Thursday, September 30, 2010

Philadelphia Phillies Championship Advantage No. 3: High Octane Offense

Part 3 of 7
July 16, 2010 - Chicago, ILLINOIS, UNITED STATES - epa02250826 Philadelphia Phillies indfielder Ryan Howard (R) is greeted by Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth (L) after Howard drove him in with a two run home run against the Chicago Cubs in their Major League Baseball game at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois, USA 16 July 2010. The Cubs defeated the Phillies 4-3.

Although the Phillies have a league-wide reputation as an offensive powerhouse, their numbers were down across the board this season. Appearances can be deceiving. 

A peak at the rankings suggest that the Phillies might take a back seat to other playoff teams in terms of offensive output.  

The Cincinnati Reds lead the National League in runs, batting average (.270), home runs (181), and slugging percentage (.434.) 

Although in-season acquisitions have bolstered their run production, both the San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres are built around pitching. Similarly, the Atlanta Braves rely more on pitching than offense to win games. 

Although the presence of the designated hitter makes comparisons between the two leagues difficult, all four American League clubs have posted impressive offensive statistics this season. The AL contenders have varying formulas, but each of them ranks in the top five in runs scored. 
When it comes to the 2010 Philadelphia Phillies, though, the stat sheets don't tell the true story.  Sometimes there is truth in the old adage "figures lie and liars figure"- and this is a prime example.  

For the past several seasons, the Phillies reigned at the top of league rankings with their high octane offense. 

The previous two seasons they placed first in home runs. Last year, they captured that distinction by a large margin, clubbing 34 more than the next National League  team. 

As further validation that the Phillies have been built for the long ball, they ranked one or two in slugging percentage over the past four campaigns. 

And, in the true measure of offensive prowess, the Phils ranked first or second in runs scored each of the previous five seasons. 

In 2010, Philadelphia's home run production currently sits 61 dingers behind that of a year ago. It is safe to say, regardless of any further exploits by Ben Francisco, John Mayberry or Mike Sweeney in the regular season's last three games, the final tally will be a very large drop-off. 

After a strong stretch run, they have climbed the rankings a bit in runs scored, but will likely finish third. 

Statistics and rankings aside, though, this is probably the team's most dangerous lineup in the current era of prosperity. 

The recorded numbers mask the lineup's true offensive potential as well as the level of anxiety it stirs amongst opposing hurlers. 

Just ask Jonathan Broxton.

The reason that the numbers seem not to align, of course, is simple-- Phillies regulars logged an inordinate amount of time in the training room this year. 

The injury impact on the statistics has been two-fold. The most obvious has been the lost production associated with the roughly 200 games that regulars have not stepped on the playing field due to physical ailments.   

And, then, when players returned to action, their productivity suffered from inactivity and an often compromised physical state. This was most notable with Ryan Howard, Chase Utely, and Jimmy Rollins as they struggled to regain their swings. 

And, it would be remiss not to mention that Howard's stint on the DL and subsequent recovery non-fortuitously coincided with the stretch of season that has historically been his own personal fireworks display. 

The way this season has gone, it would be foolish to rule out anymore physical setbacks. That notwithstanding, though, it is the Phillies' good fortune— and opponents' ill fortune— that the lineup is set to be intact for the postseason. 

And, as good as the Reds hit all year, this Phillies lineup as it was conceived in the offseason is the gold standard. 

It possesses the rare combination of game changing speed and power capable of alternately intimidating opposing hurlers while instilling confidence in its own. 

Count this Phillies potent offense as another key October advantage. It appears poised to do some postseason damage. 

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Philadelphia Phillies Championship Advantage No. 2: Postseason Experience

The Philadelphia Phillies, including Jimmy Rollins (C, facing camera) and Placido Polanco (R), celebrate clinching their division championship after beating the Washington Nationals in their MLB National League baseball game in Washington, September 27, 2010.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

Part 2 of 7

The Philadelphia Phillies current era of success has been built around a nucleus of talented players. Some players have come and gone, but that core has been present through the team's rise and current reign as one of baseball's elite teams. 

Players such as Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Cole Hamels are at the center of the core and have served as the key catalysts to the organization's ascension from an "also ran" to elite ball club. 

