Phillies Notebook: Too early for Phillies, Manuel to get caught up in expectations

Charlie Manuel's Phillies fell to the Braves, 6-3, at Turner Field on Friday night. (Rich Addicks/AP Photo)
Charlie Manuel's Phillies fell to the Braves, 6-3, at Turner Field on Friday night. (Rich Addicks/AP Photo) (Brian McCardle)
Posted: April 13, 2011

WASHINGTON - Ask Charlie Manuel about his team's batting average on balls in play, and his eyes might glaze over. Ask him about regression to the mean, and he might cock an eyebrow. But ask him about the dangers of overestimating a team's ability based on a week-and-a-half's worth of games and he'll launch into a long story about his final year as the manager in Cleveland in 2002.

The Indians jumped out to a 10-1 start that season that made their fans forget an offseason that had seen them lose stars Kenny Lofton, Juan Gonzalez and Roberto Alomar.

"Everybody jumped out and said how good we were going to be, and the expectations shot from zero up to about 10,000," Manuel said. "All of a sudden, I looked up and at about 30 games we had a losing record."

If you thought expectations could not get any higher than they were when the Phillies signed Cliff Lee to a 5-year, $120 million contract in December, you certainly weren't picturing the offensive start the Phillies have produced. Through nine games, they were first in the league in batting average (.334), on-base percentage (.380) and .OPS (.865) and second in the league with 59 runs. Yesterday, a couple of Philadelphia sports talk radio hosts were actually debating whether the Phillies would even miss Chase Utley while he is sidelined with a knee injury.

But while Manuel is happy with the way his batters have performed thus far, he is also not ready to concede that they will maintain the 1,062-run pace that they carried into last night's game against the Nationals. The numbers suggest he is a wise man.

For starters, the Phillies have seen an unusually high percentage of their batted balls fall for base hits. Heading into last night, 71 percent of their hits had been singles, the sixth-highest rate in the league. Their batting average on balls in play was .384, 39 points higher than the closest team and 70 points higher than the league leader in that category last season.

What does that mean? Well, the Phillies have either developed an uncanny ability to hit 'em where they ain't, or they are simply enjoying one of those stretches where every ball seems to find a hole. And their robust on-base percentage is mostly a result of those base hits, since they entered last night ranked dead last in the National League with 22 walks. (They were also seeing a league-low 3.62 pitches-per-plate appearance.) That said, they were also striking out less often than all but two teams (16 percent of their plate appearances) and were hitting more line drives than all but one (23 percent).

Manuel says he needs 30 to 40 games to really get a feel for what he has in an offense. But even if the Phillies' production tapers off and they hit one of the many funks that plagued them last season, their manager feels their pitching affords them a better chance of remaining consistent in the win column.

"You've got to be careful," he said. "Don't get caught up in it. I think that we won't do that. In some ways I'll be a little bit surprised, because of those five starters we have on our team. They are the kind of pitchers, with their makeup and how they think and how they go about their business, who will keep us from getting too gay."

Phillers

Phillies relievers entered last night with a 19-inning scoreless streak, their longest since 2004, when they went 28 innings from Sept. 1-11 without allowing a run . . . Ryan Howard's home run in the second inning gave him 256 for his career, three shy of Del Ennis for second place on the Phillies' all-time list . . . Ben Francisco batted fifth against righthander Livan Hernandez, as he did against righties in the Braves series. The Nationals have two lefties in their bullpen, which is why Charlie Manuel wanted to split up lefty hitters Howard and Raul Ibanez with Francisco's righthanded bat.

For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at www.philly.com/HighCheese. Follow him on Twitter at

http://twitter.com/HighCheese.

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