Paul Hagen: How the Phillies became kings of the hill

Ruben Amaro Jr., introducing Roy Halladay: 'It was clear in '09 that the Yankees pitched better than we did, and they won.'
Ruben Amaro Jr., introducing Roy Halladay: 'It was clear in '09 that the Yankees pitched better than we did, and they won.'
Posted: October 15, 2010

THE PHILLIES roared into the postseason four seasons ago riding a tide of giddy first-time enthusiasm, twirling rally towels, adrenaline from having nipped the collapsing Mets at the wire and the testosterone swagger that comes with bludgeoning opponents into submission for most of the season.

Three straight losses to the Rockies later, after batting .172 as a team, they were packing their bags and getting ready for a long, empty winter.

Ruben Amaro Jr. is the general manager now. He was an assistant to Pat Gillick then.

"It was clear after having had the opportunity to be in postseason play that the bottom line is you can be the greatest hitting team on the planet. And great pitching still always beats up great hitting. That's just the way it's worked," Amaro said yesterday during a brief break from his preparations for the National League Championship Series against San Francisco that opens tomorrow night at The Bank.

With that, a subtle transition began.

A month after the Phillies were summarily dismissed from the playoffs, Gillick engineered the trade that brought closer Brad Lidge from the Astros. That allowed Brett Myers to go back into the rotation.

Before the trading deadline in 2008, they picked up Joe Blanton from the Athletics. A year later they traded for Cleveland's Cliff Lee and signed free agent Pedro Martinez. Last winter they traded for Toronto's Roy Halladay before the season even started and then backed that up by getting Roy Oswalt in July.

They mixed in the occasional Raul Ibanez, but you can definitely spot a trend here.

Just a few numbers: In 2007, the Phillies ranked 14th in the National League in walks and hits per nine innings (WHIP). This year they were first, and allowed 3.95 runs per game, the fewest for any Phillies team since 1983.

From 2007 through '09 they ranked first or second in runs, homers and slugging percentage.

This season they were again second in runs, but their 4.77 average per game was their lowest since 2002. They were fifth in both homers and slugging . . . and still had baseball's best record and are the consensus favorite to win it all.

Some of this is by design, some was happenstance.

"I think more than anything else it's just kind of evolved," Amaro said. "As those July [31] deadlines started popping up, we identified pitching as the need every time. That ultimately we weren't going to be able to replace the hitters. We were just going to have to hit better and play better and then if we could improve one area that would be the one. So that's really kind of what we targeted.

"Understanding that, listen, pitching wins. But there are times when you can acquire it and times you can't. I remember having conversations, 'Hey, if we can acquire pitching, we'll go get it. But if we can't, let's just try to go bash them to death.' You've got to try to be adjustable. You try to be creative."

Even winning it all two autumns ago didn't shake that conviction. "In '08, we had a pretty decent combination of the two and things just kind of fell in place for us," he said. "But it was clear in '09 that the Yankees pitched better than we did, and they won. In '08, [Cole] Hamels was really almost a one-man show but that's all we needed."

The one reality that the Phillies just couldn't get around is this: Hitting is more prone to slumps than pitching. That's just the way it is. Deal with it.

"Hitting is so much more difficult, one of the more difficult things you can do in the game. And so when one thing goes bad, it can go bad for a while," the general manager explained.

When it became clear that Citizens Bank Park was going to be hitter friendly - though sabermetric formulas place it as almost neutral in more recent years - one ripple effect seemed to be that it would be difficult to attract top pitchers. Yet both Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt waived no-trade clauses to come here.

"I think that's a matter of the individual. There are some pitchers out there who fear. I don't want those pitchers. I want pitchers who I know will compete and not care about the elements, who will take responsibility for their successes and their failures regardless of the venues they play in," Amaro said. "Regardless of the stuff they can't control. And by and large, we have a lot of guys on our staff who don't worry about that stuff.

"There were a lot of people who said for a long time Colorado could never win a championship, the Chicago White Sox could never win a championship and the Phillies could never win a championship because of their ballpark. Clearly, that's not the case. If you put the right players with the right mentality together and they happen to play well, they can still win regardless of the venue."

Just as clearly, the Phillies have quietly morphed from a team that depends on bash baseball to win to one that is just as likely to win, 2-1. And are better off because of it.

Send e-mail to hagenp@phillynews.com

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