Friday, November 21, 2014

Philography: Jim Konstanty

Based on physical appearance, Jim Konstanty is one of the least likely looking winners of the National League Most Valuable Player award.

But for the incredible 'Whiz Kids' team of 1950, that is exactly what the Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher became.

The right-hander pitched in parts of 13 big league seasons, 7 of those in Philly. The story of this bespectacled young man's rise from the western New York farmland to MLB All-Star and MVP is worth knowing by any true Phils fan.

His real full name was Casimir James Konstanty, and he was born towards the tail end of World War I in the western New York farm country, raised there not far from Buffalo. In 1939 he graduated from Syracuse University, where he played basketball from 1936-39. His degree was in Physical Education, and so he then went to work as a P.E. instructor.

In 1941, already aged 24, the newlywed Konstanty tried out for and made the roster of the unaffiliated Eastern League baseball team in Springfield, Illinois. He didn't have a lot of success as a pitcher, but showed enough that he was given a chance the following season with the Cincinnati Reds AA farm team in Syracuse.

Over the next couple of seasons his pitching improved, and in 1944 he was called up to Cincinnati. He had a nice rookie season with the Reds at age 27, going 6-4 over 112.2 innings spread over 20 games, including 12 starts, with 5 complete games and a 2.80 ERA.

In 1945, Konstanty entered the U.S. Navy towards the end of World War II, and missed the entire baseball season as a result. Coming back in 1946, he was dealt prior to the season to the Boston Braves. He pitched in Boston through early May, but was then sent to the minors. He would pitch at AAA-Toronto into the 1948 season.

In September of 1948, the Phillies, who had taken over the Toronto affiliate from Boston, finally gave Konstanty another shot at the big leagues. He rewarded the Phils by pitching well in 9 late season outings, and set himself up for a regular role in the 1949 season.

The Phillies had been one of the worst organizations in all of baseball for decades entering that 1949 season. But with some new blood, the team seemed to be making progress at long last. They finished that final season of the war-torn 40's with a winning 81-73 record. It was just the club's 2nd winning record since 1917.

Konstanty was a big part of the Phils sudden success. At age 32, the righty fashioned a 3.25 ERA in 97 innings across 90 appearances. His slider and changeup had developed to the point where they were true weapons, and he proved to be one of the top relief specialists in the game in what was a breakout season for both him and the team.

The 1950 season dawned full of hope for the Fightin' Phils. Manager Eddie Sawyer had a young club that had challenged the season before, and that many thought had a chance to be very competitive once again. Their spirited play earned them the nickname 'The Whiz Kids', with the kids part a nod to their youth.

Eddie Sawyer managed the Whiz Kids to the 1950 NL Pennant

That 1950 club had 23-year old Richie Ashburn manning centerfield alongside 24-year old Del Ennis. 24-year old 3rd baseman Willie Jones and 23-year old shortstop Granny Hamner also started for the club. Even the veterans in the starting lineup: outfielder Dick Sisler, catcher Andy Seminick, and 2nd baseman Mike Goliat, were all still in their 20's. Only 1st baseman Eddie Waitkus, at exactly 30 years of age, had exited his 20's.

On the mound, the Phils started 23-year old righty Robin Roberts and 20-year old lefty Curt Simmons as their 1-2 in the rotation, with 23- year old Bob Miller and 26-year old Russ Meyer seeing regular action. At age 33, Jim Konstanty was an old man compared to this wet-behind-the-ears bunch.

These young Phillies got hot in early May to move well above the .500 mark, and then as the summer wore on, they took over first place in the National League. With a hot month during the dog days of August, they stretched their lead out to a steady half-dozen games. By as late as September 20th, the Phils led the N.L. by 7 1/2 games, and their first World Series since 1915 seemed a sure thing.

But then the combination of the pressure of what they were trying to finish, combined with a sudden burst from the talented Brooklyn Dodgers, saw the lead shrink. A 4-10 stretch in the final two weeks collapsed the once-safe lead down to a single game, with the Phillies and Dodgers squaring off head-to-head. The Phils would finally pull out a dramatic extra-inning victory in Brooklyn to clinch the Pennant.

Konstanty was the single most irreplaceable piece to that Pennant-winning club. The reliever took his game to another level, and Sawyer rode him hard. He pitched an incredible 152 relief innings allowing just 108 hits that season over 74 games, registering 22 Saves with a 2.66 ERA and 1.039 WHIP.

When the time came for voting for the National League's Most Valuable Player award, Konstanty easily out-polled Saint Louis Cardinals outfielder Stan Musial and New York Giants 2nd baseman Eddie Stanky. He received 18 of 24 first place votes. Ennis (4), Hamner (6), and Roberts (7) all finished in the MVP top 10 of the voting results.

The Phillies moved into the World Series against the perennial power New York Yankees. Having burned out his starters in the final drive to the NL Pennant, Sawyer turned to his workhorse MVP Konstanty to start the opening game after the righty had not started a single game all season.

Konstanty delivered a tour-de-force performance against the powerful Yankees lineup. In that opener, Konstanty went 8 innings, allowing just 4 hits. The Yanks scored in the 4th on a leadoff double by 3rd baseman Bobby Brown, who then scored thanks to consecutive sacrifice flies.

Unfortunately for Konstanty and the Phillies, his masterful effort was one-upped by the Yanks' Vic Raschi. The righty had won 21 games that season, and in this World Series opener he shutout the Phils on just 2 hits. The 1-0 victory put New York up 1-0 in the Fall Classic.

After two more tight losses to the Yankees by scores of 2-1 and 3-2, the Phillies were frustrated and had their backs to the wall. Sawyer again called on Konstanty to start the 4th game. This time the Yanks got to him early, scoring 2 runs in the 1st inning. Yogi Berra led off the 6th with a solo homer, and then New York added 2 more for a 5-0 lead. They would win 5-2 to take the World Series in four straight games.

In both 1951 and 1952, Konstanty continued to be a workhorse out of the Phillies bullpen. The '51 team disappointed, falling back to losing ways. But in 1952 the team rebounded to finish with 87 wins, 20 games over the .500 mark. However, it was only good enough for 4th place.

1953 was an interesting season for both the team and for Konstanty. He was moved into the rotation frequently, getting a career-high 19 starts and pitching a career-most 170.2 innings at age 36. He went 14-10 with a 4.43 ERA, while also pitching 29 games out of the bullpen and registering 5 Saves. The team moved up to 3rd place, but it would prove to be a last hurrah for the 'Whiz Kids', and for Konstanty in Philly.

In August of 1954, the now 37-year old Konstanty was struggling and the Phillies were losing. The team released him, but he would not go unemployed for long. The Yankees, perhaps remembering his 1950 World Series heroics against them, picked him up. Rejuvenated, the veteran pitched well, allowing just 11 hits in 18.1 innings, mostly in September. The Yanks would win 103 games, but it still wasn't enough. They finished 8 games behind an incredible 111-win Cleveland Indians team in the A.L. standings.

In 1955, Konstanty was part of an American League Pennant-winning Yankees team. He went 7-2 in 73.2 innings across 45 appearances, with a career-best 2.32 ERA. But amazingly, he saw no action as the Yanks lost a 7-game World Series to the Brooklyn Dodgers that fall. It would prove to be his final shot at a title.

Konstanty had his final big league hurrah with the Yankees

The Yankees returned to, and this time won, the World Series in 1956, avenging the previous year result with a 7-game victory over the Dodgers. But Jim Konstanty wasn't with the club to celebrate. He had a poor outing on May 13th against Baltimore, and the Yanks released him 5 days later. He caught on with the Saint Louis Cardinals, and finished the season with them. But that would prove to be the swan song for the 39-year old.

On retiring, Konstanty became a pitching coach with the Cardinals organization. In 1948 he had opened a sporting goods store in Oneonta, in central New York, and he would operate the store until 1973. In 1968, Konstanty took the job as Director of Athletics with Hartwick College in Oneonta, a job which he held until 1972.

Stricken with cancer, Konstanty died at just age 59 on June 11th, 1976. One of his grandsons, Michael Konstanty, would go on to play in the Cincinnati Reds organization from 2008-2010. Jim Konstanty currently ranks both 13th in Saves and Games as a pitcher on the All-Time Phillies rankings.

Although he only had that one truly dominating 1950 season, he was not a flash-in-the-pan. A late bloomer who didn't reach the majors until age 27, he nonetheless would throw nearly 1,000 big league innings. Jim Konstanty is an indelible part of Philadelphia Phillies history. Winning the league MVP during a Pennant-winning season will do that.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Phillies, Red Sox, Hamels

Cole Hamels traded by the Phillies to the Boston Red Sox for a package of young players and prospects.

