Phillies Mid-Season Report Card

OK, so the Phillies don’t officially hit the mid-season point (81 games) until Wednesday night, but we operate on a “time-permitting” basis here at BSB, so the 2011 edition of the Mid-Season Report Card is being rolled out two days early.  In the mid-season Report Card, we like to go a little deeper into the performance of each individual position and hand out grades based on the entire season’s performance, not just the previous ten games or so.
For all the offensive woes and injuries the Phils have dealt with so far, us fans have to keep reminding ourselves that they have the best record in baseball.  It’s hard to believe that at this point last season, the team was in third place in the NL East, and trailed the Braves by six games.  Not only did they end up winning the division, but they entered the playoffs as the favorites to win it all.  That thought should help the optimism level as we move into the second half of 2011.

Ruben Amaro may not have as much financial flexibility as he did last year (when he added Oswalt’s contract) but it still seems likely that he will make some move to add a right-handed bat that can slot into a corner outfield position.  That speculation and discussion will dominate much of the next month for media and fans following the team.  Amaro will also be kicking the tires on available relief pitchers, mostly because injuries have forced a heavy workload on some young arms. 

 On to the grades.  Any player that has started at least five games at a position is listed (with the number in parentheses representing the number of starts they’ve made there).

Catcher, Carlos Ruiz (53), Brian Schneider (14), Dane Sardinha (12):  No one could have expected Ruiz to match last year’s production (.302 BA, .400 OBP, and a handful of MVP votes), and the hitter he’s been this year is definitely closer to who he really is.  Still, like just about every hitter on the team, he’s at least slightly underperformed, with just a .346 slugging percentage.  Schneider has had a disappointing Phillies tenure.  He’s hitting .161, and seems to end up on the DL every couple of months, even though he only plays once a week.  Sardinha is a fine AAA catcher, I’m sure.

Grade:  C+ 

Ryan's still looking for his old power stroke

First Base, Ryan Howard (78):  One underrated aspect of Ryan Howard is his durability.  For as big ashe is, it’s impressive that he’s out there every single day.  He’s well on his way to 500+ at-bats, which would mean he’s done that in every one of his full ML seasons.  Now, the question is whether or not he’ll ever be the 45-50 home run guy that he was up until last year.  It’s true that home runs have been down across the game the last couple of years, but Howard’s have dropped by about 33%.  Right now, he’s on pace to about match his total of 31 last year, and his slugging percentage is below .500.  With Howard, you always expect a second-half surge, but it’s worth noting that that surge didn’t come last year.  His 62 RBI do rank 2nd in the NL, but I’d argue that the lack of production from the 3-hole has left a ton of RBI opportunities sitting there for the big guy.  He gets a bonus grade bump for only committing one error so far.

Grade:  C+

Second Base, Wilson Valdez (31), Chase Utley (28), Pete Orr (16):  Second base this year resembles shortstop at the mid-season point last year, with Valdez seeing a lot of playing time in place of the injured starter.  One problem: though his defense continued to be excellent, he hasn’t hit as much as he did last year, sporting a miserable .306 slugging percentage.  That opened the door for some starts by Orr, who wasn’t any better, slugging .279 before exiting to AAA upon Utley’s return.

It’s difficult to draw any conclusions on Utley because of the spring training injury and the somewhat limited time he’s played so far.  On the plus side, he appears to be running well on the knee and looks as healthy as we could hope.  On the negative side, his offensive numbers have steadily declined every year since 2007.  This year, he’s hitting .270, with a solid .375 OBP, and a run-of-the mill .435 slugging.  It’s possible that that’s just who he is now, and the days of him being a .300/30 homer player appear to be over.

Grade:  C

Third Base, Placido Polanco (73), Valdez (6):  For the season’s first month, Polanco was the ONLY bright spot offensively.  But his .398 April average dropped to .248 in May, and he’s sitting at just .207 in June.  What does it all add up to?  Well, shockingly, if he were to match his 1st half performance in the 2nd half, it just may add up to the worst season of his long career.  While that says something about how consistent and good he’s been throughout that career, it’s also pretty terrible news for a Phillie team dying for hitting, especially from the right side of the plate. 

Still, assuming he can rebound from this downward trajectory his season has taken, he brings so much to the table in ways that don’t appear in the statistics, and the Phillies would be happy with a .290/9 home run season from their third baseman.

