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 »


This Is My Life

July 7, 2010

You can probably guess which guy I am. Also, there is some salty language in this clip (a handful of f-bombs). I try not to post anything with profanity, but this is too good and pretty harmless.

Another Joe Morgan Chat

April 27, 2010

This was another solid showing from Mr. Morgan. Let’s get serious:

Joe Morgan: One thing that I’ve taken notice of this year has been the fact that the stars are still being the stars. They’re being consistent from the beginning of the season. Whereas, we’re finding that a lot of teams that were supposed to be at the top of the division are struggling, but the star players are still playing like stars. I’m specifically talking about guys like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Pujols, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Jeter. Guys like that are playing consistent. I think that separates them even more from the pack.

What do Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez, David Ortiz, Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore, Carlos Lee, Mark Teixeira, Jason Bay, Jose Reyes, RYAN HOWARD, Matt Holliday, and Michael Young have in common? They are “star players” that have gotten off the bad starts. Morgan’s opening statement is gibberish. He is making things up.

Q: What are your thoughts on A-Rod walking over the mound against Oakland?

Morgan: I have to admit that I have been corrected, because I didn’t know that unwritten rule. I’ve seen different reports. One said that he stomped on the rubber. The other said that he walked over the mound. But I was never told or thought about the fact that you should never walk over the mound. The pitcher said that was his mound, but it could be the Yankees’ pitcher’s mound too, right? If he’s standing on the mound, I understand that. But I don’t think he was. If that’s the case, then pitcher’s shouldn’t stand in the hitter’s batting box. I find it humorous that it was a big deal other than the fact that it was A-Rod. I still think that players are jealous of him because of the money he’s made. I guarantee you that he’s not the only one that’s run over a mound this year.

So help me God, I agree with the last three sentences of Morgan’s response. Let’s move on before I think about this too much.

Q: Is Ryan Howard really worth 25 mil/year?

No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. NO.

Morgan: Well, let’s put it this way. If Joe Mauer is worth 23 or so. A guy that hits 40 plus HRs and drives in 140 runs a year and Joe Mauer has never done that, then I would say yes. Howard produces numbers and that’s what we’ve come to in this game is about numbers. I don’t necessarily like the fact that it’s about numbers, but he produces them. It also begs to question, what is Albert Pujols worth?

Ugh. Okay, so I was going to devote an entire post to the absurdity of Ryan Howard’s fat new extension. But now I see an opportunity to criticize Joe Morgan’s analysis and Howard’s deal, and I can’t pass that up. I’m not even going to make a big stink about how Morgan, like the Phillies, looked at Howard’s RBI totals and decided that he’s worth $25 million a year because of them. Rob Neyer has already written about this, and if you’re reading this blog, you probably don’t need to be convinced that RBI is a worthless statistic. Instead, let’s just focus on two things that the Phillies apparently chose to totally ignore: Howard’s (gasp!) performance and his age.

Contrary to popular belief, Howard is not an elite player. Part of this is that the offensive standards for first basemen are quite high. The other part is that, well, Howard’s performance is not elite. He can’t hit lefties. His career .225/.308/.442 line against southpaws, which is already bad, masks the fact that this ability has been in steep decline since 2006. Look it up, it’s striking. His walk rate has also been declining since 2007. Add this to his mediocre defensive ability and it paints a pretty grim picture, once you get past his huge RBI totals.

Also contrary to popular belief, Howard is not all that young. He’s 30 years old. Many people seem to forget that Howard’s first full season (2006) came when he was 26 years old. This isn’t entirely his fault; the Jim Thome era was winding down in Philadelphia, and the Phillies didn’t have a place to play Howard. But 26 years old is still awfully late to be making a full-season debut. Howard’s meant that he broke into the big leagues right at his prime. Sure enough, his 2006 season (.313/.425/.659) was monstrous even to statheads like me. He was quite good in 2007 too, but since then, there have been hints of decline. And let’s not forget how big, lumbering, unathletic 1B/DH types tend to break down earlier than other players. Howard’s top five “most similar players” through age 29 are Richie Sexson, Cecil Fielder, Mo Vaughn, Willie McCovey, and David Ortiz. Not auspicious.

There’s an argument to be made that Howard is only the fourth most valuable Phillie (certainly behind Chase Utley and Roy Halladay, probably behind Jayson Werth, and possibly behind Jimmy Rollins). Extending his contract – needlessly, and right at the beginning of his decline phase – is poor business by itself, and even worse when his salary will be the second-highest in the game. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Jim Tracy’s Incompetence Costs Rockies The Series

October 13, 2009

Jim Tracy 0005

Baseball Prospectus’ Joe Sheehan and I have a fair amount in common. We’re both native New Yorkers. We both live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (he has revealed this many times in chats, so no, I am not stalking him). We’re both Yankees fans. And we could both probably spend a little more time at the gym. Most pertinently, though, we’re both vigilant of and easily inflamed by bad bullpen management. Just as I’ve written piece after piece after piece about this broken part of the game, Sheehan has done the same many times over in his much higher-profile forum. I’m fairly certain that if we were to watch a baseball game together, we’d be able to communicate telepathically from the sixth inning onward.

