Commentary

Opponents have figured out Phillies

Philadelphia's lineup seeing fewer fastballs in fastball-hitting counts

Updated: March 6, 2011, 5:33 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- This used to be their team, their show, their stage. When you thought of the Phillies, you used to think of The Bats.

When the camera crews stopped by, it was to point those lenses at them. When the season-preview magazines hit the stands, it was with their faces plastered all over those covers.

But not in the spring of 2011. Nowadays, thanks to the assemblage of several starting pitchers you might have heard of, you'd never know the Phillies still have bat racks in their dugouts. You'd barely know, without checking the box scores, that Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and the other men who once made up the National League's most feared lineup are still on the payroll.

That'll teach them not to win a single Cy Young, huh?

Yes, as Rollins himself laughed this week, this team's hitters are "definitely the B squad" now.

Well, it might be a beautiful thing, on paper, to collect No. 1 starters like some folks collect refrigerator magnets. But we're interrupting all this pitching talk to announce that, in truth, it might not be The Aces who determine whether this Phillies team lives up to the spring hype.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Manuel
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesManager Charlie Manuel expects his hitters to be more patient at the plate this year.

It might actually be about the bats that once made this team go, the position players who were responsible for changing this team's not-so-glorious culture. And for the first time since all the winning started, there are big questions about that area of this club.

And the biggest question of all is this:

Has the rest of the sport figured this team out?

Before we address that question, though, here's why the Phillies' offense suddenly has become a major issue:

• This team scored just 772 runs last season -- a 48-run drop from 2009 (820) and a gigantic drop from 2007 (892). Now, that doesn't make these guys the Mariners. They still, after all, finished second in the league in runs scored. Nevertheless, that's the fewest runs by any Phillies team since 2002. And the 34 times they were held to one run or none were their most since 1991.

• Despite playing in one of the most homer-friendly parks in baseball, the Phillies' home run total plummeted from 224 to 166 -- the fewest homers any Phillies team had hit since 2003, the final season of the late, not-so-great Veterans Stadium.

• The Phillies slugged just .413 as a team, down from .447 in 2009 and down 45 points from a peak of .458 in 2007. In fact, it was the lowest slugging percentage by any Phillies juggernaut since the 97-loss team of 2000.

• And when the postseason rolled around, the Phillies hit just .215 against the Giants and Reds, with a not-real-fearsome .311 slugging percentage and only four home runs in 289 at-bats.

And that was before this offense waved goodbye to Jayson Werth, the only right-handed presence in the middle of this lineup, not to mention a guy who finished in the top six in the league in OPS, slugging, extra-base hits, offensive WAR, runs created and offensive winning percentage.

So even the manager, Charlie Manuel, admits this group faces a major challenge if it's going to restore its reputation as an American League lineup hiding inside a National League roster.

"But that's also the beauty of the game," Manuel said. "It's up to us to show people how good we are, and it's up to us to live up to our expectations."

Now, it's not hard for the manager to find explanations for at least some of that drop-off. There were injuries in general. (Every starting position player except Werth and Raul Ibanez paid a visit to the disabled list.) There were prolonged health issues that cost the two most important energizers in particular, Rollins and Chase Utley, a combined 115 days of DL time. And there was that whole Year of the Pitcher thing.

But in reality, there was more. This wasn't just about injuries. And it wasn't just "a slump."

The real story is this: The league has caught on to the Phillies.

Other clubs have learned how to attack a team full of hitters who now have an established track record. And those 2010 numbers tell the tale of a Phillies lineup that often played right into those clubs' hands.

"We've adjusted," one rival NL scout said. "And now they have to adjust to our adjustments to them."

Here's what makes this little chess game especially fascinating: The people who run this Phillies team are well aware of how those other clubs have changed game plans.

"To be honest," one member of that brain trust said this spring, "we can't believe it took them this long."

And as far back as October, Manuel spoke openly about this very topic, saying: "One of the problems with our hitting is, you've got advance scouts and all the TV and Internet and things like that. And nowadays, they go to school on your hitters, and they pitch us backwards a lot."

What he means is that he manages a team that loves to hit the fastball, gears up for the fastball and works counts to force pitchers to throw more of those fastballs.

Except now his team isn't getting those fastballs -- even in "fastball counts." And we have the facts to prove it.

ESPN Stats & Information's Andrew Davis looked at the four main constants in the Phillies' order dating back to 2008 -- Rollins, Utley, Howard and Shane Victorino -- and analyzed the declining number of fastballs they're now getting in "fastball counts" (i.e., the first pitch of each at-bat and pitches on which they were ahead in the count). Here's what he found:

• Rollins: As recently as 2008, he was seeing fastballs on 82 percent of those pitches. But by 2009, that percentage had fallen to 73.1. And by last year, it was down to 68.1. That's a staggering difference of nearly 14 percent in just two years. If you project the impact had Rollins stayed healthy, it would have come to a decline of more than 200 fastballs a year -- in only those counts, remember -- just since 2008.

