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April 16, 2019

Paul Hagen: Phillies offense just as much to blame as pitching for recent struggles

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Cesar-Hernandez-Phillies_041619_USAT John Geliebter/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Cesar Hernandez.

When word got out Monday afternoon that Phillies reliever David Robertson had been placed on the injured list with a sore right elbow, it stirred the embers of an already-tired debate about whether the team should – no, must! – sign free agent closer Craig Kimbrel.

When starter Aaron Nola, who finished third in the National League Cy Young Award voting last season, gave up three runs to the Mets in the top of the third and two more in the fourth, there was a smattering of boos from the wind-whipped crowd at Citizens Bank Park.

Or maybe they were just urging general manager Matt Klentak to sign Dallas Keuchel, the lefthanded starter who also remains available to the highest bidder.

It’s still early in the season, so very early that the hardy attendees needed to retreat inside their cold weather gear. And yet the incessant griping about the Phillies pitching, the three-alarm concern, the caterwauling from social media to sports talk radio has become a red-pinstriped leitmotif playing constantly in the background.

That’s all real. But it’s also diverted attention from the fact that the lineup hasn’t exactly been clicking lately, either.

Look, nobody expected this team to average over eight runs a game like it did while getting off to a 5-1 start. Even the 1961 Yankees, one of the most formidable batting orders in history, was shut out six times that season. And did we mention how early it still is?

Here’s the thing, though. Even though the Phillies put up five runs in five innings against Noah Syndergaard in what turned out to be a 7-6, 11-inning loss, they’ve still scored three or fewer in five of their last nine games. And while that’s barely a blip during the longest season, a deeper dive reveals some potentially ominous signs.

The Phillies have scored 85 runs this season and 37 of them have come on home runs. That’s 43.53 percent and it seems like a lot. Which it is, even though the Major League average in 2018 was an amazing 40.27 percent.

Again conceding a small sample size, here are a few more data points:

There have been four games this year in which the Phillies didn’t hit a home run. They lost three of them.

Sometimes the hitters have to pick up the pitchers. Sometimes it works the other way around. The Phillies, however, have only won once this season when their opponent has scored more than four runs.

But, wait, didn’t Earl Weaver become a Hall of Fame manager by playing for three-run homers? Doesn’t the Big Bang Theory of baseball hold that, more often than not, the winning team will score more in one big inning than the losing team does in the entire game?

Noted sabermetrician Dave Smith, founder of Retrosheet.org, has studied that issue. 

“Well over 50 percent of games that are Big Bangs are games in which the losing team scores zero, one or two runs,” he explained. “Since every shutout is, by definition, a Big Bang my conclusion is that the Big Bang is a consequence of good pitching, not of big hitting.”

Of the top six home run hitting teams in MLB going into play Monday night, two had losing records.

And a related note: The Phillies have sputtered even though they’re hitting .306 this season with runners in scoring position. At some point, a regression to the norm is likely.

In fairness to Nola and Syndergaard, the gelid conditions made the ball difficult to grip. Then again, hitting under the same conditions is no treat, either.

The Phillies have now lost five of their last nine. One reason the offense has largely avoided scrutiny to this point is that so many of the offseason additions – Harper, Segura, McCutchen, Realmuto – were bats. Most of the hitters are off to solid individual starts. There are no obvious free agent position players lurking. And even if there were, there aren’t spots that are crying to be upgraded.

Offensively, what you see is pretty much what you’re going to get.

Similarly, even though Nola’s earned run average is now 7.32, there’s not much the Phillies can do except work with him between starts, keep running him out there and hope for the best. Assuming he’s healthy, that 4-year, $45 million contract extension he signed before the season leaves no other realistic option.

Gabe Kapler said there is no physical reason for Nola’s troubles, insisting that the only thing that’s lacking is good location. 

“I’m concerned that Aaron is not getting where he wants to go,” the manager said. “The flip side is that he’s had a long track record of success. He’s not the only good starting pitcher who’s had some early season struggles, and we’re going to do everything in our power to help him get back on track.

“He deserves as much confidence as anybody. It doesn’t mean that it feels good to watch him struggle by any stretch. It’s very disappointing. There are no tricks. There’s no switch you can turn on. Command is his calling card. He’s got movement, deception, life and those things are still there. If he can put the ball where he wants to throw it, he’s going to be just fine.”

Said Nola: “I’m going to look into what’s going on and just keep working. I have a bullpen in a couple days and I’m going to try to fix some things. I feel fine. My body feels fine.  It’s been a tough go so far. I’m not going to hang my head about it because there’s a lot of baseball left.”

Ruben Amaro Jr., now a Mets executive, was at Monday night’s game. When he was the Phillies general manager, one of his standard replies when asked to isolate a problem area was, “We win as a team and we lose as a team.”

That’s still true, of course. So while the Phillies pitching may be under the microscope for this recent mini-slide, the hitters have to shoulder a share of the responsibility as well.

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