SweetSpot: Philadelphia Phillies

Charlie Manuel and Terry FranconaAP Photo, Getty ImagesCharlie Manuel, left, and Terry Francona have both managed in Philadelphia and Cleveland.
PHILADELPHIA -- Terry Francona and Charlie Manuel go back a ways. In the summer of 1988, Francona logged a 62-game cameo with the Cleveland Indians near the tail end of his playing career. He had bad knees and minimal power for a first baseman-DH, as evidenced by his .311 batting average and .363 slugging percentage that season.

Manuel was the team's hitting instructor, and had a novel way of getting his point across.

"I was kind of scuffling," Francona said. "I was in the hole [in the dugout] and I was having a tough time, and I said, 'Grinder what do you think, man?' He looked at me and in that drawl he says, 'Son, if it was me, I'd hit one over that sign out there.' He goes, 'You -- why don't you just massage one over third?'"

Francona still laughs over the encounter and the impact that Manuel's West Virginia colloquialisms could have on a player's psyche.

"Charlie has a way of making you feel so good about yourself," he said. "That's what I remember. I don't remember any of the mechanical things he told me. I just know he made me feel good about myself."

Francona, who used to manage in Philadelphia, is now the skipper in Cleveland, while Manuel, who got his first shot to be a manager with Cleveland in 2000, is in his ninth year as manager in Philadelphia. Their teams met this week in a two-game interleague series at Citizens Bank Park, and their divergent circumstances are hard to ignore.

Francona is presiding over a baseball awakening in Cleveland, where the Indians just won 10 of 11 to inject themselves into the conversation in the American League Central. He's in the first year of a four-year contract, and is already lifting spirits and elevating hopes in the city -- even if the Indians' average daily attendance of 14,614 (last in the majors) doesn't quite reflect the enthusiasm.

Manuel, in contrast, oversees an aging roster that's still trying to overcome the gut punch of two-time Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay going down with a shoulder injury. He's 69 years old and in the final year of his contract, and the Phillies have a ready-made successor on the staff in third-base coach Ryne Sandberg. Even though the Phils have been able to maintain contact with the Nationals and Braves in the NL East, Manuel is going to continue to appear in managerial "hot seat" speculation as long as the team muddles along below .500.

Bovada, the online sportsbook, recently laid odds on managers likely to be fired, and Manuel led the pack at 4-1. This was before the Dodgers, Angels and Blue Jays all spiraled to the bottom of their division races and ratcheted up the heat on Don Mattingly, Mike Scioscia and John Gibbons. But it was instructive nevertheless.

If and when Manuel goes, he will have made his mark in Philly. He led the franchise to a title in 2008 and recently passed Gene Mauch as the longest-tenured manager in club history. Between his stops in Cleveland and Philadelphia, Manuel has a better career winning percentage (.553) than Billy Martin, Sparky Anderson, Joe Cronin and Leo Durocher.

Francona, 54, is building a nice managerial résumé of his own. He won two world championships in Boston, and picked up his 1,051st career victory with a 10-4 win Wednesday. That ties him with Jack McKeon for 51st place on MLB's career list.

If Francona and Manuel have one trait in common in their respective career paths, it's the ability to go with the flow and handle themselves the same way no matter how grim things might look or how intense the pressure might get. When the team is winning, that steadiness is considered a plus. When the losses are piling up, it's suddenly perceived as a "lack of urgency."

It's always a challenge for a manager's message to resonate over time, as players change and the parts don't always fit. When Francona broke the Red Sox curse with a World Series win in 2004, he was hailed as the quintessential "player's manager." When things unraveled in Boston during the infamous chicken-and-beer collapse in 2011, Red Sox ownership concluded that a new voice and a tougher approach were in order. Enter Bobby Valentine.

The concept of changing circumstances and finite shelf lives is something that two longtime baseball men can readily understand and accept. They know it applies regardless of venue, even if some environments are clearly more challenging than others.

Before the Phillies' 6-2 victory over the Indians on Tuesday, Manuel was heading out to the cage to watch his players take their pregame hacks, as is his custom. He was asked if he and Francona have ever exchanged notes on the challenges of managing in Philadelphia, an intense sports town that's not for the faint of heart.

"Tito told me that when he first got the job, he went to a 76ers game and they introduced him and showed his picture up on the scoreboard, and they stood up and booed him," Manuel said with a laugh. "But he never said harsh things about the fans here. He said if you hustle and play hard, they accept you."

Manuel continues to preach the gospel of optimism and patience in Philly. "You can win a lot of games by feeling good about yourself," he said. And Francona made it clear that he's willing to roll up his sleeves and do the dirty work when he signed on with the Indians rather than with a ready-made contender.

"I think the best way to put it is, you take what you're doing really seriously, but you don't take yourself really seriously," Francona said. "You've got to be able to laugh at yourself a little bit. I thought I would get perspective being out of the game a year, but I have zero perspective. When I lose, it still kills me."

Like his former hitting mentor Charlie Manuel -- aka "The Grinder" -- Francona has an intense competitive streak beneath his sense of humor and easygoing manner. Both men have a demeanor that wears well over time. But Francona is the only one with time on his side.

2012 predictions you couldn't predict?

February, 18, 2012
Last year, You Can't Predict Baseball came up with bold predictions for the year. We had a lot of fun coming up with them, and then laughing at how hilariously wrong they were at the end of the year. This year, we're bringing these predictions to SweetSpot, along with explanations for some of them. Keep in mind, these predictions are supposed to be bold, but not insane -- even we know the Orioles aren't going to the playoffs in 2012.

