The Phillies’ abyss of mediocrity

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PHILADELPHIA, PA – Every Phillies fan knew the club was tossing the 2016 season. The gaggle of anonymous talent they trotted out on opening day was disenchanting. In the middle of May, despite cellar dweller expectations, the Phillies had surprised even the most cynical fans with mediocre results. By June first, the Phillies were playing .500 baseball and a glimmer of hope set in. However, the haunting reality of a hodgepodge of players glued together by hope and a dream eroded that optimism. Aside from Maikel Franco, Aaron Nola, Jeremy Helickson and an exclusive coterie of other pitchers, everyone should be on the chopping block.

Odubal Herrara was an all-star this year for the sole fact that he was the best player on one of the worst teams. No one questions the energy El Torito injects into a lifeless lineup, but with a line of .286/15/49 he is struggling to be average. The corner outfield positions saw a rotating blend of anyone swinging a hot bat, and with several minor league players tabbed as elite, top 10 prospects in all of baseball, and a decent free agent outfield class, there’s no reason to hold on to below average outfielders.

Maikel Franco anchors the infield at third base and Freddy Galvis has been the post-Jimmy Rollins band aid for the past few years. Franco isn’t going anywhere. He has the skills to be an everyday, middle of the order type player and he still has time to develop. Although Glavis is shaping into a fan favorite and had a career year, .241/20/67 campaign, he is still a charity case rather than a lynchpin in the middle of the infield. I could see holding onto him as one of the longest tenured players on the team, but at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds it’s doubtful he’ll have another year like this one.

Ryan Howard bowed out after a hero’s ovation at the end of the season. It’s nice when a player with a cemented legacy in Phillies history steps away knowing he’s got nothing left to give – a classy move indeed. With Howard cleared from the roster and payroll, the front office could upgrade by signing Mitch Moreland. Outside of Moreland, the free agent infield class is limited, but infielders are one commodity the fightens have plenty of. JP Crawford is the number two prospect in all of baseball. He’s still young, but Ceaser Hernandez or Galvis can hold down the position until he’s ready. The place holders in the infield, Tommy Josef and Darrin Ruf can be traded. Ruf, whom has split time in the outfield and first base, won’t command much. Tommy Josef put together a decent season and as a former first-round pick of the Giants, might collect a fair return.

There are options behind the plate with AJ Ellis and Jorge Alfaro. Even though Cameron Rupp carried most of the responsibility this year, there isn’t much to write home about. The common philosophy with catchers is to trade offensive production for leadership skills. Rupp is short on both. AJ Ellis is a sufficient replacement with veteran qualities while Jorge Alfaro is the clear future franchise catcher. The Phillies should be able to re-sign Ellis and possibly grab another catcher on the free agent market since there is a wealth of catching talent available.

In 2016, the pitching staff was mercurial at best. There were times were Vinny Valasquez dazzled fans with an electric fastball and bulldog mentality, but the magic fizzled out and ended with an ERA north of 4 – Aaron Nola suffered similar results. Nola and Valasquez are still young, with Nola possessing the clear upside of the two. Further down in the rotation are Jeremy Helickson and Jerad Eickhoff whom turned in respectable seasons and have the potential to be strong middle of the rotation forces. Beyond those four arms there is a massive amount of calculus to be figured out. Hector Neris showed glimpses of greatness, but needs to be more consistent, while the rest of the staff posted a startlingly high ERA.

There are no more excuses for the Phillies to turn out an embarrassing product. The terms of the media deal they signed with Comcast Sports Net kicks in this year and they should have an arsenal of cash to spend. The farm system is replete with quality talent right at the cusp of breaking through to the big leagues, so there isn’t much to be given up by signing a few top-talent free agents to provide optimism for the fan-base while supplying some energy and veteran leadership in the clubhouse.

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Congratulations, Cleveland. You just lost the World Series.

