Phillies starters pitching in at the plate

Cliff Lee ranks second in the hitting competition.
Cliff Lee ranks second in the hitting competition. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff)
Posted: June 14, 2011

Cliff Lee squared to bunt the first pitch he saw in his second at-bat Saturday, but suddenly pulled his bat back and chopped the ball to the left side. The fielder's choice advanced a runner to third, but Lee was worried he would not be compensated justly.

So he went to state his case to Pete Mackanin, keeper of the game within the game the Phillies starting pitchers are waging this season.

"I like what he convinced me of," said Mackanin, also the team's bench coach. "The shortstop was so close to second, the whole left side was open. So I gave him two-thirds of a point bonus. If he would have gotten a base hit, he gets a point. But I like to see those guys thinking like that."

When he learned of the scoring decision, Roy Halladay was incredulous.

"You gave Lee two-thirds of a point?" he asked Mackanin. "I said, 'Yeah.' " Then the pitcher started laughing.

The Four Aces can pitch - the rest of baseball will attest to that. But they are capable at the plate, too, and determined to become better. Phillies pitchers have hit .169 in 2011, second only to Houston pitchers' .184 batting average.

And the points competition, fueled by an undisclosed financial contribution from each pitcher, is now the talk of the pitching staff.

"It's another way to incentivize taking the at-bat serious," Lee said, "and make a little bit of fun out of it."

While both Lee and Mackanin said something like this is not unusual for a team's starting staff to do, these four are taking it to new extremes.

"It's an interesting group," hitting coach Greg Gross said, "because they take a lot of pride in what they do."

"They're all such competitive guys that they make it a little more competitive than you normally see," Mackanin said. "They talk about it."

And they asked Mackanin, an independent party in the wager, to develop a system for keeping score. So he awards one point for each successful bunt, hit, RBI, quality at-bat (one that lasts at least five pitches), walk, hit by pitch, and line drive out. For every failed bunt attempt and double play, a point is subtracted.

Mackanin keeps the standings on a clipboard near his desk. He's now even handing out bonuses, like two-thirds of a point for Lee's ingenuity. Cole Hamels was awarded a third of a point for his triple, but lost a third of a point when he was picked off first base earlier this season.

But after the first two months of the season, Hamels led Mackanin's standings with 15 points. Both Lee and Roy Oswalt had 12, and Halladay was last with eight.

"We're trying to catch up to Cole," Lee said. "He's got a good lead. I don't know how I'm going to do it. We're all trying to catch him."

The points, of course, underscore the more important goal of a pitcher not hurting his team while at bat. Halladay leads the National League with eight sacrifice bunts, already six more than he had all of last season. Hamels is batting .267 and hit his first career triple. Lee has three RBIs to go along with his .200 average. Oswalt has five sacrifice bunts despite missing three starts.

Halladay, Mackanin said, may have worked the hardest at improving. He spent 13 years in the American League and managed only two sacrifice bunts in 2010, so he told Mackanin he wanted to put in extra work.

"There's always a fear factor involved," Mackanin said. "It's a defenseless feeling. And you have to be up there to get comfortable."

So the two watched film and tried different techniques. Halladay took more repetitions and even suffered a black eye in spring training when an ball from a pitching machine went awry and struck his face.

Before every game at home, all of the starting pitchers (except that day's pitcher) take batting practice for about 15 minutes. Pitching coach Rich Dubee throws to them. And they will all stop to admire a BP home run, far from a rare occurrence.

"To be honest," Mackanin said, "I think we're going to see a few home runs from our pitchers this year. I do."

Lee was asked if that's his best shot at catching Hamels.

"No, that's only two points," Lee said. "A hit and an RBI."


Pride at the Plate

The Phillies' Four Aces are in the heat of a batting race among themselves. Here is how the starting pitchers score points for their prowess at the plate:

They get one point for each :

Successful bunt

Hit

RBI

Quality at-bat (one that lasts at least five pitches)

Walk

Hit by pitch

Line-drive out

They are deducted one point for each:

Failed bunt attempt

Double play

Here are the standings through May 31:

1. Cole Hamels: 15 points

2. Cliff Lee: 12

2. Roy Oswalt: 12

4. Roy Halladay: 8

Here are their numbers through Monday:

Pitcher     AB    H RBIs BB    Avg.

Hamels     30    8    1 1    .267

Lee        30    6    3 1    .200

Oswalt     18     2     1 1    .111

Halladay 33     2     0 1    .061

- Matt Gelb


Contact staff writer Matt Gelb at mgelb@phillynews.com or @magelb on Twitter.

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