Los Angeles Angels: Kendrys Morales stays healthy all year.

Houston Astros: Bud Norris is top five in K/9 in the NL. We figured something good had to happen to the Astros, right? Norris actually has a pretty nice career K/9.

Oakland Athletics: Yoenis Cespedes is their starting center fielder by Memorial Day.

Toronto Blue Jays: Brandon Morrow makes the jump to elite starting pitcher. He's struck out more than 10 batters per 9 innings two years running, though his ERAs have remained ugly. We think this is the year his results finally match the stuff, especially considering his declining walk rate.

Atlanta Braves: Julio Teheran has more wins than Tim Hudson.

[+] EnlargeRickie Weeks
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWith Prince Fielder gone to Detroit and Ryan Braun facing possible disciplinary action, Rickie Weeks could lead the Milwaukee Brewers in home runs in 2012.
Milwaukee Brewers: Rickie Weeks leads the team in home runs. He was fourth on the team last year, with 20. In front of him were Corey Hart with 26, Ryan Braun with 33, and Prince Fielder with 38. Fielder is gone, and for this prediction we'll assume Braun will miss a third of the year due to a suspension. It's not too bold to think Weeks could pass Hart in 2012.

St. Louis Cardinals: Carlos Beltran outproduces Albert Pujols from last year. Albert Pujols was great last year, but not quite best-player-of-his-generation Albert Pujols. If healthy, it's not absurd to think of Beltran outproducing Pujols' 5.1 WAR in 2011.

Chicago Cubs: Matt Garza isn't their best pitcher. It'll be Ryan Dempster, who had great peripherals but bad results last year.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Aaron Hill will be good again. He was great with them in limited time, and Arizona's park is quite hitter-friendly.

Los Angeles Dodgers: James Loney will be a top-three first baseman in the National League. Many thanks to Mike Scioscia's Tragic Illness for somewhat alerting us to this one. We just decided to take it semi-absurdly far.

San Francisco Giants: Madison Bumgarner is their best pitcher. In terms of ERA, he already wasn't very far behind Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, and his K/BB ratio eclipsed theirs by quite a bit.

Cleveland Indians: They'll have the best pitching in the American League Central. We're banking on Ubaldo Jimenez, making a major comeback to something closer to what he was in 2010, and the rest of the staff displaying the good that they did in 2011. We're also counting on the Tigers' starters not being very impressive behind Justin Verlander, which is bold but not quite insane, and the pitching of the White Sox, Twins and Royals not being able to keep up with Cleveland's.

Seattle Mariners: Jesus Montero catches 100-plus games. The Mariners probably aren't going to compete, so why not try and play him where he'll accrue the most value?

Miami Marlins: Despite all their new acquisitions and the hype, they still finish fourth in the NL East. When you think about it, this one isn't so crazy. If Josh Johnson isn't healthy and maybe even if he is their pitching still trails that of Philadelphia, Washington, and Atlanta; even with Heath Bell, we don't think their bullpen is as good, either. Their offense might be better than some of those teams', but the Marlins were quite a bit below league average offensively last year and we're not sure how much Jose Reyes is going to make up for that.

New York Mets: Mike Pelfrey is the worst starter in the NL. Pelfrey's been pretty terrible two of the past three years, and now they're moving the fences in at Citi Field. He was far better in his huge home stadium, but we're guessing with the moved-in walls he'll be significantly worse at Citi. Here at YCPB, we actually don't think the Mets are going to be quite as dire as many are saying, even if they do come in last place in the NL East - but Pelfrey won't be a bright spot.

Washington Nationals: Stephen Strasburg has a 17-strikeout game.

Baltimore Orioles: Matt Wieters is the best catcher in the AL. A lot of people are so obsessed with Wieters not matching the hype that they didn't notice he became a plus offensive performer last year, to go along with very good defense. His taking the next step isn't that bold as predictions go, especially if Joe Mauer has to move off catcher.

San Diego Padres: Luke Gregerson is a top-three closer in the NL.

Philadelphia Phillies: Cole Hamels is their best starter. And this isn't meant to be a slight to Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee, but considering their ages and the fact that Hamels is pretty darn good himself, plus a possible boost from a contract year...

Pittsburgh Pirates: Charlie Morton is their All-Star.

Texas Rangers: Yu Darvish isn't their best starter -- but he's still good. And we think he'll be pretty good, we just think Derek Holland will become more consistently good, or Matt Harrison will put up numbers like his 2011.

Tampa Bay Rays: James Shields will have no complete games. Predicting someone to have no complete games might not seem bold, but it is when it's a guy who was known as "Complete Game James" last season. Shields did have 11 complete games in 2011, an almost unheard-of number these days, but he had no complete games in 2009 or 2010.

[+] EnlargeJames Shields
Kim Klement/US PresswireAfter none in either 2009 or 10, James Shields pitched 11 complete games for Tampa Bay in 2011.
Boston Red Sox: No one hits 30 home runs. This might seem crazy when you consider their great offensive numbers last year, but only one player on their team hit 30 home runs and it was Jacoby Ellsbury with 32.

Cincinnati Reds: Brandon Phillips is the best second baseman in the NL.

Colorado Rockies: Jamie Moyer will have the best HR/9 on the staff.

Kansas City Royals: They reach .500. While their pitching won't be great, their offense will take a big step forward this year. Combined with the rest of their division being the Tigers and some dumpster fires, it's not that difficult to see it happening.