Other young talent such as Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, Ryan Madson, Carlos Ruiz, Greg Dobbs, JC Romero and Kyle Kendrick were layered onto the nucleus. Oh, and a not-so-young pitcher named Jamie Moyer. 

The first four in that group have been key elements of the team's success over the past four seasons, while the latter four have played important parts at various times. 

Since the team's first trip to the postseason in this era, the club has added seasoned veterans such as Brad Lidge, Raul Ibanez, Joe Blanton, Roy Halladay, Placido Polanco, and Roy Oswalt to the mix.  

Overall, the result is a Phillies team tested by the rigors of postseason play and grounded by the experience of having previously visited the fall tourney. 

It could be argued that the team's top pitcher is not playoff tested as last night's clinching win landed Halladay there for the first time in his 14-year career. Of course, anyone that has witnessed his chip-on-the-shoulder intensity and unwavering tenacity understands that he is made for the big stage. 

As far as the Roy at the other end of "The Big Three," Oswalt's resume sports five postseason series, including a World Series appearance in 2005. Importantly, the hard throwing right-hander also brings an unblemished 4-0 postseason record and an overall reputation as a money pitcher.

The other key 2010 newbie on the team is Polanco. But, unlike Halladay, he brings the accumulated experience of six postseason series, including a World Series appearance with the Detroit Tigers in 2006.

Playing in a short series with an entire season's body of work and often years of anticipation on the line can be very daunting. The game can suddenly speed up and nerves can kick in even for the most accomplished players. 

For evidence, you need to look no further than these same current era Phillies. After overtaking the New York Mets to capture their first division crown in 2007, the club ran a quick three-and-out like an NFL practice squad quarterback.

The same lineup that tore up National League pitching all season-long seemed suddenly hesitant and lackluster. The Phillies hit just .172 and pushed but eight runs across the plate over three losing contests against the Colorado Rockies. 

There is nothing like having previously "been there, done that."

Looking at the other potential NL playoff participants, all seem to be green in terms of postseason experience.  The Cincinnati Reds, San Francisco Giants, Atlanta Braves, and San Diego Padres are all relative upstarts in terms of recent playoff experience.  

The last time any of those clubs participated in the fall tourney was 2006 when the Padres made a quick exit in the NLDS. The only holdovers from that team in 2010 are first baseman Adrien Gonzalez and pitcher Chris Young. 

The Braves last participated in the postseason in 2005, also making a first round exit. Similarly, the current squad represents an almost total transformation with just pitcher Tim Hudson and then back-up catcher Brian McCann being the only common denominators. 

The current San Francisco Giants roster has zero resemblance to the 2003 squad that last made the playoffs. That team, of course, was anchored by a controversial slugger known for posting statistics that seemed to exceed normal human limits. 

And, lastly, the Cincinnati Reds have mostly been a bottom dweller since the new millennium. The club's last trip to the postseason was a 4-game sweep at the hands of the Atlanta Braves way back in 1995. Needless to say, there are no holdovers. 

Conversely, since the Phillies "just-happy-to-be-there" 2007 cameo, the same core of players have participated in six postseason series— winning five of them. Only a stacked New York Yankees team in 2009 stood in the way of two consecutive World Series Championships. 

During that period, the Phillies have compiled a 20-9 postseason record. Doing the math, this represents an other-worldly .690 winning percentage against the best teams baseball had to offer. 

And, speaking of the Bronx Bombers, only the Cliff Lee-led Texas Rangers lack recent playoff experience in the American League. The Minnesota Twins enjoyed a "cup of coffee" last season, exiting after three games. The Tampa Bay Rays, of course, were the victims of the Phillies in the 2008 Fall Classic. 

For the Phillies, the 2010 path to the World Series will not entail playoff tested teams unless the Rockies were to pull a rabbit out of a hat in the season's final week. Actually, that scenario might require pulling a T-Rex out of a hat.

The World Series might be a different matter, but short of a 2009 rematch, three consecutive trips to the fall classic are likely to provide an edge over other opponents. 

As they prepare to make an appearance for the fourth consecutive year, it seems safe to count the cumulative postseason experience of this Phillies ball club as a key advantage. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Examining The Philadelphia Phillies' Seven Key Championship Advantages

Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Cole Hamels throws a pitch to the New York Mets in the second inning of their MLB National League baseball game in New York August 13, 2010. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

Part 1 of 7

With the Philadelphia Phillies standing on the precipice of a fourth consecutive postseason berth, the focus of the team and fan base is two-fold. 

First, take care of business and nail down a fourth straight NL East crown. 

Second, take a look towards the end of year championship tourney to see how the Phillies stack up and are positioned for success. 

Should they do the expected and wind the magic number to zero, the Phillies appear better positioned for postseason success than anytime in their 127-year history. 

This assessment traces to seven key advantages that at this point appear to make them the favorites to be the last team standing— each of which will be detailed leading into the playoffs.  

Advantage 1: "The Big Three" Starting Pitchers

The most obvious and likely largest advantage is the Phillies top three starting pitchers. "The Big Three" or "H2O" as they have been billed present a formidable challenge for any opponent. 

In 2008 on the way to a World Championship, the Phillies rode ace starter Cole Hamels through their postseason run. That season, the lanky left-hander registered NLCS and World Series MVP trophies  as evidence of his dominance. 

Last year, with Hamels seemingly suffering from a season-long championship hangover, a mid-season trade brought a new ace in the form of Cliff Lee. The former Cy Young winner quickly won the hearts and minds of fans and teammates alike with a spectacular three month stint.  

Lee demonstrated pitching mastery as well as role model leadership qualities. Tremendous intensity, laser-like focus, and a fearless demeanor accompanied him to the mound every time he appeared on the lineup card. 

Fast forward to 2010. A much debated tandem of trades sent Lee to Seattle while netting a new ace in Roy Halladay in the offseason. 

Then, somewhat surprisingly, GM Ruben Amaro swung a huge deal prior to the mid-year trade deadline that brought Houston Astros stopper Roy Oswalt to Philadelphia. Despite a misleading 6-12 record at the time, scouts still believed the newest Roy still possessed dominating stuff. 

Meanwhile, after a slow start that resembled 2009, Hamels found his fastball, command, and Mojo. He also added a cutter to his repertoire that started to pay dividends. 

Although his sparse run support prevented his won-loss record from fully reflecting his mastery, Hamels has been one of baseball's best pitchers in the second half. Before today's mediocre effort, "Hollywood" enjoyed a 6-3 stretch with a 1.74 ERA over 98.1 innings.  

Not surprisingly, the heat of the pennant chase motivated Oswalt to offer up his best work of the season. His pre-trade losing record now stands at 13-13 after going 7-1 with a 1.76 ERA in a Phillies uniform. 

From day one, Halladay has pitched as advertised, racking up a 20-10 record with a 2.53 ERA. For good measure, Halladay threw in Major League Baseball's 20th perfect game. 

Perhaps even more importantly, he has exhibited the same leadership qualities embodied by Lee that has a way of motivating an entire staff. 

And, clearly, each of "The Big Three" invokes a subtle challenge to one another through their own work.  

The five and seven-game formats of the postseason allow teams to go with a four or even three-man rotation. Obviously, this only serves to enhance the advantage of possessing three top tier starters. 

Another benefit is that as good as each pitcher is individually, they are arguably better together.  Rather than bearing the weight of "ace" status, the pressure is disbursed amongst the trio. 

In the postseason, that could bring a psychological lift to both pitcher and teammates by eliminating the  "must win" pressure.  The three should be "locked, loaded, and relaxed" knowing another ace is waiting in the wings. 

This season's National League contenders will surely bring some good pitching, whether it's the San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds, or Colorado Rockies. Matt Latos, Jon Garland, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe, Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo, Ubaldo Jiminez— all can be good to great. 

That being said, no trio tops that of the 2010 Phillies. Exactly what Ruben Amaro had in mind.    

