February 18, 2005

Mind Games: Vicente Padilla's War

Forget all the talk about Pat Burrell's wrist. The season's essential body part rests on the shoulders of the Phillies most enigmatic player.

On Monday, Philadelphia Daily News columnist Bill Conlin shared with readers what it'd be like if Pat Burrell's wrist could talk, but in real life, his wrist would have about as much to say as Vicente Padilla.

The introverted right-hander, considered by many scouts to have the best stuff in the rotation, doesn't talk to the press anymore. He even cut ties with "La Prensa," the national newspaper of Nicaragua, where they proudly hail him as the nation's best ball player since Dennis Martinez.

There’s a lot riding on Padilla’s big noggin. In the post-Schilling era, no pitcher has looked more dominant at times than Padilla. Labeled a pitcher with the right tools but wrong head, he's known to blast through 2 2/3 innings, walk the pitcher, and give up a home run to the next batter.

From someone moderately in tune with the new math of baseball, I still haven't found any numbers to gauge "concentration," because I'd love to apply them to Padilla.

Off the mound, one gets the impression teammates and team officials can't get a handle of Padilla, either. Certainly there are cultural barriers. He's the only current Major Leaguer from Nicaragua. The team's other misunderstood Latio player, Bobby Abreu, a native of Venezuela, speaks highly of him, often offering positive quotes in La Prensa.

For those of us on the outside, this is what we know: Best Nicaraguan baseball player since Dennis Martinez. All-star. Lightning stuff, including 95 mph fastball with movement. Drops velocity to 86-87 mph in pressure situations. Has no approach to hitting. Faithfully returns to Nicaragua in offseason and plays baseball, pitching more innings than Phillies would like. Involved in two off-season automobile accidents in past two years, one resulting in a fatality. Allegations of alcohol abuse stemming as far back as his days with Arizona, allegations he hasn't personally denied. Has since halted interviews with press. Alleged insubordination with former manager and former coach.

The problems with Larry Bowa came to light this week on XM Radio, when the former manager said Padilla would take himself out of games rather than throw 100 pitches. During games, he's shown little patience for error. Kevin Roberts of the Courier Post wrote a column last year titled "Phils Need Padilla to Get It." Roberts reported:

"On Aug. 21 in Milwaukee, Jason Michaels butchered a fly ball and Padilla discarded his glove in disgust. He was, literally, backing up home plate barehanded. Padilla quickly gave up five runs.

"Against the Braves Sept. 1, Padilla got upset at an umpire's call and immediately went south. His fastball dropped to 87-88 mph and he allowed five runs in five innings. Afterward Bowa - who's always been in Padilla's corner - chided him for losing focus. It was an astonishing display; Padilla came perilously close to quitting on his teammates."

The "it" goes well beyond anguish following a botched play or blown call. Zeroing in on specifics, Padilla was generally terrible last year with runners in scoring position, posting an ERA of 15.23, almost two runs higher than the next highest starter, Brett Myers, with 13.31.

Milton: 12.98
Wolf: 13.07
Millwood: 13.27
Myers: 13.31
Padilla: 15.23

Going deeper into categories considered tough situations - noting Padilla pitched in only 20 games, Wolf 23 and Millwood 25 - there's evidence at least part of his problems are mental.

Pitching from behind in the count:
Milton: 5.17 ERA
Wolf: 5.35 ERA
Milton: 7.09 ERA
Myers: 7.57 ERA
Padilla: 9.82 ERA

Man on second:
Wolf: 3.27 ERA
Milton: 4.70 ERA
Myers: 4.74 ERA
Millwood: 7.94 ERA
Padilla: 9.00 ERA

Man on first and second:
Myers: 7.71 ERA
Wolf: 8.18 ERA
Milton: 10.97 ERA
Millwood: 11.70 ERA
Padilla: 16.20 ERA

And concentration? Pitching with two outs:
Milton: 3.00 ERA
Myers: 5.69 ERA
Wolf: 6.03 ERA
Millwood: 6.39 ERA
Padilla: 6.81 ERA

When I looked into men on third, second and third, and bases loaded, I felt there were too few chances in 2005, and surprisingly, Padilla actually did OK with the bases juiced. (I'll continue to look for some more stats this afternoon - I ran out of time last night).

This next one is my favorite. Pitching against pitchers should be an automatic out, but creates an awkward standoff. Here's how the starters measured up against their adversaries:

vs. pitchers
Millwood: 0.00 ERA
Milton: 0.44 ERA
Wolf: 0.77 ERA
Padilla: 2.31 ERA
Myers: 3.14 ERA

Padilla isn’t inconsistent. He’s consistently beating himself in pressure situations.

Much has been made about the positive attitude and smiling face of new manager Charlie Manuel (take Manuel’s smile, Burrell's wrist, and T.O.'s ankle, and you can start a media Frankenstein). If a single player stands to gain anything from Bowa's absence, it's the player with the most raw talent, but most mental baggage, and that's Padilla. Unlike Burrell, there's no issue with mechanics. It's all there … ready and waiting.

