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Pat Burrell's Good Bad Year

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As an mlb.tv subscriber this year, I've had the varying pleasure of watching the game through the eyes of other teams' broadcasters. Some of them, like the San Francisco Giants duo of Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow, are really, really good. Others (Arizona, I'm looking in your direction) not so much. But what's almost universal in other teams' discussion of the Phillies--and this is also true when the team shows up on ESPN or FOX--is that the first time Pat Burrell comes to the plate, the broadcasters will express some consternation that Burrell is having a poor season, failing to protect Ryan Howard, triggering the wrath of the Philadelphia fans, etc.

I think it's fair to say that this perception lingers within the Philadelphia sports world as well. When Burrell fails--as was the case in the 7th inning of the middle game of the recent Mets series, when he struck out pinch-hitting for Adam Eaton with one out and two men in scoring position--it's expected. (Thankfully, Jimmy Rollins got him off the talk-radio hook by following up with a three-run homer.) When he succeeds--as he did a night later against Billy Wagner, with a game-tying homer in the 9th--it's regarded as a fluke.

Burrell's full-season line to date, at least the stats they flash when he comes to bat, seems to back up this impression: he's 41 for 187 (.219), with 8 home runs and 29 RBI. His slugging percentage is just .401, not what you want from your top right-handed slugger pulling down upwards of $13 million.

But here's where it gets weird for me. It just doesn't feel like he's having that bad of a season. Part of it is the number I haven't mentioned yet: Burrell's .386 on-base percentage. That's driven by the 50 walks Burrell has drawn in 2007, second only to Barry Bonds in the NL. Part of it is that his numbers with runners in scoring position--Exhibit A in every offseason case made against Burrell--are pretty good: .277/.438/.489 in 62 plate appearances.


And part of it is just the quality of certain at-bats I've seen--which I suppose is the risk of "watching the games," something I didn't have occasion to do nearly as much in previous seasons, before getting an internet connection fast enough to support mlb.tv. I'm specifically thinking of Burrell's first trip to the plate in Tuesday night's 7-3 win over the White Sox. He came up in the bottom of the 1st with the Phillies trailing 2-0, the bases loaded and two out. Chicago starter Jose Contreras had pitched himself into some trouble with a walk and a hit batsman following a Shane Victorino infield single, but he'd already struck out Ryan Howard and was in a position to escape.

Instead, Burrell got ahead in the count, worked it full--and held his swing when ball four floated low and outside. He forced in a run, Greg Dobbs followed with a two-run single, and the Phillies had a lead Cole Hamels could (and did) run with.

Burrell's linescore for the game was 0-2, 2 BB, RBI. Not spectacular, and the paper and Sportscenter focused on Hamels' gem and Chase Utley's big night at the plate. But it's not hard to imagine that if Burrell had been retired there, the whole game unfolds differently.

There's some reason to think that Burrell's unspectacular stat line thus far is a result of bad luck. The Hardball Times has him with a .250 BABIP (batting average on balls in play); the norm is around .300. His early line against lefty pitchers also seems flukish: at .167/.320/.350 before today's 0-2 against Sox starter John Danks, Burrell is about 260 points of OPS below his career averages facing southpaws. With some regression to the mean over the season's remaining 96 games, Pat should approach his usual numbers.

Or maybe the bounces will keep going against Burrell, lefties have figured out a way to consistently retire him, and the numbers will remain anemic. At this point, though, I can't remember many "disappointing" seasons that have looked better, or seemed more productive.