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Michael Vick Promotion Might Haunt Philadelphia Eagles' Andy Reid

PHILADELPHIA - SEPTEMBER 27: Michael Vick #7 of the Philadelphia Eagles substitutes with team mate Kevin Kolb #4 against the Kansas City Chiefs on September 27, 2009 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

After Tuesday's stunning announcement, Andy Reid has seemingly painted himself and the Philadelphia Eagles into a relatively small corner. 

Reid's about-face in naming Michael Vick the starting quarterback until further notice surely has the potential to back fire on many fronts.   

On the surface, it would be difficult to argue that Vick has provided a spark to an otherwise moribund Eagles offense and would appear to give the team a better chance to win in the here and now. 

The post Donovan McNabb incumbent starter Kevin Kolb showed very little reason to believe that he was about to lead the team to a successful season— let alone become the next Aaron Rodgers as he had been routinely billed over the past several months. 

Although he never made the comparison, Reid himself consistently praised Kolb's ready for primetime capabilities and big upside potential as he figuratively pinched himself everyday to believe that he could be so lucky. 

Perhaps Reid was whistling in the dark? 

Perhaps he was forced to unload McNabb as some have speculated and needed to create a positive spin for fans as well as build the young QB's confidence?  

Perhaps he started to realize that he and the "so called young guns" overestimated Kolb's abilities or readiness with every misfired pass, every bad read, every unsuccessful effort to deal with a heavy pass rush, and every three and out through the pre-season. 

The only sense of hope was that when the curtain went up on the regular season, everything would magically click. After all, everyone knows— pre-season NFL games mean nothing. 

Unfortunately, things never fell in place for Kolb when the games started to count. Although his body of work was just two quarters, Kolb looked overmatched and devoid of confidence. 

Perhaps this sent shivers down the spine of Reid and the rest of the Eagles brain trust who had made such a  bold decision on Easter Sunday?

And, speaking of the "young guns", they seemed to quickly jump on the Michael Vick bandwagon. 

This is the same group that expressed pleasure when McNabb was traded and Kolb was installed as his successor. Subsequently, the group's recent enthusiasm for the former "NFL rock star" seemed to suggest greater confidence in Vick. 

With arguably the best quarterback in franchise history now enthusiastically wearing a maroon and yellow uni in the Nation's capital, there was no turning back. The Eagles brass had confidently looked forward to the "Kevin Kolb Era" as if it was a foregone conclusion that it would be filled with similar, if not greater, prosperity. 

As doubt transitioned from a creep to a steady flow— up stepped the pre-incarceration version of Michael Vick. Sleepless nights could be diverted for awhile why Reid and staff further evaluated Kolb or figured out the cure for his lackluster play. 

But, this all comes at considerable risk. Reid and team now have very little wiggle room and the potential for future troubles. 

Although it has been suggested that he has a tough exterior, it is reasonable to surmise that Kolb is smarting from a sense of abandonment by his coach and possibly the "young guns" who were singing his praises just months earlier. 

What if Vick's performance tails off?

Let's not forget that a UCLA Bruins colors-clad McNabb racked up something like 600 yards and 70 points in a half versus the same Detroit Lions team a couple years ago. 

Just like it was unreasonable to expect that McNabb would replicate that same level of play throughout the season, it is dangerous to assume that Vick will impersonate Steve Young in his prime the rest of this season. Even Reid described Vick as "playing out of his mind"— which tends to suggest a temporary state. 

What if Vick falls prey to the injury bug that is the occupational hazard of a 30-year old running quarterback?

In both of these scenarios, it would be very difficult for Reid, Kolb, and his teammates to simply hit the "reset" button and rally again around the "Kevin Kolb Era."

What if Vick continues to perform at a very high level throughout the 2010 season? 

Does a 31-year old become the QB of the future for the same team that just launched into a youth movement by jettisoning its more accomplished 33-year old signal caller? And, it is worth noting for a quarterback that has not been known for the pinpoint accuracy that the team was seeking for its West Coast offense. 

Perhaps Tuesday's move was simply "pure genius" on the part of Reid? 

With Vick having set the bar very high, the offensive line currently battered and broken, and Kolb not hitting on all cylinders— perhaps the risk of playing is greater than being unceremoniously benched after one half of live action? 

Only insiders really know the thought process as Reid and company continue to be unwaveringly vague and elusive when addressing the media. 

