For a second, forget about Chase Utley spraying line drives all over (and out of) Turner Field last night. It was a satisfying sight, for sure. But equally fulfilling was the sight of Tim Hudson, prior to Utley’s two-run single, laboring in the fifth inning.
Hudson threw 90 pitches to 21 batters over the course of 4.1 innings, which breaks down to 4.28 pitches per plate appearance for the Phillies. That is an impressive number. Yes, injuries stripped the Phillies of plenty of power and production last season. Equally as important, however, was that those injuries, as well as certain personnel, made the lineup eminently easier pitch deep into games against.
That is why I mention the importance of Hudson laboring prior to Utley’s fifth-inning knock. Even if the Phillies hadn’t capitalized in the fifth, Hudson was undoubtedly on his way out of the game shortly thereafter. An idea made famous by Billy Beane and then brought to the big stage by the Yankees and Red Sox, getting into the opponent’s bullpen early should be the goal of every offense over the course of a season. Mission accomplished for the Phillies on Monday night.
For the better part of three innings, Hudson was in cruise control. He was getting ahead (10/11 first pitch strikes) and putting Phillies hitters away (11 hitters faced through three). But the Phillies gradually raised his pitch total from 13 in each of the first two innings to 19 in the third, 21 in the fourth and 24 in the fifth before he was yanked in favor of Luis Avilan.
The non-Utley highlight of the night for the Phillies was a gritty 11-pitch at-bat from Ben Revere that included five foul balls and resulted in a walk despite Revere initially falling behind 1 and 2. It was the type of at-bat Phillies fans have longed for from their leadoff man since the days of Lenny Dykstra. To be fair, in his two years as a starter in Minnesota, Revere actually saw less pitches-per-plate-appearance than Jimmy Rollins normally does. But at only 24-years-old, last night was certainly a good debut in red pinstripes for the speedy centerfielder.
Revere’s refusal to let Hudson off the hook brings up a larger point. Over the last few years, we’ve heard plenty from Charlie Manuel about changing this team’s approach at the plate. As we’ve seen, it is a difficult thing to do when your roster is chock-full of established veteran players that are set in their ways.
Love them or hate them, the departures of Pat Burrell and Jayson Werth made this lineup infinitely easier to slice through for the right pitcher on the right night (see Chris Carpenter, October 2011). From a patience perspective, they were an elite duo. Werth was (and still is) routinely among the league leaders in pitches seen (career 4.45 P/PA) and Burrell was no slouch himself (4.20). Last year, only Ryan Howard (4.21) and John Mayberry Jr. (4.04) saw at least four pitches per plate appearance among Phillies regulars.
Replacing Burrell and Werth with Raul Ibanez and Hunter Pence, and not making adjustments elsewhere, made this lineup less patient and more prone to dominant performances (again, Carpenter). Combine that with the deterioration of the bodies and abilities (and therefore production) of Utley and Howard and you have an offense that gradually went from elite (892 runs in 2007, 2nd in MLB) to mediocre (684 runs in 2012, 19th in MLB).
Between 2007 and 2009, the Phillies averaged 217 home runs per year. Between 2010 and 2012, that average dropped to 159. Those numbers are often pointed to as the culprit for a declining offense, and rightfully so. But over that same time, removing pitcher at-bats from the equation, the lineup’s walk rate also plummeted, from 10.17% in 2007 to 7.57% in 2012. Their P/PA also dipped, from 3.88 to 3.79. That is no coincidence.
The good news is the Phillies have a chance to be better this season. It seems that Ruben Amaro Jr. learned his lesson; if you’re lineup won’t change, change your lineup. Replacing Pence (3.77 P/PA, 7.3 BB%) with Domonic Brown (4.05, 10.5%) and Placido Polanco (3.46, 5.4%) with Michael Young (3.77, 6.6%) makes this lineup more patient. Add in a healthy Utley and Howard and a spunky Revere, and they’re in much better shape than they were a year ago, when their opening day lineup featured journeyman Ty Wigginton and Freddy Galvis making his major league debut.
It was only one game, but the lineup’s makeover produced results last night. So far, so good… at least for the first five innings. Next up for the Phillies; duplicating that performance against their opponent’s bullpen.