August 24, 2011

Shane Victorino for MVP? Shane Victorino for MVP.

Before 2011, Shane Victorino's best on-base percentage was .358 in 2009. It's .389 this year, good for eighth in the National League. Hunter Pence's OBP, by comparison, is a mere .365. Fellow centerfielder Michael Bourn is way down at .360.

Shane's best slugging percentage was previously .447 in 2008. He's currently at .551, which is fifth in the NL. Better than Mike Stanton and his 30 homers; better than Michael Morse and his 30 doubles; better than Albert Pujols, Troy Tulowitzki, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce.

His 14 triples are a career-best, and he's 4 homers away from tying a career-best in that category, too.

And he's done it all in only 385 at-bats! Couple that with Gold Glove defense and, oh yeah, being the top hitter on the best team in baseball, and you have the resume of a legitimate MVP candidate.

Unfortunately, Shane won't win the award. Prince Fielder has a .300/.413/.552 slash line for another National League playoff lock, the Milwaukee Brewers, and his teammate Ryan Braun is sporting an equally impressive .328/.399/.586 line himself. Even if they split the vote, 23-year-old Justin Upton's .915 OPS for an unexpected contender in Arizona would probably win the day.

But Victorino deserves a top-5 finish and the kudos that comes with a top season, and only recently has the much-deserved, Shane-oriented groundswell begun. As this post from ESPN's SweetSpot blog shows, there's really not much difference between Shane's season and Jacoby Ellsbury's dynamic year at the plate in Boston. Yet Ellsbury is receiving boatloads of praise for his maturation into an all-around hitter, while Shane toils in obscurity. Well, as obscure as gets when you're the centerfielder for one of baseball's big three teams.

While 13 steals and 9 homers in only 294 at-bats is very impressive, there's no doubt that Chase Utley is on the decline. Ryan Howard's 96 RBIs don't exactly make up for an .820 OPS, the lowest of his career. Jimmy Rollins put up top-5 shortstop numbers for a few months before suffering another inevitable lower-body injury. Placido Polanco and Raul Ibanez are breaking down before our eyes.

But, almost out of nowhere, Shane Victorino has become a patient, smart hitter, powering an inconsistent Phillies offense and providing a rotation of studs with just enough runs to take a commanding NL East lead.

The addition of Pence and the emergence of John Mayberry Jr. have taken some of the pressure off, but the Phillies owe a great deal of whatever offensive success they've had this year to Victorino. If that's not an MVP, I don't know what is.

August 19, 2011

The utter irrelevance of the NFL preseason.

Nothing is more irrelevant than the NFL preseason.

A bunch of Phillies fans freaked out earlier this week when Charlie Manuel's long leash led to Roy Halladay blowing a lead in the 9th inning of a game with the Arizona Diamondbacks. These folks were ridiculous; Halladay had struck out the side in the 8th inning, and he's second in Major League Baseball with seven complete games. Besides, it's only one game out of 162.

But at least they were riled up by a legitimate regular season match-up, and with playoff implications to boot. People who blow a gasket over a football team's preseason outings are considerably more absurd, and we're seeing them come out of the woodwork after the Eagles' poor showing last night in Pittsburgh.

Is it heartening to see Michael Vick flounder, to see the Steelers run wild all over Juan Castillo's defense? Not at all. But does it really, truly matter? Not in the slightest.

Preseason games are glorified scrimmages. Just because the NFL turns on the cameras, charges season ticket holders full price and ships Troy Aikman and Joe Buck out to commentate doesn't make them any more legitimate. The players hate the games, the fans are bored out of their minds, most of the coaches are just going through the motions. They're a necessary evil perpetuated by a sports conglomerate intend on wringing every dollar out of our pockets...but they mean extremely little, perhaps nothing, when it comes to your team's immediate future.

If your team looks like it stinks, that's OK. Maybe they're testing out new packages, or keeping some of the better ones under wraps until the games start to matter. Or maybe they just came off a lengthy lockout, overhauled a good portion of their defense and brought in a new coordinator who's still working out the kinks. Maybe they were playing another elite team that seems to place more of an emphasis on strong preseason play. Maybe one of their best wideouts is recovering from a health scare, and maybe the team's top two run-stopping defensive tackles didn't even touch the field. There are a hundred different variables at play here, and the only assumption I would not draw from any them is "the Eagles are suddenly not a good team."

As noted many times before, preseason record doesn't reflect regular season success. If I attended a poor Vick practice at training camp in the Lehigh Valley, I'd pay it the same mind as a poor preseason outing. There's really no difference, besides playing at a fancy stadium in another city. Now, if Vick had sucked all training camp and preseason, or if, say, the offensive line had looked gross for a month straight, that's cause for concern. But don't take anything you saw last night and extrapolate that throughout the upcoming year. That's a waste of time.

