Phillies

The case for Chase Utley as the most important Phillie from 2007-11

The case for Chase Utley as the most important Phillie from 2007-11

There is no wrong answer to this topic, but in the coming days at NBC Sports Philadelphia we will look at the individual cases for Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins as the most important player of the Phillies' most successful run in franchise history.

First up: Utley

There's no right answer. But there is a best answer. That's how I feel when asked to compare Howard, Rollins and Utley. Put any one of that trio on a different team and the golden era of Phillies baseball doesn't happen. It's as simple as that. Yet, there is a first among equals in that holy trinity of the infield and it's Utley.

The passage of time can leave a haze, especially when it comes to recalling the value of athletes. It's natural to remember only the extremes, a player at his apex or his nadir. 
A decade removed from their collective primes, it's tempting to think that Rollins and Howard played to an MVP level every season because they each have one of those trophies on their respective mantles. But that just wasn't the case. Utley, on the other hand, did sustain a level of excellence over an extended period of time.

There's something to be said that baseball stats can be twisted any way one wants in the interest of making an argument. But there is one statistical piece of information that clearly demonstrates Utley's superior value relative to Rollins and Howard. 

Here's a look at each player's combined WAR (per Baseball-Reference) from the 2007-11 seasons, the entirety of the Phils' NL East dominance:

Utley: 34.6
Rollins: 18.1
Howard: 10.9

That is just a staggering disparity. Would it be fair to say that Utley was twice the player Rollins was and three times the player Howard was? No. But it clearly demonstrates the gap in total value that existed between Utley and his infield mates. 

Put more simply, Rollins was just a good player after 2008. Howard was just slightly above average in 2010 and 2011. But Utley played at an All-Star level in every season from 2007 to 2011. 
    
Also for consideration, Utley was headed to the 2007 NL MVP that Rollins won before the Nationals' John Lannan broke his hand on July 26th of that year.

Here's a comparison to that point in the 2007 season:

Utley: .336 batting average, .996 OPS, 17 home runs, 82 RBI, 7 stolen bases

Rollins: .287 batting average, .858 OPS, 20 home runs, 60 RBI, 17 stolen bases

It is fair to wonder if there would even be a conversation between these three if Utley didn't get hurt in 2007.

Another means of comparing the Phillies' Big 3 would be to look at All-Star appearances. Utley made six National League All-Star teams during his tenure in Philadelphia. Rollins and Howard combined to make that many in their careers (three each).

Further in the anecdotal category, I cannot shake the 2009 World Series. With the Phillies having a chance to state their case as an all-time team, one that could repeat as champions while defeating the Yankees of all teams, Utley was the only one of the Phillies' three hitting stars to shine. The UCLA product tied a World Series record with 5 home runs while posting a 1.448 OPS. 

Rollins, on the other hand, failed in his chance to measure up with legendary Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. Over six games, Rollins accounted for five hits and a .562 OPS. Howard posted a meager .631 OPS in the 2009 Fall Classic.

As if that weren't enough, Utley served as the conscience for that championship era of Phillies baseball. Whereas Rollins brought the swagger that the franchise needed, Utley allowed his approach to set the tone for how the Phillies were going to play. All-out and unapologetic for as long as it took to go home with a win. There's a reason Roy Halladay held Utley in the highest esteem of any teammate he ever played alongside.

Rollins and Howard will rightly be remembered as franchise greats. But only one can be the man. That's Utley.

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Has Vince Velasquez taken the lead in the Phillies' No. 5 starter derby?

Has Vince Velasquez taken the lead in the Phillies' No. 5 starter derby?

Vince Velasquez, looking to earn one more shot in the Phillies’ starting rotation, might have taken a step in that direction in an intrasquad game Tuesday night.

The right-hander was impressive in four unstructured innings of work. (We call it unstructured because he faced an extra batter in some innings to get his pitch count up.) He gave up two hits and a walk and did not allow a run. He struck out six.

Velasquez, who turned 28 in June, apparently did not just put his feet up and wait for baseball to return during the shutdown.

