I've been furiously emailing with some Phillies bloggers for the last couple of days, but it's been a bit asymmetrical. Since three of them wanted to do Q&As with me, I figured I could take advantage of their numbers and split up a monster preview Q&A into three parts. I'll be posting a couple of other previews later on today.
Handling the offense is Tim Malcolm from Phillies Nation. Tim is currently plowing through a seven-part NLDS preview, so it's definitely worth stopping over there and reading up. Here's what Tim had to say:
BCB: The Phillies offense is obviously impressive--five regulars have .349+ OBPs. Who's the one guy you want at the plate with the game on the line?
Tim Malcolm: The obvious answer is Ryan Howard. Look at his .352 September with 11 homers and 32 runs batted in. But he gets a lot of knocks early — his average sinks below .200 once the game goes over two hours. Of course, it's hard going against a guy who has lately knocked in some big runs (I'm reminded of an eighth-inning homer to tie a game with Atlanta), but in a close playoff series, against top relief pitching, I'm a little more hesitant to go with the big man.
Instead, I'll take Pat Burrell, who has a knack for big hits in big moments. Just ask Billy Wagner. And he does have an OPS of 1.078 in those calculated "late-and-close" situations. Is this a ridiculous choice? Maybe.
BCB: Ryan Howard got off to a dreadful start, but if anything, he finished even bigger. Did he change anything at any point in the season, or is streakiness par for the course?
TM: There's no singular answer for this question, because nobody knows. We know Howard heats up as the marathon reaches the final mile. He's a career .302 second-half hitter, as opposed to .255 before the break. We know he can be streaky, because this season he stunk in April, sparkled in May, stunk in June, sparkled in July, stunk in August, sparkled in September. We also know he was injured last season, and didn't heat up until he fully recovered.
I tend to think Howard gets better with the more he sees. And he can adjust to pitchers throwing away, and throwing low. He has been able to get to balls and spray them for hits, whereas earlier this season he'd strike out easily on bad balls. So call it a matter of adjustment.
BCB: Jimmy Rollins stole 47 bases in 50 attempts. That's just incredible. But...do you think he can successfully run on Jason Kendall? You may not be aware of this, but in an exhibition game, Kendall threw out Olympic sprinter Tyson Gay.
TM: The Phillies running game vs. Kendall (Really? Tyson Gay? [ed. note: yes, really. ok, maybe not]) will be one of the most interesting storylines of the series. Kendall has always been fantastic [ed. note: Kendall has gritted away all memory of 2007!], and the Phils as a whole can run the basepaths efficiently. Credit first base coach Davy Lopes, who has engineered the most efficient base-stealing troupe in baseball history. Rollins is example No. 1 — since Lopes has been manning first, Rollins is 88-for-97 in steals.
How so efficient? Lopes times each pitcher, and if the pitcher is a fraction slower than normal, Lopes will let his runner wait for the right pitch. With Kendall back there, it'll push some of those speeds, and I'm sure Lopes will be a little more careful with giving runners the green light. If anything, look for Phillie runners to give pitchers fits at first instead of blasting toward second.
BCB: Who are the first pinch-hitters off the bench for Charlie Manuel?
TM: Manuel's favorite pinch bat is the game's best, Greg Dobbs. "Roy Hobbs" Dobbs is striking at .355 with two homers and 16 runs batted in as a pinch hitter. His 22 pinch hits are a single-season franchise record. He'll enter the game in run-scoring opportunities against right-handed pitching.
Late-season pickup Matt Stairs might be a "we-need-a-homer-now" option. From the right side, the first guy off the bench might be So Taguchi. While his .220 average has inspired little confidence, Manuel likes his veteran makeup and playoff experience. Eric Bruntlett will also get time, maybe as a defensive replacement for Pat Burrell.
BCB: What the hell is going on with Jayson Werth? I mean, I remember when the verdict on him was that he was a 4th or 5th OF, maybe a platoon player at best. Even against righties, he held his own this year.
TM: The popular opinion is now that Werth is finally regularly healthy, he has become the player his first-round scouting report read. He came along nicely toward the end of 2007, and this year broke out with his three-homer game against Toronto.
What I like most about Werth is he can do almost everything. He's a 25-homer threat, can hit singles and doubles, can steal bases (20 of them), can glide from first to third on a single, can make plays in right field. And you're right — while Werth murders lefties (.303 with an MLB-best 16 HR against them), he has come around vs. righties. Chalk that up to more experience against righties. He still needs to work a little more on beating them, but he's clearly made his mark as an everyday guy.
BCB: Be honest: Are you, or have you ever been, a Pat Burrell hater? Do you want him back next year?
TM: There was a time I fretted every Burrell at bat. You'd see him look at strike one, then swing close at strike two, maybe fouling it off. Then you'd cringe as the pitcher dialed up the obvious breaking ball away and in the dirt. And almost everytime Burrell would fire off a hapless swing that looked more Ping than Louisville Slugger. He doesn't do that as often, though he showed signs of reverting in the second half this season.
I do appreciate his solid power, his knack for getting on base, and his clutch knocks. But the facts state he can't patrol left field that well anymore, and without sufficient rest, he's prone to unraveling. Earlier this season I would've handed him a two-year deal worth $12M per campaign. Now I might wish him a fond farewell to the Junior Circuit. I'm not sure how much longer Burrell can play as a two-dimensional hitter in the National League, and I don't really want to gamble a couple years on it.
BCB: And finally... the offense just didn't show up in the NLDS last year. Most of those guys are back this year--do you think the experience is going to change things, or are you worried that the big stage will pose a problem again?
TM: Last season's exit was incredibly frustrating because we fans never saw the NLDS Phillies before the NLDS. We weren't ready for Utley laying an egg, for Howard being pretty empty, for Rollins shutting down, etc. But this season we saw the Phils go through a two-month stretch where they had to scrape for runs and hope for a homer or three to win a game. Suddenly the NLDS Phillies were playing in July and August. But the really good, spot-on Phillie offense came back in September, when they were down a few games.
I am worried about the big stage because this offense seems to press and play for the bomb when they're drenched in limelight. The key, to me, is Shane Victorino. He stepped up when everyone decided the only way to hit a baseball was over 330 feet. He roped singles, turned singles into doubles, even hit a couple lucky four-baggers. And when he's on, he'll score, even from the sixth spot in the order. If the Phils are going to play loose baseball in the postseason, Victorino will be leading the charge.
BCB: Thanks, Tim!