Baseball is a unique game with the number nine being featured prominently. There are nine positions on the diamond. A game lasts for nine innings. A significant difference between baseball and the other three major sports – basketball, football and hockey, is that baseball is played without a clock. A team is given 27 outs (or more if a game is tied after nine innings) and the two teams play until they’ve exhausted all their outs and one of the teams has outscored it’s opponent. Because the number nine figures so prominently in baseball we’ve decided to break the season into nine 18-game “innings”, which equates to a 162-game season.
The first inning of the 2014 season is completed. It ended Sunday afternoon with a back and forth 10-9 victory over the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. The Phils record stands at 8-10, four games behind the NL East leading Braves and in last place in the division. Only the Cubs and Diamondbacks, who the Phils end this 10-game road trip playing, have less wins in the National League.
Why have the Phils got off to such a slow start this year? There are three primary reasons for their struggles. Offensively the team hasn’t been able to get extra base hits. Before yesterday’s game, where they exploded for seven XBH’s, the Phils had their longest drought since May of 1968 without one. Of their 157 hits, which ranks 8th in the NL, they’ve produced just 46 for extra bases. That’s only 29.2% of all their hits. For a frame of reference take a look at the NL East leading Braves. They only have one more hit than the Phils with 158, but 56 have gone for extra bases. That’s good for 35.4% of all their hits. Included in the Braves XBH superiority they’ve outpaced the Phils in HR’s 23 to 15.
The Phils have book-ended the season’s first inning with 32 hits and 24 runs scored against Texas and Colorado. In the 16 games between these two outbursts they have 125 hits (7.8 per game) and 51 runs (3.19 per game). Thirteen of their 36 XBH’s have come in these two games too, leaving just 23 (1.44 per game) in the other 16 games. Five of the teams 15 HR’s have come in the bookend games with the Phils just banging 10 HR’s in the other 16 games.
The inability to score runs on a consistent basis is one of the main reasons the Phils are tied for the 12th best record in the NL. They’ve scored three runs or less in 9 of the 18 games played thus far. In those games the team is just 1-8. Last year the Phils scored three runs or less 86 times. In seven games the Phils offense has mustered only two runs or less. That’s 43.75% of their games. More offense is definitely needed if the Phils plan on contending this year.
It’s hard to imagine how bad the offense would have been had Chase Utley not started the season 20-40 and leading the league in just about everything. He’s cooled off a bit the last few games but at the end of the first inning he still leads the Phils in BA, OBP, SLG, OPS and doubles. He ranks 2nd on the team to Jimmy Rollins with 12 RBI’s.
Ryan Howard, a player the Phils are counting on to provide power out of the cleanup spot finished the first inning with good numbers, but they were largely skewed by yesterday’s big game against the Rockies. Early in the season we see wild swings in numbers based on a big game and yesterday was no exception for Howard. Heading into the series finale against the Rockies Howard was 5th on the Phils in RBI’s and was slugging at a .400 clip. He raised his SLG to .508 with yesterday’s big game, but is still only 4th in RBI’s behind Rollins, Utley and Byrd.
The Big Piece needs to have a big year for the Phils if they’re to be contenders. Howard is a notoriously slow starter, so if he heats up with the weather as he’s done in years past, the dynamics of the lineup will change dramatically. Right now Howard is not the feared hitter he was in his prime.
The second and third reasons the Phils have struggled out of the gate go hand in hand. Reason number two for the slow start has been a largely ineffective bullpen. Calling the bullpen ineffective is putting it nicely. With the exception of Jonathan Papelbon, who bounced back strong from his first outing in Texas (where he blew game three of the season by giving up three runs in a third of an inning), the rest of the bullpen has been terrible. Including Paps resurgence the bullpen’s ERA is 5.69.
The pen is losing leads and games almost every way you can think of. One of the biggest issues they’ve had is the inability to throw strikes. They’ve allowed 24 BB’s and given one free pass in 55.1 innings. This comes to 4.09 BB/9. Combine all those walks with 54 hits allowed and you can see the bullpen is putting far too many men on base. The pen is also responsible for giving up nine of the 21 HR’s the pitching staff has allowed to date. Their 1.47 HR/9 has to be lowered, especially when you consider they’re being used more than 3 innings per game.
That brings us to problem number three. The starting pitching isn’t going deep enough into games, exposing a bad bullpen and making the Phils vulnerable to late losses. Cliff Lee has been dependable as always, averaging over 6.2 IP per start, but the other four starters are making the bullpen responsible for getting 10 outs per game. This pace can’t keep up all year and should be helped by the return of Cole Hamels on Wednesday. Hamels has averaged just under seven innings per start over the last three years, and if healthy will lighten the bullpen’s load.
Grade: Taking everything into consideration, last place in the NL East, 11 teams with more wins in the NL (2 teams with the same amount of wins), 10th in runs scored, 14th in team ERA and a badly struggling bullpen, the Phils first inning grade is a D+. Grading out to a C would be average, but that would necessitate a .500 record and being middle of the pack in most team stats. The Phils are neither.
The second inning begins tonight with a four-game series against the Dodgers. In order the Phils will throw Cliff Lee, A.J. Burnett, Cole Hamels and Kyle Kendrick. They’ll be opposed by Paul Maholm, Hyun-jin Ryu, Zach Greinke and Dan Haren. The Dodgers, favorites to win the National League this year are 12-7 and in first place in the NL West. The Dodgers have a team ERA of 2.85…and that’s with Clayton Kershaw only pitching one game. He’ll miss this series as he begins a rehab assignment on the way back to the big club. Even without Kershaw this series will be a good test for the Phils offense.
Following the four-game set against the Dodgers the Phils head to Arizona to complete the 10-game road trip. The Diamondbacks are struggling with a league worst 5-16 record. The Dbacks team ERA of 5.70 is the NL’s highest, with the Phils second to last with a team ERA of 4.88. If the Phils can manage to go 4-3 the rest of the trip to finish at .500 it will be a big victory for them. In the past these long west coast swings have spelled trouble for the Phils. Coming home with a .500 record on the trip and 4-3 to start the second inning of the season will be a big boost for a team that doesn’t want to find itself irrelevant before June.
The Phils second inning report card will come due after a game against the NY Mets on Saturday, May 10th.