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May 19, 2006
On Tuesday, the Yanks made one of their biggest comebacks in team history, digging themselves out of a 9-0 hole, followed by comebacks at 12-11 and 13-12 on their way to ultimately winning the game, 14-13. Prospectus Poet Laureate Keith Woolner found that out of 381 games since 1960 in which a team had an eight run lead in the second inning (the Yanks scored a run in the bottom of the second to make the score 9-1) only fifteen games resulted in a loss. Here's the list, which excludes Tuesday's game:
GAMEDATE BAT R_B PIT R_P WIN R_W LOSE R_L 2002-05-12 CIN 8 SLN 0 SLN 10 CIN 8 2001-09-27 SDN 8 COL 0 COL 13 SDN 9 1999-07-03 KCA 8 CLE 0 CLE 9 KCA 8 1996-05-12 CHA 8 NYA 0 NYA 9 CHA 8 1994-07-15 HOU 8 PIT 0 PIT 11 HOU 8 1993-07-25 CAL 8 NYA 0 NYA 9 CAL 8 1993-06-18 KCA 8 OAK 0 OAK 10 KCA 9 1989-06-08 PIT 10 PHI 2 PHI 15 PIT 11 1986-05-20 CLE 8 MIL 0 MIL 12 CLE 9 1985-05-13 MIN 8 NYA 0 NYA 9 MIN 8 1978-06-13 CLE 8 CHA 0 CHA 10 CLE 9 1976-08-11 CHN 8 CIN 0 CIN 13 CHN 10 1970-04-14 ATL 8 SFN 0 SFN 15 ATL 11 1970-05-23 SFN 8 SDN 0 SDN 17 SFN 16One of the great things about baseball is how numbers can bring us back to moments in time, and talk to us about the game's history. Seeing that this list includes three games won by the Bronx Bombers, we hope you'll indulge us on a small trip down memory lane.
As we reach the quarter mark of the season the Phillies are on a pace to win 89 games, one more than last year's total. Given the strong overlap between the roster at the start of this year and the one that battled the Astros for the wild card down the stretch last year, that would seem fairly unsurprising at first glance. What is surprising is that how they're doing it is very different from last year.
One of the biggest surprises is the collapse of the team's fielding. At the end of last season the Phillies were third in the National League in Defensive Efficiency, turning a very respectible 71% of balls in play into outs. So far this year they are next to last in the league, with their rate down to 67.8%. Essentially that's one extra ball per game falling in. If there had been substantial overhaul in the lineup this might not be much of a surprise, but of the regular lineup the only change from the second half of last season is replacing the center field platoon of Kenny Lofton and Jason Michaels with Aaron Rowand. While the platoon was far more effective than they were given credit for, changing one position can not account for that much difference--especially since Rowand (and his injury replacement Shane Victorino) has been quite respectible out there.
Another area that has dropped off, albeit not as substantially, is the hitting. Last year's .267 EqA was good for third in the league, but this year they're down at 10th with a .261 EQA. When doing year-to-year comparisons of individual players, however, the only player significantly underperforming is Jimmy Rollins, so this could reasonably be written off as early season fluctuations.
With those areas down, what has kept the Phillies on pace so far this year has been the pitching--in particular, the bullpen, long the Achilles heel of the team. Tom Gordon has rapidly made Philadelphia fans forget Billy Wagner, Rheal Cormier appears to have once again risen from the ashes to become an effective pitcher, and they have managed to avoid some of the utter disasters than plagued the bullpen in previous years.
Given how they got here, what are the main questions for the Phillies to worry about for the rest of the season? Here are four questions which will be key to the team's success the rest of the way.
1) Which version of Jimmy Rollins will show up?
Lost in all the fuss over his hitting streak at the end of last season was the fact that Rollins' year was very much a tale of two halves. His offensive numbers in the first half call up memories of former Phillies such as Ivan DeJesus and Steve Jeltz, while after the All-Star break he added 50 points of OBP and 70 points of slugging, turning his anemic bat into an asset down the stretch. So far this year he's performing even worse than he did in the first half of last season. The Phillies need him to at least come close to what he did in 2004 and the second half of 2005 or they will have another substantial hole in a lineup that's already carrying the weak-hitting David Bell.
2) Can the bullpen hold up?
In recent years key members of the Phillies' bullpen have faded from overwork, with last year's main victim Ryan Madson continuing to struggle this year. Juggling the staff to avoid such a late season fade should be one of Charlie Manuel's main priorities right now, but some of the signs are not good on that front. Ryan Franklin has pitched in half of the team's games so far, which is unlikely to be sustainable over the full season. Tom Gordon has appeared in almost as many, including a stretch of 9 out of 14 games. Manuel has been quoted as saying that he likes to use his closer in the 9th inning even with a 4 run lead. If he follows through on that, he likely won't have an effective closer for 1 run leads in September.
3) Can they avoid key injuries?
While the Phillies have some excellent talent in the regular starting lineup, it covers the fact that the organization is very thin in some other areas. At the moment the outfield is somewhat deeper with Victorino doing an excellent job both off the bench and filling in as a starter while Rowand recovers from his discovery that outfield fences tend to be immovable objects. In addition, David Delucci is likely to be a credible short term replacement if needed.
The infield is another story altogether. So far infield reserves Abraham Nunez and Alex Gonzalez have been disastrous and their past record outside of last season does not inspire any confidence of their producing at anything other than replacement level. The farm system is pretty much bare of any serious infield prospects in the higher levels. If either Chase Utley or Ryan Howard goes down for any significant length of time the Phillies are looking at a gigantic drop in production.
4) How good is Cole Hamels?
Phillies fans have been salivating over the prospect of Hamels in the rotation since a dominant spring training outing against the Yankees two years ago, and he arrived in the majors a week ago. His performance in Triple-A did nothing to dampen expectations, as he allowed only 1 run in 23 innings with a ludicrous K/9 rate over 14. There is absolutely no question that he has tremendous raw talent, and speculation that he could do for the 2006 Phillies what Dontrelle Willis did for the 2003 Marlins is not at all unrealistic.
That being said, there are some real concerns about Hamels, and the biggest is whether he can stay healthy. Every professional season he's pitched has been interrupted at some point by injury. Many of those injuries--such as the stress reaction in his back last year--are not directly related to pitching, so there's less concern about lingering effects to his arm, but you have to wonder if he is injury prone. Even if he stays healthy, stamina may well be an issue. The maximum number of innings he's thrown in a professional season is 101 which came back in 2003, and he threw a total of 51 innings in 2004 and 2005. Asking for 180 or more innings out of him this year may be unrealistic. Finally, his limited playing time has meant that he has rarely faced a team multiple times within a season, and so it's unclear how much opportunity teams have had to adjust to his pitching. They will have that opportunity now, and it's an open question as to how well he will counter those adjustments.
In recent years the Phillies have been a team that could be very good if everything went their way, with very little margin for error. This year's edition shows signs of being similar. In this decade they've fallen just short of the playoffs several times; time will tell if this year's team can take that additional step.