Grade:  C+

Shortstop, Jimmy Rollins (73), Valdez (5):  Much like we probably have to adjust our expectations for Utley, we’ve already had to adjust our expectations for the aging J-Roll.  He’s hitting .260 and on pace for 15 homers and 30 steals.  If you’re looking for any more than that from him at this point, you’re fooling yourself.  He’s also on pace for a career-high in walks.  It will be interesting to see if he returns next year (I don’t think he will) and, obviously, his performance over these next few months will go a long way in determining that.  He’s just starting to slip defensively, so any sort of long-term commitment is probably ill-advised.

Grade:  B-

Left Field, Raul Ibanez (69), John Mayberry (5):  So, three-year contracts for 37-year-olds may not be the best idea, huh?  Ibanez turned in a great 2009 season, and will most likely always be remembered fondly by Phillie fans, if for nothing more than the fun of the “Rauuuuuuullll!” cheer every time he got a big hit.  But he was mediocre last year and has been downright terrible at the plate in ’11.  His time as a Phillie, and very possibly his career, will wind down over these next few months.  If he doesn’t start hitting, it could possibly wind down on the bench.

Grade:  D 

The little Hawaiian leads the team in slugging

Center Field, Shane Victorino (60), Mayberry (13), Michael Martinez (6):  Pretty quietly, the Flyin’ Hawaiian has been the best offensive player on the Phils this season.  Victorino leads the team in average (.291), on-base percentage (.359), and even slugging percentage (.498).  He’s also second on the team in steals (12) and third in the NL in triples (8).  He’s accomplished all this despite being bounced all around the line-up.  He could be headed for his second All-Star game and earn his fourth straight Gold Glove.

Mayberry didn’t hit much when he was up, but he did help his value going forward by showing that he’s a capable center fielder.  He could possibly be a throw-in to a trade in the next month.  Martinez hasn’t even hit enough to justify a utility role (2 extra-base hits in 63 AB’s), but he’s a versatile defender, useful pinch-runner, and a Rule 5 pick, so he’s most likely here for the rest of the season.

Grade:  A-

Right Field: Ben Francisco (45), Domonic Brown (27):  After a decent-enough April, Francisco missed his chance to claim the right field job when he couldn’t buy a hit in May, and his season average is just .225.  That opened the door for Brown, but he too has failed to find the way through that wide open doorway.  After tearing up AAA in a brief stint after coming back from the broken hand injury, Brown came back to the majors and reverted right back to being the guy that couldn’t hit in his brief time in the majors last year.  He’s shown some raw power but has not yet shown the ability to hit a major league fastball.  A platoon with Francisco doesn’t even look feasible, with Brown hitting just .202 vs. right-handers.

Grade:  D

Starting Pitchers:
One of the many, many wonderful things about going into a season with four aces is that if one of them is forced to deal with injuries and a family crisis, you still have three other aces to fall back on.  That’s the position the Phils find themselves in, with Roy Oswalt heading to the DL for the second time with back issues, after also missing a week to deal with damage from tornadoes that ripped through his hometown in Mississippi.  Despite all that, and despite not picking up many wins, he was pitching really well through June 1st, with a 2.70 ERA.  In his four starts since then he struggled, and you have to wonder if the back problems were affecting his performance.  Hopefully he can get healthy and come back strong at some point this season.

As for the other three, it wouldn’t be a surprise right now to see either Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, or Cliff Lee walk away with a Cy Young Award come season’s end.  Their NL ranks, respectively: 2nd, 4th and 8th in ERA.  T1st, T3rd, and T7th in Wins.  4th, 1st, and 12th in WHIP.  1st, 5th, and 4th in Innings Pitched.  1st, 2nd, and 3rd in K/BB ratio.  And they’re doing all this in one of the best hitter’s parks in the game.  Just amazing.

It’s really only fair to compare Halladay to himself.  His numbers are just slightly better (but almost eerily similar) to his numbers of last year, when he won the Cy Young.  At 34-years-old, he’s showing zero signs of slowing down.  He’s basically a carbon-copy of the guy that was out there last year.  He’s almost mechanical in his ability to repeat the same pitches and the same delivery, pitch after pitch, game after game.

At this point last year, Hamels was still having some of the same struggles he had during his poor ’09 season.  I said in last season’s Mid-Season Report Card that he would never be a complete pitcher until he mastered a third pitch to go with his fastball and change-up.  Well, I think shortly thereafter he started really finding success with his cutter.  This year, though he still doesn’t throw it much, his curveball has been there for him when he needs it.  Suddenly, he’s a four-pitch pitcher, and one of the best in the game.  He’s having his best season by any measure, with a 2.49 ERA and an obscene 0.95 WHIP.  He’s cut his HR rate in half and is posting career best rates in walks and strike-outs as well.

