Five observations after a surprisingly good performance in San Francisco. . .
1) Two players to watch closely this series: Jimmy Rollins and Ben Revere. Readers of this blog know that I have always been a big advocate of Rollins, which is why I would list him as my most disappointing player on the roster through the first month-plus of the season. For the first time in several years, I'm starting to wonder if he is showing signs of age. He is striking out way more than we have ever seen him -- 18.2 percent of his plate appearances, compared with 13.7 percent last season and a career average of 11.7 percent -- and he is just 3-for-5 on stolen base attempts, including a costly throw-out at third in yesterday's loss to the Giants. He has also made two outs while running the bases. He also has four errors in the field.
At this point, I'm inclined to chalk it up to the general malaise that comes with playing on an underperforming team. Whatever you want to think, Rollins looks at himself as a player who is hugely responsible for the Phillies success, and my sense is that he and Ryan Howard are the two players who most allow that responsibility to affect their performance on the field. The misconception about both guys, Rollins more so, is that their struggles stem from a lack of care, when precisely the opposite is true. Trying to get to third base with one out is a symptom of trying to do too much. The upper cut swing is a symptom of trying to do too much. Rollins is what Charlie Manuel likes to call a rhythm player, and the Phillies have looked entirely arhythmatic (I just made up that word) this season. I saw good sign in yesterday's game, though, and it was on that double off a breaking ball that preceded the caught stealing at third. Throughout the first month of the season, Rollins had been swinging underneath those pitches, or waiting a split second too late. Yesterday, the swing he put on the pitch was nice and level, and the result was there. He followed that double with a double off a Sergio Romo slider in the ninth inning. This might be a figment of my imagination, but I feel like over the past few seasons there have always been one or two swings that have signaled Rollins finally finding his groove. A couple of years ago it happened in Arizona. I don't remember the exact situation but I do remember talking to Rollins about it. Last year, I'm pretty sure it was a home run off Jeff Suppan on May 13, after which he hit .256/.327/.467 (.793 OPS) with 22 home runs and 23-of-27 stolen bases over his final 121 games. Prior to that, he hit .230/.276/.267 with no home runs and 7-of-8 stolen bases in 34 games.
As for Revere, his batting line over the last 15 games is .289/.333/.356 with three walks and five strikeouts in 49 plate appearances, which means he has been slightly better than his career averages for roughly half of the season now. Unlike Rollins, he is not a guy who has shown the ability to get hot and make a meaningful run-producing impact on a team. It's simply a matter of him putting consistent swings on the ball and the ball finding a hole. His game is to slap his way onto base and then wait for somebody to drive him in. The key for him is to not be a liability the way he was in his first 15 games of the season, and while some of that had to do with luck, he also was not putting those consistent swings on the ball, as evidenced by his 11 strikeouts in 67 plate appearances. Chase Field seems like it should be a good park for him, because the outfield is large and the ball travels faster through the air than most parks. Over the last few years, Revere's old stadium of Target Field has been in the top third in the majors in Batting Average on Balls in Play, while Citizens Bank Park has been in the bottom half. Even though the infields are the same size, it makes sense to me that a little guy like Revere would benefit at the plate when looking at a bigger outfield, where it does not feel like the outfielders are standing right on top of you.
One note: the Diamondbacks have made an NL-low seven errors this season.
2) Taking two out of three games from the Giants offered fans one of the strongest reasons to believe in this Phillies team because they had success against two pitchers who have historically given them problems in a stadium where they have historically struggled. Now, we'll see if they can do it for two straight series, because Phoenix has not been kind to the Phillies in recent years, nor have the pitchers who they are about to face.
Tonight, the Phillies face Patrick Corbin, who is young and left-handed, which generally is not a good combination for the Phillies. He is also 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA and excellent rate stats (7.2 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9) in 40 innings over six starts. The Phillies have actually defeated two of the last three lefties they've faced, both of whom had been known to give them trouble (Madison Bumgarner and Jon Niese). But a quick look at their batting splits shows why match ups like tonight are a problem: Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are a combined 10-for-64 with six extra base hits, 20 strikeouts and four walks against lefties. Domonic Brown has had the best performance against him, but he is only 6-for-27 with three extra base hits, six strikeouts and no walks. The good news is the right handed bats are starting to pick things up.
3) Since the start of the 2011 season, the Phillies have played 36 games against starters who are 23 years old or younger. Those starters have a 3.35 ERA, 7.2 K/9 and 3.4 BB/9 in those starts.
4) Friday's matchup is Tyler Cloyd against Ian Kennedy, who is coming off a start in which he allowed five runs to the Padres. On the season, he has a 5.19 ERA. But Kennedy has pitched well against the Phillies, holding them to seven runs in 26 innings with 19 strikeouts and five walks in four career starts. On Saturday it is Cliff Lee against Trevor Cahill, who last August held them to three runs with six strikeouts and two walks in seven innings in a 5-4 Phillies win. Earlier that season, they scored four runs in 5 1/3 innings in a 7-2 win against him, and in 2011 he held them to one run in 7 2/3 innings. Finally, on Sunday, it will be Kyle Kendrick against Brandon McCarthy, who they have never faced, but who has struggled this season.
5) The Diamondbacks have leaned heavily on their bullpen this season. Matt Reynolds has been excellent as a lefty reliever. Tony Sipp has not been as good. But the Phillies should plan on seeing plenty of both this series.