By Matt Enuco

PHILADELPHIA, PA – The Cleveland Indians just punched their ticket to the fall classic with a 3-0 win over the Toronto Blue Jays. After the Champagne bubbles have gone flat, there will be a long wait leading up to the World Series, and with the Tribe riding such an epic hot streak, this down time could spell disaster.

Let’s look at the last decade. Only the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies won the fall classic after having more rest than their opponent. Six teams with more rest before game one of the World Series lost. The remaining three were toss ups with both teams clinching on the same day, or in the same amount of games.

In 2006, the Detroit Tigers lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals after having run through the divisional and championship series. 2007 was a similar story for the Colorado Rockies. After sweeping the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Boston Red Sox returned the favor after nine days of rest. The same story played out in 2009 for the Phillies, 2012 for the Tigers, 2014 for the Royals and the Mets in 2015.

This kiss of death can be broken down even further. In each of these years the losing team averaged six days off before the World Series, with the longest break for the aforementioned Rockies. With the first game of the 2016 series slated for October 25, the Indians fall just shy of the six-day benchmark. Even more compelling is the fact that, besides the All-Star break, the Indians didn’t have more than one day off between games all season. Perhaps they can defy the odds, but with such a young team riding a wave of momentum, long period of rest spell disaster..

Common baseball wisdom is that rest is good for a pitching staff, but toxic for hitters. In 2012, Detroit bounded through the playoffs so quickly that they had to play simulated games to try and keep arms loose and bats fresh. But as many players have intimated in the past, there is no substitute for the adrenaline of playing in a real game.

Even though Terry Francona has a penchant for lifting hexes, I’m not sure his magic touch can undo the fate awaiting the Cleveland Indians.

100% of the time, we make 50% of the people unhappy.

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March 5, 2014 – When I was a boy I loved to play baseball.  It didn’t matter whether I was playing a game, having a catch or swinging a bat; all of those activities sounded great to me.  I enjoyed the smell of my leather glove and the laces of the ball underneath my fingers.  In my impatient and energetic youth I wanted to play baseball, not watch it.

Before Major League Baseball instituted rate of play rules, the games used to trod along lulling most fans into a gentle slumber.  In an effort to make Major League Baseball palatable to new fans the commissioner’s office suggested batters stay in the box between pitches and pitchers deliver a pitch every twelve seconds.  As you might imagine, and if you’ve watched a game recently there haven’t been many delay of game calls.  The average length of game in June of 2013 was roughly two hours and fifty-five minutes according to a Boston Globe article.  With the new instant replay review rules instituted this year those rules will be undermined.

Interrupting the momentum of a game is nothing new to other sports.  NFL football games are made for TV events.  Attending one of these epic events is both tragic and comic.  The NBA is more akin to a rap concert than a sporting event.  There are five timeouts in each half and the last two minutes of the game take forty five minutes to play out.  In-between the intricate malaise of possession and timeouts the lights dim and a voice bellows from the rafters as a spotlight bounces around the arena to find an employee cuffing a microphone and chanting, “Yo, yo, yo we got Michael here about to shoot for his chance to win two free tickets to tomorrow nights’ game.  Make some nooiiissse!”

Baseball doesn’t have that; yet.  The acceptance and implementation of expanded replay on certain calls is Mephistopheles rapping on Faust’s door.

In 2008, the commissioner’s office approved the use of video replay for foul balls and homeruns.  In the past five years the system has worked fairly well.  Pauses have been innocuous and unnoticeable.  But, in 2014 managers will have the ability to challenge one play in the first six innings and three more in the final three innings.  If the manager successfully challenges a call in the first six innings he retains that challenge for the rest of the game.

Major League Baseball presumes the review process will only take one minute and fifteen seconds.  And if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge I want to sell you.  Besides the cynical notion of cramming more advertising revenue into broadcasts, taking time to review calls will grind down the pace of the game; essentially nullifying any improvements to rate of play.  The commissioner’s office adopted the review policies in the name of 100% accuracy on all calls.  However, an adroit article written by Gil Imber of Bleacherreport.com points out that umpires get the call right 99.5% of the time without video review.