The number one goal of the preseason is to survive. Limiting injuries whenever possible is key, which is why the starters never play more than a half. If a team is lucky, they'll weed out a few valuable special teams players from the bottom of the roster. Sometimes a backup might outperform a starter and move up the depth chart. But that's about it. There's no need to compete with opposing teams, no need to try anything special. Save that shit for the regular season.

Believe nothing you see in the preseason. Enjoy the fact that real football is around the corner, but don't overreact to what's happening on the field. The Eagles may not become the team we're all hoping to see, but the time to worry about that is after Week 1, not Week -3.

What's wrong with Adrian Gonzalez?

A lot is going right in Boston. Erik Bedard has pitched well, John Lackey continues to drastically improve, Jacoby Ellsbury is doing his "young Barry Bonds" impression and the Red Sox are even turning triple plays!

Yet even with these individual steps forward, it still feels like the team as a whole is taking a step back. After ending July with a 20-6 record, they are a mediocre 9-8 in August. Injuries are are sidelining or hobbling the likes of Clay Buchholz, Marco Scutaro, Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz; Tim Wakefield has been stuck on 199 wins for weeks; and Carl Crawford apparently forgot that he is supposed to be really good. But the point of greatest concern might be Adrian Gonzalez.

Gonzo still has wonderful numbers -- he's among the American League leaders in average, hits, RBIs, on-base percentage and OPS -- but he hasn't been himself lately. From June until the middle of July, he was on an absolute tear. Pitchers would really sweat trying to get him out. And if there was a runner in scoring position? He was coming around. Adrian was the man you wanted at the dish in a key spot.

Since the Home Run Derby, however, things haven't been the same. Gonzalez has sickeningly few extra-base hits or RBIs. It's not that he isn't hitting at all; it's that he is just smacking singles with no one onboard. With other players, that wouldn't be the worst thing, but Gonzo isn't like other players: Few men in baseball are slower than him.

I'd like a dollar for every time I've heard "a long single for Gonzalez." The Red Sox have grounded into an AL-worst 110 double plays this year, and Gonzo and his lack of speed are no small part of that. Not only is he failing to slug or drive in runs, but now he's creating outs.

It's hard to say if the Derby screwed up his swing, as if often does with line drive hitters, or if an injury has been the issue. Gonzalez plays nearly every inning of the season, but he has missed a few games recently to stiffness in his neck; Terry Francona admitted that this may be sapping his power. Regardless, he doesn't look like an MVP right now; Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia have leapt ahead of Gonzalez in the WAR rankings.

But with their recent injuries, including Youk's DL stint, the Red Sox need him to be that MVP. He's the number-three hitter, he makes the lineup work. Whatever's wrong with him needs to improve, because right now it's the offense that looks weak. And this team was built to hit; built around Adrian Gonzalez.

August 16, 2011

Would you trade Domonic Brown for Logan Morrison?

Because I sure would.

And before I get bombarded with accusations of being a "Domonic Brown hater," let me lay out some facts.

Logan Morrison's about to turn 24 years old (he's nine days older than Brown). He hit .283/.390/.447 for the Marlins in 2010; he was hitting .249/.327/.464 before last weekend's surprise demotion. His career OPS is .810; Brown's is .699. And he followed up 2010's two homers with an unexpected 17 in 2011; there could be some sneaky power developing in Mr. Morrison's bat.

He started playing left field full-time this season -- the same job Brown is presumed to snag in 2012 -- and while LoMo's not the best defensive outfielder in the game, Dom's made more than a few gaffes himself out in the field.

Simply put, Logan Morrison's proven to be a very effective big league player. Dom Brown, albeit in less than half the at-bats, has not. If the Phillies recognize that striking now trumps planning for later -- and every move they've made recently indicates that they do -- swapping Brown for a smart hitter like LoMo would make sense.

It's all but a certainty that the Marlins will move Morrison in the offseason; he's too talented to stash in AAA, and he's seemingly burned too many bridges in Miami. Hell, you might be able to get him for less than Dom. But if the opportunity arises, Ruben Amaro Jr. would be foolish not to consider moving his top prospect in a one-for-one swap.

Morrison appears to come equipped with a fiery, outspoken attitude, which is often admired in Philadelphia. His love of Twitter has been well-documented, but he wisely doesn't seem nervous about taking those thoughts beyond the Internet. LoMo's fired a few (more than justified) shots at teammate Hanley Ramirez this season, even though it's not often wise to criticize the team's star (an issue that can apparently be resolved with a demotion to AAA).

Whether he was consciously trying to get out of town or merely commenting on a loafing teammate, that kind of honesty will get you somewhere in Philly. And with a bevy of veterans in the locker room, it's doubtful that LoMo would ever get out of hand. Chase Utley's dreamy-yet-icy stare would be enough to make any ballplayer put down his iPhone and get over to the cages.

