General Isaac Trimble and Kyle Kendrick

While watching Kyle Kendrick come in with a two-run lead and go walk-double-double-hit-by-pitch against a Mets lineup reminiscent of….you know what, I’m not even going to bother.

But we witnessed Kyle Kendrick, the Michael Bay of Phillies pitchers (keeps getting work without really ever having done anything substantively good, his appearance attended by explosions and disaster, and makes a lot of money), hitting Lucas Duda with a pitch to force in a run in a situation with a 4.30 leverage index (he posted a -0.66 WPA tonight, btw, the worst mark by a Phillies reliever since Ryan Madson blew a four-run lead in the ninth inning against the Nationals on August 19 of last year). Kendrick stood on the mound with the comportment of a man who’d like nothing more than to dig a hole in the infield and escape through the catacombs.

And yet Charlie Manuel sent him out for a second inning. Then replaced him with Jose Contreras, who hasn’t been effective in two years, and the runs continued to pour in.

I was reminded of this iconic scene from the 1993 movie Gettysburg, where a commander’s inaction eventually costs his side the battle.

Now, Charlie Manuel probably had a good reason to leave Kendrick in, but nevertheless, I’ve rewritten that scene in honor of tonight’s events.

Gen. Ruben Amaro, Jr.: General Lee.
Maj. Gen. Cliff Lee: Sir, I most respectfully request another assignment.
Amaro: Do please go on, General.
Lee: The man is a disgrace! Sir, have you been listening at all to… to what the aides have been telling you? Ask General Halladay or General Blanton. Ask them. We could’ve taken that game! God in His wisdom knows we *should’ve* taken it! There was no one there, no there at all, and it commanded the series.
[he sighs] Lee: General Manuel saw it. I mean, he was with us! Me and Halladay and Blanton, all standing there in the dark like fat, great idiots with that bloody damned bullpen empty!
[he stops] Lee: I beg your pardon, General.
[Amaro nods] Lee: That bloody damned bullpen was empty as his bloody damned head! We all saw it, as God is my witness! We were all there. I said to him, “General Manuel, we have *got* to take that game.” General Bowa would not have stopped like this, with the Mets on the run and there was plenty of light left on a game like that! Well, God help us, I… I don’t know wh… I don’t know why I…
[he stops] Amaro: Do please continue, General.
Lee: Yes, sir. Sir… I said to him, General Manuel, these words. I said to him, “Sir, give me one Papelbon and I will take that game.” And he said nothing. He just stood there, he stared at me. I said, “General Manuel, give me one Qualls and I will take that hill.” I was becoming disturbed, sir. And General Manuel put his arms behind him and blinked. So I said, General, give me one *Bastardo* and I will take that hill.” And he said *nothing*! He just stood there! I threw down my glove, down on the ground in front of him!
[he stops and regains his composure] Lee: We… we could’ve done it, sir. A blind man should’ve seen it. Now they’re working up there. You can hear the axes of the Met troops. And so in the morning… many a good boy will die… taking that game.

 

Post Title Redacted

We asked for Jonathan Papelbon in a non-save situation, and we got him. And instead of his usual excellence, we get a loss, courtesy of the first major league home run of the heroically named Jordany Valdespin. In light of our collective recent griping about how Charlie Manuel’s refusal to use his best reliever in the biggest situations, I think some comment on the issue is appropriate. I toyed with writing a serious response, some sort of reassurance that having Papelbon pitch was the right move, regardless of the result. But that would just come off as overly defensive.

I also thought about writing a sarcastic, OH YOU GUYS WERE RIGHT ALL ALONG response, dealing with a gut punch loss in best Crashburn tradition: with imperious sarcasm.

In the end, I’m just going to post the FanGraphs win probability chart (-.468 WPA for Sentimental Johnny, by the way):

And this GIF, which accurately captures the effect of that Valdespin homer on our collective psyche:

Strength through unity, unity through faith. And, as always, England prevails.

Phillies Fans PSA: Stop It

The Nats’ efforts to bolster fan attendance in the run up to this weekend’s first home series against the Phillies have been well-documented. It began in February, when the presale for individual game tickets was restricted to D.C., Maryland, and Virginia addresses only, and when COO Andy Feffer, along with other team officials, urged Nationals fans to “take back the park.” The notion has become a bit of a rallying cry for a team that could be entering a new era of competitiveness, one which may even have arrived earlier than anyone expected. Feffer and the team have offered further enticements, such as free tickets to future games with the purchase of tickets to this series. Mayor Vincent Gray gave the whole thing an official sheen by declaring this weekend “Natitude Weekend” and encouraging the locals to “show support of their hometown team.” It will likely not succeed to the extent that the organization is hoping, although they do claim some improvement in the proportion of in-area ticket sales so far.

Depressingly, and predictably, the reaction from Phillies fans and media has been equal parts bitter and condescending. By and large, the Twittersphere has been issuing a collective snort at the whole thing since it first arose. Noted perverted half-wit and habitual plagiarist Kyle Scott of the e-rag Crossing Broad has tweeted and posted endless whining on the topic, and has devoted whole posts to “The Takeover,” a 200 person bus trip (for a mere $120!) that will instantly become the most obnoxious thing happening on the planet for every second of its sweaty, Bud-Light-Lime-soaked existence.

twitter.com/#!/CrossingBroad/status/197684664532606976

What a shock.

Ed Rendell, trying to cling to relevance, also got in on the act. Various Philadelphia media members, including baseball writers and radio personalities (mostly on the Angelo Cataldi tier of the Insufferability Spectrum) have otherwise mocked or chided the Nats’ efforts. Superficially, the tone is haughty amusement, but there is a discernible undercurrent of surprise and indignation — how dare they. Universally, these responses lack any measure of self-awareness and pay no mind to present or historical context.

I’ve lived full-time in the Washington, D.C. area since 2005, and have attended a great many Nationals games. Both in the RFK days and since the new stadium was built, I’ve made a point of going to every Nationals/Phillies game that my schedule could feasibly accomodate, and many other Nationals home contests when the weather was fair and I hankered for live baseball. I had the pleasure of watching Ryan Zimmerman come into his own, Elijah Dukes doing . . . Elijah Dukes stuff, and Adam Dunn hitting the longest of long flies. I vividly remember, on a humid September night at RFK stadium in 2007, watching the Phillies beat the Nationals 7-6 on the strength of a Jimmy Rollins double, and then huddling around a friend’s blackberry as the crowd dispersed, tracking the Marlins’ 4 run comeback against the Mets in the 9th and 10th innings in Miami. The Phillies pulled within 1.5 games of the Mets that night, in a pennant race that inaugurated a new era of Phillies baseball.

