The Phillies Offense Has A Glaring Weakness But It’s Not Age
During the offseason, jokes about the advanced age of the Phillies roster were as ubiquitous as loud middle schoolers on awkward group dates at your local movie theater. Did you hear the one about Ruben Amaro scouting a game at a retirement community?! Or the call he put in to Ron Reed while evaluating his bullpen options?! Well, I hope you got your jollies in while you had a chance, because the Phillies well-seasoned veterans are no laughing matter.
Since 1901, only two teams have had five position players age 34 or older qualify for the batting title. The 1985 California Angels did so with Bob Boone, Rod Carew, Brian Downing, Bobby Grich, and Reggie Jackson and in 1945 when younger players were busy fighting World War II, the Chicago White Sox pulled off the feat with Tony Cuccinello, Oris Hockett, Wally Moses, Roy Schalk and the man with the greatest name in baseball history, Johnny “Ugly” Dickshot. The Phillies’ quintet of Marlon Byrd, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz, and Chase Utley are currently on pace to join them, but Carlos Ruiz has never qualified for the batting title in his career, coming closest to the requisite 502 PAs with 472 in 2011. Needless to say, the chances the 2014 Phillies join this exclusive club are slim, but the point stands that depending heavily on position players in their mid- to late-30s is a risky and unconventional strategy.
The nature of risk is that sometimes it yields great rewards and so far this particular risk has paid off for Ruben Amaro, Jr. Of the 15 position players the Phillies have used this season, only seven have hit for a wRC+ above 100 (a wRC+ of 100 is exactly league average offensive production after adjusting for park and league). Included in those seven productive batters are all six of the Phillies elder statesmen batters: Utley, Ruiz, Howard, Rollins, Byrd and 36-year-old backup catcher, Wil Nieves.
After being the butt of jokes all winter long, Utley and Rollins currently look like bona fide All-Stars and Byrd and Ruiz are pushing their way into the All-Star conversation. Ryan Howard is performing about as well as can be expected for a slugger with no speed and extreme platoon splits and Nieves has been a pleasant surprise with the bat in an extremely small sample size.
Unfortunately for the Phillies, they’ve had to send nine other position players to the plate this season and despite their theoretical age advantage (they are all 31 or younger) they’ve ranged from almost exactly league average at the plate (Asche) to truly abysmal (sorry, Freddy).
This stark division of offensive statistics between age groups is primarily a meaningless bit of trivia, but it highlights a very real problem for the 2014 Phillies: depth. If early season statistics are any indication, it’s certainly conceivable the Phillies aging core has another run in them, but they don’t currently have the requisite supporting pieces to succeed. The ’07-’11 Phillies had a supporting cast that included starters such as Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, and Pat Burrell and productive bench pieces like Matt Stairs, Greg Dobbs, and even the 2011 version of John Mayberry, Jr. Unless Brown, Asche, Darin Ruf, or other complementary players literally step up to the plate and succeed, the Phillies unbalanced offense could be their Achilles’ heel.
Add into the mix the fact that the core’s current production has almost nowhere to go but down and it’s possible that the Phillies offense is currently in the midst of its best days. Despite the superlative performance of their star players, the Phillies rank 9th in the NL in both runs (137) and team wOBA (.306). If the current roster’s true talent is a middling offense, they’ll need Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and A.J. Burnett to be a truly dominant top of the rotation and a dramatically improved bullpen if they hope to stay relevant.
It’s not that the Phillies don’t have a path forward that keeps them competitive in 2014, it’s that they have one overflowing with unlikely qualifiers.