Detroit Tigers: They score fewer runs than they did in 2011. Yes, that’s even with Fielder. It's not improbable that Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila and Delmon Young regress quite a bit from their numbers with Detroit last year, and that Prince Fielder's production "only" makes up for the offensive loss of Victor Martinez in 2012. They'll still have a very good offense, though.

Minnesota Twins: Joe Mauer hits 15 home runs.

Chicago White Sox: Robin Ventura gets ejected more times than Ozzie Guillen. Look at the state of the White Sox. We'd get ejected too.

New York Yankees: Hiroki Kuroda leads the team in ERA.

You Can't Predict Baseball is an affiliate of the SweetSpot network.

Filling out the Astros' rotation

February, 10, 2011
The Astros went into the offseason looking like they had their rotation for 2011 mostly in place. They have a solid front three with Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez and J.A. Happ. And that's assuming Myers' resurgent year in 2010 wasn't a fluke. The threesome of Myers, Rodriguez and Happ might not strike fear in the heart of the common reader, but it is worth pointing out that the Astros had as many quality starts as the Giants last year. It's safe to say, however, that Myers and Rodriguez won't be confused with Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain any time soon. But the trio of Myers, Rodriguez and Happ was a combined 18-7 with a 2.87 ERA after the break last year. If they duplicate that production in 2011, the Astros will have a front three that's as good as any in the league.

But the question mark was with the fifth spot in the rotation. Although that spot is generally discarded as virtually irrelevant, Fernando Abad's winter has the Astros looking like they could have one of the deepest rotations in the National League.

[+] EnlargeFernando Abad
AP Photo/Matt RourkeFernando Abad compiled a 2.84 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 19 major league innings last season.
The lefty made his major league debut last year, compiling a 2.84 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 19 innings. It's an extremely small sample size that provides very little insight into the kind of pitcher he could be, and he was originally expected to do little more than compete for a prominent bullpen role. His winter numbers, however, have given the Astros reason to re-evaluate. In 10 regular-season games (six starts) in the Dominican Winter League, Abad went 3-0 with a 2.38 ERA. He was also dominant in the playoffs, including one game in which he allowed no hits through six innings, retiring the first 16 batters he faced before an error broke up his perfect game.

Originally, the front-runners for the fifth spot in the Astros' rotation were Nelson Figueroa and Jordan Lyles. Figueroa put up surprisingly good numbers last year, but a 36-year-old journeyman who has started only 27 major league games since 2004 isn't quite ideal. And Lyles, the Astros' great prospect, is only 20 years old and needs some more work in the minors. Abad could provide the just-right-in-the-middle solution to those two extremes on the age spectrum, and actually could provide some talent to boot.

The tougher decision will be what to do with free-agent signee Ryan Rowland-Smith, who may end up with the job as fifth starter just so the Astros don't risk losing him. He's another lefty who is a couple of years older than Abad, but has done more to prove himself at the major league level. He took a big step backward in 2010, but he did enough in '08 and '09 that the Astros will want to give him a real look. Abad will certainly give the Astros something to think about, however, and when placed in a rotation with Myers, Rodriguez, Happ and Bud Norris, he could help the Astros have one of the most difficult and surprising rotations in the NL.

Austin Swafford runs the SweetSpot Astros blog at Austin's Astros 290 Blog.

Could Phillies' rotation make history?

February, 6, 2011
Last season, the quartet of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels each compiled at least four wins above replacement (WAR), according to baseball-reference.com. Halladay led the pack at 6.9, followed by Oswalt at 5.1, Hamels at 4.7, and Lee at 4.3. Truly great seasons individually. Now, they’re all teammates with the Phillies.

Lee, of course, spent his 2010 season with the Seattle Mariners and the Texas Rangers. Oswalt spent the first half with the Houston Astros. These four aces together is an ominous cloud looming over the rest of the National League. How common is it for four teammates to each produce 4 WAR? I went to Baseball Reference's Play Index to find out.

My constraints were as follows: the pitcher must have pitched between 1960 and 2010, compiled at least 4 WAR, started in 80 percent of his games and qualified for the ERA title. There were 1,017 seasons that qualified. The only fearsome foursomes to accomplish the feat as teammates were:

1991 Atlanta Braves: Tom Glavine (7.4), John Smoltz (4.7), Steve Avery (4.5) and Charlie Liebrandt (4.3).

1997 Atlanta Braves: Greg Maddux (7.3), Tom Glavine (5.0), John Smoltz (4.5) and Denny Neagle (4.1).

There were 16 teams in Major League Baseball until 1962; 20 through '68; 24 through '92; 28 through '97; and there are 30 presently. That gives us a total of 1,278 opportunities for pitching staffs to accomplish this four-by-four feat. Only two made it -- .16 percent.

The Phillies' starting rotation could truly post some historically great numbers in 2011, but it will be difficult. Health is a big factor. As many pessimists have pointed out, the Phillies' starters are no spring chickens and have some familiarity with major league medical personnel as well. It is rare that a team gets through a 162-game season unscathed.

Knowing this, maybe it was a good idea that general manager Ruben Amaro did not rush to trade Joe Blanton (who, by the way, posted 4.1 WAR in 2007). Still, if any rotation is going to jump into the top-three best since 1960, the 2011 Phillies would be the clear favorites. It will be an intriguing year for Phillies fans, and a potentially depressing one for fans of the Braves, Marlins, Mets and Nationals.

