Monday, September 15, 2014
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Phillies offense: A personnel problem, or an approach problem

If there is one thing fans have learned over the last three years, it is to consider any public comments by Ruben Amaro Jr. with a healthy degree of caution. He insisted the Phillies were not in the market for an elite starting pitcher almost to the day they traded for Roy Halladay. He insisted they were prioritizing a reliever almost to the day they traded for Hunter Pence. We are not accusing Amaro of being a liar. Being a big league GM requires a certain amount of misdirection. Nobody will ever fault a poker player for bluffing.

Phillies offense: A personnel problem, or an approach problem

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said the Phillies need a different approach than they used in 2008. (Matt Slocum/AP file photo)
General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said the Phillies need a different approach than they used in 2008. (Matt Slocum/AP file photo)

If there is one thing fans have learned over the last three years, it is to consider any public comments by Ruben Amaro Jr. with a healthy degree of caution. He insisted the Phillies were not in the market for an elite starting pitcher almost to the day they traded for Roy Halladay. He insisted they were prioritizing a reliever almost to the day they traded for Hunter Pence. We are not accusing Amaro of being a liar. Being a big league GM requires a certain amount of misdirection. Nobody will ever fault a poker player for bluffing.

Phillies fans should hope that Amaro's comments during his year-in-review press conference earlier this week are another instance in which the third-year GM is simply playing the game. They should hope that his primary goal was not to put Charlie Manuel on notice for next season. They should hope that his public assessment of the Phillies' offensive personnel is not the same as his private assessment, that he is merely attempting to disguise his plan for what could end up being the most interesting offseason in recent memory.

Because anybody who has watched this team over the last four seasons will tell you that its biggest problem does not lie in its approach. And the numbers will back that assertion.

The Phillies are getting old. They are getting slower. They are getting weaker. And, unless they have suddenly discovered an antidote to the normal trajectory of age, they are losing hand-eye coordination. This year, they saw nine players age 32 or older accumulate at least 100 plate appearances. Since 1950, only nine other National League teams have featured that many contributors on the back ends of their careers. None of those teams finished in the top half of the league in runs. The only team to advance to the World Series was the 2010 Giants, who along with the 2003 Cubs (losers in the NLCS) had the best offense of the bunch.

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The Phillies have already out-performed their age. They finished seventh in the NL in runs this season, better than any other team that featured as many old players. They finished second in 2010, when they had the oldest lineup in the NL. They finished first in 2009, when they had the second-oldest lineup. But they can't out-run age forever. And Father Time finally appears to be catching up.

That's not to say that we should call the horse amublance and raise up the curtain. And Amaro was correct in saying that the Phillies need to change their approach. But the approach that needs changing most is their approach to the construction of the lineup and roster, not their approach at the plate.

The Phillies lost to the Cardinals in the NLDS for a number of reasons. But you can start at third base. St. Louis had 28-year-old David Freese, who drove in five runs and scored one. The Phillies had 35-year-old Placido Polanco, who drove in none and scored none. At every other position, the two teams created runs evenly. Ryan Howard scored or drove in 6 of the Phillies' 21 runs. Albert Pujols scored or drove in 3 of the Cardinals' 19. At second base and center field, Chase Utley and Shane Victorino scored or drove in 9 runs. Skip Schumaker, Nick Punto and Jon Jay scored or drove in 9 runs. In left and right field, Raul Ibanez, Hunter Pence and John Mayberry Jr. scored or drove in 11 runs. Lance Berkman, Allen Craig and Matt Holliday scored or drove in 12. At short stop, Jimmy Rollins scored or drove in 6 runs. Rafael Furcal scored or drove in 3.

When the Phillies signed Polanco to a three-year deal before the 2010 season, the biggest question mark was his age. But they felt his defensive and contact rate provided a better value than the power and speed of more youthful options. It is hard to fault the Phillies for not taking a risk on a rich, multi-year deal for Adrian Beltre, who was also a free agent at the time. No other major league team felt comfortable meeting Beltre's demands. But by signing Polanco to a three-year deal, they limited their options beyond Beltre. Maybe the Blue Jays would not have parted with Jose Bautista at any cost during the 2010 trade deadline. Maybe the money remaining on Michael Young's contract would have prevented a deal this spring. Maybe Aramis Ramirez would have nixed any potential deal with the Cubs. Maybe the Phillies still would have been unable to meet Beltre's demands in his second straight offseason as a free agent. Maybe they would not have been able to swing a deal for the Padres' Chase Headley at the trade deadline.

