April 22, 2005

Pratt's home run lifts Phils

I wanted to post a picture of Todd Pratt parking one from yesterday’s win against the Rox, but nothing moved over the wire. My guess is when Pratt bats, the photographers take a bathroom break.

Pratt is the Phillies best soldier. He’s always a free agent after the season and always resigns. He could easily go elsewhere, and if certain chips fell his way, he could possibly become a starter for some other team. Instead, Pratt sticks around and accepts his role as a backup, earning under $1 million this season.

Today’s headlines read things like "Thome's first HR sparks win," but it was Pratt's two-run shot that put the Phils up for good. You may need to go a few paragraphs down to read about it.

In fact, the only time he's gained headlines this season was in spring training, when he walked out on an interview with Comcast’s Leslie Gudel when she asked if he thought he would have to fight for his backup spot with A.J. Hinch.

In 12 at bats, he's done what had taken Jim Thome 56 at bats to do – hit a home run. And in the three games Pratt has started, they’re 3-0, including Gavin Floyd’s seven-inning win, Lieber’s eight-inning 2-1 win against Atlanta, and yesterday’s game.

Links: Swing and a Miss "Patterns," Balls Sticks & Stuff "Lieber Gaining Attention"

April 21, 2005

Phils must wise up against lowly Rox

The strategy should be simple – make Colorado pitching throw strikes.

Colorado Rockies pitching has surrendered a league-high 79 walks this season. Their bullpen is by far the worst in baseball, featuring such stiffs as Byung-Hyun Kim, Jose Acevedo and a motley crew to man the hull in their heroic quest for 50 wins.

It can’t be said any clearer than this: the Phillies must beat teams like the Rockies at home. Last night represented Colorado’s first road win since Sept. 29 of last season.

It’s unclear, even to the broadcast crew, whether Charlie Manuel is giving his hitters the go ahead, but it seems the green light is shining brightly these days. Ideally, you want your batters to hit the ball into play, but in the last couple nights, opposing pitchers haven’t been throwing strikes, and in a number of situations, looking for the walk would have been smartest approach to keep rallies alive. The Phils drew seven of them last night, and could have drawn seven more against Kim, Brian Fuentes and Acevedo alone.

Right now, Jim Thome is pressing to hit his first home run, and his impatience is starting to hurt the club. Here’s last night’s inning 7, with the score 6-1 Rox.

- J. Acevedo relieved J. Wright - C. Sullivan in right field
– M. Lieberthal homered to deep left
– J. Offerman hit for R. Madson
– J. Offerman doubled to center
- J. Rollins grounded out to second, J. Offerman to third
– K. Lofton singled to center, J. Offerman scored
- B. Fuentes relieved J. Acevedo
- B. Abreu hit by pitch, K. Lofton to second
- J. Thome flied out to right
- P. Burrell walked, K. Lofton to third, B. Abreu to second
- P. Polanco hit for C. Utley - P. Polanco popped out to right

If you didn’t watch the game, the Rockies bullpen was as bad as advertised, featuring a number of wild throws and pitches that flew behind hitters. Poly haters can use this opportunity to jump all over him for ending the inning with a pop fly, but I’m going to jump on Thome, our $13 million veteran. Abreu was beamed when the count was full. Why, then, is Thome swinging on the very next pitch?

Here’s my question: Does Manuel pull Big Jim aside to have a little talk, even though it might create for an awkward situation on the dingy when the two go fishing? After all, comfort, and letting players play their game, is the key, right?

For this veteran offense, it’s time to play consistent baseball instead of stringing together peaks and valleys.

April 20, 2005

Utley-Polanco poll

Do you agree with Phillies manager Charlie Manuel's decision to platoon Chase Utley and Placido Polanco at second base?

Vote for your selection in the poll located on the right. Use the comment thread below to explain your choice.

Phils-Mets series recap

The 2005 season premiere of Vicente Padilla, and the bullpen debut of Gavin Floyd, unraveled into a complete debacle as the Mets split their road series with the Phils 1-1.

