The Phillies are in Miami to face the Marlins in their final road series of the season. Then, they’ll head back to Philadelphia to wrap up the schedule at home against the Atlanta Braves. Most likely, they’ll finish in last place in the NL East with around 75 wins, another unremarkable season and the third consecutive season in which they’ve failed to reach the playoffs.
The front office will watch the playoffs from home before putting pen to paper to begin restructuring the team for a better outlook in 2015 and beyond. They can’t do that without first looking back and taking stock of everything they learned throughout the 2014 season. Here are five things we learned about the Phillies this season.
5. Chase Utley cannot stand the rigor of a full 162-game schedule anymore.
Hey, who can blame the guy? He’s 35 years old and has two degenerative knees. The fact that Chase Utley has been able to accrue north of 600 plate appearances is astounding, let alone that he’s been able to produce at an above-average level both offensively and defensively.
However, it was somewhere around late May where Utley hit a wall. He was neck-and-neck with Dee Gordon at the time for the most productive player at second base, but after posting a .416 weighted on-base average in April and .363 in May, he cratered. .271 in June, .324 in July, .301 in August, .263 in September. Utley had three days off* in April, zero in May, one in June, one in July, one in August, and one in September.
*Days off meaning that he did not appear at all in any game.
Who knows if giving him regular time off, as has been suggested here ad nauseam, would have made any difference. Maybe he’s only good for 50 games, not 155. What we do know is that this is not a new problem. Over his entire career, spanning 6,310 plate appearances, Utley’s average wOBA by month starting in April: .415, .378, .372, .391, .338, .350.
There are several solutions to this problem. One is giving him regular rest, perhaps one day a week and ideally against a tough left-handed starting pitcher. Another solution is to move him to first base, but his declining bat wouldn’t hold up at first base the same way Ryan Howard‘s no longer does. Plus, that would involve relegating Howard to a bench role or getting lucky enough to find a taker for him, so it seems rather unrealistic. The Phillies could platoon Utley but for a team with no obvious right-handed platoon candidates and no rational hope of contending in 2015, it seems like a waste. They could try trading Utley, but he has full no-trade protection and can veto a trade to any team. Utley has sounded like a guy who wants to finish his career in Philadelphia.
Thus, the most logical way to deal with the problem is to give Utley scheduled time off. He probably won’t like it — Utley would play with two bloody stumps after a double amputation if he could — but given the prospect he’ll still be around in 2018 and may be one of the only reasons fans still come out to the stadium, it’s worth keeping him healthy and productive.
4. We still don’t know anything about Domonic Brown.
Fans and talking heads rarely agree, but they seem unanimous in their lack of faith in Domonic Brown. So sure are they that he is a bust that they think GM Ruben Amaro should shop the outfielder in the off-season for a similar change of scenery candidate. And, ultimately, that may be what is best for both sides. There is no way on this planet that there is any certainty around the matter, however.
Over the last couple of seasons, we have been treated to pity parties over having missed the Jason Grilli and Brandon Moss trains. Both were in the Phillies’ minor league system and were eschewed in favor of other, worse veteran retreads. Grilli and Moss went on to great success with the Pirates and Athletics, respectively. Despite those two stories, and the stories of countless other reclamation projects like Jose Bautista (whose swing was altered) and Brandon McCarthy (whose cutter was banned by the Arizona Diamondbacks and unbanned by the New York Yankees), everyone is sure that Brown will never again have success the way he did in 2013.
Ultimately, what we know about Brown is a whole lot of nothing. 1,523 plate appearances isn’t enough? Not when the data is as meaningless for most of his career the way Brown’s is. Recall how the Phillies bounced Brown — much to our chagrin — between the minor leagues and the major leagues. We may not know how that impacted his performance, but we can certainly all agree that it did. Recall also how he broke his hamate bone in spring training of 2011. The timetable to recapture power from that severe an injury is 12-18 months, which put him on a return path of at minimum March 2012 and at maximum the end of the 2012 season. Based on this alone, one must be very skeptical of weighing any of Brown’s 2010-12 data too heavily. Then you have 2013, and then you have 2014. One good season, one bad season. Fans weight the latter more than the former because of a lack of objectivity and recency bias; talking heads weight the latter more heavily because it fills up the air waves.
