Did the Phillies get lucky in 2008?
Six days later, this article can finally be written.
If you're a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies, it's hard not to let your emotions get the best of you. Especially after witnessing what 45,000-plus at Broad and Pattison, as well as millions of television viewers around the globe, saw for themselves in Game 5 of the 2011 National League Division Series between the Phils and the St. Louis Cardinals.
The shock that overcame the crowd at the Citizens Bank Park and the entirety of Phillies' nation, had more to do with the way the Phillies lost as opposed to the fact that they did lose. When you get to a Game 5 in a best-of-five series, any self-respecting fan is aware that said game could be the team's last of the season.
But, 1-0? Really?
With that loss, and three consecutive disappointments in the postseason, comes that nagging voice in the back of your mind asking the inevitable question: Was the Phillies' 2008 World Championship a fluke? The answer, I'm here to tell you, is yes... sort of.
Now, before you fire off your dissenting emails and comments below, I should tell you that, as this article will point out, my use of the word "fluke" does not have the negative connotation you might think it does. Allow me to explain.
First, let's be real. If the Phillies had beaten the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox in the 2008 Fall Classic, we wouldn't really be having this discussion. Instead, the Phillies ousted the inexperienced and unpedigreed Tampa Bay Rays in fairly convincing fashion.
Were the Phillies blessed with the luck of the draw in 2008? Perhaps, but remember, they had to get past the Dodgers, a team that everyone had advancing to the World Series thanks to a mid-season acquisition of Manny Ramirez. As you will see, most of the surprising champions of the last decade had that signature upset victory. For the Phillies in '08, the Dodgers were it.
Still, the competition the Phillies tore through on their way to the Commissioner's Trophy in '08 (Brewers, Dodgers, Rays) had not had a lot of recent success, and certainly did not possess the pedigree or the mystique that the Yanks and Sox did, and still do.
This, alone, exacerbates the appearance of a lucky journey to a world championship. But let's dig deeper.
Increased expectations are the worst thing to happen to this franchise. It is easy to sneak up on teams and win a World Series when Brett Myers is the No. 2 starter in your rotation.
When you add guys like Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee again and Hunter Pence, however, the target on your franchise's back grows that much larger. Everyone brings their A-game and their A-gameplan to the ballpark when they face you. That, no doubt, has made the Phils' quest for a second world title in the Charlie Manuel Era that much more elusive.
And don't think it's all external, either. You don't think guys like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and even Pence know and feel the enormity of the expectations placed on this team by the local fanbase, let alone the media? Of course they do. It's a safe bet that this pressure directly contributed to the 1-0 outcome of Game 5.
Now, while I am here to tell you that the '08 title was a fluke, I am also here to tell you that you should enjoy it for what it manifestly is: a world title. Ask fans of the Cubs or Indians if they would take what we have. You already know the answer to that.
Look, winning a World Series is hard. As we've seen in the last decade, teams that are built to win a World Series very rarely do. The '08 Phils were not built to win a title. They were built to not get swept in the NLDS like they did in '07.
Let's look at all the world champions since 2002 and you will see that the best, most talented team rarely wins the last game in October:
2002 - Anaheim Angels - The Angels were a surprise and a team built similarly to the Phillies (circa. 2007-2008): great, explosive offense and a largely no-name pitching staff. Name me the top three starters in the Angels' 2002 rotation. You might remember John Lackey, but Ramon Ortiz and Jarrod Washburn didn't exactly strike fear in opposing lineups. The Angels were the AL's wild card in '02, finishing second in the AL West behind the same Oakland A's team featured in Moneyball. The Angels did defeat the heavily favored Yankees (who added former AL MVP Jason Giambi in the offseason) in the ALDS, but were spared from facing the team tied for the best record in the AL (the A's).
The AL side of the 2002 postseason definitely didn't go as planned, with the Angels and Twins advancing to the ALCS. Again, I think expectations (and lack thereof) came into play. It can be argued that the Yanks and A's felt the pressure of their regular season success in the first round. It can also be argued that the Angels had an easier time sneaking up on teams in the postseason because, again, they were the cinderellas of the tournament.
