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 »


Why The Yankees Won’t Win The World Series

August 20, 2010

Don't count on this occurring in October.

This piece could very easily come across as unbearable to Yankees haters, and truth be told, I would have a hard time arguing against such a reaction. Not only does it assume that the Yankees will make the playoffs, but it also spends over a thousand words discussing why the Yankees – owners of the best record in baseball, playing in toughest division in the tougher league – are not built for a deep postseason run. Maybe this makes me spoiled. No, it definitely makes me spoiled. But having watched this team all season, I can say there are real questions about its ability to repeat as World Series champions. And no, it’s not because the Yankees are boring or lack fire or heart or desire, or any of that nonsense that Bill Simmons regularly uses to explain failure in baseball. It’s because the Yankees don’t have the “Secret Sauce.” Read the rest of this entry »

A Look At The Rockies

May 28, 2010

Although I am a Yankees fan first and foremost, it’s fun to wistfully imagine what it would be like to be a Colorado Rockies fan right now. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, one of my closest friends from college is a native Denverite, and he provides a convenient outlet for my Rockies-related enthusiasm. And one of my favorite pastimes – one that actually makes me feel warm and fuzzy about baseball instead of critical and cranky – is trying to convince him that the Rockies are in wonderful shape for the next few years.

Think about it. The Rockies finally have good starting pitching, boasting a deep staff that includes Ubaldo Jimenez, Jorge de la Rosa, Jeff Francis, and Jhoulys Chacin. Prospects Christian Friedrich and Tyler Matzek are on the way. None is 30 years old, and all but Francis and de la Rosa are under club control for a while. As always, the Rockies can hit. Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Ian Stewart, Dexter Fowler, Seth Smith, Brad Hawpe, and Chris Iannetta comprise a young and potent core of position players. All but Hawpe are under 30 years old, cheap, and under club control. And good. They’re all good. I don’t know for sure if this is the best time ever to be a Rockies fan, but if it’s not, it’s just around the corner when Friedrich and Matzek arrive.

Of course, the Rockies are “just” 25-22 in the NL West behind the overachieving Padres and the pretty average Dodgers. While reasonable folks would suggest that injuries and bad luck have a lot to do with this, others – like the Denver Post‘s Dan Kiszla – are pinning more than a little blame on Todd Helton. In a nutshell, Kiszla argues that the Rockies should relegate Helton to the bench in favor of Jason Giambi, primarily because the latter provides more power and about as much on-base ability as the former. It’s a quick read, so check it out if you want to familiarize yourself with the nuances (there aren’t many) of his argument.

I think this is a terrible idea. Kiszla is right that Helton’s slugging has dropped dramatically since last year, but it’s not quite as simple as that. I won’t bore you with more charts or mind-numbing statistical stuff that gets people like me excited, but if you keep peeling back the layers, you’ll see that Helton hasn’t declined as much as it initially appears. He’s walk and strikeout rates are the same as last year’s, he’s hitting more line drives and more fly balls than last year, and his contact rates are normal. The only thing that’s changed is his HR/FB, which has plummeted to a career low. I’m sure some of that is due to the aging process, but given that he’s playing half his games in Coors Field, and all his other rates are right in line with 2009 when he slugged .489, I think Helton is just experiencing some good old fashioned bad luck.

Like Dan Kiszla, I’ve just focused more on what Helton can’t do than what he can. And what Helton does is get on base as well as anyone in baseball. Which, as we know, is the whole point for a hitter. He’s got a .392 OBP, a figure that Kiszla acknowledges as “nice” but then dismisses because Giambi’s OBP at the time was only slightly lower (it’s since dropped to .355). Kiszla then kind of insults Helton, calling him a “late-inning defensive replacement” because he’s “a first baseman who hits singles and scoops double-play throws.” I hope it’s obvious that this a gross misconstruing of the facts, because while it’s true that Helton has shown little power, he is absolutely a wonderful defensive first baseman and he walks a ton. His declining power makes him an imperfect player, but he’s still quite useful.

Kiszla also ignores a reality to which I have prolonged, agonizing, and scarring exposure, and that is the pathetic nature of Jason Giambi’s defense. With no DH, Kiszla is advocating putting Giambi in the field the “lion’s share” of the time. As someone who watched Giambi play the field for seven years – when he was younger and fresher, let us not forget – I can confidently say that Rockies fans will rise in open revolt if Jim Tracy heeds Kiszla’s advice. Giambi is the worst defensive first baseman I have ever seen, and it’s not even close. He’s stiff, he has no range, he can’t jump, he can’t scoop balls out of the dirt, and don’t even ask him to throw the ball, because it will end up in the outfield or the stands. He’s abysmal. Nice guy, good hitter, crippling defender. I think even the questionably-intelligent Tracy is smart enough to realize this.

