There are two ways to look at things. One, the Phillies have compiled of the best records in the majors, and they have managed to do so despite a series of injuries to crucial performers. Closer Brad Lidge and set-up man Jose Contreras are on the disabled list. Righthanders Roy Oswalt and Joe Blanton have spent time there too. Catcher Carlos Ruiz missed time with a sore back. And Chase Utley has yet to play in a game.
All of that is comforting from a short-term perspective. The bullpen can only get stronger. The rotation has been about as good as anybody could have hoped. A lot of teams would love to have the Phillies' problems.
But few other teams have invested $160+ million in their payroll, and the Phillies did not spend that kind of cheddar because they wanted to be in first place in the middle of May. The goal here is another World Series. And when you look at things through that lens, the Phillies' biggest potential Achilles heel is one that had drawn no shortage of attention over the past few seasons:
Their ability, or lack thereof, to hit left-handed pitching.
Last night, Cardinals lefty Jaime Garcia held them to six baserunners and one extra base hit in eight innings of work. It was just their second loss in 11 games against a left-handed starter. But when you really break it down, that 9-2 record is something of a mirage. Not all lefties are created equal. There is a big difference between Jaime Garcia and Joe Saunders, a big difference between Jonny Venters and Tim Byrdak. Come playoff time, it is the Garcias and the Venters of the world that they will be facing.
Here's a stat for you:
Against left-handed pitching, Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco are a combined 32-for-75 (.427) with 3 strikeouts, 11 extra base hits and 5 home runs.
The rest of the Phillies' Opening Day starters are 44-for-201 (.219) with 46 strikeouts, 14 extra base hits and 2 home runs.
Whenever this topic is broached, the focus will immediately shift to Ryan Howard. Last night, he went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts against Garcia. In his last 21 at-bats against lefties, he has two hits, one for extra bases, and 11 strikeouts. All nine of his home runs this season have come against right-handed pitching.
The result has been a regression to the type of strikeout numbers Howard was posting earlier in his career. Heading into tonight's game against lefty Jorge De la Rosa, Howard ranks second in the NL with 50 strikeouts, two behind Arizona's Kelly Johnson. He has stuck out three or more times in eight games, most in the National League. All of last season he did it 11 times.
This is notable because his strikeout rate had declined steadily since 2007, when he stuck out in 30.7 percent of his plate appearances. That figure went to 28.4 to 26.5 to a career-low of 25.3. This year, he has struck out in 28.1 percent of his plate appearances, which is actually higher than his career average of 27.5.
In his last 16 games, Howard is hitting .169/.279/.356 with three home runs, five extra base hits, eight RBI, nine walks and 22 strikeouts in 68 plate appearances. In his first 25 games of the season, he hit .302/.364/.583 with six home runs, 27 RBI, nine walks, 28 strikeouts, eight extra base hits in 110 plate appearances.
During his recent skid, he is 2-for-17 with eight strikeouts against lefties. It probably isn't a coincidence that during that stretch, the Phillies have faced tough lefties like Garcia, Venters, Eric O'Flaherty, Mike Dunn and George Sherrill.
Again, this is nothing new for Howard. But the problem is magnified this season because nobody behind him has been able to serve as a counterweight to his struggles against southpaws.
Ben Francisco and Raul Ibanez, who have been directly behind him, are a combined 14-for-70 with 16 strikeouts and seven extra base hits against lefties. Carlos Ruiz is 2-for-18. At the top of the line-up, Jimmy Rollins is 10-for-40 with two extra base hits against lefties. Wilson Valdez has as many hits and extra base hits against lefties as Francisco does.
It is still early, of course. Francisco hit lefties very well last season. Ruiz hasn't hit anybody well since mid-April. And when Chase Utley returns, the Phillies could very well slide Victorino down to the five-hole against lefties to give them some middle-of-the-order pop (his seven extra base hits against left-handed pitching are the most on the team).
John Mayberry Jr. is 8-for-26 with four extra base hits against lefties. He'll likely get his fourth straight start tonight against De la Rosa.
But as Ruben Amaro Jr. and the rest of his front office begin to formulate their plan for the summer trading season, you have to think that right-handed bat will be at the top of their list. There are a couple of problems. First, there doesn't appear to be a heck of a lot out there. Second, the Phillies don't appear to have a heck of a lot of money to spend. Now, both of those things have a funny way of working out once the pressure of the trade deadline increases.
Would the Phillies be able to make a play for a guy like Carlos Beltran? Would the Mets be willing to play ball? The most feasible fit right now might be a guy like Minnesota's Michael Cuddyer. He hits lefties well, isn't a slouch against righties, and while he isn't known for his fielding prowess, he has started seven games at second base this season in addition to his usual role in right field.
If Joe Blanton were to get hot over the next couple of months, the Phillies might be able to free up some money by dealing him. So there is another variable.
These are not desperate times for the Phillies. As long as Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels stay healthy, they should win a lot of games in between now and the last couple weeks of July. But if the ultimate goal is another World Series, the Phillies will either need to get a dramatic resurgence from the middle third of the order, or they will have to add another element to help it along.