2003 - Florida Marlins - Another wild card. They differed from the Angels in that they got hot the last two months of the season and carried that into the postseason, while the Angels were strong for most of the year. The Marlins certainly were not built to win a title, winning it with mostly no-name, homegrown or young talent such as Josh Beckett, Derrek Lee, Juan Pierre, Luis Castillo and Mike Lowell. The Fish did beat the Yanks in the World Series, however. While you have to tip your cap to them for that, this also points to my theory of lower expectations having internal and external benefits.
2004 - Boston Red Sox - Although the Idiots were a wild card, they were supposed to contend for a title, even while being considered second banana to the Yanks, who had added A-Rod in the preceding offseason. In fact, the Red Sox season appeared to be over, down 3-0 in the ALCS, but, well, you remember what happened next. While the Sox were not as much of a surprise as the Angels or Marlins, they certainly weren't the prohibitive favorites to win it all, either. Especially if you take into account their history prior to this season.
What do you think about the Phillies' 2008 World Championship?
2005 - Chicago White Sox - The Pale Hose were winners of the AL Central, posting the best record in the American League. However, the Sox were largely picked to finish fourth in their division prior to the season and actually traded some of their surplus power (Carlos Lee) in order to go with more of a small ball approach (Scott Podsednik). And, even though the Sox pitching staff was considered to be talented, it was not chock full of future hall of famers. Mark Buerhle, Freddy Garcia and Jon Garland were their top three starters. And, by the way, Chicago swept the Red Sox, defending world champs (and de facto team to beat), in the ALDS.
2006 - St. Louis Cardinals - The Cardinals went 83-79 in the regular season yet won the NL Central. 'Nuff said. Seriously, their closer was a rookie named Adam Wainwright and their postseason rotation consisted of Chris Carpenter, Jeff Weaver, Anthony Reyes and Jeff Suppan. With the exception of Carpenter: yawn.
2007 - Boston Red Sox - Once again, these Sox were considered a title contender before the year and they would have won any other division in 2007. These Sox were that good, and were an exception to the theory that the best team rarely wins the World Series.
2008 - Philadelphia Phillies - Hamels/Myers/Moyer/Blanton. The fact that the Phillies won a title with that rotation has to boggle the mind. While it's easy to say that the Phils got lucky, just about every team listed here had to get past a team that was favored above them. The Phillies' NLCS victory over the Dodgers was that win.
2009 - New York Yankees - This is the most obvious case (and one could argue, the only case) of the prohibitive favorite from wire-to-wire winning the World Series. Although the Phils were defending their title, the Yankees added Mark Teixeira, A.J. Burnett and C.C. Sabathia in the offseason. The Yankees then proceeded to win 100 games in the regular season and unseated the Phils for their 27th world title.
2010 - San Francisco Giants - The Giants' signature victory of the postseason was in the NLCS against the Phillies. Otherwise, they faced teams not ready for the bright lights and expectations of the postseason (Braves and Rangers). The Giants' rotation was world class, but when your lineup relies on Pat Burrell, Aubrey Huff, Buster Posey and Cody Ross, you're a surprising champion.
2011 - ? - Obviously, we don't know who will win the World Series yet, but the three teams considered to be the favorites (Phillies, Red Sox, Yankees) are all out and none of them made it to the LCS. You can even add the Atlanta Braves, who were the NL's second-best team for most of the season, to that list.
The point of all of this is to say that, yes, the Phillies got lucky in 2008. But as the list above illustrates, it is most definitely better to be lucky than to be good.
If you were to say that the Phillies are the class of the National League right now, no one could successfully argue against that. Unfortunately, that status does not translate to a world title.
The point I am making has been made many times by many baseball experts around the country. The Phillies and their fans, however, have now seen this trend hit a little too close to home in the last two years.
Thus, I reiterate, the Phillies' 2008 world title was indeed a fluke. However, since that has been the trend in baseball over the last decade, the Phils' apparent luck in '08 does not diminish what they accomplished that year.
On the contrary, the trend of the last decade has shown us that these current Phillies are right where they ought to be. And that would make a second world title in the Charlie Manuel Era that much sweeter.