No one knows how it will all play out. As we have already seen, fate can quickly twist and turn in different directions. 

Maybe Vick will put together the best season of his career and lead the team to success. Or, maybe it will all get very messy.

One thing we can likely count on, though, is that the 2010 Philadelphia Eagles season will not lack for drama. It brings to mind a sage observation of the world around us—  real life can often be stranger than fiction.   

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Philadelphia Phillies Poised For A Championship Run

Philadelphia Phillies batter Ryan Howard follows through as he hits a home run in front of New York Mets catcher Josh Thole (L) in the fourth inning of their MLB National League baseball game in New York, September 10, 2010. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

The Philadelphia Phillies obstacle course of a season currently finds them one game up in the National League Eastern Division. The club's 2010 campaign has been akin to a season of The Amazing Race in terms of duration, complexity, and challenge. 

An ongoing spate of injuries has kept the National League's best team on paper at less than full strength all season long. Key players revolved on the disabled list and often when back on the field, they found themselves still compromised by inactivity and less than full physical function. 

The team's fortunes had taken such a nose dive that many were debating whether the Phillies should be "buyers" or "sellers" in the annual July swap meet. Some argued that it was time to concede to the injuries and team's diminished record, write the season off, and look towards next season. 

To the Phillies players', coaches', and entire organization's credit— that did not happen. Everyone maintained a sense of calm, found a way to stay afloat, and even threw in a bold trade to acquire another marquee pitcher. 

The payoff has been a slow, steady climb back to the top spot in the NL East after spending almost three months looking up at the Atlanta Braves. But just as the team was making the swap in standings, a few more warning flares appeared. 

First, Brad Lidge's balky elbow caused the team to shut him down for a few days. Although he is just months removed from surgery to clean it up, both Lidge and the team remain optimistic that it is only a minor ailment that will not derail the Phillies closer. 

Lidge has been a key cog in the team's resurgence and being counted on as an important element for the team's success. Since an ugly blown save against the Washington Nationals in late August, Lidge has done his best work since the 2008 World Series run. 

Next, Gold Glove shortstop and team heartbeat Jimmy Rollins pulled up lame running the bases. Two previous stints on the DL with a calf injury already this season caused manager Charlie Manuel to immediately sit him down and now is listed as day-to-day. 

The injury was indicated to be a hamstring strain. Both player and team remain optimistic that a short rest will nip the problem in the bud. 

Other players such as Ryan Howard, Placido Polanco, and Chase Utley may not be 100 percent over the balance of the year, but that is the reality of the marathon that is Major League Baseball. 

Continuing brushes with the injury bug highlight that a successful conclusion to the season is not all within the team's control. And, surely the other team's fighting for a postseason berth are not going to fade away easily. 

The Braves lead baseball in comeback and walk-off wins. 

The San Francisco Giants have the pitching and a bolstered offense to maintain their charge. 

After a recent tailspin, the San Diego Padres are showing signs of a rebound. Strong pitching had produced the best record in the NL before their 10-game losing streak, and surely is capable of producing many wins again down the stretch. 

The Colorado Rockies have launched their annual September surge. They are playing with the same strong sense of confidence that has propelled them past other teams in recent years when the games became more urgent.  

Despite the keen competition, the Phillies are well positioned and poised to make another run to glory. 

The Phillies offense has started to heat up as the original starting cast now populates the lineup and returning players find their groove. Hitting can be contagious and Howard appears to have his normal September offensive bug. 

With an effective Lidge, a rested and sharp Ryan Madson, and an overall good supporting cast, the bullpen has moved from weakness to strength. 

And, importantly, the starting staff  is imposing— at least three out of five days. 

Joe Blanton brought back memories of Adam Eaton through July, but has been 6-1 with a 3.37 ERA since. The remaining schedule may allow the team to bypass inconsistent fifth starter Kyle Kendrick. 

The biggest source of optimism for the pennant stretch and postseason should they advance derives from the fact that Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt can outduel anyone. 

Surely the games need to be won on the field, and a one game lead and a pack of hungry teams in pursuit of the playoffs will keep the heat on— but this Phillies team has the elements to win it all.