After the new stadium was built, the atmosphere at Phillies/Nats games grew more adversarial, as Phillies fans realized that, in the numbers in which they traveled, and the numbers they already had in the DC area, they could create a home away from home — “CBP South,” as it came to be called by many. I can’t say that I didn’t get swept up in it, at least a little bit. It’s gratifying to see your team’s fans showing substantial support away from home, especially after many years of the Phillies being irrelevant to the NL East and to the league as a whole. But I had grown to like the Nationals as a team, along with their new, easily-accessible and cheap-to-attend stadium, and I found that, as the “CBP South” culture took hold, the atmosphere got uglier. It all came to an embarrassing head at the Nationals’ home opener in 2010, a Phillies game, where Phils fans again packed the stadium, bolstered by a few bus trips not unlike the one mentioned above. The Nationals’ Opening Day ceremony had all of the usual rituals. Except, as the Nationals’ roster was announced, and the players ran from the dugout to the first base line, Phillies fans chanted “SUCKS” after each name, and drowned out the music and announcements with booing in between.

They behaved similarly for the rest of the game. It was the most humiliated I ever remember feeling as a Phillies fan. Sitting next to me was a man in a weathered Nationals cap who had to be in his mid-70s, who regarded the whole thing with disbelief. I don’t know if he was a converted Orioles fan, a Senators fan from way back, or even an Expos fan, and it didn’t seem as if he wanted to talk about it to me, covered in Phillies gear from head to toe. I tried to make a show of how disgusted I was by the whole thing, but I don’t think I could’ve possibly done enough given what was happening. No future Phillies game at the park was quite as bad as that, but they weren’t that much better either.

This is the root of the “Our Park” movement by Nationals fans, and it’s disappointing that Phillies fans do not, or at least pretend not to, understand why it needs to happen. Fans of a team that have had as rough a go as the Nationals have since their inception need to pull as much enjoyment out of the little things as possible — individual player skills, fanfare, early-season hopes, and the simple joy of a ballpark atmosphere. To have the superior team’s fans flood the ballpark and make a big show of it — just because they can — momentarily ruins that experience. Nationals fans are no less fans of the game of baseball than Phillies fans (probably moreso, if we’re talking about the kind of people that make asses of themselves at Nationals Park), and they know — really, they know — that the Phillies have been the better team these last 7 years, that Citizens Bank is stuffed to the gills all of the time, and that Phillies fans are capable of operating a motor vehicle for two and a half hours on I-95 South. They know these things without a great red horde undertaking every effort to mock them in their own ballpark.

The natural rebuttal to this has been, roughly, “if they don’t like it, they should fill their own stadium.” And it’s true, the Nationals have struggled with attendance, finishing either 13th or 14th in the NL in each season since Nationals Park was built. But it’s easy for a Phillies fan to forget, nowadays, just how difficult it is to fill the stadium for a bad or even mediocre team. The Phillies had a similar run of attendance woes from 1997 to 2003, finishing 14th in attendance 4 times, 13th once, 12th once, and 10th once. True, these figures improved significantly when the Phillies got their new ballpark in 2004, but the team was getting better too; the Phillies averaged 77 wins per season from 1997-2003, and 86 wins per season from 2004-2006. I will happily watch a 100 loss Phillies team every day of the week, but it’s tough to blame fans for not filling the park to see some of the recent Nationals teams.

They did, of course, pack 40,315 people into the park for the June 8, 2010 debut of Stephen Strasburg, a preview of the future of their organization. I had the pleasure of attending, and the atmosphere rivaled any playoff game at Citizens’ Bank Park (particularly the most recent one I attended, game 5 of the 2011 NLDS, in which the crowd was conspicuously subdued). The crowd’s steady roar built with each strike, compounded by each time the radar gun showed triple digits, and the place exploded for each of Strasburg’s 14 strikeouts. Yes, Bryce Harper’s debut was not well-attended, but there is much less of a sense among Nationals fans and baseball fans as a whole that this was his true debut — he was placed on the roster with Ryan Zimmerman heading to the DL, and the consensus is that he’s not quite ready for the big leagues. If this 2012 Nationals team finishes on as high a level of competitiveness as they’re exhibiting now, I don’t think they’ll have any problem bringing people out in 2013.

I’m sure that this weekend, despite the Nationals’ efforts, is still going to be characterized by a dominant Phillies fan presence, and that ignoble bus trip will leave some kind of embarrassing mark on the whole thing. Nationals fandom and media may grow angrier, and that might escalate matters. But any Phillies fan who takes the smallest moment for some introspection should not be surprised or bothered by the Our Park movement. Because it is their park, and because Phillies fans remember what it’s like to see a nine guys who are probably going to lose take the field every day. The “Takeover” and all similar fan and media responses will only validate the rest of the country’s low opinion of the Philadelphia fandom. And, in case you haven’t checked the trendlines recently, the time to show grace in victory may be running out.

An Economic Theory of Sports Fandom

As sports fans, we really need to find out ways to have fun. Occasionally, it’s useful to feel anger or heartbreak at the results of a sporting event. The catharsis from watching, say, Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS can be momentarily agonizing but ultimately cleansing and rewarding, like getting out of bed to work out on a rainy day or taking a huge dump after a 12-hour car ride. But in general, if following sports makes you unhappy more than it makes you happy, you probably ought to stop.

I mean, being a sports fan is a completely optional undertaking that serves no purpose other than providing enjoyment and entertainment. Hundreds of millions of Americans opt out of fandom, and no one thinks any less of them, because deep down we understand that getting worked up (for better or for worse) over men you don’t know playing a game with a great deal of inherent randomness, the outcome of which is entirely outside your control. It’s only worth doing if, on balance, it does you good.

***

We haven’t had to think about that a whole lot, because the past few years have been really good for Phillies fans. When your team wins, it’s hard not to enjoy sports. But now we’re facing the possibility that the good times may not continue to roll for much longer. Of course, the Phillies are 7-7, four games out of first place , with more than 90 percent of the season to play. I’d hesitate to draw any conclusions about two weeks and change of baseball, other than the direction in which one is supposed to run the bases. So it’ s possible, even likely, that the Phillies will pick it up and make the playoffs again this season. In that case, this discussion can be tabled for a while longer.

But in the absence of continued and inexorable success, how do we derive enjoyment from sports? In my mind, it’s a communal thing–I have a lot of fun talking to my friends about baseball, and the Phillies in particular, and always have. And that’s a bigger draw than ever. I’ve always enjoyed discussing baseball with my dad, and a group of about half a dozen friends who gather religiously for major sporting events, but now, I’m involved in an ongoing, two-way conversation primarily about the Phillies with probably about 90 to 100 people on Twitter. These are relative strangers, for the most part–of my internet baseball friends, I’d say I’ve met ten percent in person more than once. Sports fandom creates and strengthens friendships–we trade ideas, jokes, and analysis, and generally everyone has a good time.

For me, at least, blogging is another check in the positive utility column–I get to combine the thing I like doing most (writing) with the thing I like thinking about most (baseball).

But those aren’t really specific to baseball. We can have friends outside of sports. What intrinsic value does baseball have if your team isn’t winning?

