The Starting Nine: The 2011 Phillies First Nine Games

The Phillies 2011 season is now well underway, and you'd be hard-pressed to find any fans anywhere who are disappointed with how things have gone so far.

The offense has come through with timely hits and run production, most recently from the red hot Shane Victorino, who almost single-handedly lifted the Phillies to a series victory over the Atlanta Braves on Sunday afternoon.

After tons of hand-wringing in the offseason about Ryan Howard, his contract, and the effect of aging, the lefty slugger has just burst out of the gate to the tune of a 1.029 OPS after nine games, and is tied for the league lead in RBIs with Prince Fielder.

On starting pitching, thought by all to be this team's primary strength, the results have been something of a mixed bag.  With each of the Four Aces having two turns through the rotation, we've had two (predictably) terrific starts from Roy Halladay, one great start and one absolute dud from Cliff Lee, two very good outings from Roy Oswalt, and one weirdly bad game and one great start from the kid, Cole Hamels.

The main knock on the Phillies after the first series against the Astros and Mets was that they built their 5-1 record on the back of two below-average ballclubs.  While this may be the case, the team's strong performance in Atlanta this weekend -- arguably one of the three best teams in the league -- should lend some support to the quality of the Phillies' play so far.  Even in Friday's loss to Tim Hudson, the Phillies did a nice job of keeping the righty on his heels, scoring three runs against probably the best pitcher they've faced all season.  With the exception of the first eight innings of Opening Day, the offense has rarely looked helpless or inept.  The Phillies team batting average of .334 is by far the best in the National League, and the team OBP of .380 trails only Cincinnati's .381.  The team batting average seems to be largely based on an unsustainable .384 BABIP.

On the pitching side of the ledger, things look awfully good, despite poor outings from Lee, Hamels, and Joe Blanton in his sole start.  The Phillies lead all of baseball in FIP (2.47) and xFIP (3.07).  All "sample size" caveats apply, but so far, so good.

The maligned bullpen has done quite a nice job, as well.  Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the pitching staff this season, so far, is the total number of home runs allowed: three, fewest in all of baseball, including zero by the bullpen.

In all, this was probably the best that we, as fans, could reasonably hope for after the team's first nine games.  The Phillies properly beat up on two weaker clubs, and more than held their own against a strong contender on the road.  While all signs point to the offense playing over their heads pretty substantially, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that the best is yet to come on the pitching side of the ledger. And that's pretty scary for the rest of the National League.

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