Saturday, December 27, 2014

Manuel seems to know what all of us do: The Phillies just aren't a good team right now

As I wrote in today's Daily News and Inquirer, Charlie Manuel is a guy who finds it hard to mask his true emotions, and yesterday those emotions were apparent in his voice, which steadily developed a tone of frustration and anger and defiance during his post-game news conference at Citizens Bank Park. It was the second straight day that Manuel stole the show in his briefing, the second straight day when he all but laid his true feelings about his team bare. Most times, Manuel's press conference is a mish-mash of unusable quotes from a man who really doesn't want to tell you what he really thinks about the things you are asking. This often leaves fans with the impression that their bumbling manager cannot string together coherent thoughts. In reality, Manuel knows that expressing coherence about whatever he is truly thinking could result in a sound byte that compounds whatever struggles his team needs to break out of. He is like Andy Reid in the sense that he willingly takes the heat for his players when they are going through one of baseball's inevitable rough patches, because he knows that if they are left alone for long enough, they will break free of the skid and make him look competent again.

Manuel seems to know what all of us do: The Phillies just aren't a good team right now

Is Charlie Manuel to blame, or is he doing the best he can with what he has? (David M Warren/Staff Photographer)
Is Charlie Manuel to blame, or is he doing the best he can with what he has? (David M Warren/Staff Photographer)

As I wrote in today's Daily News and Inquirer, Charlie Manuel is a guy who finds it hard to mask his true emotions, and yesterday those emotions were apparent in his voice, which steadily developed a tone of frustration and anger and defiance during his post-game news conference at Citizens Bank Park. It was the second straight day that Manuel stole the show in his briefing, the second straight day when he all but laid his true feelings about his team bare. Most times, Manuel's press conference is a mish-mash of unusable quotes from a man who really doesn't want to tell you what he really thinks about the things you are asking. This often leaves fans with the impression that their bumbling manager cannot string together coherent thoughts. In reality, Manuel knows that expressing coherence about whatever he is truly thinking could result in a sound byte that compounds whatever struggles his team needs to break out of. He is like Andy Reid in the sense that he willingly takes the heat for his players when they are going through one of baseball's inevitable rough patches, because he knows that if they are left alone for long enough, they will break free of the skid and make him look competent again. 

But Manuel is unlike Reid when it comes to hiding the true feelings that the words coming out of his mouth might repress. And if you are willing to afford me an educated bit of conjecture, I have gotten the sense since spring training that he knows he does not have a very good baseball team. Certainly, he did not expect three of his top four starting pitchers to spend time on the disabled list. He did not expect Justin De Fratus and Mike Stutes to go down with injuries, depleting his bullpen depth before the season was even a few weeks old. Certainly, he expected that Shane Victorino would hit a bit better than his current .249/.319/.406 line, as would Jimmy Rollins and his .251/.301/.648 line. 

But I got the sense that Manuel knew two things: the Phillies were taking a huge risk by entering the season with the melting pot of John Mayberry Jr., Laynce Nix and Juan Pierre in left field, and that the power the team had lost in the offseason in the form of Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez had not been adequately accounted for. He said all of the right things, expressed all of the optimism that he prides himself on, but deep down inside you could tell that Manuel was concerned that he needed to win by playing a style of baseball that his team simply was not equipped to play. 

Over the last two months, that frustration has built and built and built and now the Phillies are losers of six straight games and they are three games under .500 and four games behind the next-worst team in the National League East. And they are headed on a nine-game interleague road trip, starting with six teams who you would normally pencil them in to beat. Depending on what happens over this next week, things could get really ugly. Or the Phillies could once against surface for air, and rattle off a winning streak that noses them back over .500, and keep alive the hope that they will still be alive when they hope their reinforcements will arrive.

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Either way, the Phillies are who they are. This is a conclusion I first reached on May 7, after that 9-3 win over the Nationals when Cole Hamels pegged Bryce Harper in the back.

That night, I wrote:

The Nationals are in first place, the Phillies are in last, and both teams spent the last 3 days proving themselves worthy of their designations. At this point, the Phillies' victory should be regarded as little more than a footnote. In the first series of the season between the two teams, the Nationals not only won two out of three, but showed themselves to be everything that the Phillies once were. A team that runs the bases with intelligent abandon. A team that boasts one of the strongest bullpens in the game. A team that plays with an infectious energy capable of revitalizing a long-suffering fan base. The Phillies? They are a .500 baseball team. Accept it now, and the rest of the month might not feel like a 25-day punch in the gut. 

Exactly one month later, all of that remains true (although I still believe, as I have since spring training, that the Marlins are the biggest threat to replace the Phillies as NL East champs). Yesterday, Manuel mentioned the energy that I mentioned in Washington and that Marcus Hayes mentions in his column today, where he says that the Phillies aren't having fun anymore. Problem is, when you focus on something so abstract as "having fun" as the problem, you can get tricked into believing that there is a remedy, as if all the Phillies really need is a team-building field trip, like that time the Mighty Ducks flipped the finger to The Man and hit the streets of L.A. for some good old fashioned pick-up roller hockey. 