For Brown personally, his best chance to return to prominence is probably to get the hell out of dodge, to go to an organization that excels in taking other teams’ trash and turning it into treasure — the Orioles, for instance, who plucked Steve Pearce out of the great ether. For the Phillies, it would be obscenely stupid to give up on Brown now and either relegate him to a bench role or trade him when his value is four thousand miles below the earth’s crust. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain by keeping Brown around. And hey, on a personal level, I would like to see them try moving him back over to right field to see if they can’t recover some of the defensive value they thought they had in him.
3. Jonathan Papelbon was right: Velocity is overrated.
Before the season and even during, I harped a lot on Jonathan Papelbon‘s declining velocity. Papelbon got wind of it when the media started harping on it, asking them, “Why do you care about velo so much?” The 33-year-old right-hander said, “It’s not a big deal.” And he was right.
Papelbon was, once again, one of the best closers in baseball, saving 37 games in 41 chances with a 2.10 ERA even though his strikeout rate remained in the mid-20 percent range and his fastball averaged 91.2 miles per hour, the lowest of his career.
Papelbon’s velocity tumble started in 2012, his first year with the Phillies. If the velocity and low strikeout rate were to affect him the way I and others portended it would, it statistically very likely would have already happened. In his three seasons in Philly, though, Papelbon has ranged between above-average to stellar.
That is not to say velocity and strikeout rate are not important factors to look at; for almost every other reliever, you certainly would want to look at it very closely. Perhaps Papelbon, like Matt Cain and DIPS, is simply the exception to the rule.
2. The Phillies are set for a while at the back of the bullpen.
Papelbon will be returning next season at $13 million and, unless the Phillies are able to trade him (his $13 million option for 2016, which is very likely to vest, remains a sticking point), he will continue closing out games in red pinstripes. Meanwhile, Ken Giles turned in one of the most dominating seasons by a reliever, even more so when you factor his age and rookie status into consideration. And, though he had some rough patches, Jake Diekman has shown himself to be a bona fide back-of-the-bullpen arm. Justin De Fratus finally lived up to his billing. For the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings, the Phillies are set. And when Papelbon finally leaves, whether in one or two more seasons, they’ll still likely be fine.
This is wonderful news because it means Amaro doesn’t have to once again invest a significant amount of years and money to an older pitcher on the free agent market. Though the Papelbon signing has mostly been good given the right-hander’s performance, the Mike Adams signing has blown up in Amaro’s face. The axiom of investing as little as possible in to relievers still holds true and it should be a lot easier for Amaro to stick to that given how good his young bullpen arms have proven to be throughout the course of the season.
1. Ryne Sandberg has a lot of learning to do.
When I was in high school, they gave us those aptitude tests as I imagine they give everyone, which tell you which career path seems best suited to your academic strengths and personality. This should surprise no one, but my top result was actuarial science. For those not familiar, an actuary is someone who typically works for insurance companies and uses statistical analysis to assess risk-taking. Young men pay more for car insurance because, statistically speaking, they are more likely to engage in risky behavior that leads to auto accidents.
Major league managers are the furthest things from actuaries. They routinely take risks because their job is to win baseball games, not to prevent a pitcher from ever showing up in the trainer’s office. (Though the logical connection between being consistently more healthy and winning games is rarely made.) This is why my — and many other baseball nerds’ — philosophy on managing is so consistently at odds with the current baseball managing zeitgeist. Those who know the numbers know which risks are worth taking; managers either do not have or do not care to have those numbers, so they often take unnecessary risks.
This was Ryne Sandberg‘s first full season on the job after taking over for Charlie Manuel late last season. Overall, he’s been slightly below average. The Phillies will finish somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 wins, which is more or less where the Phillies were projected entering the season. Additionally, Sandberg’s foibles are foibles of almost every other manager, so it isn’t as if the Phillies would have been able to eke out an extra four or five wins with a different manager; that manager likely would have made the same mistakes.
That said, Sandberg unnecessarily rode his starting pitching deep into games. Early in the season, when the bullpen was a shambles, it was understandable even if still silly in an already-lost season. It continued as the season went on, and it became only more and more inexcusable.
Furthermore, Sandberg was rigid in his use of relievers, giving them set roles (though, in one respect, it likely helped the bullpen solidify the way it has) rather than using them fluidly as the match-ups and leverage dictated. Sandberg was among the more bunt-happy managers in baseball as well. Bunting is rarely a good decision — certainly less often than its current use would lead one to believe. His use of the bench was lackluster, though I’d cut some slack on that one given the personnel.
It would be unfair to write the guy off after one season. There’s certainly room for improvement and it would be wonderful to see some progress in this regard next season.
Five Things We Learned About the Phillies This Season
Author: Bill Baer
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