***

Remember the days of $7 upper-deck tickets at the Vet going unsold? You think people are flocking to Citizens Bank Park because the building is nicer? They’re turning out in droves because they’re more willing to plunk down $150 to take the family out to the ballpark when the Phillies are likely to win.

I went to all three games of a weekend series in Pittsburgh last June. When we arrived, the Pirates fans were sort of subdued and docile, good-naturedly tickled by the sight of a full PNC Park. But after the Pirates took the first two games of the series, the friendly, welcoming Pittsburghers disappeared, only to be replaced by a horde of rowdy, screaming, confrontational men and women, every inch as unaccommodating to interlopers as the national media thinks Philly fans are. Essentially, two wins in two days turned Pirates fans from extremely pleasant folk into Penguins and Steelers fans–arrogant, loud, pushy, and completely unconcerned with their image outside the city, as long as everyone knows how morally superior their teams are.

Not to single out Pittsburgh fans–every fan base has its jackasses, and just as I’d rather not be judged by those morons who beat up a Rangers fan after the Winter Classic, I don’t really believe all Pittsburghers are capable of hurling racist abuse at Wayne Simmonds over the internet. I only tell that story to illustrate what a profound effect winning can have on a fan’s psyche. Winning isn’t really everything, but it counts for a lot.

***

The key to understanding rational action is understanding an individual’s utility function. In any theory of behavior based on rational choice, we have to assume that an individual is going to do what he believes is best for him. Rational choice theories assume people act to maximize what is called utility, a catch-all measure of overall happiness or well-being, and figuring out what goes into that basket allows us to predict and evaluate behavior.

So a fan’s utility, we’ve established, is determined by the following:

  • W: How much the team wins (positive)
  • S: The strength of social bonds formed as a result of being part of a fan community (positive)
  • C: Cost of following the team in time and money (negative)
  • D: Disappointment over the team not living up to expectations (negative)

Therefore, if (W+S) > (C+D), it’s rational to be a sports fan. If not, you’re better off getting into decoupage or something. Overwhelmingly, the S function is so much bigger than the others that even fans of losing teams will still watch. This is borne out by the tendency of losing teams with huge fan bases and longstanding communal traditions (the Toronto Maple Leafs, Chicago Cubs, and Cleveland Browns, for instance) having large and ardent fan bases while teams with shallower roots (the Charlotte Bobcats and Columbus Blue Jackets) struggle to draw without being particularly less successful than their counterparts.

There’s got to be more than that, though. There’s a longstanding tradition in political science–and particularly in international relations, the discipline I come from–of explaining away irrational behavior by tinkering with the utility function until behavior becomes rational. We could stand to add a term or two.

***

If the Phillies got 86-76 and miss the playoffs this season, it won’t be as enjoyable as if they had done so in 2005 or so, because the team was perceived to be on the rise then, and such is not the case now, no matter how optimistic you might be about the 2012 vintage of the Phillies.

Hope for the future has to factor into the rationality of sports fandom somewhere. Fans of the Galactus of No. 1 overall picks, the Edmonton Oilers, are feeling this in hockey, as Penguins fans did coming out of the lockout. With the Kansas City Royals and Washington Nationals on the rise, their fans are in a good spot, perhaps with the hope of the division title promised in 2014 or 2015 might come a couple years early.

The good news for Phillies fans is that this trend of aging can’t go on forever. Even assuming the worst-case scenario for 2012–missing the playoffs, Utley and Howard irreparably damaged, and Cole Hamels leaving via free agency, by 2014, we’re going to see the end of some of those long-term, big-money contracts to aging veterans. That bottoming out may only take one or two years, and the Phillies will once again, by 2015 or so, be a team with a huge fan base, a top-5 media market, a nice stadium, more money than it knows what to do with, and a recent history of success–those sound like the building blocks of a contender to me. And even assuming the worst, that should happen in less time from now than has passed since the Phillies won the World Series.

Maybe the H term works for Phillies fans, because those of us who are panicking over the long view could probably stand to extend our view a little longer still. But is that enough to keep us from despairing if the Phillies have a real banana peel of a 2012?

***

I realized something during what will probably just be known as the Cain-Lee game. I should be beside myself that the Phillies got 10 shutout innings from their starter and still managed to lose. I should be killing hostages after the Phillies went out of their way to put a man at the top of the lineup who not only goes weeks bewteen walks and extra-base hits, but can’t even keep his feet in the batter’s box on a bunt. But I’m not. I’m finding all of this strangely enjoyable.

I alluded here to the idea that we watch sports not only because of an emotional attachment to the fortunes of a particular team, or to see a story play out, but something else.

When I was a freshman in college, I was walking with a friend from our dorm to the parking garage to get his car. On our way across the center of campus, we passed by three people: one wearing a panda costume playing soccer with a person in a mouse costume, with a third individual taking photographs. My friend turned to me and said, “I know this is a cliche, but I mean it this time: there’s something you don’t see every day.” From this we get the A term: aesthetics, and the final form of the economic theory of sports fandom:

It is rational to be a sports fan if: (W+S+H+A) > (C+D)

This is where the 2012 Phillies come good. Even if they completely hump the bunk, the Phillies are made up almost entirely of players with the potential to do something extraordinary. For Cole Hamels, Jonathan Papelbon, Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee, the potential is to be extraordinary, leading to games like Lee’s 10 shutout innings, or either one of Halladay’s no-hitters. The Phillies also have several players with the ability to turn outstanding plays on defense, most notably Placido Polanco and Freddy Galvis, who have been a delight to watch thus far this season.

But we’re used to watching great things. This team is unique in its ability to produce weirdness. We get Juan Pierre playing lawn darts with his throws from left field. We have the second iteration of the Cole Hamels vs. Cliff Lee home run derby, and Freddy Galvis trying to systematically solve his on-base crisis the way most of us would try to solve a Rubik’s Cube–systematically and over a very long period of time. We get this new, creative bit of strategy from Charlie Manuel, what with the bunting and reliever usage. Though in this case, Manuel is creative in the same way the Children’s Crusade was creative. Think about it–the worst team in the history of modern baseball was the 1962 Mets, and they’ve gone down in history as distinct and strangely compelling.

It’s only been 14 games, but so far, the Phillies have in most cases either 1) won the game or 2) lost in dramatic, entertaining, often absurd fashion. I’m not sure there’s much more we can ask, and that’s what I’m going to tell myself from now on when the Phillies lose.

To sum up, there’s no way 2012 isn’t going to be unbelievably entertaining. Either the Phillies are going to overcome their offensive impotence and stage another playoff run, or they’re going to fall short in hilarious and absurd fashion. We’re all rooting for the first scenario, but if the second comes to pass, there may come a time when maximizing the A term in the utility function is the best thing. Sit back and enjoy the absurdity, boys and girls, because if you do, there’s no possible way not to enjoy the Phillies.

