A HIGH FASTBALL, a hard swing, and a chorus of boos that began as the popup descended into a Dodger infielder’s glove. Thus arrived the unsatisfying end of another Jimmy Rollins plate appearance. This one played out Monday night in the bottom of the third inning, a half-frame that produced an RBI single from eight-hole hitter Freddy Galvis and a two-run home run by two-hole hitter Placido Polanco, but nothing from the veteran leadoff hitter who bats in between.
The timing of the sequence was impeccable. That afternoon, Charlie Manuel had spent part of his daily media briefing answering questions about his reluctance to move his longtime shortstop out of his usual spot atop the Phillies’ batting order. The back-and-forth about Rollins is something of a June tradition in the City of Brotherly Love, ranking right up there with graduations, bike races and school-district crises.
"I go through this every year," Manuel said.
Many times, the manager will respond with a question of his own. "Who do you want me to hit there?" he’ll say, more of a statement than a query. This year, the popular candidate is Juan Pierre, the veteran leftfielder who carried a .340 average and .378 on-base percentage into Monday’s start of a four-game series against the Dodgers. Manuel knows this, because he knows the numbers people look at, mostly because he looks at the same numbers himself. But he also knows what a championship lineup looks like, and he knows his best shot at fielding one this season is with Rollins batting first.
Well, Manuel is right, which is usually the case when it comes to his deployment of personnel. Nobody thinks about the Phillies’ lineup more than the man in charge of drawing it up. He has thought about Pierre, and he has thought about Rollins, and he has thought about every other possible personnel combination that might milk more runs out of this uninspiring offense.
When Manuel thinks about Pierre batting there full time, he looks past the stat line and sees the potential of sending four or five straight batters to the plate who lack the power necessary to score runs in clumps. While the 34-year-old leftfielder has a knack for reaching base, that knack is limited almost exclusively to singles. He has only six extra-base hits, or 11.5 percent of his total hits, a paltry ratio that is nevertheless in line with his career performance.
Batting Pierre first would leave the Phillies with three consecutive batters who lack any sort of power/base-reaching combination: the pitcher, Pierre, and two-hole hitter Placido Polanco. Monday night, those three batters were preceded by Freddy Galvis and John Mayberry Jr. Both have gap-hitting potential, but Galvis entered the night hitting .227 with a .255 on-base percentage (albeit with 19 extra-base hits), and Mayberry was hitting .236 with a .274 on-base percentage and nine extra base hits.
"That’s tough," Manuel said. "You’ve got to have some run producers. That’s the bottom line."
This isn’t a case of Manuel relying on the three-run home run. It’s a case of balance. Although moving Pierre to the top of the order might not hurt, it also won’t transform the Phillies’ offense into the kind of unit that fans (and the team’s pitchers) are desperate to see.
"Juan, the type of hitter he is, he moves the ball around, he works the ball all over the field, he bunts good, he can play situational baseball," Manuel said, "so I like him in the two-hole."
Manuel might reevaluate things if his shortstop’s slump lingers into July. For now, though, his options are limited by the overall lack of power/speed players in the lineup. For now, though, it makes sense to trust in baseball’s mystical performance equilibrium, which says that Rollins is bound to break out of the funk that has swallowed the first 2 months of his season.
In eight seasons playing under Manuel, Rollins has hit .259/.314/.394 while averaging a home run every 49 at-bats through June 3 and .279/.337/.464 with a home run every 31 plate appearances after June 3. In 2009, Rollins hit .261/.309/.465 with 18 home runs after June 3, his .774 OPS sitting 168 points higher than his pre-June 3 mark.
On Monday night, the third-inning boos disappeared faster than the rain showers that moved through South Philadelphia. In Rollins’ next at-bat, in the fifth, he laced a line drive to the left-center alley, stretching a double into a triple that left him at third base with one out in a 3-3 game. He followed that with a two-out single in the seventh. Both hits could have set up runs if not for the Phillies’ familiar struggles with baserunning and situational hitting. They did not lose Monday night because of the leadoff hitter. That, more than anything else, is why it is hard to get worked up about Manuel leaving him there. n