If we’re looking for reasons for the Rockies’ disappointing (and really, it’s still May) start, I think we’d be better served to shift our eyes to second base. Rockies second basemen have compiled a .238/.288/.372 line, which is unacceptable even accounting for the light-hitting nature of the position. The Rockies are talented enough to win the division even with Clint Barmes’ and Melvin Mora’s ineptitude, but it would go a long way towards improving the team’s chances if they upgraded. And really, finding someone who can improve upon the position’s current performance shouldn’t be all that difficult. If I were running the team, I’d vigorously shop Brad Hawpe to some American League contenders. It makes a ton of sense. His contract expires at the end of the season, so there’s little long-term risk in acquiring him. He’s an awful outfielder, so he can DH. He’s an above-average hitter. If Hawpe plus a decent prospect can bring back an average second baseman, I think that deal has to be made.

In any case, that’s the Rockies’ real problem right now. It’s not that Helton isn’t hitting for power. It’s that the team has had some injuries and they’re getting no production from second base. Barring catastrophic or freak injuries, I think the Rockies will win the division regardless. But if they can yield a competent second baseman by dealing from their surplus of quality outfielders, that would go a long way towards sealing the deal. Plus it would get Dan Kiszla off Todd Helton’s back.

The Mets Just Aren’t Very Good, Okay?

May 23, 2010

WFAN’s Mike Francesa had Mets broadcaster Keith Hernandez on his show on Friday to discuss the current state of the team. Like nearly everyone in or around the Mets organization, Hernandez insisted that the team isn’t playing up to its potential, particularly offensively:

“And now I think it’s snowballed and the whole team is infected. The whole offense. I’ve been on teams early in my career that struggled offensively, and boy, you start losing, and everyone’s trying to hit the three, four, eight-run home run, trying to take the extra base, and you can just see it… and it’s called ‘pressing’.”

And then later in the interview:

“I just can’t help but think that – with this lineup that the Mets have – that they’re gonna break out. You can’t tell me that Bay, or Reyes, or Wright – Wright I’m a little worried about the long swing – Francoeur has always been streaky, and he’s not gonna play ice cold like this the rest of the year. I’ve gotta believe, at some point, that this club is gonna click offensively.”

I’ve gone on the record as saying that the 2010 Mets aren’t very good in general, and specifically aren’t nearly as good offensively as many seem to think. I like to think that I’ve been fairly diplomatic about this. But as I keep hearing people say “the Mets just haven’t clicked yet” or “it’s only a matter of time,” it’s getting increasingly difficult to be measured in my disagreement.

So, consider this a deviation from my earlier methods when I say, unequivocally, that the Mets do not have a good offense. They are not “pressing” as a team (but it’s possible that, at any given moment, a particular player is doing so). They are not going to break out. The club is not going to “click offensively” with any sort of sustainability. And the reason none of this is going to happen is that the Mets have one and a half players (Jose Reyes and Jason Bay) that are underachieving, and that’s it. The Mets simply don’t have enough good hitters. Let’s take a quick look, because this really isn’t that hard to understand: Read the rest of this entry »

Just How Good Are The Rays?

April 25, 2010

The Tampa Bay Rays are 13-5 in the 2010 season, a record that is fully supported by the best run differential in baseball (+44). It is, of course, still very early, but there’s no question about which team is the best in the game right now. It’s the Rays.

Given their utter dominance so far, I expected to see some pretty outlandish numbers on their team page. You know, things like Juan Uribe hitting .310/.373/.483, or Bengie Molina hitting .313/.370/.417, or any other line that is so obviously unsustainable for an established player. The Rays are on pace to win 116 games, so it seemed likely that there were at least a few hot starts that would inevitably cool the team back down to a more reasonable 95-win pace. So it seemed.

After even a cursory look at the players’ numbers, however, it’s conceivable that the Rays haven’t even peaked yet. Consider all of the following:

  • Jason Bartlett is hitting .250/.305/.316. He’s projected to hit .286/.353/.412.
  • Ben Zobrist is hitting .271/.329/.414. He’s projected to hit .268/.368/.463.
  • Pat Burrell is hitting .239/.308/.391. He’s projected to hit .223/.338/.395.
  • Dioner Navarro is hitting .136/.208/.159. He’s projected to hit .257/.315/.387.
  • Sean Rodriguez is hitting .233/.303/.367. He’s projected to hit .239/.327/.438.
  • Willy Aybar is hitting .217/.250/.522. He’s projected to hit .261/.339/.427.

