Breaking Down The Philadelphia Phillies’ Popgun Offense

The offense was the big question mark for the Philadelphia Phillies coming into the season and the first five games certainly haven’t quelled the fears. Even allowing their outburst for seven runs last night against Miami ace Josh Johnson, the Phils are still the worst in the NL East in runs scored and only superior to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League. Obviously it’s way too early to draw conclusions based on that number of games, but when the early returns match the incoming concern, it’s at least appropriate to sound the alarm bell. TheSportsNotebook breaks down the Phillies’ offense to see if there’s hope for revival or if the opening five games are just the beginning…

THE PRODUCERS: Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence—Whatever problems Philadelphia has can’t go at the feet of the centerfielder and rightfielder, and whatever credit the offense can get starts right here. With the exception of an off-year in 2010, Victorino consistently gets on-base to the tune of a .350-plus on-base percentage. And for a leadoff man he’s got a nice pop, being good for about 15 home runs a year and mid-.400s slugging percentage. Even though defense isn’t the scope of this article, he excels there as well. Victorino deserves to be in more MVP conversations than he generally is, and if this season goes like last, TheSportsNotebook will do its part to correct that deficiency. Pence has been a consistent power hitter since he came up with the Astros, and over the last three seasons has gone deep 72 times. The 28-year-old took a big step forward last year when he hit over .300 and became the complete offensive threat everyone’s waiting for. His age suggests that it was a legitimate breakout and not just a career year.

THE UP-AND-COMER: John Mayberry Jr—The son of a former Kansas City Royals first baseman (Mayberry Senior was part of the first great Kansas City teams from 1976-78 and played opposite the infield from Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett), Junior is now coming into his own. He got his first real taste of playing time and hit 15 home runs in just 267 at-bats. His batting average was .273, and the OBP was .341, a split that suggests a respectable level of plate discipline. The talent is there and the early track record is there. Now it’s just about seeing if Junior can do it all season long.

QUESTIONABLE VETERANS: Carlos Ruiz, Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco—There’s different levels of questions with each, and perhaps it’s unfair to include Ruiz in this group. He’s been good for a steady .350 OBP and for being a 33-year-old catcher is very durable. But that same fact makes him a vulnerable to a breakdown and his slugging percentage dipped sharply in 2011. He was never a home run hitter, but the ability to drive it in the alleys really came down.

If you use .350 as kind of a baseline for on-base percentage—and I do—that it’s going to strike you that Jimmy Rollins has never beaten that number in his career. Not in his MVP year of 2007 when the OBP was .344. Not a year later when he missed the arbitrary baseline by a point. Admittedly, if you change the baseline to .340, which is eminently reasonable, the picture looks a little different. Just as admittedly though, it does underscore that even at his absolute best, Rollins is far from an on-base machine and he’s been a long way from that for a few years now. His slugging percentages are also poor. And since I worked a plug in for Victorino’s defense, I’m going to pan Rollins—his range makes Derek Jeter look like Ozzie Smith by comparison. In short, “J-Ro” as the Phils fan affectionately call him, is vastly overrated.

Polanco’s numbers are mediocre. Over a three-year period, the OBP is in the .330s, and an already shaking slugging percentage dipped twenty points last year. The one thing Polanco always had was a seeming ability to get hot when the rest of the team was cold, thereby making his numbers count for more. That’s a tough way to make a living though, especially at a corner infield spot where NL East rivals trot out offensive talent like Hanley Ramirez and Ryan Zimmerman.

THE REPLACEMENTS: Ty Wigginton, Freddy Galvis—At first base and second base respectively, they are keeping the seat warm until Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are healthy. Wigginton hasn’t had a good year since 2008, with OBPs in the low .300s and slugging in the low .400s ever since. He is a good roster addition—he can play third base as well as first, and given that he’s not the planned starter, he’s about as good as you can expect from a backup with the bat. Galvis is a 22-year-old kid, a whiz with the glove, but even in the minors wasn’t seen as a hitter. I love that the Phils gave him a crack at the job, rather than trotting out a tired journeyman like Pete Orr. If nothing else, Galvis will give them defense and maybe he can grow with the bat. But for the short-term evaluation of the Phillie offense, he is an undeniable liability.

THE RESCUERS: Okay, Philadelphia fans are saying. We admit we’ve got problems, but it’s misleading to evaluate the offense without Utley and Howard.  First off, Howard isn’t due back until at least early May, and those are the same optimistic reports that told us Utley would be back about now, when instead he’s still rehabbing. So at the very least, the Phils are going to play a substantial chunk of baseball without these two. But even when they do come back, consider this—both Utley and Howard have seen each seen their OBP and slugging percentage decline every year for three consecutive seasons. Utley is 33 years old. Howard is 32. Are we supposed to believe that consistent of a decline is a coincidence. Are we supposed to feel incredibly optimistic that they’ll magically come back from injury and reverse those numbers?

If you want to tell me the Phils’ offense will be better because the two stars will replace Wigginton and Galvis, I’ll buy that. If you want me to think that it’s going to be some transformational moment, lifting them from the dregs of NL offenses to the upper half, I’m not buying. Even giving this lineup every benefit of the doubt—and we haven’t discussed the advantage it is to hit in Citizen’s Bank Park, this is a below-average offensive team.