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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“If We’re Nice, We’ll Let It Go Six”

November 1, 2009

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On October 26th, Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins predicted that his team would beat the Yankees to win the World Series in five games. Ever munificent, Rollins allowed for the possibility that the series could go six games, but the result would remain the same: a second World Series victory in as many years for the Phillies.

Well, it would appear that Rollins and his teammates were feeling charitable last night, as the Yankees’ 8-5 win ensured that if the Phillies win the World Series, it would be in six or seven games. Generally, I’m not opposed to predictions and other forms of competitive banter. Cincinnati Bengals’ receiver Chad Ochocinco’s checklist is a personal favorite because of its originality and the man’s very real ability to back it up. Rollins’ prediction, however, slightly irked me because of his performance. Rollins hit a miserable .250/.296/.423 in the regular season, making him roughly the 11th-most valuable member of the 2009 Phillies, behind the immortal Carlos Ruiz and barely ahead of Pedro Feliz. Yes, Rollins has a ring and a handful of good seasons to his name, but it must be mentioned that Rollins has been a below-average hitter (97 OPS+) and average-ish fielder (4.9 UZR/150) in his career. Talk is all well and good, but the crank in me believes it should be in proportion to the individual accomplishments of its instigator.

A few remaining thoughts from the game:

  • Alex Rodriguez hit a controversial home run and was hit by a couple pitches, bringing his World Series OPS up to .708. Phillies’ slugger Ryan Howard, on the other hand, went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts an a pop-up, making him 2/13 this World Series with nine strikeouts. Trust me when I say that using World Series OPS to make a point makes me want to throw myself off a bridge, but I have to ask: Will we see a national columnist write about Howard’s inability to handle the pressure? Will people question his fortitude and focus? In short, will he (or Mark Teixeira, he of the .607 postseason OPS) get the Alex Rodriguez treatment? No, they will not, because people like Howard and Teixeira, and Rodriguez (for whatever reason) rubs people the wrong way. I know I should get over this double standard, but I simply refuse to.
  • For much of the evening, Andy Pettitte drove me nuts. I watched him hold the top of the Phillies’ order to 1/15 with one walk and five strikeouts (Chase Utley twice and Ryan Howard three times). Then I watched him allow the bottom of their order to go 3/11, including a double to Pedro Feliz (.308 OBP), two walks to Carlos Ruiz, and a bunt single to pitcher Cole Hamels. Having slept on it, I’m not longer flustered by Pettitte’s performance. While the two homers to Jayson Werth here tough to swallow, Pettitte did fantastic work against most of the Phillies’ toughest hitters. Holding Utley, Howard, and Raul Ibanez hitless with seven strikeouts is awfully difficult to do, but he did it. This is me tipping my cap. Now stop walking bad hitters.
  • Try as I might, I simply can’t resist mentioning another bit of stupid (yes, that word is what I mean) bullpen management. Up 8-4 entering the bottom of the ninth inning, Joe Girardi sent out Phil Hughes to finish up the game. I liked the move; Hughes typically sees action in high-leverage situations, but his postseason struggles warranted his use at the start of an inning, with a significant lead, and a clean slate. Hughes retired the first batter he faced on a ground ball. Then, to his absolute discredit, he allowed a home run to Carlos Ruiz. Unfortunately for Hughes and people with brains everywhere, Ruiz’s homer made the game a save situation. And we all know what that means with Mariano Rivera in the bullpen and Girardi in charge. Rivera entered the game, retired the next two batters, and secured the victory. This was just another example of thoughtless, push-button management. If the Yankees don’t have another reliever that can get two outs before surrendering three runs (they have several), their team is hugely flawed. If Girardi doesn’t believe that he has another reliever that can do that, he’s an idiot. With Rivera coming off two innings pitched in Game Two and C.C. Sabathia going on short rest tonight, Girardi should have used literally any reliever but Rivera in that situation (how about, you know, leaving Hughes in there and not messing with his head like that?). The Yankees could very well need Rivera for an extended appearance tonight, and his usage last night might have sunk that possibility.

Starting Chad Gaudin Is Just Asking For Trouble

October 28, 2009

Perhaps this is just selective memory, but the 2009 World Series seems to be coming together rather tidily. The narrative is clear, with the defending champion Phillies facing a Yankees team that is hungry to reclaim what was once regularly theirs. The primary talking point is simple: both teams are offensive powerhouses, and whichever team keeps the damage to a minimum will prevail. Generally, there seems to be little drama (although Pedro Martinez pitching Game Two at Yankee Stadium is pretty great) or intrigue.