Spliting two at home to the Mets may not seem like the end of the world, but it’s a loss anyway you shake it, and a situation the Phils must exploit in order to gain ground in the NL East rat race. The Phils may not face worse pitching within the division than the two stiffs they saw in this series: Kaz Ishii and Victor Zambrano.

Vicente Padilla, giving up five homers and eight runs in his three inning dud of a debut, pitched like a guy that missed most of the spring. In addition to working through arm problems, he’ll need to adjust his game and get his changeup working since he can no longer deliver his fastball with the same velocity. He could learn something from Jon Lieber on how to get batters out without a blazing fastball.

Righting the Padilla Flotilla could take lots of time, coaching and mentoring. Vicente is a concern, and at this point, somewhat of a resurrection project as his calling card was his dancing heater.

In his relief, Gavin Floyd wasn’t any better, giving up a solo homer to Jose Reyes and a grand slam to David Wright, making it seven Met home runs for the game, setting a new club record.

Floyd was so rattled in his three painful innings of work, he even surrendered a triple to the pitcher Zambrano. His final line was very close to Padilla’s: eight runs, eight of them earned, three walks, God have mercy.

Saving Gavin Floyd
If Floyd’s performance resembled a rookie who was pitching on short rest, coming off a game he got shelled, and working from the bullpen probably for the first time since t-ball, that’s because it was.

The question now is how to get Floyd back on track, because they’ve got kind of a potential mess on their hands and are in danger of spoiling a good thing. His biggest visible problem last night was location, but his face told the story: He looked like a ghost - scared and lost.

Maybe time is the answer, but the more they work on Floyd the reliever the less time he spends as Floyd the starter. His confidence entering last night was probably shaken, and now, it has to be shot.

There won’t be many more blowout games where Floyd can get low pressure work from the pen, so what do they do? What happens if he gets bombed again?

The best thing that could happen if Floyd stays up is if Padilla says “Put me back on the DL. I’m not ready.” Then, move Floyd back to starter and let Todd Pratt catch him on the road. The next road game is in six days, Monday at Washington.

Gavin Floyd poll results
Fourty percent of BPF readers taking part in a recent poll said the Phillies would have been best served by keeping rookie pitcher Gavin Floyd in the starting rotation and moving an existing starter to the bullpen when Vicente Padilla returned from the DL.

Thirty readers took part in the poll that ended before Tuesday night’s pitching meltdown against the Mets.

The Phillies final decision, as it played out in grizzly detail, was to move Floyd to the bullpen, the option that received the second-lowest amount of votes (4) on our poll.

Here are the complete results:
-40% Keep him in the starting rotation and move an existing starter to the bullpen, send someone to Triple-A
-23% Keep him in the rotation and trade an existing starter
-17% Send him to Triple-A
-13% Move him to the bullpen, send someone to Triple-A
-7% Keep him in the rotation to pitch in a six man rotation, send someone to Triple-A:

April 19, 2005

Two weeks notice

October is still a long way off, but the list of players off to fast starts, including Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts, is surprising as the season passes two weeks of play. Here's a quick look at who's hot, based on offensive VORP.

Here’s what VORP means: Value Over Replacement Player. The number of runs contributed beyond what a replacement-level player at the same position would contribute with the same percentage of team plate appearances. VORP scores do not consider defense.

Orioles second baseman and former platoon player Brian Roberts leads all of baseball with a 17.7 VORP, while the Phillies Pat Burrell ranks eighth in baseball with a 10.9 VORP, the highest of any NL outfielder.

Elsewhere, other surprising names of players leading their league are Shea Hillenbrand (AL 3B), Dimitri Young (AL DH) and Edgardo Alfonso (NL 3B).