It's a story that has been percolating for at least weeks, ever since Phillies acting President Pat Gillick publicly stated that the club likely would not win in 2015 or 2016.

Gillick has also publicly stated that everything is on the table. No player is untouchable. The Phils will explore every avenue in order to turn over the remainder of the holdovers from the recent era of excellence in hopes to move towards a bright future.

The Red Sox story has gained traction because it is true. Boston frankly is in desperate need of a starting pitcher of Hamels caliber. They have the pieces that it would take to get such a deal done. But getting the Phils and Bosox together on an exact trade is proving to be a difficult matter.

I believe that it should be difficult. When making such a deal, from both sides, the cost to your club weighed against the potential benefits can be difficult to gauge. In the end, if such a deal does get completed, it will take a measure of courage on the parts of both organizations.

It's my hope here to shed a little more light on what is happening, and come at things from both a Phillies and Red Sox perspective. No one can tell you whether a deal will get done or not. No one can tell you what Boston is willing to move. No one can tell you what the Phillies are asking. With that, an examination:


What the Phillies are, have, and should be asking:

Here is what we are talking about, from a Phils perspective. They are a clearly rebuilding organization, top to bottom. In an off-season of publicly pronounced change, nearly every other interesting piece they have to offer comes with age, injury, and/or financial concerns. Hamels is the exception.

He will turn 31 years old next month, so is not old. He has thrown over 180 innings in 8 straight seasons, over 200 in 5 straight, and has made at least 31 starts in 7 straight, so he is healthy and reliable. He has struck out over 190 batters in 6 of the last 7 seasons, so he is dominant.

He is signed for the next 4 seasons, with a club option on a 5th season. That contract pays him $22.5 million each season. That is a lot, but not for what Hamels is: a true, proven, experienced, healthy, left-handed ace who has been a big winner in a big market. It is cost certainty for a wealthy team in an $8.5 billion industry.

Considering all of the above, the Phillies rightfully should be asking a great deal for his services. The teams needs are plenty, and he offers the only realistic chance to fill at least 2-3 of those needs with talented young players and prospects.

What the Red Sox are, have, and should reasonably expect to pay:

This is the Boston Red Sox we are talking about. Much like the Phils, they have one of the most passionate, involved fan bases in the game. Losing is not an option in Beantown. In 2014, a year after winning their 3rd World Series title in a decade, the Bosox came in last place in the American League East. It is actually their 2nd last place finish in the last 3 seasons.

Mookie Betts is a player that has to be on Phillies list

Boston also has one of the deepest, most talented pools of young players and prospects in the game today. Earlier this year, Baseball America ranked them 2nd, and Baseball Prospectus ranked them 4th in all of baseball in terms of organizational prospect talent.

The Red Sox also have other interesting dynamics. They went from last to champions just a year ago, so they know it can be done. But they compete in a very tough division. The Orioles won the division by a dozen games and are not going away. The Blue Jays are talented, and already making moves like signing Russell Martin, geared at winning now. The Yankees will not sit for long, just on the outside fringes of contention.

Boston can again go from last to champs. They have a core that is not getting any younger, but still talented, with 'Big Papi' David Ortiz now 39 years old, Shane Victorino at 34, Mike Napoli at 33, Dustin Pedroia at 31. They need at least one Hamels-caliber arm, and probably two, in order to get back to contending right away. Clay Buchholz at 30 years old is their ace for now. Otherwise, they are counting on a number of young starting rotation options for 2015.

The Red Sox should expect to pay the price of 3 high-value prospects in order to obtain the total package as a player that Cole Hamels offers. Or at least 1 mega-prospect and a pair of strong ones as icing-on-the-cake.

Specifics of a deal

Let's be specific. I don't know what Ruben Amaro is asking, and neither does anyone else. He has been criticized for asking for too high a price of his aging veterans in recent months. That may be valid, but even if so, it is completely irrelevant here. Hamels is not an aging veteran, he is an ace starting pitcher in his prime. Asking a high price is completely acceptable here.

I would be looking to get an infielder, an outfielder, and a pitcher in return. I would be starting my own conversations with 2nd baseman Mookie Betts, pitcher Henry Owens, and outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. I would be willing to consider Garin Cecchini as an infield substitute for Betts, and Allen Webster or Trey Ball as subs for Owens. But if I did either/both of those, I may also look for a 4th, younger kid such as Rafael Devers or Manuel Margot to be included.

That is a lot, in the world of prospects. But let's keep in mind what we are talking about here. We are talking baseball prospects, the overwhelming majority of which are not likely to pan out into big producers at the MLB level. That is simply a fact. They are pretty names right now, with lots of tools. That is all. Potential. Meanwhile, on the Boston end, Cole Hamels is a proven World Series MVP. And the Sox would still have a bunch of strong prospects remaining.

The Red Sox also still have other options. Specifically, they have one major alternate option: re-sign their own former lefty ace, free agent Jon Lester. The problem is, there are a number of teams actively pursuing Lester. He is free to negotiate with those clubs. A few may appear even more likely to win soon, and may offer more money.

Jon Lester free agency decision a key for Boston

Boston likely makes no move on Hamels at least until after it finds out a final Lester decision. But wouldn't having both lefties in their rotation be exactly what they need? I believe that even if they bring Lester back, the Bosox are treding water from the 2014 bottom dwellers. Adding Hamels makes a legitimate upgrade.

One thing is certain, Ruben Amaro cannot let Hamels go for anything less than full value. You almost never get real value in return for an ace caliber starting pitcher. Look at the records of such deals in history. Look no further than the Phillies own deals involving both Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay just 4-5 years ago. The prospect packages back then all sounded nice. In the end, little to nothing.

There is absolutely no hurry, other than possible risk of a Hamels injury somewhere down the line lessening his value. But he has proven reliable, so that is a slight risk. Waiting into the 2015 season until the trade deadline approaches, or even revisiting this again with teams next off-season after the free agent market settles is a perfectly reasonable strategy.

The bottom line from a Phillies management and fan perspective should be that this is our one near-perfect asset, easily the most valuable that the team controls. Giving it up should be done only to give the club significant potential to cover multiple needs going forward.

With every trade, there comes risk. With any Phillies-Red Sox trade involving Cole Hamels for a trio of highly regarded prospects, there will be risk for both clubs. But right now, these two organizations seem like a near-perfect fit. They just need to find the exact right particulars. And for Ruben Amaro, he simply cannot get this one wrong.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Philography: Placido Polanco

An important cog in the Philadelphia Phillies lineup for 7 of the 11 seasons between 2002-2012, Placido Polanco can nonetheless be considered the hard-luck player in the Phillies decade of winning excellence to open the 21st century.

His two stints as a starter with the ball club, first in the early part of the decade when he was mostly used as the starting 2nd baseman, and then at the end as the starting 3rd baseman, sandwiched the 2008 World Series victory, of which he was not a part.

But Polanco's excellent play for the team in that long stretch cannot be overlooked. He brought steady professionalism, along with both winning play and a positive attitude. In the beginning, he helped the team realize it could compete with anyone. In the end, he was a big part of a record-setting Phils season.

Placido Polanco's career began in the Saint Louis Cardinals organization at the tail end of the 20th century. Born and raised in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, he was selected by the Cards in the 19th round of the 1994 amateur draft out of Miami-Dade College.

He began his pro career that summer playing shortstop with the Cardinals rookie league affiliate at age 18, and remained at short when assigned to A-level Peoria in 1995. Then in 1996, Polanco was moved over to 2nd base. He would play mostly that position in both '96 at High-A and then again for the Cardinals AA-level affiliate at Arkansas in 1997.

Though he did swipe 19 bags in '97, Polanco was a light-hitter known for his ability to make contact. He was also proving highly skilled with the glove, and he graded outstanding in overall baseball smarts. Many in the organization, as well as outside evaluators, were pegging him as a future utility infielder who would definitely reach the Major Leagues as the 90's were drawing to a close.

He finally achieved the Big League dream with a call-up to the Cardinals in July of 1998. In his 2nd game, his first start, Polanco was installed as the leadoff hitter playing 2nd base in a game vs the Reds at Cinergy Field in Cincinnati. In the bottom of the first inning, Polanco lined a clean base hit to short rightfield off Reds' lefty Brett Tomko for the first hit of his career.

Later in that 1998 season, in a game at Busch Stadium in Saint Louis vs the Florida Marlins, Polanco was given a start at shortstop by manager Tony LaRussa. With one-out in the bottom of the 2nd inning, Polanco drove a ball deep down the leftfield line against Rafael Medina for his first career homerun.