The point is, the ramifications of a team's personnel evaluation at a given position extends beyond the actual production it gets out of that position. Every decision impacts every subsequent decision. Look back at the 2009 offseason, when the Phillies signed Raul Ibanez to a three-year, $31.5 million contract. He was the best free agent option. Milton Bradley, Pat Burrell, Juan Rivera -- those were the choices. On one hand, the Phillies might not have made the playoffs that season if not for Ibanez's stellar first half. On the other hand, they might have been forced to explore a move for a bat like Matt Holliday.

Polanco might be a better example. If the Phillies are getting more production out of third base, maybe they do not feel the need to trade for Hunter Pence this summer, instead choosing to pursue lower-cost options in right field. Maybe they feel they can win with a pitcher of a lesser pedigree than Roy Oswalt last season. Or, if they do not trade Cliff Lee to the Mariners, maybe they do not need a pitcher. Maybe they do not trade Anthony Gose, who is coming off a Double-A season in which he posted a .349 on base percentage with 70 steals and 16 home runs. Maybe the presence of a 20-year-old future leadoff hitter and center fielder changes the Phillies' approach to this offseason, when leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins is a free agent and center fielder Shane Victorino is entering the final year of his contract. Maybe it opens up new levels of trade possibilities, possibilities that would trump Oswalt or Pence in terms of neighborhood blockbusters.

When you really break it down, a front office's job is to predict the future better than other front offices. Certainly, it is to predict the future better than the general public. Nobody is saying that Amaro and his fellow executives have failed. Remember, the Phillies are coming of a 102-win season. If they lose to the Braves in the final series of the regular season and eliminate the Cardinals from the playoffs, there is a good chance they are still playing. For the second straight year, they ran into the one team that was built to beat them in the postseason. This is not revisionist history. I said it last summer about the Giants, and I said it this summer about the Cardinals. At the time, neither team was a lock for the playoffs. Both of them snuck in. And, as fate would have it, both ended up playing the Phillies.

At the same time, the Phillies learned a tough lesson. When you put the majority of your chip stack on black, and the wheel lands on red, you have a problem. Black is postseason success. Black is pitching. The Phillies' traded for Roy Oswalt and signed Cliff Lee. They did not add a corner outfielder like Lance Berkman, or reserves like Nick Punto or Ryan Theriot or Rafael Furcal. Oswalt battled injuries, saw his strikeout rate dip, and allowed five runs while taking the loss in Game 4. Lee dominated during the regular season, then allowed five runs and took the loss in Game 2. Polanco performed at his expected level when healthy, but he battled injuries that affected his hitting throughout the second halves of both 2010 and 2011.

Polanco's struggles were exacerbated by the fact that the Phillies did not have any reliable offensive options to replace him. Organizational philosophy has always favored defense over offense. As we pointed out earlier, that philosophy has served them well: 102 wins, preceded by 97, preceded by 93, preceded by 92, and so on. But if Amaro's remarks are even somewhat truthful, then he believes that the Phillies underachieved. And it seems unfair to suggest that the biggest reason for that under-achievement lies in something that Manuel and Greg Gross can control with their coaching.

In 2011, Manuel had three players log at least 200 plate appearances and post an on base percentage of under .296. In his first six seasons combined, he had none.

Three more hitters logged between 100 and 200 plate appearances with an on base percentage of under .295 in 2011. In Manuel's first six seasons combined, he had seven total (Juan Castro and Greg Dobbs in 2010, Endy Chavez and Tomas Perez in 2005, Eric Bruntlett in 2009, So Taguchi in 2008 and Sal Fasano in 2006). In Manuel's two full seasons as manager of the Indians, Jolbert Cabrera was his only player who posted an on base percentage of under .310 while logging at least 100 plate appearances.

