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Is It Just Bad Luck for Utley?

Ryne Sandberg, Chase UtleyChase Utley continues to hit third for the Phillies, despite the fact he entered tonight’s series opener against the Cardinals hitting .121.

Utley’s April batting average is the third-lowest in Phillies history among hitters with 40 or more plate appearances. Bill Kelly hit .119 in April 1928. Roy Sievers hit .114 in April 1962.

“He’s just a series or two away from getting hot and getting to where he wants to be,” Ryne Sandberg said.

Utley has been hitting the ball hard throughout the month, but he has had little to show for it. Some of it is bad luck. He has a .104 batting average on balls in play, which is the second-lowest BABIP in baseball. The average Major League player this season has a .290 BABIP. As FanGraphs explains: “For hitters, we use BABIP as a sanity test of sorts that tells us if their overall batting line is sustainable or not. Virtually no hitter is capable of producing a BABIP of .380 or higher on a regular basis and anything in the .230 range is also very atypical for a major league hitter. In other words, BABIP allows us to see if a hitter seems to be getting a boost from poor defense or good luck or getting docked for facing good defenses and having bad luck.”

“There’s something to that,” Sandberg said. “He’s stung the ball.”

Utley has a career .302 BABIP, including a .295 mark last season and a .305 mark in 2013. So expect Utley’s numers to improve at some point. When? That’s an entirely different question.

Brown Might Not Be Back Wednesday

Domonic BrownDomonic Brown told reporters yesterday he would rejoin the Phillies on Wednesday.

Not so fast.

Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said today at Busch Stadium that while there has been no official conversations about Brown’s status, “from what I’ve seen I don’t know that he’s ready for Major League pitching or to come up and really give us a punch the way that things have gone for him there.”

Brown has been on the 15-day disabled list since the season started because of tendinitis in his left Achilles. He has been on a rehab assignment since April 9. Once a position player begins a rehab assignment he has 20 days to be activated from the DL. His 20th day is Tuesday, which means a decision must be made by Wednesday.

Brown might have assumed he would be activated and join the Phillies. But the Phillies could activate him and option him to Triple-A.

He has hit .129 (4-for-31) with one double, two RBIs, four walks and six strikeouts in eight games with the IronPigs.

“Maybe it’s just not enough at-bats,” Sandberg said about Brown’s struggles in the Minor Leagues. “He’s had some fly ball outs. He just hasn’t connected and hasn’t hit for average, which you’d like to see.”

Asked if he would prefer Brown did not tell people he would be back before a decision had been made, Sandberg said, “Unless he’s player-GM.”

Relax: Let Phillies Prospects Move Slowly

Maikel FrancoI wrote Friday that the Phillies are in no rush to promote Maikel Franco to the big leagues, despite a hot start in Triple-A.

I explained the organization’s rationale in the story, but because fans have such little faith in the Phillies’ front office these days I received plenty of negative reaction to it.

Sure, keep playing the same old guys!

Of course they’re not. The Phillies never promote anybody!

I just don’t understand why they don’t bring up every prospect to learn on the job!

Oh, brother. I could not disagree more. Let me be clear: the Phillies’ front office deserves plenty of criticism for the current state of the team. The Phillies have one of the highest payrolls in baseball, but one of the worst teams. There is no excusing that. So criticize their amateur drafts. Question their player development. Criticize their talent evaluation at the amateur and professional levels. Question their unmovable contracts and personnel decisions. Criticize the coaching staff.

Each of those things is fair.

But if the Phillies are going to do something right this season it is going to be remaining patient with their prospects. They should not rush them to the big leagues because fans are frustrated with the product at Citizens Bank Park.

Here is why:

  1. This is a lost season. Do not forget Pat Gillick‘s assessment that the Phillies are not going to compete again until 2017 at the earliest. Despite winning two of three this weekend against the Braves, the Phillies are on pace to lose more than 100 games. 2016 might not be much better. So in what world does it make sense to start rushing prospects through the system so they can join a team headed nowhere? If you’re a Phillies fan you should want the Phillies’ prospects to take their time through the Minor League system and be promoted when they are truly ready. Every week or month they remain in the Minor Leagues is another week, month or year they could be helping the team win when it matters again. Think about it: if the Phillies had rushed Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard or Cole Hamels through the system, maybe they’re not all together during their run from 2007-11.
  2. Service time. In the case of Franco, if he is promoted before May 15 he could become eligible for free agency following the 2020 season. If he is promoted May 15 or later, he does not become eligible until after 2021. Yes, if the Phillies wait just a few weeks they could have Franco for an entire extra season — a season when the results might matter again. Now I am not saying Franco will be promoted later next month or even that he should be promoted later next month. (If the Phillies promote him after the fist week of July they could avoid his Super 2 status in salary arbitration.) I’m only saying I cannot find a single reason to promote Franco right now. To be clear: I’m not advocating the stashing of prospects in the system when they are beyond ready for a big-league promotion. I’m only saying the Phillies must be smart about it. A few extra weeks in Triple-A is not going to kill anybody.
  3. Development. I hear people say the Phillies don’t promote their prospects when they are young. They offer Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Miguel Cabrera and Giancarlo Stanton as examples of young players promoted that enjoyed immediate success in the big leagues. Of course, find me a Phillies prospect since Utley or Howard that could come close to the talent of Trout, Harper, Cabrera or Stanton. That player hasn’t existed. But while I have heard of prospects being hurt by being rushed to the big leagues, I have not heard of prospects being irreparably harmed by not being promoted to the big leagues quickly enough. Utley and Howard were not rushed. They turned out fine. If a player is going be successful at the big-league level, an extra month or two (or more) in the Minor Leagues is not going to stop that. So when I asked Phillies assistant general manager Benny Looper yesterday if the Phillies considered any of the organization’s Double-A pitching prospects to make Tuesday’s start in St. Louis over Severino Gonzalez and he said no, I had no problem with that. That extra time in the Minor Leagues might allow one of those pitchers to learn a new pitch or fine tune the ones they have. It might allow them to learn how to overcome their struggles, so when they experience them in the future they have confidence they can overcome them again. Kyle Kendrick got rushed to the big leagues in 2007. He could only throw a sinker. He had success early, but eventually hitters caught up and he had to return to the Minor Leagues before he could pitch in the big leagues again. Knowing the team is not going anywhere this season, wouldn’t it make sense for those prospects to continue to develop at a steady pace so they’re really ready when the time comes?

So while I understand the desire to watch the future this season rather than the past, think about what that might mean. If you want the Phillies to return to glory sooner rather than later it might mean sucking it up in 2015. Will we see Franco this season? I’m sure we will. Will we see Nola? It’s possible. Should they get called up ASAP? Absolutely not. They should be promoted when they are ready to experience success in the big leagues and no earlier. Because right now does not matter. 2017 and beyond does.

Lineup, Bullpen Moves Aren’t Working

Ryne Sandberg, Jeanmar GomezRyne Sandberg continues to mix and match his lineup and bullpen, hoping one day one of his combinations will work.

So far they have not.

The Lineup

Sandberg has tried 12 different lineups in 16 games, but the Phillies enter tonight’s series opener against the Braves averaging just 2.56 runs per game, which are the fewest in baseball. They are 30th in batting average with runners in scoring position (.176), 29th in on-base percentage (.270) and 28th in slugging percentage (.323). Sandberg has dropped Ryan Howard from fourth to seventh before moving him to fifth and sixth. Carlos Ruiz (zero home runs, one RBI this season) and Jeff Francoeur have hit cleanup since Howard’s demotion. In fact, if Francoeur hits cleanup tonight he will match Howard for the most appearances in the cleanup spot this season. (Raise your hand if you predicted that one.) Ben Revere has moved from first to eighth to second.  Grady Sizemore continues to start about half the team’s games, despite posting a .159 (17-for-107) batting average and .511 OPS since Aug. 8.

Domonic Brown is expected to return from the DL next week. Can the Phillies really keep both left-handed hitting outfielders?

Meanwhile, Chase Utley continues to hit third, despite having the third-lowest batting average (.120) in baseball.

In the end, it probably does not matter what the lineup is. But so far Sandberg has found none of his combinations working.

The Bullpen

Sandberg has made some curious moves in the bullpen in recent weeks. He employed Jake Diekman in a double-switch in the sixth inning April 15 in New York, but chose to have Diekman only pitch the sixth. Sandberg said he did not have Diekman start the seventh because he is the only left-hander in the bullpen and he had been pitching a lot lately. He said he wanted to save Diekman in case he needed him the following night. The problem is that he could have used him that night. Dustin McGowan replaced Diekman in the seventh and he allowed a solo homer to left-handed hitter Daniel Murphy, who was the first batter to hit in the inning. The Phillies lost, 6-5.

