Sunday, July 13, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Can the Phillies play small ball?

The Phillies have scored just 70 runs so far, only the Marlins and Pirates have scored less.
The Phillies have scored just 70 runs so far, only the Marlins and Pirates have scored less.

It might have been last season, or maybe the season before. Charlie Manuel has managed more than 1,100 games for the Phillies, so he can’t quite exactly nail the time and date, but he certainly recalls the situation:

The game was tied late, a man on second, no outs,Chase Utley at the plate. As usual, a lefthanded reliever had been brought in to face Utley and Ryan Howard. While the lefty warmed up on the mound, Utley strolled toward the Phillies dugout, where Manuel leaned on the rail.

“Whaddaya want?” Utley asked.

“I want you to pull the ball,” Manuel ordered; he wanted him to keep the ball on the right side of the field, preferably on the ground, to move the runner to third base.

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  • Utley did exactly that.

    The next batter hit a sacrifice fly. The Phillies won.

    This almost never happens anymore. The Phillies, like most major-league teams, lack the players with the skill and the will to play “small-ball.”

    In the Phillies’ case, this is an institutional problem. Routinely, players come through the minors without the tools to craft runs when they need to. Then, once they are in the majors, where nasty split-fingers and sliders drain power from bats and make sellout swingers look silly, they cannot make contact. And, once they’re in The Show, they cannot be taught.

    Suddenly, the five-time defending National League East champions are scuffling, desperate to score runs. The Nationals are the class of the division. The Braves and the Marlins might have better potential. The Phillies have Rolls Royce pitching and Yugo offense.

    They saw this coming. Last season, with injuries depleting the team’s power sources, the offense faltered. Now, with Utley and Howard sidelined indefinitely, the Phillies are an ordinary team.

    In anticipation of this scoring drought, and reflecting how the Phillies evaporated in the last two playoff runs, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. issued an offseason edict: The Phillies would be better at scraping runs from nothing. Amaro then acquired approximately zero big-time players adept at the philosophy.

    Not that it is, really, a philosophy. Played the right way, baseball is baseball, a simple process of advancing runners by hitting certain pitches a certain way in certain counts, sometimes at the expense of an out. “There’s no such thing as ‘small-ball,’ ” Manuel snorted one day a few weeks ago before a game against the Mets.

    Manuel was still in his street clothes. He paused and signed the lineup cards, took off a sock, and warmed to the subject. “’Small-ball?’ Manuel echoed again. “What’s that? There’s just baseball. There’s a right way to play.”

    Believe this: Manuel knows the right way. He loves the three-run homer, true, but he absolutely adores the hitless run: The leadoff walk, the steal of second, the runner moved to third by a grounder to the second baseman’s left, and, finally, the sacrifice fly or the RBI grounder. “The lost art of baseball is the fundamental part. I want to tell you the right way to play,” Manuel said.

    Then, with his wonderfully backward logic, he promptly explained the right way to play by illustrating the wrong way to play: “Lefthanded hitter’s hitting off a righthanded pitcher. Guy on second base. Nobody out. He smokes a line drive to leftfield that gets caught or hits a ground ball to shortstop and it doesn’t move the runner,” he said. “Why should you give him a high-five when he comes back to the dugout? He absolutely did nothing. His mindset couldn’t have been right. Now, you get two strikes on you and the pitcher makes you hit a ground ball on a sinker — he throws you a bastard pitch and makes you hit a ground ball to short — that doesn’t mean you’re not trying to move the runner. That’s OK.”

    But that’s rare. It is rare that a batter won’t see at least one pitch in an at-bat that he can’t push or pull to his preferred end. After all, these are major-league hitters. Nevertheless, night after night, Manuel — who watches baseball on television incessantly — sees poor execution all over the league. Most often, he watches poor execution from his seat in the Phillies’ dugout. Then he faces a press corps that wants to know why his team scored just 20 runs in its first eight games this season, and dredges up his favorite smoke-screen phrase: “Watch the game.”

    “You know when I say, ‘Watch the game?’ Manuel asked. “I don’t think people really need to hear what I have to say. It’s better they draw their own conclusion. If they look at our team and watch us play, you’ll see.”