What We Know: 10 Games In

There are no midseason awards at the 1/16th pole. No 10-game all-star lists or MVP and Cy Young Award frontrunners. No postseason locks or clear title favorites. In truth, 10 games can’t tell you most of what you want to know about any team, but just like every painting needs its first brush strokes, so too do the beginnings of a season’s art work take shape after the first decuple. Now, whether that final work is a flawless Mona Lisa – or a disheveled, chaotic Guernica - remains to be seen for all parties, but some trends, patterns and tendencies for the Phillies certainly seem to be emerging. Here’s a bit of what we know after 10 games.

Hamels has a good case for being the star of the show after two starts, with all due apologies afforded to Roy Halladay for simply being himself in the meantime. Cole’s 19 strikeouts are tied for the league lead (as of this writing) with the Mariners’ Felix Hernandez and the Padres’ Aaron Harang; plus, he’s got nine fewer innings pitched than King Felix. Pair that with the lone walk he’s allowed, and Hamels has the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of any pitcher with a calculable figure. To say he’s off to a hot start might be putting it lightly.

 

The key ingredient, as it’s always been, is that one-of-a-kind changeup. He’s generated 21 swings-and-misses on changeups alone so far, another league-leading total through games on Sunday. We’ll see more of this through the year – although I doubt he’ll nearly double the K/BB ratio record, but who am I to doubt? – and some may claim Hamels’s contract status as a motivator. Me? I’m just seeing more of the same.
  • The offense is the offense
I long for the days of yore, when dingers filled the air and the team posted a collective walk rate that wasn’t analogous to Jeff Francoeur. But this is how it is now. The Phillies are drawing walks at a five-year low rate, as Bill points out in the preceding post. Their aggression has awarded them a high team average, but a collective OBP and SLG (better ingredients for run scoring, as we know) that leaves the offense in the bottom tier. We all sort of figured it was going to be like this, but the figures still don’t fail to stun: a .258/.296/.343 team line, fewer homers than Matt Kemp and negligible production from four spots in the lineup.

 

In better news, Hunter Pence, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino are off to nice starts, while Carlos Ruiz continues to stay inexplicably mired in the lower third of the order with an occasional appearance at six. Look, I get it, he’s not a great runner, but this team needs runs and needs ducks on the pond ahead of the guys who are actually producing. Batting Victorino lead-off is wasteful of his production, and batting Polanco second continues to be a waste of Pence and Jimmy Rollins’s production. Unless something changes big-time with Polanco (there’s little to believe something will), the lineup needs a legitimate shake-up, not just a flip-flopping of Jimmy Rollins between one and three.
Perhaps it’s too early to say that the John Mayberry Jr. honeymoon is over, as no 10-game sample is conclusive. In truth, my feeling that Brown will be back in the Bigs before June is old (or perhaps even born) is based less on Mayberry and more on a prediction of general necessity. I’m not about to suggest Brown will be named the LF starter immediately upon his recall, because I’m not about to dole out that much credit. He’s likely to either be a bench bat or a platoon player, barring injury. That’s just how it’s going to be when he’s up; we’ve got the precedent for that. But while Brown’s defense continues to draw (deserved) ire, the bat he possesses will simply look too appetizing to pass up when this team’s offensive struggles persist. And they will persist.

 

What’s more, John Mayberry Jr. isn’t off to a great start, and we all know how damning it can be to be slow out of the gate as an “unproven” player on this club. What’s interesting about Mayberry is that his approach has deteriorated a bit from 2011. Last year, Mayberry chased 28.1 percent of pitches he saw out of the strike zone (give or take a couple percentage points for Pitch f/x variation), but through the first 10 games and 111 pitches seen, Mayberry’s chased 44.4 percent of those OOZ pitches. Pitchers seem to be playing off his tendency to look for pitches over the outer half, but keeping it far enough away to not be a competitive pitch.

I <3 Papelbees

As the self-proclaimed id of this site, a lot of what I like to write about involves the emotional experience of sports fandom, particularly Phillies fandom. But the tricky thing about writing for a team-specific site is that writing about what it’s like to be a Phillies fan is often pointless. I figure most of you folks are Phillies fans anyway, so there’s not a whole lot to say about the general fan experience that y’all don’t know anyway.

But individual players, however–that’s another story. I’ve always been troubled by the idea that we don’t get to choose the individual players we root for. I mean, we do, to a certain extent. But we root for laundry, and when we’re relieved of a beloved player, it hurts.

Or, more confusingly, when we have a pariah thrust into our midst. I was never that big a Jonathan Papelbon fan. Well, I guess I respected him all along–apart from a little blip in 2010 he’s never been anything other than a great relief pitcher. But I hated his stupid gassy stare that broadcasters seemed to be convinced was intimidating. I hated the almost Trachselian delay between pitches. I hated him for being one of the New Wave Red Sox, that latest group, with Lester, Beckett, Pedroia, and a whining, screaming, legion of folks with obnoxious accents and pink hats.

Around 2006 or so, the Red Sox went from being the lovable, long-suffering Anti-Yankees to being something almost worse–a team with the arrogance and success of the Yankees but lacking the self-awareness that makes the Bronx Bombers what they are. When people hate the Yankees, the Yankees and their fans seem to be aware that they are successful, pretentious, and smug in the extreme, and there’s a tacit acknowledgement among the Pinstriped Army that such qualities come with the danger of being resented by the Great Unwashed. Now bring the car ’round, Jeeves.

But with the Red Sox, it’s different. After 80 years of being the hard-luck underdog, the Martin Freeman character as it were, they suddenly became just as successful and just as obnoxious as the Yankees. Then Hollywood collectively decided to blacklist any director who dared set his movie outside of South Boston. Theo Epstein, the role model for a generation of teenaged nerds who suddenly saw the fruits of intelligence and unconventional thinking in baseball (including me) started getting weird. Now there’s panic fit for Chicken Little when the Sox miss the playoffs. We rend our garments at the degradation of the moral fiber of the clubhouse with (gasp) beer and fried chicken. (Which, to be honest, sounds like every meal I ate in four years of college, but whatever.)

And for some reason, with the oppressive success, the resources of a middling petrostate and the fawning, sycophantic adoration of the national media, the Red Sox and their fans tried to cling to that conception of the self that made them more of America’s team than the Yankees ever were. And when they were no longer the second-favorite team of the majority of baseball fans, they seemed not to get it. Rather than adopt the Yankees’ admirable, if somewhat punchable, mantra of “Yeah, we think we’re better than you, come prove us wrong,” the Red Sox acted like the friend who borrowed money from you, slept with your wife, and then pretended nothing was wrong.

And apart from Dustin Pedroia, no one embodied that mentality, at least for me, more than Jonathan Papelbon.

Sorry for getting ranty there. Feel free to disagree with all that–I don’t care. I just wanted to impress on you how much I came to hate Jonathan Papelbon. And now I have to root for him.