In a way, Padilla is symbolic of what 2005 means and how the season will eventually unfold. With too many doubts surrounding Randy Wolf and Brett Myers, Padilla has, in my view, the best shot to improve of those three. Readers of BPF agreed, with over 50 percent picking Padilla to have the most improvement of any Phillie starter this season.

February 16, 2005

Lieber article exposes media shortcomings

For those who haven't checked out Mike Berquist's Citizen's Blog, today is the day to discover why BPF is calling his site “one of the best Phillies resources anywhere.” And I’ll take this opportunity, too, to address why many baseball fans have grown critical of newspaper coverage.

Certainly, the accessibility of the Internet is hard to match, but I struggle to find breaking, cutting-edge information in established media these days.

It's no longer good enough for writers to skate by just because they have access to a call list and printing press. The Internet has broken down those walls. Now, it comes down to talent, adopting an issue, and filling a news void, especially since sites like this one extend far beyond where paperboys can travel.

I haven’t seen an article that dissects the Phils biggest winter signing, Lieber, anywhere, until today. And for my .50 cents, that doesn't cut it anymore.

February 15, 2005

BPF welcomes new Berks neighbor

The name 'Phillies' isn't the only word in the title of this blog. There's also 'Berks,' which isn't as interesting, but deserves a little love.

So in keeping with our end of the bargain, we refer you to Al Walentis' "The Editor's Blog," the first Weblog dedicated to Berks County news, and some other stuff, too. The Editor's Blog is located on the Reading Eagle Web site, at www.readingeagle.com. (RSS feed.)

Be sure to check out Al’s heartwarming stories about Berks County and its people, like today’s story about a lunatic dressed in a monkey suit on the roof of Oley Valley High School. It's the second time in four years Oley, Pa. made AP headlines, the other was when maniac bus driver Otto Nuss kidnapped elementary school students and drove them to Maryland.

I'm reminded of a Jason Brudereck column in the Reading Eagle, when he asked readers to come up with a new motto for the city of Reading. My favorite:

"Reading: Come run with the pit bulls."

Bowa, Kalas on XM Radio today
Tom G. at Balls Sticks & Stuff caught today’s launch of the new MLB Channel on XM Radio. Larry Bowa, with co-host Mark Patrick, interviewed Harry Kalas. Tom offers some snippets from the broadcast, including some juicy stuff on Vicente Padilla.

UPN, ESPN kick off preseason baseball schedules
UPN 57 will air the first televised preseason Phillies game Sunday, Mar. 6 against Boston. It’s the first of six preseason games to be broadcast on either UPN or CSN.

On ESPN, Mike Piazza leads the New York Mets against the new Washington Nationals in the first of eight nationally-televised preseason games, Wednesday, Mar. 2 at 1 p.m.

February 13, 2005

Despite moves, CF pool still tepid

For the second year in a row, the Phillies will begin the season with too many lukewarm bodies in center. Marlon Byrd, considered the future of the position a year ago, could have limited opportunities to prove himself in Clearwater.

It's no surprise the Phillies made centerfield a priority this winter, but for all the activity, the future of the position remains a mystery.

Marlon Byrd, cosidered the future a year ago, fell victim to a sophomore slump and enters spring training in limbo. Many scouts have written off the 27-year-old off for good, citing poor bat speed and a statuesque plate methodology that makes it difficult to adjust to pitches.

So in the first big move of the offseason, the Phillies traded for veteran Kenny Lofton, a favorite of new manager Charlie Manuel.

With the new faces at center, including Lofton, 38, and Rule 5 pickup and defensive specialist Shane Victorino, to go with Jason Michaels, recipient of a new $825,000 contract, and Byrd, it's astounding how similar 2005 is to 2004, despite all the shuffling.

Lofton will assume the starting role Byrd claimed in '04. Michaels returns as all-purpose outfielder and could platoon with Lofton. Victorino could assume a Doug Glanville-esque roll as a late-inning substitution, should the team elect to keep him. Ricky Ledee, now in Los Angeles, also factored into the mix last season, and that's about all Byrd is expected to do.

But in reality, the Phillies didn't improve so much as complicate matters in center, a theme that permeated the rest of Philadelphia's muddled offseason.

Placido Polanco was expected to sign elsewhere, but unexpectedly returned, costing the Phillies $4.6 million, and for now, is slated as nothing more than a high-priced utility player.

The Polanco resigning also impeded on the two-year deal to Tomas Perez, signed back in October. The Perez signing was intended to secure a flexible infield presence in the absence of Polanco. Last season under Larry Bowa, Perez quietly started 56 games, but should only expect half that, with fewer games at second and first.

For the second year in a row, the Phillies will start the season with too many bodies in center. The addition of Victorino handcuffs the team into giving him plenty of playing time in camp. Keeping him boxes out yet another roster spot that might otherwise go to a player with the best spring. If the Phils elect not to keep him, he must be offered back to the Dodgers for $25,000.

No player will feel the roster pinch more than Byrd. Unable to trade him, and electing not to play winter ball, it became critical for Byrd to get in his swings in Clearwater, and make the most of those swings in order to regain his status as a player with any kind a future in Philadelphia.

But even if Byrd suddenly figures it out, his stock in center won't rise above third in the depth chart, if he makes the team at all.