Is It Really Just Sandberg? Exploring Other Explanations for the Phils' Recent Hot Streak

Is It Really Just Sandberg? Exploring Other Explanations for the Phils' Recent Hot Streak

If you haven't noticed, or if you'd given up following weeks or months ago, the Phillies have won seven of their last nine games. For a good or even average team, this would only be slightly notable, but before this stretch, the Phils had won just seven of their last 28 games--and even that began with a three-game winning streak--so a patch of games this good feels almost like an entire season turning around.

A reversal of fortunes like this requires some kind of over-arcing explanation, and the obvious one in this case would be the big change the Phillies made up top, replacing longtime manager Charlie Manuel with third-base coach Ryne Sandberg. Asked about whether it's Sanbderg making the difference, last night's winning pitcher Cliff Lee says sorta, not really. Jim Salisbury of CSN got the quote:

We’re grinding it out a little more, just playing hard from the start to the finish, basic execution...I’ve said that from the very beginning -- if we just execute and play fundamental baseball we can beat anyone. We’ve started doing that in the last week and a half or so and the results are showing.

I’m not a guy who thinks the manager wins or loses games for us. I don’t think it was Charlie’s fault that we lost, and I don’t think it’s Sandberg that’s winning it for us, to be honest with you. But I think he has instilled more of let’s-get-after-it frame of mind and that’s what we’re doing.

But it’s the guys that are going out there and getting the outs and making the plays and swinging the bats that’s getting it done. I feel like his frame of mind and what he expects has influenced that and it’s up to us to buy into it and lay it out and we’ve definitely done a better job with that, just getting after it and playing hard and never giving up and trying to execute and play fundamental baseball. That’s how we’ve won the last 10 days.

So is it really Sandberg making the difference? An improvement in fundamentals? Let's look at some other explanations for how the Phillies have actually managed to win some games recently.

  • They've been facing some crappier competition. Let's remember that as many games as the Phillies lost recently, they lost most of 'em to some pretty damn good teams. Three to the Cardinals, three to the Tigers, three to the Braves, three to the Nats, two to the Dodgers--and all of 'em (except probably the underperforming Nats) are headed to the postseason. Now, the Phillies have had the benefit of playing three against the reeling Rockies, three against the mostly mediocre Diamondbacks, and now a series against the injury-decimated Mets. Opponents matter, and you can expect the hot streak to likely continue through three against the rebuilding Cubs after our last two at Citi.
  • They've been getting pretty lucky. They may be on a 7-2 run, but over those nine games, they've only managed to cumulatively outscore opponents 42-39. Remarkably, all but one of those seven victories were by just one run, including those three straight walk-off victories that almost managed to make people excited about Phillies baseball again. You could say that winning in those games comes down to execution and fundamentals, like Cliff posits, but luck also plays a big part with margins of victory so small--a beneficial call here or there, a grounder that finds its way up the middle, a throw that sails a foot or two wide. Play enough games in a season and eventually you'll lose three or four straight by one run, too, and it won't just be because the other team executed better, either.
  • They've been getting some starting pitching. The Phils have gotten quality starts in six of their last nine games--outings that last at least six innings without allowing more than three runs--and they've won all six. After some minor post-All-Star struggles, Cliff Lee appears to have rounded back into form, going seven innings or more in his last three starts and getting his first win since early July with his eight-inning, five-hit, one-walk and seven-strikeout performance last night against the Mets. Cole Hamels has been similarly solid, also going at least seven in each of his last three, and pitching his first CG victory of the season against the Braves a couple weeks ago. If Roy Halladay can continue on the comeback trail after his rocky return (albeit in a win) against the Diamondbacks, we might actually have a pretty decent top three for our pitching rotation again.
  • They've been getting some relief pitching, too. The unspoken hero of the recent Phils' hot streak has been closer Jonathan Papelbon, who has regained his early-season consistency over his last six appearances, giving up zero runs, zero walks and only four hits over the span, picking up two saves and two wins in the process. Far more surprising, however, has been the contribution of lefty reliever Jake Diekman, who as Salisbury points out in that same CSN article, has gone scoreless over his last seven appearances, also with zero walks and four hits, but with an impressive 12 strikeouts over that period. We'd been waiting all year for someone from our crappy bullpen to step up into dependability, and at long last--and far too late--it looks like Diekman actually has a shot of being that guy.
  • Their catcher is hitting again. Darin Ruf has been getting most of the attention recently for his hot August, and rightly so--The Babe has hit nine homers in the month, second-most in the majors to some random guy in Detroit, and now has as many homers on the season as Ryan Howard in about half the games. But have you been paying attention to what Carlos Ruiz has been doing at the same time? After a disconcertingly slow start to the season after his return from suspension and then injury, Chooch has hit at a sparkling clip .347/.373/.556 this month--numbers which spike to .455/.471/.758 (!!) if you only include the team's last nine games. It was easy to forget how huge a part of this offense Ruiz used to be when he was hitting like Humberto Quintero, but now that he's back in the saddle, it's once again impossible to imagine the lineup without him somewhere near the middle.

As always in baseball, it's impossible to quantify just how much the manager helps--are the Phillies winning more because they're focused and excited and playing together again, or are they focused and excited and playing together again because they're winning more? But regardless of how much Ryne Sandberg's installment as manager has helped the team lately, there are some more easily isolated factors that have been just as important, if not more, to their recent winning ways. Hopefully they stick around to next year, regardless of whether or not Sandberg does.

