Mike Lieberthal: Struggling in the Box

As this season winds down to its sadly obvious ending for the Phillies we do what as fans of any Philadelphia sports team have had to do many, many times. We look towards next season and hope it will be better then. For Mike Lieberthal that is a personal goal as well. The popular Phillies catcher has struggled at the plate this season and was hitting just .251 on the season. Lieberthal has been among the pile up of injuries and other Phillies players engaged in their own struggles.

While Mike Lieberthal seems like a very unaffected kind of guy he has made it known that his performance in the box has not pleased him. Considering he played a pretty big role in last year's season, in which it came down to the wire in the Wild Card race for the Phils against the Marlins, it must be very frustrating for the cool headed catcher.

In 2003 he batted his career best .313, assisting an offense that was missing the big time bat of Pat Burrell, who battled his way through last year. This left Lieberthal to have to pick up the slack to a point and he successfully did that; Burrell's slump seemed to signal to Lieberthal that he needed to be even more of a leader at the plate.

1999 was also a great year for him in which he hit a record 31 homers and although he hasn't repeated that performance since, he has been a consistent contributor to the team's success. In 2000, in 389 at bats he averaged a total of 71 RBI with a .352 OBP. 2001 found Lieberthal battling an injury but he would return to a healthy average the following year with a total of 52 RBI in 476 at bats. 2003 would be a testament to his talent however as a hitter. Batting .313 in a total of 386 at bats he finished the year with 81 RBI. Never one to tout his own personal successes - he always seemed to embody the Dallas Green "We not I" philosophy - I have one particular memory of him hitting a grand slam in 2003 and for some reason clearly recall the look on his face; he simply shook his head, with a kind of disbelief on his face, and a cool attitude as he rounded the bases. He has intensity about the way he plays but it never shows in his disposition. That intensity and aggressiveness at the plate last year resulted in excellent numbers; this year it has caused him some trouble.

I have spoken before about the negative effect I believe the insanely high expectations for the Phillies had on the team and the pressure it may have brought upon them; it does seem apparent in the hitters approach. Being aggressive at the plate results in homeruns and big hits; being overly aggressive results in swinging at air and popping up often. Lieberthal has done a lot of the latter. Manager Larry Bowa has been quoted as saying that he does think some of the guys are perhaps being too aggressive and trying hard to do too much. And the problem with the team this year, aside from injuries, has been getting the little things done. Lieberthal doesn't have good numbers this year with runners in scoring position and the little things have been more difficult for him. Hitters go through slumps during the season but Lieberthal's been there for the majority of the year. The coaching staff had to work with him a few years back on fixing the adjustment Lieberthal made in his swing, in which he began extending his arms more when he swung. They encouraged him to look for fastballs that he could turn on. It is something he obviously needs to work on again. The great thing about Lieberthal is the fact that he does not let his emotions carry him off. He knows he is struggling but he remains focused. Hopefully that focus will lead to a payoff in the next season. We have seen Lieberthal come back from tough times before and he is certainly made of tough enough stuff to find his swing again. Get in there like Lenny Dykstra, who studied pitches like a scientist, and you'll be allright Mike.

As a catcher Lieberthal has also been very solid with a strong and very accurate arm, although his ability to call pitches has been questioned. Lieberthal went through a frustrating period of only getting 18 of 102 hitters out in a season. This might have been due to a disagreement on approach between him and pitching Coach Joe Kerrigan. It has also been questioned how much of the time Lieberthal is the one making the pitching calls but he obviously deserves a great deal of respect; in 2003 he played in 130 games for the second straight year. Particularly important is that after catcher Johnny Estrada was traded to the Atlanta Braves, this left the Phillies with no one to fill in for Lieberthal if he becomes injured. Age might become an issue in the not so distant future for him. At 32 he could be facing time catching up as it does at this point in a catcher's career but the Phillies seem to be counting on a few more years of Lieberthal staying productive. The Phillies drafted and signed a couple of catching prospects earlier this year and one of them, Jason Jaramillo, seems to be the Phillies catcher of the future, but I don't see the likelihood of Lieberthal retiring anytime. And don't pay any attention to that joke he made earlier this year about this being his last season as a professional ball player. Marcus Hayes of The Daily News should have been able to recognize Lieberthal's dry sense of humor. Then again we shall see.

Mike Lieberthal's popularity in Philadelphia and the fan respect he receives for his continuous service since 1995 is as strong as ever and I don't believe the fans are ready to see him go either. This season it has been frustrating to watch him, yes, however, I think fans would like to see him return as much as the Phillies organization would. But i'm sure we are all also hoping for the return of the Lieberthal we know he can be.

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