It’s not that often that I experience the tension between name-on-front and name-on-back. Of course, there are players who I hate watching because they’re bad. But carrying cross-team emotional baggage is a different animal.

It can be good, at times. The Flyers, over the past two or three years, have acquired several players I’ve admired from afar–Chris Pronger, Kris Versteeg, Jakub Voracek, and so on. But it can work the other way, too. I’ve just now reconciled the complicated emotions surrounding Max Talbot. And while we’re at it, I find it hilarious that the Flyers have an aversion to using a player’s full name if it’s 1) of French origin and 2) vaguely effeminate. Max Talbot was “Maxime” for years, and Danny Briere was “Daniel” (pronounced Dan-YELL), but both names were truncated upon their arrival in Philadelphia. They’re French-Canadian, folks. Get over it.

I’ve gone through this emotional transformation before. In the 2010 Olympics, Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik made the American hockey team, and I had trouble rooting for the USA in those Olympics because Orpik had made a career of being chippy, whiny, and dirty. He was like the girl in your second grade class who would pinch herself until she cried, then tell the teacher you did it. I almost couldn’t cheer on the Americans with Orpik on the team. In short, I hate Brooks Orpik more than I love my country.

Anyway, the way it’s worked for me most of the time is that a player I loved in college goes to a team I hate in the pros, but mostly in football. I despised Eagles receiver Riley Cooper in college. His Florida Gators beat the tar out of my South Carolina Gamecocks year after year. I wanted to dump all that hate on Tim Tebow, but he seemed so earnest that it was tough to work up a solid lather. I also don’t find his showy religiosity as off-putting as others seem to, so screaming the foulest and most graphic obscenities I could think of from the student section at Williams-Brice Stadium (which I did the night he scored seven touchdowns to ice the Heisman) just seemed phony to me.

Riley Cooper, on the other hand, acted the way I wanted Tebow to act. He was cocky, and brash, and flung his long hair around when he took his helmet off. He comported himself on the field and on the sidelines like nothing more than the world’s biggest asshole, and I hated him. He was despicable in the way I wanted Tebow to be, and when the Eagles drafted him to be a role player, I was despondent.

But in baseball, that’s not so common, if only because my college baseball fandom isn’t old enough for it to bother me that Joe Blanton went to Kentucky, or Cliff Lee went to Arkansas, or even that Papelbon went to Mississippi State. But seeing Papelbon wrapped up in that obnoxious Red Sox flag for so long has made it tough to get used to him. It’s almost as if Papelbon’s arrival is another indicator that we Phillies fans are becoming like the Boston and New York fans we’ve so long reviled–whiny, self-entitled, and talking funny.

While the addition of Roy Halladay to the Phillies’ roster was really weird but primarily really awesome, Papelbon’s arrival just seems strange. It’s not the contract, which is bad, but it’s no reason to hate Papelbon himself. It’s the feeling that he doesn’t belong to us that I either never got or didn’t get as strongly about Halladay and Toronto. Halladay’s Blue Jays were just sort of vanilla–a largely unspectacular team of unspectacular players who went 81-81 every year and stayed out of the news unless the Yankees were in town. But the Red Sox, 2005-2011, were nothing if not spectacular. When they won, it was fascinating, and when they lost, it was even more so. Love them or hate them, everyone had an opinion. And Papelbon is those Red Sox teams.

Don’t panic–I’m learning to love Jonathan Papelbon. It’s just taking a while. It probably doesn’t help that because of the vagaries of the schedule so far, I haven’t been able to actually watch Papelbon pitch in a regular-season game for the Phillies. Maybe that will help. But he doesn’t feel like he belongs to us, and like all major changes, that takes time.

As much as I hated Papelbon last fall, I know that in time I’ll come to accept him as one of our own, and cheer his accomplishments without having to stop and think about it first. Sometime in July, he’ll strike out the side to close out a 3-2 win, and I’ll have forgotten all about the awkward transition and historical revision that went on this spring. War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. And I love Jonathan Papelbon.

The Bat

We knew Pat Burrell was retiring, but today we learned the circumstances under which he’d make it official. Burrell, in a move more about nostalgia than anything else, will sign a one-day minor league deal to retire with the Phillies.

Burrell is, in addition to being the Phillies’ first $50 million player, and the only player the Phillies ever drafted No. 1 overall, was the first piece to fall into place on the road from the Terry Francona Era to the World Series title. On a personal note, Burrell is the first Phillies player whose entire career I followed, from draft to retirement.

And what a career.

The Bat is currently fourth on the Phillies’ all-time list in home runs, fifth in walks, and, since integration and with a minimum of 3,000 plate appearances, tenth in OBP and eighth in slugging percentage. Burrell slugged at least .500 in each of his last four seasons in Philadelphia, hit 30 home runs four times, and was the top right-handed power threat on the Phillies between Scott Rolen and Jayson Werth.

And yet we never seemed to appreciate him until the end. Burrell was, in the finest tradition of his contemporaries Donovan McNabb and Bobby Abreu, the object of ridicule for Phillies fans. This feeling, I think, has two causes: first, for whatever reason, when a team isn’t any good, the blame tends to go to the best players. I’m not sure why, but Burrell and Abreu, as well as McNabb and Andre Iguodala later, were all very good players, but the general public heaped blame on them for being merely good, and not the world-beating, ubermenschen  they’d need to have been to make a contender out of the teams with which they were surrounded. Turn Desi Relaford or Greg Buckner or Todd Pinkston into a championship sidekick? That’s telekinesis, Kyle.

The second reason for Burrell’s rough start (apart from that .203/.309/.404 line in 2003, which was never really properly explained or forgotten) is the relative lack of understanding at the time about sabermetrics. Burrell walked a ton–114 times in 2007 alone–and hit more than his share of doubles and home runs, but was slow, dreadful in the field, and never hit for a high average. It never looked like Burrell was giving anything less than his best effort in the field, but he was trying hard in much the same way I try hard to get the projection screen in my classroom to go up and down reliably. First, the results are never good and, second, it’s impossible to try without looking like an absolute idiot.

But that’s neither here nor there. Eventually, we came to appreciate the value of Burrell’s walks and power, in spite of his being one of the slowest players of his or any generation, and in spite of his striking out with more verve and panache than any Phillies player in recent memory.

Also, he made Jeff Carter look like Albert Brooks.

So I’m looking forward to May 19, as I imagine the rest of you are, so we can pay our respects to one of the most unique and important players in recent Phillies history. Vaya con dios, The Bat. If there’s any doubt that we love you back, just remember–no one shed a tear for Adam Eaton.

Intellectual Integrity and Good Glove, No Hit

I’m not sure I’d ever hated a Phillies player before Wilson Valdez. I’d been frustrated with Mitch Williams, and with Mike Williams, David West, and others over my nearly 20 years as a Phillies fan, but Wilson Valdez was an emotional stimulus unlike any I’d ever experienced. I guess I didn’t hate him, per se. I have a friend who talks about loving an athlete’s “game.” I never really understood what he meant until I started to experience that feeling for myself. There are athletes whose “games” I love–the physical bearing, the individual skills, the style of play. I love Robin van Persie’s game. And Mike Richards’ game. And Jimmy Rollins‘ game.

