What happens when a guy who gets "40 good swings a year" goes through a journalistic spin cycle for five months? He goes from an overpaid, part-time, blue light special to reasonably priced 100 RBI threat, and indispensable part of the Phillies’ lineup.
All things considered, Pat Burrell had a much better off-season than regular season.
The next time the 30-year-old slugger runs into Kevin Roberts of the Courier Post, he owes him a drink. Roberts’ November column, published amidst swirling rumors the Phils were seeking a right-handed bat, defended Burrell and doused the lineup protection myth, enough to make skeptics alter their opinion of the situation, or at least save it for next season. Roberts used statistical evidence to prove Ryan Howard’s production actually increased with Burrell batting behind him.
Others joined the chorus. Resident talkshow host Michael Barkann -- never known to be grounded in a discernible reality -- started using Roberts’ walk stat on Daily News Live. Then, famed statistician Bill James stepped in and predictably backed Roberts’ claim. "It is overrated," James told the Inquirer. "I know people talk about it, but there is no evidence anywhere that proves that having a more capable hitter behind a hitter in a lineup will dramatically improve that hitter’s performance."
Last week, Daily News columnist Paul Hagen added "eyeballs" to the list of problem body parts, a list that already includes head, heart, wrist and foot. Some might say that when it comes to the personal happiness of Pat the Bat, only one body part matters. But that’s another story. Hagen polled an expert who said Burrell isn’t seeing the ball properly.
Nevertheless, Hagen may have a tough time linking eyesight with a collapsing back leg. On the subject of Burrell’s unorthodox swing, Marcus Hayes wrote a probing piece in September suggesting that Burrell might have been resisting Charlie Manuel’s advice to make adjustments to his stance. Meanwhile, even casual observers could identify "that thing with his butt," asking such practical questions as "Why doesn’t he shorten up with men on base?"
The glass-half-empty crowd used to include the man at the top, Phillies GM Pat Gillick. In September, Gillick briefed season ticket holders and said Burrell was not performing, and couldn’t answer whether he’d be back in 2007. After failing to land a better bat, Gillick has been heard ruefully reciting Burrell’s 2006 home run total in radio interviews ever since.
Columnist Bill Conlin still leads the old-guard naysayers by counting the ways in which the "Midnight Mayor of Center City" can hurt you, including clogging up the sacks and lumbering after ropes down the left field line. Conlin even proposed a speed-first outfield that included more time for rookie burner Michael Bourn.
Last week, Philadelphia favorite son Chase Utley joined Conlin as a guest on DNL and defended Burrell’s presence as enough to scare pitchers into facing Howard. And that settles it. Chase will likely become the last distinguished voice to sound off on the subject until Burrell arrives in Clearwater ... smelling as fragrant as a mountain spring.