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May 31, 2016

Phillies offensive struggles go beyond first base situation

The Phillies held the first of two “Baseball 101” clinics at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday.

It’s an event designed specifically for women hoping to learn more about the inner workings of the team. The nearly 10-hour program includes meeting the Phillie Phanatic and ball girls and question-and-answer sessions with a number of people at the ballpark -- including the broadcasters, team president Andy MacPhail and manager Pete Mackanin.

And, wouldn’t you know it, but one of the young ladies in attendance had a lineup question for Mackanin.

“‘Pete, you were hitting the pitcher eighth all this time, are you ever going to go back to hitting him ninth?’” Mackanin said the woman asked him earlier in the day.

The first-year manager wondered if she had a spy in the ballpark.

“As a matter of fact,” Mackanin answered, “I’m doing it today. Did you see the lineup?”

Mackanin began the hitting his pitcher eighth regularly on April 20, just 16 games into the season. Prior to Tuesday night’s game against the Washington Nationals, Mackanin had batted his pitcher eighth (often coupled with light-hitting outfielder Peter Bourjos batting ninth) in 35 of 36 games.

So why change it now?

“To change our luck,” Mackanin said. “To change something.”

It was basically the same explanation Mackanin gave six weeks ago, when he began hitting the pitcher eighth after the Phillies had lost four of five games (and had scored a grand total of eight runs in those games).

The Phillies entered Tuesday losers of eight of their last 10. But the one consistent between when Mackanin first made the move six weeks ago, and the time before that, and the games after that: the offense has been largely underwhelming.

Even when the team was winning games, it was because of starting pitching.

The Phillies entered Tuesday hitting a collective .234 as a team; only five teams in baseball had a lower team batting average.

And it gets worse from there. Only three teams have fewer hits than the Phillies (389).

No team has fewer runs per game than the Phillies, who came into Monday with 3.2 RPG. They’ve scored three runs or fewer in 31 games this season and exactly four runs in 10 other games.

Do the math and that means they’ve scored four runs or fewer in 41 of their 51 games (more than 80 percent of their schedule). You’d need a rotation full of Clayton Kershaws to be able to scratch out a few wins each week if they offense continues at its current pace.

The Phillies rank among the bottom five in baseball in nearly every relevant offensive stat:

 StatPhillies entering Tuesday  MLB rank (30 teams)
 R/G 3.2 30th 
BA .234 25th 
OBP .290 28th 
 BB124  27th
 2B70 29th 
 HR39  29th
 XBH121  29th
 OPS.652 28th 

Even on Monday night, when the criticism fell on Mackanin for pulling Jeremy Hellickson early (79 pitches after seven innings) and on Hector Neris (the set-up man’s near-perfect season soured a but with a three-walk performance), the offense had put just two runs onto the home half of the scoreboard before Maikel Franco and Ryan Howard hit back-to-back ninth inning doubles.

And the three-run performance was actually the best output from the offense in it’s last four games. The Phillies will particularly be happy when the calendar flips to June since five of their regulars entered Tuesday with sub-.700 OPSs in May: Cameron Rupp (.691), Maikel Franco (.676), Bourjos (.588), Cesar Hernandez (.576) and Howard (.439).

There has obviously been at outcry for the situation at first base, where Howard has been historically bad and recently-promoted rookie Tommy Joseph waits for a regular opportunity. But it’s also obvious he hasn’t been anywhere near the lineup’s lone weak link.

Hernandez, for example, a bright spot in a dismal 2015 season, entered Tuesday with a .255/.307/.309 slash line. Hernandez’s .616 OPS ranked 20th of the 20 qualifying big league second baseman in baseball.

“I expect more out of him,” Mackanin said. “I think he's a better hitter than he's shown. I think he's a .280 hitter and I think he's at .250. I want to see improvement. … He's got to make adjustments. Like I said, we need offense. We need all these guys to hit like they're capable of hitting.”

Again, it’s a problem that goes beyond one player (Hernandez, Howard, pick a name). But here’s another note on Hernandez: his last home run came 367 days ago, on May 30, 2015.

Hernandez has gone 131 straight games (and 538 plate appearances) without a home run. He also has just seven extra-base hits in 48 games (182 plate appearances) this season.


For the second straight day, Mackanin penciled Howard’s name into the lineup and left Joseph on his list of reserves.

Perhaps this isn’t a surprise, since Mackanin clarified his current position on the situation on Monday, saying he’ll base his daily decision on who to play at first base based on pitching matchups, while trying to keep both players from sitting on the bench for extended periods of time.

Mackanin did make on alteration to where he hit Howard, however, sliding him down to the fifth spot in the order (for the fourth time in the last 10 games). Rupp hit fourth.

“Howard is to me a prototypical cleanup hitter, but he is not hitting this year,” Mackanin said. “So I am trying to change it up. And like I said, if you look at the options, they are kind of not the greatest. Rupp is showing improvement. He's hitting (.270), making better contact, not hitting for power yet but he's going to hit some home runs. But it's a gradual thing. And I'd like that gradual improvement to be quicker than what has happened.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21