Bill Baer is the author of the Phillies blog Crashburn Alley. Follow him on Twitter @CrashburnAlley.

Lee puts 'mystery team' back on top

December, 14, 2010
First thing's first: One of my fellow BBWAA members has taken a fair amount of punishment these past few days, for repeatedly referencing some "mystery team" that's been in the hunt for Cliff Lee.

Well, the Phillies were a mystery, and a well-kept secret. According to Richard Durrett, the Phillies jumped in last week, and yet somehow the news never got out. My half-baked theory? Usually when news of negotiations does escape, it's because a player's agent wants the news to escape. In this case, there wasn't any reason to leak the Phillies' interest, because (I think we'll find out) the Phillies' offer wasn't in the same league as the Yankees' offer. The Yankees, as usual, were bidding against themselves. The Phillies had to sell something else, which in this case was apparently 1) returning to a situation that Lee enjoyed in 2009, and 2) not pitching for the Yankees.

Practically speaking, it's hard to know where to start. Roy Halladay and Lee are pretty obviously among the 10 best starting pitchers on the planet, with Halladay No. 1 and Lee somewhere else, depending on how you weigh his injury this season and his postseason brilliance. You might prefer Felix Hernandez or Tim Lincecum, and there are others. But nobody can match the one-two punch of Halladay and Lee ... and of course nobody figures to match the three-four punch of Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, either.

It's premature to rank the Phillies' top four starters, for the simple reason that they won't be the Phillies' top four starters -- for analytical purposes -- until sometime next summer. On paper, they've got a chance to match the mid-1990s Braves before Steve Avery got hurt. And those Braves are, for now anyway, in a class of their own.

Practically speaking, the Phillies just reassumed the title, Best Team in the National League. They lost it for a moment, when Jayson Werth took the Nationals' money. But with these four starting pitchers, the Phillies could stick literally anyone in right field and still win something like 95 games. And Domonic Brown is better than most anyone.

Does 'Jayson Werth problem' have solution?

October, 26, 2010
Dave Cameron on the Jayson Werth Problem:
    Managers already were able to bring in situational lefties to attack the middle of the Phillies line-up in high leverage situations, as we saw in the NLCS. Removing Werth from the equation exacerbates the problem, and the Phillies will run into a lot of situations where they are asking Ryan Howard or Raul Ibanez to get a big hit off of a left-handed reliever in a high leverage situation.

    Werth provided necessary balance in the middle of the order, even if Amaro didn’t like his performance with men on base this year. If you replace him with Domonic Brown, it will be nearly impossible to find a spot for a quality right-handed bat on that roster. Each position comes with an incumbent that makes upgrading a challenge.

    The Phillies best option would probably be to try to move Raul Ibanez in order to free up left field for a right-handed hitter, but with a $12 million salary, the Phillies would have to eat money in order to move him, and the right-handed outfielder market isn’t very good this winter. After Werth, you’re looking at guys like Austin Kearns, Marcus Thames, and Andruw Jones, none of whom are going to motivate Amaro to make that kind of change.

    Essentially, the Phillies options seem to boil down to re-signing Jayson Werth or running out a line-up with a large, exploitable flaw next year. For all of the talk about having alternatives, I’m not sure I see a reasonable one. If the Phillies really do have enough money to keep Werth, they almost have to do it. Losing him would be a real problem, and one that would not have an easy solution.

We like Ruben Amaro. You have to like a general manager whose team has won three straight division titles, and nearly three straight National League championships.

But this all goes back to the Raul Ibanez contract, which we hated. If the Phillies hadn't signed Ibanez for $31.5 million, they'd have a little more cash available for Werth. If the Phillies hadn't signed Ibanez, they would have the perfect spot for Domonic Brown.

Instead, if they are able to re-sign Werth they'll have to either eat some of Ibanez's salary or make Brown wait another few months for an every-day job.

As usual, the real issue here isn't money. It's flexibility. When the Phillies were foolish enough to commit $31.5 million to Ibanez, they were also committing three years and 1,800 plate appearances to him. Which, even though he's played reasonably well through the first two years and 1,200 plate appearances, just never made much sense.

And of course the Phillies get to play this record all over again when Ryan Howard's $125 million contract begins in 2012. You would think at some point Amaro's affection for RBI is going to come back and bite him.

Giants just good enough, which is plenty

October, 23, 2010
Ultimately, Game 6 of the National League Championship Series -- and the championship itself -- came down to relief pitching.

The Giants got two erratic innings out of their starting pitcher, and seven scoreless innings out of their bullpen.

The Phillies got six solid innings out of their starting pitcher, and three good (but not good enough) innings out of their bullpen.

The key might have been that Charlie Manuel didn't have the same confidence in his relievers that Bruce Bochy did.

[+] EnlargeBrian Wilson
AP Photo/Rob CarrFive San Francisco relievers combined to throw seven shutout innings, capped by Brian Wilson, whose save sends the Giants to the World Series.
Well, not Bochy's relievers so much as his bullpen. Which in most cases are the same thing, but not this time; Bochy used his Game 4 starter (Madison Bumgarner) for two innings in relief, and his Game 5 starter (Tim Lincecum) for a third of an inning (though not by design). Before Bumgarner, he used Jeremy Affeldt for two innings. After Bumgarner, he used left-hander Javier Lopez for one inning. And after Lincecum, he (naturally) went to Brian Wilson.

Bochy used five relievers, and probably felt good about all five of them. Manuel used two relievers, and probably wouldn't have felt good about using more than three.

