It’s funny. If you listen to Charlie Manual long enough, some things start to make sense. Actually it’s not that Charlie makes sense, it’s just that certain patterns begin to emerge. Charlie has always been lauded as a players’ manager, which is a polite way of saying that he doesn’t have a strategic bone in his head, and he gets out of the way and lets players play. Which, mind you, can be a really good thing when you have good players on your team playing well. Predictably, then, when a player struggles in Spring Training Charlie is apt to say: “Aw, it’s just Spring Trainin’, and Spring Trainin’ don’t mean much.” That is to say, when an established player struggles, he’s just experimenting with things. Getting his timing down. Working on building strength in his arm, or on location. But when it’s a player who has a great spring, Charlie will use that to say the guy really proved his versatility, as in justifying hanging on to Michael Martinez. Or as in the case of Ben Francisco, he showed that he looks like he’s ready to be an everyday player. Sorry, Charlie, but you can’t have it both ways.
I think Spring Training does mean something. Perhaps not the team record overall. And perhaps the stats aren’t even predictive for players in general. But you do get certain insights on players in terms of trends. Specifically, how they begin the month versus how they end it. Take the Phillies vaunted pitching staff, for example. It’s said that pitchers are always ahead of hitters early in Spring Training, partly because they report earlier. Cole Hamels began the Spring with a bang, but as the month wore on, so did he. His last three outings were disappointing and he admitted some concern that he wasn’t able to locate. Conversely Joe Blanton began the Spring not being able to locate, and finished with a flourish.
Tonight against Bernie’s Mets, Cole was mercifully pulled after two and two-thirds innings, having been banged around for six runs in his own park. Cole is a poster child for Yogi’s maxim that 90% of the game is half mental. The popular thinking is that there is less pressure on Cole now that he’s a #4, but I’m telling you it’s just the opposite. Roy Oswalt said it best last night when noting that there’s something of a competition among the aces to not be the one who breaks the chain of good starts.
So the chain has now been broken. Not so much I’ll claim because Cole had one bad night, but because Spring Training does mean something. His last few outings weren’t just an oddity, but a sign that he isn’t mentally prepared to bear down like the other aces. He escaped the first inning tonight after putting the first two runners on, and cruised through the second. But he couldn’t locate the strike zone in the third and the Cole of old came out in the cold: when the ump started squeezing him he lost focus, and the Mets jumped all over him.
I hope I’m wrong regarding Cole. That the Spring don’t mean nothin’. But if I’m right, the silver lining is going to be that Joe Blanton will surprise people this year. I can say this now prior to Blanton’s start tomorrow night against the Mets. Joe typically struggles through the first inning or two and settles down. But if he starts off strong, watch out! We may have a year ahead of us where Blanton functions more like the Fourth Ace and Hamels is The Joker. For the sake of Hamels’ incremental progress, I hope not. This year is critical for his evolution into becoming a dominant, durable pitcher.