The top ten is thus:

1. Brian Roberts (BAL) 17.6
2. Dmitri Young (DET) 11.8
3. Edgardo Alfonzo (SFN) 11.8
4. Jeff Kent (LAD) 11.7
5. Chipper Jones (ATL) 11.2
6. Miguel Tejada (BAL) 11.1
7. Shea Hillenbrand (TOR) 11.0
8. Pat Burrell (PHI) 10.9
9. Clint Barmes (COL) 10.5
10. Joe Randa (CIN) 10.5

In addition, a couple of understated offseason NL acquisitions have been nice surprises, including Vinny Castilla, Washington, and Jose Valentin, Los Angeles Dodgers. They’re among the NL top 5 in EqA.

One player that’s not having a good season so far is Phillies third baseman David Bell. His –2.7 VORP is third-worst among National League third basemen, ahead of the surprisingly bad Mike Lowell, Florida, and Ty Wigginton, Pittsburgh.

Jim Thome is in the bottom five among NL first basemen with a –0.1 VORP. Thome has yet to hit a home run, so one can expect that number to improve.

Among NL second basemen, Chase Utley ranks 11th with a 1.5 VORP, and Placido Polanco ranks 25th with a –0.8.

The big surprises for the Phillies are center fielders Kenny Lofton and Jason Michaels, ranked 5th and 6th best NL center fielders respectively, with VORPs of 5.4 and 4.8.

The CF platoon is definitely working, as neither one of them holds a significant defensive edge.

Miller hits 93 mph in pain-free start

Berks County native Wade Miller worked his second pain-free rehab start Monday night for the Wilmington Blue Rocks. The Reading Eagle’s Phil Gianficaro was in Wilmington to report on the Red Sox pitcher and had the story in today’s edition.

Miller worked five innings, allowed one run on a leadoff homer, striking out six and walking none in leading the Blue Rocks to a 4-2 victory over the Kinston Indians.

The best news was that he felt no pain in his shoulder and hit 93 on the gun.

April 18, 2005

Ex-Phil report: Bruce Chen

It’s taken 28-year-old Bruce Chen eight major-league backdrops to settle into a comfortable groove. Now with Baltimore, the former Phillie is starting to live up to his former prospect status. Scott Christ from the popular Orioles blog Camden Chat stops in to answer a few questions.

Phillies fans may remember Bruce Chen as the guy traded by the Atlanta Braves to the Phillies for Andy Ashby in 2000. After 31 uneventful starts between 00-01, he was sent along with prospect Adam Walker to the New York Mets for relief pitchers Dennis Cook and Turk Wendell . He’d go on to pitch for Montreal, Cincinnati, Houston and Boston before the Orioles' took a chance on the left-hander last summer. He pitched well during the stretch run, and so far this season, he’s 1-0 with a 1.80 ERA in two starts.

I asked Scott Christ from the Orioles blog Camden Chat his thoughts on the resurgence of Bruce Chen.

BPF: Bruce Chen is only 28 and has been everywhere. Do you think he's sticking around this time?

SC: It's kind of difficult to think Chen is going to stick around anywhere at this point, but yeah, he's still young and I think he's found a good place for himself. This is not a team that doesn't have the time to give Chen a good look in the rotation. If Chen is going to stick anywhere, Baltimore seems like the place, for now at least.

BPF: He's 1-0 with an ERA of 1.80 in his first two outings. In his brief time with Baltimore last season, he pitched well. In eight appearances, seven as a starter, he posted a 3.02 ERA (3.18 EQERA) and a 2-1 strikeout to walk ratio. What's been the difference since coming to Baltimore? Those represent the best numbers of his career.

SC: Maybe just maturity, learning over the years from countless different coaches and managers and fellow pitchers, but I think you have to credit Ray Miller at this point. Miller helped turn around the entire staff when he returned as the pitching coach in 2004, and he's seemed to work very well with both Chen and fellow lefty Erik Bedard. They're not throwing the fastball so much, instead using their offspeed pitches confidently.

When Chen was pitching against the Yankees a few days ago, Bedard sat in the dugout by Ray Miller with the ball held in his changeup grip. Chen was an artist in that start, baffling the Yankees and working both corners.

