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Phillies Leadoff Dilemma: Rollins or Victorino?

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For the Phillies, the past four years have produced a number of constants. There are the perennial sell-out crowds at Citizens Bank Park, NL East titles, dominating Septembers, and predictions of postseason success.

As customary as each of those things has become, there is something that is even more synonymous with our beloved baseball franchise: Jimmy Rollins digging into the batter’s box as the Phillies’ leadoff hitter.

In fact, since Rollins became the Phillies’ full-time shortstop in 2001, he has logged nearly 5,000 at-bats as the team’s lead-off hitter (the equivalent of 78% of his career at-bats). Over that ten year period, many have argued that Rollins’ aggressive swinging and low on-base percentage make him more suited for a spot lower in the batting order (a theory supported by his .340 career average when batting 5th or 6th). However, when Rollins gets rollin’, his ability to electrify the Phillies offense from the leadoff spot is undeniable.

Unfortunately, for Rollins, the 2010 season has been the most frustrating of his ten-year career. He will end up playing in just over half of his team’s games, and has been betrayed by the very legs that terrorized opposing teams for the past decade. His latest orthopedic dilemma is a tweaked hamstring that kept him on the bench during the Phillies’ September disposal of their National League rivals. Rollins is now well enough to play again, but recently conceded, “I won’t be 100 percent when the playoffs start. I won’t be 100 percent until next February, probably”.

Hearing this assessment from the veteran shortstop could be one of the few causes for concern the surging Phillies have as the calendar flips to October. They enter the playoffs with a dynamic starting pitching staff, a resurgent bullpen and a red-hot lineup. But if Rollins is shaky at the plate, or can’t shift into the big gear on the basepaths, Charlie Manuel could be faced with a dilemma over who to pencil in at the leadoff position.

If history is any indication, Charlie will stand by the veteran that he still regularly refers to as his leadoff man. It’s worth noting that Manuel’s unwavering faith in his veteran players has paid off during each of the Phillies’ last three tremendous seasons. Manuel knows that Rollins can still get into grooves during which he plays like a league MVP. He also loves the J-Roll persona that Rollins exhibits when he flashes a cool grin after delivering in a pressure-packed situation.

Unfortunately, when one looks at Rollins’ career postseason statistics, those huge plays have not been as frequent as many seem to remember. In 32 career playoff games, he has hit only .231 with a paltry on-base-percentage of .297. While he did manage to score an impressive total of 20 runs in those games, his playoff batting statistics, along with his current injuries and rustiness could lead the Phillies to consider their other option for the leadoff spot in the playoffs: Shane Victorino.Rollins/Victorino Photo: Kievom, NY Daily News

With Rollins’ frequent health problems this season, Victorino completed what could be considered a 348 at-bat audition for the lead role in the Phillies postseason offense. His leadoff batting average (.276) is over 30 points higher than Rollins.' And as for the other important offensive numbers, Victorino registered more steals, runs, doubles, triples, and homers (even when Rollins’ stats are adjusted to the same number of at-bats as Shane’s).

Most importantly, Victorino was the offensive catalyst  when the Phillies surged for 15 wins in 16 games to put the NL East and home field advantage on ice. His .357 average and 14 runs scored during that stretch launched the Phillies attack that ambushed their September foes. Victorino’s approach to the leadoff spot is actually not much different than that of Rollins. He doesn’t work counts and draw walks with a great deal of success, and he likes to swing aggressively. Nonetheless, the bottom line for Victorino was that he led off like Jimmy Rollins did when he was at his best. It was impressive enough for Charlie Manuel to note in mid-September, “for us and where we’re at right now and where Jimmy’s at, I wouldn’t want to move Vic out of the leadoff spot right now."

Considering that Manuel was referring to the Phillies’ position in a then-close pennant race, it was noteworthy that he was determined to play the hot hand rather than revert to his traditional lineup. Could that be a sign of how Manuel will approach an impending best-of-five-game playoff series in which runs are a precious commodity?

As Jimmy Rollins spends the final week of the regular season shaking off the rust with some rehab at-bats and infield repetitions, Charlie Manuel has a decision to make. He must decide if he should exercise his customary faith in an accomplished veteran or if he should manage by “feel” and go with what worked during the best stretch of baseball his team played all season. The Phillies manager has had a great deal of success with both strategies over the years. His decision on this one could go a long way in determining the course of the Phillies offense and the 2010 playoffs.

Matt Babiarz was born and raised in the Philadelphia area.  He graduated from the University of Alabama, but remained a very close observer of the Philadelphia sports scene.  He recently began covering the Phillies for Philly2Philly.com.  You can also read his work at Bleacherreport.com within the Philadelphia Phillies section. 

Matt can be contacted at mattbabz@comcast.net  

Rollins/Victorino Photo: Kievom, NY Daily News