I hate Wilson Valdez’s game. Exxon is a double play machine, a hitter whose batted ball profile looks like a flight plan for a stealth bomber–low, fast, and leaving nuclear annihilation in its wake. With men on base, the Phillies would have almost literally been better off sending him to the plate without a bat. Maybe a fish wrapped in newspaper. Or a frying pan. Maybe they’d have been better off sending a fish wrapped in newspaper to the plate with the bat, thus taking Exxon out of the equation entirely.

As if being a total offensive zero wasn’t enough, Exxon was a useful, but average defender. You can get away with being a bad offensive player by playing great defense. Omar Vizquel, for instance, is and was a bad offensive player, but his fantastic defense has some (misguided) people arguing for his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. Exxon is not Omar Vizquel. It’s not as if his glove was any excuse for his complete lack of offensive production. But no, Valdez is flashy. He has a strong arm, which was awesome once, but otherwise caused him to be overrated by Phillies fans to the point where he made J.A. Happ  look like Donovan McNabb.

And that, I think, is where the Valdez hatred comes from. It’s not so much that he was bad, I was just sick of hearing people telling me that he wasn’t. All major league teams, even good ones, have players who just stink on ice, but when everyone thinks he’s good, it’s frustrating. Forgive me for telling this story again, but when someone tells you he’d rather have a player with a career .290 OBP and an unbreakable habit of grounding into double plays at the plate with men on and the game on the line, rather than Jayson Werth, who was in the midst of the best offensive season by a Phillies outfielder since Lenny Dykstra finished second in the MVP race in 1993…well, you’d slam your glass on the table and unleash a string of obscenities at the top of your lungs too.

I’m happy beyond belief that the Phillies cashiered Wilson Valdez, even though they’ve replaced him with a player, in Freddy Galvis, who will likely be worse offensively. And I’m probably more excited about Galvis than any other Phillies player this season. A group of smart, well-meaning people have tried, unsuccessfully, to train me as a social scientist, but one thing I have learned is not to fudge findings to support a predetermined narrative or set of beliefs.

Which is why I’m trying to refrain from drawing conclusions of any kind about four games. But that’s neither here nor there. But Exxon was a replacement-level player, and I’d have cursed him and his stupid goatee with my dying breath, even if he’d cured cancer and my parents adopted him. Freddy Galvis, this season, will probably be a replacement-level player and I’d let him marry my hypothetical daughter. Where’s the consistency? Where’s my intellectual integrity?

Part of it is that Galvis is as good defensively as everyone seemed to think Valdez was. His glove has always graded out as top-notch, even at shortstop. I think we overuse the adjective “catlike” to describe athletes. Anyone who’s even moderately quick and agile is described as catlike, when perhaps another word would avoid overselling the quick-twitch explosiveness and body control that many athletes are said to possess but do not.

Freddy Galvis actually does move like a cat. He’s always in the right spot, moves with alacrity and grace in spite of having an extremely oddly-proportioned body, and fields the ball with confidence. Watching him on the same infield as Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco, even after only a couple of games, has been spectacular.

With the bat, he’s not so solid. He’s probably going to ground into a ton of double plays, and he’s displayed neither patience nor power. He seems to be aware of his limitations as a player, which is encouraging, and with time, he could become merely bad, his RBI double this afternoon notwithstanding. If Galvis were even an average hitter, we’d be talking about him the way Rangers fans talk about Jurickson Profar. But the glove is so good, I’m inclined, perhaps irrationally, to be very patient with his offense.

Drew Fairservice offered another explanation on the Getting Blanked podcast on Opening Day. (Here’s the link. Fast-forward to around the 7-minute mark). I apologize for the language–he’s Canadian.

“I think in a lot of ways, we’re kind of getting what we’ve been asking for for years, in terms of: no one likes seeing shitbags and retreads, and guys who have been bouncing around on the fringes of the league…Now we’re getting kids in a lot of ways. So does that make us feel better, because we don’t know if they suck…is it more about that–is it just that we don’t know how crappy they are? Or is it that there’s that much more potential for them not to be crappy?”

Fairservice, I think, gets it exactly right. Though he was talking about the rejuvenated Toronto Blue Jays, most fans must feel similarly about “shitbags and retreads,” as he so artfully puts it. The Phillies, from 2000 to 2005 or so called on one of the best crops of young players assembled in a generation, but after the World Series title, most of the team’s holes have been filled by shitbags and retreads rather than youngsters. Contreras, Baez, and Qualls over De Fratus, Aumont, and Schwimer. Nix, Pierre and Podsednik over Brown.

The best of the Phillies’ farm system remains in Lehigh Valley–or Toronto or Houston, though I’m not sure how many of those trades I’d undo–while the major league roster and starting lineup are peopled by players who have never been good, are not good now, and will almost certainly never become good in the future.

Except for Galvis.

He could, in time, become less crappy. This 22-year-old middle infielder who can’t hit a lick is the new blue blood and the great white hope. Particularly since the Phillies have spent the offseason building an oubliette for Domonic Brown to live in for the rest of his natural life.

So it’s one of two things: either Galvis is leaps and bounds better than Exxon with the glove, or his youth is exciting to the point where I’m willing to overlook his flaws. If it’s neither of those things, then you can have my intellectual integrity. I’m driving the train to Galviston. And this train is bound for glory.

Victory or Death

Writer’s note: This post is kind of backwards. If you want the point, skip to the last break and start there. If you want to know how I got to that point, read the whole thing.

This has been a rough offseason for Phillies fans. We’ve been put through another year of crushing playoff disappointment, for starters. And considering the astronomical expectations going into the playoffs, the smug, cheeky punchability of the St. Louis Cardinals, and the most crushing final visual of any season I can remember (Ryan Howard on the ground, in the fetal position a few feet up the first base line), I’d say that the playoff disappointment of 2011 was more crushing than any in recent memory.

Where spring brings hope for most baseball teams, spring brings to Philadelphia a new (and excellent) closer, whose lunatic contract may cost the Phillies Cole Hamels or a free-agent bat (David Wright?) in the offseason. And speaking of lunatic contracts, Ryan Howard starts his fielding ground balls from a stool.

Whatever, though, Howard (when healthy) and Papelbon are both pretty good, even if they’re both being paid way too much.

But 12 months have offered no comfort of any kind on two of the most important storylines for the Phillies this season: Chase Utley‘s rapidly degenerating joints and the never-ending purgatory that is Domonic Brown‘s ascent from the top prospect in the minor leagues to…well, whatever he is now.

