October 27, 2010

Defending Ryan Howard.

From MG, one of my favorite commenters on the excellent Philadelphia Phillies blog known as Beerleaguer:

"Ryan Howard led the regulars this postseason in AVG (.303), OBP (.395), SLG (.424), OPS (.819), XHB (4), and TB (14)."

Yet the amount of shit being piled upon Howard, the number of times he's been appointed "official postseason goat," is absurd. You'd think he had a series like Pat Burrell's 2008 World Series rather than one that came very close to his career norms.

Ryan Howard had a .900 OPS in the National League Championship Series. That is higher than his OPS for the 2008 season, in which he received the second most votes in the National League MVP race. It was also higher than his OPS for the 2010 season. Meanwhile, Raul Ibanez's NLCS OPS was .513. Jimmy Rollins came in at .624. Chase Utley had a meager .561.

The Phillies were generally awful at the plate this postseason, and Ryan Howard did indeed come up small in terms of power. The reason he was offered a $125 million extension is because he socks dingers, a lot of them, and inspires a great deal of fear in the cleanup spot. This wasn't exactly the role he played in the playoffs, I'll admit that.

But he was on base all the time, and he led the team in extra-base hits. The blame should be spread around, and he certainly deserves some of it. But to imply that Ryan Howard came up small this postseason is to ignore the facts and focus on what you want Ryan Howard to be.

He's not Albert Pujols, and he's unfortunately not Reggie Jackson either. His hot streaks are legendary, and his powerless streaks are even more so. On a Phillies team that suddenly had no hope but the long ball, everyone expected Howard to provide a few. And when he didn't, it became his fault that the rest of the team was struggling.

More postseason facts: Rollins hit 1-11 with runners in scoring position (RISP). Shane Victorino hit 2-10. Jayson Werth hit 2-9, Howard hit 1-7 and Ibanez hit 1-6. Placido Polanco and Utley were the only success stories in that department, at 3-6 and 2-6, respectively.

Howard does sit right in the middle of that sad, sad group. But MG also notes that Howard had only one game (Game 6 of the NLCS) where he had more than one more at-bat with RISP. In that game, he went 1-3. More often than not, people just weren't getting on base in front of him. If Victorino, Polanco and Utley had been on second base for a few of those Howard singles or doubles, the RBIs would have been there. It's even more proof that RBIs are an overrated, outdated statistic.

Ryan Howard has holes in his swing, gaping ones that many teams have taken advantage of. He's poor against left-handers and it doesn't seem likely that he'll challenge 60 homers again. For whatever reason, this year his on-base and slugging percentages dropped while his batting average went up. It's enough to make baseball stat geeks go insane, and it's probably not conducive to Howard remaining a premier hitter as his lengthy extension comes to an end.

But consider this. Howard missed 19 games this year with injuries and struggled to find his swing in at least a dozen more, but he still ended the season eighth in the National League in home runs and fourth in RBIs. Even though he's "gone Hollywood" with his Entourage appearances and Eagles game attendances, he's still driving in runs and doing his job. He's still quite the slugger, and while he may never match what he did at the plate in 2006, he's arguably the most important hitting cog in the Phillies machine.

Ninety percent of baseball teams, and cities, would kill to have a Ryan Howard. He did his part in bringing Philadelphia a championship in 2008, and he did his part in attempting to bring home another in 2010. The Phillies ultimately fell short, but you'd be foolish to blame that on Ryan Howard.

October 24, 2010

The better team won.

The better team won the 2010 National League Championship Series.

The San Francisco Giants are not that good. Play a hundred 162-game seasons and the Philadelphia Phillies will have more wins in 99 of them. Play a hundred seven-game showdowns and the Phillies will win more than half. In my opinion, the Giants are destined to come up short in a listless World Series match-up with Cliff Lee and the Texas Rangers.

But over the last week, in six games against the once-vaunted Phillies offense and the "just imperfect enough to lose" starting trio of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, the Giants were unquestionably superior.

