The Philadelphia Phillies are entering the 2011 MLB season the heavy favorites to win the National League, and make their third World Series appearance in four years. The addition of Cliff Lee has helped Philadelphia fortify what the media has dubbed the best starting rotation in the history of the world, ever. Their offense remains a potent blend of power and speed. They even have baseball's beardless Santa Claus himself managing them, so long as games fall between nap time and BINGO. But there is another possibility. And that is that the Philadelphia Phillies, perennial favorites in the National League, are poised for another postseason letdown.
Let me preface this article by saying that this it is not the result of a hater-ade overdose by myself, nor is it an overreaction to the Giants' Royce Gracie—style whooping of the juggernaut Phillies and Rangers (featuring Cliff Lee) in the 2010 Postseason. It is the result of baseball's fickle nature. In any given season there are so many factors that go into creating a champion that any number of confluent circumstances can occur to make or break a team. Chemistry can do it, as it did last season for the Giants. But so can injuries, free agent pickups, or even general karma/universal weirdness. No one is safe from the wrath of the baseball Gods. Not even the preseason favorites or the most talented team. Or in this case, both.
Intangibles are impossible to predict. And baseball, more so than any other sport, is filled with intangibles. The Phillies have amassed a sterling roster to be sure, but to think that they are going to set their roster, go on autopilot, and sim through the regular season into a World Series berth would be a mistake. So without further ado, here are five factors that could derail the Philadelphia Phillies 2011 season.
Factor #1: The LeBron James lesson
This season, LeBron James signed with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat. For some reason, it wasn't covered by major media outlets, and there is a good possibility that this is the first you are hearing of it. Anyway, the Heat organization immediately responded to LeBron's offseason signing with a preseason championship celebration of sorts. It had everything. Fog machines. Lasers. Multi-millionaires awkwardly dancing in front of a half-empty American Airlines Arena.
But LeBron and the Heat miscalculated. You see, when LeBron signed with the Heat, he assumed that that team with the most talent would inevitably win. And since a team with Dwayne Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh would always have the most talent, it was only logical that they would win most every game they played. Or at least most of them.
But LeBron didn't consider the bulls-eye that would be on his team's back. It wasn't only fans that watched his "Decision," and the incredibly premature celebration that followed. Other players watched as well. And suddenly, every night the Heat were playing a team for whom that night was Game 7 of the NBA finals. Everyone wanted to beat the Heat. Every night opponents came out ready to play. Everyone brought their A games. Suddenly, playing the Heat on a formerly meaningless mid-January night became an opportunity to put the preseason champs in their place.
By signing Cliff Lee to complete an already incredibly stacked pitching rotation, the Phillies created the 2011 baseball version of a super team. They immediately became the favorites to not only get to the World Series, but to win it. However in doing so, they put a bulls-eye on their back just like the Heat did. And World Series Championship expectations aren't always a good thing year after year. Just ask Brian Cashman.
I look at the Philadelphia roster and I see talent, to be sure. But I also see a group for whom the sky is not only the limit, but the basement as well. The Phillies are a team for whom success will be winning the World Series, and failure will be simply making the World Series.
When expectations are sky high, as they are for Philadelphia, anything besides unmitigated domination will be considered a failure. In these circumstances, it is much easier to disappoint than it is to live up to the hype. Putting the entire weight of a franchise or a league on your shoulders can be heavy indeed. After 2010, Cliff Lee knows this better than anyone. Right now, the Phillies are feeling the weight of their expectations.
Lee signed with the Phillies ostensibly because he wanted a team that was capable of supporting him, of lessening the burden that comes with being a franchise's marquee player. However by signing with Philadelphia, Lee may have done the opposite, and helped create even higher expectations of himself. Certainly he didn't create the vitriol that LeBron did, and he managed to not make the entire country hate him on national television like LeBron, but the end result is similar. Less extreme, but similar.
Starting on opening day 2011, there are no days off for the Phillies. Every game against the Pirates, Astros or Nationals is bigger for their opponents than it is for them. From now on, playing the Phillies isn't just one game out of 162. It is an opportunity to send a message. In a sport like baseball with an already long, laborious season, added pressures can begin to weigh on a team quickly. For the Philadelphia Phillies, the expectations and pressures have already begun, even though the season has not.
