It may be nitpicking to find fault with a 102-win team. However, when that 102-win team gets bounced in the first round of the postseason, people will find plenty of nits to pick regardless.
Such is the case with the 2011 Phillies.
The Phillies put together one of the most star-powered starting rotations of all time with right-handers Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt and left-handers Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, then had long-time set-up man Ryan Madson step into the closer's role and perform well. Not surprisingly, the Phillies led the major leagues in wins, fewest runs allowed (3.27 per game), ERA (3.02), and FRA (3.78).
The Phillies' pitching staff was so good that two friends of Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com's Todd Zolecki and CSNPhilly's Jim Salisbury, are writing a book about the rotation’s Big Four.
Yet despite their wonderful pitching, the Phillies not only failed to fulfill what many thought would be their destiny by winning a second World Series in three years, but they didn't get past the National League Division Series, losing in five games to the eventual world champion Cardinals.
Since the blame always has to go somewhere when a team falls short of its goal, the finger has been pointed at the offense since the abrupt end of the season. The Phillies finished just 13th in the majors in runs scored (4.40 a game) and 16th in TAv (.260). Those ho-hum regular-season numbers combined with the first-round playoff exit had general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. suggesting the Phillies hitters needed to change their approach and become more patient at the plate.
That criticism perked the ears of Manuel, who is truly a hitting savant. Manuel made his name as the Indians' hitting coach when their lineup was terrorizing the American League in the 1990s and thoroughly enjoys talking at length about the art and science of bat meeting ball.
Thus, Manuel was at least mildly stung by Amaro's suggestion. Even last week during the Winter Meetings in Dallas, Manuel was quick to defend his hitters for posting a .226/.269/.335 slash line in the NLDS, though the Phillies did outscore the Cardinals 21-19 in the five games,. Manuel doesn't necessarily disagree with his GM but believes the Phillies' hitting woes in October were more a result of the situation than a poor approach or declining talent.
"Baseball is a funny game," Manuel said. "You look at Bobby Cox and everybody says he's a sure Hall of Fame guy, and why is he going into the Hall of Fame? Mostly because he won those 14 division titles in a row, that's why. And you look at that and you say how come he didn't win more World Series? Because there's a ton of luck in baseball, and every day is different, and you react different every day, and that's the part that's hard to explain.
"What I saw, especially the fourth game in St. Louis, was we scored twice early, and then all of a sudden they got the lead, and all of a sudden we started trying to do too much, and we started swinging at balls out of the strike zone. I saw the same thing in the fifth game. All of a sudden we kind of … I don't know if you'd call it panicking or not, but we get overanxious, and we start chasing bad balls."
Manuel also remembers how his Indians were shut out on one hit in eight innings by the Braves' Tom Glavine in the decisive Game 6 of the 1995 World Series.
"If they ever show it, watch it, because the first three or four innings, we smoked some balls, and every one we smoked was right at people, and all of a sudden we started chasing balls out of the strike zone and Glavine kept feeding us more pitches off the plate," Manuel said. "What happens is that's kind of how the game goes on that day, and you say, well, why didn't you reel them in or harness them and stuff like that. It's kind of hard to do. Really that's almost impossible."
The Phillies' lineup is starting to age. Of the projected 2012 Opening Day starters—assuming free agent shortstop Jimmy Rollins re-signs, as expected—the only two under 31 will be left fielder John Mayberry Jr. and right fielder Hunter Pence, who will both be 28.
The farm system isn't ready to provide immediate help, as the Phillies have drawn upon it often in trades while building a team that has won five consecutive NL East titles. However, Amaro has taken steps this winter to build a deeper bench so the regulars can get more days off.
Infielder/outfielder Ty Wigginton (.251 TAv last season) was acquired from the Rockies in a trade, and first baseman Jim Thome (.304) and infielder/outfielder Laynce Nix (.278) were signed as free agents. They should be upgrades over outfielder Ben Francisco (.259) and first baseman/outfielder Ross Gload (.219).
The most interesting of the new bench players is Thome, the future Hall of Famer who is returning to the Phillies after playing for them from 2003-05. The Phillies traded him to the White Sox after Ryan Howard emerged as the first baseman of the future when he won NL Rookie of the Year in '05 while Thome was injured.
Thome has since played in the AL, except for a late-season stint with the Dodgers in 2009 in which he was used strictly as a pinch hitter. Thome hasn't played a game in the field since 2007, but the Phillies are hopeful that he can be part of a committee with Wigginton and Nix to fill in at first base at the start of next season while Howard recovers from the torn Achilles tendon he suffered while making the last out of the NLDS.
The 41-year-old Thome is confident he can get into good enough shape to play first at least a couple of times a week. While Manuel would love to give Thome 50 starts at first base, he says 20 is a more realistic number.
"Look at it this way: in Interleague play, it's nine games he definitely can hit there (as the designated hitter), and if you're a pinch-hitter in the National League, I can find a place for you to hit once a night, so that's 150 (plate appearances) or whatever," Manuel said. "If we get him over 200 at-bats, I think that's enough for him to help us and produce and stay sharp as a pinch-hitter."