    Sadly, many of the people watching the team do not know what they’re looking at. What they’re looking at is the new, benign face of baseball.

    Baseball once was a culture driven by player agents who, as recently as 10 years ago, preached to their clients that the home run was the only route to the biggest payday. It now is a culture driven by agents who, in the wake of the “Moneyball” dogma, preach to their clients that, in absence of pure power — less available now in the post-Steroid Era — on-base percentage can artificially supplement their clients’ skill set. Neither message encourages hitting behind a runner, trading an out for a base, doing the little things at the plate that lead to big innings.

    This is a problem without a real remedy. In the Phillies’ case, they are saddled with a group of 30-somethings groomed to yank home runs to the corners of laughably generous Citizens Bank Park and other new, small ballparks. It’s an approach that has won the Phillies five straight National League East titles, sent them to two World Series and has sold out the Bank more than 200 straight times. But it also means that almost no Phillies player places a premium on “little things.” You can’t teach middle-aged dogs new tricks.

    But some of the young pups might be salvageable. Second-year outfielder John Mayberry Jr. seems to soak up everything he is told. Rookie second baseman Freddy Galvis is cut straight from 1950s cloth. That’s why Manuel is starting Galvis despite just 126 Triple A plate appearances. Galvis is a ballplayer. “Freddy knows how to bunt. He knows how to move the runner,” Manuel said, beaming. “Somebody taught Freddy well.”

    Somebody taught Placido Polanco well, too; even when he struggles, Polanco has a clue. But nobody understands how to create offense like Juan Pierre. Pierre, 34, hit .279 for the White Sox last season, but the best free-agent deal he could get was a minor-league contract with the Phillies. He made the team in training camp, but just barely — with a .377 spring-training average.

    Entering the weekend, the Phillies were 7-6 in Pierre’s starts. They were scoring 4.2 runs per game when he played. They were 2-4 and had scored 1.5 runs without him. He was hitting .339, and was a big part of the Phillies’ 7-2 win at Arizona that salvaged a 10-game road trip at 5-5. Pierre scored twice, the second time on Polanco’s smartly executed double to rightfield in the ninth inning. He also scored in the telling sixth, the first of five runs made possible by a professional at-bat from Shane Victorino. With no outs and nursing a 1-0 lead with runners on first and second, Victorino took a strike, fouled off a pitch, then smothered a grounder to the right side that moved Pierre and Polanco to third and second at the expense of the first out of the inning.

    To repeat: Pierre made the team on a minor-league deal. Small-ball gets no respect.

    Meanwhile, the bashers get away with murder. Case in point: Pierre, Victorino and Jimmy Rollins all singled to start Sunday’s game against the Mets. Rollins’ hit scored Pierre. That left Rollins and Victorino, both threats to steal, at first and second, the Phillies trailing, 2-1. Up came Hunter Pence. With the infielders pinched up the middle for a doubleplay, with Rollins being held on at first, the situation called for patience. Pence hacked at the first pitch and grounded weakly to third base.

    Failure No. 1.

    Next up: Ty Wiggington, a 34-year-old, 11-year veteran signed by the Phillies this offseason for his hitting. Rollins and Pence executed a double-steal as Wiggington worked the count to 3-0. Again, a hit toward the right side likely ties the game, nets Wiggington a precious RBI and earns him respect from his new teammates. Two pitches later, he lined out softly to shortstop.

    Failure No. 2.

    These are not isolated incidents. On Wednesday at Arizona, with a man on first and one out in the first inning, Victorino fouled off the first pitch and flied out to centerfield on the second one.

    This is the stuff that riles Manuel. He steams like a locomotive when he sees big guys play selfish baseball. “I was 6-foot-4 and weighed more than 200 pounds,” said Manuel, a prospect for the Twins in the 1960s. “In Double A, I led the league in sacrifice bunts and sacrifice flies and hit third in the lineup.”

