Phillies' Raul Ibanez: A-Rod Is Green with Envy

Sitting next to a beautiful woman for 12 hours in first class on an airplane is the perfect situation. You want to avoid boredom, so small-talk is perfectly acceptable. And she can't walk away because she has to remain seated and buckled per airline regulations. Drinks are free, and the movie might even be good. Even if you say something that elicits a slap, the air marshal will probably taser her for being violent on an airplane. 

Raul Ibanez is in that perfect situation playing for Philadelphia. Everything is aligned for him to succeed, and even if he slumps, he will avoid the aforementioned taser because Phillies fans, notorious for booing, will probably direct their animosity at shortstop Jimmy Rollins. The reason: Ibanez's fly-under-the-radar personality.

South Florida baseball fans had a chance to witness Ibanez's clout as he drilled two homers in the Marlins' 4-0 loss Thursday night. The Miami Herald reported Ibanez played at the Kendall Boys Club and graduated from Sunset High in 1991, but has played most of his career in far-off locales such as Kansas City and Seattle. While the Phillies slugger lacks the star power and headline-grabbing exploits of fellow Miamian Alex Rodriguez, Ibanez has amassed statistics in 2009 that likely make A-Rod green with envy. (Actually, the Yankee is already green... with cash.)

But Ibanez, a first-time All-Star this season, had his 2009 numbers questioned by no-name blogger Jerod Morris, who alluded to possible performance-enhancing drug use. The story exploded out of control nationally to the point where Ibanez publicly defended himself by saying, "Unfortunately, I understand the environment we're in and the events that have led us to this era of speculation. At the same time, you can't just walk down the street and accuse somebody of being a thief because they didn't have a nice car yesterday and they do today."

Sadly, A-Rod's and Manny Ramirez's failed drug tests, along with laughable home run totals of players such as Brady Anderson and Jay Bell during the height of the Steroid Era, have irrevocably jaded fans into thinking all good seasons must be fueled by syringes rather than sweat. And as for the 37-year-old Ibanez (a guy who is on pace for nearly 50 homers when he averages 23 per season), all he receives is scrutiny rather than congratulations.

Riptide can offer three reasons why Ibanez, whose swing is sweeter than the riffs coming out of Joe Satriani's guitar of the same name, is hitting homers at a rate never before seen from the aging left fielder.

Perhaps the most obvious reason is the change of ballparks from Seattle's Safeco Field to Philadelphia's Citizen's Bank Park. Safeco is one of the toughest places to hit a home run, and in the first half, only 71 long balls were hit at a rate of 1.77 per game. Conversely, the Phillies' house is a hitter's paradise, for 122 deep flies have left the yard at a rate of 2.9 per game. The doubles and long fly-outs Ibanez used to hit in Seattle are simply turning into home runs in Philadelphia.

Not so obvious is the fact that Ibanez feasts on bad pitching. Last year in the AL West, he had to face the Angels, Mariners, and A's. Those teams all have well-above average pitching in pitcher-friendly ballparks. In Philadelphia, Ibanez faces the woeful Nationals along with the Mets, Braves, and Marlins. Six of his homers have come off of Nationals' pitching, while five are courtesy of the Mets this season.

Ibanez has touched up only two potential Hall of Famers for homers this year: Johan Santana and Andy Pettitte. During his career, 20 of 204 career home runs have come off ace pitchers who have made Opening Day starts. The shift to the weak NL East has greatly benefited Ibanez because he is facing subpar competition.

And Ibanez is finally playing for a good team. This year, the Phillies sent five hitters to the All-Star game, while the Mariners and Royals (Ibanez's previous two teams) sent only a combined total of one hitter to the midsummer classic. Pitchers naturally focus on sluggers such as Ryan Howard and Chase Utley while forgetting that Ibanez is terrific in his own right. He has benefited from often hitting with runners on base and batting in front of other elite hitters, meaning pitchers feed him fastballs, fearing a walk.

Other factors that point to the legitmacy of Ibanez's numbers are his .309 batting average (he has hit better than .280 since 2001) and his strikeout numbers (he is on pace to strike out just as many times as he always has).

The performance-enhancing drug talk surrounding Ibanez was premature, unfair, and a product of a bunch of meathead ballplayers screwing it up for everyone else.

Much like the failed romantic who finally lucks out by sitting next to a smokin'-hot woman for a 12-hour flight, Ibanez is simply reaping the benefits of a perfect situation in Philadelphia by blasting balls over fences better than ever before.