P.J. Carlesimo turns down Sixers' associate head coach job for 'family reasons'

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P.J. Carlesimo turns down Sixers' associate head coach job for 'family reasons'

Thirty-five years is more than enough time to get a sense of who a person is and how they do their job. That is how long Brett Brown has known P.J. Carlesimo, which made it easy for the Sixers' head coach to have interest in adding him to the staff. 

With Mike D’Antoni leaving to coach the Rockets, the Sixers had a vacancy at the associate head coach position. On Sunday, though, Carlesimo decided not to join the Sixers’ staff and remain a television analyst.

“He was a natural fit for me,” Brown said Monday following a pre-draft workout. “For family reasons, he just couldn’t do it. We talked a lot and it was an emotional thing from P.J.’s perspective. 

“P.J. is a very close friend of mine and he made that decision for family reasons and I understand it. The phone call really didn’t surprise me knowing what I know of him and how he views his family, having to travel across the country the whole time.”

Like D’Antoni, Carlesimo has a lengthy résumé on the NBA sidelines. He was a head coach for parts of nine seasons and worked five as an assistant coach. Brown called working with D’Antoni “a real learning experience,” and an ideal candidate would have similar experience to help both the staff and the young roster.

“That role will be filled with maybe that type of flavor,” Brown said. “I know this, we are still in a complete development mode. We still have a bunch of 20 year olds, guys that could be with us for a long time, but they’re not old, that we have to make sure that the city and me, we remember that. We still need people and teachers that can teach and coach and establish relationships. 

“So you tick boxes on relationships, teaching, development, those still rule the day. If you can do that with some veteran wisdom and some type of experiences like Mike’s, say, or P.J. had, well then you’re really knocking it out of the park.”

Coaching vacancies are coveted at this level. With the No. 1 pick in the draft, a revamped front office, and a 125,000-square foot training facility under construction, the Sixers have enhanced the appeal of the role. 

"My phone is very active, as you can imagine," Brown said. "I think it’s a highly attractive position. … Like our draft picks, I too spend a lot of time studying who will be the best fit for me and our program."

Tonight's Lineup: Ryan Howard (surprisingly) starts at 1B

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Tonight's Lineup: Ryan Howard (surprisingly) starts at 1B

So much for trimming Ryan Howard's playing time.

One day after Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said he plans on giving 24-year-old Tommy Joseph more starts against right-handed pitchers, Mackanin flipped the switch Monday.

Howard is penciled in as the starting first baseman for the Phils' series-opener against the Nationals on Monday night at Citizens Bank Park against Tanner Roark (3-4, 2.71).

After the Phillies were clobbered by the MLB-best Chicago Cubs on Sunday — and the weekend, really — Mackanin said the Phils have to get a longer look at Joseph.

"We brought up Joseph up here for a reason, to get a look at him," the manager said after the Phillies' 7-2 on Sunday afternoon (see story). "I can't let him stagnate on the bench like (Darin) Ruf ended up doing, so he's going to face some right-handed pitchers to keep his timing."

Joseph will have to wait another day to get in the lineup. To be fair, Joseph did face five righties last week, but three of those came with the designated hitter in play.

For Howard, however, the club icon is in a major rut that has had many outsiders calling for him to retire or for the team to release him. He's hitting .154 with eight home runs and 18 RBIs in 136 at-bats and is 6 for 62 (.097) with 25 strikeouts in May.

Here's the silver lining, however. Howard is a career .333 hitter in 12 at-bats against Roark, who he's taken deep once and has six RBIs against.

The Phillies turn to Jeremy Hellickson (4-3, 3.97) to snap their three-game skid. He's faced the Nationals twice this season, allowing six — five earned — runs over 10⅓ innings.

Here is the Phillies' full lineup:

Phillies
1. Odubel Herrera, CF
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Maikel Franco, 3B
4. Ryan Howard, 1B
5. Carlos Ruiz, C
6. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
7. Tyler Goeddel, LF
8. Jeremy Hellickson, P
9. Peter Bourjos, RF

For more on tonight's game, check out Steven Tyding's game notes.

MLB Notes: Mets' manager Terry Collins worried David Wright might be headed for DL

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MLB Notes: Mets' manager Terry Collins worried David Wright might be headed for DL

NEW YORK -- Mets manager Terry Collins is worried David Wright may wind up on the disabled list because of a neck injury.

New York's captain and third baseman was out of the starting lineup for the third straight day Monday because of his neck. He was given anti-inflammatory medicine over the weekend.

Now 33, Wright was on the disabled list from April 15 to Aug. 24 last year when he strained his right hamstring and then developed spinal stenosis. He has a lengthy physical therapy routine he must go through before each game.

Wright homered in three straight games last week before getting hurt. He is batting .226 with seven homers, 14 RBIs and 55 strikeouts in 137 at-bats.

White Sox: Shuck called up with Jackson injured
NEW YORK -- With Austin Jackson bothered by turf toe, the Chicago White Sox recalled outfielder J.B. Shuck from Charlotte and optioned right-hander Tommy Kahnle to the Triple-A farm team.

Jackson left Sunday's game in the eighth inning because of his left foot.

White Sox manager Robin Ventura said before Monday's series opener against the New York Mets that he doesn't think Jackson's injury at this point merits a move to the disabled list. He adds that the team does not "necessarily want to lose him for two weeks right away."

Shuck was batting fifth and playing center field Monday. He was 0 for 9 with the White Sox before he was sent down April 18 when Chicago needed to add a pitcher. He is hitting .299 at Charlotte with two homers and 17 RBIs.

Kahnle is 0-1 with a 2.70 ERA in four games over three stints with Chicago this season.