They can barely put four runs on the board, but they always make them count. Their bullpen is stocked with lefties, a picture-perfect solution for dealing with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Raul Ibanez. They have a stud catcher in Buster Posey and their own top-shelf trio of starting pitchers in Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez.

They recognize their limitations and maximize their strengths. They're able to survive with a decomposing corpse like Edgar Renteria at shortstop because it moves the halfway-decent Juan Uribe to third base and the suddenly abysmal Pablo Sandoval to the bench. Their cobbled-together outfield of Pat Burrell, Andres Torres and Cody Ross offers just enough power, speed and elfishness to get by.

They have passionate fans and a ballpark expertly designed for the low-scoring, scrappy team that they are. This October, they were kryptonite for the Phillies.

The only analysis I can provide is this: Don't blame Ryan Howard. Maybe he ended up with a zero in the power column, but the Big Man hit .318 with four doubles. Is it his fault that Shane Victorino and Utley weren't on second or third when he was dropping singles into the outfield? Is it his fault that he faced an array of talented lefties that exploited his inalterable weaknesses? He's certainly not above reproach, but he's also only fourth or fifth on my list of "people to blame." He was one of the few hitters who made adjustments and, simplest of simple tasks, reached base once in a while.

The scary thing is, things might get worse for the Phils before they get better. Jayson Werth is likely to leave as a free agent, and Jose Contreras, J.C. Romero and Chad Durbin may depart as well. That will deprive the team of its only right-handed power bat, along with every bit of bullpen depth.

And remember when Placido Polanco, Jimmy Rollins, Utley and Ibanez all looked aged and feeble at the plate? Well, they'll all be a year older! Raul will catch up to even fewer fastballs, Jimmy's legs just might act up again, Polanco will combat more nagging injuries and Utley will continue to suffer through whatever mysterious ailment has been plaguing him these last two weeks. His hip? His thumb? We may never know, but less-than-stellar Chase may rear his ugly head yet again.

Help isn't on the way. The Phillies have already committed $145 million to 16 players next year. Domonic Brown might be a stud but he's just one bat, and a lefty at that. Unless Ruben Amaro Jr. pulls a rabbit out of his hat, this is your team in 2011.

That's not necessarily a bad thing; the Phillies won 102 total games this year. But the Reds will be better, the Giants' core will remain, the Cardinals and the Rockies have enough bats to be worrisome. The Phillies may find that they're no longer the class of the National League...that is, if they haven't already.

A lot of good baseball players are being paid a vast amount to ply their trade in Philadelphia for one reason: to a win a championship. Anything less is a failure. And after seeing the Phillies at their absolute worst this past week, I'm nervous that failure is the only thing in their immediate future.

October 21, 2010

On the brink.

So far, the San Francisco Giants have outplayed the Philadelphia Phillies.

They've played smarter. They've played harder. They're exuding a confidence that was previously reserved only for teams coming off two straight World Series berths, teams like the Phillies. But now, momentum resides solely in San Francisco.

Last night, it was the pitching that came up short. But I refuse to nitpick any decisions involving the Roys; it was right to start Joe Blanton, and if Roy Oswalt says he can give you an inning on his side day, I'd much rather see him out there than Kyle Kendrick.

Should Charlie Manuel have left Blanton in longer? Probably, considering how wiped the bullpen was by the 9th. Should he have had Rollins bunt Werth to third in the 8th, should he have pinch-hit for Ben Francisco afterward? Most definitely, but hindsight is always 20/20.

This isn't the time to bitch about the umpires or complain about little managerial moves. This is a series that has played out exactly as it should. I don't care what happened over 162 regular season games; the Phillies are losing this National League Championship Series because, over the last four games, they've largely been a disappointment.

Right now, the Phillies can't manufacture runs; the Giants can. At best, the pitching has evened out. When you're at a disadvantage like that, no matter how slight, the only way to overcome it is playing spirited, intelligent baseball. This is something, unfortunately, that the Giants have been doing.

Meanwhile, the Phillies, the "playoff-tested" team, are making errors left and right. Wasting an out by foolishly sending Ruiz home. Booting ground balls, failing to move runners over, flailing at pitches outside the strike zone.