Factor #2: Chase Utley and his bum knee
It has recently been reported that Chase Utley will miss the beginning of the 2011 season with a knee injury that no one seems to know much about. Rumors have varied from Utley suffering minor ligament damage to needing full-fledged microfracture surgery. If he were a hockey player, he would be listed with a "lower body injury" and given no timetable for return. Heading into the season, it appears as though there is at least a chance that Utley will not play at all this year. And if he does play, it is a mystery as to how effective he will be. Knee injuries are a tricky thing. The torque required by an average baseball's player's in-game swing puts stress on the knee, as does playing the infield, where pivots and twists are not only commonplace, but can become tools of the trade, and a legitimate difference-maker amongst second basemen.
Even if he does start the season on the active roster, it is unlikely that he will be healthy for the majority of 2011. He has chronic knee problems. Knee problems don't just go away. They require you to stop playing sports for an extended period before attempting a return. Amar'e Stoudemire and Chris Webber know what I'm talking about. And as they would tell you, it is very possible to come back from chronic knee problems. With the right treatment and the right amount of rest, full recovery is a realistic goal. But rest is the key. And given the rigors of a 162 game season, it is extremely likely that Utley won't be right at any point this season. In the event that he does play, and begin to round into form, it is only a matter of time before the hard slides and dives to cutoff sharply hit liners take their toll.
It's not exactly breaking news that having one of baseball's best second baseman active and in the lineup every day will dramatically increase a team's chances for success. Good second baseman are hard to find, and great second basemen, let alone great second basemen who can legitimately hit in the middle of a lineup, are a rare bunch indeed. But more than any other team, the Phillies have needed Chase Utley healthy and productive to sustain their regular season success into the postseason. If a mainstay like Ryan Howard is the engine that makes the Phillies offense go, Utley is the supercharger that can take them to the next level.
As an example, here are Utley's average postseason stats during 2008 and 2009, the two seasons the Phillies made it to the World Series.
.263 AVG / 4.5 Hits / 4.1 Runs / 3.16 RBI / 947.1 OPS
And here are his stats from the 2007 and 2010 postseasons, when the Phillies fell short of the Series, losing to the Rockies and Giants respectively.
.212 / 3 / 2.6 / 1.6 / 634.6
It's night and day. For the Phillies, a productive Chase Utley means a productive lineup. Let me clarify that. This lineup is good enough to be productive without Utley. But he gives them that extra boost, that added element that no other NL team has that can help propel the Phillies from good to great. For Philadelphia, Utley is the X factor that elevates their offense. And without him, a lineup that already seems to lack killer instinct becomes utterly manageable, especially in a short series where specialized pitching matchups can help neutralize threats like Ryan Howard. In seasons past, pitching around a Jimmy Rollins or a Ryan Howard was a suicide mission. This season, it seems far less insane.
Defensively, a healthy Utley is arguably baseball's best second baseman. He not only gives the team an offensive flexibility that is rare in baseball, and rarer in the National League, but also gives them one of baseball's best infields. He immediately gives his team an advantage heading into any series. But if he's not on the field, he puts them in a hole. Part of this is due to the recent frailty of fellow infielder Jimmy Rollins. With Rollins and Utley, the Phillies have one of the best, and one of the most injury-prone infields in all of baseball (somewhere, Jose Reyes is searching for his championship belt). Without Utley, the Phillies will begin the season behind the eight ball in all facets of the game.
Factor #3: Jayson Werth, Ryan Howard, and the Wu-Tang Clan
Ryan Howard is a good player. At times, he is even a great player. But he is also incredibly streaky. It is the hot-and-cold nature of his game that makes him somewhat of a mystery. When he's on, he's as dangerous at the plate as anyone in the game not named Pujols. But his flashes of greatness are often interrupted by periods of stagnation. Howard is capable of going silent at any time, and while he is always dangerous enough to change a game with a single swing of the bat, his periods of low batting average and plate productivity make his team similarly streaky.
Part of what has made the Phillies so dangerous in the recent past is the balance they have throughout the lineup. For years, the Phillies have been baseball's Wu-Tang Clan, a group characterized more by collaboration and team success than by individual talents.
Like Wu-Tang there are individual talents, to be sure. There's the RZA, the Abbot, the leader, the producer (Jimmy Rollins). There's the GZA, the genius, the technically sound jack-of-all-trades who makes the team significantly more balanced and dangerous (Utley). You have the Ghostface Killa, who enjoys star status despite inconsistent individual efforts (Howard). Jayson Werth would be Raekwon, and under-the-radar talent who quietly goes about his business. And then there's the wildcard, the Ol' Dirty Bastard. Or in the Phillies case, Cole Hamels—who is capable of elevating the group's status to legendary-level, or falling apart at the seams, and disappearing to parts unknown for extended periods. Roy Halladay arrived in Philadelphia ready to play the part of Method Man, a solo artist with higher visibility than his group mates, who is capable of carrying the team or simply blending in with workman-like efforts.
