The Rise and Fall of the Philadelphia Phillies

Smashing success and Philadelphia Phillies’ baseball are two phrases that haven’t been uttered in the same sentence very often over the 131 year history of the franchise. No professional sports team has suffered more defeats and few teams have tasted glory less often than the boys in Philadelphia. By the time the Phillies moved out of Veteran’s Stadium one magical, Steve Carlton-fueled run in 1980 was all that stood between the Phillies and an 0-for-the-century.

But with the move to shiny, new Citizens Bank Park in 2004 came a shiny, new ball club. In 2005 the team hired Charlie Manuel, who has been the most successful manager in franchise history, and gave the full-time 1st base job to Ryan Howard, who would go onto win the Rookie of the Year Award and then an MVP.  2006 saw the arrival of Cole Hamels, a future World Series MVP who fit nicely alongside a deep, talented offense chalked full of All-Stars. By 2007 the franchise had captured their first division title in 14 years, which would set off a run of 5 straight NL East crowns. And then in 2008 they finally hit pay dirt, capturing a World Series title in 5 games over the Tampa Bay Rays.

The following seasons would only bring more success and more big names. Cliff Lee was brought in via trade, then swapped out for ace Roy Halladay, then brought back in via free agency. Roy Oswalt would join the staff to create a new Phab Four and a slew of productive veteran outfielders, including Raul Ibanez, would find a way to make an impact in the lineup. But none of those moves yielded another crown and after a franchise-record 102 wins in 2011, the Phillies have bottomed out again with a record of 50-58 this season.

So the real question is, how did we get here? How did the Phillies go from a National League dynasty and 5 straight NL East crowns to a franchise struggling to stay afloat? And is it possible that if GM Ruben Amaro Jr. navigated another course, things would have turned out for the better? Let’s take a look at some of the moves that put sand in the Phillies’ engine.

– The Extension

Like many franchises around the Major Leagues, Philadelphia decided it would be a fantastic idea to pay their power hitting 1st baseman, Ryan Howard, an exorbitant amount of money. And, like many of those same franchises around the league, that massive 5 year/$125 million dollar extension has blown up in their face. Now, to be fair, part of Howard’s problems stem from his inability to stay on the field thanks to a horrific achilles injury suffered at the conclusion of the 2011 NLDS. But even before Howard’s achilles imploded, there were some not so subtle warning signs that inking the lefty to a big deal was a mistake.

Just check out Ryan Howard’s career splits:

Against righties: .295/.390/.606 (.996 OPS), 234 HR, 688 RBI, 1 homer every 14.37 plate appearances

Against lefties: .224/.300/.428 (.728 OPS), 77 HR, 275, RBI, 1 homer every 21.48 plate appearances

That’s a massive, massive split in production folks and it’s one that has essentially reduced Ryan Howard to the role of “a very expensive platoon player” as Ruben Amaro Jr. put it. And the issues don’t stop there either. Pitchers absolutely refuse to throw Howard a fastball as they opt to feed him a steady diet of breaking pitches and he’s flailing. The Phillies’ 1st baseman is hitting just .221 against anything that isn’t a fastball and he’s struck out 47% of the time in his 122 plate appearances against off-speed and breaking pitches. There isn’t an offensive in the game today that can survive that kind of lack of production in the middle of the order.

– Never pay for a closer

There’s an old maxim in fantasy baseball that says you should never, ever pay for saves. Competent closers are a dime a dozen with new 9th inning stars being born every year. Just take a look around the league and you’ll see a dozen new closers who have been perfectly satisfactory at shutting the door. So when the Phillies decided to pony up $50 million dollars for 4 years of Jonathan Paplebon’s services before the 2012 season the general reaction among baseball scholars wasn’t very kind.

There was cause for concern over the Phillies lack of remaining finances. There was also concern that Philadelphia and Amaro Jr. had overspent on their pitching staff, which would leave the offense high and dry, especially if Howard wasn’t able to return to his pre-injury form. There was also concern that someone as volatile as Paplebon wouldn’t exactly fit in a rough and tumble place like Philadelphia.

Well, for the most part those concerns were extremely well-founded. Paplebon has done a solid job at the end of the Philadelphia bullpen, posting a 2.38 ERA in his two seasons with the ball club. Unfortunately a top-notch closer is only useful to a team in the thick of the pennant race and, as Paplebon himself said, “I definitely didn’t come here for this.” Coupled with Howard’s $25 million dollar abomination, the Phillies have $38 million to a 1 inning specialist and a platoon hitter. Neither of those moves can be found in the GM’s handbook on how to run a successful team and combined, those two players are effectively crippling the Phillies’ maneuvering abilities.

– Where’s the base running? Where’s the walks? What happened to the Phillies’ way?