The Giants deserve to be up 3-1; Cody Ross deserves to feel like Babe Ruth right now, no matter how absurdly stupid his new "nickname" may be. They've earned this chance to clinch on their home field.

But amazingly, the Phillies can change all that. This is why you spend $50 million a year on three aces: for tense, otherwise hopeless moments like these. Throw a seven-spot on Tim Lincecum and company tonight. Get a gem from Roy Halladay. Show the San Francisco fans and players that this series might not be over.

Let's be honest; the series is probably over. Beating an ace pitcher in his home park, a pitcher's park, with an unbelievably raucous crowd behind him? I'd say it's far more likely that the World Series Game 6 tickets my mom somehow snagged for face value will go to waste.

But with Halladay, Oswalt and Cole Hamels, there's always hope. It might be slight, it might be unwarranted, but it's hope. Bust out the clich├ęs: one game at a time, one batter at a time, etc. Teams can claw back; we've seen the Red Sox do it. Hell, we've seen the Flyers do it.

Do I think it will happen? No. I'm planning to acquire a large amount of beer before tonight's game, as I expect to have some sorrows that need drinking away. But a part of me remains, as The A.V. Club is so fond of repeating, cautiously optimistic. In about eight hours, we'll see how stupid that part of me really is.

October 20, 2010

The series we feared.

On Tuesday, October 19th, 2010, Chase Utley played the worst game of his professional baseball career.

I didn't research that. I don't have detailed statistics to show just how subpar his performance in Game 3 at AT&T Park really was. But I did see the heart and soul of the Philadelphia Phillies go 0 for 4, leaving three men on base. I saw him commit one error (although it was officially scored otherwise) and let another ball bounce off his glove on a diving attempt.

Three of those at-bats were against right-hander Matt Cain; Utley came into the afternoon hitting 7 for 15 lifetime off Cain with three homers. Small sample size, I know, but the Phillies star second baseman came up even smaller. Someone, anyone, needs to get a big hit or two in this series, and yesterday it should have been Utley. It just wasn't.

As Jason Weitzel of Beerleaguer noted, this is the series we were all afraid of. The San Francisco Giants, despite maybe the saddest-looking batting order to ever hit in the National League Championship Series, are sneaking just enough runs home to win. The Phillies, meanwhile, are in another fun team-wide slump. Raul Ibanez looks a thousand years old again, Jimmy Rollins has already provided his requisite "one big hit" of the series, and Ryan Howard's September power has mysteriously vanished. They can't even capitalize when Matt Cain throws 50 of his 119 pitches for balls.

It's not over. Not by a long shot. Even if Joe Blanton can't win tonight, it'll be Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels to end the series, a fearsome trio for any team to overcome. There used to be talk in Philadelphia that the Phils needed one stopper, just one, to halt losing streaks. Now they have three, and you know they aren't going down without a fight.

But let's hope it doesn't get that far. Phil Sheridan wrote today, "If the mighty Phillies...can't score a few runs off Madison Bumgarner, they have no business being in the World Series." You can excuse low-scoring days against Tim Lincecum, the Sanchise and even "Big Daddy" Cain, but tonight is not a night to come up small.

That's not even a slight against the rookie Bumgarner, who looks like a more-than-worthy addition to the Giants' formidable rotation. But this is a supposedly "powerful" offense, a playoff-tested team of veterans who always claimed they could turn on the jets at just the right time.

Well, boys, this is the right time. Win tonight, and the Big Three are ready to take it home. Lose tonight, and you face Lincecum, a raucous San Francisco crowd and elimination tomorrow. Your choice.

October 12, 2010

Superman ain't coming.

A note before we begin: I know very little about politics, social policies or anything of the sort. I mostly watch sports and movies. Some of those movies, however, are documentaries, and from them, I've started to glean a better picture of the world outside my Caucasian, middle-class bubble. I also really liked The Wire. So here we go.

I saw Waiting for "Superman" earlier tonight, and I thought it was a probing look at what's wrong with American schools. A quick summation without spoiling too much for those who haven't seen it: Some extremely charismatic reformers want to change how public schools work, but a good deal of the teachers and administrators in said schools seem complacent in their overall beliefs toward education.

