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.

Challenges await Darryl Reynolds, Villanova in run to repeat as national champs

Challenges await Darryl Reynolds, Villanova in run to repeat as national champs

VILLANOVA, Pa. — Darryl Reynolds said it hurt. And he wasn’t alone. 

A month ago, Reynolds and the rest of the Villanova Wildcats found out five-star freshman big man Omari Spellman would not be eligible to play in 2016-17.

And despite Spellman — at 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds — being the biggest competition cutting into Reynolds’ playing time for his senior year, Reynolds understood the ramifications from losing what was expected to be a key cog in Villanova’s next run for glory.

“We lost a — no pun intended — big piece to the puzzle,” Reynolds said Tuesday at Villanova’s media day. “He went down, but everybody else has realized that we need that much more from everybody else.

“Me and Omari are close, in more ways than on the court. It would’ve been exciting to play with him. But it also provided that much more motivation.”

Motivation because Reynolds, a Lower Merion grad, also understands what the ramifications mean for him, too. The 6-foot-9, 240-pound senior may arguably be the most important player on the 2016-17 Wildcats. 

For three years, Reynolds has largely taken a backseat, hidden by the shadow of Daniel Ochefu. Now he’s front and center.

“He battled through that,” fellow senior Josh Hart said. “Never complained. Never had any down moments. Brought it every single day. We know he can play at this level.”

Reynolds heads a position in which Villanova was supposed to have depth. Now it has question marks. Reynolds and Spellman were going to be a 1-2 punch inside and a perfect supplement to a bevy of offensive talent around them. The question marks up front include sophomore Tim Delaney and freshman Dylan Painter. How quickly the two of them get going will be big. And so, too, will be figuring out where Fordham transfer forward Eric Paschall fits in the rotation.

Coach Jay Wright, who said Reynolds would be a starter, talked more about the other pieces behind Reynolds when asked what he’d be expecting from the senior big man.

“I think part of our challenge is Tim Delaney and Dylan Painter,” Wright said. “Which one of them, if not both of them, can step up and give us the depth that Darryl gave us last year up front when we needed size? Down the stretch in big games against big-time teams, you need that size. We’ve got to develop Tim and Dylan and see how they do with that, see how Eric Paschall can do. Can he play bigger? We definitely have our challenges.”

Those challenges also include replacing leadership roles vacated by Ryan Arcidiacono, Ochefu and a trio of walk-ons.

Insert Reynolds there, too. The Wildcats will start three seniors this year. Hart and Kris Jenkins may do most of the scoring, but they’re pretty reserved off the court and when talking to the media.

“Obviously Ryan (Arcidiacono) was a great leader for us. He was our rock,” Hart said. “When you look at this team, a lot of times we look at [Reynolds]. He calms everybody down. He vocally tries to make sure everybody’s on one accord. Basketball-wise, he’s always been good. You saw the Providence game last year when we needed him to step up and he had, what, like 19 and 11?”

Hart remembers the numbers well, even if he added an extra rebound to the ledger. Reynolds was 9 for 10 from the floor and had two blocks in 36 minutes of action to help the Wildcats earn revenge with a road win after the Friars beat them in Philadelphia two weeks prior.

That game was the last of a three-game stretch in late January into early February when Ochefu was sidelined with a concussion. Reynolds’ minutes over that stretch: 29, 31 and 36, respectively.

That experience, Reynolds says, coupled with the rest of 2015-16 — when he saw an uptick in minutes from his sophomore season’s 5.4 per game to 17.1 per game — will be easy to draw from in 2016-17.

“There’s nothing like getting out there and actually playing,” Reynolds said. “You see a lot from the sidelines. You learn a lot playing spot minutes. You get different things. But just being out there throughout entire games, playing 20-plus minutes, it teaches you things that you could never have learned from another perspective. I learned a lot from those experiences and I think it made me the player that I am in many ways. It’s the same thing with this year. I’m still going to learn a ton in a sense of being out there that much more and not having Daniel. 