Over his seven seasons as manager of the Phillies, Manuel has not gone out of his way to alter the public perception about his philosophy. He talks fawningly about Harmon Killebrew and Walter Alston. Many of his home-spun tales are woven from the fabric of baseball's mythological view of power. All of it provides the type of easy narrative on which the media typically gorges itself. But it also ignores reality. In reality, Manuel's idea of a great hitter is not Killebrew, but Ted Williams. If you offered him a lineup of eight Chase Utleys versus eight Ryan Howards, he would take the former.

In the NLDS loss, the Cardinals appeared to do a much better job of extending at bats, of wearing down opposing pitchers. Amaro said that the Phillies need to improve in that area, and that the personnel in place are capable of doing so. In 2011, they saw an average of 3.80 pitcher per plate appearance, ranking a mediocre eighth in the NL. But in each Manuel's first five seasons as a big league manager (his two full seasons with the Indians and his first three with the Phillies), his teams ranked in the top four in their league in pitches per plate appearance, including second in the NL in 2005 and 2007:

Year Pitches Per PA League Rank
2000 3.88 3
2001 3.77 4
2005 3.84 2
2006 3.82 3
2007 3.87 2
2008 3.84 7
2009 3.86 4
2010 3.85 6

Did Manuel change his philosophy after 2007? Or did Geoff Jenkins and Raul Ibanez replace Aaron Rowand and Pat Burrell?

Without a doubt, there is a need for the Phillies to play a different style of baseball. Not only are they getting older and less powerful, but the pitching around the National League is getting better. The NL East features pitchers like Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez, Tommy Hanson, Craig Kimbrell, Jonny Venters, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard. Five years ago, that was not the case. The Phillies can still mash mediocre-to-below-average pitching. But they can't mash it as hard. And, more importantly, there is less of it.

Maybe Amaro thinks that the Phillies need to stop going to the plate looking for a pitch they can drive, and instead look for a pitch they can put into play to get on base. Maybe if they had that mentality, Chase Utley and Raul Ibanez would have hit singles instead of flying out in front of the wall in Game 5.

On the other hand, maybe the players on the roster are who they are. Maybe the roster was constructed with hitters who have spent their entire careers looking for pitches they can drive.

In 2002, former big league manager Chuck Tanner told Baseball Digest, "If a guy is a .250 hitter, he's going to hit .250. It's as simple as that."

Amaro said in his press conference that the Phillies should have more .300 hitters. But Polanco is the only hitter in the lineup with a .300 average in his career. Jimmy Rollins has a career average of .272 and a career on base percentage of .329. He hit .268 and .338 this season. Shane Victorino has a career marks of .279 and .344. He hit .279 and .355 this season. Carlos Ruiz (.265 and .357 for his career) hit .283 and .371. Hunter Pence has career marks of .292 and .343. In two months with the Phillies, he hit .324 and .394. The three players who underperformed against their career marks were Ibanez, Utley and Ryan Howard. Those also happened to be the three highest paid players in the lineup. The three highest-paid Cardinals -- Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman -- all performed at or above their career marks.

Has Utley's OBP dropped in each of the last three seasons because of his approach? How about Ibanez's? Or have those numbers dropped because Ibanez is now 39, and Utley is now 32, and both of them have battled wear-and-tear injuries since 2009? 

It's an important question for a couple of reasons. First, if the Phillies really believe that an improved approach at the plate will bring drastic results, they risk underestimating the need to supplement their existing personnel this offseason. Second, if Manuel and Gross feel pressured into making drastic philosophical changes, they risk compounding the struggles of 2011 by forcing their hitters into an approach they are unable to execute.

The numbers suggest that the Phillies real problem lies not in their performance when they have two strikes or are behind in the count, but in their performance when they are ahead in the count. They suggest the real problem lies not in hitting with men on base, but in reaching base to begin with. They suggest the real problem lies not in the counts when Manuel tells them to swing or take, but in what happens after they swing or take.

I'll throw those numbers at you a little later. I just thought we would start but identifying the two schools of thought.

 


 

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David Murphy Daily News Staff Writer
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