This could mean that troubled schools in lower-class areas are not getting enough attention, mostly due to the theory that bad areas create bad schools (studies show it's the other way around). The film also surprisingly touches on the idea that innocent looking middle-class schools also function incorrectly, as they operate on fifty-year-old principles that separate each grade based on archaic "levels."

Basically, you used to become either a doctor/lawyer, an accountant/middle-manager or a factory worker; those were the three general tiers. Even though children can no longer efficiently be defined in this way, the policies remain. Therefore, a lot of kids are herded in the wrong direction with an inadequate level of teaching, where they often fall behind other students.

This part, admittedly, is a lot less interesting, because it just means that (mostly) well-to-do white people are given only a bunch of advantages, not the full range of advantages they expect. Luckily, this only takes up about one-eighth of the film.

The interesting thing about this documentary, and others of its kind that I've seen recently, is that they attempt to diagnose the key issue plaguing America. What this is, at least from my perspective, is that the people in charge of the systems in this country will not allow them to be replaced. Whether its big pharmaceuticals, the teachers unions or some other faceless, shadowy organization, things are a certain way and our leaders have no interest in allowing them to change.

Now, I've seen enough documentaries to know that objectivity is not often one of their goals. The director usually has an opinion, especially if it's Michael Moore, and that guides the film, even if it comes with the best possible intentions. I'm very sure teachers unions do a great deal of good, even though "Superman" paints them as inconvenient roadblocks in the way of true reform. And I'm sure that, while Sicko depicts every other country in the world as having super wonderful healthcare that Americans can only dream of, the political realities are slightly more complicated than that.

But certain messages -- the core ideas behind Sicko, Taxi to the Dark Side, Waiting for "Superman" and An Inconvenient Truth -- are hard to argue with. Do you like Michael Moore and Davis Guggenheim, do you agree with their politics? Maybe not. But do you want people without healthcare to suffer from crippling financial burdens, do you want poor minority children to languish in awful educational systems, do you agree that innocent foreigners should be tortured, do you think we're polluting the Earth in one way or another?

The curious thing about documentaries is that no one sees them. The people that do seem to be film buffs or upper/middle-class liberals, not necessarily unlike myself. Documentaries seem like they're going to do a lot of good, but I've never seen one have more than a fleeting impact. Besides Fahrenheit 9/11 and March of the Penguins, very few of them even pass over into the public realm. Meanwhile, March was only a bunch of pretty pictures of penguins, and everyone agreed after the fact that Fahrenheit sucked ass.

The only thing that lends credence to this era of "muckraking" documentary filmmaking is that information is now disseminated so much more quickly and openly. There's a great part in "Superman" where it shows that, although American students score very poorly in mathematics, they're also supremely confident when interviewed immediately afterward. Basically, we think we're great, even when we're not.

And that's probably what slows change as much as anything. We're America, damn it! Intentionally or otherwise, we've been convinced that we're number one, so why would we need reform?! We've got all the money, all the power, all the bombs, we're kicking butt.

But apparently we're not. Apparently, we're getting stupider, and no one wants to admit it. But now, thanks to the Internet, to Twitter, to Facebook, young people have access to this information. You don't have to go buy a stupid newspaper or watch boring old "60 Minutes" to learn about the world; everything is at your fingertips. Everything is unlocked, to a certain extent, and a bit more freely accessed by anyone interested in looking. I don't think this will make us smarter, but it's pretty sad if it makes us less informed.

So as we have access to more information, and as America and other advanced countries come in closer and closer contact with each other, will we realize how far we're falling behind? Will it become more and more obvious that other nations are usurping economic and political power bit by bit, that changes are needed if America is going to remain an intelligent, functioning world leader?

I guess that depends on whether people will use, or pay attention to, the new power they've been given; everyone used to say television will (or should, at least) be an educational tool, which seems ridiculous now that "Outsourced" exists. But it does seem like, as it becomes less a looming peril and more of an inevitable conclusion, improving our failing school systems (which could generously be labeled as "declining" if you aren't into the whole facts and studies thing) is something that most people can probably get behind.