Lee had some shaky outings in April and May, but in four June starts he’s allowed 1 run in 33 innings, taking back-to-back shutouts into his next start.  With that dominance, he can’t be counted out as challenging Halladay and Hamels for supremacy over the next few months.

The young guys that find themselves currently in the rotation, Vance Worley and Kyle Kendrick, with Oswalt and Joe Blanton on the DL, have held their own.  In six starts, Worley has a 2.83 ERA and has shown a lot of promise as a future key member of this rotation.  He needs to work on his control though.  With 16 walks in 35 innings, he’s very fortunate to have such a low ERA.  Splitting his time between the pen and the rotation, Kendrick has quietly pitched really well, with a 3.23 ERA and 1.27 WHIP.

The only starter that didn’t pitch too well was Blanton, who’s been out since mid-May with an elbow injury.  He was actually pitching pretty solidly in his last few starts before hitting the DL.  If he can make it back this season, Charlie and Rich Dubee may have some decisions to make on whether or not they want Big Joe back in the rotation.  He does have big game experience, and with Oswalt a question mark, it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that Blanton could be making a postseason start or two for this team.

Grade: A

Bullpen:
It’s been an interesting half-season for the Phillie bullpen.  In these few months, Ryan Madson has gone from the guy we were all sure could never be a closer, to the guy who looks like the prime candidate to be the team’s closer for the next few years.  With Brad Lidge missing the whole season so far, and Jose Contreras limited to just 14 innings because of two DL stints, Madson was the default closer choice, and he’s been great.  He has a 2.03 ERA and has converted 15 of 16 save opportunities.  With his and Lidge’s contracts expiring after this year, it seems very possible that the Phillies could hand Madson a closer-type contract and plan to keep him in that role for the next three or four years.

With Lidge and Contreras out, and Madson stepping into the closer role, the Phils’ needed some unproven arms to step up, and Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes have done just that.  Bastardo has been a revelation, allowing just 3 earned runs in 28 innings.  He’s been nearly unhittable, with opponents hitting .120 against him.  He does need to cut down on his walks though.  Stutes has looked up to the task of a 7th inning role in front of Bastardo and Madson.  Like the team’s other promising young arms, Worley and Bastardo, he needs to improve his control, but he’s got the stuff to get Big League hitters out, as his 2.92 ERA attests.

After Madson, Bastardo, and Stutes, the pen gets thin real quick, with the likes of David Herndon and Danys Baez.  J.C. Romero was released for ineffectiveness, and there are no other remotely proven pitchers available.  Even if Lidge and Contreras do return, they can’t be counted on to stay healthy, so Amaro will certainly be interested in adding at least one veteran to this bullpen.

Still, despite the injuries and inexperience, the pen has done a commendable job.  It helps that the starters eat so many innings, but with the offense not producing, the pen has still had to get the job done in a lot of close games.

Grade:  B+

Overall Team:  Yes, the team has the best record in baseball, but that doesn’t mean we can just hand them an automatic ‘A’.  We grade on a curve here, and when you come into the season with one of the best starting rotations in the history of the game, and a largely intact offense that carried this team to a world championship three years ago, the bar is set high.

Going into the NLCS last year, we said that the Phillies needed to play effective small ball.  They had the pitching to keep the Giants off the board, but they weren’t hitting and the Giants’ vaunted pitching staff wasn’t going to help matters.  They couldn’t do it, and they lost in six games.  It just might be time for Charlie, the coaching staff, and the players to come to grips with the fact that Rollins, Utley, and Howard are not the hitters they were three years ago, and Jayson Werth is gone.  They need to learn how to manufacture runs when they’re not getting hits.  Their pitchers will keep them in every game, and will often hold the opponent to zero or one or two runs.  On those nights, they have to be able to push a couple runs across the board.  Too often this year, they haven’t even mustered that.

All that being said, not only do they have the best record in baseball, but they have the best record in the NL by 4.5 games.  The pitching has been amazing to watch.  We just may end up hoping that the offense can get hot at the right time: October.  Because the pitchers are all but guaranteeing that the team will be there. 

Grade:  B+

Take Your Pick: Who’s the Favourite?

– All active American men’s tennis players have a combined ONE major title. 

– The highest ranked American is 9th in the world, and he is a 29-year old that no one has ever heard of (Mardy Fish). 