In addition to sharing my beliefs about bullpen management, Sheehan is one hell of a baseball analyst. He’s wonderful at examining the nuances of player usage and identifying and tracking trends in performance, and he does both with a refreshing balance of conviction and humility. And, once in a while, he comes up with an eerily prescient nugget, much like this one from his October 6th column:

“Phillies fans love my opinions of Ryan Howard, so let’s just reduce the entire discussion to one line: .226/.310/.444 career, .207/.298/.356 in 2009. Jim Tracy has to bring that guy to the plate as often as possible in this series. Any time he allows the other guy, the .307/.409/.661 one, the one who hit .319/.395/.691 this year, to bat in a game-critical situation, he deserves to lose, because that guy is absolutely devastating. It really is that simple. Charlie Manuel isn’t going to take Howard out, so if Tracy elects to give up 450 points of OPS in any situation that matters, he’s just this side of throwing the game.”

The first two sets of numbers are Ryan Howard’s statistics against left-handed pitchers. The next set shows his performance against right-handed pitchers. As you can see, Howard has been pretty abysmal against southpaws since putting on a major league uniform, but this has been particularly true in 2009. These are the numbers (and this is the quote) that were running through my mind over and over again during the top of the ninth inning in last night’s Phillies-Rockies game. Read the rest of this entry »

Rites of Spring Day One: PHI@BOS

March 3, 2007

While Special K is off in South Carolina building houses for the impoverished and down-trodden (bless his soul), I’m on a whirlwind tour of the Grapefruit League with a sabermetrics pioneer. Saturday brought us and the Philadelphia Phillies to the home of Special K’s favorite team, the Boston Red Sox. First the juicy stuff:

  • Papelbon’s “Start”: Even though he came in for the third inning, converted Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon considered today’s two-inning appearance to be his first start. Semantics aside, the Boner (that’s my new nickname for him) looked electric, striking out four (including the side in order in the third inning) and allowing no baserunners. Key moment: getting MVP Ryan Howard to whiff on a 93-mph fastball (or as Jon Miller likes to say, “FASTBALL”). True, it’s only two innings, which is almost standard for an experienced closer, but Yankees be warned: this dude looks like trouble.
  • Wakefield’s “Start”: If the Red Sox do indeed have the best rotation in baseball, it ain’t because of this guy. Despite the rock-solid presence of Doug Mirabelli, Tim Wakefield’s command looked shaky from the first pitch, and though he struck out two, he threw one wild pitch and gave up three hits, including an RBI-double by Howard.
  • Eaton Alive: I’m working on my bad punny titles; what’d y’all think of that one? Free-agent signing Adam Eaton was solid through three innings; he looked sharp against the signature Sox thumpers, and his only hit was a (controversial) home run that seemed to come more from sloppily underestimating a AA hitter in the nine-hole than lack of command.
  • Boston’s Pen Pall: Jayston Stark is an idiot. Today was an open audition for the closer role, and it was the baseball equivalent of the first horrendous weeks of “American Idol.” The oddly heralded Joel Pineiro gave up four runs in one and a third innings, including a two-run shot by Triple-A regular Greg Dobbs. Manny Delcarmen lost a ninth-inning tie off three hits and two walks. None of the other guys looked particularly impressive. The best showing came from Julian Tavarez who allowed no baserunners and brought his ERA down to a respectable 13.50.
  • Other random notes:
    – The aforementioned Greg Dobbs had a spectacular day for Philly, going 4-for-5 with 2 runs, 4 RBI and a walk. He may have earned a spot on the bench, but in all likelihood you’ll probably never hear of him again.
    – Phillies’ invitee Brian Mazone may have reached the high point of his career during the fifth inning, when he struck out David Ortiz swingingand worked to 0-2 on Manny Ramirez. He then walked Manny and gave up a three-run Mike Lowell homer. Despite two more seemingly unfazed innings, it was never quite the same as that magical afternoon forty-five minutes earlier in the day.
    – One pitcher (don’t remember who) was having a difficult battle with Doug Mirabelli. I suggested that he throw a knuckleball, with the hope that Mirabelli would instinctively drop his bat and try to keep the ball from going to the backstop. Alas, the pitcher did not heed my advice, and Mirabelli got on base.
    – Dustin Pedroia looks sharp and he should be on track to start at second. He did not get on base today.
    – Randall Simon, known primarily for assaulting anthropomorphic meat, hit a bloop single before getting picked off. According to one vocal spectator, he “hit that sausage harder than he hit the ball.”
    – Reason #4,238,909 why the win is a bad statistic: Phillies’ reliever Jeff Farnsworth gave up three runs in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game. The Phillies rally in the tenth, some dude from AA earns the save by shutting down Boston’s AA players, and Farnsworth gets the win. If he did that twenty times in one year, he would technically be a legitimate Cy Young candidate.

    This was my first spring training game since converting to hardcore baseball fandom, and it was interesting to see how the game slowly regresses from a somewhat relaxed exhibition contest into a Double-A war of attrition. Basically, you shouldn’t get hung up on your team’s record in March; or, as Special K likes to say, it’s not about the result, it’s about the process.