So let's bust those devilish unions, fire those incompetent teachers and build an army of genius robots to teach our young. Documentaries can be the new pamphlets, because Thomas Paine surely had futuristic, 100-minute-long montages of talking heads in mind while he was crafting Common Sense.

October 11, 2010

Never a doubt.

As Cole Hamels entered his windup in the bottom of the ninth inning -- man on first, two-run lead, an 0-2 pitch to likely National League MVP Joey Votto about to leave his hand -- I lounged on my couch in Boston, seemingly without a care in the world.

A few years ago, I'd have been standing six inches from the TV, jersey on, Phillies hat torn off and locked in a death grip, terrified at what the Cincinnati Reds slugger might do to that baseball.

But in 2010? After two straight World Series berths, with 2008 Cole Hamels reanimated and throwing a gem before my eyes? Nah, I thought, the Philadelphia Phillies will be fine.

And they were. Hamels got Votto to ground into a double play, Scott Rolen struck out for what felt like the six-thousandth time this series, and the Phils were off to another NLCS. Just like we all expected.

Admittedly, I didn't think it would be over this quick. I anticipated a series much like the 2009 Phillies/Rockies NLDS; lengthy games, come-from-behind victories and many, many dingers being socked all over both ballparks.

But Hamels, Roy Halladay and the Phillies bullpen (sorry, Roy Oswalt, better luck in the Championship Series) made sure this would be a short and quick one. With, of course, an assist from the god awful Reds defense. You'd think Scott Rolen was Brooks Conrad, not a seven-time Gold Glove winner.

You can't say enough about what Cole Hamels did in Game 3. Like Brad Lidge, it's still a little disconcerting to see him on the mound at key moments. You remember what he's capable of, the frustrated tantrums he was prone to throw last year, and you can't help but tense up a bit.

But that Cole Hamels is gone. In his place is the 2008 NLCS and World Series MVP, only a little more seasoned, a little more hardened. He's not just getting by on talent, on a lethal two-pitch combo that no one had figured out just yet. He's a complete pitcher, a 26-year-old stud who might just get better and better.

And he's our no. 3 starter.

There's just no jinxing this team. I felt comfortable saying "Roy Halladay is pitching a no-hitter" out loud on Wednesday night, and I felt comfortable passively enjoying a playoff clincher last night. That doesn't mean that the bounces will all go our way, that Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth will rediscover their power strokes in time to win another title.

But it's a start, and it puts them light years ahead of the rest of the NL.

The 2009 Phillies came up short against the New York Yankees because Lidge and Ol' King Cole were shells of their former selves. Give Cliff Lee an ace buddy and a legit closer, and you're talking about a possible threepeat in 2010.

Of course, that didn't happen, but maybe they wouldn't have brought in Halladay and Oswalt if it did. And don't look now, but Hamels and Lidge are partying like its 2008 again. If that doesn't intimidate other teams, especially the punchless San Francisco Giants and Atlanta Braves, I don't know what will.

Confidence is high, extremely high. A few years ago, that in and of itself would have been terrifying. Now, it's just a part of Phillies baseball.

October 9, 2010

The team to beat.

The 2010 Cincinnati Reds remind me of the 2007 Philadelphia Phillies.

Three years ago, sneaking into the playoffs was all that mattered. When Brett Myers struck out Wily Mo Pena to clinch the division, well, that was our World Series. The celebration afterward was epic; the games to come seemed irrelevant. It turned out they were, as the Phils were swept by the Colorado Rockies in the National League Division Series a few days layer.

In 2010, history, albeit reversed, seems to be repeating itself. I barely followed the Reds this year, so I can't tell you that winning the NL Central was their Mount Everest. But when a team records zero hits one game and commits four errors the next, they certainly don't look prepared for the intensity of playoff baseball.

In Jim Salisbury's game recap, he uses the word "experience" about eight thousand times. Charlie Manuel says it, Brad Lidge says it, everyone fucking says it. By the end of the story, you want to smash your computer screen.