    And that might even be true. Even if it is, some powerful kid laying one down 43 years ago in the Southern League isn’t the same as the game’s elite forfeiting a home-run chance, is it? With tens of millions of dollars tied up in the biceps of Utley and Howard and Pence, is there ever an exception to the “move the runner” philosophy?

    Yes, Manuel said. It depends on the pitching matchup, the state of the game, the score, and Manuel’s temperamental gut. Usually, when we get a guy on second base, I want those guys hitting,” Manuel said. “Most of the time, when those guys hit the ball, they’re going to hit the ball hard and far enough to advance that runner anyway. Besides, for several seasons, the Phillies’ lineup declines after the No. 5 hitter in both power potential and performance potential. It depends on who’s hitting behind that guy.”

    Even the worst hitters from 30 years ago had the bat skills to punch a pitch toward the right side and score a runner from third. “You look who’s hitting behind a guy like, Pat Burrell a few years ago, and you have a man on second, you’ll probably tell Pat, ‘Go ahead and try to knock him in.’ “

    In 2008, Burrell’s last season with the Phillies, righthanders Pedro Feliz and Jayson Werth usually batted behind him. Feliz fought problems with his back and was ineffective all year. Werth was just finding himself as a big-league hitter.

    The tender sensibilities of his coddled charges also keep Manuel mum when asked about the chronic failure to execute. Given the chance, why doesn’t Manuel simply rip a player who fails to do his job? “I never want to send a negative thought to any of my players. I don’t want to criticize them. Knowing who they are, that sends a bad message to them,” Manuel said. Besides, he figures, in the final analysis, “I’m accountable for everything.”

    Nobody was complaining when Manuel’s clubs were running wild on the bases in recent years. Don’t be fooled by all of the homers. “Look at some of my teams,” Manuel said, and recited the names of fine, fast baserunners: “When Utley and Jimmy Rollins and Victorino and Werth were in their heyday, we had the best f---ing small-ball tweam in baseball,” Manuel insisted.

    Maybe.

    That team, in 2009, led the National League with 820 runs. It also led the league with 224 homers.

    But Manuel raises an interesting chicken-egg point: Was all of the offense predicated upon homers? Or did the home-run glut spring from the savvy overall hitting that pressured opposing pitching staffs into surrender?

    That is impossible to say. However, this is a fact: those 2009 Phillies were second-to-last in sacrifice bunts. No surprise there. “The bunt is obsolete,” Manuel scoffed. He is convinced his players cannot bunt ... and no one else’s can, either.

    Manuel might be right — at least about his own guys. On Tuesday night, with two outs and a runner on third, trailing, 2-0, Rollins — a leadoff hitter most of his career and a former MVP — tried to lay down a first-pitch bunt for a base hit. Understand: Rollins has spent endless hours over the past decade honing this skill. Well, not only did he fail to bunt that pitch, Rollins failed to retract his bat. That was strike 1 of a very ugly strikeout.

    So even the best players often reach the majors deficient in the most basic bat-handling skills. “When they get here, they’re supposed to be able to execute,” Manuel moaned. “Is situational hitting getting taught? Not necessarily. Not in our organization. Or any other organization. It’s unfortunate that you blame it on the manager. I know, I know, the buck stops right here, but a big-league manager has nothing to do with how a guy was taught.” As a result, teams are using the sacrifice bunt less and less. Of the 12 seasons in which teams bunted the fewest times, 11 have occurred since 2001. Don’t blame the book. The trend is consistent over the past 50 years; “Moneyball” was published in 2003.

    Manuel is no “Moneyball” devotee. He knows that baseball is baseball. Small-ball is baseball, and longball is baseball. He appreciates and employs both. Since 2007, his teams have been freakishly proficient at stealing bases and, until last season, when the injury epidemic struck the lineup, they were greedy little thieves. Nothing makes Manuel madder than the contention that he does not know his job. Suggesting that Manuel doesn’t stress “small-ball” because he cannot manage its intricacies is just such a contention. “I don’t like that. It frustrates me,” Manuel said. “I’ll sit down and argue baseball with anybody living.”

    No argument here. n

    Marcus Hayes Daily News Sports Columnist
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