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July 30, 2004

Prospectus Today

Phillie Phlailing

by Joe Sheehan

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Do you think Jack McKeon gives Larry Bowa his ass back after the Marlins play the Phillies, or do you think he just keeps it all the time?

After yesterday's 11-3 beatdown, the Marlins are 11-1 against the Phillies this year, and 24-7 against them since the start of 2003. The Marlins' superiority in head-to-head play was the entire reason why they beat out the Phillies for the Wild Card last year, and why they've tied them in the NL East this year. Unlike their previous success, in which the aggregate runs really didn't reflect the dominance, the Fish outscored the Phillies 43-19 over the last two weeks.

Back in April, after the Fish took six games from the Phillies in the season's first three weeks, I went back and looked at what was going on when the two hooked up. Basically, the 19-6 record over two seasons (at the time) didn't accurately reflect the difference between the two teams. Nevertheless, some patterns had emerged, and those seem to have continued into July:

  • The Marlins hit the Phillies better than they do other teams. After this week, the gap is stark. A team that bats .263/.331/.413 on the season is pounding the Phillies to the tune of .301/.358/.487. Mike Lowell and Miguel Cabrera lead the charge with 1000+ OPSs. Every regular other than Juan Pierre hits the Phillies better than the league as a whole.

    I mentioned back in April that the Fish own Brett Myers. Myers made one mediocre start against them this week: five innings, three runs, four walks, five strikeouts. That was, believe it or not, a good game for Myers against this team, bringing his career ERA against them down to 6.53.

  • The Phillies' bullpen struggles against the Marlins, causing them to lose close games. While the Phillies did pick up a one-run win over the Fish, their bullpen was the direct cause of two other losses, allowing three runs in consecutive eighth innings to break up tie ballgames. Those two collapses added to a long string of notable failures, and ran the pen's ERA against the Marlins this year to 6.23.

  • The Marlins' pitchers shut down the Phillies' power. This may be the biggest reason the Phillies can't beat the Marlins. For the entire season, the Phillies are slugging .428, with a home run every 27.7 at-bats. They are normally a good power team, led by Bobby Abreu and Jim Thome.

    Against the Marlins, though, the power just isn't there. They're slugging .349 with a mere seven home runs in 12 games, one every 59.7 at-bats. While Thome has been all right (two homers, .512 slugging), Abreu has been a non-factor, hitting .261/.320/.348 with no homers. In a mirror image of the Marlins' performance, virtually every Phillie sees his numbers go down against the Fish.

The Phillies' inability to beat the Marlins in head-to-head play kept them out of last year's postseason and will keep them out of this year's. In the age of the unbalanced schedule, you just can't give up this much ground to a division rival. Since the schedule changed in 2001, four division winners have lost at least 11 games to a team in their own division. Three of those ('03 Twins vs. Royals, '02 A's vs. Mariners, '02 Diamondbacks vs. Giants) went 8-11; the worst record any division winner had against a rival was the '03 A's, who went 7-12 against the Mariners but still managed to win the division. That mark includes three losses on the last weekend of the season, after the race was over.

The Phillies may not be done yet, but that precedent, along with the challenges they face in keeping their pitching staff healthy and finding a center fielder, do not bode well for them. Speculation is rampant that Larry Bowa won't be around much longer, and as someone who has criticized Bowa in the past, I can't argue with a decision to let him go.

That said, I wonder if Ed Wade isn't getting a free ride. This is shaping up to be the third straight year in which a competitive Phillies team falls short of the postseason, and the third straight year in which Wade was unable to make a significant addition to bolster the team at the trade deadline. (You're welcome to consider Mike Williams a major addition. Me, I'd have preferred the wide receiver.)

Firing the manager is the obvious in-season move, and in this case, it might have a salutory effect. Once the season is over, however, it's going to be time to examine the last three years as a whole. Wade's track record is uninspiring, largely a mixed bag of free-agent signings, with very few trades and virtually no bold strokes. The Phillies have a middle-of-the-pack farm system, one that is heavily reliant on what some high-risk, high-reward pitching prospects do over the next couple of seasons.

Wade might yet pull off the move that puts the Phillies into the postseason. Whether he does or not may determine not just his team's fate, but his own.

--

Trade deadline week has been a dud so far, but hope springs eternal. With that in mind, we'll be doing a media blitz over the next couple of days. I'm on KBAD 920 in Las Vegas this afternoon at 1:25, on Chuck Wilson's ESPN Radio show Saturday morning between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. Eastern, and I'll be part of Will Carroll's live Baseball Prospectus Radio show tomorrow morning as well, along with Jonah Keri and other guests. Jonah will also be chatting up a storm Saturday as the clock winds down to the deadline. Also, Chris Kahrl and I will be working the keyboards to bring you fresh content as events warrant on both Saturday and Sunday.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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