Throughout their incredible 5 year run atop the NL East, if you turned on a Phillies’ game you were guaranteed to see an aggressive, entertaining style of play, particularly on the base paths.

Just take a look at where the Phillies ranked in base running value during their run according to Fangraphs:

2007: 16 runs above average (1st in baseball)

2008: 17.8 runs above average (1st)

2009: 11.8 runs above average (5th)

2010: 5.5 runs above average (8th)

2011: -0.8 runs above average (16th)

2012: 3.7 runs above average (12th)

2013: -4.2 runs above average (20th)

A similar things happens if you take a look at the Phillies’ walk rates over the years as well. During their run from 2007-2011, Philadelphia never once ranked lower than 11th in walks and they placed in the top 10 in 4 of the 5 seasons. That’s quite a difference from this current lineup, which currently sits 28th in baseball in walk rate. That’s an extra runner or two a game taken off the base paths and thanks to some age-related decline, Philadelphia just can’t afford that drop-off.

– Know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em

Perhaps the biggest criticism being directed toward GM Ruben Amaro Jr. right now is that he doesn’t have a good understanding of what his team actually is.

Philadelphia currently sits 13.5 games back in the NL East and they’re 9.5 games back of the 2nd Wild Card spot. That’s not a manageable deficit for a team that ranks 13th in the NL in runs scored and dead last in the league in runs allowed. That’s the sort of profile you usually see accompanying 100 loss teams looking to sell, not ones with designs on chasing a pennant.

So if we establish the fact that the Phillies aren’t really contenders, than we should also be able to come to the conclusion that they should do everything in their power to improve for the future. That means trading away useful veterans on shorter contracts. It means pursuing prospects, calling up players from Triple-A, and working toward 2014.

But that’s not what Amaro Jr. is doing. Instead, he held all his cards at the trade deadline and, from the looks of things, he only paid lip service to the idea of selling of his veteran pieces. This is the oldest roster in the National Legaue. At what point does management decide to push for a younger team? What, exactly, do the Phillies have to gain from another two months of Chase Utley? How is Michael Young going to help the ball club win a championship when his contract’s up at the end of the year?

The market for productive players was barren and the Phillies could have made out nicely. Instead they chose to delay the rebuilding process by another year by holding out hope that this team can get healthy and get it together. News flash Ruben. That’s not going to happen.

Philadelphia’s’ dynasty is dead. Complacency, age, and poor contracts killed it.

Big thanks to Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, and Brooks Baseball for the statistical help!

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37 Comments on "The Rise and Fall of the Philadelphia Phillies"

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Ed
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Nice piece as always David though I’m a bit confused by the statement that the Phillies have the oldest roster in baseball. According to BR data, the Yankees have used the oldest hitters and pitchers this year.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/MLB/2013.shtml

The Phillies are tied with Detroit for the 3rd oldest position players but are only 14th in pitcher age.

MikeD
Guest
Maybe he was basing it on projected lineup at the start of the year? The Yankees string of injuries brought in a new cast of characters, so maybe that caused a change. Or maybe just the opposite. The return of Jeter and the trade for Soriano might have increased the age. Regardless, they are both old teams. Of course, I wonder if that’s always such a bad thing? It strikes me that the teams whose average age trends toward the higher end are sometimes among the better teams, even as their players might be in decline. It makes on some… Read more »
RJ
Guest

I took a quick look at the average ages for the World Series champs going back to 2001 and the data seems to bear out your theory. The following figures are where each team ranked in the majors that year according to baseball-reference’s average ages for batters (weighted by AB + Games Played) and pitchers (weighted by 3*GS + G + SV). I hope it formats correctly.

Year Team BatRank PitRank
2012 sfg 23 5
2011 stl 7 3
2010 sfg 9 22
2009 nyy 3 7
2008 phi 7 3
2007 bos 8 4
2006 stl 11 16
2005 chw 14 12
2004 bos 5 2
2003 fla 24 29
2002 ana 21 7
2001 ari 1 3

RJ
Guest

Five teams are unambiguously ‘old’, about six are on the old side of average, and the upstart Marlins are notable as the only young team.

MikeD
Guest

…and on the flip side, very young teams are probably filled with unproven and still learning players.

Richard
Guest

Do you follow the team closely? The team is getting younger. Whether that’ll mean “better” is a different question. But Michael Young is not going to be there next year, they’ve already called up Cody Asche. Chase Utley will be there next year, and they’ll be right to extend him – it shouldn’t be hard to understand why, he’s still elite, and will be affordable for them. Domonic Brown is in place, they traded for Ben Revere, almost the whole bullpen is young (though terrible this year). Look a little closer.