– The highest-ranked American under the age of 28 is Sam Querrey at #40.

Because of the historic low in which American men’s tennis is mired right now, most of the country is completely blind to the fact that we are enjoying one of the most interesting eras of tennis in a very long time.  In fact, I would argue that 2011 may be the most intriguing and interesting year of men’s tennis in my lifetime of fandom.  And, Wimbledon, which starts today, may be the most intriguing tournament of what could be an epic season of tennis.

The reason to get interested in men’s tennis right now is obvious – the Big Four.  As deep as the talent goes right now, the top of the men’s rankings is ripe with storyline after storyline, and the next two weeks at the hallowed grounds of the All-England Club should be absolutely fascinating!

After Rafael Nadal held on to his #1 ranking, by taking his record-tying 6th French Open title, I sent a text to the Lead BSB Tennis Correspondent, Alexi, that simply said “So…who’s the favorite now at Wimbledon?”  It was a simple question that drew upon an incredibly complex array of factors entering the 135th Championships at Wimbledon.  Let’s take a look at the four reasons (in reverse order of how I would have answered the question) why this normally simple and mundane question does not have such an elementary answer this year.

4). Andy Murray

While Tim Henman probably had what it takes mentally to break the British drought at Wimbledon, he didn't have it physically. Andy Murray looks like he is the exact opposite.

The last British male to win the singles’ title at their own heralded championship was Fred Perry in 1936.  But, now they have serious hopes of possibly breaking that heart-wrenching drought with their Scottish hero, Andy Murray.  However, as good as Murray has played and as serious of a contender he will likely be for many years to come, it still remains to be seen if he has the mental toughness to ever get it done.  He has made it to three major championships, but has not won a single set in any of them.  He has proven almost incapable of dealing with big-pressure moments, and Andy Murray in a Wimbledon final is probably a more pressure-packed moment than any player could possibly have, considering history and the fervor of tennis in the UK.  Because of all of this – and the fact that he is number 4 in the world and grass is not his best surface – Murray is clearly the #4 favorite to win the title this year.  But, just the fact that he’s Scottish and in the conversation adds greatly to the intrigue that these next two weeks will deliver.

3). Rafael Nadal
The #1 player in the world, who has already completed a career Grand Slam at the mere age of 25,

We were probably all correct when we believed that this generation of tennis players included the best that ever played. But, we may have all been too quick to figure out who was "The One"

is coming off a dominating performance in Paris to record his 6th French Open and 10th career Grand Slam title.  He is the #1 seed and has already won this tournament twice.  So, how is he the 3rd most likely to win it this year?  Well, I have no idea – and I am the one that made these rankings.  See, THIS is why this tournament is going to be so great!  The separation between the top 3 players on this surface, coming into this tournament is razor thin.  I have Nadal #3 not because of anything he can’t do (or hasn’t done), but just because I think that one of the other guys is playing slightly better tennis and one of the other guys is slightly better on this surface.  Would I bet against Rafa?  Hell no.  And, for the record, that Lead Tennis Correspondent I referred to above, he replied to my simple question with a simple answer, “I guess it’s gotta be Rafa.”  And, this from the biggest Federer fan I know.

2). Novak Djokovic

While this country was busy ignoring the world of tennis, Nole became the best player in the world

John McEnroe won 43 straight matches to open the 1984 tennis season, which still stands as the longest winning streak to open a season.  Djokovic was 42-0 this year entering his semifinal match against Roger Federer at the French Open last month.  Beaten by the great Federer left Novak one short of McEnroe’s record to open a season and only four shy of the overall match winning streak of Guillermo Villas in the summer of 1977.  Needless to say, the Djoker has been playing, far and away, the best tennis in the world.  If Djokovic had beaten Federer – win or lose in the finals to Nadal – he would enter this tournament #1 in the world and, probably, a somewhat clear favorite to take down his first Wimbledon title.  But, he didn’t.  So, despite playing undoubtably the best tennis in the world right now and enjoying a much-improved grass game, Djokovic has still never won this tournament, while some other guy has won it, oh, SIX times.

1). Roger Federer
It is strange to me that saying “Roger Federer is the favorite to win Wimbledon this year” would

He's only won this thing six times, why would we think he can do it again?

probably be greeted – by actual tennis fans – as a “bold statement.”  But, with Djokovic’s play this year and Nadal’s youth and health, the general consensus is that The Federer – the #3 seed – is probably the #3 choice for this title.  But, I saw something in the old champ at Roland Garros this year.  He looks, to me, like he has said to himself, “alright, Roger, let’s put together one last great season before forever relinquishing the world #1 to the ‘next generation’.”  And, with Wimbledon being his best surface, you have to believe that he is revved up and ready to make a run at a 17th major title next week.  I am not yet ready to throw dirt on the greatest player to ever play.  Let us, for one last time, treat this legend as the pre-tournament favorite – not for sentimental reasons, but for logical, emotionless, actual tennis reasons.