It was just a first taste of life in the Big Leagues for Polanco, who would split time from 1998-2000 between the Majors and AAA. Each year his time with the Cardinals increased, and finally by the end of August 2000 he was the regular starting 2nd baseman in Saint Louis as the Cards won the N.L. Central crown. He saw regular action that year during the team's first post-season appearance in 13 years, a tough NLDS loss to Atlanta.

Over the course of that first full 2000 season, Polanco had been bounced around the infield from 2nd to short to 3rd. His versatility fully established, he was finally given a chance in 2001 to settle at a spot. He saw 103 games, 92 starts, at 2nd base that season, while also seeing a career-high 42 games at shortstop.

Saint Louis again reached the postseason, this time as a Wildcard, and again took the NLDS to a decisive game. But again, Polanco and the Cards fell short, losing in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks to the Arizona Diamondbacks. A pattern of postseason frustration was being established that would see a World Series crown always just beyond Polanco's grasp.

In 2002, Polanco was moved over to 3rd base by the Cardinals as the regular starter, seeing 131 games at the position. But then just before the non-waiver trade deadline, on July 29th, a stunner. Polanco was included in a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phils were looking to move disgruntled 3rd baseman Scott Rolen, and found a match in Saint Louis.

Phils traded disgruntled 3B Scott Rolen to Cards for Polanco

Now beginning a new chapter of his career in Philadelphia, Polanco finished out the 2002 season with a Phils club that had come in 2nd place in the NL East, just 2 games back, during the 2001 season. The '02 team struggled through a losing September to finish a disappointing 80-81. It would prove to be the team's last losing season for a decade.

In 2003 the Phillies were closing Veteran's Stadium, and wanted to open the new Citizens Bank Park on an upswing. The club brought in free agents Jim Thome, David Bell, and Dan Plesac to upgrade the overall roster. The team responded by battling into late September in a dogfight with Florida and Houston for the NL Wildcard spot. However, 6 straight losses in a season-closing 1-7 stretch dropped them out of playoff contention. They finished 10 games over .500, but finished 5 games behind the Florida Marlins.

Polanco was the regular 2nd baseman in both that final 2003 season at The Vet, and in the inaugural 2004 season at Citizens Bank Park. In '04, the team again finished 10 games over .500, but they finished 10 behind the Atlanta Braves for the NL East crown and 6 games behind Houston for the Wildcard. They were obviously close, but not quite a championship contender.

That fall of 2004, Polanco became a free agent for the first time. In the end, liking his place with the team and the direction in which they seemed headed, he chose to sign a 5-year deal with the Phillies. His future was secure financially, and it appeared that he had a pivotal role on a team that looked to be a consistent contender into the future on the field as well.

His on-field production was also improving as he moved into his prime years and gained more consistent playing time. In 2003 he hit .289 with 14 homers and 14 steals, had 30 doubles, and scored 87 runs. In 2004, at age 28, he upped his average to .298 and his homers to 17.

2005 would be a near-miss for the Phillies playoff fortunes. The club won a couple more games, finishing 14 over the .500 mark, but still fell 2 games short of the Braves in the division. Perhaps more excruciating, they missed the Wildcard by just a single game. Polanco, however, was not around for the near-miss. That contract he signed did not have full no-trade protection.

On June 8th of 2005, the Phillies dealt Polanco away in an effort to bolster their pitching staff for the 2nd half. He was sent off to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for Ramon Martinez and Ugueth Urbina. The Phillies felt Polanco was expandable now that Chase Utley was ready to fully take over at 2nd base.

Young 2B Chase Utley made Polly expendable in 2005

In the American League for the first time in his career, Polanco was also given a steady position for the first time. He would be the Tigers starting 2nd baseman for the next 4+ seasons. In the best portion of the prime of his career, from ages 29-33, Polanco hit a combined .311, and in 2006 he helped lead the Tigers to a Wildcard playoff berth.

In the 2006 playoffs, the Tigers would roll through the Yankees and A's, winning 7 of 8 games to take the American League Pennant for the first time in 22 seasons. Polanco was integral. The Detroit 2nd baseman hit .413 in the ALDS vs the Yanks, and then .529 in the 4-game sweep of Oakland in the ALCS for which he was named the Most Valuable Player.

Moving on to the World Series for what would be the only time in his career, the Tigers were taking on his former team, the Saint Louis Cardinals. Polanco would also be squaring off with Rolen, the player for whom he was traded to Philly four years earlier. The two teams split the first two games in Detroit, and headed to St. Louis for the next 3 games.

The Tigers knew they needed to win just once in order to ensure at least a return trip to Detroit. It would never come. In Saint Louis, the Cardinals swept all three games to win the World Series. For his part, Polanco was almost non-existent. In his only Fall Classic he didn't register a single hit, going 0-17 with a walk and a hit-by-pitch. Rolen was strong, hitting .421 with a homer and 5 runs scored in winning his lone career championship.

In 2007, Polanco would show that his previous postseason failures were not indicative of any erosion in his talent. At age 31, Polanco hit .341 with a .388 on-base percentage, he produced a career-high 67 rbi, scored 105 runs, reached 200 hits for the only time in his career, including a career-best 36 doubles. The result was his first-ever All-Star Game, as well as receiving the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove Awards.

Polanco was MVP of the 2006 ALCS while with Detroit

In both 2007 and in 2009, the Tigers would finish 2nd in the A.L. Central Division but were unable to secure a playoff spot. Polanco continued to be solid, hitting .307 for a losing Detroit team in 2008, and then winning his 2nd Gold Glove while driving in a knew career-high 72 runs in 2009.  Also in 2008, Polanco had become a naturalized U.S. citizen, taking his oath before a game right on the field at Comerica Park.

Following the 2009 season, the 5-year deal that he had originally signed with Philadelphia was now up, and he was again a free agent. The Tigers were ready to move on from their 2nd baseman, who would be turning 34-years old in 2010.

Meanwhile, back in Philly, the team had won the 2008 World Series and returned there in 2009. Their 3rd baseman, Pedro Feliz, was turning 35 years old in 2010 and had his contract expiring. Despite his not having played 3rd base since leaving Philly in 2005, the Phils approached Polanco about the possibility of moving back to the hot corner. Polanco jumped at a reunion.

Signing a 3-year deal to become the Phillies new 3rd baseman, the man who had become known as "Polly" set out to show that he could still produce at a high level. In his first season back in 2010, he played a strong 3rd base, and the Phillies reached the NLCS before losing in six games to San Francisco.

The following year of 2011, both the team and Polanco upped their games. The Phillies set a franchise record with 102 victories in rolling to their 5th consecutive National League East Division crown. Polanco made his 2nd All-Star team, his first in the National League, and would win the Gold Glove. In doing so, Placido Polanco became the first player to win a Gold Glove at two different positions.

With all of the 2011 success, the ending would prove disastrous for the team, and would signal the beginning of the end of Polanco's time in Philly and his career as a whole. The Phils were edged out by his old Cardinals team in the NLDS thanks to a 1-0 loss in the decisive game. As in the 2006 World Series, Polanco again did not produce against them, going 2-19.

Polanco returned to the Phils as their 3rd baseman 2010-12

In 2012, Polanco and the Phillies suffered from injuries and began to fall apart. The team struggled to a .500 finish, missing the postseason for the first time since 2006. Polanco's season would be ended by injury just as September began. But before it happened he had one more moment of glory. On May 14th he cracked a homerun off Houston Astros reliever David Carpenter for the 2,000th hit of this Major League career.

Granted free agency once again following that 2012 season, approaching age 37 and wanting to spend more time with his wife and two small children, Polanco considered retirement. He would only play if it could be near them, limiting him to the southeastern clubs. He signed eventually with the Miami Marlins, playing one final season as their 3rd baseman before finally retiring.

In a career that spanned parts of 16 seasons, Placido Polanco fashioned a .297 batting average in nearly 8,000 plate appearances spread across a little over 1,900 games. He appeared at 2nd base in more than 1,000 games and at 3rd in 751, as well as 122 at shortstop. He won the Gold Glove in both the AL and the NL, was an All-Star in both leagues, and had done both while with the Phillies.

Polly also proved to be very reliable. He finished with well over 500 plate appearances in every season for which he was given the opportunity during his prime years, 10 of the 11 seasons between ages 25-34. The lone exception was 2004 in Detroit when he barely missed at 495 thanks to a mid-August to mid-September injury.

A career near-.300 hitter who was a great defender. An All-Star caliber player who proved to be both versatile and dependable. A consummate professional who was well-liked and well-respected by both his peers and by fans. That is how Placido Polanco will be remembered by baseball fans in general, and Phillies fans in particular.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Top 10 Clutch Hits in Phillies History

Both of these sparkplugs made the "#Clutch10" cut
The game on the line. The series on the line. The season on the line.

