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.

Agholor, Huff and Green-Beckham avoiding Eagles' trade rumors

Agholor, Huff and Green-Beckham avoiding Eagles' trade rumors

While head coach Doug Pederson denied reports the Eagles have inquired about the availability of veteran wide receivers Wednesday (see story), it's fair to wonder how those rumors affect the psyche of the guys who are already here. True or not, there's a reason why stories about trades are believable.

The Eagles' current crop of receivers hasn't been very impactful, particularly Nelson Agholor, Josh Huff and Dorial Green-Beckham. Yet despite disappointing numbers, constant questions about their lack of production and now rumblings somebody like Torrey Smith or Alshon Jeffery could be coming to take their jobs, the young trio doesn't sound too worried.

"We all have a job to do here, and if you're worried about somebody else, you're going to lose sight of your own job," Agholor said. "Just like anybody else in any workplace, you need to focus on yourself and execute your job."

"That has nothing to do with me," Huff said. "As long as I'm confident in the way I do my job, everything else will speak for itself."

"It's something I'm completely not worried out," Green-Beckham added. "I'm really just focusing on myself and whatever happens, happens."

Not only do the Eagles' wideouts sound genuinely unconcerned by trade rumors, they almost seem to welcome the competition.

"It motivates you, especially if you're still around," Agholor said. "Or if you get sent somewhere else, you understand that you have to wake up. You have to wake up and you have to make plays."

"I'm a competitor," Huff said. "I'm not going to say no to a competition, but if they do want a veteran receiver, so be it. It doesn't bother us."

It's certainly the right attitude to have, maybe even the only one. Still, trade rumors — whether rumors are all they are or not — is a clear indictment of this group's performance this season.

Jordan Matthews has been OK, but far from a prolific No. 1 receiver who makes up for a lack of complementary weapons. The third-year player is currently on pace to finish 2016 with 67 receptions for 944 yards and five touchdowns, all of which would be down from his previous season's totals.

Agholor is second on the team with 18 receptions for 191 yards, Huff has 12 catches for 63 yards and Green-Beckham has 13 for 139. All three have found the end zone once as well.

What's troubling about those numbers is that not only the lack of production, but the lack of plays they've made down the field. Agholor and Green-Beckham are both under less than 11 yards per reception, while Huff is averaging a paltry 5.3.

It's no wonder the Eagles' front office would show interest in deep threats like Smith and Jeffery, both of whom are proven capable of stretching the field.

"I just work every day and try to get separation to the best of my ability," Agholor said. "I have a great receivers coach that tries to help me with my releases and fine tune that, but the most important thing I feel like with creating separation is a mindset, because this is a league, where it's good on good every day."

"It's just what the coaches see, what the coaches want from us," Huff said. "Obviously, would I want to get the ball downfield? Yes. Has it gone that way? No, but my job is to continue to get better each and every day, and once my number is called, I'll be ready to make that play."

Pederson, who earlier denied the Eagles were looking into trades, defended the big-play ability of his wideouts.

"Nelson can stretch it," Pederson said. "Josh can stretch it. But I think it's protection and design of the play. When I think of stretching the field, I mean, a guy can run fast and that can be stretching the field, but who can really take the top off?

"Those two guys are two that can do that."

Agholor, the Eagles' first-round pick in 2015, has faced these kinds of questions since his underwhelming rookie season. He's getting used to people doubting his ability, but that's not stopping him from keeping a positive attitude.

"I think the most important thing is to progress each day, and have a next-play mentality too," Agholor said. "Some of the greatest players in this league, they drop balls, I'm sure guys have probably jammed them before, however it goes, but the best thing they can do is just bounce back, line up again and win the next matchup.

"I want to continue to have that mindset and allow it to speak for itself so I don't have to sit here and tell. If every time you're all asking me that, it must mean you all don't see that."

Green-Beckham has a little bit more of a unique perspective on this matter than Agholor and Huff. While the second-year receiver is staying positive and motivated as well, he's been on the other end of these rumors and was ultimately traded from the Titans to the Eagles back in August.

Because he's only been with the team for a couple of months, Green-Beckham didn't seem too worried he's running out of opportunities with the Eagles.

"I just got here, so I don't think I'm going to end up leaving when I just got here," Green-Beckham said. "For some guys, you really have to worry about that, and you just have to focus on trying to compete, trying to get better and better each and every day and doing the little things."

Green-Beckham also knows better than anyone how such a trade would increase expectations on the players already inside the locker room, and he had a message for his teammates.

"I just know how it feels for guys who come in as traded, and for guys who've been here, you just have to understand you're going to have to compete when stuff like that happens," Green-Beckham said. "It makes your job a lot hard, but you just have to focus more.

"It's a business. Like they say, the NFL stands for not for long, so you always have that in your thoughts, and know every opportunity, you have to take advantage of it."

Joel Embiid the gold standard by wearing gold shoes to NBA debut

Joel Embiid the gold standard by wearing gold shoes to NBA debut

For the better part of two years, most of Sixers fans' worries focused on Joel Embiid's foot.

Before his first NBA game on Tuesday night against the Thunder, Embiid made sure his very large feet were still the center of attention.

Embiid walked into the Wells Fargo Center sporting a flashy pair of gold shoes.

Hopefully he has a pair of matching basketball sneakers for tonight's game.

Also, this is cool: