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The Struggling Phillies May Have Long Term Hitting Issues, But It's Pitching That is the Difference In 2012

The Philadelphia Phillies have continued their slide, dropping into last place, and losing 9 of 10 before getting a reprieve against the Minnesota Twins. Just two weeks ago, the Phillies were 3 games back of the Nationals, and 1.5 out of a wildcard spot. Now, they find themselves 9 games behind Washington, and 4.5 back of the Mets for the final wildcard, with five other teams situated between them and that spot.

There are a couple of ways to look at the Phillies’ struggles. One is to just dismiss it as key injuries, and that they will rebound over the rest of the season once Utley, Halladay, and Howard return. Another is to view it as the decline of an aging team. The other is to see that the pitching is the difference between 2011 and 2012.

The Phillies made Johnathan Papelbon their big signing of the offseason, on a team that had already spent on Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Cole Hamels. They knew that Ryan Howard would not be available for at least half the season. Utley’s injury issues were not unknown either entering the offseason. Philadelphia was out of the Pujols and Fielder sweepstakes, but there were hitters in the 6 to 13 million dollar range they could have opted for, to provide more balance, rather than spending it on pitching—from Kubel to Cespedes to Beltran.

The biggest problem at hitting, though, is simply that the Phillies are getting old and have gone almost a generation without an emerging home grown hitter. Domonic Brown was supposed to be that guy but has not emerged and is still battling injuries. Hunter Pence was a trade with Houston, leaving Ryan Howard as the youngest Phillies hitter to come through the system and be productive.

Still, the hitting hasn’t been the surprise this year. While Shane Victorino has fallen back after his career year last year, Carlos Ruiz is having his this year. Here is the slash line for the top hitters in AB’s (besides 1B and 2B, replacing Howard and Utley), for 2011 vs. 2012.

2012: .287/.336/.425

2011: .273/.338/.420

A higher average, a few less walks, and basically identical on base percentage and slugging percentage from Ruiz, Victorino, Polanco, Rollins, Pence, and Pierre (Ibanez last year). Now, the drop off from Utley and Howard to some combination of Ty Wigginton, John Mayberry, and Freddy Galvis is big. That should improve if those players return and can go back to their recent form.

However, the biggest difference between this year’s team and the last year when Philadelphia won 103 games is pitching. The runs scored are almost identical to last year; it is the runs allowed that have dramatically increased. The hitters besides Utley/Howard are largely who they have been and I don’t think you can expect much improvement.

This year, the starting pitching has a 3.93 ERA, which is solid in a vacuum, but not when you have spent loads of money in that area. Last year, the starters had a collective 2.88 ERA. Roy Halladay is the most notable issue, struggling before going on the DL, but it’s pretty much group wide.

The Big 3 (Halladay, Lee and Hamels) in 2012: 3.49 ERA

The Big 3 in 2011: 2.51 ERA

All Other Starters in 2012: 4.49 ERA

All Other Starters in 2011: 3.48 ERA

That’s right, the Big 3 have pitched this year, collectively, like everyone else who started for Philadelphia last year pitched. The “others” have in turn gone from a pretty underrated strength to an issue. Add in Halladay’s missed time still, and you have a dramatic drop off in pitching, not hitting, this year. Philadelphia, compared to the other big spending clubs, has spent a much higher percentage of their money on the Top 6 pitchers (5 starters and closer) versus the starting fielders. They are over 50% on pitching, while Detroit (36%), New York (37%), Boston (40%) and the Los Angeles Angels (41%) have devoted a smaller percentage of a large pie to pitching.

So, while the hitting may not be what you expect from a “big market” club, it is not unexpected given the age and personnel. If Philadelphia is going to make a run, it will largely be because the pitching returns toward 2011 levels, and not only because Halladay returns, but because several of the pitchers improve.

[photo via US Presswire]

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