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.

NBA Notes: Grizzlies hire Heat assistant David Fizdale as head coach

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NBA Notes: Grizzlies hire Heat assistant David Fizdale as head coach

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The Grizzlies have hired David Fizdale as their new coach and will introduce him in Memphis at a news conference Tuesday.

Memphis announced the move Sunday. The hiring was first reported Thursday by The Associated Press and others. The Grizzlies did not disclose terms, but Yahoo! Sports reported Fizdale agreed to a four-year contract.

General manager Chris Wallace said in a statement that the Grizzlies are confident Fizdale is the right person to help Memphis build on its success.

Fizdale has spent the past eight years with the Miami Heat, the past two as assistant head coach to Erik Spoelstra.

The new Grizzlies coach says he feels fortunate to have worked with some of the NBA's greatest coaches and players and believes he's ready for the challenge of being a head coach (see full story).

Antetokounmpo brothers combine for 133 points in charity game vs. Porzingis
ATHENS, Greece -- NBA stars Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks and Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks battled it out in Athens in a game of streetball Sunday, watched by a crowd of 5,000.

Played in an open court in Greece's largest public high school, the "Antetokounbros Streetball Event" ended 123-123. No overtime was played.

Porzingis scored 21 points but was overshadowed by team member Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Giannis' older brother, who scored 69. The two had played for a few games together last season, when Thanasis was signed by the Knicks on a 10-day contract. Giannis Antetokounmpo led the other team with 64 points. The other players were a mixture of veteran pros and amateurs.

On Saturday, Porzingis and the Antetonkoumpo brothers were given a private tour of the Acropolis Museum (see full story).  

Watch Ben Simmons rainbow kick his way into your hearts

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Watch Ben Simmons rainbow kick his way into your hearts

Lately, you've heard and read a lot about potential No. 1 pick Ben Simmons and how he could be a Sixer soon. And you're going to hear and read a ton more about potential No. 1 pick Ben Simmons and how he could be a Sixer soon for the next three weeks and change.

But who cares about hearing and reading about him when we can actually watch him do some cool stuff instead?

Simmons posted the following video to his Twitter and Instagram accounts earlier on Sunday.

A lovely little strike on the pitch right past the keeper, something, something, Wayne Rooney, Leo Messi, Ronaldo's abs. That's the extent of my soccer knowledge. Though a guy who told me he knows some about soccer (I'll take his word for it) said that move is called a "rainbow kick." That sounds good. Let's go with that.

Simmons even tagged Messi in the Instagram vid. No response yet, though.

I like to think I know a little more about basketball than I do about soccer, so that swish after the rainbow kick was pretty nice.

I'm not sure how foot-eye coordination translates to NBA success. But seeing as how traveling doesn't really exist in the NBA anyway, maybe Simmonds can get away with it.

Oh, wait, I've got an idea: Imagine he and Jo-Jo, who likes himself some futbol, kicking it up the court then finishing it off with the rainbow-kick alley oop.

Yeah, that's the good stuff.

Sixers to host 6 more prospects for pre-draft workouts Monday

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Sixers to host 6 more prospects for pre-draft workouts Monday

After attending private, agency-run pre-draft workouts, the Sixers will host six players Monday at their practice facility for more workouts.

Joel Bolomboy, James Webb III, Tim Quarterman, Brannen Greene, Danuel House and Isaiah Taylor are all members of the third group of prospects to participate in team-run workouts in Philadelphia.

Bolomboy, a power forward, averaged 17.1 points, 12.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks his senior season at Weber State.

Quarterman entered the draft following his junior year at LSU, where he played with Ben Simmons. The point guard averaged 11.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game last year in Baton Rouge.

Webb, a forward, left Boise State following his sophomore year. He averaged 15.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.4 steals last season.

Greene declared for the draft after his junior year at Kansas. The guard averaged 5.4 points and 2.1 rebounds while shooting 49.2 percent from three last season for the Jayhawks.

House, a guard, transferred from the University of Houston to play his junior and senior seasons at Texas A&M. He posted 15.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists last season.

After three seasons at Texas, Taylor, a point guard, declared for the draft. He averaged 15.1 points, 2.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists this past season while helping the Longhorns reach the NCAA Tournament.

The Sixers hold the first, 24th and 26th picks in the draft, which takes place on June 23 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.