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September 11 2006

You hear two things about the Phillies offense these days:  #1:  The Phillies offense has really picked it up since Bobby Abreu was traded.  #2:  The Phillies offense is in a terrible slump.  It's enough to make you wonder if you missed a memo.  What are these people talking about?  How can the Phillies be better offensively and in a slump all at the same time?

Here's a look at the runs the Phillies have scored by month this season, and how that compares to the other teams in the National League:

Month Runs Rank-NL Games Runs/Game
April 108 13 24 4.5
May 151 5 28 5.4
June 120 T-5 27 4.4
July 147 3 25 5.9
August 179 1 29 6.2
September 54 2 10 5.4

Bobby Abreu played his last game with the Phillies this year on July 28 and the Phillies offense took off in August, scoring over six runs a game.  The 179 runs the Phillies scored in their 29 games in August was the most in all of baseball, including the teams in the American League.  If you're not familiar with the American League, it's like baseball except that instead of Rodrigo Lopez grounding out to second David Ortiz comes up and hits a three-run homer. 

At the time, the loss of Abreu meant right field would be manned by a platoon of Dellucci and Victorino.  Both of them filled in at other positions, Victorino in particular, but the two combined to do the bulk of the work in right.  And in August, both of them tore it up.  Victorino hit 330/391/495 in 103 August at-bats and Dellucci 288/393/548 in 73 at-bats.  The Phillies basically replaced an excellent offensive player in Abreu with a combination of two guys that were hitting very well. 

At the same time, Rollins and Howard took off.  Howard's August was absolutely phenomenal.  He hit 14 home runs and drove in 41 while posting an absurd 348/464/750 line.  To put his month in perspective, if he hit at that rate over the six months of a season he would bang out 84 home runs and 246 RBI.  Rollins also had his best month of the year, hitting 344/405/580 in 131 at-bats.  Utley, Burrell and Nunez didn't hit in August, but Coste (351/393/544 in 57 at-bats) and Lieberthal (290/362/532 in 62 at-bats) sure did. 

On August 21 the Phillies lost Aaron Rowand to an ankle injury and Victorino became an everyday player and a fixture in the two-hole.  Rowand was struggling with the bat this season, getting his stick out of the lineup and replacing it with a hot bat helped the Phillies.  The combination of Victorino on-basing .391 for the month while Rollins on-based .405 and Howard slugged .750 was devastating.  It always will be.  You can write it down wherever you write things down -- on the months where the one and two hitters get on base at that rate and Howard slugs .750 the Phillies are going to have the best offense in the world.

The problem is this, though.  Rollins doesn't on-base .405 for a year.  He on-bases about .340.  It's not clear yet what Victorino is going to on-base, but it's not going to be .390. 

In their first ten games on September, the Phillies have scored 54 runs, which is tied for second-best in the National League.  Great news.  The bad news is this: 30 of the 54 runs came in two games.  They beat the Braves 16-4 on September 2 and the Fish 14-8 on Thursday.  In their other eight games they've scored 24 runs.  In six out of their last seven they've scored three or fewer.

So now we're back to the two original ideas.  First, the team has undeniably scored more runs without Abreu than with him.  Over their 39 games in August and September they've scored 5.97 a game, which is slightly higher than they did in the best of four months with him (5.88 in July).  They did it because they first replaced him with a platoon that was about as effective and then replaced a weak bat in the lineup with a guy that was hitting very well.  And they got hot.  Rollins, Victorino, Dellucci, Howard and the catchers just crushed the ball in August.  The question is can they sustain it over time?

The answer is no.  They can't.  With the struggles that Dellucci has had of late Conine has basically become the Phillies everyday right fielder.  You don't replace Bobby Abreu with Jeff Conine and expect your offense to improve, even with a hot bat of Victorino replacing the slumping Rowand.  What else have the Phillies done?  Replaced a bad offensive player in Bell with a worse one in Nunez.  Replaced Sal Fasano with a hot Coste and Lieberthal, that helped.  But not enough to make you believe the offensive surge is for real.

And yes, the offense is slumping.  Three or fewer runs in six of their last seven games says it all.

There is good news for the Phillies.  Here it is:  You don't need to average six runs a game to win consistently.  The Phillies offense is still good and it could get better next year.  The Phils will get someone to play third.  It's not about the offense -- it's still all about the pitching.  The Phillies starters have allowed the most runs in the National League.  The pen has let them down in tight games over and over again and the guys at the back of it are so old it can't be a surprise to anyone they're breaking down now.  Their rotation is bolstered, but it's not really looking like there's anything in terms of a long-term solution.  Bobby Abreu didn't have anything to do with what's wrong with the Phils, just the opposite, in fact.  He never pitched.  He was a big part of a great offense that's still good enough to win if the Phillies can ever get their pitching together.

Regardless of how the numbers look right now, the Phillies offense got worse with the Abreu trade.  The question is, how much worse?  For now, the answer has to be that nobody knows.  Because right now the numbers are telling you they got better; and the numbers are lying.

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