Everyone agrees: The Phillies must start hot. For that to work, manager Charlie Manuel must play the percentages once again.
The Phillies have a reputation for poor performance against left-handed pitching. Manager Charlie Manuel believes it. GM Pat Gillick believes it. The fans believe it.
Two of their popular stars, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, have known struggles against it. Last season, they were swapped out in favor of a collection of bench players, including Placido Polanco, Tomas Perez and Ramon Martinez. Howard rarely started a game when a left-hander was on the hill. Utley only started once Polanco was traded.
It’s true that the Phillies fared poorly against the marquee left-handers. They were dominated in three of the four games against Dontrelle Willis. They never hit Mike Hampton well, and didn’t again in 2005. They scored one run in two games against Odalis Perez. They were shut out in seven innings against rookie Zack Duke. And if it wasn’t for a Jimmy Rollins solo home run, the Phillies wouldn’t have scored a run off Andy Pettitte.
As a team, they faced more southpaws than any team in the division, and the third most in the National League (1,509 ABs).
When it was all said and done, how’d they finish?
Very well, when you compare them with the rest of the league.
You can thank Charlie Manuel and David Bell for that.
The Phillies generated the fourth-highest OPS in the NL (.784) against left-handed pitching. Bell finished hitting .400 against them, with a 1.053 OPS. The center field platoon of Jason Michaels and Kenny Lofton was a significant boost, as was Polanco when he spotted Utley.
Over the course of the season, those contributions added up, as did the solid seasons by Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu and Jimmy Rollins. Mike Lieberthal and Todd Pratt also finished strong against left-handers.
Platooning in April
From the looks of their April schedule, the Phillies face a modest amount of left-handers, but will need to make a decision on platooning as soon as the second game of the season.
They open with three against St. Louis, which will probably include Mark Mulder in game two. Next, they host the Dodgers and will probably avoid Odalis Perez, but nothing is certain. Then they travel to Atlanta for three with the Braves, always tough, but they get a break this year as Mike Hampton will miss the season with Tommy John surgery. Horacio Ramirez projects as their only left-hander. Then they travel to Colorado. Not a tough staff, except for left-hander Jeff Francis, who shut out the Phillies over six innings last season. Next is Washington at home. They do not have a left-handed starter but pitch Phillies tough, and have the best bullpen in the division. Next is Florida, led by D-Train, but also backed by a number of left-handers, including Jason Vargas. Then it’s Colorado again, followed by a trip to Pittsburgh. The Pirates could be rough on the Phils as the month comes to an end. They have four potential left-handed starters in the mix, including Oliver Perez and Zach Duke.
With more choices on his bench, including the switch-hitting Abraham Nunez, Shane Victorino and right-handed Alex Gonzalez, Manuel has room to work. And as unpopular as he is, Bell is still the reigning best hitter against southpaws.
But this isn't a popularity contest.
Lucky we have a manager who can roll with the punches.