Affeldt and Bumgarner both threw 16 pitches. Lopez needed only 12 to dispatch the second, third, and fourth hitters in the Phillies' lineup (more on that in a moment).

Affeldt threw two innings five times during the regular season, but each of those outings came before July; Affledt hadn't thrown 25 pitches in a game since that last two-inning stint. He pitched more than he's used to, and it worked.

Which I bring up to excuse Charlie Manuel's use -- some might argue overuse -- of Ryan Madson.

Madson was the first man out of the Phillies' bullpen, and struck out the side (just as he had in Game 5). Madson hadn't pitched more than one full inning all season, or thrown more than 28 pitches in a game.

In the seventh inning, Madson threw 22 pitches ... but four of those were softly tossed while intentionally walking Aubrey Huff. Leaving those pitches aside, Madson had thrown 23 pitches when Juan Uribe came up with two outs in the top of the eighth.

Uribe sliced Madson's next pitch, his 24th real pitch, just over the fence in right field. I'm sure that someone in Philadelphia, even before that pitch, was screaming for another reliever. Screaming that Manuel was asking his No. 2 reliever to do something -- get six outs in one game -- that he hadn't done all season.

This is probably the right time to unveil a fairly shocking statistic: Juan Uribe, a right-handed hitter, hit 22 home runs against right-handed pitchers this season. That's right: 22 against right-handers, two against left-handers.

Madson, meanwhile, was rough on right-handed hitters, holding them to a .208/.263/.292 batting line. Jose Contreras was pretty good against right-handed hitters, too ... but nearly as good as Madson.

Madson hadn't pitched two innings in a game this season. But everything else Charlie Manuel wanted Madson to do, he'd done.

Manuel probably doesn't have the same confidence in his reliever that Bochy has, but (1) he shouldn't, and (2) that was irrelevant in Game 6. Manuel shouldn't have had the same confidence as Bochy, because Manuel's relievers aren't as good as Bochy's. It was irrelevant in Game 6, because Manuel needed only three innings from his relievers, and his relievers are plenty good enough to give him three innings.

Giving up one run in three innings is, most nights, a perfectly acceptable performance. Tonight it wasn't good enough.

It wasn't good enough because the Giants' bullpen pitched seven scoreless innings.

It wasn't good enough because Ryan Howard's double in the fifth inning caromed straight to Andres Torres, which eventually left Jimmy Rollins stranded at third base.

It wasn't good enough because Carlos Ruiz's line drive in the eighth inning flew straight to Aubrey Huff at first base, which resulted in a double play when it might just as easily have been the beginnings of a game-winning rally.

It wasn't good enough because ... well, because of those three reasons and a dozen others that you could find, if you watched Game 6 again and really tried to find them.

The Giants played Game 6 just well enough to win. Which goes double for the entire NLCS. They scored 19 runs in six games; the Phillies scored 20. The Giants didn't outplay the Phillies, exactly. They did play the Phillies to a standstill.

When you're the underdogs, that's a moral victory.

When you're the underdogs, and you catch a few breaks and your manager makes a few more, that's a real victory.

This time, Giants' trade-off betrays them

October, 22, 2010
Both managers made minor, ultimately irrelevant gaffes in the Phillies' 4-2 win in Game 5.

Charlie Manuel went back to bunching Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in the lineup, which made it a lot easier for Javier Lopez to get through the eighth inning. None of which mattered, because the Phillies wound up not needing to score in the eighth.

Bruce Bochy didn't ask Brian Wilson to pitch in the ninth, with the Giants trailing by one run. Instead Bochy summoned Ramon Ramirez, who did post a 0.67 ERA with the Giants but is not anything close to that brilliant. He just doesn't throw enough strikes.

Now, maybe Wilson's slightly fatigued after working in Games 3 and 4. But he didn't work real hard: 11 pitches in Game 3, 12 in Game 4. Seems like he's about as rested as a reliever can be after consecutive appearances.

Ramirez gave up a home run to Jayson Werth. No shame in that, and later Jeremy Affeldt stranded a couple of runners who were Ramirez's responsibility. None of which mattered, because the Giants didn't score against Brad Lidge in the bottom of the ninth.

Essentially, Game 5 went almost completely as the managers planned it. Both ace pitchers were effective (if less than brilliant). Both bullpens were effective (the Phillies' slightly more than the Giants', but that didn't matter).

But managers can't plan for defensive miscues, and it was defensive miscues that beat the Giants. If Pablo Sandoval could have found third base after Roy Halladay's bunt in the third inning and if Aubrey Huff, moments later, had fielded Shane Victorino's hard grounder cleanly, the Phillies never would have scored. Simple as that.

Wait, I wrote something before that isn't true ... Managers can plan for defensive miscues. Or they can plan to avoid them, anyway. Neither Sandoval or Huff are anyone's idea of a Gold Glover. The Giants' best defensive infield probably includes Travis Ishikawa at first base and anyone not nicknamed "Panda" at third base.

It's a trade-off, defense for offense, and generally speaking it's worth making. Well worth making. In this game, it wasn't. With another first baseman and another third baseman, the Giants probably win. Which is obvious to everyone in the world, now. Nobody could have known it when Bruce Bochy was making out his lineup. Including Bruce Bochy.

He didn't do anything wrong. Now he just needs to resist the temptation to overreact and send his hitters to the bench in Philadelphia.