And…The Draw
While there are four players that seem a level above the rest of the world, the top three have probably all separated themselves from Andy Murray a little bit, as well.  That means that the 1-seed earned by Rafa really pays off because Federer and Djokovic are lined up in the semis again here in Wimbledon.  Let’s take a look at the draws, starting with the third-round, assuming none of these guys loses to an unseeded player:

RAFA:

  • 3rd Round –> #31 Milos Raonic – the Russian-Canadian, who is playing decent tennis, but should be absolutely no match for the world’s #1.
  • Round of 16 –> #15 Gilles Simon/#24 Juan Martin Del Potro – actually nothing easy here in the Round of 16, as both players are supremely talented, however neither excels on grass.  Simon is playing the best tennis of his career now that he’s finally healthy and Del Potro is slowly recovering from an injury that derailed his quest to the top after winning last year’s US Open
  • Quarterfinals –> #6 Tomas Berdych/#10 Mardy Fish/#21 Fernando Verdasco/#25 Juan-Ignacio Chela – Berdych will always be terrifying, particularly on this surface.  And, Verdasco – one of Rafa’s best friends who has beaten him before in a Grand Slam – is never a good draw.  But, if it’s either Fish or Chela, I don’t see Rafa having too much trouble.  As for as a QF draw, this could have been a lot worse.

MURRAY:

  • 3rd Round –> #27 Marin Cilic – This could also be the big-serving Ivan Ljubicic, but either way, this will be no walkover 3rd round match.  Murray will have to come to play from the start against whichever big-serving Croats most likely lines up here in the 3rd round.
  • Round of 16 –> #14 Stanislas Wawrinka/#17 Richard Gasquet – Murray will probably be rooting for an early upset of Wawrinka because Gasquet is not that scary here on grass.  He’s a grizzled vet with a head for the game, but will most likely be overpowered by Wawrinka in the 3rd round and, if not, should bow out to Murray.  Stan, on the other hand, might really pose a threat to Murray, as he has a big game and has a lot of big-match experience under his belt.  He also seems to play well on the faster surfaces, despite not possessing a killer serve.
  • Quarterfinals –> #8 Andy Roddick/#9 Gael Monfils/#23 Janko Tipsarevic/#30 Tomaz Bellucci – While it seems, by just the numbers, that Murray caught a break here with the 8-seed in his quadrant, but when that 8-seed is Andy Roddick and is coupled with an elitely talented 9-seed in Monfils.  Murray will need his best stuff to even reach the dream Final Four that we had at Roland Garros.

FEDERER:

  • 3rd Round –> #28 David Nalbandian – This is fascinating!  While, admittedly, David Nalbandian is not the same player he has been in the past, his “rivalry” with Federer is phenomenal.  Through this amazing run of Federer, no one in the world not named Rafa has given Federer more trouble than this pesky Argentine.  Nalbandian has won 8 of the 18 matches they have played and is not scared of The Federer.  In fact, these two guys clearly do not like each other with a personal rivalry dating back to their days in the juniors.  This could be really interesting.
  • Round of 16 –> #16 Nicolas Almagro/#18 Mikhail Youzhny – As tough as the 3rd round draw was for Roger, this Round of 16 draw is not nearly as bad.  Almagro is not much of a threat to Federer on grass, and Youzhny is still recovering from an injury, though he has been playing better as of late.  This shouldn’t be too much of a speed bump for the 6-time champ.
  • Quarterfinals –> #7 David Ferrer/#12 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga/#22 Alexandr Dogopolov/#26 Guillermo Garcia-Lopez – You can never hope for an easy quarterfinal match, and this draw is no different.  If it’s Ferrer, Federer may not be in jeopardy of losing the match, but he may be in jeopardy of needing every ounce of energy, which could carryover to a potential semifinal tilt with Djokovic.  If it’s Tsonga, he is in danger of losing, but he also might move on without breaking a sweat.  And, watch for the young Ukrainian, Dogopolov, who has a TON of game, which was on display in Australia this year when he beat Tsonga and Soderling to reach the semis, where he gave Murray a real fight.