Money makes the world go’round. In 2012, Major League Baseball signed agreements with ESPN, Fox and TBS that kick in this season.  MLB stands to earn $12 billion over eight years, doubling their annual media rights revenue to $1.5 billion.  The deal expands coverage to Latin American countries and culls a wider fan base allowing networks to promote access to consumers.  Combine greater coverage with more available ad space and the MLB and media networks have significantly increased revenue margins.

For example, add five minutes and thirty seconds of commercial breaks at an average cost of $400,000 per 30 second ad (price paid in 2009 for World Series ad slots) and the networks rake in an extra $4.4 million per game.  Let’s assume the average ad sales revenue for each regular season game is a quarter of that sum; $1.1 million.  Multiply that by twelve to fifteen separate games a day, control for differences in market value and ad slots and then extrapolate even further for increased international broadcasts and the money is rolling in.  There’s no way to lose in this deal.  MLB promotes its product and is paid handsomely for it, while the networks gain access on the front and back ends with copyright deals and ad revenues.  A romantic view of baseball is a luxury fans have.  On the inside of the iron gates baseball is a business.

Increasing profit margins doesn’t bother me as much as the damage to the game this will have.  Changing the rules to accommodate perfection in a game where we admire imperfection runs contrary to baseball’s ethos.  Journalists, authors and arm chair philosophers like to highlight that only in baseball can you fail seven times out of ten and be a hall of famer.

In my opinion, the pressure to assimilate comes from other sports and the few game changing mistakes.  On June 2, 2010 Armando Galarraga threw a twenty-eight out perfect game.  Umpire, Jim Joyce botched a call on the twenty seventh out stripping Galarraga of a career moment.  Instead, Galarraga will be remembered in trivia handbooks for generations.  And later, he turned his misfortune into a book coauthored by the antagonist, Jim Joyce.  However, the lesson here isn’t about baseball.  What should be taken away from this historic blunder is the grace of humanity.  Baseball was only the backdrop to a greater narrative that night and serves to remind all of us of our fallibility.

Finally, there are specific tactical advantages to the review rules.  Most alarming among them is using challenges as a surrogate for mound visits.  Coaches are given two trips to the mound before they have to replace the pitcher.  On the second trip the skipper has to pull the pitcher.  If managers can offer a live arm some relief by occupying time with frivolous challenges the complexion of the game can change very quickly.  Often overlooked, momentum is an enormous factor in managerial decision making.  Sometimes, pitching coaches take mound visits just to break up the other team’s momentum.  By offering challenges late in the game MLB has essentially given managers the ability to break momentum three additional times.

Above all, Umpires are in the unenviable position of making 100% of the fans unhappy 50% of the time.  Some may offer that video review will ease the pressure from their shoulders, but what happens to an umpire if they are on the receiving end of a slew of tough calls and they get it wrong?  Overpaid athletes have bad seasons too; why do we hold umpires to higher standards?  In Imber’s article he points out that even in bad games umpires still get 99.1% of the calls right.

As I grew older and learned the subtle nuances of baseball I fell deeper in love with our national pastime.  My short time in professional baseball was an edifying experience and one I’ll never forget.  In my retirement I enjoy participating in the myriad reminiscences with former teammates, rehashing the “good ol days.”  Every year removed from playing offers a new lesson in the game and I am completely punch-drunk in love with baseball.  Every winter, I jones for a game.  In the spring I come home from practice and immediately search for a Cactus League game on TV.  Since I don’t have the youthful spring in my step anymore, watching the human narrative unfold on a baseball field is my own personal heaven.