These are the moments when not only talent, but mental toughness are required.

Facing the other team's ace starting pitcher, or lock-down setup man, or flame-throwing closer.

Whether their hits came with the Phillies backs to the proverbial wall, or a postseason series needing to be turned, or a Pennant needing to be clinched. Barely ahead and a nail needing to be put in the other team's coffin.

These are the Philadelphia Phillies franchise top 10 "clutch" hits. The biggest rips, the most key bloops and blasts, the cracks of the bat that brought Philly fans to their feet, whether in a ballpark or in their homes.

To reach a final Top 10 from among hundreds of big hits, there had to be a few basic criteria set. To even be considered, the hits had to come in either a postseason series or a pivotal game towards the end of a regular season.

Also, this is not necessarily a list of the most important hits in Phillies history. To me, such a list would absolutely include Pedro Feliz' single to drive in the winning run of the 2008 World Series, and Mike Schmidt's home run in Montreal to clinch the 1980 National League East crown.

Those two big hits made the list of about two dozen finalists for this Top 10. But I was looking for something more than the obvious big moment. The 10 who made the cut all had even more of an edge to them. More of that "we might not actually win this thing" feel prior to the hit.

Any list of this type is going to be subjective. Your own list will undoubtedly have a handful of different hits on it. The two just mentioned by Schmidt and Feliz will be there for many. There were so many clutch moments in 1980, 1993, 2008 and across club history. I hope this spurs your thoughts, comments, and some conversation.

There are hits here on my own list from 1950, 1981, and 2009. There are two each from 1993 and 2008. And there are three from the 1980 postseason. 7 of the 10 hits came on the road in 5 different cities. At home, two came at Citizens Bank Park, and one at The Vet.

And perhaps as a testament to the ability of a player to rise to the moment, the hits were registered by 10 different players. That was not contrived. I didn't realize it until I had settled on the final 10.

So here we go, one man's take on the all-time top 10 clutch hits in Philadelphia Phillies history, all but one of which I had the pleasure to experience as they happened during my lifetime:

10. George Vukovich: Saturday, October 10th, 1981
In 1981, a work stoppage had caused MLB to conduct a split-season format for the only time in history. The first half was won by the defending World Series champion Phillies in the NL East, the 2nd half by the young and talented Montreal Expos. The two teams then faced off in a National League Division Series at a time when normally no such series existed. Montreal had won the first 2 games of the best-of-5 series at home, putting the Phils in a desperate situation, backs to the wall. But the team played well in Game 3, winning back at Veteran's Stadium to stay alive. Now in Game 4 at The Vet, the Phillies needed to again win to stay alive and force a decisive 5th game. They built an early 4-0 lead, but the Expos came roaring back, and the game went to extra innings tied at 5-5. In the bottom of the 10th, George Vukovich stepped to the plate. No relation to Phillies Wall of Famer John, the left-handed hitter had just 91 plate appearances spread across parts of the 1980 and 1981 seasons to that point. Vukovich was leading off as a pinch-hitter for Phils closer Tug McGraw, facing Expos closer Jeff Reardon, who would be in his 4th inning of pitching, having set down 8 batters in a row. With the season hanging on the line, Vukovich came up big in his clutch moment. He blasted the only walkoff postseason homerun in Phillies history, winning the game and tying the series.

9. Lenny Dykstra: Monday, October 11th, 1993
The Phillies had gone worst-to-first from 1992 to 1993 in winning the NL East in wire-to-wire fashion. The "Macho Row" gang of mulleted misfits was still a heavy underdog to the 104-win Atlanta Braves. But this tough group, who had over the previous 6 months put on the single most consistently exciting and fun regular season that I still to this day have ever experienced, had typically battled Atlanta hard, confounding the experts in splitting the first four games of the best-of-7 NLCS. The Phils took a 3-0 lead into the bottom of the 9th at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, and appeared poised to go back home up 3-2 in the series. But the Braves roared back to tie it up, nearly won it, and had all the momentum as the pivotal game moved to extra innings. With one out and nobody on in the top of the 10th, the man alternately known as "Nails" and "the Dude" stepped in against Atlanta's young fireballing righthander Mark Wohlers. Dykstra drove a supremely clutch homerun to steal away all the Atlanta momentum and put the Fightin's on top 4-3. Veteran Larry Anderson then came out of the bullpen in the bottom to shut the Braves down and win the game. Now up 3 games to 2, the Phillies would return home to complete the stunner and advance to the World Series for the first time in a decade.

The Flyin' Hawaiian delivered off C.C. Sabathia in 2008 NLDS
8. Shane Victorino: Thursday, October 2nd, 2008
At first blush, this might not appear to be such a clutch situation. The Phillies were on top of the Milwaukee Brewers already 1-0 in the NLDS. They were playing in front of a raucous home crowd at Citizens Bank Park. But they also were facing the Brewers hired gun, ace lefty C.C. Sabathia, who was obtained in a July trade for just such big games. Sabathia had gone 11-2 after coming from Cleveland to Milwakee in that deal. Coming into this game, the Brewers had every reason to expect to ride C.C. to the series-tying victory, heading back home all even and with all the momentum. The Phils had been swept out of the NLDS the year before by Colorado, and as yet had proven nothing in the postseason. The Brewers took an early 1-0 lead in the top of the 1st, and then Sabathia struck out both Chase Utley and Ryan Howard with Victorino in scoring position to end the Phillies half of the 1st. It looked like it might be a long night. But then the first piece of 2008 magic happened. With one out, the Phils got to Sabathia for the tying run, and then pitcher Brett Myers battled him hard for the most electrifying walk in club history. After another walk, Victorino stepped up with the bases loaded. If the Phils were going to ever get to Sabathia and win this key game, they could not afford to squander this opportunity. They wouldn't, as "The Flyin' Hawaiian" drove a grand slam to put the Phils on top 5-1 and send the crowd into a state of delirium. Myers would pitch a gem, and Victorino's slame would prove clutch, holding up for a 5-2 victory. The Phillies went up 2-0 in the best-of-5 series that would prove to be the first step on the road to a world championship.

7. Kim Batiste: Wednesday, October 6th, 1993
It was the opening game of the National League Championship Series between the upstart, worst-to-first Phillies (same team as the earlier Dykstra homer here), and the Phils were considered big underdogs to Atlanta by most observers. Curt Schilling pitched fantastic, and the Phils took a 3-2 lead into the 9th. However, the effort was squandered as the Braves tied it off closer Mitch 'Wild Thing' Williams, sending the game into extra innings. It appeared that the Phillies had wasted a golden opportunity to get a jump on the favored Braves. Williams was still in the game, and in the top of the 10th had a typical tightrope walk. He got the first two hitters easily, then gave up a single and double to put two runners in scoring position, then got a strike out for the third out. In the bottom of the 10th, the Phils needed to make something happen. With one out, John Kruk lined a double to right field off Braves closer Greg McMichael. Up stepped reserve infielder Kim Batiste, who had a good season coming off the bench. Batiste had come in for defensive purposes at 3rd base for Dave Hollins in the top of the 9th. The move by manager Jim Fregosi backfired almost immediately, as Batiste made a key error that helped Atlanta tie the score. Presented with this chance to atone for the error and deliver a huge victory, he came up clutch, drilling a hot shot double past 3rd baseman Terry Pendleton. Kruk came rumbling around to score the game-winner, and the Phils had a confidence building 4-3 walkoff victory.

Pete Rose bowled over Bruce Bochy on The Bull's big 1980 NLCS hit
6. Greg Luzinski: Saturday, October 11th, 1980
The veteran-laden Phillies were most certainly feeling the pressure in Game 4 of the best-of-5 NLCS vs the Houston Astros. After winning Game 1 thanks in large part to a massive home run from Luzinski, the Phils had dropped the next two. Now the Astrodome was rocking, as the Astros took a 2-0 lead into the top of the 8th, and appeared poised to advance to the World Series for the first time in franchise history. But the Phillies vets would prove resilient this entire postseason, and they rallied to go ahead 3-2. Houston was tough as well, and in front of the increasingly roaring crowd, the Astros rallied to tie in the bottom of the 9th, nearly winning it as well. The game headed to extra innings with the Phils season on the line. With one out, Pete Rose singled, but then Mike Schmidt lined out for the 2nd out of the inning. With two down, the Astros looked to the tough Joe Sambito to get the 3rd out, hoping they could come to bat trying to win the series. But the man known as "the Bull" had other ideas. One of the most senior of Phillies, Luzinski came through in the clutch, driving a Sambito offering for a hit into the gap. Rose charged around the bases. Hustling all the way from 1st, Pete came charging around 3rd, and then bowled into Astros catcher Bruce Bochy at the plate, knocking the ball away just as the throw arrived. Luzinski's double and Rose's hustling score had put the Phillies ahead 4-3. They would tack on another run, Tug McGraw would shut down Houston in the bottom of the 10th, and the Phils would force a decisive Game 5 in a series in which the final 4 games all went to extra innings.

