Stockholm syndrome

Before the 2006 season opened, I got a phone call. Would I be interested in being a guest on “The Mike Gill Show”? I agreed and things went pretty well: I didn’t faint, vomit, soil myself or break into the musical styling of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Hey, you have your standard of things going pretty well and I have mine.

Well, proving that desperation does strange things, the good folks at ESPN 1450 wondered if I had any interest in being their regular baseball analyst, and I agreed. Now this station is located in Atlantic City—right smack in Phillies territory. Obviously, the Phillies are a team I would have to watch a little more closely.

The Phils and I have a history. Although they were the foil and tormentors of the Montreal Expos in the 1970s, the club was the home to some favorite players: Mike Schmidt, Garry Maddox, Steve Carlton, Jim Kaat, and Richie Hebner (Hey, how can you not love a guy who worked as a grave-digger in the off season? It’s awesome at so many levels.), Pete Rose (hangs head in shame), and my all-time favorite relief pitcher—the unforgettable Tug McGraw.

Back in 2006 I wrote a column about wanting to find a new National League rooting interest, since the Expos were no more and I’ve always rooted for a team in the NL. It didn’t seem right that I had no club to cheer for in the Senior Circuit.

Well, after being held hostage to following the Phillies, I have found myself paying more and more attention to their fortunes. I was listening to the final game of the Mets-Phillies four game set. The Phils were trying to rally off of Billy Wagner, made necessary when the Mets’ the six-fingered man decided that killing the father of Indigo Montoya wasn’t satisfying enough and tried and slay the Phillies playoff hopes with an eighth inning imitation of Tony Castillo. When Chase Utley singled home Tadahito Iguchi, culminating a comeback, I jumped up and whooped it up scaring my cats half to death (What happens if I do it again?) and causing my dogs to run to my rescue (down boys). That was when it dawned on me that Stockholm syndrome had set in, and I was indeed a Phillies fan.

My reasons? They’ve got some of the most fun players to watch I’ve seen in a while: They got the behemoth slugger Ryan Howard, an incredible keystone combination in Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, an exciting young pitcher in Cole Hamels and my favorite career ever: Jamie Moyer. Here’s a guy who couldn’t land a job in 1992. He was 29, a 34-54, 4.56 ERA pitcher (league ERA over that span: 3.80) and nobody wanted him. In 1993 the Orioles took a shot on this 30-year-old soft tossing southpaw. Since then, he’s won almost 200 games (196-122, 4.12 ERA), had 20-win seasons at ages 38 and 40 and is still chugging along at age 44. He may well have the strangest career progression of any pitcher in history: 34 wins before age 30 and 196 wins after.

May God/natural selection/your deity of choice have mercy on my soul.

I didn’t write this column to tell you that. I’ve had a Phillies piece rattling around in my cranium and today’s epiphany finally motivated me to get down to it. Some thoughts on the club:

Wake up Mr. Gillick

The Phillies are a team with a below league average staff ERA. Their starters are 12th in the NL and only the Reds have a worse bullpen. To their credit, their ERA—4.91 at the break—is 4.43 since the All-Star Game. Regardless, they need pitching. They need pitching so much that Pat Gillick has a trio of cretins in his employ in Brett Myers, Jose Mesa, and Julio Mateo (minors). I would think that with the Phillies being so desperate for any kind of pitching that he’d jump when guys like David Wells and Esteban Loaiza suddenly appear on the waiver wire. Granted, I’m not sure whether the Dodgers got a crack at them before or after the Phillies, but if Philadelphia passed on them, then shame on Gillick. Even league average pitching would be a huge asset with the Phillies’ explosive offense. This month they have a league worst earned run mark of 4.91. If a pitcher can give you six innings of 4.25-4.35 ERA work, then he’s probably more valuable to the Phillies than any other team in the circuit.

Credit where it’s due

When Utley got injured, the Phillies lost a lot of production. The acquisition of Iguchi was a masterstroke by Gillick. He filled in to the tune of .301/.357/.425, with two home runs and 10 RBIs in Utley’s absence. Pat Burrell over the same span was a terrific .316/.419/.643 with eight home runs and 21 RBIs and since July 1, he’s hitting .355/.468/.711 with 16 homers and 45 RBIs. Burrell has earned his pay this year and is on track for one of his best seasons.

Scary

On top of Burrell’s heroics, let’s check out the keystone. To give you an idea how good it is, we’ll compare it to the Toronto Blue Jays:

Player           BA  OBP  SLG Runs 2B 3B HR RBI
Second base
Chase Utley    .338 .398 .585  81  42  3 18  85
Aaron Hill     .270 .315 .437  64  37  2 14  68
Shortstop
Jimmy Rollins  .293 .339 .525 115  33 15 24  75
John McDonald  .254 .278 .328  25  14  1  1  25

Switch these two around and Toronto is in the thick of the playoff hunt and a favorite once they’re in the postseason. For that matter, if you could combine the Jays’ pitching with the Phillies’ lineup, and I’d put that team up against any team in either league. (Although I’m happy keeping Aaron Hill.)

Back to back MVPs?

Since Ryan Howard came back from early season leg miseries, he’s put up the following line over the last 86 games:

Player        BA  OBP  SLG HR RBI  OPS
Ryan Howard .294 .393 .626 30  87 1.019

How good is that? Here are Alex Rodriguez‘s last 86 games:

Player           BA  OBP  SLG HR RBI  OPS
Alex Rodriguez .309 .415 .589 27  82 1.004

Now take your fingers off the e-mail button. Howard is a beast but there’s a huge difference between a below average fielding first baseman with an OPS+ of 145 and a terrific five-tool second sacker with an OPS+ of 154. Howard will draw a lot of attention, especially if the Phillies make the post season. The BBWAA voters love home runs and RBIs and Howard will likely finish with terrific triple crown totals (say, .275 average, 46 home runs and 130 RBIs), assuming a typical September. Meanwhile, Utley will be around a .335 average with 23 home runs and 100 RBIs. However, don’t forget that sometimes they do look a little deeper, like when Barry Larkin won the 1995 NL MVP with a line of .319, 15 HR, 66 RBIs.

So now what?

Right now the Phillies are rolling. They were likely hoping to win three of four but managed to sweep in exciting fashion to pull within two games of the New York Mets. If Gillick can pick up another arm from somewhere, anywhere, even a league average arm, they’ll be flying high into the final month of the season. They’ve got 13 home games and 16 on the road against teams they’re 33-26 against and have outscored 307-269.

They’re in it.

After missing out on Loaiza and Wells it’s imperative that Gillick pick up another pitcher. Since the rotation and bullpen both require attention, it won’t matter what variety he picks up. If I’m Charlie Manuel and Gillick picks up a reliever and you call up some extra help when the roster expands, you might try to see if Brett Myers can give you six innings or 70-80 pitches. If an extra arm costs a bit of the future, so be it. When you’re this close to October baseball, you have to be willing to spend a bit more than you otherwise would. Tomorrow never comes, this year’s “can’t miss” prospect can be somebody’s Rule 5 selection in 2009. Sometimes you plan for the future, other times it’s Carpe Diem.

This team has gone through a lot in 2007. They’ve survived injuries to key players, their opening day starter is now their closer. Bottom line, they’ve gone through umpteen levels of damnation and survived. They deserve every chance to see if they can go all the way in 2007.

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