Friday, August 18, 2006

Formidable...Or Not

I was one of several bloggers who received an email this morning responding to the use of the word “formidable” regarding the Phillies pitching staff.  The author, one of the smartest and most thoughtful in the blogosphere, wrote that the use of the word in relation to the Phillies’ pitching staff was “delusional”.  

Coincidentally, Jason Weitzel at Beerleaguer had also used the term in his post yesterday.  Actually, I used the word "formidable" in conjunction with the word “becoming” in my post.  I wasn’t yet willing to say the staff had arrived, just that they might be turning things around.  The email contained the following observations:

The reality is that the Phillies do not have a single reliable pitcher on their entire staff. Hamels at this stage is as close as you get. When any other pitcher on the Phillies current staff takes the mound, it's a crap shoot (except for the ones like Rhodes and Mathieson that you KNOW will get scored on). There are maybe 2 quality arms in the whole sorry lot. Use of the word 'formidable' for this starting rotation is delusional. Two rookies, a headcase, a guy just coming off a year's re-hab for arm surgery and the pear-shaped one.  

What is clear is that Cole Hamels has grown stronger with each outing and, contrary to the normal pattern with phenoms, he didn't start out like Sandy Koufax only to return to earth; rather, he began his major league career with some hard lessons before he began to settle down and pitch very effectively.  Randy Wolf has also grown stronger with each outing.   His progress is just that.  It’s hard to say where it will lead but the direction is certainly good.  Jon Lieber has pitched very effectively over the last few weeks as well, another late season rally as is his wont.  Unfortunately, the season starts in April, Jon.  That is why I used the word "becoming".  I grant that by using the word "formidable" I may be guilty of over optimism, but I don't know if I have fallen into delusional yet.  On the other hand, I am a Phillies fan, so by definition….

The author of the email also made an in-game comment during yesterday’s finale with the Mets in which he decried the decision to send Scott Mathieson out to start the fifth inning when it was clear he didn’t have it.  Sure enough, Mathieson was tagged for back-to-back home runs and the Phillies’ 2-run rally a half-inning before was neutralized.

The decision to send Mathieson back out there when it was clear to nearly everyone except, perhaps, Mrs. Mathieson, that he didn’t have it raises all sorts of questions about the handling of rookie pitchers on this staff.  Gavin Floyd is the poster boy, but there have been others.  Jim Salisbury wrote a fine piece in this morning’s Inquirer, the sub-headline of which said it all:  Balancing act: Let players develop or chase wild card?  Mathieson is in the rotation precisely because when he arrived several weeks ago the starters were hardly formidable.  Indeed, they were in nearly complete disarray.  He remains there because management still doesn’t see a formidable staff and believes it needs another young live arm on it, both to see how Mathieson can handle big league hitters and because they need the bodies with Ryan Madson having moved back to the bullpen and Cory Lidle to New York.  What is clear is that the players as well as management are still trying to make the post-season, which, of course begs the question why did Charlie leave Mathieson in there to take such a beating?

Mathieson hasn’t shown much since his arrival other than a game attitude, which won’t substitute for a good changeup and breaking ball.  He has a good fastball, which, as we all know isn’t sufficient to be a big league pitcher.  There was speculation in a few quarters this morning, including Mathieson himself, that he may have been tipping his changeup, which hung beautifully for more than a few Mets’ hitters.  As is always the case, there is more to this than meets the eye.  Early in the game Larry Andersen noted that Mathieson had Mike DeFlice in an 0-2 hole on fastballs and tried to get him out on a changeup.  “Why speed up his bat?” Andersen asked.  At best, Andersen continued, DeFelice would foul off another fastball since it was clear he couldn’t get around on the first two he saw.  So, who made the decision to throw the change?  Mike Lieberthal?  The bench?  Mathieson himself?  Whoever is to blame, the net result was a dumb pitch and a base hit that extended a rally.

In arguing yesterday for Charlie Manuel’s retention next season I considered his handling of the pitching staff.  A number of commenters pointed out this was his most glaring weakness and I do not necessarily disagree.  I cannot determine how active a role Manuel takes with the pitching staff.  Has he turned the entire matter over to Rich Dubee or does he keep his hand in it?  Dubee, for his part, has been virtually invisible during his tenure.  He clearly doesn’t have the presence if not authority of a Leo Mazzone or, as George S. pointed out, a Dave Duncan.  He might be very effective, but we don’t know that.  Charlie may overrule him or keep his distance.  We don’t know that either.  

What we do know is that good pitchers make good pitching coaches.  Mazzone was a legend in Atlanta and has feet of clay in Baltimore.


Oisín/Wizlah said...

I disagree somewhat tom. Mazzone had good arms, yes, be he always seemed capable of getting the best performance out of those arms. The mediocre became suprisingly effective, the promising consistently good. Although Millwood wasn't terrible for us, it did feel like he'd done so much better under mazzone.

Is there an argument for occams razor with Dubee? If it seems hard to judge him because he's invisible, can we just say he's not very effective? Certainly, it seems that any time a pitcher emerges from the ranks with poise (hamels) or moxie ( tejeda) it seems like the qualities that see them through are theirs and theirs alone. He doesn't seem to add anything to their performance. We don't hear anything about him.

If he were just very modest and still very good at his job, I'm sure we'd see the difference in the staff.

Tom Goodman said...

I liked your comments on Hamels (poise) and Tejada (moxie). The Phils' brass are often not good judges of talent or character.

RickSchuBlues said...

The Phillies haven't had a good pitching coach since Johnny Podres. They've had some real duds since then: Vern Ruhle, Galen Cisco, Dubee. Joe Kerrigan helped Rheal Cormier and apparently no one else. It's hard to cite Dubee for making any positive difference for any pitcher in the past two years. A manager may be able to get away with having a neutral effect, but not so much a specific instructor.

The way so many mistakes and lapses are repeated in baseball, one wonders if many coaches are not entirely superfluous bodies in the dugout.

dane said...

mathieson seems to have some of the problems hamels had in june and july. showing some good stuff but getting hit hard as he struggled with a third pitch and location. i know that mathieson is not as highly touted as hamels but he is seeming to have the early struggles that plagued hamels. i was wondering whether you thought mathieson will develop like a cole hamels or if his future will be in the back end of the bullpen.

Tom Goodman said...

dane: Interesting notion about Mathieson in the back end of the bullpen. He'd still need more than a fastball in the low to mid '90's to be effective. If he is tipping his change, that can probably be fixed. The key would seem to dovetail with comments by RSB among others: you need a good pitching coach to help him make that sort of correction and it isn't at all clear the Philies have one.

Corey & Carson said...

solidity? That's what I'm hoping from Moyer to the Phils rotation!