Is Lieberthal Hurting the Phillies?

<i>Sports Illustrated</i> writer Tom Verducci recently posted his list of the most disappointing players in baseball. His team included Mike Lieberthal on a long list of players who have had disappointing seasons and as Verducci pointed out in his intro to the list, "succeeded only in dragging down their teams." Is that a fair assessment of Mike Lieberthal?

Next January, Mike Lieberthal will celebrate his 33rd birthday. In catcher years, that's a point where you have to begin to wonder about a guy's future.

Lieberthal hit 13-31-.313 in 2003 and was probably the most consistent hitter on the Phillies roster. Those numbers and a clean bill of health made fans eager to see what Lieberthal would do this season. Unfortunately, the result has been nothing near what anybody had hoped for, even though his health has remained strong. In 2004, Lieberthal has sunk to 15-51-.260 for the Phillies.

A look at Lieberthal's past though shows that his current numbers aren't so bad when you compare them to his career averages. Coming into the season - Lieberthal's 11th major league season - Lieberthal was a career .277 hitter, averaging 11 homeruns and 47 RBI per season. While his average is down, his homerun and RBI numbers are slightly above where he usually performs. If there is a negative number that jumps out at you, it's the fact that while Lieberthal averaged 44 strikeouts a season coming into 2004, he has already struck out 62 times this year.

One theory on Lieberthal is that he has tried to be more of a power hitter at times throughout his career. Just five seasons ago, Lieberthal hit a career high 31 homeruns after hitting 20 homeruns in 1997.

Perhaps a bigger complaint of fans and scouts alike is that Lieberthal has a definite inability to stay away from swinging at the first pitch he sees. Lieberthal is a .209 hitter this season when he swings at the first pitch, which is compounded when you look at his other numbers. When he's hitting with an 0-1 count, Lieberthal is a .320 hitter, so falling behind in the count shouldn't be a concern for him. In fact, Lieberthal is a .270 hitter this year when hitting from behind in the count. When he works the count to a 1-0 level, he is a .333 hitter. The numbers show that Lieberthal could be more productive overall if he were more patient. If there is anything in his favor in swinging at the first pitch, it's that he has hit six of his 15 homeruns on first pitches.

One of the more talked about stats for not just Lieberthal, but for the Phillies in general, is hitting with runners in scoring position. Lieberthal, quite frankly, has stunk in that spot, hitting just .113 this season. Lieberthal is a .319 hitter with nobody on base or just a runner on first, but obviously, chokes when he's in a position to do some damage.

Defensively, Lieberthal ranks sixth in the National League in throwing out base stealers and seventh in fielding percentage among catchers. He is also well respected by the pitchers on the Phillies staff.

To put Lieberthal in a group of players that are "dragging down their teams" is a little rough. His inability to hit with runners in scoring position and his refusal to be more patient at the plate have hurt Lieberthal and the Phillies, but overall, you could do much worse than to have Mike Lieberthal behind the plate. The Phillies can't ignore the fact that Lieberthal is aging and likely will need to be given more days off than he has been getting. In the very near future, the Phillies may want to add a backup catcher who can play on a more regular basis and perhaps, work into an everyday position with the Phils. There are some young catchers who are starting to show their talents in the minors, but they're not major league ready. The Phillies also drafted some talented catchers this past June, but obviously, they'll need time to progress.

When looking for reasons why the Phillies have underachieved this season, Lieberthal is a likely topic, but certainly shouldn't be one of the more mentioned reasons. Injuries, pitching and center field have been much more responsible for any drag that has been placed on the 2004 Phillies.

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