If the response to Hunter Pence's outgoing personality and skilled hitting is any indication, Logan Morrison would fit in Philadelphia like a glove. Just another thing to think about when the calendar switches over to 2012.

August 8, 2011

Death to Cain and Lincecum.

The Philadelphia Phillies cannot hit Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.

To be fair, nor can most Major League Baseball teams. Lincecum has a career 2.98 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and .222 batting average against. Cain has a 3.39 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and .228 BAA. They've shut down their fair share of offensive juggernauts, and the 2011 Phillies (seventh in the National League in runs scored) aren't exactly that.

But the Phillies' woes against these two right-handers are getting to be more than just your typical struggles at the plate. An absolute gem from Cole Hamels was needed to overpower an almost equally excellent Cain on Saturday, and Lincecum easily shut them down on Sunday afternoon. It's a bummer to nitpick a 9-1 stretch and 3-1 series win over the defending champions, but this otherwise-wonderful journey to the West Coast was also a reminder that the road to a title probably goes through San Francisco's dual aces.

And what a bumpy road that'll be. Ryan Howard is 6 for 26 with 11 Ks versus Lincecum. Raul Ibanez is 1 for 16. Hunter Pence is 3 for 26; Chase Utley is 4 for 27. Howard is 2 for 16 against Cain. Shane Victorino is 3 for 13. Ibanez is 1 for 8.

Being unable to hit two of the 10 or 15 best starters in baseball is usually not that big of a deal. But in a seven-game series, as Phillies fans noticed last October, it can be deadly.

If push came to shove, I'd take Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels over Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and the unexpectedly resurgent Ryan Vogelsong. Hell, I'd even consider Vance Worley over Madison Bumgarner. But it's not as easy as "my top four starters are a little better than your top four starters, so we win." If it were, the Phillies would take every series.

In order to beat the Giants -- unless Jonathan "Vile Thing" Sanchez or Barry Zito are on the mound -- the Phillies need to literally shut them out. San Francisco's offense is just pitiful enough to make that a reality, but a few missteps and another crazy week from someone like Cody Ross might be all they need.

We know exactly what the Phillies are: shutdown starters, strong relievers and middle-of-the-pack hitters that tag losers but wilt against studs. And we know what the Giants are: awful hitters, solid bullpen arms and a top-heavy rotation. But their heavies have Philadelphia hitters, especially Ryan Howard, tied in knots.

So how might the Phillies overcome this obstacle? Reinvent themselves as an offense...or root for the half-game-out Arizona Diamondbacks. For the next 40 days, we should all pray at the altar of Justin Upton, Miguel Montero and Ian Kennedy. Stranger things have happened, and it would certainly make October a lot easier.

August 1, 2011

All your corners are belong to us.

Upon hearing that the Philadelphia Eagles had signed Nnamdi Asomugha, the first thing I thought of was Cliff Lee.

When the Philadelphia Phillies traded for Roy Halladay in December of 2009, there was much rejoicing. "Three aces," everyone thought. "No one will be able to withstand Halladay, Lee and Cole Hamels in the postseason."

But then news trickled out that Lee had been dealt to Seattle, partly to "restock the cupboard" with prospects and partly to save a little bit of money.

In moving Lee, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. bet that two aces would be enough. He was wrong, and while he corrected that error in judgment by acquiring Roy Oswalt (and bringing Lee back in the offseason), it took a lot of time and more than a little luck to put it all back together.

And that's where Andy Reid, Howie Roseman and Joe Banner are at now. Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie make it three Pro Bowl-caliber cornerbacks on the Eagles roster, but you can only start two. Will the Eagles trade Asante Samuel, or will they sit back and enjoy the mess of talent they've assembled in the defensive backfield?

This comprehensive blog post from Philly.com's Sheil Kapadia outlines the value in keeping Samuel. According to Kapadia (and Football Outsiders):
  • The Eagles had to cover three or more receivers 47% of the time in 2010.
  • The Green Bay Packers played with three or more receivers 60% of the time.
So there should be opportunities to play three top corners, especially on a team with Super Bowl aspirations. And the additions of Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins, under the the tutelage of fiery Jim Washburn, should increase the pressure on opposing quarterbacks and make the secondary's job even easier. A trio of studs would clean up back there.

Mostly, I think it's tough to end up with an embarrassment of riches at one position -- especially a key one -- and then revert back to just "very good." Amaro tried to win and plan for the future by swapping out Lee for Halladay; it blew up in his face. Do Reid and Roseman want to risk making the same mistake?

A lot can happen over the course of 16 NFL games, and the Eagles would be wise to start this march to the Super Bowl with an abundance of ammunition. You never know when you're gonna need it.