August 24, 2010

How to get the Phillies hitting again.

Yes, I know the Philadelphia Phillies have won 22 of their last 31. They were two games over .500 on July 21st, and they're 15 games over .500 right now. If the playoffs started this instant, they'd be in.

But anyone who stayed up for all 16 excruciating innings last night knows that not all is right in Philadelphia. The Phillies are fourth in the NL with 583 runs, a year after leading the league with 820, and they've scored two runs or less in five of their last six games. There have been stretches this year where they've been god awful at the plate, and it's looking more and more like pitching is going to have to propel this team to the playoffs.

Roy Halladay's 16 wins will tell you this is doable. But his eight losses, and Cole Hamels' 11 losses, and the fact that the Phillies hadn't scored a run for Cole since August 1st, tell you that you can't win without a little support.

The most intricate of baseball decisions -- lineup construction, double switches and bench management -- have never been Charlie Manuel's specialty. He's a player's coach, paid for his ability to morph his gang of rich millionaires into a cohesive, victorious unit, and a damn good one at that. But he's also a hitting coach, and he needs to recognize that this current lineup, at this current moment, does not work.

And yes, I mean the Opening Day lineup, the one that's only been together maybe a dozen times this season. As we saw back in April, when everyone is healthy and hitting, it's a thing of beauty. But everyone is not healthy, and even more so, everyone is not hitting. I don't see the harm in a little radical tinkering; it certainly can't get any worse.

A recent hot streak got Raul Ibanez's OPS up to a season-high .805, but its now back down to .777. Shane Victorino's .253/.316/.435 line is his worst in the last five years, and Ryan Howard and Chase Utley look more than a little rusty from their DL stints (.250 for Utley, .105 for the furious and soon-to-be-suspended Howard).

But Carlos Ruiz has a .385 OBP, which would be top 20 in all of baseball if Chooch had enough plate appearances. Jayson Werth may be hitting .159 with runners in scoring position, but he's got a .910 OPS. And Jimmy Rollins, often referred to as the straw that stirs the drink, has raised his average 11 points in August.

I know Charlie is committed to both his boys and his lineups, but there's room for improvement here. The announcers can harp on the value in Ruiz "turning the lineup over" each and every night, but the fact remains that he has been maybe their most consistent hitter all year. He's wasted in the eight spot, where Charlie loves to bury his backstops. If you ignored his short, pudgy catcher's frame and just looked at the numbers, you'd see a prototypical two-hitter.

And Jayson Werth's 42 doubles would look pretty good out of the leadoff spot, not to mention his 4.36 pitches per plate appearance (3rd in all of baseball in 2010). I don't know if hitting with runners in scoring position is a skill, as some people say, but either way Werth certainly isn't doing it this year. I'd be just as happy seeing Placido Polanco smacking singles out of the three-hole, driving in some of these Werth doubles, with Howard and Utley behind him.

Meanwhile, it's time to cut the cord with Raul. Not release him, of course, but start treating him like the 38-year-old outfielder he is. As much as we all want to believe, and as much as he tempts us every now and then with a mighty double, his power has pretty much evaporated. Barring further injuries, he shouldn't be anywhere near the fourth or fifth spot for the rest of the year. It might be helpful to slide the aging-but-swinging Jimmy down a little in the order, at least for the time being.

I know Charlie would never do this; we'll see Rollins/Polanco/Utley/Howard/Werth/Ibanez/Victorino/Ruiz until the day we, or they, die. But until the Big Man and Chase rediscover their strokes, I don't see why not. It would keep the boys on their toes, at least, and maybe help win a few of those meltdown Kendrick/Blanton starts that happen every other week. Or, God forbid, a Hamels gem. Don't get all La Russa on us, Charlie, just try and make the dog days of summer part of hittin' season.

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