Thursday, August 10, 2006

Harry Kalas
Harry Kalas is the legendary voice of the Phillies

Longtime Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas has seen just about everything there is to see in the great game of baseball. Since 1971, he has seen the ups and downs -- mostly downs -- of the Philadelphia Phillies. He has seen Rick Wise, Terry Mulholland, Tommy Greene, and Kevin Millwood throw no-hitters, the only two seasons the Phillies crossed the 100-win mark (1976 and '77), Mike Schimidt's four-homerun game on April 12, 1976, and three World Series berths, highlighted by the 1980 championship.

Still, Harry Kalas was beside himself when, on August 9, 2006 in a game against the Braves, Chase Utley scored on a routine grounder to the first baseman -- from second base. Kalas was caught by surprise as a result of how routine the play was, and as Utley slid safely behind Atlanta Braves catcher Todd Pratt, exclaimed, "Chase Utley, you are the man!"

As of 08/10/06
Statistic Value Rank
Average .328 5/8 .328
Hits 150 1/3 215
RBI 74 14/31 106
Runs 95 1/1 136
Doubles 33 8/13 47
Slugging Pct. .550 11/22 .550
Total Bases 252 3/5 361
At-Bats 459 5/9 658
Stolen Bases 12 20/36 17

To be called "the man" by one of baseball's most legendary broadcasters -- one who is in the Hall of Fame -- who has seen tens of thousands of players, and nearly as many occurrences in the game, denotes some otherwordly talent. Utley, named to his first All-Star game -- starting second baseman, no less -- is taking the baseball world by storm. At Citizens Bank Park, where the fans are known for their creative groups, such as "Padilla's Flotilla" and "The Wolf Pack," Utley has not one, but two fan groups: "Utley's Uglies" and "Chase's Chicks." Sports Illustrated has a great feature on him in their latest issue, dubbing him baseball's "dirtiest" player, with Eric Byrnes, Jorge Posada, Chone Figgins, Ryan Freel, Brian Roberts and Grady Sizemore as honorable mentions.

The Philadelphia Phillies are now Utley's team following the trade of Bobby Abreu, and it is a wise time for them to name him the team's honorary captain, just as catcher Jason Varitek is for the Boston Red Sox. The UCLA graduate has gone from introversion to leadership in less than a year, leading not just with words, but by example as well (see table above). According to The Bill James Handbook, he was able to take the extra base about 44% of the time when given the opportunity last season, a great percentage. Only two teammates ranked higher: Jimmy Rollins (51%) and Bobby Abreu (48%).

As of 08/10/06
Statistic Value Rank
Hits 120 18/45 172
RBI 102 1/2 146
Slugging Pct. .622 4/9 .622
Total Bases 255 2/3 365
Walks 57 15/26 82

His "grittiness" not only endears him to Phillies fans, but tangibly puts his team in a better position to win by beating out what are otherwise routine groundouts, as well as taking that extra base. According to The Hardball Times, Utley creates 7.8 runs per game*, which ranks 14th in the National League, 3.8 behind leader Albert Pujols.

Utley's competition for Most Valuable Player is only about 60 feet to his left in Ryan Howard. The 6'4" 252-pound first baseman is the reigning 2005 Rookie of the Year, and is the National League's version of David Ortiz. His 39 HR and 102 RBI is best in the National League. Despite striking out 128 times, six behind MLB-leader Adam Dunn, he still has a .293 batting average, which is stunningly high for a pure power hitter with a high amount of strikeouts.

Howard's 7.5 runs created per game is a sliver behind Utley, but because homeruns and RBI are sexier statistics, Howard gets noticed more for being a big contributor to his ballclub. The 2006 Homerun Derby winner projects to finish with 56 HR, which would be the highest total since Alex Rodriguez hit 57 in 2002. Howard also projects to finish with 146 RBI, just behind the 148 that David Ortiz finished with last season.

Chase Utley
Ryan Howard
Utley and Howard are
candidates for the MVP award.

MVP awards typically go to players whose teams make the playoffs, and the Wild Card is still a very viable option for the Phillies, three games back, in a weak National League. As of August 9, six teams -- four of which are from the NL West -- were three games or less behind the Wild Card-leading Cincinnati Reds. With 49 games left, the Phillies have a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way. A ten-game homestand starts on August 11, when the Phillies will play the Reds (59-56) three times, the New York Mets (69-44) for four, and the Washington Nationals (50-64) for three.

The ten-game homestand is followed by a ten-game road trip, where the Phillies will play four with the Chicago Cubs (48-66), and three each with the Mets and Nationals. They move into September seven at home, where they will play seven games in six days; four against the Atlanta Braves (52-61), and three against the Houston Astros (55-58). Another ten-game road trip follows: four with the Florida Marlins (52-61), and three each with the Braves and Astros. The Phillies' last six at home are played next, three apiece with the Cubs and Marlins, then head out on the road for the final six games of the season with the Nationals and Marlins.

All that being said, the combined record of the teams the Phillies will be competing against is 385-410 (.484). Only two of the teams have a winning record, and only 20% of the remaining games are played against them. Take out the Mets, and the combined record is 316-366 (.463). Then factor in that the Mets will use the remaining time to tinker with their bench players and bullpen, and that the NL West will go down to the wire with all five teams beating up on each other, and the only teams the Phillies have to worry about in the Wild Card are the Reds and Astros (20% of the games against those two).

The Phillies have a very realistic shot at the playoffs this season. Should the Phillies actually reach the postseason for the first time since 1993, don't be surprised if Chase Utley or Ryan Howard walk away with the MVP award. It all starts with their next three games against the Reds. If they sweep, they'll be tied for the Wild Card lead; if they get swept, they can count themselves out of the playoffs for the twelfth straight season.

*Runs Created Per Game (RC/G) is Runs Created (on-base percentage times total bases) divided by the number of outs made by the batter, times 27.