“In many ways he taught me a lot. So not having him, not having that voice in my ear, not having that guy to go against in practice, it will make me grow up. 

“Nothing wrong with that,” he said with a smile.

Doug Pederson not afraid to get aggressive with play-calling

Doug Pederson not afraid to get aggressive with play-calling

Talk to Doug Pederson and he comes across … what’s a nice way to put it … dry?

Very nice guy. Very friendly. Very down to Earth. But not the most dynamic personality in public.

Which is why his personality on gameday has been so surprising.

Pederson is a risk taker as a playcaller. Aggressive and fearless.

Whether it’s going for it on fourth down with the lead, going for two after a successful PAT or throwing deep in a situation that doesn’t necessarily call for it, Pederson has proven to be the proverbial riverboat gambler that Chip Kelly was expected to be but never became.

“My personality is probably a little more conservative by nature, I think,” Pederson said Monday. “You'd probably agree with that.”

Pederson got a laugh with that comment because his public persona is exactly the opposite of his gameday demeanor.

It only took one day before we all got a taste of Pederson’s fearlessness.

In the season opener against the Browns, with the Eagles clinging to a 15-10 lead and a rookie quarterback making his first NFL appearance and a 4th-and-4 at the Browns’ 40--yard-line, he kept the offense on the field.

Carson Wentz responded by connecting with Zach Ertz on a five-yard gain to move the chains, and one play later, the Eagles took command on Wentz’s 35-yard TD pass to Nelson Agholor.

Six weeks in, the Eagles are 5 for 5 on fourth down. Only the Falcons have converted more fourth downs in the NFL this year, and they’re 6 for 10.

In the win over the Bears, the Eagles were 3 for 3 on fourth down, their best fourth-down conversion day in nine years.

This is the first time in 14 years the Eagles have converted five or more fourth downs through six games.

According to Pro Football Reference, the Eagles are one of only seven teams in NFL history to attempt five or more fourth down plays through six games and still be at 100 percent. The Lions are also 5 for 5 this year.

Pederson said analytics are a big part of his decision-making process, but he also trusts his instincts.

“I think it's both,” Pederson said. “But I trust our guys and I trust our offensive line and I think it sends a great message to the rest of the team, to the defense and special teams, that, ‘Hey, if we can convert this and stay on the field,’ it sends a good message.

“And on the other side of that, if you do convert, (it’s about) the message you send to the other team and the fact that you're going to stay aggressive.”

The Eagles are 29th-best in the NFL on third down at just 34 percent. But they’re one of only three teams that’s at 100 percent on fourth down.

“It's kind of a crazy deal when you're not great on third down, but you can be 5 for 5 on fourth down and convert them,” Pederson said. “It's a weird deal. But credit to the guys for the execution.

“I'm going to continue to look at it. I don't ever want to be in a position that I'm going to jeopardize the team at the time (by being too aggressive). Looking at the five fourth-down decisions this year, I don’t think they put us in any harm at that time.”

Wentz is 3 for 3 for 21 yards on fourth down, with the four-yard completion to Ertz, a seven-yard first down to Jordan Matthews in the Bears game and a nine-yard to Dorial Green-Beckham, also in the win in Chicago.

He also rushed six yards for a first down on a 4th-and-2 Sunday in the win over the Vikings. The Eagles’ other fourth-down conversion this year was Ryan Mathews’ one-yard TD on a 4th-and-goal against Chicago.

Pederson said as an assistant coach under Andy Reid, he always found himself asking himself whether he would be conservative or aggressive in crucial situations.

We’re all learning the answer now.

“Yeah, you definitely put yourself in those situations, as a coordinator and a position coach,” he said. “Putting yourself in those spots, it's a lot easier when you're not making the decision obviously to go, ‘Oh, yeah, I would have not gone for it there or not gone for it there.’

“Now, being in this position, it's my tail on the line if we don't convert.”