In speaking to other knowledgable Baseball fans, I often hear the phrase, “It’s Spring Training, enough said.” These fans are referring to the obvious conclusion that games played in March are pre-season games, to be taken lightly or at least with a grain of salt. A no-name player can put up Bonds-like numbers and consistent stars like Albert Pujols can look like scrubs. Most reporters who write about the game play of Spring Training games prompt their pieces with lines about the uncertainty and unpredictability of spring play. On the flip side, Spring games do show us glimpses of talent from young prospects, the readiness of older veterans, and the positives and negatives associated with players’ winter adjustments.
In watching the Phillies last Spring Training game of February, played against the NL East rival Atlanta Braves, fans saw glimpses of what the Phillies lineup could produce. Given Atlanta’s productive offseason, most predict the Braves to beat out the Phillies for 2nd place in the NL East by seasons end, with some pundits declaring them the future victors of the division. On Thursday the Phillies sent ace Cole Hamels to the mound while the Braves countered with Paul Maholm. Last season, Maholm started two games against the Phillies, one for the Chicago Cubs and the second for Atlanta. In his first start, Maholm took the victory, tossing 6 and 1/3 innings, striking out 1, walking none, surrendering only 1 run, and posting a good 65.2 ground ball percentage. In his second start, Maholm didn’t fair so well. He surrendered 7 runs, 3 walks, and a 45.5% ground ball percent in only 2 innings of work to eventually take the loss.
Maholm is a lefty who hides the ball well, throws 4 average to above average pitches, and had his best year of record in 2012. Most projection systems, including Oliver, Steamer, and Zips, show Maholm continuing his success from last season. So, I was interested to see how the Phillies lineup, which began the game looking like it will when the 2013 regular season begins, would fair against Maholm. The man that will hopefully bat leadoff for the Phillies, Ben Revere, led off the game with a walk, followed by Jimmy Rollins moving him into scoring position with a ground out to first baseman. Following Rollins came the meat of the Phillies order, Utley, Howard, Michael Young, and Domonic Brown. These three left-handed hitters and Young followed with a 2 singles, a double, and a reaching base on an error. All in all, the Phillies ended the bottom of the first having scored three runs, and forcing Maholm to throw a lot of pitches. This looked spectacular, exactly what the team needs from it’s core group of players. The question remained, could these hitters continue their succes the second time through the order?
In the third inning, Jimmy Rollins led off by striking out, but Utley followed with a smash double to dead center field that missed going over the wall by about 1 foot. Howard followed with a fly ball to center field that moved Utley to third, allowing Michael Young, who scorched a ball up the middle off of Maholm’s foot, to knock in Chase from third. With Young on first, Domonic Brown had a great at bat. He pushed the count to 3-2, after which he did foul off a hanging curve ball from Maholm that should have been demolished, but redeemed himself by patiently working a walk. After Brown, Darrin Ruf, who opposing pitchers like to force to chase pitches away from him, took a pitch on the outside corner of the plate, dunking it into right field for a hit.
These moments make up a very small sample size of play, but all of these productive plate appearances came off of a legitimate Major League southpaw in Paul Maholm. Later in the game Revere would successfully bunt up the third base line, beating out the throw by Braves third baseman Chris Johnson. Then, in the bottom of the 5th inning, Ryan Howard took a Craig Kimbrel fastball, belt-high on the outside corner, out to left field for a home run. So, Ryan Howard showed us his production of old, spraying the ball both to right field and left-center field, Utley fought off a tough pitch for single before crushing a ball to deep center, and Domonic Brown got on-base twice, once with a hit and then with a walk. Overall, the Phillies hitters hit in a manner in which we would optimistically expect them to perform when the season begins on April 1st. The way that Ruben Amaro and the Phillies front office constructed this roster made good on their promise, showing speed, power, ability to hit for average, and patience at the plate.
In no way should fans think that this type of performance is repeatable in every game, let alone on a consistent basis, but if given the chance, this lineup has serious potential to produce more runs than Phillies fans have seen over the last few seasons. Combine even some of this offensive output with the great pitching we all expect, and the Phillies could make a genuine push for a playoff spot. Moreover, in a game that doesn’t matter at all, the Phillies regulars showed mid-season form behind Cole Hamels, who quietly tossed three innings in which he struck out 5 Braves including Jason Heyward and walked none. The Phillies have the makings of a lineup that, at least against 2+ fWAR pitchers, can put up run totals that should invoke easy victories, showing it on Thursday against the Braves, and hopefully repeating such performances throughout 2013.