BPF: How do you see Chen finishing this year, and on a bigger scale, the rest of Baltimore's starting rotation?

SC: Chen has been Baltimore's best starter since the stretch run performance last year that you mentioned, which is all of ten games of course, but it's something to think about. He's still such a mystery in many ways, but I like him a lot and think this could be his year. I don't think he's ever going to really be an ace or a real frontline starter, but I think Chen could be a cog in the Baltimore rotation for a while.

This might be super optimistic, but I think Chen is going to win 12-15 games this year with an ERA around 3.70 or so; I expect a good, solid year.

As for the entire Baltimore staff, I like Chen, Bedard and Lopez, but Cabrera worries me greatly and Ponson is something of a train wreck, which basically means the two guys with the best stuff are the ones that give us grief. They should be better than last year,and I think overall they can put up numbers in line with their post-Ray Miller performance of 2004, maybe a little better.

Everyone talks about the offense, but I think Orioles fans are focusing more than anything else on the pitching. We know that's where it all starts and ends over 162 games.

Scott Christ writes for the popular Orioles blog Camden Chat and can be reached at sc@camdenchat.com.

Phils-Braves series wrap

A young pitcher elevates his game to the next level, and a controversial figure becomes a hero, as the Phillies face down the tough starting pitching of Atlanta and win the series 2-1. (AP Photo)

Lesson learned
Last night, the Phillies sent a message to fans: boo this.

As the teams in the NL East play chess, fans must learn to appreciate a win any way they can take it. With Washington, picked last but currently in first, and the four remaining contenders all knotted up at 6-6, if winning means bunting, pinch-running and platooning to exploit every inch of weakness, so be it.

The gut instinct of Charlie Manuel
A dozen games into the season and the strategy of new manager Charlie Manuel appears to be the one he’s said all along: decisions based on intuition.

As a fanatic trying to gage whether or not this will work, I toyed with the idea of keeping a log of critical moves, but decided it would be far too tedious. Situations like when pitchers get pulled, how relievers are used and when, who starts in the field, where hitters bat in the order, etc, would be tracked and the results recorded.

If such a scorecard was kept, Manuel would be ahead right now, starting with the big issue casting a shadow over this team: the two-headed second basemen of Chase Utley and Placido Polanco.

I’m with the majority in my impatience to see Ultey break free, but Manuel has other designs, and more patience than the rest of us. His decision to start the right-handed Polanco last night against LHP Mike Hampton led to a 2-5 night, including the game-winning hit and a run-saving throw. It also allowed Chase Utley to come into a pinch hit situation later in the game against the right-handed closer Danny Kolb.

Remember those charts grade school teachers used to keep for times you did something good in class? If you did a task OK, you got a check. But if you did the extra credit, you got a star.

Last night in the tenth, Manuel earned his first gold star.

After a shaky ninth, struggling Braves closer Danny Kolb committed the sin of walking David Bell and Mike Lieberthal to start the tenth. Kenny Lofton dropped a bunt in front of the mound, which Kolb fielded cleanly. Kolb had ample time to throw out pinch-runner Tomas Perez at third, but sailed it high and into left field, scoring Perez to tie it up 1-1.

With Kolb now having the confidence of – say – a wet, trembling fetus, the next batter, Jimmy Rollins, dropped another bunt up in Kolb’s grill that died right in front of him. Then Polanco delivered the dagger off Braves righthander Kevin Gryboski to score Lieberthal and win it.

What I liked so much, aside from Rollins great execution of the bunt, was Manuel’s mercilessness in forcing Kolb to make a play. He turned Atlanta’s closer into a whimpering little girl.

What great instinct. What an ending. Manuel beats Cox. Who woulda thunk it?

Brett Myers
There’s no doubt Brett Myers is pitching at an extremely high level, and surprised everyone last night by how well he pitched in prime-time. How's he doing it?

In Todd Zolecki's recap, he said "Two words consistently pop up as coaches and teammates describe the difference in Phillies pitcher Brett Myers this season: comfort and composure."