The truth is that Ty Wigginton and Mike Fontenot and Juan Pierre and Hector Luna and John Mayberry Jr. (none pictured) can head out to Pennsport and play all the stickball they want, but they are still going to be Ty Wigginton and Mike Fontenot and Juan Pierre and Hector Luna and John Mayberry Jr.

Fontenot has eclipsed 400 plate appearances once in his career, in 2009, when the Cubs won 83 games. The only year that Pierre has appeared in the postseason since he did so with that 2003 Marlins team is 2009, when he logged the second-fewest plate appearances of his 11 full seasons in the majors. Wigginton has logged at least 429 plate appearances every season since 2006, but he has never appeared in the postseason. When Chad Qualls pitched for the playoff-bound Rays in 2010, he was the sixth or seventh option in a bullpen that featured set-up men Joaquin Benoit (11.2 K/9, 1.34 ERA) and Grant Balfour (9.1 K/9, 2.28 ERA) along with veteran lefty specialist Randy Choate (8.1 K/9, 4.23 ERA).

This isn't evidence that suggests these players having a losing mentality. It is evidence they are good enough to play regularly for second-division teams, but lack the all-around ability necessary to earn a regular spot in a championship lineup. In Thursday's loss to the Dodgers, all of them were in the lineup.

The reason why Manuel's voice has taken on such a strong tone of urgency is that he knows that this current Phillies skid is different from those that plagued the 2009 team, which lost six straight games and hovered around .500 in mid-June, and the 2010, which was seven games out of first place in late-July. Those teams weren't playing up to their potential. Those teams had players like Ryan Howard and Chase Utley and Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez, all of whom could either reach base with regularity or change the outcome of a game with one swing of the bat or, in most cases, both.

As I write in today's piece for the newspaper, this Phillies team is only living up to its potential. You can point to the fact that Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino have produced less than their recent track records suggest they will. But Carlos Ruiz has produced well more than his recent track record suggests, and everybody else is essentially right on target. Hunter Pence is hitting .266/.331/.485 with 13 home runs. His performance over the previous three seasons suggests he should be hitting .293/.347/.478 with nine home runs. Placido Polanco is hitting .289/.318/.374. From 2009 through 2011, he hit .287/.335/.377.

To drive this point home, take a look at the 13 hitters who were active at the start of this week, before Jim Thome and Michael Martinez joined the fray. From 2009 through 2011, those hitters batted .271 with a .323 on base percentage and .408 slugging percentage for a .731 OPS. Through 59 games this season, those 13 players are batting .278/.321/.413 for a .734 OPS.

From 2009-11, those 13 hitters averaged a home run every 46.5 plate appearances. This season, they are exceeding that mark, averaging a home run every 40.7 plate appearances. From 2009-11, those 13 hitters averaged an extra base hit every 13.7 plate appearances. This season, they are averaging an extra base hit every 14.2 plate appearances. They are walking less (one every 13.7 PAs from 2009-11 compared with one every 14.2 PAs in 2012) and striking out more (one every 8.1 PAs compared with one every 6.8 PAs).

For the most part the production of this Phillies offense is exactly what recent history suggested it would be. 

Over his last 35 games, a stretch in which the Phillies are 17-18, Rollins is hitting .268/.325/.392 with three home runs for a .717 OPS. Victorino over his last 35 games is hitting .263/.349/.429 with three home runs for a .777 OPS. The Phillies are 16-19 over that stretch. Both Rollins' and Victorino's batting lines are almost exactly in line with the numbers they posted over the previous three seasons.

So again, the question: where, exactly, is the improvement supposed to come from? The best chance, perhaps the only chance, is that Pence and Victorino conjure up a stretch of dominance like the ones they produced last season, and the rotation does likewise, and Carlos Ruiz continues to play like the best-hitting catcher in the majors and Jimmy Rollins continues to do what he has done over the last couple of weeks.

At this point, the hope of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard galloping to the rescue is little more than an illusory oasis in the desert. Yes, they appear to be making progress, but that progress is still limited to the fact that one of them is running the bases and both of them are fielding ground balls without the assistance of a stool. Yes, they are hitting live pitching, but they are doing so against pitchers who are not good enough to be playing in low-A ball. 

One of the first signs of Manuel's trepidation about the viability of his team came in early spring training, when he repeatedly refused to rule out the possibility of Howard returning in time to play on Opening Day. Later, he repeatedly spoke of a belief that Utley would not miss much time at all with his chronic knee condition.

To an objective observer, one whose perception of both players' health conditions was not skewed by his vested interest in the most favorable of outcomes, Manuel was clearly thinking wishfully. And it was not hard to deduce that he was doing so because he knew that the Phillies were ill-prepared to deal with any other outcome. Which made his comments after Wednesday's loss to the Dodgers so notable. A reporter asked the manager whether the recent progress made by Utley and Howard was cause for hope. Manuel scoffed.

"Those guys, they hit in a game today," he said. "They didn't play. There's a difference in that."

You get the feeling that the words Manuel has spoken over the last 48 hours are the words of a man who realizes he can no longer fool himself or anybody else into thinking that the Phillies are simply an underachieving squad that needs to break out of an extended slump.

The scary thing, at least when you look at the roster and then at their six-game deficit in the standings, is that they might actually be overachieving.  

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