Carlos Ruiz, Shane Victorino and Raul Ibanez are the lesser-known members. They don't get the solo verses, and you might not see them on tour. They play the parts of U-God, Masta Killa and Inspectah Deck. They have all had their moments, and are capable of standing out, but aren't relied upon to do the heavy lifting. The team is filled with individual talents, but their success has been cultivated as a team. However this year they are potentially missing two key parts. Imagine the Wu without Raekwon and the GZA. There is still plenty of talent left, but things just aren't the same.
Because of the loss of two key group members, this season's version of the Phils seems more predicated on the success of Howard than it has in years past. Without Chase Utley and Jayson Werth, Howard is the Phillies' clear-cut chief offensive threat, and the Philadelphia offense is far closer to a one-trick pony than it is to the thoroughbred we have become accustomed to seeing. In seasons past, Howard could go through the ups and downs at the plate that are intrinsic to his game, and still have plenty of offensive support to make Philadelphia's lineup dangerous. The balance in the Phillies lineup made his slumps manageable and his hot streaks MVP caliber. This season is different.
Not only do the losses of Werth and Utley soften Howard's support in the lineup, it puts added pressure on guys like Ibanez and Ruiz to fill these holes. Simply put, it is much harder to pitch around Howard with Werth on deck and Utley on second than it is to pitch around him with Ruiz or Ibanez on deck and Victorino on first. There is no doubt that Ibanez, Ruiz and Victorino are productive players, but they are not nearly as productive as the players whose shoes they are being asked to fill. Ryan Howard is a bona-fide star, but he is not a superstar in the Albert Pujols/Alex Rodriguez mold. He cannot carry on offense by himself. He is simply too streaky. It is for this reason that the Phillies diminished supporting cast has to be cause for concern among Philadelphia fans. This season, for the first time in many, Howard's supporting cast will not be good enough to mask his periods of ineffectiveness.
As far as Jayson Werth is concerned, there is little doubt that he was paid far too much money by the Nationals, and that the Phillies were economically correct not to re-sign him. He is not a good enough hitter to warrant a $126 million contract by himself. But a baseball team is a sum of its parts. And Werth was a key cog in the Philadelphia machine. Even though he isn't worth the superstar money he is now paid, he was invaluable to the Phillies offense in recent years, and not only because he made it difficult to pitch around Howard. He also gave the team offensive relief when injuries struck Rollins, Ibanez or Utley. He made his team better in a variety of different ways that are not measured through statistics. With Werth gone and Utley injured, Ryan Howard can be pitched around, or pitched to more freely because there will certainly be fewer men on base during his at bats.
In recent years, the Phillies first through seventh hitters could all do significant damage. Even if opposing pitchers couldn't single out an individual whose killer instinct and knack for situational hitting scared the bejeezus out them, the sum of the parts was a well-oiled offensive machine. Although it was unquestionably the right financial decision to let Werth go, his loss has undoubtedly left the Phillies a less scary group, and a less potent offense all around.
Factor #4: The Phillies air of 'vincibility
Whatever the opposite of invincible is, that's what the Phillies are. I'm not saying they're not intimidating—with their stable of talents you'd be stupid not to respect them. But they lack the killer instinct that great champions have. Its that intangible thing that separates Kobe Bryant from Vince Carter. Derek Jeter has it. The Patriots had it for a while. Ray Lewis has it 24/7/365, and he will literally stab you if you say otherwise. It is rare, but invaluable in sports. It is the arrogance, the attitude that lets you know you are playing with someone who will not lose. Someone who will rip your heart out of your chest and show it to you if you give them even the smallest opportunity to do so.
It is something that is hard to put your finger on, but something that all great champions have in one form or another. But the Phillies don't have it.
Maybe it is the fact that their offense is subject to the hot streaks of Ryan Howard's bat, or the health of Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. Maybe its the good-but-not-great qualities of players like Carlos Ruiz and Shane Victorino (nothing against them, they're good—they just do nothing for me). Maybe it's the fact that their home-grown pitching prodigy carries himself like a male model (with the hair to match) and is named Cole. Who knows. The point is, the Phillies aren't a team of Kobe Bryants. For the women of greater Philadelphia this is a great thing. For fans, it has to be concerning.