Andy
Guest

You main points are valid. Age, injuries and a desire to keep the core of homegrown stars together has led to this mess.

It is too easy to push the “most losses ever” button when describing the Phillies history. Since the early 70’s the Phils have have delivered 2 extended eras of great baseball, both puncuated with championship dogpiles. How can a team “finally hit pay dirt” when the franchise won the World Series in 1980?

Also… Howard blew out his achilles, not his knee, at the end of the 2011 NLCS.

Richard
Guest

In fact, since 1948, the Phillies are above .500.

Richard Chester
Guest

The BR PI shows that since 1948 the Phils have been playing .498 ball. They’ve been above .500 since 1961.

no statistician but
Guest

Starting at 1980, the Phillies have been in more World Series (tied at 5 with the Braves) than any teams other than the Yankees (8) and the Cardinals (6), if I’m counting right. That’s not too shabby, considering divisional play, etc.

One thing this thread has really done is bring the Phillies fans out of the woodwork. It used to be an axiom that the Phillies had the most hypercritical fans in baseball—at the stadium—constantly riding and booing their own players. Are we seeing a parallel here, re management?

Andrew
Guest

mmm, schadenfreude

Mike Lacy
Guest
Complacency isn’t the problem. Complacency doesn’t cause a team to trade for Lee, Halladay, Oswalt, and Pence. Richard makes a good point. The age of the team isn’t the important thing. A lousy young player isn’t much better than a lousy old player. Maybe he’s cheaper, but I’m also of the mindset that you don’t get extra wins for being efficient with money. The problem is that as guys like Howard, Utley, and Rollins have gotten older, the system hasn’t developed replacements who are as good as them. If the Phillies had a minor league second baseman as good as… Read more »
Steve
Guest
way to contradict yourself… Age isn’t an issue, yet the problem is that Howard, Utley and Rollins have gotten older? The problem has been trying to go after big names and play ‘fantasty baseball’ instead of finding and developing players. They didn’t need Ruben to make a big splash and acquire Pence by giving up legit players like Cosart and Singleton, they needed to actually develop a player like they did with Victorino and Werth. They should have just let Brown develop into the player he is today, without that trade we’d have been seeing these numbers in 2011 and… Read more »
Mike Lacy
Guest

I shouldn’t have said that the problem is that those guys have gotten older. The problem is that they’ve gotten less productive and been injured.

And you say the solution is to draft and develop good players? No kidding!

If the Phillies had a shortstop as good as Rollins was going to be, then they would have probably let Rollins walk. But they didn’t have an adequate replacement.

A quick, painless death? A total rebuild would be incredible painful to watch.

Critias
Guest

Victorino and Werth weren’t homegrown and developed, they were acquired via trade.

Steve
Guest

I agree about age. But what you described is the essence if complacency. The Phillies haven’t drafted or developed players to replace aging/declining veterans. Instead they keep the same core group and seem incapable of understanding that they will produce the same results.

Mike Lacy
Guest

The failure to draft and develop adequate replacements is the key. Dom Brown is good, but that’s about it as far as impact players go.

This is partially Amaro’s fault, but the Gillick era, as well as the tail end of the Wade era didn’t turn out too many major league stars either.

Greg Schuler
Guest

The Phillies had enough to use the prospects to trade for players. The decline of the farm system goes hand in hand with Mike Arbuckle’s departure. Once the prospect well dried up, trades became harder, especially when the best currency is young cost controlled prospects.

Mike Lacy
Guest

The problem didn’t just start when Arbuckle left. Take a look at this page:

http://phillies.scout.com/3/2008Prospects.html

Not a lot of major league stars on that list.

Frank M.
Guest

Howard’s injury at the end of the NLDS was an achilles injury, not a knee injury.

Tom
Guest

Thank you, I thought that was wrong

Yippeeyappee
Guest

It also hurts A LOT when a historically durable pitcher (except for half a season with a broken leg),such as Roy Halladay suddenly can’t stay healthy and can’t find the strike zone when he does make it to the mound. He’s cost the team payroll and youth. I’m a huge Doc fan and I thought he was going to be a shoo-in for 300 wins. Now he may not even get to 220.