Spring to Fall

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​”Hey, you could have a real job,” Alan Regier suggested from his pitcher’s mound pulpit. I sat in the crowd of minor leaguers at my first spring training with the Chicago White Sox. Regier’s lesson sounded hollow when I thought back to thirty games in thirty days in the previous season. By the end of last season I had lost fifteen pounds, played through a pulled quadriceps muscle and suffered typical bumps and bruises on a daily basis. I’m not talking about thirty show and go’s, or batting practice at 5 pm game at 7 pm. I had the dubious honor of playing with true rookies. This meant report at 11:30 am, extra hitting at 12:30, weights at 1:30, orientation and stretch at 3, team defense at 3:45, batting practice at 4:30, find time for dinner at 5:30, starters stretch at 6:30 and play at 7. Rinse and repeat for sixty-eight games in seventy-five days. Most of us did this in pursuit of a once in a lifetime dream and a slim chance of success. But, make no mistake; I earned every cent of that $1,050 dollar a month salary. I sat underneath a scorching Arizona sun at 6:30 in the morning and dismissed his pedantic words of wisdom.
​Ozzie Guillen popped out from behind a fence when Regier finished and offered his words of encouragement. The energy he showed was infectious. He bounced around to illustrate every concept he wanted to express. There wasn’t anything lost with Guillen. He was going to drill home the basic baseball mantra; play hard, respect the game, respect the organization and never put your pants underneath your cleats. His passion fueled a dimming flame in me to play baseball. I was reminded that it was a gift to be here and they could find a thousand guys working in cube farms that would mortgage their future for the opportunity in front of us. Even still, it felt like work.

​Two weeks later I was on a plane heading back to New Jersey.

​As spring training report dates roll out and the players migrate to Florida and Arizona for a month I’m reminded of how lucky I was to have been there. After I decided to end my baseball career I searched for a “real job”. It took me three years to land my second career as a teacher. The entire process was more emotionally grueling than any practice or game. And since being hired I have learned what it means to have a “job” and go to “work”.
​For many of the athletes I met on my journey to professional baseball the skills came easy. At each level, from college to summer leagues and then professionally the weaker athletes washed out. At the top rung of this ladder are the athletic phenoms. I met the eighteen year old slugger who deposits balls in the upper deck during batting practice, the million dollar arm with a two cent head, the first round pick from LSU and the twenty-nine year old career minor leaguer. Even though I was a thirty-sixth round draft pick, we could all share the experience of being exceptional. We were exceptional.
​In college I often wondered what it was like to be a regular student. My teammates and I never knew what it was like to have two or three classes for the day, hammer out some homework and then have complete freedom in front of us. I had to plan a gym session in-between class and prepare myself for a six hour practice later that night. I complained about it then, but I would sell my soul for another shot.
​The reality that we came to was that we were different from most people. The kind of person it takes to be a collegiate or professional athlete is different from your average Joe. We practice, tweak and train. We scrutinize each part of the game ad nauseam. If you ever find yourself at a social gathering with guys who played college ball against or with each other they’ll break down a 2-1 change-up to the six hitter in the fifth inning of a three-run ball game. It seems insignificant, but to those guys it could have been the turning point in a season.
​All of this cathartic drivel I’ve just given you is the sum of what I once was. I used to be exceptional, but now I’m just a regular guy. And that has been the hardest lesson for me to learn, and most importantly accept. I’m not used to accepting mediocrity. I assess, revise, train, practice and improve. For me, accepting mediocrity is the equivalent of accepting failure.
When the Seahawks won the Super Bowl the media storyline was Russell Wilson’s “Why not us?” speech. I used to believe that and in some ways I still do. But living inside the mundane teacup twirl of life is humbling. So, to my friends who are still playing, cherish every at bat and soak up every moment sitting in the dugout. Alan Regier was right; you could have a real job. Your exceptionality will run out and probably sooner than you’re ready to admit. Only the exceptions to the exceptional get to choose when it’s over. Most of us are told when the magic well has dried up.

Bronson Arroyo agreed to terms with the Arizona Diamondbacks on a two year, $23.5 million deal yesterday. The agreement includes a club option for a third year.