DJOKOVIC:

  • 3rd Round –> #32 Marcos Baghdatis – Baghdatis, who plays a fascinating first-round match against James Blake probably doesn’t have the game left to push Djokovic in any way.  But, I guess there is a chance because, when focused and healthy, he is as good as there is.  Unfortunately, that just doesn’t happen all that often.
  • Round of 16 –> #13 Viktor Troicki/#19 Michael Llodra – An interesting draw here because Djokovic and Troicki are really close friends and countrymen.  I think that a personal closeness usually favors the higher-ranked player in the majors, for psychological reasons that I am not qualified to elaborate on.  I don’t expect Llodra to make any noise here.
  • Quarterfinals –> #5 Robin Soderling/#11 Jurgen Melzer/#20 Florian Mayer/#29 Nikolay Davydenko – Djokovic almost assuredly got the worst quarterfinal draw, by seed and in actualilty.  Robin Soderling may be closer to making it a “Big Five” than many people realize.  He is a legit threat and should make for a phenomenal quarterfinal here.

Phils Report Card #7

    Cole’s in serious Cy Young contention as midseason approaches

    Record since last Report Card: 8-3

    Overall Record:  44-27 (1st place; 5 games ahead of Atlanta)

    For the first time since the first week of the season, the Phils had pretty much everything working during a 7-game winning streak that ended with a loss last night in Seattle.  The offense was productive, the pitching was mostly spectacular, and this team reminded many of why they were the odds-on favorites to win the NL coming into the season.  On to the grades…

    Position Players:
    It was a solid stretch offensively, but let’s not go overboard.  This line-up has managed to set the bar really low, so it doesn’t take much to get us excited.  Still, seven runs or more in 4 of 5 games during one stretch last week was really nice to see.  Ryan Howard got things on track (sort of) by ending a 65 inning homerless drought for the team when he hit one against the Dodgers last Wednesday.  The team has hit 13 in the ten games since then.

    The most positive development has to be Chase Utley finding his stroke for the first time this season.  He hit .353 (12-34) with an impressive eight extra-base hits, including two homers.  He had a couple big games, and is running the bases like his old self, which is obviously a great sign of how he’s feeling on the recovering knee.  Matching Chase in production was Victorino, who seemed to get a spark from moving back up to the 2-hole in the order.  He hit .378 (17-45) with a home run and three steals.  He also hit a huge two-run single on Wednesday that tied the game with Florida in the bottom of the 9th.  Chooch had a pedestrian 11 games, but he deserves mention for his two big singles in the 9th and 10th innings of that game, the 10th inning hit being the game-winner.

    Just as Victorino got a spark from hitting 2nd and having Utley and Howard behind him, Polanco took a nose-dive by moving to 5th in the order.  He hit .167 (6-36) and has now seen his season average dip below .300.  Though he did hit a grand slam to beat the Cubs on Friday.  Dom Brown has had a bad (and strange) run lately.  He hit an abysmal 4-37, but three of those four hits were home runs, including his first multi-homer game, which included an upper-deck bomb.  The raw ability is so evident with him, but it seems like he needs to make some adjustments with his stance or swing, because he’s getting overpowered by fastballs right now.  J-Roll had a similar stretch, but less extreme, with just 7 hits in 40 AB’s, but three of them were homers.

    In the field, they continued to be less than impressive.  Six errors in the 11 games, and that doesn’t include a handful of errant throws by Utley and a couple misplays by Ibanez.  It looks like Utley’s throwing woes are here to stay, and hopefully they don’t come back to bite them in a key spot.  Howard made his first error of the year, and it wasn’t even a throwing error, which means he’s really made some more strides there.

    Grade:  B-

    Starting Pitchers:
    Take away Roy Oswalt’s starts, and the starters were completely dominant.  In eight starts by the other four starters, they allowed one run or less in seven of them.  The remarkable season of Cole Hamels continued, with one run allowed over 15 innings in two wins, with 9 hits allowed, 15 K’s, and one walk.  He wasn’t even fazed when his last start was delayed for rain at the start!  Is this a new Cole?

    As good as Hamels was, Cliff Lee one-upped him.  He followed an 8 inning/1 run beating of the Cubs with a two-hit shutout of the Marlins on Thursday, earning him the Start of the Week award.  Kyle Kendrick is going well, turning in his best start of the year with 7 innings/1 run in a win over Florida.  He pitched three scoreless innings in his previous start before exiting due to a lengthy rain delay.