I can't report on his psyche, but I’ll add two more to the list: cutter and curve.

When used in combination, he's freezing just about everyone. The cutter, in particular, is making hitters swing late. Instead of trying to blow smoke like Curt Schilling, he’s crafting pitches to get outs, like Jon Lieber.

Speaking of Lieber, when is it time to start saying things like "The Phillies one-two punch of Jon Lieber and Brett Myers."

Get your popcorn ready
Myers vs. Hampton round 2 is scheduled for Friday.

April 17, 2005

Utley saves it as Lieber improves to 3-0

Jon Lieber won a masterful pitchers duel with John Smoltz, but got big help from second baseman Chase Utley as the Phillies beat the Braves 2-1 yesterday.

Utley drove in the go-ahead run with a two out single in the sixth inning off Smoltz (0-3), but more importantly, snared a line drive in the ninth with men on third and second to preserve the win for Lieber (3-0) and a shaky save for Billy Wagner, his second.

Lieber was thrifty with his pitches, throwing just 75 over eight innings. He threw three, one-two-three innings, including the eighth.

Then Manuel handed the ball to Wagner to close it out, and it became an adventure. He gave up a lead-off single to Chipper Jones, then got Andruw Jones and Johnny Estrada to fly out on very deep, pulse-pounding fly balls. Ageless wonder Julio Franco got a pinch single, and a wild pitch moved Jones and Franco to third and second. Brian Jordan’s line drive was snagged by Utley to end the game.

Jimmy Rollins got the Phillies on the board in the sixth with a leadoff home run, his first of the season.

Ace Jon Lieber
Just a fantastic game featuring two great pitchers I love to watch. Lieber is fast becoming a favorite – what a professional. Not only has he been efficient in every start, he’s gotten better and gone deeper in each outing. When Wagner got into trouble, he calmly sat there, gave a little clap of encouragement, and when the game finally ended, there was no big celebration, only a small smile to acknowledge that the job was complete.

Head to head, he’s now beaten Livan Hernandez, Chris Carpenter and John Smoltz, opening-day pitchers for each of their respective clubs.

If it wasn’t clear before, it should be clear now: the Phillies can win any game Lieber pitches.

Free Tank?
Just about everyone, including myself, is signing a petition to free Chase Utley. But what about Todd Pratt?

Pratt has been behind the plate for two games this year, both wins that featured perhaps the best pitching performances of the season: Gavin Floyd’s first game, and Lieber’s game yesterday.

I didn’t get to see Friday’s game, but why didn’t Pratt catch Floyd? They seemed to have great chemistry in Floyd’s first game, and the broadcasters seemed to like the idea of making Pratt his personal catcher.

It’s also worth mentioning Pratt’s great game throwing out baserunners yesterday, including Rafael Furcal. His throws were dead on.

Billy Wagner looks hittable
Maybe when the weather warms up a bit it will be easier for Wagner to unload, but 96-mph fastballs over the middle of the plate aren’t going to intimidate the right-handers at the heart of the Braves order.

David Bell needs a day off
Charlie Manuel needs to give third baseman David Bell a day or two off. Bell went 0-3 yesterday, including two soft grounders, lowering his season totals to a meager .163 BA, .234 OBP, .186 SLG.

Manuel has started Bell in every game this season, and it’s time to give Tomas Perez or Placido Polanco a day over there.

Totally awesome site maintenance
You’ll notice a link to all the Phillies stats at the top of BPF. This is for my benefit and yours as you make comments and want to doublecheck the numbers.

In newspapers, they say it’s best to get the important stuff above the fold, and already, I’ve used those links about a dozen times just to write this post.

I chose Yahoo Sports for several reasons: It’s quick, has the important stats and schedules all in one spot, features the friendliest design, and never gives me technical problems the way ESPN or CNNSI do. Plus, it has a built-in headline feed for recent articles the player appeared. I’m a big fan of Yahoo Sports.