“You can have the guys who want it the most. But when the squirrel runs across home plate while your team is trying to pitch, there is nothing you can do about that. So you really start to realize there are a lot of things out of your control. It takes more than nine guys. It takes nine guys, and it takes the 25 on the roster. It takes the coaches, the staff, and it takes a lot of luck.”
— The late Roy Halladay when asked about never winning a World Series at his 2013 retirement news conference
No matter how much any team in any sport invests in its analytics department, the one thing they’ll never be able to calculate or predict is the luck factor, but we promise you it’s a very real part of what happens every season and the people involved know it.
“Some years things go so much better for you in the luck department than they do others,” former Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said Friday from spring training in Clearwater, Fla. during a Zoom call with reporters. “Luck does play a big part in it and we don’t talk a lot about how lucky we are, but luck counts.”
Luck comes in many forms — a fortuitous hop in the late innings of a tie game or an unexpected great season from an unproven player — but there are only two brands — good and bad. Manuel knows a lot of serendipitous events unfolded in order for the Phillies to win five straight division titles, a couple of National League pennants and a World Series during his time as the team’s manager.
It was a good decision, for instance, that the Phillies selected Shane Victorino in the Rule 5 draft in December 2004, but they were damn lucky when the Los Angeles Dodgers did not take him back after he did not make the big-league roster out of spring training in 2005.
“You always think about somebody coming around for you,” Manuel said. “It can be one guy, it can be two guys.”
It was way more than two during the Phillies’ second great era of baseball. For next to nothing, Jayson Werth was signed as a free agent after the Dodgers released him in 2006. Kyle Kendrick, J.A. Happ, and Vance Worley all gave the Phillies some unexpected terrific seasons to bolster the backend of the starting rotation during the run of five straight division titles.
Eventually, the Phillies’ good fortune under Manuel swung the other way. The squirrel Halladay referenced made an appearance in 2011, in the fifth inning of the Phillies’ Game 4 National League division series loss to the Cardinals in St. Louis. As Roy Oswalt was delivering a pitch to Skip Schumaker at Busch Stadium, the long-tailed rodent ran right in front of home plate. The furry little fellow became affectionately known as The Rally Squirrel in St. Louis after the Cardinals won the World Series. The Phillies, meanwhile, haven’t been able to find an acorn since.
Maybe the squirrel wasn’t bad luck, but Ryan Howard’s ruptured Achilles’ tendon that closed out the Phillies’ Game 5 loss against the Cardinals sure was and in what seemed like warp-speed fashion, the greatness was gone from the entire core. The one bad knee Chase Utley played on in 2011 became two in 2012. Oswalt never threw another pitch for the Phillies after his squirrelly loss to the Cardinals.
Less than two years later, Halladay’s Hall of Fame career was over because of chronic back pain that led to his prescription medication addiction. It’s among the most tragic stories in baseball history. Cliff Lee’s career was ended by an elbow injury in the middle of the 2014 season and we haven’t heard from him since.
A lot of bad baseball has been played at Citizens Bank Park ever since and during many of those best forgotten years it would not have mattered how much good luck the Phillies had because they were just an awful team held down by some terrible decision-making.
But even in those worst of times, the Phillies have had some terrible luck. Charlie Morton, for example, signed with the Phillies for $8 million in 2016 and pitched OK in four starts before suffering a season-ending hamstring injury. Since then, he’s 47-18 with a 3.34 ERA, two All-Star appearances and two World Series appearances. Had he stayed healthy in 2016, maybe he would have matured into that same great pitcher with the Phillies and been part of their rotation in 2018, 2019, and 2020 when his presence could have mattered.
There’s no denying that the Phillies’ 2020 season was a major disappointment, but it was also a stroke of bad luck that Rhys Hoskins, Bryce Harper, and J.T. Realmuto all battled injuries down the stretch when one win would have got them into the watered-down playoffs. And no one could have predicted that four bullpen additions — Brandon Workman, David Phelps, David Hale, and Heath Hembree — with a combined 3.84 ERA in 1,390 career innings would come to Philadelphia and post a combined 8.56 ERA in 41 innings.
Given what has happened to the Phillies in the last decade, it sure does seem as if they are due for some good fortune in 2021 and that could manifest in many different ways. Maybe Matt Moore’s season in Japan was just what he needed to rejuvenate his big-league career. Maybe Andrew McCutchen finds the fountain of youth in the final season of his three-year deal. Maybe Spencer Howard lives up to his top-prospect reputation.
Maybe this is the year the Phillies finally get lucky and that helps them get good again.