5. Dick Sisler: Sunday, October 1st, 1950
Over nearly the entire first century of Phillies baseball, this was by far the biggest, most important, most "clutch" hit in franchise history. For 93 seasons from the organization's founding in 1883 until 1976, the Phils would reach the postseason just twice. In 1915, they had lost 4-1 to the Red Sox in the World Series. The "Whiz Kids", as these young 1950 Phillies had become known, came down the stretch in September holding the lead in the National League. In those days there were no divisions. A team had to come in first place in the NL to reach the World Series. The Phils led the league by 7 1/2 games as late as September 20th. But in losing 8 of their next 10 games, the lead had collapsed to just a single game over the Brooklyn Dodgers with one left to play between the two teams. If the Phils won, they would win just the team's 2nd-ever NL Pennant and head to the World Series. Lose, and Brooklyn would have forced a tie, and a playoff for that NL Pennant. The two teams battled hard, each scoring just a single 6th-inning run. In the bottom of the 9th, the Dodgers nearly had won it. Their first two hitters reached base. Then Duke Snider delivered what looked like the game-winning hit. But centerfielder Richie Ashburn saved the day. He charged and threw a strike to backup catcher Stan Lopata, who tagged out the sliding Cal Abrams. Pitcher Robin Roberts then wriggled out of the jam, and the Phils stayed alive. They came up in the top of the 10th knowing that they couldn't give the Dodgers many more chances. Two hits and a sacrifice brought Sisler to the plate. In his historic clutch moment, the Phils leftfielder drove a pitch from Don Newcombe over the wall for a 3-run homer and a 4-1 lead. Roberts set the Dodgers down in order in the bottom of the 10th, and the Phillies had won the National League Pennant on the final day of the season.
Dick Sisler's homer won the 1950 NL Pennant for the 'Whiz Kids'

4. Matt Stairs: Monday, October 13th, 2008
The Phillies had won the first two games of the NLCS at Citizens Bank Park, but LA won big in Game 3 at Dodger Stadium. In Game 4, they looked to tie up the best-of-7 series, and would then hold the home field advantage for Game 5 as well. Los Angeles appeared well on it's way to accomplishing that goal, taking a 5-3 lead into the top of the 8th. The Phils got a leadoff single, and Dodgers manager Joe Torre brought in reliever Corey Wade to face a series of Phils righty hitters. He got Pat Burrell to pop up to 2nd base for the first out. But then Shane Victorino stepped up and smacked a line-drive, game-tying blast that was his own 2nd huge clutch homer of the postseason. Wade remained in the game, getting the 2nd out, but then yielding a single. With 2 outs, a man on first, and the game still tied, Torre  then called on his big, flame-throwing righty setup man Jonathan Broxton. Phils skipper Charlie Manuel countered with big veteran lefty hitter Matt Stairs as a pinch-hitter for reliever Ryan Madson. Stairs drove a Broxton fastball "deep into the night", a long home run into the rightfield stands that was as clutch as could be, putting the Phillies on top 7-5. A key double play helped keep LA off the scoreboard in the bottom of the 8th, Brad Lidge closed the game out in the bottom of the 9th, and the Phils had a pivotal 3-1 lead in the series. Cole Hamels put the final nail in the LA coffin the following day, advancing the Phillies to the World Series for the first time in 15 years.

3. Jimmy Rollins: Monday, October 19th, 2009
The Phillies were the defending World Series champions entering this rematch with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. Just as a year earlier, the Phils took 2 of the first 3. But this time, game 4 was at Citizens Bank Park. Having that home crowd didn't help. Just as a year earlier in the same pivotal 4th game between the teams, the Dodgers took a lead into the late stages looking to tie the series up. As the Phils came to bat in the bottom of the 9th, they would take their last hacks, the true benefit of the home game. As fate would have it they were facing Jonathan Broxton, the man who Stairs had omered off the previous year in our "Clutch Hit #4" above. Broxton had now become the LA closer. With one out, Charlie Manuel tried to see if lightening could strike twice, sending Stairs again in to pinch-hit against the big Dodger. But this time there was no key home run. The wily veteran Stairs did, however, work a walk. So the tying run was now on base. Manuel sent Eric Bruntlett in to pinch-run for Stairs, and after Carlos Ruiz was hit by a pitch, the tying run moved into scoring position. Broxton got pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs to line out to 3rd base for the 2nd out. The Phillies were down to their last hitter, still trailing by a run, with LA needing just this final out to tie the series and take the momentum. The only one standing in their way was the Phillies senior player and leader, shortstop Jimmy Rollins. Batting left-handed against the power righty, the switch-hitting JRoll shot a clutch double into the right-centerfield gap. Bruntlett scored the tying run, and as Citizens Bank Park erupted in a bedlam that was becoming almost commonplace in that era, Ruiz scored the game-winner. Just as the previous season, the Phils had a near-miraculous win and an improbable 3-1 lead in the series. Just as the previous season, they would wrap it up the following game behind Hamels to advance to the World Series.

2. Garry Maddox: Saturday, October 11th, 1980
For my money, the best-of-five 1980 National League Championship Series between the Phillies and the Houston Astros remains the greatest NLCS in history. The Phils won a tight opener 3-1 behind a Steve Carlton gem, and each of the next four games were decided in extra innings. The 4th game, in which the Phillies rallied from behind to gain a 2-2 tie, was the subject of "Clutch Hit #6" on this list from Greg Luzinski. Thanks to that hit, the Phils had forced this 5th and deciding game, one that would ultimately yield a handful of incredible clutch hits. But at the start, the Astros were sending power ace and future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan to the mound. The Phils were countering with a rookie, Marty Bystrom. The matchup clearly favored Houston. Bystrom, as he did that entire September and October, battled into the 6th inning and kept the team in the game, leaving with the score still tied at 2-2. But Houston then roped around Phils veteran Larry Christenson in the 7th to set up the living legend Ryan with a 5-2 lead heading into the top of the 8th. That inning has become legendary in Phillies lore. The team managed to load the bases off Ryan without hitting a ball out of the infield. The events unfolded in such incredulous fashion as to seemingly unnerve the usually unflappable Ryan. It didn't help that the similarly unflappable Pete Rose was at the plate. Rose worked a based loaded walk, and the Astros lead was down to 5-3. Manager Bill Virdon took out the clearly shaken Ryan, who still had not been hit hard by the Phils, and brought in Joe Sambito. The reliever got pinch-hitter Keith Moreland to ground out, with another run scoring on the play. The chess game then continued with Virdon bringing in starting pitcher Bob Forsch to face Mike Schmidt. Forsch won, getting the Phils slugger to strike out looking. Now there were two outs, and the Astros still held the lead at 5-4. The Phillies were down to their final 4 outs. Phils manager Dallas Green then made his move in the chess game, sending up lefty pinch-hitter Del Unser to face the righty Forsch. Unser delivered a clutch hit of his own, singling to rightfield to score Greg Gross with the tying run. Up stepped Manny Trillo, who would be named the MVP of this NLCS for moments just like this one. The Phils 2nd baseman ripped a ball down the left field line for the 8th inning's umpteenth clutch hit. Ramon Aviles scored the go-ahead run, and Unser scampered all the way around from 1st as Trillo slid head-first into 3rd base. The 2-run triple had put the Phillies on top 7-5. Incredibly though, it wouldn't end up a game-winner. The Astros tied it in the bottom of the 9th, and the game entered extras. In the top of the 10th, Unser hit a one-out double, but when Trillo flew out easily to center there were two outs. One more, and the Astros would come up to try and win the series in their half of the 10th. That's when Maddox became a clutch hero. He roped a punch-shot base hit to centerfield, with Unser scoring the go-ahead run as the ball fell in, with Maddox running all the way and reaching 2nd for a double. Dick Ruthven, usually a starting pitcher, had come in and retired Houston in order in the bottom of the 9th to send it to extras. Now he did the same in the bottom of the 10th, and the Phillies were National League champions for the first time in 30 years.

