Five observations: Enjoy Kazmir and Kluber while you can
The Phillies face a gauntlet of tough pitchers as they attempt to maintain an 88-win pace.
Five facts and/or observations as the Phillies prepare to host the streaking Indians in a two-game series at Citizens Bank Park
1) If the Phillies finish the season winning four out of every seven games like they did on their recently completed seven-game road trip through San Francisco and Arizona, they will end up with 88 wins and a good shot at a playoff berth. It sounds manageable, but every team in the National League is capable of winning four of seven games, and now the Phillies must show that they can do it on a consistent basis. We are a little more than a quarter way through a stretch that could very well dictate how they decide to approach the trade deadline, and tonight we get another interesting wrinkle as the Phillies face Scott Kazmir, who is showing signs of the pitcher he was before 2008, when the Phillies faced him twice in the World Series, drawing 10 walks against nine strikeouts and scoring five runs in 10 innings off him, including three runs in six innings in the Game 5 clincher. Ah, glory days. The velocity on Kazmir's fastball, which had dropped into the mid 80's at one point, is closer to where it was when he was regarded as one of the more promising young starters in the game (91.7 MPH according to FanGraphs.com). In his last three starts, Kazmir has 21 strikeouts and three walks in 17 innings. He's been throwing strikes, and the Phillies have struggled against pitchers who do that to them. We've heard a lot of talk of patience and approach as the remedy to what ails the Phillies, but the fact is they've been pretty darn patient against pitchers who give them reason to be. It's the guys that pound the strike zone and dare them to hit fastballs who have raised the most red flags. It's hard to be patient when you are always down 0-2.
2) The Kazmir/Corey Kluber combo the Phillies will face today and tomorrow is the easiest two-game stretch the Phillies will see for the rest of the month, at least according to the way the pitching match-ups set up right now.
May 17-19 v. Reds: Tony Cingrani (ROOKIE!), Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey
May 20-22 v. Marlins: Alex Sanabia, Jose Fernandez (ROOKIE!), Kevin Slowey
May 24-26 at Nationals: Dan Haren, Ross Detwiler (LEFTY!), Stephen Strasburg
May 27-30 at Red Sox/v. Red Sox: Clay Buchholz, Ryan Dempster, John Lackey, John Lester (LEFTY!)
The Phillies have actually fared relatively well against the cream of the major league pitching crop. They are 6-9 against pitchers who entered today with an ERA under 3.00 and 12-12 against the others. I don't know if that really means anything, but I counted it, so I might as well use it.
3) Given the gravity of the Phillies' current situation and the way the schedule sets up, I would not be surprised to see the Phillies use their off days to ensure that Kyle Kendrick, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee are in line to face Haren, Detwiler and Strasburg in Washington a week from Friday.
Here's how that would work, with days of rest in parantheses:
May 14 - Pettibone (5)/Kazmir
May 15 - Hamels (5)/Kluber
May 16 - OFF
May 17 - Lee (5)/Cingrani
May 18 - Kendrick (5)/Arroyo
May 19 - Pettibone (4)/Bailey
May 20 - Hamels (4)/Sanabia
May 21 - Lee (4)/Fernandez
May 22 - Cloyd/Slowey (Activate Cloyd, option/DFA reliever)
May 23 - OFF (Option Cloyd, activate hitter or reliever)
May 24 - Kendrick (5)/Haren
May 25 - Hamels (4)/Detwiler
May 26 - Lee (4)/Strasburg
May 27 - Pettibone (7)/Buchholz
May 28 - TBD/Dempster (Activate Lannan, option hitter or reliever)
May 29 - Kendrick (4)/Lackey
May 30 - Hamels (4)/Lester
The TBD on May 28 would be John Lannan in an ideal situation. If not, the Phillies would have to activate somebody other than Cloyd to start (since he would not have been in the minors long enough to return under MLB rules). As far as I see it, the choice is whether to have Pettibone or Lee face the Nationals or the Red Sox.
4) On Friday I wrote that it might make sense to use the nebulous situation at No. 5 starter to promote Darin Ruf in advance of the Nationals series. Right now, it would make a little less sense than if the pitching matchups fell a different way, since the way it appears to set up has the Phillies facing a pair or right-handed starters in the DH games in Boston. Furthermore, the Phillies no longer have to worry about lefty Sean Burnett in the Nationals bullpen, so the benefit of having Ruf available to pinch hit for Ryan Howard is not as big as it once would have been. That being said, Howard is a combined 2-for-15 with eight strikeouts against Lester and Detwiler, and Ruf homered off of Detwiler last season, which does not mean anything because of the small sample size, but the small sample size also means that it is not necessarily meaningless. We do have a large enough sample size to say that the Phillies have struggled against lefty starters. And while John Mayberry Jr. also has a home run off Detwiler and is 2-for-3 against Lester, he can play center field. The question is, why not try to milk every benefit of your organization in a season where a playoff berth could come down to one or two wins. Worse case scenario you carry an extra hitter at the expense of a reliever for the May 29-30 games, and then send Ruf back to the minors after a week in the majors. Is one week away from Triple-A enough to ruin Ruf's career? Charlie Manuel preaches doing everything within one's power to win that night's game, so why shouldn't that philosophy dictate the personnel situation? If you are worried about Ruf getting rusty, use him at DH instead of Laynce Nix for the two games in Boston and get him a start in place of Delmon Young in one of the other games. It certainly cannot hurt the offense judging by the past seven weeks.
Since April 9, Phillies starters have combined to post a 3.48 ERA in 32 games. Take Roy Halladay out of the equation and they have combined for a 2.93 ERA. They've held opponents under four runs in all but three starts (not including Halladay) during that span, including each of the last seven.
But over the last 32 games they are 16-16 while averaging 3.5 runs per game.
5) Here's your latest apples-to-apples personnel comparison.
The Indians have won 13 of their last 16 while averaging 5.8 runs per game with an impressive batting line of .290/.350/.505 and 25 runs.
Nick Swisher is hitting .266/.370/.476 with five home runs in 146 plate appearances. Mark Reynolds is hitting .279/.368/.598 with 11 home runs in 144 plate appearances. Michael Bourn is hitting .293/.359/.500 with two home runs in 64 plate appearances. He returned to the lineup on May 10 and has played four games since he missed three weeks with a lacerated finger that he suffered while getting spiked.
Swisher, Bourn and Reynolds were all signed this offseason as free agents at a combined cost of $32 million per year in salary (four years apiece for Swisher and Bourn, one year for Reynolds). Compare each of those players to their counterparts on the Phillies: Reynolds > Howard thus far, Swisher > Delmon Young thus far, Bourn > Ben Revere thus far. Yet if the Indians sweep the Phillies again, I'm sure I'll hear plenty of people saying Terry Francona > Charlie Manuel, even though when Charlie Manuel was with the Indians and Francona was with the Phillies the Indians > Phillies. It comes down to the performance of the personnel that each team picks. In this case, the Phillies picked Revere over Bourn and Young over Swisher, and both of those decisions were made in part because of the money they decided to spend at first base. That's just reality. A month and a half is too early to label Chris Antonetti a genius. But if you want to know why the month-and-a-half has played out like it has, look at the apples.