No Answers on the Bench

At 5 for 22, Ross Gload is by far the Phillies' best pinch-hitter in 2010. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Let’s get something out of the way at the start: a Phillies lineup boasting seven recent all-stars isn’t supposed to need help. Robust offense has been the foundation of the team’s success, the constant that, more than anything else, carried them to three straight NL East titles, two pennants and one world f. championship. Charlie Manuel’s mantra "We gon’ hit," isn’t meant as a threat; it’s a promise.

Over the last two weeks, of course, the Phillies haven’t kept that promise. Since May 18, a span of 13 games, they’ve scored 22 runs; over the last 9, they’ve scored an unfathomably low 10. (By contrast, in the four games before the skid began, they scored 35.) During the stretch of eight games in which they were shut out five times and tallied seven total runs, the Phils collectively hit .186/.259./249.

The individual performances of the putative stars have been atrocious: Jayson Werth has hit .154/.195/.282 since May 18, Carlos Ruiz .154/.290/.154 (not including today’s loss in Atlanta) over the same period; Ryan Howard did his share over the five-shutouts-in-eight-games stretch with a .148/.281/.148 stretch, giving those "singles hitter" jokes a little more bite; his 0 for 4 today brought those numbers down further. But it’s almost beside the point to pick on any individual Phillie; literally nobody in the lineup has been hitting.

Which gets us to the real issue. Usually when a team is struggling this badly, the manager has a few guys he can plug in for a day or two to let the regular clear his head and hopefully find his stroke. Indeed, Manuel has tried this: Ross Gload was in today for Werth, leading off, and Greg Dobbs batted second and played third for the injured Placido Polanco and sub Juan Castro, whose awful hitting at least is characteristic of career norms. They went a combined 0 for 5 with a walk.

 

Gload brought a .242/.242/.424 line into Sunday’s game; he’s been far and away the best hitter off the Phillies bench. Dobbs entered today’s game with a .130/.200/.260 line (and was pinch-hit for by Castro, which might rank among the worst insults someone can deliver via  lineup decision). Ben Francisco, who’s seen time in place of Raul Ibanez, was hitting .194/.256/.250 on the season before getting a pinch-double today. Backup catcher Brian Schneider is batting .174/.296/.174; his terrible batting has made it more difficult for Manuel to give Ruiz rest as he battles through a variety of minor injuries.

The reserves have failed both when starting games and coming in to hit. Collectively, Phillies pinch-hitters in 2010 came into Sunday’s game batting .119—worst by far in the league, and actually worse than Phillies pitchers, who collectively hit .125 through their first 29 games. (The pinch-hitters are tied with the Padres for the NL's worst OPS, at .427.) Nor is the botched bench a one-year problem: last season, Phils pinch-hitters batted .186 (second worst in the league) with an OPS of .630 that was 12th in the NL.

Few answers suggest themselves. The Phils could cut Dobbs in favor of infielder Cody Ransom (.239/.296/.484, 11 HR at triple-A Lehigh Valley) or outfielder John Mayberry Jr. (.283/.345/.497). When Jimmy Rollins returns—assuming he can stay returned—that likely will push Castro back to the bench and Valdez to the waiver wire; the opposite might make more sense. Similarly, Schneider is probably rooted in place because GM Ruben Amaro Jr. gave him a two-year deal; Paul Hoover, who more than adequately filled in during his absence with an injury, might be an equal or superior option. Gload and Francisco are what they are, a decent pair of backup outfielders for a club that sent its three starters to the all-star game last summer.

So the answers to the current slump won’t be found on the Phillies’ bench. But slumps end, even this one (presumably). Longer-term, the concern might be whether Amaro’s difficulties building a decent collection of reserves represent not so much bad luck with small sample sizes but some deeper problem of talent evaluation or resource allocation. As the lineup core continues to age and injuries such as those that have slowed or sidelined Rollins, Ruiz and Polanco become more frequent and severe, this is going to matter.

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