Del Unser delivered the most clutch hit in Phillies history in the 1980 World Series
1. Del Unser: Sunday, October 19th, 1980
The events of the previous hit had put the Phils in the World Series for just the 3rd time in their franchise history. The first in 1915 ended in a 4-1 loss to Boston after winning the opener, and in 1950 the "Whiz Kids" had been swept out by the Yankees dynasty. These veteran, resilient 1980 Phillies quickly put an end to the franchise' Fall Classic losing skid by taking the first two games in Philly. But the talented Kansas City Royals led by Hall of Famer George Brett, slugging 1st baseman Willie Mays Aikens, speedster Willie Wilson, and unflappable vets like Amos Otis, Hal McRae, and Frank White then returned home and won the next two at Royals Stadium to even things up. This Game 5 would be the pivotal contest that would put one of these teams to within a game of their first-ever franchise championship. The Royals appeard to have it. They entered the 9th inning leading 3-2, and had side-arming closer Dan Quisenberry on the hill. Mike Schmidt led off with a hot-shot single off George Brett to put the tying run on for the Phils, and Green sent Del Unser up to pinch-hit for Lonnie Smith. As he had so many times that postseason, Unser delivered, ripping a ball down the rightfield line. Schmidt, an underrated baserunner, was off and running, never slowing as he rolled all the way around, sliding in with the game-tying run. On with his clutch double, Unser was sacrificed to 3rd by Keith Moreland. He had to hold there when Garry Maddox grounded out to 3rd base. But then with one out, Manny Trillo shot a ball right back at Quisenberry. The hotshot ricocheted off the KC closer and rolled away as Unser scored what would turn out to be the winning run. Tug McGraw, almost out of gas and pitching in this 3rd inning of relief, walked three batters in the bottom of the 10th. But when he struck out ex-Phil Jose Cardenal swinging, the Phillies had the huge 4-3 win, and a 3-2 lead in the series. They would now head back to Philadelphia for Game 6, and a date with history and destiny. Unser's hit was clutch in every way in it's own right in the course of a baseball game. But that it came in this game, with the Phillies never having won a World Series in their 98-year history, tying the pentultimate game in the final frame and leading to the winning run, makes it, for my money, the greatest clutch hit in Phillies franchise history.

What's yours?

Friday, November 7, 2014

Philography: Von Hayes

For Phillies fans who were around at the time, the rationale for the trade by GM Paul Owens with the Cleveland Indians that brought Von Hayes to town following the 1982 season seemed sound.

The Phils had been regular contenders for the better part of the period from 1975-1981, a seven year string of success that had yielded a World Series championship, 4 N.L. East titles, and even a split-season title in the work stoppage season of 1981.

In 1982, the Phillies had not been far off. They finished 89-73, just 3 games behind the Saint Louis Cardinals in the N.L. East. The Cards went on to win the World Series that season. But even prior to that 1982 season, the organization had begun the turnover from the 70's core to a new generation of players.

They said goodbye to 1980 World Series heroes Larry Bowa, Bob Boone, Bake McBride, Keith Moreland, and Dickie Noles as well as manager Dallas Green. Coming in to Philly were starting pitcher Mike Krukow and shortstop Ivan DeJesus.

Krukow joined with holdovers Steve Carlton, John Denny, and Dick Ruthven to give the team an enviable pitching rotation, but the team's offensive core was limited and aging. Mike Schmidt and Garry Maddox were 32, Gary Matthews and Manny Trillo were 31, and Pete Rose was now 41 years old.

Popular World Series hero Manny Trillo was one of the 5-for-1

So the deal with Cleveland was to land the Phils a near-ready, high ceiling offensive outfielder. Hayes fit the bill perfectly. At the time of the trade on December 9th, 1982 he was a 23-year old coming off his first full season in the Majors.

A 7th round pick of the Tribe in the 1979 Draft out of Saint Mary's (CA) College, he could run, hit, field, and hit for power. At the minor league level, he played 2 full seasons. As a 21-year old in his first pro season at A-Waterloo in 1980, Hayes hit .329 with a .405 on-base percentage. He showed his power/speed combo with 15 homers, 90 rbi, 51 steals, and 105 runs scored.

Hayes skipped AA completely, and in 1981 at AAA-Charleston hit .314 with a .401 on-base percentage, 10 homers, 73 rbi, and 34 steals in almost 120 fewer plate appearances than the year before. His performance resulted in a promotion to the Indians, and it would be a decade until, late in his career, he saw another minor league appearance.

After getting his feet wet over the last couple months of the 1981 season in Cleveland, his first full 1982 season resulted in 14 homers, 82 rbi, and 32 steals. The Phillies scouts had seen enough, and Owens pulled the trigger during the off-season in what would become one of the more controversial and discussed deals in team history.

The problem with the deal, at least as far as the media was concerned, was not with the player coming to the club, but in the price paid to land Hayes. The media hung the handle "Five-for-one" on Hayes to recognize that the Phils gave up 5 players in order to bring this one individual to the organization.

The package headed to Cleveland included longtime popular World Series hero 2nd baseman Manny Trillo, starting rightfielder George Vukovich, and a trio of prospects: infielder Julio Franco, pitcher Jay Baller and infielder Jerry Willard. To many, this seemed a steep price to pay, and the deal would be criticized for years. But the fact is, when evaluated fairly, the Phillies got the better end.

In his first season with the Phillies, Hayes split time at all three outfield spots, playing mostly in rightfield. He got just 392 plate appearances, stealing 20 bases, for a Phils team that put on a late charge to win the N.L. East and eventually reach the World Series. Hayes saw limited postseason action, going 0-5 as a pinch-hitter and defensive replacement. He appeared in the first four games of the World Series that was eventually lost to the Orioles 4-1.

In 1984, Hayes played his first full Phillies season. It was the first of four consecutive years, and five of six, in which he would appear in at least 152 games. He hit .292, stole 48 bases, drove 16 homers, and drove in 67 while scoring 85 times. He tailed off in 1985, with his average (.263), homers (13), runs (76), and especially his steals (21) all dropping.

Meanwhile, the Phillies were also collapsing. In 1984 the club finished exactly at .500, with an 81-81 record and in 4th place. In '85 they dropped even further, to 75-87 and 5th place. As the championship era faded further into the past, Von Hayes, who was supposed to lead the charge into the future, became a poster boy for the team's struggles with his own personal struggles. The nickname "Five-for-One" became a full-blown insult thrown in his face at every turn.

Hayes did have a bright moment in 1985. On June 11th that season, Hayes led off with a homerun against New York Mets pitcher Tom Gorman. The Phillies batted around, and Hayes came up again. In his 2nd at-bat of the opening frame, Hayes again homered, this time off Mets reliever Calvin Schiraldi. He thus became the first player in MLB history to hit 2 homeruns in the 1st inning of a game. The Phils won 26-7, the most runs scored by a team in MLB in more than 40 years.

In 1986 though, Hayes rebounded, producing his career-best season. He hit .305 with a .379 on-base percentage, blasted a career-high 19 homers, drove in a career-high 98 runs, scored an NL-high 107 times, and he stole 24 bases. In addition to Runs, he led the NL in Doubles. The result was not only an 8th place finish in National League MVP balloting as an individual, but his performance was a key part of the team rebounding to an 86-75 record.

The team success was fleeting, however. In '87 the club fell below .500 again at 80-82, and then in 1988 they completely collapsed to 65-96, their worst season since 1972. Hayes wasn't the reason for the 1987 slip. He cracked a career-high 21 homers, both drove in and scored 84 runs, stole 16 bags, and continued as one of the league's best all-around outfielders. But in '88, he got hurt right before the All-Star break. He would not play again until September as the team collapsed.

As the 80's drifted through the 2nd half, the old gang was slowly dismantled, or drifted away. Tug McGraw had retired after the 1984 season. Gary Maddox retired after 1986, having been a parti-timer the last 3-4 seasons. Steve Carlton was traded away during the 1986 season. He hung around for a couple years before finally retiring following the 1988 season.

At this point, Phillies all-timer Mike Schmidt was clearly seeing the writing on the wall. The good old days of his being an impact player were over, as were the teams days as a contender, and the effort to play became a chore. In late May of the 1989 season, Schmidt suddenly and, to many, surprisingly retired.

The efforts that Phillies management did make to try and bridge that late-70's, early-80's winning group largely failed, with the exceptions of Hayes and Juan Samuel. The Phils had brought "Sammy" in full-time in 1984. He was 2nd in NL Rookie of the Year voting that season, and through the 80's had become an All-Star, and a Silver Slugger winner.

Despite solid play from Juan Samuel and Hayes the Phils declined

But as the Phillies mostly lost, as the old heroes aged and left, and as it became obvious to the fan base that the winning wasn't returning, both Hayes and Samuel, arguably the two faces of the franchise in the 2nd half of the 80's (aside from the aging Schmidt) received a lion's share of the blame from the fans. Despite the fact that they produced, the fans saw them and saw losing, and many equated the two.