But they're right. These Phillies really have seen it all, and they're showing a patience and unflappability that all good championship teams have in spades. The Reds might have offered them last night's game on a silver platter, but the Phils still had to take it. Shane Victorino still had to draw that bases-loaded walk. Chase Utley still had to beat out that fielder's choice at second. The bullpen still had to shut the door.

And they all did their jobs, because the Phillies have completed their transition from a fun, power-happy team to a methodical, winning team. They don't bludgeon you with homers anymore, they beat you with walks and defense and dominant starting pitching. It's very nerve-wracking to watch, but considering that they had the best record in baseball this year, it's damn effective.

Besides the joy they took in getting Mike Sweeney and Roy Halladay to the playoffs for the first time in their careers, the 2010 Phillies didn't seem all that jazzed about winning another NL East title. Even Halladay's no-hitter, amazing as it was, is already old news. Roy refused almost every media request, including a spot on David Letterman, because he wanted to "keep the focus on the team." You'd think he'd done this a dozen times already; the rest of his team actually has. That's why people keep saying the Phillies are the team to beat.

The Reds are a good team with a hell of an offense. If they can stay healthy, learn from their time in the playoffs and bring in a true ace, a Cliff Lee or a Zack Greinke, to go with Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez, they might end up being the team to beat in the National League.

Right now, however, they're no Phillies. These last two games have all but proven that.

October 6, 2010

Mr. Doctober.

Before the National League Division Series showdown between the Philadelphia Phillies and Cincinnati Reds began, I predicted the Phillies to win in four.

I thought Game 2, a Roy Oswalt/Bronson Arroyo match-up, would be a guaranteed Phillies victory; Arroyo's nothing more than a competent journeyman, and Oswalt has been dominant both in Citizens Bank Park and throughout his career against the Reds.

And I figured Roy Halladay would end it all in a series-clinching Game 4 at Great American Ball Park; he'd have his postseason feet wet by then, and a typical Doc masterpiece would surely shut the door on any hope for the Reds.

But sweeping Cincinnati, an offensive powerhouse throughout the 2010 season, seemed too far-fetched. No, the Phillies would drop a game. Maybe Game 3, Cole Hamels vs. Johnny Cueto in Cincinnati. The first game at home for the Reds, a fired-up crowd, a hard-throwing young pitcher...

Or maybe they'd lose Game 1. Yeah, that might be it! As good as Halladay is, it's his first postseason start. Maybe he'll come out a little too juiced, give up a few early runs. Hey, maybe Edinson Volquez will throw a surprise gem. He's 2-0 with a career 0.73 ERA against the Phils. You know what, that is exactly what will happen. Man, this prognosticating is so easy...

Fast forward to right now, this instant, and I'm still shaking with excitement. Anyone that doubted Roy Halladay, even fans like myself with only the purest intentions, well, our questions, our fears, no matter how vague they might have been, were answered.

Can Roy Halladay carry his regular season dominance over into postseason play? Yes.

Will Roy Halladay be the playoff stopper, the unbeatable ace that the Phillies need to win another World Series? Yes.

Is Roy Halladay better than Cliff Lee? Emphatically, yes.

This was better than the perfect game. That was against a free-swinging Florida Marlins team that Roy picked apart, like an expert surgeon performing a simple, routine operation. Tonight was a playoff game against what seemed to be a worthy foe, and Roy Halladay rendered them helpless.

There's still a lot to do before another World Series berth is ensured. It would be nice if Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels threw a few gems of their own, and five hits isn't going to cut it in regular, hard-fought games.

But after seeing Roy make the Reds look like Little Leaguers tonight, confidence is certainly high. There's no reason at all that the Phillies can't win another World Series; now, they just have to do it. Now, the only question is: What will Roy Halladay do for an encore?

Tonight, someone (I can't keep track of all the Halladay-related talk) reminded us in a tweet that Doc, Mr. Doctober himself, bought the entire team engraved watches after his perfect game. "What will Roy get them this time?" he asked, only to answer his own question. "Rings."