We've got our Game 4 scapegoat

October, 21, 2010
Well, apparently we needed a goat for the Phillies' loss in Game 4. And the first place to look is usually the manager ...
    As it turned out, Charlie Manuel's mistake wasn't putting his faith in Joe Blanton for Game 4. It was losing faith in Blanton too early.

    Yanking Blanton in the fifth inning, when he still had the lead, set in motion a chain of events that ended with Roy Oswalt gamely trying, and failing, to pitch in an unfamiliar role.


    We'll never know what would have happened, if they had started Roy Halladay on short rest. Manuel's gamble was that Blanton would turn in a decent start, the offense would score a few runs off rookie Madison Bumgarner, and the series would be tied.

    And that's just what was happening until Manuel walked to the mound with two out in the bottom of the fifth inning. Let's be clear. No one is suggesting Blanton is any more than what he is, a good major league pitcher. He does not have the stellar array of pitches that Halladay, Oswalt and Cole Hamels use to dazzle hitters. He is not a shutout waiting to happen.

    But Manuel and Dubee decided to give him the ball in the biggest game of the postseason so far. If that was the right call, then logic dictates they needed to go all in with Blanton. If he was good enough to deserve this start, he was good enough to finish the fifth and then go an inning or two more.

Well, OK. But couldn't almost exactly the same be said about Madison Bumgarner?

Bumgarner pitched a lot better than Blanton during the season. In fact, Bumgarner's ERA this season was lower than Tim Lincecum's and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was higher. Purely in terms of performance in 2010, you could almost argue that Bumgarner was the Giants' best starter rather than their No. 4 (technically, he was actually their No. 5 starter during the season, but is now No. 4).

Bumgarner shut the Phillies out through the first four innings, striking out six. Granted, he did run into a little trouble in the fourth, and by the fifth inning his pitch count was already running pretty high. With the bottom of the Phillies' order, though, Bruce Bochy had reasons for optimism.

So much for optimism. Ben Francisco singled. Carlos Ruiz singled. Joe Blanton bunted and very nearly beat the throw to first. Shane Victorino singled; Francisco scored, but Ruiz was out at home after a perfect peg from Aaron Rowand. Chase Utley singled.

Four hits sandwiched around a sacrifice will get the manager's attention. Bumgarner had thrown 85 pitches with his left arm (including 17 in the inning), and right-handed-hitting Placido Polanco was up next.

Bochy yanked Bumgarner. The Giants still led 2-1. But after Santiago Casilla gave up a double and threw a wild pitch, the Giants trailed 4-2.

After Santiago uncorked that wild pitch, he struck out Jimmy Rollins. But what if Rollins had blooped a little single into center field? Two more runs would have scored. The Giants would have been down 6-2, and they quite probably would have wound up losing the game.

The Giants won, so Casilla gets a free pass. As does Bochy. As I have written elsewhere, I think Bochy probably outmanaged Manuel in Game 4 and I think Bochy has generally been making the better moves throughout this postseason (which isn't to say I think he's been perfect).

The Giants didn't have to win last night, though. And if they'd lost, I'm wondering what the analysis would look like today.

Enjoying Game 4 rather than analyzing

October, 21, 2010
You want to second-guess Charlie Manuel?

You want to pick a single moment or decision that determined the outcome of Game 4?

Good luck. There were 11 pitchers, and 321 pitches. There were 23 hitters, and 79 plate appearances (including three hit batters, one sacrifice hit, and one game-winning sacrifice fly).

I was, somewhere in the middle of the game, prepared to focus on the fifth inning. In the top of the fifth, Bruce Bochy removed his starter to gain the platoon edge; the move backfired. In the bottom of the fifth, Charlie Manuel failed to remove his starter and gain the platoon edge; the non-move backfired.

I preferred the move over the non-move, and since Manuel's team wound up losing, we can second-guess that one if we like.

But why stop there? Maybe Manuel should have let Jose Contreras throw more than six pitches, instead of going to Chad Durbin in the sixth. Maybe Manuel should have turned to his closer instead of his No. 2 starter in the ninth inning of a tie game.

But the combinations and the possibilities are dizzying, and this seemed to me one of those games where analyzing every little decision means missing the forest for the trees. This game -- as most of them do -- came down to execution. Afterward on the radio, Dave Campbell focused on "questionable pitch selection by Phillies pitchers." On TV, Mitch Williams said much the same.

I think there's something to be said for that, though I'm not nearly smart enough to know if the issue was selection or control. It's commonly believed that major league pitchers can generally put the ball wherever they like, but most of them really can't. Pitchers routinely miss their spots by six, eight, 10 inches ... sometimes even a foot!

Well, not often by a foot. Not the good pitchers. But I'll bet if you could really study the thing, you would find that far, far, far more games are decided by errant pitches (and the resulting line drives and home runs) than by foolish managerial decisions.

I'm not saying that Charlie Manuel managed a great Game 4. I'm saying that Game 4 was so entertaining and could have gone so many different ways that it seems, while we're still basking in the afterglow of so much excitement, churlish (if not pointless) to examine every move under a microscope with a wicked wit.

The Giants and the Phillies played a wonderful baseball game, and either team could easily have won. Tonight, maybe that's enough.

Phillies same team that scored plenty all season

October, 19, 2010
Following the Giants' blanking of the Phillies in Game 3, you might be wondering something along the lines of, "What's wrong with these Phillies? They're supposed to have this great lineup, and they can't score any runs? If it wasn't for Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels, they'd be even worse off than they are!"