    Halladay shut-out the Cubs over 7 innings last week, then was touched for 4 runs in a no-decision against Florida.  He had 17 K’s and no walks in those two starts.  The top non-Phillie in strike-out/walk ratio is the Pirates Jeff Karstens, at 3.92.  Cliff Lee’s is 4.63, Hamels is at 5.11, and Halladay a ridiculous 8.14.  These guys are strike-throwing machines.  Halladay leads the league in strike-outs and is also on pace to meet his goal of less walks than starts, with 14 walks in his 15 starts so far.

    As for Oswalt, he turned in three mediocre starts, giving up 4, 3, and 4 runs in those starts, and taking two losses against one win.

    Grade:  A-

    Bullpen:
    Yes, Ryan Madson blew his first save of the year and Contreras was bombed for four runs by the Cubs the next night, but they look like blips on the radar screen, as the bullpen continues to overacheive.  Madson gave up just one run in that blown save, and he picked up two saves and a win in his other three appearances.

    Despite giving up 2 runs to the Dodgers last week, it looks like Michael Stutes may have moved past Contreras, at least for the time being, in Charlie’s mind.  It was telling that in the 9th inning of a close game against the Marlins on Wednesday, Charlie went with Stutes.  Bastardo continues to pitch really well, and even Danys Baez and David Herndon were effective over this stretch.

    Grade:  B

Phillies Report Card #6

 
 
Dom Brown had some clutch hits

Record since last Report Card: 5-5

Overall Record:  36-24 (1st in division)

Throughout the season (roughly every 10 games) we’ll review how the Phils have been performing over the past week or two and hand out some grades.  These grades reflect the team’s performance since the previous Report Card.

The Phils hit the 60-game mark playing mediocre ball, yet still find themselves with the best record in baseball and the biggest division lead, 4 games over Atlanta and Florida.  It’s hard to feel overly optimistic though when they lost four consecutive games last week to the Nationals and Pirates.  On to the grades…

Position Players:
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: it looked like the offense was starting to come together but then, suddenly, it wasn’t at all.  On the heels of a 9-game stretch without scoring more than 3 runs, they had scored at least 5 runs in 7 of 8 games after a 5-4 win over the Nats last Monday.  Then, against the vaunted Nationals and Pirates pitching staffs, the wheels fell off again.  They scored 4 runs combined over the next 30 innings, and have now failed to score more than 3 runs in 5 of their last 6 contests.

The big positive story of these 10 games was the first sustained big league success for Dom Brown.  He hit .375 (12-32), with 3 doubles and a homer.  He came up big in the clutch last Friday in New York.  In the 8th inning, he singled, stole second, and then scored the tying run on a Rollins double.  The next inning, he knocked in Ruiz with a single for the game-winning RBI.  He had his first start against a left-hander last night, and it appears as though he’s laid claim to the RF job, hopefully for a long time to come.

The other positives came from the table-setters.  Rollins and Polanco combined to hit .301 (22-78), with Rollins also stealing five bases in six games before he fouled a ball off his knee on Saturday.  He hasn’t played since, but should be back any day.  Polanco, of course, has been the lone bright spot practically all season for this line-up.

On the negative side, despite homering in back-to-back games, Ibanez hit just .194.  Victorino returned from his injury but is just 3-16 so far.  Mayberry hit .217 before being optioned back to AAA when Victorino returned.

Defensively, it wasn’t the cleanest stretch, as the team committed six errors in these 10 games.

Grade: C-

Starting Pitchers:
Yet another decent but far from great stretch of outings from the starting rotation.  Hamels and Oswalt each turned in two strong starts.  Hamels allowed 3 earned runs in 15 innings, picking up a win and a no-decision.  Cole now leads the league in WHIP (0.97) and has positioned himself (along with Halladay) in the early Cy Young conversation.  Oswalt also gave up just 3 earned runs, but he only threw 11 innings.  He’s been great, but two underlying causes for concern:  his strike-out rate is well below his career average, and he’s pitched past the 6th inning just once all season.

Halladay and Lee continued a recent trend of alternating excellent and mediocre starts.  Halladay was touched for 4 runs on 10 hits by the Nats but then gave up just 2 runs in 7 innings to beat the Pirates.  Lee had his worst start of the year, giving up 6 runs in a loss in Washington, but came back with the Start of the Week last night, striking out 10 Dodgers over seven shutout innings.