The Phillies lost the next night, 6-1, and Diekman was never needed.

That move is mentioned because of what happened in yesterday’s 9-1 loss. McGowan made a spot start, knowing he could pitch only three to four innings. He ran into trouble in the third, but the Phillies got nobody up in the bullpen. He then ran out of gas in the fourth, walking the bases loaded with one out. But the Phillies kept him in the game and he served up a two-run single to give the Marlins a 2-0 lead.

At that point the Phillies called in rookie Hector Neris to pitch in that high-leverage situation. Neris pitched one inning for the Phillies last season and just joined the Phillies this week. He promptly hit Marlins pitcher David Phelps with a pitch to reload the bases. Neris then allowed another single to allow two more runs to score to make it 4-0.

The game snowballed from there.

Then, interestingly, Diekman pitched the eighth inning despite having pitched Wednesday and the team trailing 8-0. His appearance stood out because of what Sandberg said last week: it’s important to conserve Diekman because he is the only left-hander in the bullpen. Meanwhile, Jeanmar Gomez, who the team touted as its long man, did not pitch until the ninth.

Gomez could have pitched the final two innings. He also could have tried to clean up McGowan’s mess in the fourth and give the Phillies a couple more innings from there. But Sandberg said he wanted to save his long man for Friday, in case he is needed. Of course, Aaron Harang pitches tonight and he has been the team’s most effective starter through three weeks.

That is twice Sandberg has said he did not use a reliever because he wanted him available for a potential scenario the next day.

“He still remains a length guy for tomorrow,” Sandberg said about Gomez. “To preserve that and have him be our length guy, that’s where he really comes into play for us.”

Perhaps Sandberg has such little faith in the offense’s ability to score that once the Phillies are down a couple runs he figures he might as well prepare for the next day’s game. But managing for the next day and not the game at hand certainly is different. It might not make a difference with this team, but it is worth noting.

O’Sullivan to DL, McGowan to Start

Sean O'SullivanPhillies right-hander Sean O’Sullivan lasted just two starts as the Phillies’ No. 5 starter.

The Phillies today placed him on the 15-day disabled list with tendinitis in his left knee. They recalled right-hander Hector Neris from Triple-A Lehigh Valley to take O’Sullivan’s place on the roster, and announced right-hander Dustin McGowan will start in O’Sullivan’s place tomorrow afternoon against the Marlins.

O’Sullivan went 0-1 with a 4.91 ERA in two starts.

Looking for Good News

Jesse BiddleAre you searching for some good Phillies news?

Well, a few prospects are off to good starts. Here is a look:

Triple-A Lehigh Valley

  • 3B Maikel Franco: He is hitting .323 (10-for-31) with five doubles, one triple, one home run, seven RBIs and a 1.045 OPS in seven games. Remember, he is unlikely to be promoted until mid to late May for the same reason the Cubs just promoted Kris Bryant to the big leagues: team control for an extra season. So, please, hold the, “I CANNOT BELIEVE THEY AREN’T CALLING UP FRANCO RIGHT THIS SECOND!” fits.

Double-A Reading

  • CF Roman Quinn: He is hitting .478 (11-for-23) with two doubles, two triples, one home run, three RBIs, four stolen bases and a 1.408 OPS through six games.
  • P Zach Eflin, Tom Windle and Jesse Biddle: Each pitched well in their first start of the season.

Class A Clearwater

  • C Andrew Knapp: He is hitting .343 (12-for-35) with two doubles, one triple, four RBIs and an .808 OPS.
  • P Matt Imhoff: is 1-1 with a 1.80 ERA after two starts.

Class A Lakewood

  • CF Carlos Tocci: He is hitting .387 (12-for-31) with two doubles, one home run, eight RBIs and a 1.021 OPS.

Howard’s Week, Ryno’s Lineup Carousel

Howard Is BackIt has been a heck of a week for Ryan Howard.