I truly believe this is the last year of the Phillies’ “window,” such as it is, unless there is a major institutional change on the horizon. By this time next year, the Braves, Marlins, and (perhaps) Nationals will have reeled in the Phillies, and the overwhelming advantage in the division that we’ve taken for granted for the past four years will be gone. This makes me sad, because, to paraphrase Orson Scott Card, I don’t like competitive imbalance in baseball, unless it means my team wins all the time.

But it also makes me unspeakably angry, because the current front office management in Philadelphia has built, barring the Bobby Cox Braves, one of the most consistently excellent National League teams in recent memory. They did so by building a core of homegrown talent in the early-to-mid 2000s (Utley, Howard, Madson, Hamels, Rollins, Burrell, Myers) with which it’s difficult not to contend, then aggressively pursuing top-level parts to complement the homegrown core (Halladay, Lee, Blanton, Oswalt, Lidge, Pence) and hitting the jackpot with a couple of scrap heap pickups (Moyer, Werth, Victorino).

But yeah, you all know that. But we’re teetering on the edge of collapse. The Phillies are a gerontocracy, one more Laynce Nix or Ty Wigginton in the lineup from ruin on a Roman scale. How a team could build an empire on the basis of shrewd scouting and bold pursuit of the best talent in the game, then abandon that strategy when it would pay off most confounds me. I feel betrayed. Incensed. There’s a constant low boil of anger at Ruben Amaro in the pit of my stomach. And we haven’t even played a meaningful game this season.

***

I spent seven weeks on a study abroad program in May, June, and July 2008, and as a side effect of not having Comcast in Brussels, Belgium, I didn’t watch a minute of baseball while I was there. I immersed myself in soccer, watching (this is not an exaggeration) 23 of the 31 matches of Euro 2008 with Dutch commentary from my apartment and various pubs, bars, and restaurants across Western Europe.

So when I came back home, baseball was weird to me. I knew the Phillies were pretty decent in 2008, and that they’d bet relatively big on Brad Lidge‘s return to full physical and mental health. But having missed most of the season, I sat down to watch the 2008 All-Star Game knowing relatively little about what had transpired when I was in Europe.

I kept up my tradition that summer of keeping score at home while watching on TV, perhaps the nerdiest thing I’ve ever done. Scoring the All-Star Game presents an interesting set of challenges–while it’s unusual for a regular-season game to see more than five or six substitutions (unless it’s being managed by Tony La Russa), both All-Star teams carry about 30 players and try to use all of them. Your score sheet fills up really quickly, particularly if the game goes 15 innings. But we’ll get to that later.

On the night of the game, Phillies second baseman Chase Utley was the subject of quite a bit of buzz after he’d had the defining moment of his career in the Home Run Derby. But that changed after Utley singled in the top of the sixth, moving Hanley Ramirez to third. A sacrifice fly by Lance Berkman plated Ramirez, giving the National League a 2-0 lead going into the bottom of the sixth. Utley, after being stranded on second, was lifted for then-Florida Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla.

Uggla was playing in his second All-Star game, and fulfilling his father’s lifelong dream by playing in Yankee Stadium. In the bottom of the sixth, he fielded a pop fly cleanly and wasn’t heard from again until he struck out against Jonathan Papelbon in the eighth. In the meantime, J.D. Drew had tied the game with a home run off Edinson Volquez. The first batter after Uggla, Adrian Gonzalez, watched Miguel Tejada steal second and advance to third on a throwing error. Gonzalez then put the National League back on top with a sacrifice fly. Billy Wagner gave the run back in the bottom of the inning.

If you remember the game, you know where this is going.

In the top of the 10th, Russell Martin and Tejada knocked back-to-back singles off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera to bring Uggla to the plate with one out and the go-ahead run on third. Uggla grounded into an inning-ending double play.

Colorado’s Aaron Cook, a ground ball pitcher by reputation, started the 10th for the National League. Michael Young grounded Cook’s first pitch to Uggla. Uggla booted it, putting Young on third. Carlos Quentin grounded Cook’s second pitch to Uggla. He got crossed up on that, too.

As ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick wrote, “In a span of three pitches, he had a GIDP and two errors to his credit.” In those three pitches, the American League’s win expectancy had shot up from 32 percent to 94 percent. And Uggla looked like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world than manning second base at Yankee Stadium.

Of course, the next ball put in play went to Uggla, too. Cook intentionally walked Carlos Guillen, then Grady Sizemore, like Young and Quentin, grounded to Uggla. This time, he made the pickup and got the out at home. After two more groundouts, Cook had danced through Uggla’s mess.

The next inning was no easier. The first five batters Cook faced in the bottom of the 11th reached, but two of them were put out on the bases. Again, no score.

In the 12th, with his dad and a national television audience watching, Uggla came to the plate with the bases loaded, one out, and the look on his face of a man in dire need of the restroom. Uggla struck out on three pitches. Then committed another error–an All-Star Game record third–in the bottom of the 13th. Then struck out again to lead off the 15th. The National League, winless since 1996 in the All-Star Game, remained so when Lidge finally capitulated in the bottom of that inning.

Uggla, that night: 0-for-4, 3 strikeouts, one GIDP, three errors, and a WPA of -0.637, more than enough, in a vacuum, to lose the game by himself.

***

The reason I’m recounting this lengthy, sad, and not-particularly relevant story to you now is because it was a fascinating experience. I had the opportunity to watch a man unravel before my very eyes, on live television, in front of millions. I don’t particularly like Dan Uggla as a player. He’s slow, he’s terrible in the field, he strikes out a lot, and his home run totals tend to inflate his value even if he doesn’t do anything else particularly well.

But Fox kept cutting to his face, and I’ll never forget the look. He looked like he was about to cry, or at least he would have looked that way if not for the stoic expression of shock. It would not have surprised me if, at any point during the extra innings of that game, Uggla had started weeping, run away, walked over to Adrian Gonzalez and asked for a hug, swapped uniforms with Utley and run for Canada, or broken his bat over his knee.

It’s unlikely that the 2008 All-Star Game had some sort of scarring emotional effect on Uggla. He’s certainly been just fine since then, and besides, he’s a professional. Professional baseball players don’t go to pieces because they play poorly in an exhibition game. Not good ones, at any rate. But in the moment, watching Dan Uggla was compelling human drama. I can’t say watching him sleepwalk through about as bad a game as one could imagine was fun, but it was compelling. I empathized with him. I felt sorry for him. I wanted to hug him, pat him on the back, and tell him it would be okay.

***

Maybe it’s been too long since I’ve seen meaningful baseball. I’ve had too much time to think and not enough to enjoy. There’s nothing to get excited about with this Phillies team, from where I’m sitting. Sure, they’re going to be very good, and the pitching is going to be great, but there’s no reason to expect them to be better than (or even as good as) they were last year. And it’s not because the team couldn’t have been constructed better. I’m not optimistic. And you shouldn’t be either.