The other two starts were made by Worley and Kendrick.  Worley really struggled, surrendering 8 runs (5 earned) and 12 hits over 3 innings against the Mets before heading back to AAA.  Kendrick was defeated by the Pirates after giving up 4 runs in 5 innings.

Grade:  B-

Relief Pitchers:
If you take away Danys Baez (which the Phillies might do soon enough following two more poor outings) then the ‘pen had another fantastic stretch of games.  Yes, Ryan Madson did give up a run in two separate outings, but he still converted all four of his save opportunities.  In the past, Madson seemed to find a way to blow a save opp, now he finds a way to close the door.

The battle for the 8th inning set-up job, between Contreras and Bastardo, continued.  Contreras gave up a run 2.2 IP, and Bastardo may have the upper-hand at the moment, as he allowed no runs and just one hit in 5 IP, though he did walk four.  Stutes continued his solid season, allowing one run in 4 IP.

Grade:  B+

For Joe Pa, It’s Not About Luck

In the wake of Jim Tressel’s resignation from Ohio State, many Penn State fans have found themselves feeling very fortunate that OSU quarterback Terrelle Pryor snubbed his home state team three years ago to go play for the Buckeyes (an opinion summarized here).

Pryor, a life-long PSU fan and one of the most highly-touted recruits in recent memory as a prep star at Jeannette High in Western PA, became the poster boy for the “Joe Must Go” crowd when he escaped from the Lions’ backyard and signed with their most hated (and succesful) rival.  “He’s too old to recruit with the best”, they cried.  “He’s out of touch; young kids can’t relate to him”, or “Our offense is too old-school; the top offensive players won’t come play here.”

Well, now that Pryor appears to be one of the main perpetrators of a scandal that has cost Tressel his job, has inflicted serious damage to the reputation of the OSU program and university, and will most likely have serious long-term consequences in terms of NCAA punishment, PSU fans can’t be blamed for feeling lucky that Pryor didn’t wreak his havoc in Happy Valley.  But here’s the truth of the matter that Joe Pa is too good of a guy to say for himself: it ain’t luck.

Yes, by all accounts, Joe and his coaching staff badly wanted Pryor to come play for them.  Why wouldn’t they?  He was a supreme talent with little to no off-the-field baggage.  He volunteered at a service organization in high school, got good grades, and was voted class president as a senior.  PSU was on him hard from the beginning of his recruitment until the day he committed to the Buckeyes.

But, it is not at all safe to assume that Pryor would have acted in a similar fashion at PSU as he has at OSU.  Yes, Penn State football players have had plenty of run-ins with law enforcement over the past decade or so, like just about all programs.  But, PSU is one of only TWO BCS programs (Stanford is the other) that has never committed a single NCAA infraction.  If you don’t think that has a TON to do with the man that has run the program for nearly the past half-century, you’re crazy.

College football has become a billion-dollar business and an obsession across large swaths of the country, so no coach can completely micromanage every aspect of their program and know exactly what all their assistant coaches, players, and anyone with access to those coaches and players, are doing behind the scenes.  But the head coach sets the tone, makes the decisions on who to trust for his coaching staff, and makes sure his players know what is expected of them and what the consequences are for missteps.  Jim Tressel clearly failed at this.

This is just speculation, but surely Pryor had conversations with players and alumni at both PSU and OSU before making his decision.  If he is the kind of guy that is looking for “something extra”, to go along with his scholarship (which it certainly seems like he is), it’s not far-fetched to imagine that he got the impression that things like cheap (or free?) cars and tattoos were more likely to come his way in Columbus than in State College.

I’ll leave the moralizing on the state of collegiate athletics to someone else.  I’m also not here to trumpet the wholesomeness and character-building accomplishments of Paterno.  I think he does deserve a ton of admiration for being the quality person that he is, but there are certainly other coaches in major athletics that are his equal in terms of character and ethics.  But, how many of them have won as much as he has?

In the end, the Ohio St.-Tressel-Pryor fiasco should serve to shed a light on how smart and capable Joe Pa is.  Everyone would agree that head coach of a BCS conference football team is an incredibly difficult job.  In order to do it for a long period of time, you have to win and you have to do it the right way.  Slip up, and you’re out.  And that means being accountable for the actions of dozens of young men, a large coaching staff, and other hangers-on.  Bobby Bowden and Rich Rodriguez couldn’t keep winning.  Pete Carroll and Jim Tressel couldn’t keep clean.  Joe Paterno has been smart enough to figure out how to do both, he’s done it better than anyone, and that’s why he sits atop them all with 401 career wins.  Luck’s got nothing to do with it.