Bob Ford: Counting the possible reasons the Phillies have gone flat

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The Phillies swept the Padres, but scored only 11 runs in the entire series. (Sean M. Haffey/AP)

The Phillies have displayed a frustrating and frequent habit this season of slumping on offense at the least likely times and for much longer than anyone would have ever expected.

It is often as if the ghosts from the Veterans Stadium parking lot rise up from the asphalt and inhabit the current team. There was nothing unusual about a lack of production from teams throughout the Phillies' mostly disappointing history, but this impressive offensive team - trying to make its third straight World Series - has set records, raised the level of expectation, and earned its reputation.

So, how is it that the Phillies can drift through a series like the one against Houston that ended their homestand last week, scoring just seven runs in four games and wasting a lot of good pitching in the process? It isn't as if the Astros are very good. They aren't. But it isn't about the opponent with the Phils. That they turned around and swept the Padres in San Diego over the weekend, scoring 11 whole runs in the process says less about the Padres than it does about the Phillies.

In some ways, it hasn't mattered drastically in the standings, because the pitching is far better this season. In 2008, the Phils won 92 games. In 2009, it was 93. Even with their slumps this season, they are on a pace to win 91 games. Going into last night's game against Los Angeles, the Phils had won 25 of their last 36 games without an appreciable increase in offense.

Still, it would be nice if they cut it out and started hitting the ball all around the yard again. To help figure out the solution, let's take a look at the popular theories for the cause of the offensive letdown.

1. Time, time, time. See what's become of me. In 2007, when the Phillies began a streak of making the postseason, a streak that could be extended to four seasons this time around, the average age of their offensive players was 28.8.

This year, the average offensive age is 31.9. It's not that old, but it represents a significant difference. Seven of the eight regular position players are at least 30 years old and the other, Shane Victorino, turns 30 in November.

Baseball players all age differently, but since the game became more suspicious of the vitamins being used, the mid-to-late 30s is more of a wall than it was a decade or two ago.

The core of this Phillies' group has been ridden hard during the last few years. In 2009, there wasn't a single player aside from the starting eight who had 200 plate appearances. Compare that with 2007, when three non-regulars had at least 300 plate appearances, or 2008, when four non-regulars had between 200 and 300 plate appearances.

Last season's endurance test was a combination of having a bench that wasn't as capable and a starting lineup that was very difficult to take off the field. In any case, many of the regulars might be older than their ages.

2. The pitchers have figured them out. This is occasionally a popular theory, especially as it applies to Ryan Howard, who strikes out a lot, and Jayson Werth, who can have a big, loopy swing, and to Jimmy Rollins, who doesn't take all that many pitches.

The problem with this theory, however, is that the pitchers aren't good enough top to bottom to pull it off. It's one thing to say you will bust Howard up-and-in and then get him to flail at a breaking pitch away, and it is another thing to actually do it.

And the contradiction is the notion that developing a "book" on a hitter takes that long, as if a batter must be studied like a Precambrian fossil before he can be understood. Players are scouted throughout the minors and, once they reach the big leagues, they are dissected by pitching staffs immediately. Maybe there's a trial and error period, but saying that pitchers couldn't stop the Phils in 2008 and 2009, but have figured it out now, is ridiculous.

3. It isn't a slump, it just looks like one. One of baseball's charms is that there are so many games and so many repetitions, that its numbers do mean something. So, here's one for you. The Phillies averaged 8.7 hits per game in 2008, 8.9 hits per game in 2009 and are averaging 8.8 hits per game this season.

There's no getting around it. They are hitting the ball just as often. The problem is that they aren't scoring. Why? Because they aren't hitting for power as frequently.

Last season, the Phils averaged 5.1 runs per game. This season, it is 4.6. That half-run might not seem like much, but so far this season, that's 65 fewer runs. Ask the pitchers if spreading those around would have helped.

The Phillies' home-run rate has been consistent since 2007. They have hit 1.3, 1.3 and 1.4 home runs per game in those seasons. Right now, the rate is just below 1.0 (0.97, actually). That's a big drop-off, which has been covered up - at least in the won-lost record - by excellent overall pitching.

Why are the home runs down, and the offense a little flat? The answer, and the answer to the entire slump question, is in bold type on the next line.

4. It's the injuries, stupid. In the three previous seasons, Rollins, Howard and Chase Utley played pretty much all the time and averaged a total of 96 home runs per season. This year, they'll combine for somewhere around 50. All three have spent time on the disabled list, with Utley and Rollins combining for just 155 out of 260 man-games.

There is no replacing that lost power, a missing component that has been exacerbated because 38-year-old Raul Ibanez - not because of injury, but perhaps as a result of off-season surgery - will struggle to get close to 20 home runs this season.

It is remarkable that the Phillies are in the position they are in right now. The starting eight had been on the field together only eight times prior to Monday night's game. That's crazy and a testament to the pitching (team ERA 3.78) that has kept things going.

Now that everyone is healthy, that means the slump will end and the final 30 games will be a romp to the postseason and beyond, right? Sorry, baseball doesn't work that way. Batting funks are hard to shake and difficult to turn around. Last year, the Phils had 671 extra-base hits. In the 2010 regular season, they'll be lucky to get 500.

That's a lot of built-up frustration, and it is almost impossible to have a fresh start on Sept. 1. That's what they have to do, however, and any time now would be fine.

Don't wait for next season, that's for sure. In 2011, the offensive core will be another year older and another year creakier, and there will have to be a lot more theories. It goes that quickly.

 


Contact columnist Bob Ford

at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.