From May 22 through June 2, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard ran up OPS marks about 100 points lower than their career slugging averages. Jayson Werth was worse than either, with five hits, three walks and 13 strikeouts over 10 games. Other Phillies have been lousy, but the utter collapse of their three best hitters is what's most to blame for the grand sputtering that cost the team a 4 1/2 game lead in the National League East in just more than a week.
Manager Charlie Manuel, wearing the easy confidence that comes with having won two straight pennants, tried to remains philosophical, usually a fit and proper attitude in a slump. "I'm definitely concerned about it, and I try to do everything I can. But that's baseball," he said a few days ago. "I know it sounds corny ... but that's the way it is."
More recently, though, Manuel -- himself a first-rate batting coach -- has seemingly lost patience, and rightly so. Yes, over time, players play to their level, and worrying over a particular stretch often does nothing but cost harried managers and fans months worth of life. But let's run through the possible causes of the epic death of an offense that has now scored all of 14 runs in its last 11 games.
Saying "that's baseball," for one, may not really be true. Kerry Whisnant, a professor of physics at Iowa State University who's studied patterns of run distribution, used two methods to calculate the likelihood of a particular stretch of Phillies futility from May 22 to May 31. What were the odds? "My best guess," he says, "is a one in about four million chance of scoring only 10 runs in those 9 games."
Broaden the scope to gauge the chances of this happening at any point during the season and the odds drop greatly, to "more like one in 16,000." Whichever set of numbers you like, random chance isn't a satisfying explanation for the recent funk.
Accepting that the team isn't just hitting in bad luck, and that there is an actual cause for the run drought, doesn't necessarily allow for a very good answer. We can probably chalk up such exotic possibilities as a mass hypnosis program conducted by overzealous Nationals fans or the abrupt cessation of a secret sign-stealing program, which even if it existed surely didn't mark the difference between Howard and Utley hitting like Hall of Famers and like inept pitchers. That leaves three possibilities, the first two improbable, the third perhaps not.
The first possibility is that the team's collective timing was ruined by having faced knuckleballers in consecutive games against the Red Sox and Mets. One can't rule this out, but it doesn't hold up to much scrutiny. No study of the issue I'm aware of has ever concluded that there's a really meaningful hangover effect that comes from having stood in against baseball's most baffling pitch. More to the point, if rolling out the likes of Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey could really visit this kind of ruination on a team's lineup, the flutterball wouldn't be so lamentably rare.
The second possibility has to do with the enemy having their say. Over the recent slide the Phillies have faced some strong pitchers, including the Mets' Mike Pelfrey, the Marlins' Josh Johnson and the Braves' Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson. True to a point, this neglects relevant facts. Of the four series they've played since they stopped scoring, the Phillies have played one against a team that even ranks in the top five of its own league in ERA, and none of these games have been played in a true pitchers' park. Credit the likes of Pelfrey, but the Phillies still own their disaster.
This leaves us with a third possibility, that their recent play has been an almost comically grotesque expression of the basic truth that the Phillies aren't quite as strong an offensive team as their reputation would have it. Unlike competing explanations, this isn't easily knocked down. Of the team's three key hitters, one is a 30-year-old first baseman who's averaged 193 strikeouts per 162 games over his career, and another is a 31-year-old right fielder whose career park adjusted OPS is about as good as Adam LaRoche's. The fourth-best hitter, left fielder Raul Ibanez, is 38. And of all possible responses to the crisis, one they've chosen involves signing Willy Taveras, who has the fourth-worst adjusted OPS among active hitters.
One could certainly describe the Phillies' offense more generously, but given their recent performance, what compelling reason is there to do so? As Manuel has it, this is baseball, and after suffering the equivalent of a 1,000 year flood, this offense will recover, at least a bit. In the meantime they'll have endured three straight shutouts at the hands of the lowly Mets, a sweep at the hands of the team that now lords over them from their accustomed spot in first place and a view on a time that everyone knew would come, when age caught up with them and their lineup past Chase Utley read in blanks and question marks. The odds on that were always dead certain.