It has not been an easy two weeks for me and my teams. On December 8th, Vanderbilt lost a heartbreaker to Missouri in Columbia, where the Tigers had won 50 straight games. The Commodores were doomed by horrific free throw shooting, bumbling point guard play, and an improbable Marcus Denmon three-pointer. One week later, the Knicks took on the Celtics at Madison Square Garden in what was probably the team’s most important regular season game in years. Certainly, the only thing on the line other than a win was pride, but the game was rightly called a serious test for the Knicks, who at that point had been racking up wins against the league’s weakest schedule. The Knicks hung right with the Celtics until a Paul Pierce jumper went in and an Amare Stoudemire three-pointer was waved off, leaving me standing in the center of my friend’s living room in total disbelief. And today, this happened. I still don’t want to talk about it, but let’s just say that my reaction to the meltdown caused my girlfriend to give me the richly-deserved title of a “doodyhead.”
Noticeably absent from this cohort is the Yankees, although that hasn’t stopped much of the media and fanbase from wringing their collective hands over the team’s perceived inertia. The Yankees often make big moves this time of year. They were expected to make their typically aggressive plays for the prime free agents – Jayson Werth, Carl Crawford, and Cliff Lee, with maybe a little Adam Dunn and Rafael Soriano sprinkled in. But it is now December 19th, and other than retaining Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera and signing Russell Martin and Pedro Feliciano, the Yankees have been uncharacteristically quiet. This is, of course, huge news here in New York. With the team very publicly striking out on acquiring Cliff Lee and theoretical Plan B Zack Greinke now off the market, people around here are concerned that the Yankees are an organization in disarray, or at least an organization caught without a plan.
It’s tempting to launch into a 2,000 diatribe on the state of the Yankees (CliffsNotes: chill out, it’s basically the same team as last year’s 95-game winner), but that’s not why I’m writing. I’m writing because I have heard and read some pretty crazy things about the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies’. The Phillies, as you may have heard, now have a rotation featuring Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt. This is an incredible collection of pitching talent, so incredible that it has compelled analysts, fans, and even Las Vegas (9-5 odds!) to proclaim the Phillies favorites to win the World Series. On a general level, this is an insane thing to say. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but baseball is not like basketball or even football. The best or most talented team does not win the championship the majority of the time, and often doesn’t even advance to the final round of the postseason. Weird and unpredictable things happen in the tiny, luck-infused samples of baseball’s playoffs (or even the entire regular season, see the 2010 Padres), so aggressively declaring any team the favorite to win the World Series in December is simply crazy talk.
But this is an objective, statistically-minded space, so naturally I have a concrete reason for my doubts about the 2011 Phillies. Specifically, I have serious questions about their ability to score runs. A glance at both the team’s 2010 performance and the names on their roster might make you wonder what the big deal is. After all, the Phillies scored the second-most runs in the National League and finished with the fourth-highest OPS. Plus they have Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Raul Ibanez, and Carlos Ruiz. They’re the Phillies. How can this offense not be good?
The answer is simple: Age. The Phillies have, at most, one position player in or approaching their prime years. It may shock some casual fans, but the hitters widely-considered to be the Phillies’ best – Ryan Howard and Chase Utley – are not young; Howard turned 31 in November and Utley turned 32 on Friday. The supporting cast isn’t young either. Jimmy Rollins is 32, Shane Victorino is 30, Raul Ibanez is 38, and Carlos Ruiz will be 32 when the season begins. The remaining three lineup spots belong to the pitcher, the impotent Placido Polanco, and (probably) 23-year-old, elite-level prospect Domonic Brown. Brown is the only player in the lineup (and he’s not even in the lineup yet) who offers some upside. We have almost certainly seen the best we’ll see from everyone else.
It may seem unfair to call the Phillies’ offense into question simply because it’s old. After all, the elderly Yankees and Red Sox led the major leagues in runs scored and OPS last season. But there is a difference here, and the difference is that there are specific, non-age-related reasons that the Phillies’ hitters are declining as a group. I’m sorry to get all bullet-pointy on you, but I can’t think of a better way to do this. Consider the following:
- Ryan Howard is not the dominant offensive force that he was in 2006. His .276/.353/.505 line is good but not great considering the high standards for his position. His walk rate has declined every year since 2007, and he still cannot hit lefties who can throw anything resembling a breaking ball.
- Chase Utley – also known as The Reason For Howard’s Annually Lofty RBI Totals – missed some time last year because of a sprained thumb, but still managed to hit .275/.387/.445. Even with the drop in power, that’s fantastic production from a second baseman. Typically a flyball hitter, his sharp increase in grounders hit bears watching. It could be just a result of the thumb injury or it could be the fact that he’s a 32-year-old middle infielder. Either way, betting on the 2007 version to show up in 2011 is foolish.
- I go back and forth on whether or not Jimmy Rollins is overrated. On one hand, his career line is .272/.328/.435 – slightly belong average compared to his peers at shortstop. On the other hand, the numbers suggest that he re-gains much of that lost value with his dazzling defense. This part, however, isn’t up for debate: he’s 32, he’s increasingly missing time with injuries, and he hit the most grounders and fewest line drives of his career in 2010. If he manages to stay healthy, play good defense, and hit for some power, he’ll be an asset. But let’s dispense with the Joe Morgan-led notion that he is an elite player, the lineup’s energizer, and the cog that makes the Phillies’ offense hum. He’s not.
- Shane Victorino is an average offensive center fielder. There’s no way around it, really. His career .279/.342/.428 line is perfectly average for the position, and the defensive numbers suggest he’s right about average with the glove, too. Unlike his teammates, there isn’t a particularly clear trend in the numbers that indicates impending decline. But you still end up with a 30-year-old, average-hitting center fielder, and those turn into 31-year-old, below average-hitting center fielders with some regularity.
- Raul Ibanez is just barely holding on to his offensive skills. Other than a flukey-good 2009 season, he’s never been able to hit lefties, and his ability to hit righties began to suffer in 2010. He hit way more grounders and way fewer flies last season, and perhaps not coincidentally, the numbers suggest that he really struggled with fastballs for the first time in his career. Of course, I could just delete everything I just wrote and type “he’s 38, what are the odds of him being a good hitter?”
- Before last season, Carlos Ruiz‘s career on-base percentage was .337 in over 1,200 plate appearances. Then, at age 31, he gets on base exactly 40% of the time in 433 plate appearances. I could bore you with the statistical reasons for this jump, but instead, I’ll go with this: I’m not buying it. Players don’t learn new skills (to this extent) after age 30.
I don’t think that this is me going out of my way to find problems with the Phillies. Their rotation is fantastic, but their lineup has legitimate questions. There is certainly enough talent here to catch lightning in a bottle for one season. Howard, Utley, and Rollins aren’t so old that their skills have totally vanished, so a simultaneous renaissance is possible. But it is exceedingly unlikely, making the talk of the Phillies easily winning 100 games (I wish I could remember where I heard this, but I can’t) fairly ridiculous. If the Phillies are good this season – and barring injuries, they will be good – they will resemble the second-half 2010 San Fransisco Giants: excellent pitching, good defense, and enough offense to win.