Don't blame older core for Phils' early stumbles

Don't blame older core for Phils' early stumbles

May 19, 2014, 6:00 pm
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Veterans like Ryan Howard and Chase Utley have contributed according to plan so far this year, but the Phils are still struggling. (USA Today Images)

What did we hear all offseason?

That the Phillies could contend if and only if Ryan Howard hit 30-plus homers.

If Chase Utley stayed healthy and matched or exceeded his 2013 numbers.

If Jimmy Rollins got on base atop the order.

If Carlos Ruiz played 125-plus games and looked more like 2012 Chooch than 2013 Chooch.

If Marlon Byrd proved that last season with the Mets and Pirates was no fluke.

And yet here we are, a quarter of the way through the season, and the Phillies have been an underwhelming team despite all five players producing.

Howard is on pace for 28 home runs. Utley has been a legitimate top-three NL MVP candidate and hasn't cooled off. Rollins has a career-high .359 on-base percentage. Ruiz has a .396 OBP and could be headed to the All-Star Game. Byrd is on pace for 55 doubles and more than 90 RBIs.

Everything that was supposed to dictate the Phillies' success in 2014 has gone according to plan, including solid seasons so far from Cliff Lee, A.J. Burnett and Jonathan Papelbon.

But the plan didn't account for worst-case scenarios from pretty much everyone else.

Here's why the Phillies haven't been able to build momentum through 41 games:

Nothing out of LF/CF
Domonic Brown and Ben Revere have done next to nothing for seven weeks. Phils leftfielders and centerfielders have combined to hit .237 with a .294 on-base percentage and .298 slugging percentage, and have just two home runs.

Brown has looked like a bust, unable to square up pitches or pull them with power. He's looked better lately, but he's had a year to adjust to opposing pitchers' own adjustments and he hasn't done it.

In May 2013, when Brown looked like an emerging 40-home run hitter, all of his home runs went to right field. Most came on inside pitches. We wondered why teams weren't scouting this.

Eventually, they caught on. Since then, Brown has seen a steady diet of outside pitches, and he hasn't been able to hit opposite field home runs. He's gone the other way with some regularity, but it's been mostly weak contact.

Revere hasn't gotten on base enough to justify his everyday spot in the lineup. He's hit .268 with a .284 OBP and has no doubles or (obviously) homers on the year. Revere is the kind of guy who needs to hit .315 to give a team value because he has no power, doesn't walk and is an average to below average defensive centerfielder. (Circus catches don't tell the story -- they've more so been a result of make-up speed to balls Revere doesn't correctly read off the bat.)

There are three reasons why Revere doesn't walk. First and foremost, he doesn't have elite plate discipline. Secondly, he makes so much contact and swings and misses so infrequently that he often puts a ball in play before even having the chance to run a deep count. And finally, pitchers pump in the fastballs at a sky-high rate because they have no fear of allowing an extra-base hit.

That final point is the most important one. Revere has seen fastballs on 66.7 percent of pitches. That is the fifth-highest rate in the National League. Why wouldn't a pitcher just attack Revere with a fastball? The worst that could happen is a line-drive single up the middle, which often is the same as a walk anyway.

Reserves have been awful
The only Phillies bench player who has produced is backup catcher Wil Nieves, who has hit .333 with a homer and three doubles.

As a whole, the Phils' bench has hit .181 with four home runs in 216 at-bats.

Bullpen blues
The Phillies' bullpen has been an issue all season. Outside of Papelbon and, at least lately, Jake Diekman, no reliever has been reliable.

The Phils' pen has a 4.42 ERA, fourth-worst in the majors. Remove Papelbon from that equation and the bullpen ERA is 4.88.

The Phillies are a few blown late leads away from being a game or two over .500. They haven't been two games over .500 since Oct. 1, 2012, a span of 206 games.

Moving forward
It's probably unrealistic to expect 150-plus games out of Howard, Utley, Rollins and Byrd. It's also unrealistic to expect Utley, Rollins, Byrd and Ruiz to maintain their level of production during the summer grind.

But if we're buying into the law of averages, then it also seems like Brown should have at least one hot streak, and that Revere will use a flurry of singles to get back to the .290 range.

The starting pitching has been decent and figures to improve as Cole Hamels gets comfortable and Lee hits one of his midseason grooves. Burnett has met expectations thus far and Kyle Kendrick has been the sturdy No. 4 starter the Phillies believe he is.

Yesterday, colleague John Gonzalez insinuated that it wasn't too early to judge these Phillies, despite the constant reminders by players that the major-league calendar is lengthy.

It may or may not be too early to make a proper ruling. But it's certainly not too early to say that the 2014 Phillies' success won't be determined by five position players the way many analyzed this past winter.

There's a cliche in baseball that "It takes 25 men to win." It's the truth. Oftentimes it takes more than 25 men because of injuries.

And it's why the Phillies have been rightfully questioned for building up the top half of their roster while refusing to pay for or failing to develop the back-end.

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