He had struggled through the season’s first eight games — not as much as Chase Utley, although he heard more about it — when Ryne Sandberg sat him Wednesday against Mets left-hander Jonathon Niese. It was the second time in nine games the Phillies had faced a left-hander and the second time Sandberg had sat Howard against a lefty. Howard said Wednesday he had talked to Sandberg and had received no indication he might be platooned at first base, although Sandberg left the door open.

“Kind of take that a series at a time,” Sandberg said.

Then last night Sandberg dropped Howard all the way to seventh in the Phillies’ lineup.

From possibly platooned on April 15 to hitting seventh against a right-handed pitcher whose fastball tops out at 88 mph on April 16.

“I’ve been in situations like this before,” said Howard, who had not his seventh since 2006. “This isn’t the first time that I’ve gotten moved down in the lineup or anything like that. For me, you just try to look at it as an internal challenge. Do I feel l can hit fourth? Yeah, I know I can. I’m not worried about it. I’m not trying to look too far into it or anything like that. If I’m hitting in the seven-hole, do the best I can that day.”

I must say I’m a little surprised Sandberg made these moves only 10 games into the season. I’m not saying Darin Ruf should not see more time at first base against left-handers (Ruf deserves more playing time, period). I’m not saying Howard should not have been moved from the cleanup spot. I’m also not saying these moves weren’t coming. Howard has struggled against lefties for some time and he struggled hitting fourth last season. I’m saying I thought Sandberg might wait a little longer, unless he told Howard before the season he would have an incredibly short leash. I’m also a bit surprised he dropped him all the way to seventh.

After all, if there was such little faith in Howard’s ability to produce why start the season with him in the cleanup spot in the first place? It is kind of the same thing with Ben Revere. He dropped from first to eighth after just seven games. Cody Asche also was benched a couple games last week after a slow start.

Clearly Sandberg is trying to find a lineup combination that works, but hitting also involves confidence and right now hitters might be thinking, “Boy, if I go 0-for tonight I might be dropped in the lineup or benched.”

That is not why they Phillies aren’t hitting, but I also think it comes into play if players never know where they stand.

Worst Start Ever for Utley

Chase UtleyRyan Howard takes the heat, but Chase Utley is struggling worse than Howard through the Phillies’ first seven games. In fact, this is the worst start of Utley’s career through the team’s first seven games.

Rk Year #Matching PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS ▾
1 2014 6 Ind. Games 28 24 3 11 3 0 2 6 3 2 .458 .536 .833 1.369
2 2008 7 Ind. Games 32 26 8 9 2 0 3 6 5 0 .346 .438 .769 1.207
3 2010 7 Ind. Games 34 26 8 9 2 0 2 6 8 1 .346 .500 .654 1.154
4 2009 7 Ind. Games 31 25 7 10 1 0 1 5 5 3 .400 .516 .560 1.076
5 2013 7 Ind. Games 30 27 5 10 2 1 1 7 2 5 .370 .400 .630 1.030
6 2005 5 Ind. Games 16 15 2 5 0 0 1 5 0 3 .333 .313 .533 .846
7 2007 7 Ind. Games 35 31 4 8 4 0 1 3 2 7 .258 .314 .484 .798
8 2006 7 Ind. Games 29 27 2 6 3 0 0 3 1 5 .222 .276 .333 .609
9 2015 7 Ind. Games 26 22 1 2 0 0 0 3 2 6 .091 .154 .091 .245
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/14/2015.

“It’s just a matter of time with Chase,” Ryne Sandberg said after yesterday’s 2-0 loss to the Mets. “I have no worries there. He gets quality at-bats. Chase will be fine. We just need to create some opportunities with men on base for those guys in the middle of the lineup.”

I’m not sure if Sandberg is saying Utley and Howard are struggling because the No. 1 and 2 hitters aren’t getting on base enough, but that should not affect Utley or Howard at the plate that much. Will Utley be better than he has been? Yes, although he has not homered since Aug. 10. It is the longest homerless drought of his career, stretching to 175 at-bats. But he posted a 1.297 OPS in Spring Training, so he was swinging the bat well recently.

Is he the only reason the Phillies are struggling offensively? Absolutely not. But he is a big reason why the team has scored just 16 runs in seven games.

Sandberg said he is not considering any significant changes to the lineup. I think that could come in time, but seven games into the season is not the time to bump Utley and Howard. I know nobody likes to hear this, but a big part of managing is managing people. You don’t take two long-time Phillies and in one day move them out of the spots they have been hitting their entire careers. They deserve a little more time. How much time? I’m not sure, but certainly more than seven games.