Still, Hayes had a final hurrah in him. In 1989, with Schmidt retired, Samuel traded to the Mets (for Lenny Dykstra), and the Phils struggling to a last place finish, old "Five-for-One" became a National League All-Star for the only time in his career. Hayes banged a career-best 26 homers, stole 28 bases, and scored 93 runs. For the player originally billed as a power-speed combo, it was his only career 20-20 season at age 30.

He also had another big moment of glory as well in 1989. On June 8th, the Pirates scored 10 runs in the top of the 1st inning at Veteran's Stadium. Pirates broadcaster and former pitcher Jim Rooker said on-air that "If we lose this game, I'll walk home." Hayes smashed a pair of homeruns in leading the Phillies all the way back to a 15-11 victory. Rooker did not walk home, but did conduct a charity walk from Pittsburgh to Philly after the season.

The early 1990's were the end days of Von Hayes career as an MLB player. He played a full season in Philly in 1990 as the team improved slightly to 77-85. His final season as a full-timer ended with 17 homers, 73 rbi, 70 runs, and 16 steals. 

In 1991 his arm was broken by a pitch from the Reds' Tom Browning, which caused him to miss more than a month, and the Phillies cut ties with him. He caught on with the Angels as a part-timer in 1992, and then retired, claiming that he was never able to recover fully from the broken arm.

Over the course of a career encompassing parts of a dozen MLB seasons, 9 of them in Philadelphia, Von Hayes ended with a career .267 batting average and a .354 on-base percentage. He accumulated 143 homeruns and 253 steals. On the current Phillies all-time lists he is 10th in Steals, 17th in Homeruns, 21st in Extra-Base Hits, 24th in Runs, and 25th in Hits.

After his playing days were over, Von Hayes eventually tried to get into the game as a manager and coach, and had some success in the minor leagues. He was the High-A level California League Manager of the Year in 2004 at Modesto, and the AA Texas League Manager of the Year in 2005 at Midland, guiding both clubs to championships. He last managed with the Independent local Camden Riversharks in 2010 and 2011.

As for the trade, old "Five-for-One" was a win for the Fightins in the end. Trillo called it a career soon after the deal. All three of Vukovich, Baller, and Willard were inconsequential as MLB players. Only Franco enjoyed success and longevity, but Hayes out-performed him and the Indians dealt Franco away to Texas eventually.

In the end, Von Hayes became a symbol for everything that was going wrong with the Philadelphia Phillies as the 1980's moved from early-decade glory to an end-of-decade bottoming out. That decline coincided with his, and Juan Samuel's, presence as key players. But it would be hard to blame that decline on either of them. Hayes was one of the few consistent bright spots during that largely dark era of Philadelphia Phillies baseball.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

2014 Best of MLB Awards

Trout, Kershaw are AL and NL POY respectively
It's that time of year again, awards season in Major League Baseball. And this site will be no exception.

This year for the first time, with the renewed emphasis on baseball, I am announcing the first-ever "Best of MLB" awards honorees.

In all, honorees are being named for both the National League and the American League in each of 9 categories, one for each inning in a ballgame: Player of the Year, Starting Pitcher, Relief Pitcher, Offensive Player, Defensive Player, Rookie, Comeback Player, Breakout Player, and Manager.

For the most part, these awards were not subjective. I went to FanGraphs, looked up overall regular season WAR values, and gave the awards to the highest players in their categories. In 2-3 other categories, I weighted those numbers heavily in deciding the honorees. Remember, the honors are based on the regular season.

If you follow baseball, you already know these players and are well aware of the excellence of each of their 2014 season performances. So not much extra commentary is needed. But I did want to make just a few comments on some of the honors.

First, my selection of Cincinnati Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton as the top National League Rookie over New York Mets pitcher Jake deGrom. These were clearly the two most impactful rookies in the league this season. I chose Hamilton, who had a higher WAR value, feeling that his everyday impact as a centerfielder was greater than deGrom's weekly impact as a starting pitcher.

For the American League Starting Pitcher honors, Cleveland's Corey Kluber beat out a strong field that included 'King' Felix Hernandez, David Price, Phil Hughes, and Jon Lester. Kluber was the #2 player in all of baseball in individual WAR, while the others rated 11-14 respectively. All tremendous, but one clearly above the rest.

Corey Kluber, AL's top starting pitcher

At the A.L. Reliever spot, what a horse race. The honor went to Yankees RP Dellin Betances in a very close race with the Royals excellent setup man Wade Davis. While Davis rightfully received a lot of publicity due to KC's postseason run, Betances was every bit as dominant in the regular season, and simply finished with a higher WAR value.

Also, I wanted to single out the Breakout Player winners. What a season for both Michael Brantley and Anthony Rendon, 5th and 6th in all of baseball in overall WAR numbers. The 27-year old Brantley has been one of those "good not great" contributing types, and elevated his game. The 24-year old Rendon stayed healthy in his first true full season and served notice that he should be one of the game's best into the future.

On defense, Boston's Jackie Bradley Jr was the best defensive outfielder in the game this season, and that includes Lorenzo Cain. Only two facts: his poor offense, and that his poor offense kept him from playing every day, all year long with the Red Sox, kept him from what should have been an easy Gold Glove win. If you don't know, watch him closely. He's the kind of player who, with the right offense around him, impacts a game enough defensively to overcome the offensive shortcomings. He should be starting somewhere every day.

Finally, the NL Manager of the Year. Keep in mind, this was a regular season honor, so Bruce Bochy's great postseason run to a 3rd World Series did not factor. But the job that 'Donny Baseball' did in winning the NL West in LA with a frequently dysfunctional core under tremendous pressure to win got him the nod.

Don Mattingly skippered Dodgers to NL West crown

Without further ado, here are the 2014 'Best of MLB' awards honorees:

NL - Clayton Kershaw, SP, LA Dodgers
AL - Mike Trout, OF, LA Angels

NL - Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh
AL - Mike Trout, Los Angeles

NL - Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles
AL - Corey Kluber, Cleveland

NL - Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati
AL - Dellin Betances, New York

NL - Andrelton Simmons, SS, Atlanta
AL - Jackie Bradley Jr, CF, Boston

NL - Johnny Cueto, SP, Cincinnati
AL - Chris Young, SP, Seattle

NL - Anthony Rendon, 2B/3B, Washington
AL - Michael Brantley, OF, Cleveland

NL - Billy Hamilton, CF, Cincinnati
AL - Jose Abreu, 1B, Chicago

NL - Don Mattingly, Los Angeles
AL - Buck Showalter, Baltimore

Monday, November 3, 2014

Ryne Sandberg: Hall of Famer

Sandberg became Hall of Famer with the Cubs
Many Phillies fans are not yet sold on the team’s current manager, Ryne Sandberg, as far as his ability to skipper a winning team. After all, his record as a manager at the MLB level is not impressive to this point. Since replacing Charlie Manuel in August of 2013, Sandberg’s managerial record is 93-111. The team finished in last place in 2014, his first full season at the helm.

For Phils fans used to winning for more than a decade from 2001 through 2011, a last place finish is hard to swallow. And in replacing the affable, down-home, World Series-winning “Uncle Charlie”, Sandberg’s more quiet intensity has been even more difficult for the fans to warm up to than were Manuel’s countrified stylings.

Younger fans, pretty much any fan below the age of 30 and most under-35, don’t remember Sandberg as a player. And many fans who were around may simply not remember just how good a player the man was during the 1980’s and much of the 1990’s. With a greater appreciation of his background, perhaps we can give him a little longer leash in managing the club today.

Ryne Sandberg’s player career began, as many of us older fans readily recall, right here in Philadelphia. He was a 20th round selection of the Phillies in the 1978 baseball amateur draft, and he was a 20-year old shortstop at AA Reading in 1980 when the parent Phils won the World Series.

That 1980 season was Sandberg’s minor league coming-out party. He hit .310 with 11 homeruns, 79 rbi, 95 runs scored, and 35 stolen bases. With Larry Bowa at shortstop, Manny Trillo at 2nd base, and future Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt at 3rd,  he was blocked in Philly. Opinions on his ultimate ceiling were split, but to some in the organization, he was definitely a middle infielder of the future.

One of those who was absolutely sold was the manager of that 1980 championship Phillies team, Dallas Green. Following the 1981 season, Green was lured away from the Phillies, where he had risen through the ranks to become manager. The Cubs offered Green the role of General Manager and Executive Vice-President. He would be in charge of bringing the Cubs back to contending status.

