THE PHILLIES' biggest problem this season is both underdiscussed and unfixable by outside intervention (which is why it is underdiscussed).
There are a bunch of things they need to do to make this team and this roster more complete in 2013. Maybe the fixing starts between now and Tuesday's nonwaiver trade deadline and maybe not. Honestly, people-for-prospects is not the answer to any of their questions and that is all we are likely talking about as the deadline approaches. So, well, whatever.
The issues go beyond that. And here is the truth: The biggest difference between a team that won 102 games in 2011 and a team that is on a pace to win 71 games in 2012 is the fall-off in its starting pitching. And the biggest hope for turning things around in 2013 is the return to dominance of that starting pitching.
But is that a reasonable hope? It is the question that Phils general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. needs to answer before he does anything else.
The money has already been spent, as has been well-chronicled, on Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. They are all here for another go-round in 2013. None of them has pitched as well this year as he did last year. Hamels has come the closest overall. Lee has pitched much, much better than his results indicate — and that is even acknowledging a couple of terrible outings — but he hasn't been the same. Halladay has been injured and has seen the greatest decline, and no one can be sure if the bulk of the explanation is the injury or the calendar.
Of the rest, Vance Worley is better than last season, continuing his development. Joe Blanton has been healthier this season and better. Kyle Kendrick is still Kyle Kendrick. And Roy Oswalt and his bad back are now in Texas.
Top to bottom, the starting staff had a 2.86 ERA (best in baseball) in 2011 and had quality starts 67 percent of the time. This year, the Phillies' starters have a 4.07 ERA (15th out of 30 teams) and have had quality starts 58 percent of the time.
That's it. It does not explain everything, not nearly, but it is where you have to begin.
Admittedly, it is a bizarre batch of numbers. But start with this: Despite all of their offensive horrors this season — and despite not having either Chase Utley or Ryan Howard for the first half of the season — the Phillies are pretty close to where they were last season in runs scored. After 102 games last year, the team had scored almost exactly as many runs as it has after 102 games this year.
It hasn't been a feast-or-famine problem on offense, either. Last year, the Phils scored three runs or fewer in 48 percent of their games. This year, believe it or not, they've only done it in 46 percent of their games. Both years, that was a middle-of-the-pack number in baseball. We all hate the Phillies' offense, usually on alternating nights and usually for good reason, but the 102-win offense was just as hatable as this bunch.
The issue isn't the runs scored, but the runs allowed. Through 102 games last year, the Phillies allowed 126 fewer runs than they have allowed this season. It is the number that jumps off the page. By comparison, it doesn't matter how many times Hunter Pence swings at the first pitch, or what kind of a funk has enveloped Shane Victorino this season, or what ailment is currently affecting Placido Polanco, or how much Howard is struggling against lefthanders.
Yes, the bullpen deserves a healthy share of the blame. And, yes, the manager's hesitancy to use his meager bullpen has led to more than a couple of instances when starters stayed in the game longer than they should have and paid the price. The bullpen does need a complete overhaul and that is the truth.
But most of the extra runs allowed have come against starting pitchers who just have not been as good this season. Last year, Halladay had quality starts 78 percent of the time. This year, it's 57 percent. Lee had quality starts 78 percent of the time, too. This year, it's 59 percent. And Hamels has dropped from 77 percent to 65 percent. Those three were great last year, individually and collectively dominant. This year, they're just good – and good isn't good enough with a middling, scattershot offense.
Which leads to that question, the one whose answer will dictate what Amaro needs to do from here: What is a reasonable expectation for this rotation in 2013?
And, well, put it this way. To pretend that 2011 can ever happen again for this rotation, and to act accordingly, would be to commit malpractice. At the same time, the top of the Phillies' rotation has to be measurably better next year or it doesn't matter what Amaro does to fix the offense.