Of course, as a neurotic Yankees fan (redundant?), this is unacceptable to me. It is my duty to find something either to fret about or something to caution as underestimated in its importance. Luckily, I have found both in the person of Yankees starting pitcher Chad Gaudin. Manager Joe Girardi and his staff are toying with the idea of giving Gaudin a start in Game Four or Five, thereby preventing C.C. Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, and A.J. Burnett from pitching on short rest throughout the series. Unsurprisingly, since he hasn’t pitched since October 3rd, there have been reports of Gaudin being “stretched out” for a possible start. As you may have guessed, I think starting Gaudin is a terrible idea, and for a different reason than you’ve probably heard most opponents of the idea cite.

Chad Gaudin’s chronic inability to retire left-handed hitters is a huge reason for concern. Since 2002, lefties have hit .293/.389/.433 against Gaudin (righties: .249/.318/.409). Even more starkly, Gaudin’s career K/BB against lefties is 0.84, as opposed to 2.80 against righties. These trends held true in the 2009 season as well. Lefties hit .296/.408/.415 against him, walking one more time than they struck out. Gaudin’s problems against lefties are not a prolonged fluke. They are a real problem, chronicled in real data over a significant sample size.

This deficiency wouldn’t be worth so much thought if the Yankees were playing a balanced or heavily right-handed team. The Phillies, however, get a great deal of their offense from left-handed hitters. Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Raul Ibanez form the heart of the Phillies’ lineup (righty Jayson Werth is mixed in there), and they are preceded by switch-hitters Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino. Here are each of their numbers against right-handed pitchers, both career and in 2009:

  • Ryan Howard: .307/.409/.661 (career), .319/.395/.691 (2009)
  • Chase Utley: .302/.375/.536 (career), .279/.387/.489 (2009)
  • Raul Ibanez: .290/.354/.496, (career), .267/.342/.517 (2009)
  • Jimmy Rollins: .272/.327/.435 (career), .257/.306/.422 (2009)
  • Shane Victorino: .287/.347/.415 (career), .283/.347/.440 (2009)

The greatest concern of these five hitters is Ryan Howard. As I’ve mentioned before, Howard is the best hitter of right-handed pitching in baseball, and among the very worst against lefties. This factor alone should make the Yankees think twice about starting a fringy right-hander like Chad Gaudin. It gets worse. Utley murders major league pitching of either handedness, making Gaudin’s difficulty with lefties even more problematic. Interestingly, Ibanez posted a significant reverse split in 2009, destroying left-handers and hitting acceptably against righties. Even if this is a real change in Ibanez’s performance (which it isn’t), Gaudin turns average left-handed hitters (like 2009 Ibanez) into above-average ones because of his significant control problems against them. Starting Gaudin against these three hitters is just asking for trouble.

To be fair, Jimmy Rollins’ and Shane Victorino’s numbers against right-handers aren’t overwhelmingly impressive. In fact, both switch-hitters are stronger against lefties. But it isn’t their ability to put the bat on the ball against Gaudin that worries me. Instead, I’m fairly certain that Rollins and Victorino will draw walks. Rollins has never had a great eye, but he walks more against righties than lefties. Victorino walks more against lefties than righties, but has decent plate discipline overall. Ultimately, it’s not hard at all to envision Gaudin starting the game by walking one or both of them (Rollins leads off, Victorino bats second), and then having to retire the slugging, lefty-heavy heart of the order with runners on base. It’s a terrifying prospect that should never come to pass.

I understand why the Yankees would consider giving Gaudin a start; having Sabathia, Burnett, and Pettitte pitching on short rest for half the series is a tough alternative to face. This is, however, the World Series. A team must go with nothing but its best in all but the most hopeless of circumstances, and Gaudin is not the Yankees’ best. If the Yankees opt to give him a start (a decision that is still very much up in the air), they are essentially choosing to neutralize Werth, Pedro Feliz, and Carlos Ruiz, while taking their chances with Howard, Utley, and Ibanez. That looks an awful lot like a bad idea to me under any circumstances, but particularly so when the stakes cannot get any higher.