During that 1981 season, Sandberg had gotten his first taste of Major League Baseball. The Phillies called him up in September as they pushed to return to the playoffs following their Series victory the year before. Sandberg appeared in 13 games through September and early October. He appeared 7 times as a pinch-runner, but also got into 5 as a shortstop, and even appeared in the season finale as a 2nd baseman against, of all teams, the Cubs.

A week earlier, on September 27th, 1981, again as fate would have it against those Cubbies, Sandberg replaced Mike Schmidt with the Phils trailing Chicago 13-0 at Wrigley Field. It was a multi-player switch, with Schmidt getting rested in the romp. Sandberg went in to play short, Luis Aguayo moved over from short to 2nd base, and Ramon Aviles moved from 2nd to 3rd. With 2 outs in the top of the 8th, Sandberg came to bat for the first time in the game. In just the 4th at-bat of his career, he blooped a single to right field for his first career hit.

Sandberg was a Phils 1978 draft pick and 1981 callup

The single would be Sandberg’s only career hit with the Phillies. He would go 1-6 in all during that late season cameo, and score 2 runs. When the Phils reached the playoffs during what turned out to be a work stoppage split-season, the 21-year old was left off the postseason roster. But he had gotten a taste of life in the big leagues and yearned for a regular role. He wouldn’t have to wait any longer, but that role wouldn’t come in Philly.

Now in Chicago, in one of Green’s first big trades for the Cubs, he swapped 28-year old shortstop Ivan DeJesus to his old team the Phillies in exchange for the 36-year old Bowa. In negotiating the deal with the Phillies’ GM Paul Owens, to off-set the age difference Green demanded a minor leaguer, and pushed for Sandberg. Owens didn’t want to include the youngster, but Green wouldn’t yield. When a number of Phils scouts said that Sandberg was no more than a backup, Owens did the deal.

The rest, as they say, is history. It turned out to be one of the most lopsided deals in baseball history. DeJesus played a solid shortstop in Philly for 3 years, and helped the team reach the 1983 World Series. But he never hit over .257, he homered just 7 times, and stole just 37 total bases. Bowa, thought to be nearly finished at the time of the deal, virtually matched DeJesus’ offensive and defensive performance over those 3 seasons.

It was Sandberg’s performance that made the trade so lopsided. Not only did he turn out to be a regular, but he turned into a Baseball Hall of Famer. In his first season of 1982, Green and the Cubs turned over 3rd base to him, and the kid responded by coming in 6th place in Rookie of the Year balloting. He played 156 games, registered 687 plate appearances, and hit .271 with 54 rbi and 103 runs scored. The following year, while DeJesus and the Phils went to the World Series, Sandberg was moved to 2nd base, where he won his first Gold Glove Award.

1984 would prove to be Sandberg’s big breakout. At the age of 24, with the 38-year old Bowa as his doubleplay partner, the pair helped lead the Cubs to their first NL East crown since the divisional era had begun. The Phils finished a distant 4th, 15 games back. It was Chicago’s first playoff appearance since the 1945 World Series. Sandberg was an NL All-Star for the first time, and won his 2nd Gold Glove and his first Silver Slugger. He also flashed power for the first time, drilling 19 homeruns while driving in 84, scoring 114 runs, and stealing 32 bases. For this breakout season, Ryne Sandberg was voted the National League Most Valuable Player Award.

Jul 19, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg (23) and bench coach Larry Bowa (10) (right) watch the action against the Atlanta Braves early in the game at Turner Field. The Phillies defeated the Braves 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Sandberg and Bowa were Cubs 1983-84 middle infield 

On June 23rd of that 1984 season, what has come to be known in Cubs lore as “The Sandberg Game” took place. Chicago trailed the arch-rival Saint Louis Cardinals by 9-8 in the bottom of the 9th at Wrigley Field in what was the NBC ‘Game of the Week’ on TV. The Cards had ace closer Bruce Sutter on the mound. Sandberg, still known mostly for his glove at that point, drilled a game-tying homer. In the top of the 10th, the Cards answered by scoring twice to take an 11-9 lead. In the bottom of the 10th, Sandberg again came up, this time with 2 outs and the tying run on 1st base. Again, Sandberg homered off Sutter to tie the game. The Cubs would ultimately win in the bottom of the 11th.

1984 would be the first of 10 consecutive NL All-Star appearances for Sandberg. He won 9 straight Gold Glove Awards at 2nd base from 1983-91. He was awarded the Silver Slugger for offensive excellence at the position 7 times. In both 1989 and 1990, Sandberg finished 4th in NL MVP voting. He became a 30-homerun hitter for the first time at age 29 in 1989, and then reached 40 for the only time in his career in 1990. In 1985, Sandberg stole 54 bases, and he swiped 25 or more 7 times. He also eclipsed the 100-runs mark those same 7 times.

Ryne Sandberg and the Cubs reached the playoffs twice during his career. That first go-around in 1984 ended in heartbreak. With the NLCS still a best-of-5 format in those days, the Cubbies won the first two games. Just one win from the World Series, they saw it slip away. A rookie named Tony Gwynn helped the San Diego Padres rally to 3 straight wins. In 1989, with the NLCS now a best-of-7, the Cubs were rolled out by the San Francisco Giants 4-1. Sandberg did his part, hitting .368 in 1984 and then .400 in 1989, when he also had a homer, 6 rbi, and 6 runs scored. In 1990, Sandberg won the Homerun Derby at the MLB All-Star Game.

When the lockout hit Major League Baseball in 1994, Sandberg was 34 years old, and the Cubs were again floundering. Having lost the desire that had driven him for so many years, he decided to retire from the game. When the work impasse was ended and baseball resumed in 1995, Sandberg decided to stay in retirement. However, he regained his desire, and decided to play again in 1996. Returning as the regular 2nd baseman in Chicago, he showed rust with a .238 batting average, by far the worst of his career. But he still had pop, hitting 25 homers and driving in 92 runs at age 36.

Sandberg returned for one more season in 1997. His 480 plate appearances were his least in a full season for his career. He hit a dozen homers, knocked in 64, scored 54, and raised his average 20 points to .264 over the previous season. On September 28th at Saint Louis, Sandberg came to bat with 2 outs in the top of the 3rd against Manny Aybar. He drove a deep fly to left-center that was hauled in by Phil Plantier. In the bottom of the inning, he was replaced at 2nd by Miguel Cairo. It would be Ryne Sandberg’s last appearance as a player.

Across parts of 16 seasons, the man who had become known as “Ryno” had collected 2,386 hits. He scored 1,318 runs and had driven in 1,061 while hitting 282 homeruns. He hit over .300 in 5 different seasons, was an MVP, a 10x All-Star and 9x Gold Glover. He led the league in Homeruns once and in Triples once, and led the league in Runs scored 3 times. He is one of only 3 players in MLB history (Barry Bonds and Brady Anderson the others) to have registered both a 40-homer season and a 50-steal season at some point in their career.

Sandberg was also versatile, reaching at least 500 plate appearances in 13 of his 14 full seasons, only missing with 480 in his last season. He reached over 600 appearances 9x and reached 700 once. At the time of his retirement his 277 homers as a 2nd baseman were the most in MLB history (since surpassed by Jeff Kent.)

In 2005 in his 3rd shot, Ryne Sandberg was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, receiving 76.2% of the vote. In 2005, the Cubs made his #23 just the 4th uniform number to ever be retired by the organization.

Sep 21, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona in the dugout against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Terry Francona served a Phils apprenticeship before winning the World Series as Red Sox skipper

This is what the Phillies traded away all the way back in late 1981. This is what the Phillies hired as their manager in 2013. It isn’t just that playing excellence they hired. Sandberg managed in the Cubs organization for 4 seasons from 2007-10, and in the Phillies system from 2011 onward. In his first year as a manager at Class-A Peoria he took the team to the title game. At Class-AAA Iowa in 2010, Sandberg was named the International League Manager of the Year.

When the Cubs passed him over for their managerial job following that 2010 season, Sandberg moved to the Phillies and took over their AAA team at Lehigh Valley. He led the Iron Pigs to the organziation’s first-ever postseason appearance, and to the International League championship series. Baseball America named him their Minor League Manager of the Year following the season. After one more season at Lehigh Valley, Sandberg was promoted to the 3rd base coaching position in Philly. So he not only has put in coaching time, but has succeeded in that role.

I don’t know if Ryne Sandberg will prove to be a successful Big League manager or not. He certainly inherited a team on the decline with not a lot of help coming from the minor leagues. Much as with Terry Francona a decade-and-a-half ago, it has the feel of an apprenticeship. However, after serving that apprenticeship, Francona went on to win the World Series in Boston. The Phillies have already sold short on Sandberg once, three decades ago. Perhaps with that lesson and the lesson of Francona in their history, none of us should be impatient with the man this time around.