While most had written off the Phillies’ chances at a playoff run, some didn’t. Buster Olney wrote in July of an unnamed scout who believed that if the Phillies entered September six or less out of a playoff spot they would be dangerous. A few other folks at ESPN began to explore the Phillies’ chances before the Astros unceremoniously took three of four from the Fightins. To be honest, though, why would you write this team off?
For the first time all year, the Phillies had their ideal Opening Day line-up in tact with their entire pitching staff intact. They had sent the knuckleheads (i.e. Chad Qualls) packing from the bullpen and found steady, young arms to perform. Why couldn’t the Phillies make a run and win, say, 15 out of 20 or 18 of 25 and get back into the race, considering they have two former MVPs and two former Cy Youngs?
The former Cy Youngs have, for the most part, have kept the Phils in the mix. Roy Halladay has been good but not great, posting a 6-2 record with an un-Doc-like 4.07 ERA in the second half after returning from injury. Cliff Lee has decreased his season ERA by 0.65 points, posting excellent second half numbers of 86 Ks in 92.2 IP with a 2.53 ERA. Meanwhile, the former MVPs have been a mixed bag. There likely hasn’t been a hotter shortstop than Jimmy Rollins in the month of September. Rollins is hitting a scorching .333/.400/.652 with six homers and is six for six in steal attempts with Gold Glove-level defense. Rollins’ monster September has catapulted him from upper-tier shortstop back into a guy who may appear on a few MVP ballots. The other former MVP, on the flip side, has not been as good.
Admittedly, Ryan Howard entered 2012 with the deck very much stacked against him. Recovery from a torn Achilles’ tendon for non-professional athletes who do not rely on their athleticism as their job takes around six to twelve months. Howard returned right in the middle of the spectrum at nine months and returned in the middle of the season when every other player had already spent three-plus months playing at full game speed. To say Howard didn’t have a shot may be pushing it, but the odds were certainly were not in his favor.
Howard is sporting a line of .225/.304/.405 with 10 HRs in 227 ABs, putting him at a rate of a home run for every 22.7 ABs, a far cry from the dominant rate of 13.27 HR/AB he entered 2012 with. His torn left Achilles’ tendon probably has a lot to do with the drop in power, seeing as it is his plant foot from which he would drive the ball with. Yet, Howard’s other problems, mainly hitting singles and walking, have made him very difficult to hide in the line-up, particularly in September.
In a month where the baseball is beginning to look as big as a beach ball for most of the Fightins, Howard has not hit a home run and has only four extra base hits, all doubles. His .246 SLG for the month is .147 points lower than Michael Martinez‘s and would be lower than any qualified batter in the Majors. Howard is striking out once in every 3.81 ABs compared to his bad-but-not-this-bad rate of 3.14 that he entered 2012 with.
It is easy to point to Howard’s September .180/.261/.246 line and suggest that the Phillies would have been even better in September had he contributed more, but with criticism comes credit: Howard picked up four hits in the series against the Astros, including two doubles. Yet, the Astros intentionally walking Howard twice is in stark contrast to the respect Howard received even in 2011, which was perceived as a down year.
The ideal Phillies solution at this point would be rest Howard for the remainder of the season and platoon Laynce Nix and either Ty Wigginton, John Mayberry, or Darin Ruf at first. Charlie Manuel has suggested Howard’s problems are mental rather than physical, so why not give the Big Piece a break? Nix’s line against righties is comparable to Howard’s in 2012 (.263/.327/.414 v. .259/.341/.463) and Wigginton’s line against lefties (.225/.356/.426) is, believe it or not, significantly better than Howard’s (.163/.209/.300). At the very least, with the playoffs now a 14/1000 long shot, Howard should get a blow against lefties as his presence in the line-up is truly a detriment. What the Phillies do with him from there, or if he will ever again approach even a good-but-not-great year like he had in 2010 (.276/.353/.505, 31 HR), remains to be seen.