment needed.
Now that’s not to say some other team from the NL couldn’t overtake the Phillies.
The Giants return a top-notch pitching staff with Matt Cain and reigning Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum. The Cardinals, last year’s NL Central champions, boast the game’s best player (Albert Pujols) and two elite starting pitchers (Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright). The Dodgers have been to the NLCS two straight seasons.
And don’t forget about the Yankees or the Red Sox in the AL, two teams who seem certain to represent their respective league in the World Series. These teams —especially the Yankees, with their limitless payrol l—pose a serious threat to the Phillies.
At worst, I see the Phillies winning their division and losing early in the playoffs.
And at best?
Well, it certainly looks like this team has what it takes to return to the World Series. I wouldn’t count out 100 regular season games. As long as the Doc pitches like the Doc, the hitters hit, and Lidge returns to some form between his ’08 and ’09 seasons, this team is the team to beat in the National League.
Maybe all of baseball.
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