The Phillies don't have a single guy offensively who puts the fear of God into you. I know. I watched last season's NLCS and saw Ryan Howard rendered offensively impotent by journeyman Javier Lopez. The Phillies possess the opposite of an air of invincibility—they seem totally mortal, completely…vincible. And no, this is not a shot at Vince Carter. Although it totally could be. This sense of vincibility, or baseball humanity or whatever you want to call it was on full display last season when the Giants, a vastly overmatched team on paper, got hot and handled the Phillies in six games to advance to the World Series.
The Giants undoubtedly went out and won that series. But there must be some sentiment within the Philadelphia fan base that the Phillies also went out and lost it, just like they lost their NLDS series in 2007 against the Colorado Rockies. It's not that the Giants can get as hot as they did last season and roll through the Phillies again. But someone can. And every contending team in the National League has to know it.
The scary thing for Phillies fans is that this championship air is not something you develop in a year. It's something you're either born with or you're not. And there's nothing wrong with not being born with it. I wasn't born with it. Peyton Manning wasn't born with it. Alex Rodriguez wasn't either. You can be great without possessing it. But not having it does, unarguably, decrease your chances for success. When Derek Jeter at bat during Game 7, he knows he's going to get a hit. Knows it. But when Peyton Manning has the ball with two minutes left in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship, he's only pretty sure that he is going to score. In professional sports, the difference between pretty sure and knowing can make all the difference.
Factor #5: Cliff Lee might be closer to Zito territory than you think
Philadelphia's signature move during the offseason was bringing aboard former Cy Young winner Cliff Lee. You may have heard about this during ESPN's 24/7 coverage of Lee's free agency, which proved once and for all that anywhere in America where anyone is muttering the words "Yankees" and "Phillies" in the same sentence, ESPN is pointing a camera at them, and Joe Buck is salivating. The signing of Lee put Phillies fans in a fuzzy crimson-colored, utopia-like fog, with visions of multiple World Series rings dancing in their heads. However, I have my reservations about the Lee signing, and Phillies fans should too, because Cliff Lee is one short step away from becoming Barry Zito.
Alright, maybe he won't be that bad, but let me explain.
Zito's numbers surrounding his Cy Young season weren't exactly on Lee's level, but in a statistical-deviation type of way they were comparable. Both pitchers had less than impressive stats the year before their Cy Young season. For Zito, that meant a 3.49 ERA/1.232 WHIP/184 Hits Allowed/80 BB/205 K. Surprisingly, Lee was worse, posting a 6.29/1.521/112/36/66 in 2007. Predictably, the years that followed were career bests for both, and both received a Cy Young Award for their efforts. During these years (2002 for Zito, 2008 for Lee), their numbers were surprisingly similar. Zito - 2.75 ERA , 1.134 WHIP. Lee - 2.54, 1.110. Lee has always had better control, and been more of a strikeout artist than Zito, but Zito allowed fewer hits in his Cy Young year than Lee did.
Unsurprisingly, the years following Zito's and Lee's Cy Youngs were a minor regression from the year before. Both saw their ERA jump by roughly 0.75, and both saw their WHIP and BB elevate as well, although not by much. Really the only major statistical deviation that we saw in their numbers is the significant jump in hits allowed by Lee from 2008 (Cy Young year) to 2009, which went from 214 to 245 (Zito's hits allowed stayed basically steady, increasing only by four from 182 in 2002 to 186).
However the interesting part comes when we jump ahead a few years to predict the next phase of Lee's career. Zito's 2005 (which we are comparing to Lee's projected 2011) saw the continuation of his slow regression, as he posted a 3.86/1.200/185/89/171. Not great. Definitely not Cy Young caliber. But not bad either. I would expect similar results from Lee in 2011, but more on his level than Zito's. He isn't going to post the insanely low ERA that won him his Cy Young, but he won't regress to 2007 form either. He will fall somewhere in between. For two pitchers who have seen similar career paths thus far, I don't think this is unrealistic.
In 2007, the bottom fell out for Zito. He signed with the Giants and the rest is terrible contract history. For Lee, should he continue on Zito's path, the 2013 season or somewhere thereabouts will see his skills diminish. I'm not saying that the Phillies will immediately regret his contract the way the Giants did with Zito, I'm saying that it is extremely likely that by the end of his deal, he will be getting paid for past successes more so than continued production. Zito and Lee's careers are more similar to this point than Phillies fans would probably like to admit, and signing a 33 year old pitcher to a long-term deal is rarely a harbinger of future success. Lee will probably not turn into Zito this season, but the similarities between the two shouldn't be ignored.
