Cory Lidle goes the distance as the Phils top Baltimore 7-2 this afternoon. With the win, Lidle improves to 4-3 and drops his season ERA to 3.75.
The Phillies are certainly getting quality starts this year, with Lidle steadily going deeper into games, marching the distance this afternoon and allowing two earned runs. I’m not sure whether hitters have trouble reading the ball coming out of his hand, or if it’s his outside-in, inside-out action on fastballs, but he’s certainly getting opponents to freeze on first pitches - nine one-pitch outs today. That’s amazing. In addition, he’s a fast worker like teammate Jon Lieber. That makes the busy Beerleaguer happy.
Sometimes it’s important to step back and reassess my position on certain things, especially this season because there’s much to debate – from Ryan Howard to the infamous platoon.
Readers who’ve kept up with my musings know I’ve advocated the second base platoon of popular favorite Chase Utley and Placido Polanco, arguing Polanco will hit left-handed pitching better. Recently, I changed my view somewhat, saying I’d like to see Utley in a few more games against LHP, with Polanco spotting the weak-hitting David Bell at third on those occasions. Utley got his first hit of the season yesterday against a left-hander, but sat again in Saturday’s game against hot left-hander Erik Bedard. For the season, he’s 1-15 against LHP.
Despite Utley’s steady bat, his eight home runs and improving glove, one gets a sense the Phils are still reluctant to expose Utley’s weaknesses, hence the quotes from GM Ed Wade and manager Charlie Manuel to this effect “We’re close to being almost ready to turn Utley loose.”
Utley’s first weakness is obvious: he doesn’t hit left-handers well. The second is more apparent lately: he’s a dead fastball hitter and can’t read breaking balls. Following his home run Friday night, he struck out the next three chances, including a series of cuts at breaking balls in the dirt.
As much as Phans think Manuel is a bumbling idiot for not making him full-time, remember, Larry Bowa protected him last year, and the organization as a whole has been meticulous with his progress. It’s not to say he won’t someday hit left-handers, or that I’m not an Utley fan, or that I’m not impatient to see them “turn him loose.”
It’s all a matter of which match-ups will help them win right now. The question as interleague ends is this: Is it better to go forward with Utley playing every game and using Polanco to spot Bell, or to stick with the platoon outright and play Bell every day?
What do I think they should do? Read on …
The number is .250.
What does it mean?
If the Phillies stay true to old-school form, Bell’s rising batting average, up from .205 to .250 since April, will be viewed at as a sign of improvement - a verification that he’s emerging from his “typical slow start.” Unfortunately, all the number does is mask a whole lot of offensive futility.
I feel like I’m spitting in the guy’s face, but I’m not. I like everything about Bell - there’s no flash, no mouth, and his defense, despite the nine errors, is better than most people give him credit for, including a 3.0 range factor - second in the NL - and an .817 zone rating - fifth in the NL.
Most importantly, he plays hard. In his last at bat Sunday, he topped a weak dribbler down to third, but man did he bust it out of the box. I like that, and his team appreciates that. In other words, he’s everything you want out of a player – except respectable production with the bat. That’s why Manuel is having a tough time sitting him, which at this point in the season, would be the right thing to do.
Not only is Polanco a maginally better hitter, but he’s the best No. 2 hitter on the squad, has better speed, and hits the ball hard. His numbers don’t reflect it, but no player has been robbed of hits more than Poly this season.
This isn’t an easy decision by any means. Polanco’s OPS isn’t much better than Bell’s (.686 to .661). The other thing to remember is this: Bell has always been a very average player. The $17 million contract is the only big part of his game. Otherwise, his career year was either 1999 in Seattle or last season with the Phils, which is a pretty low-key career year.
The unfortunate truth is he isn’t giving the Phils what they need offensively hitting six or seven each night, and it’s high time the Phils whittle this down to put their best team on the field. Batting average should be the last number a team looks at when measuring value at third base. As it stands, .250 is about what Aramis Ramirez is hitting with the Cubs, but his slugging is right where you need it from that type of player - .481 – much higher than Bell’s .338.
Granted not every team has an Aramis Ramirez, but when a player of that mold is sporting the lowest slugging of all the regulars, it’s time to make a change, even if it is a small move like making Polanco full-time.
I’m curious to know how many readers thought the Phils would respond to Jim Thome’s grand return to the lineup EXACTLY how they responded in Saturday’s 7-0 shutout loss. I had an inkling. Excuse the sarcasm, but watching Thome hit right into the shift or pop up a first pitch, to me, is like banging my head against a brick wall.
Stop complaining. They won the series.
Tomorrow, I’ll spin things a better direction with my series wrap. There’s quite a bit to cheer about. That’s two series wins in a row against division leaders. And Friday I asked for three good starts from Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla and Lidle, and they delivered.
More on the series, and a preview of their rematch against “D-Train” Dontrelle Willis and the Marlins tomorrow.