• Utley: Saw 74.5 percent fastballs in those spots in 2009 (actually up from 2008). But he took a significant dip last year, back to 70.8 percent. One scout's explanation is that in 2009, after hip surgery, Utley "wasn't catching up to the fastball." So he was fed more hard stuff as that season went on, then went back to a heavier off-speed diet last year.

• Victorino: Had the biggest decrease in the group last year in those fastball counts -- from 76.2 percent to 69.2. Had he been healthy enough to see the same playing time as 2009, that would have computed to a drop of more than 100 fastballs, just in those situations, from one season to the next.

• Howard: Hasn't gotten many fastballs to hit in any situation since his first year in the big leagues. But he's seeing less and less heat in what should be fastball counts, sliding from 53.9 percent in '08 to 52.7 percent in '09 to 52.6 last year. Nevertheless, Howard said of this trend: "It's not anything new to me."

[+] EnlargeJayson Werth
Kyle Terada/US PresswireCan the Phillies' lineup overcome the loss of right-handed power hitter Jayson Werth?

As you size up these revealing figures, the approach to Utley and Howard shouldn't be shocking. Howard, in fact, says it makes perfect sense.

"They know this team hit a lot of home runs," Howard said. "And that's where that decrease in fastballs comes from -- because they say, 'If they're going to beat us, they've got to beat us with small ball.'"

So if that's what those teams want to do, "I'll probably have to steal 30 [bases]," Howard joked. "Do a couple of hit-and-runs here and there. Might have to squeeze. If I have to lead off, I'll lead off. And Jimmy can bat fourth."

But that, obviously, isn't quite what the manager has in mind. And while Manuel thinks it's important that Howard be "more patient" and get "better pitches to hit," it isn't his power hitters he's concerned about. It's his "little guys" -- Rollins and Victorino.

"I think those guys saw a lot of breaking balls and changeups instead of fastballs," Manuel said. "And they're fastball hitters. And they chase those three-balls-and-one-strike changeups or two-strike breaking balls that are out of the strike zone. And I think that hurt."

On one hand, the manager said repeatedly that he likes and believes in his hitters. On the other, he also said, flatly: "We have to make the adjustment. Have to." He wants to see more patience. He wants to see better situational hitting. And he says he's been telling his hitters all spring: "It's up to you to study and learn."

Rollins said he hasn't been personally singled out for that lesson plan yet, "but eventually, I know it'll be my turn." And when that turn arrives, Manuel will find his shortstop in nearly full agreement.

What happened to this offense last year "definitely wasn't a slump," Rollins said. "It can definitely be attributed to the league making adjustments and us not making all the necessary adjustments."

Rollins is adamant that the Phillies "didn't have a bad offensive year," by any standards but their own. But he also concedes that had they hit the way they had in the past, "we could have gotten Roy [Halladay] 25 wins" and "gotten Cole [Hamels] 20." And he knows they have to play better situational baseball, because "we're not going to win if we don't."

Well, that's for darned sure. With Werth gone, with more spring health concerns revolving around Utley (knee tendinitis), with nearly this entire lineup in its 30s and with hot right-field prospect Domonic Brown looking overmatched this spring (0-for-16, with nine strikeouts), the Phillies have no choice but to manufacture more runs the hard way this year.

And the ticket to doing that, their manager says, is to "get more quality strikes to hit," do a better job of handling the off-speed deluge and "make them throw more fastballs."

But as realistic as Manuel is about the way this tide has shifted, he continues to emit the same positive aura he always has.

He's confident, he said, that with just a return to health alone, "we can find the numbers" they're losing with Werth gone. He believes Howard's "best years are ahead of him." And he expects Rollins, Victorino and Placido Polanco to "do what they usually do." So "I'm as excited as hell about our year," the manager said.

Well, he's not the only one.

If people want to assume this lineup is slip-sliding, "that's fine," Howard said. "Go to sleep on our offense if you want.

"You know," he went on, "after what happened last year with all the injuries and what not, somehow we still won 97 games. I think people tend to forget that. And I think that's just another characteristic of this team. You just try to take something from each year and learn from it. Since I've been here, we've never had that many injuries to that many starting players in a year. And we won like 88, 90 games, something like that. Last year, we had just about everybody out, or hurt, at some point. And we ended up winning 97 games."

Of course, that had something to do with that super-rotation they were running out there by the end of the season. And this year, now that Cliff Lee has rejoined the band, that rotation figures to be even more star-studded. Theoretically.

But those pitchers can't do it alone, either, unless they have about 120 shutouts in them. What it takes to win isn't pitching, Rollins said, forcefully. What it takes is "a whole team."

So despite what all those magazine covers might suggest, the onus isn't on The Rotation to lift the 2011 Phillies to the heights they've been built for. It's on a lineup that needs to wedge itself back into this conversation.

"If we play to our talent [level], we're going to have a lot of fun," the manager said. "But we've gotta hit.

"And you know what?" Charlie Manuel predicted. "We're gonna hit."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com