He spent time adding a cutter and improving his changeup. He used both pitches effectively in Tuesday night’s outing. He still has that power fastball and a breaking ball. A deeper, more consistent mix might allow him to finally unlock the tantalizing potential he has shown since arriving in the organization as part of general manager Matt Klentak’s first big trade in December 2015.

“I thought his cutter was good,” manager Joe Girardi said. “It’s been a good pitch for him. It’s allowed him to use both sides of the plate.”

Velasquez has had two strong outings in intrasquad action over the last week. He is battling Nick Pivetta for the final spot in the rotation. The runner-up in the competition will start the season in the bullpen.

After Tuesday night’s intrasquad game, Girardi was asked if Velasquez has moved into the lead in No. 5 starter’s derby.

“He’s looked really good his last two outings,” Girardi said. “I don’t think you can ignore what he’s doing.”

Velasquez went 7-8 with a 4.90 ERA in 33 games, 23 of which were starts, last season. Inconsistency and the inability to get into the middle innings with a reasonable pitch count led a move to the bullpen. Eventually, a need arose in the rotation and Velasquez found himself back there. That’s where he wants to stay, but time may be running out. The Phils have Spencer Howard on the way and in a short, 60-game season can’t afford to give Velasquez a long leash if he continues to be inconsistent.

It’s time to cash in on that potential.

A change in pitching coach might help Velasquez. Bryan Price believes in moving the ball up and down in the strike zone. The previous regime, trying to capitalize on Velasquez’ power, stressed pitching up in the zone.

Last week, catcher J.T. Realmuto spoke optimistically about Velasquez. Realmuto sensed that Velasquez was doing more “pitching” than “throwing.”

There is a difference.

“He worked on a new pitch during the quarantine, mixing in a cutter now, and he's using his changeup a lot more than he has in the past, so just the pitchability from him,” Realmuto said. “I was talking with Bryan Price about it. We're not going to be so one-dimensional with him. We're going to move the ball around the plate, pitch up and down, mix the changeup in, mix that cutter in. He's always had that curveball. He’s looked really good. I expect big things from him.”

We’ve heard that before about Velasquez. The clock is ticking. Maybe this is the year something clicks. The Phillies certainly won’t complain if it is.

While Velasquez is trying to win a spot in the rotation, Zack Wheeler’s spot is safe. He faced 19 hitters and did not allow a run in the intrasquad game. He is in line to start the second game of the season — family life permitting. Wheeler is due to become a dad in the next couple of weeks and that real-life event will sideline him for at least a start, maybe two. This is why guys like Velasquez, Pivetta, Cole Irvin and others are having their innings stretched out. There may be starter's innings available even after the fifth starter’s job is settled.

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Yasiel Puig joins the NL East

Yasiel Puig joins the NL East

About nine months after free agency opened, Yasiel Puig has finally found a home. He agreed Tuesday to a deal with the Braves, which means the Phillies could see him 10 times in 2020.

The Braves are still a contender but were reeling and needed to make some sort of move to add more talent to their roster. Over the last two weeks, they've seen superstar Freddie Freeman and top reliever Will Smith test positive for COVID-19, while Nick Markakis and Felix Hernandez have opted out of the season.

Puig, 29, will likely play right field and bat in the spot Markakis would have occupied. The Braves still have a strong outfield with Marcell Ozuna in left field, Ronald Acuña Jr. in center and Puig in right. To optimize for defense, they could play Ender Inciarte in the outfield and have either Ozuna or Puig DH.

There was so much fanfare over Puig when he debuted with the Dodgers seven years ago, but he hasn't been able to replicate the production from his first two seasons. He's settled in as a .260-ish hitter with mid-20s home-run power and an on-base percentage right around the league average. In fact, in back to back seasons, he has hit exactly .267 with exactly a .327 OBP.

In 141 career plate appearances against the Phillies, Puig is a .301 hitter with eight doubles, three triples, three homers and 18 RBI.

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