Lawrence Azrin
Guest
The problem with the Ryan Howard extension was not only the actual terms (5 years/ $125 mil), it was that they offered him an extension a full TWO YEARS before they needed to make a decision on whether or not to keep him. Howard was an excellent player, but never a cornerstone first baseman as was Pujols in his prime, not even close. And over the last two years we see that even all-time greats like Pujols can decline quite quickly. If the Phillies had waited till his previous contract was up, it would’ve been (even more) obvious that signing… Read more »
Mo
Guest
It is clear to me as one who has been following the team daily for 10 years, the issue is Amaro. He never should have signed Howard to the long term contract when already by 2008 he was just an above average player. He stopped hitting to left field like he had been doing in 05-07. People make mistakes, but the refrain that I have been reading from him is that we just need them to produce like they are capable of. He is producing like he is capable of- a platoon player! Amaro needs to step up to the… Read more »
John Nacca
Guest
Not a Phillies fan, but I do follow baseball. Ruben Amaro started this freefall the second he signed Howard. But he had to in retrospect as, like was said in the piece, basically EVERYONE had to have some sort of megabuck 1Bman. In hindsight, he should have moved Ibanez to 1B and retained him, and gone after (or developed) a corner fielder. Ibanez more then likely would come close to league-wide production at 1B, and more then likely they would have been able to get a corner fielder MUCH cheaper then what they paid Howard. I will say he WAS… Read more »
Bob
Guest
The problem is so much deeper than that and nobody seems to mention it. It is not about player A or player B. Those are the symptoms, not the cause. The causes of the Phillies problems are…first and foremost, they have not defined correctly a successful baseball player and stuck to that definition in talent management. You wonder why the opposing starter has 30 less pitches than the Phillies. I don’t. They teach them from Day One how to approach a plate appearance, how to hit, how to situational hit, how to know the strike zone, how to field, etc.… Read more »
Mike Lacy
Guest

I think you’re right on with the first part. Is that an Amaro thing? From what I’ve heard, that problem pre-dates him. (Doesn’t excuse him from not changing it though)

On the other hand, I don’t think Amaro is gun shy or unwilling to admit that his players aren’t working. If that was the case, would he have traded Pence away last year?

I think the problem is that nobody offered him anything of decent value.

brp
Guest

Why wouldn’t you take whatever you could get from NYY for Michael Young? What are you going to need him for this year? They’re probably not going to re-sign him.

Bob
Guest
I comment on all three points. Thanks for your thoughtful response. This is not cocky, but just personal experience and others will understand. I was once hired as a senior manager for a printing company. I was replacing someone who was retiring. Over time, in about 2 years, I changed about 75% of what was done previously- for the better too. In other words, if you are good enough (and I think he is not more than an average GM, if that), you have intuitive judgment to improve over what exists. In my case, I never worked in the industry… Read more »
John Autin
Editor
When I look at the Phillies’ 2007-11 success, I find myself asking *not* “Why weren’t they able to continue it to now?”, but rather, “Why didn’t they win more pennants in that run, and even before?” I think the moves they made in the first half of the 2000’s showed a lack of faith in young talent, and wound up far more costly than the recent overcommitments to aging players. Please forgive this long comment. In 2001, the Phils finished 86-76, 2 games behind Atlanta. Their best player (by WAR) was Scott Rolen. I don’t know the back story of… Read more »
GrandyMan
Guest

JA,

Scott Rolen did not have a good relationship with the Phillies organization. I remember reading at the time that he was unhappy with the way he was being criticized by management, and other contemporary sources I have since dug up indicated that he questioned the organization’s commitment to winning and ultimately demanded the trade. As a 13-year-old non-Phillies fan with no understanding of what was going on in the Phillies front office, I thought he was a whiner. Now I wonder if perhaps he had a point.

Hub Kid
Guest

I lived in Philly for the Francona years, when Rolen was there, and I remember that there was noise that Rolen wanted to leave starting around 2000. I most remember reading and hearing that he was unhappy playing on the astroturf at Veterans Stadium, and if I recall correctly he did have some knee problems that were exacerbated by it.

John Autin
Editor

FWIW, it’s one thing to say that paying Roy Halladay was a sound decision (which I firmly believe). But to say, as some have, that you can’t anticipate a historically durable pitcher suddenly becoming ineffective at age 35, and injured at 36, is to ignore history. Hitching the wagon to Doc was a risk well worth taking, but it was a risk. Many, historically durable pitchers, perhaps most, have suddenly lost it in their mid-30s.

Richard Chester
Guest

Carl Hubbell through age 36: .641 W-L pct. and 139 ERA+.
Age 37 to age 40: .529 W-L% and 95 ERA+. His highest seasonal ERA+ was 107 and he never won more than 11 games.

Paul E
Guest
Based on the fact that the youthful Miami Marlins are something like 30-28 since May 31st, it appears the Phillies could be headed to the bottom of the NL East in 2014. Unless the Marlins dump Stanton and get #$%^@ in return, the Phillies are probably going to be the worst of the five teams with the younger Mets and Marlins improving and the aging Phillies worsening. Even if the Phillies go with a youth movement, they are still a year behind the Mets and Marlins in that process. But, like the Red Sox, the Phillies have a tremendous revenue… Read more »
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