I’ll be honest, I’ve watched maybe two hours of spring training baseball, of which maybe 20 minutes involved the Phillies. If there’s news, if a player looks good or bad, or gets hurt, I’ll hear about it on Twitter or on Baseball Today. I’ve spent far more time this spring watching college baseball than spring training, because it’s more fun to get hyped about Joey Pankake and Michael Roth than it is to worry about Chase Utley and Antonio Bastardo.

I put far too much energy and emotional investment into watching and writing about baseball for this to be an acceptable state of affairs. I’m tired of being unable to think about the Phillies without being overcome with rage. It’s exhausting. I want to feel other things, like joy or empathy or excitement. Baseball used to make me feel that way. But now the Phillies are in decline, and I get the feeling there isn’t going to be anything quick, easy, painless, or unexpected about it.

I’d just as soon get it over with.

 

The Bus to Galviston

First, the news came out (and was investigated thoroughly by our blogging overlord here) that Chase Utley, the best Phillies position player since Mike Schmidt and, for the last half of the 2000s, the best position player on Earth not named Albert Pujols or Joe Mauer, would not be ready for Opening Day.

For some reason, I wasn’t particularly disturbed by the news and couldn’t figure out why. After all, if the Phillies are the Death Star, Chase Utley is the main reactor that powers the station, and his rapidly degenerating lower body joints are the thermal exhaust port, a direct hit on which could start a chain reaction and destroy the station. I think John Lannan is Luke Skywalker in this metaphor, which makes me a little uncomfortable, but we can iron out the particulars later.

Particularly for a team that’s going to be without its biggest power threat (Ryan Howard) for a significant part of the season, the loss of Utley could be catastrophic. The Phillies don’t stand to score a ton of runs anyway, and replacing Utley with either Freddy Galvis, Ty Wigginton, or Michael Martinez won’t do much to help that. Dave Cameron, Grand Duke of FanGraphs, was characteristically honest on the issue. And while I appreciate Cameron’s candor, saying “the Phillies are considering using a guy who posted a .315 OBP in Triple-A last year as their 2B?” doesn’t exactly generate a warm, fizzy feeling in my bowels.

Then, this afternoon, the news came out that Michael Martinez, last year’s Rule 5 project and one of the major fallback options at second base, would miss several weeks with a broken toe. This didn’t bother me either, though for more readily explainable reasons. I’m reminded of the classic and moving scene in Broadcast News, where Albert Brooks’ Aaron delivers the memorable line: “I know you care about him. I’ve never seen you like this about anyone, so please don’t take it wrong when I tell you that I believe that Tom, while a very nice guy, is the Devil.”

Well, Michael Martinez, while being a very nice guy, is a dreadful major league infielder. Martinez, for his entire major league career, has a .198/.258/.282 slash line in 234 plate appearances. He hasn’t played enough at any position to generate meaningful defensive statistics, but it’s not like the Phillies brass is out there telling everyone he’s the second coming of Bill Mazeroski. And on the basepaths, Martinez is 82-for-124 in career stolen base attempts in the minors, a 66 percent success rate, which is low enough to actually hurt the team. If it’s possible for a major leaguer to possess none of the traditional five tools, Michael Martinez is that man. But anyone who’s reading this watched enough Phillies games last season to know that anyway.

Which leaves Ty Wigginton, who is a second baseman by the same logic that if you leave a fish in a birdcage overnight once a week, it will turn into a cockatoo. Plus, odds are he’ll be busy minding first base in Howard’s absence.

Which leaves Freddy Galvis. Cameron’s snarky comment aside, I’m actually rather excited about Galvis. I’ll concede the eminent possibility that Galvis could grade out offensively somewhere between Wilson Valdez (we’ll get back to him later) and a four-foot-high pile of potatoes. People with a career .613 minor league OPS generally don’t get to the majors and start raking. But by all accounts, Galvis is a fantastic defensive shortstop, a quality that should be even more evident at second base. Even assuming that any OPS mark above .600 would be a victory for Galvis, he’s still the second base option I’d have over any other, not only because of his defense, but because he’s a 22-year-old unknown. Rather than reaching for an off-the-shelf utilityman (Wigginton) or a career minor leaguer (Martinez or Valdez), the Phillies are plugging a hole with a young, homegrown player, and giving him a chance to impress. With Howard, Utley, Placido Polanco, Jimmy Rollins, and even Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee all approaching their athletic dotage, it’s a habit I’d like the Phillies’ brass to get into. And at the risk of tempting fate, there’s no way Galvis can be worse than Martinez over the course of a full season. All told, I’m pretty pumped about Galvis, enough to gas up a bandwagon in his honor. So you’re on notice, Phillies fans–Freddy Galvis is officially in his indie phase, so hop on the train before it fills up.

But back to the original point. Why isn’t Utley’s injury causing mass panic? After all, Bill’s been going on about how Utley is the most important player in baseball for weeks now. I think Eric Karabell of ESPN’s Baseball Today hit it on the head in yesterday’s Baseball Today (the March 19 episode, for those of you who want to give it a listen). To paraphrase, Karabell pointed out that the Phillies won 102 games last year, despite Utley only posting 454 plate appearances, and when he did play, he was hardly the .300/.390/.520 player he was during his Joe Morgan phase from 2005 to 2010. For most Phillies fans nowadays, the expectation for Utley is probably a little better than 103 games played and a .259/.344/.425 triple slash line he posted last year, but it can’t really be more than that. Karabell went on to say that even a Polanco/Rollins/Galvis/Wigginton infield isn’t that scary a prospect, because the Phillies have Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. Add in Vance Worley (even if he regresses some, as I expect him to) and Joe Blanton, and I struggle to imagine a pitching staff in the majors pitching more and better innings this coming season. And those five starters will hand off to a bullpen that includes Antonio Bastardo and Jonathan Papelbon.

In short, scoring runs will not be easy for the Phillies this season, and the more at-bats Galvis and Wigginton have to take over from Utley and Howard, the more true that will become. But unlike the Phillies teams from four or five years ago, a few runs will do in most cases. If Halladay or Hamels goes down, or Worley turns into Tyler Green 2.0, then it’s collar-tugging time. But for now, remember: the Phillies were going to win 90+ games without scoring many runs even if Utley played 150 games. And while it’s fun to spend the spring bigging up the Marlins, Nationals, and Braves, all of those teams have weaknesses too. The Phillies are still the odds-on favorite to win the NL East, and unless they lose a top pitcher, that’s probably still the case. So sit back and enjoy the Galvis.

But I still haven’t answered the truly salient question, the “should have kept” question. With the attrition rate for Phillies second basemen sitting somewhere around the attrition rate for ANZAC soldiers at Gallipoli, isn’t this the perfect time to second-guess the trade that sent fan favorite Wilson Valdez to Cincinnati? Exxon, the man who gamely stood his post in relief of an injured Utley for two years? Wouldn’t we be better off with the 2010 team MVP at the keystone, rather than some unproven rookie?

Absolutely not. Let’s not say things we can’t take back.