Better pitching and defense top the Phillies’ list of tangible improvements for next season, but it wouldn't hurt if just a few more chips fell their way.
The 2006 season is just a blip on the dusking horizon. Enough time has passed where the sturdy cartography of numbers has overtaken fleeting first-hand observation. Transactions, player comparisons and so forth are laid bare with Xs and Os instead of anecdotal evidence. Every detail helps when trying to figure out why the Phillies have missed to postseason the last two seasons, by a combined total of four games.
Luck is one area that has escaped statistical sabotage, and probably one of the few remaining avenues where first-hand observation can go largely unchallenged. Though inroads have been made to eliminate chance – a statistic like BABIP (batting average of balls in play) comes to mind – a good deal remains uncounted.
A good rule of thumb is that over a 162-game season, luck will level out. That didn’t happen for the Phils in 2006. They were victims more than benefactors. Chase Utley is the face of misfortune. The blown home run call in the first game of the Washington series (Sept. 26) might have been the backbreaking moment of the season.
I remeber thinking that if the Phillies made the playoffs, their offense was mentally prepared for anything. They faced considerable adversity since opening day, overcame a mid-season fire sale, and had the guts to grind back into contention. Despite the highest run-scoring offense in the National League, they played from behind constantly. It's the most tangible measure of heart when it comes to this team.
But it wasn't luck that ultimately did them in; it was pitching. However, the fates are still worth consideration. It’s tough to recall a single season where bad weather, timed with injury and fatigue, fouled a team’s pitching staff so often. The double-headers almost always played to the other team’s favor. Twin bills are difficult to sweep, even if they are against inferior opponents, like Atlanta, who managed to take 2-of-2 in a heart-wrenching four-game series with the Phils back on Sept. 3.
It’s still surprising that Scott Mathieson started eight games. When did that happen? As it turns out, smack in the middle of a Wild Card race. He pitched well in one of them – an eight-inning gem against New York. He was bombed the rest ... then his elbow snapped.
No matter how overmatched the 22-year-old was, there’s a string of bad luck here; the Phillies didn’t get lucky with any of their starting risks, not even a little. Eude Brito and Adam Bernero tanked in their starts. In 2005, they caught lightning in a bottle from a similar pitching gamble, Robinson Tejeda, the 24-year-old mystery who improbably pitched over his head for a couple of weeks and kept the Phillies in the hunt.
There were very few Tejedas this season, and none in the starting rotation. They didn’t find fortune with many of their bench gambles, either, all except Chris Coste late in the year and David Dellucci for the two weeks after the Bobby Abreu trade. Bullpen-wise, Rick White and Matt Smith didn’t hurt them, and neither did Fabio Castro, but those were typically 10-4 blowouts.
Regardless of their pedigree, track record, etc. - charitably considered below average at best - you’d figure at least one of the following would get hot, even a little: Alex Gonzalez; Sal Fasano; Ryan Franklin; Abraham Nunez; Chris Roberson; Brian Sanches; Julio Santana; Arthur Rhodes. They were all failures, to varying degrees. The buck stops at Pat Gillick, but even his staunchest critic must be astounded at the totallity of these flops.
Gavin Floyd and Ryan Madson have been omitted for one reason: despite their poor performance, they both managed winning records. That's lucky. Floyd went 4-3, and Madson went 11-9 splitting service as a starter and in the bullpen. They can thank their offense, and in particular, Floyd can thank Aaron Rowand for making "the catch." Otherwise, his final Phillies season would have rested at .500.
The Phillies are drawing closer to 2007, and if they take anything with them, apart from heart, it’s the idea that luck does indeed wash out.
It’s just taking longer.