What To Make Of The 2011 Phillies

December 19, 2010

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?  Read the rest of this entry »

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The Invincible Pettitte and Lee

October 18, 2010

If you hate me or my writing, my anti-traditionalism or my affinity for newfangled statistics, you should be happy to know that at eight o’clock tonight I will be one of the most miserable people in New York. Because the majority of my grad school classes run from 7-9pm, I will be missing the first hour of Games 3 and 4 in the ALCS. I have two strategies to combat this horrific coincidence, neither of which will make anything better at all. First, I will look around the classroom for other students whose faces are just as contorted in displeasure as mine will be. Surely I will find someone with whom to exchange a despairing wince (I won’t, because my school is something like 98% female. Maybe that makes me a pig, but I’m pretty sure there are no serious baseball fans in my classes). When that fails, I will pull out my BlackBerry and hit “refresh” one thousand times until class ends, when I will scamper to the nearest television for what will probably be disappointing news.

Yes, “disappointing.” The Yankees face Cliff Lee tonight, a man who has transformed himself into one of the elite pitchers in baseball. He will probably pitch very well. But he is not invincible, as most of the newspapers and radio shows would have you believe. Lee pitched terribly in August and has occasionally pitched poorly in other months. Because pitching is, you know, difficult and unpredictable. If Roy Halladay can give up four runs to the Giants after no-hitting the Reds a week earlier, that means Lee can be beaten too, even if we are being told he is unbeatable.

More perplexing than the “Lee is unbeatable” narrative is its “Andy Pettitte is the clutchiest thing to ever walk the earth” counterpart. Lee has called Pettitte “the best postseason pitcher of all-time“, an errant notion that I can condone because Lee a professional baseball player and not a professional analyst. But it’s not just Lee who thinks this. Much of the local sports media – likely on account of Pettitte’s 19 playoff wins and his modest, likable personality – is echoing the idea that October is under his dominion.

Lost in this mythologizing is the fact that Pettitte pitches almost exactly the same in the playoffs as he does in the regular season. His postseason ERA is one one-hundredth of a run lower than his regular season ERA. He has allowed hits at exactly the same rate. His playoff home run rate is higher than his regular season’s. He strikes out fewer batters in October but walks fewer too, making his K/BB ratio almost exactly the same as in the regular season. Look at the numbers for yourself. Pettitte doesn’t step it up in October. It’s a myth.

Tonight, one of these myths will probably be crushed. I’m rooting for Lee’s, but even as a Yankee fan, the debunking of Pettitte’s playoff invincibility would be an acceptable silver lining in the long term.