Earlier today I discussed the hottest team in baseball, the New York Yankees, and now I want to take a look at a franchise currently mired in the worst slump, the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies have gone 3-12 over their past 15 games, a ghastly run of poor play from the team with the 2nd highest payroll in baseball.
Their slump has directly coincided with the loss of Roy Halladay, who was placed on the DL on May 28th for shoulder soreness, and is expected to miss 6-8 weeks. The good news is that he is already throwing and is ahead of schedule on recovery, which means a return in 5-6 weeks now looks likely, barring a setback. But even if Halladay can return ahead of schedule, do the last place Phillies, now 9 back of Washington in the NL East and 5 games out of a Wild Card spot, realistically have a chance to make the playoffs?
If you dig a little deeper into the Phillies 31-37 record you begin to notice some disturbing trends as well. They have absolutely feasted on the weaker teams in baseball, going 14-7 against teams below .500. But against the creme de la creme of the league, the teams at .500 or better, the Phils fall to a miserable 17-30, for a .362 win percentage, so their chances at a turnaround in the toughest division in the NL don’t look too good.
Poor bullpen management has been one of the main culprits of the Philadelphia’s struggles. Manager Charlie Manuel has a horrible tendency to use his worst relievers in the highest leverage situations. Granted the Phillies have the 7th worst bullpen ERA in baseball at 4.32, so Charlie Manuel doesn’t have a whole lot to choose from, but he has chosen poorly nonetheless. The folks over at Crashburn Alley had a great early season breakdown of bullpen usage, and their message to Manuel is to use Jonathan Paplebon more.
The message has been somewhat heard, because Paplebon has now pitched more innings than any other Phils reliever, but he has still been used in too many low leverage save situations and is usually only used to get 3 outs. Manuel has instead opted to use Chad Qualls (4.39 ERA), Joe Savory (4.43), and Jose Contreras (5.27) far too often, which has led to 9 blown saves thus far. With the so many early injuries to so many of Philadelphia’s star players, the margin of error was always going to be thin this season, and in this instance, the Phillies mismanaged their margins, stacking a lot of cheap, weak pitchers behind the highly-paid Paplebon.
It’s easy to see GM Ruben Amaro Jr.’s thought process, with Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Cole Hammels all possessing the ability to go 8-9 innings every start, they could just hand the lead to Paplebon. But with the early DL trouble for Lee and his historic inability to get a win, this plan has backfired.
Lee has been an above-average pitcher this season, posting an ERA+ 11 points above the league average of 101, but he’s not having a phenomenal season, and his offense and bullpen has blown a number of wins. He pitched fantastic in May in San Francisco, shutting out the Giants for 10 innings, only to see Matt Cain equal his performance, while his bullpen blew the game. Over the weekend against Toronto, Lee once again left with the lead, only to see Chad Qualls immediately implode.
The offense’s struggles aren’t to be missed either, with the Phillies ranking 8th in the NL in runs per game, scoring 4.26 per contest. This is actually a minor success, because they have yet to get a single plate appearance out of either Chase Utley or Ryan Howard, the team’s two best hitters over the past 3 seasons. Carlos Ruiz (OPS+ of 165) and Hunter Pence (122) have both played at All-Star levels to prop up a sinking ship.
Freddy Galvis just hit the DL, which may be good news because he was only hitting .226/.254/.363. Jimmy Rollins looks to be beginning his inevitable decline, only hitting .255/.303/.365, giving the Phillies one of the lightest hitting middle infields in baseball. This team could desperately use the infusion of power the Utley and Howard could provide, however it’s more than likely that they struggle to regain their All-Star forms this year.
With all the injury issues, the offensive struggles, and the bullpen mismanagement, its a wonder the Phillies are still within striking distance of a playoff spot. This team has the pitching depth to really make some noise, a la the Giants in 2010, if they can just sneak into the big dance. The replacements, plus Chooch, Pence, Lee and Hammels will have to step up and continue to keep Philly within striking distance, because no amount of pitching will be able to overcome a double digit deficit.