In his heyday, Zito possessed a repertoire very similar to Lee's. A 92-94 MPH fastball, a famously knee-buckling curve, a slider (Lee uses a cutter), and a changeup. For a few years, he was nearly unhittable. But as he got older, he quietly but steadily transformed from baseball golden boy to perennial punchline. Somehow, Zito had undergone a reverse chrysalis-to-butterfly transformation into the realm of below-average veteran pitchers. In only a few short years, Zito had gone from one of baseballs most promising young pitchers to a washed-up (and significantly overpaid) role player in knee high socks and shaggy hair. It was a stark transformation.
How did this happen? Simple. He lost a little bit off his fastball, a lot off his confidence, and saw his repertoire fall apart as a result. When he could cruse at 91-92 MPH, his 86 MPH changeup gave hitters a significantly different look. His slider took just enough off his fastball, added just enough movement to deceive, and consistently caused poor contact off the end or handle of the bat. But when Zito lost that extra 3-4 MPH off his fastball, everything else became incredibly hittable. When he lost that velocity, he lost his confidence—perhaps understandably so. He had signed a huge contract, and like Lee had huge expectations. Yet all of a sudden his changeup and fastball were nearly the same speed. His curve remained deadly, but he no longer had the secondary pitches or the confidence in his control throw it consistently or accurately.
Pitchers like Zito and Lee are perfect examples of baseball's fickle nature. When they are at full power, they are unstoppable. They are capable of dominating with such ease that it is a thing of beauty to watch. However, once they begin to slip—even just the slightest bit—the bottom can fall out in a hurry.
Lee, it has been said, is an artist on the pitcher's mound. He paints with powerful, brilliant strokes that are so perfect in their execution that they make grown men look like overmatched boys. But in reality, he is a precision artist. He is always just an inch or so away from disaster.
When big-league hitters swing and miss, they don't do so, generally, by much. Baseball is a game of inches, and when hitters fail by an inch, they are also an inch away from success. Cliff Lee is a master of that one inch. While his mastery of precision makes Lee one of baseball's most intriguing pitchers to watch, it also makes him a candidate to regress, to lose a step, even to pull a Zito and fall off the map completely.
It is possible that this regression has already begun. In fifteen games with the Rangers last season, Lee was uncharacteristically hittable. His ERA was its highest since 2007, at a very pedestrian 3.98. He allowed 103 hits in 108.2 Innings Pitched, and gave up 48 earned runs in 15 games started, only 15 fewer than he gave up in all of his 2008 Cy Young season with Cleveland. Lee did improve as the season went on; however ,his hittability was clearly at a level it had not approached in previous years.
Therefore, despite Lee's recent successes, he is closer than people think to being an average-to-below-average pitcher. People point at Lee's control as a sign that, even as his velocity inevitably declines, he will remain dominant. I see the other side of this argument. I see Lee as a control artist whose ability to cruise at 91-92 MPH separates him from his competition. a 92 MPH fastball thrown with pinpoint accuracy is nearly impossible to hit, even for major leaguers. However an 88 MPH fastball, even if it is immaculately controlled, is considerably more hittable.
To be fair, Zito is unarguably more of a head case than Lee. Zito analyzes and over-analyzes and reanalyzes every start he makes. He is harder on himself than most, and not coincidentally is more prone to lapses in self-confidence and fits of doubt. By all accounts, Lee does not take this approach. He has a notoriously short memory about his on-field performances, and does not doubt himself in the slightest. This will naturally separate him from Zito in that a stronger mental fortitude will likely prevent a total loss of confidence in the face of adversity, or diminished stuff. It is no sure thing that Cliff Lee will turn into a carbon copy of Barry Zito. However given his style of pitching, the expectations heaped on him, and the large contract he just signed, it is at least a possibility that he is headed down Zito's path.
At some point, whether it is now or five years from now, Lee's magic will fade. He is already 33 years old, on his fifth major league team, and is signed to a huge contract with the Phillies. Odds are that by the end of that contract, Lee will have regressed, and will be another overpaid pitcher whose financial drain on an organization outweighs his past successes.
It may not be this year, but then again it may be.
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