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Polanco'd! (or, What Really Happened to the Phillies Offense)

Ryan Howard: the cause of, and solution to, all the Phillies' offensive problems. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
Ryan Howard: the cause of, and solution to, all the Phillies' offensive problems. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
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Even when the Phillies offense was THE PHILLIES OFFENSE, you got the sense it wasn’t quite good enough for Charlie Manuel. Just about every season, the team turned in a collective batting average around .260, middle of the pack in the National League; the next spring, Manuel would express perplexity at his hitters’ low batting averages and suggest that he expected to find a .300 hitter or two in his lineup as the season got underway.

The 2011 Phillies do have a .300 hitter in their midst: Placido Polanco, at .309. But few fans would suggest that Polly is the best hitter on the team; the average is pretty, but doesn’t draw walks or drive the ball out of the park. At most, he’s the beacon of relative consistency to which we’re orienting ourselves while waiting for the real big bats—Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, maybe Jimmy Rollins, Raul Ibanez if he can reverse time or Domonic Brown if he can speed it up—to generate enough offense to support a historically great pitching staff.

The problem is that the Phillies, collectively, have become Polanco: certainly compared to what they did just two or three years ago, they produce relatively little offense that doesn’t show up in batting average. Making matters worse, they’re hitting .247 as a team. 

One way to quantify what’s happened to the Phillies offense is to track what we might call "Isolated OPS" (IsOPS)—on-base percentage plus slugging percentage when batting average is removed from each. This is fairly close to the concept of Secondary Average, though that also captures net steals (stolen bases minus caught stealing), and frankly I don’t want to bother trying to figure it out for the whole team. (That said, we should note in passing that the Phils' efficacy on the base paths didn't leave town with Davey Lopes: as a team, they're a shiny 44 of 52 on steal attempts.) The Phillies’ team numbers for IsOPS over the last five seasons—since they emerged as the class of the NL East—are as follows: .264, .260, .267, .225, .197.

(Importantly, the 2007 number should be seen in the context of the team’s .274 batting average that season; the whole club batted .274/.354/.458 for an .812 OPS, which is higher than every Phillies regular in 2011 other than Shane Victorino. Lest you think back too fondly to ’07, though, remember that Kyle Kendrick started Game 2 of the Division Series that year.)

Being nerdly types who kinda really do think a walk is almost as good as a hit, we around here tend to bemoan the diminished quality of Phillies at-bats. And it’s true that many of the walking fools of lineups past—Pat Burrell and Jayson Werth above all—have moved on. But the Isolated OBP (OBP minus batting average) of recent Phillies teams has seen a rather gentle decline, from .080 in 2007 to .077, .076, .072 and .073 in the seasons since then. (To give Polanco his due, his walk rate is sharply up this season: 7.8 of his plate appearances, compared to 5.3 last year. Same with Ben Francisco, who’s walked in 12.8 of his plate appearances—about 50 percent above his career rate.)

No, the problem is the power. There are many ways to capture this, but here’s one stark example: in both 2007 and 2009, five Philies topped 20 home runs. In 2008, the number was four (and ten had at least 9). Last year? Howard had 31, Werth had 27, three others (Victorino, Ibanez, Utley) had at least 16. In 2011, Howard is on pace to hit 32, Ibanez for 20, and that’s it. The Philies are tied for 9th in the NL with 52 home runs, 24 behind the Brewers and Diamondbacks.

The team’s best IsOPS performer is also arguably the biggest culprit in the dropoff over the last few years: Ryan Howard. His IsOPS in 2007 was .440; in the years since, it’s been .380, .373, .306, and .316. Polanco’s .130 is nothing to write home about… unless you’re Ross Gload, whose 11 singles and one walk in 41 plate appearances give him an IsOPS of .018. Chase Utley is at a more than respectable .258; likewise Victorino at .285 and Francisco at .270. 

If there’s real reason for optimism here, it’s that a lot of these guys have shown themselves to be better hitters in the second half. It’s true for Howard above all—he’s a career .261/.342/.524 guy before the all-star break, compared to .295/.401/.616 after—but Rollins adds 67 points after the break, Ruiz 120 (!), Polanco himself 24, Ibanez 20. Their staying true to form won't bring back Werth or Burrell, but would go a long way toward reasserting the Phillies offense as a force, if not on par with the relentless attack of yesteryear, something good enough that the ace du jour usually need not throw a shutout to win.