Well, it's true that the Phillies haven't scored as many runs as we might have expected. But they haven't been terrible. They've scored 22 runs in six games, or nearly four runs per game. They've scored seven runs in one game, and six runs in another.

Meanwhile, the Giants have scored 19 runs in seven postseason games, roughly three per game. Now, the Giants have faced tougher starting pitchers than the Phillies have faced. But this is roughly what we would have expected, that the Phillies would score more runs in the postseason than the Giants have. Even in the current series, the Phillies have outscored the Giants (9-8).

Not that it really matters. And the Phillies certainly have had some issues. Their cleanup hitter (Ryan Howard) hasn't driven in a run yet. Raul Ibanez, who hit so well in the second half of the season, is 0 for 11 with five strikeouts against the Giants (he didn't do much against the Reds, either).

Howard and Ibanez are better than this, as are the Phillies generally. Despite missing Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley for big chunks of the regular season, the Phillies finished second in the National League in scoring. Considering just the players they're using now, they probably have the best and most balanced lineup in the league.

Which isn't any guarantee. Especially against the Giants' outstanding rotation. But there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the Phillies. They're just going through a bit of a rough patch, thanks mostly to bad luck and good pitching. They might come around in time, or they might not. But you know everybody will be picking them again next spring.

Phillies' Manuel devises perfect lineup

October, 17, 2010
The Phillies have a different lineup tonight. Exactly the same players, just in different spots.

Here was the Game 1 lineup (not including pitcher):

1. Shane Victorino
2. Placido Polanco
3. Chase Utley
4. Ryan Howard
5. Jayson Werth
6. Jimmy Rollins
7. Raul Ibanez
8. Carlos Ruiz

And tonight's:

1. Shane Victorino
2. Chase Utley
3. Placido Polanco
4. Ryan Howard
5. Jayson Werth
6. Jimmy Rollins
7. Raul Ibanez
8. Carlos Ruiz

Just one tiny change, but let's look at the two lineups again, but this time with each player represented by one of three letters:


Boom. The Phillies' lineup, already a wonderful mélange of left-handed hitters and right-handed hitters and switch-hitters, is now perfectly alternating, without a single instance of consecutive left- or right-handed hitters.

Of course, this Game 2 change is a response to the Phillies' Game 1 loss, in which left-handed reliever Javier Lopez was summoned in the eighth inning and dispatched lefty hitters Utley and Howard, which eased the way for Brian Wilson to earn the four-out save.

This is an old story. In Ibanez's first game with the Phillies last year, he batted fifth, making three left-handed hitters in a row: Utley, Howard and Ibanez. In the ninth inning of that game, the Phillies got a rally going against reliever Mike Gonzalez, but the rally fell short when Gonzalez, a lefty, struck out Howard and Ibanez to end the game.

Ibanez batted sixth in the Phillies' next seven games, and for most of the season's first six weeks. After that, he moved around a lot. This year -- with the presence of Polanco and the emergence of Werth and the first-half struggles of Ibanez -- there wasn't any rationale for putting three lefty hitters together in the lineup.

Problem solved, right?

Except where last year -- and this year, until Saturday night -- two lefties together in the lineup didn't seem like a problem, suddenly it does. To Charlie Manuel, anyway.

The move doesn't bother me. But ask yourself this: If the Phillies had won last night, would Manuel have made the switch? If Utley or Howard had gotten a hit against Lopez last night, would Manuel have made the switch?

Managers have to do things like this. It's what we expect of them. Still, if splitting up Utley and Howard is truly a good idea -- or more to the point, if Manuel thinks it's a good idea -- why did he wait until the middle of October to do it?

Making sense of Bochy's decision

October, 17, 2010
When I wasn't paying attention, Bruce Bochy mixed up his pitching rotation, flip-flopping Jonathan Sanchez and Matt Cain, with Sanchez starting Game 2 and Cain Game 3.

According to Andrew Baggarly, "There are plenty of reasons why this makes sense." Here are some (all?) of those reasons, with my (respectful) rebuttals in italics ...
    – Sanchez, not Cain will have to deal with Citizen’s Bank Ballpark, which is kind of a bandbox. The Phillies hit 94 homers at home this year, compared to 72 on the road ... and Cain is slightly more of a flyball pitcher than Sanchez.

    Perhaps, but Cain actually gave up fewer home runs this season than Sanchez. And fewer last season, per nine innings.

    — Sanchez has been flat out better the last few weeks. He was 4-1 with a 1.01 ERA in Sept/Oct, compared to Cain’s 3-1, 3.29. Sanchez also struck out 11 and gave up just two hits over 7 1/3 in a 3-2 Game 3 win in Atlanta (although Cain was very good in Game 2, as well).

    It's true: Sanchez has been fantastic lately. But we're talking about just six weeks here ... and six weeks during which Cain's strikeout-to-walk ratio was even better than Sanchez's.

    — Bochy’s also mentioned that he wanted to “break up the righties.”

    And the advantage there is what, exactly?

    — Sanchez won in Philly in August, allowing one earned and two hits over eight innings.

    One game in August. In one game in July, Ross Ohlendorf shut the Phillies out for seven innings. In one game in September, Adalberto Mendez held the Giants to one hit over six innings.

Here's why I don't particularly like this move ...

Sanchez is slightly more homer-prone than Cain. Not a big deal. But Sanchez throws left-handed, Cain right-handed. Something a lot of people don't realize (though I'm sure Bochy does): The Giants' home ballpark is pretty friendly to left-handed power hitters. And I would prefer to start my left-handed pitcher there, with hopes of neutralizing the Phillies' three lefty-hitting power threats.

