2007 Phillies: Dirtier… and Preposterously Better

Phillies second baseman Chase Utley is a dirtball. So say his teammates, his manager, and organization execs like Chief Scout Mike Arbuckle. Ex-skipper Larry Bowa used to call him a “baseball rat.” Dirtball. Rat. Not exactly terms of endearment, right? Wrong. Utley’s clubhouse nicknames are actually compliments of the highest order: testament of his peers to his hard work and hustle on the field. We’re talking dirtball as in the guy with the perpetually dirty uniform. The guy who legs out the routine grounder to short for an infield single. The guy who totally, unequivocally, and, some argue, unnecessarily ruined Dodger catcher Russel Martin’s shit on a play at the plate last June. Martin, God help him, wasn’t even holding the ball when Utley buried the backstop’s face into home plate.

These days, there are a lot of dirtballs hanging around the Phillies clubhouse. As Buster Olney recently pointed out, GM Pat Gillick has slowly but surely stocked his team with hard-nosed, Utley-type players like Aaron Rowand, Shane Victorino, and Ryan Howard, and phased out (or in the case of Pat Burrell, tried to phase out) not so balls-to-the-right-field-wall mainstays like Bobby Abreu. Without a doubt, the Phillies are a much, much dirtier team.

But is dirtier necessarily better?

Phil Sheridan thinks so, and points out that the Phils were 49-54 prior to dumping the low-energy, easygoing Abreu and 36-23 on the rest of the season. As a SABR-minded guy, I was initially skeptical of the Abreu-bashing and even more skeptical of the statistical cherry-picking. Sure, Abreu only batted .277 through July 30, but he also posted a .427 OBP, second only to Bonds in the NL. And we all know from Moneyball that OBP translates to runs and runs translate to wins, right?

As it turned out, Abreu’s stellar OBP was hardly missed. The post-trade deadline months saw precipitous increases in the on-base percentages of the other starters. Jimmy Rollins, without a doubt the freest-swinger in the lineup, posted a .405 OBP and drew 13 walks in August. Ryan Howard officially entered preposterous Man-Child territory in September when he put up a .571 OBP (and a .387 average and .763 slugging percentage to boot). The Phillies averaged 131.5 runs scored per month over the first four months of the season. In the last two, they erupted to score a gaudy 168.5 runs per month. The offense went crazy. Plain and simple.

In addition, the Phillies pitched far better down the stretch than they did in the early goings of 2006. Rookie southpaw Cole Hamels flourished in the second half of the season, especially late-August onward. Jamie Moyer, acquired August 19, posted a much better ERA over 51.3 innings late in the season (4.03 to be exact) than did Gavin Floyd, the major league baseball version of Corporal Upham, prior to his demotion to Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on June 2.

Now I know it’s foolish to say that Abreu’s departure directly triggered the turnaround in pitching…. but maybe? Something happened in Philadelphia on July 30. Something which is only beginning to come into focus. The bottom line is this: when it was all said and done, the Phillies were, in fact, a patently better team after dropping Abreu. And as we see above, it wasn’t because they found grinderball ways to compensate for the holes he left, like you might expect from a group of so-called dirtballs. No, they did what he did–draw walks and get on base–and did it better. They also crushed the ball. And pitched better. And hit in the clutch (with one notable exception, of course… do I have to say it? Do I really? Pat Burrell. I know. You knew it already). Dirtyball isn’t just playing harder and tougher, apparently. It’s playing the shit out of the game in all respects. Be afraid of this team. Be very afraid. They are the team to beat in the NL East. Just ask Jimmy Rollins.

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One Response

  1. There is a general Philadelphia consensus that Terry Francona (Francoma) brought a “spirit” of business-like baseball to the young Phillies: Abreu, Burrell, Rolen, Travis Lee, Lieberthal, etc. Francona is blamed for the attitude of these players, notably Abreu and Lieberthal, who everyone said has no passion as a catcher and no personality. As you know, this led to the hiring of Larry Bowa as Manager because he was, in essence, what the management wanted out of their players. This failed too. Too much of the “old guard.”

    And good call on getting rid of Abreu as the paradigm shift. My personal opinion is that Abreu was always mis-cast as a Phillie. He always wanted to bat third or fourth, which, I beleive, requires a guy who takes initiative in swinging. It is bad policy to have your third hitter to get on base, because conceivably, his job is to make something happen (especially because he is followed by no. 4(the big bat)). Abreu should have been a no. 2 hitter. He would be getting on base for Utley, Howard (and Burrell) rather than wasting a spot and becoming the least clutch Phillie in the later innings (some stat showed how Abreu’s RISP and AVG collapse after the 7th).

    Yes! Dirty Phillies! Oh so excited!

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