Week 1: Phillies .500, but Offense Offensive

Ryan HowardThe Phillies finished the first week of the season at 3-3, which is not bad everything considered.

They received strong starting pitching performances in four of six games. The pitching staff as a whole has a 3.38 ERA, which is 11th in baseball. They showed some fight as Ryne Sandberg said following today’s 4-3 loss in 10 innings to the Nationals. The Phillies overcame a seventh-inning deficit to win Friday, an eighth-inning deficit to win in 10 innings Saturday and tied the game in the seventh inning yesterday. They gave up two runs in the 10th, but made things interesting with a run scored in the bottom of the inning.

But the gigantic red flag that flapped in the wind in Clearwater, Fla., planted itself at home plate in Philadelphia:

No offense.

The Phillies are 28th in baseball with a .563 OPS, a percentage point or two ahead of the Mets (.563) and Twins (.515). They have scored just 16 runs in six games. Only the Twins (13) and Nationals (13) have scored fewer. They have hit just two home runs. Only the Twins (1) and Marlins (1) have hit fewer.

Everybody knew the offense would be an issue, which is why we have seen Sandberg use six lineups in seven games (including today’s game). He is searching for a winning combination, trying to find decent match ups and hot bats whenever they are available, although it will be interesting to see how he balances what is supposed to be a developmental year with his desire to win that night’s game. For example, he benched Cody Asche on Friday and Saturday for Andres Blanco. Sandberg said he liked the spark Blanco provided, but the Phillies should want to give Asche as many opportunities to play as possible this season. He could be part of the Phillies’ future, either at third base, left field or wherever. Blanco is not.

The same holds true for Ruf, who snapped an 0-for-11 slump with a pinch-hit homer this afternoon, and others.

*

A lot of people are unhappy with Ryan Howard, who struck out four times in four at-bats today. But you might as well relax because he is going to continue to play. First, who is he holding back? Ruf had 12 at-bats this week, which should be enough to show what he can do. And even if Maikel Franco were the hottest hitter in Triple-A, he would remain there until the end of May for the same reason Cubs prospect Kris Bryant opened the season in Triple-A: team control for an extra year. Second, it’s one week. I’m not suggesting Howard will return to MVP form with more time, but it doesn’t make sense to pull the plug on somebody owed $60 million just one week into the season.

The team is going to to struggle and Howard might struggle along with it, but he should get a good look.

Ryno: Small Ball Will Continue

Ryne SandbergRyne Sandberg promised the Phillies would play oodles of small ball in 2015.

He watched those efforts fail repeatedly last night in a 3-2 victory over the Nationals in 10 innings, but he remains as determined as ever to make it part of his team’s game.

The Phillies had runners on first and second with no outs in the third and fifth innings and twice tried to sacrifice bunt to advance their base runners. But Freddy Galvis bunted the ball back to the pitcher in the third and Ben Revere bunted the ball back to the pitcher in the fifth with the lead runner thrown out both times. (A batter earlier in the fifth, Cole Hamels reached base when he attempted to sacrifice a runner to second. He bunted the ball in front of the plate, but an errant throw to second allowed both runners to be safe.)

That’s 3-for-3 on bad bunts on a team that vowed bunting would be a big part of its game this season.

The Phillies also had a runner on second and no outs in the ninth, but Revere missed the sign to sacrifice bunt. He struck out swinging.

“We have to get the bunts down,” Sandberg said. “It’s a priority. We need to improve on that. We could have made it much easier on the offensive side of things with Cole out there on the mound and with the pitching we had.”

But the Phillies would have been better served swinging away in those situations … yes, even knowing the end result of Revere’s at-bat in the ninth. Baseball Prospectus’ Runs Expectations data from 2014 showed a team’s chances to score decreased when a team gave up an out to advance a runner.

Teams averaged 1.4023 runs with runners on first and second and no outs last season.

They averaged 1.2714 runs with runners on second and third and one out.

In other words, the Phillies had a 9.3 percent better chance to score with Galvis and Revere swinging away in the third and fifth innings. That might not seem like a lot, but every percentage point counts for a team that acknowledges it will struggle to score runs this season.

(more…)

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