Granted, one can make far too much of this stuff. The margins are tiny, and in fact neither Sanchez nor Cain has shown significant home/road differences during their time with the Giants.

Oh, and one more factor in the equation: Whoever starts Game 2 will have five days of rest before starting Game 6, while the Game 3 starter will have just four days' rest before Game 7. It's certainly possible that someone has determined that Sanchez will benefit more from the extra rest than Cain would. If so, I heartily endorse the decision.

Barring that, though, I don't. This looks to me like one of those small-sample-size decisions that managers make because (1) they know they're supposed to make decisions, and (2) there are enough thin, grabbable reeds for Bochy to make this one.

Cody Ross makes Sabean look smart

October, 16, 2010
Caught this exchange on TV, after Cody Ross hit his second home run off Roy Halladay ...
    Joe Buck: The Padres were trying to claim him off waivers, from the Florida Marlins. The Giants didn't want San Diego to add to their offense ... so they claimed him. He comes to the Giants. He hits well down the stretch in September, and now he's got three postseason home runs out of the No. 8 spot.

    Tim McCarver: What a move by Brian Sabean, the general manager of San Francisco.

Well, it definitely was a move.

[+] EnlargeCody Ross
AP Photo/Eric GayCody Ross hit two home runs against the Phillies on Saturday.
Ross didn't actually hit well down the stretch, in September or any significant part of September. He didn't even play much. After joining the Giants in late August, Ross started only 17 of the team's final 37 games.

When Ross joined the Giants, he was hitting .265/.316/.405; at season's end he was hitting .269/.322/.413. He hardly hit well enough down the stretch to earn real playing time against right-handed pitchers in October ... Except Bruce Bochy doesn't have a great deal of choice.

If Travis Ishikawa had done anything this season, Bochy might be tempted -- with an enemy right-hander on the mound -- to play Ishikawa at first base and Aubrey Huff in right field.

But Ishikawa didn't do anything. So Bochy doesn't see any point in letting Huff play in the outfield (for which he's ill-equipped).

It took more than Ishikawa's struggles to get Ross his big chance, though. He didn't play a great deal after joining the Giants because the Giants had already acquired two right-handed-hitting outfielders: Pat Burrell in late May, Jose Guillen in the middle of August (about a week before Ross arrived).

Guillen, who showed up with (if nothing else) the reputation of a dangerous hitter, started almost every Giants game down the stretch. Whereas Ross hit just slightly better after joining the Giants, Guillen hit just slightly worse.

In the last week of the season, with literally every game seeming critical, Guillen started five games; Ross started once. That, as much as anything else could, tells us exactly what Bruce Bochy thought about their relative talents. Ross is playing now only because Guillen's struggles in September and his neck injury finally made their point.

Picking up Ross was a great move. Even if none of the Giants' decision-makers had any idea that he would hit three home runs in the club's first five postseason games. How could they have? Ross had hit three home runs in the previous five weeks.

Roy Halladay a wolf among kittens

October, 6, 2010
For your consideration, a list:

Johnny Vander Meer
Allie Reynolds
Virgil Trucks
Don Larsen
Nolan Ryan

Those are the only men who have thrown two no-hitters in one calendar year or thrown a postseason no-hitter.

Roy Halladay just became the first pitcher to do both.

[+] EnlargeRoy Halladay
AP Photo/Rob CarrRoy Halladay is the only player to have two no-hitters in the same season with one in the postseason.
Should we be surprised?

Sure. Just look at that list. Talented fellows, but only one of them has a plaque in the Hall of Fame.

Vander Meer won only 15 games in the season in which he pitched two no-hitters, never won 20 games in one season, and finished his career with a losing record.

In 1952, Virgil Trucks lost 19 games and won only five ... but two of those were no-hitters (and another was a one-hitter).

Just two years before Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series, he went 3-21 with the Baltimore Orioles. After pitching the perfect game, he went 51-51 and finished his career with a losing record.

Of course, Allie Reynolds and Nolan Ryan both were outstanding pitchers for a number of years. Still, that list is as notable for the names you don't see as the names you do. No Bob Feller or Sandy Koufax, no Steve Carlton or Tom Seaver, no Greg Maddux or Roger Clemens. No Johan Santana or CC Sabathia.

Is Halladay better than all of those pitchers.


Was there any reason to think he would be luckier than all of those pitchers? Let alone the thousands of other, lesser pitchers who haven't done what he's now done?


Surprised? Yes, we should be surprised.

Shocked? Hardly.

In 2008 and 2009, pitching in the toughest division in the toughest league, Halladay went 37-21 with a 2.78 ERA and led the American League in strikeout-to-walk ratio in both seasons.

It stood to reason that he might do something even more impressive upon joining the National League.

A great deal's going to be made of Halladay throwing a no-hitter in his first postseason game ... but in just his 11th National League game, he threw a perfect game. Earlier in the season, he'd thrown a five-hitter and a three-hitter. Later, he would throw two more five-hitters and, in his last start of the season, a two-hitter.

Halladay's perfect game and his two-hitter both came after five days of rest (rather than the usual four). Shouldn't we have expected something special today, after eight days of rest?

Letting Roy Halladay loose against the National League this year was like locking a hungry wolf inside a garage full of kittens.

We couldn't have seen this coming, quite.

But we should have seen something like it.