Thanks to a combination of the site upgrade and time constraints (stupid day jobs...), TGP has turned into a game thread-driven site through the early going in 2008. With the club off today, it seems like a good time to take a step back and try to assess where the Phillies are two weeks into the new campaign. The difficulty here is trying to stay rational after an infuriating loss like yesterday's 6-5 extra inning decision to the Chicago Cubs--the Phils' fourth one-run defeat in five such games, which dropped them back below .500 at 6-7, a game and a half behind the first-place Marlins. But let's try.
Maybe the first thing to keep in mind is that this start, mediocre though it is, has it all over last year's curtain-raising disaster and indeed most of the early results from the last few campaigns. Here's how the team has fared through 13 games since 2002:
The chapped-ass factor, of course, is that the team could, perhaps should be closer to 8-5, a mark that would put them in the division lead. What's gone wrong?
Overall, the Phillies are out-hitting their opponents big-time through the first 13 games. As a team, the club is hitting .256/.342/.444 for a .786 OPS, fourth in the NL. Phils pitchers have held the opposition to a .237/.321/.370 performance, and the club has hit nearly twice as many home runs (18 to 10). Yet they've been outscored overall, 62 runs to 59. The biggest culprits are defensive lapses and a very surprising failure to hit with runners in scoring position.
The Phillies are hitting .225 in RISP situations, 13th in the NL; take away Pat Burrell's 7 for 13 (.538) performance, and the average drops to .184. The worst culprits have been Geoff Jenkins, Ryan Howard, and Pedro Feliz, who are a combined 3 for 37. The 2007 club hit .259 with RISP, and neither Jenkins nor Feliz has shown a tendency to hit worse in those situations (indeed, Feliz's 2005-2007 OPS with RISP is .785, way better than his overall mark of .712 for that period). So this probably works itself out.
The defensive struggles, which you might have heard something about, are the bigger problem here. The Phils' 15 errors and .970 fielding percentage are both 15th in the NL, ahead of only Pittsburgh. Incredibly, 13 of the team's 62 runs allowed are unearned—21 percent of the total. For 2007, Phillies opponents scored 821 runs, 56 of which were unearned—a bit less than 7 percent. Chase Utley is the worst offender, with four errors, but this isn't a one-man concern: Feliz, Jimmy Rollins, Eric Bruntlett and Jamie Moyer also have committed two each. Howard hasn’t yet been charged with a miscue, but his defensive shortcomings--limited range, questionable hands—are all too often on display when he’s forced to handle tough but catchable throws from the other infielders.
But error totals alone don’t tell the whole story. In Sunday’s loss, the Cubs scored three runs in the third off Moyer as Phillies outfielders made three misplays, none of which were reflected on the scorecard. First, with slow-footed Chicago catcher Henry Blanco trying to score from second on a single, Burrell bobbled the ball and could not get off a throw. Later in the inning, with Derrek Lee at the plate, Jenkins could not come up with the catch on a tough but playable foul ball along the right field line; given new life, Lee lined a Jamie Moyer pitch to center field, where fill-in Jayson Werth got a bad break on the ball and watched it sail over his head for a two-run double.
As with the RISP struggles, there was little if any evidence to suggest this would be a bad defensive team: the Phillies committed the fourth-fewest errors in the NL last season, and were tied for the second-best fielding percentage (with, um, the Pirates). The big change was swapping in Feliz, a talented defender, for the Helms/Dobbs/Nunez mess at third base. It would seem that this defensive ineptitude won't continue, but I was saying that a week ago too.
These problems mask some pretty good news, starting in the bullpen. Here’s the combined line for Brad Lidge, J.C. Romero, Rudy Seanez and Chad Durbin: 26.2 IP, 12 hits, 14 walks, 20 strikeouts… 1 earned run (0.34 ERA). That won’t last, obviously, but this still looks like the best Phillies bullpen since… I can’t even remember. The Tug McGraw/Ron Reed era? Even the one reliever with gruesome overall numbers, Tom Gordon, has looked overpowering in stretches and leads the team with a K/9 ratio of 11.12… which, unfortunately, is also his ERA thanks mostly to that 5 ER, 1/3 IP season opener performance. Overall, the bullpen has a 3.53 ERA, 5th in the NL.
There’s also the early dominance of Cole Hamels, the stunning adequacy of Adam Eaton (two quality starts against good Reds and Mets lineups) and very hot starts from Burrell and Werth at the plate. If Brett Myers has his adjustment issues behind him now, the team could be poised to put some wins together. Perhaps more important, it doesn’t look like anyone else in the East is going to run away and hide: the Braves are facing a run of pitching injuries, and the Mets’ age in key spots is going to hamper them all season long.
As usual, the Phillies are steering a middle course: this isn’t the awful start of last year, but they’ve let a few winnable games get away already. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but I think there’s more reason for optimism than despair.