The most amazing (or terrifying, as a Yankees fan) thing is that the remainder of the Rays’ c0re – B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, and Evan Longoria – is performing right where you’d expect. Upton will probably lose some SLG and gain some OBP, and Crawford might be in slightly over his head, but all four players are well within the range of expected outcomes. It’s quite possible that the Rays’ offense, which currently lead baseball in runs scored, is considerably better than what it’s shown.

Pitching is another matter for the Rays. While the Rays have numerous players under-performing offensively, they have been receiving uncharacteristically dominant work from their five starting pitchers. Take a look:

  • Matt Garza has a 2.17 ERA (3.08 FIP). His projected ERA is 4.12.
  • James Shields has a 3.96 ERA (5.53 FIP). His projected ERA is 3.91.
  • Jeff Niemann has a 3.27 ERA (5.10 FIP). His projected ERA is 4.59.
  • David Price has a 3.20 ERA (3.82 FIP). His projected ERA is 4.61.
  • Wade Davis has a 2.65 ERA (4.95 FIP). His projected ERA is 4.58.

Using FIP, we can tell that all of the Rays’ starters have been lucky to varying degrees. Garza has been a little lucky, but has mostly pitched brilliantly. Shields, Niemann, and Davis are walking a bit of a tightrope, and should see their ERAs rise if they keep walking, striking out, and allowing homers at their current rates. Like Garza, price has benefited from a little luck, but he’s pitched very well. In the short term, we can tell that these starters are due for some regression.

But baseball is a long season, and the more pertinent question is what each starter’s ceiling is in 2010. Garza’s projected ERA seems just about right to me. His season FIPs have been strikingly consistent (4.57, 4.18, 4.14, and 4.17), so him ending up with an ERA around four makes a ton of sense. Shields, for exactly the same reason as Garza, should also end up with an ERA around four. Niemann is more of an innings-eater than a front of the rotation guy, so I can’t find much wrong with his projected ERA. Then there’s Price and Davis, who are the two wild cards in the Rays’ rotation. Both are 24 years old and possess dominant stuff. Health permitting, I’m quite willing to wager that they outperform their projected ERAs.

So the Rays have an under-performing offense, an over-performing pitching staff, and the best defense in baseball. To figure out how the Rays will do in 2010, the question becomes: by how much these units are under or over-performing? And really, it’s quite close. The Rays’ key hitters are right on track, but four or five spots in the lineup aren’t hitting up to their norms. That’s substantial under-performance. At the same time, Rays’ starters are second in the American League with a 3.04 ERA. That’s substantial over-performance (in 2009, the White Sox boasted the AL’s second best starting rotation. Their ERA was 4.20). Ultimately, I think your (and my) outlook for their season comes down to how you feel about Wade Davis and David Price. If you believe, as I do, that they can and will have very good seasons, the Rays can win a hundred games. Their current 116-win pace is a little much, particularly because six of their games have come against Baltimore and four against the slumping Red Sox. But this team has an excellent offense, an excellent defense, and a high-upside pitching staff. Right now, it’s hard not to favor the Rays to win the division.

Team-Wide Trends Continue To Elude Joe Morgan

September 22, 2009

I’d like to apologize for the lack of content recently. I spent much of last week working on a large piece, hoping to post it on Friday. Then I sent it to the smartest person I know, who lived up to that billing by pointing out several problems with the argument and its lack of focus. So, licking my wounds, I’m returning to the drawing board with no estimated time of arrival. I’ve also started a new job working with middle schoolers to improve their literacy skills (those of you that have followed Fan Interference since its inception can feel free to shudder now). Although it’s only part-time, it requires a significant commute and some work outside the classroom, so finding time to post will become marginally more difficult. But, much like utilizing both sabermetrics and scouting, I’m confident that a balance can be found.

Today’s offering is meager but meaningful. One week ago, I posted a blurb about ESPN analyst Joe Morgan’s infamous reluctance to look things up before offering his opinion. Well, Morgan did it again in today’s chat:

Matt (St. Louis): Hi Joe, From the current playoff contenders which team do you think is the best well rounded?

Joe Morgan: I think St. Louis in the National League. They have excellent starting pitching. Good relief pitching. Until recently Ryan Franklin was great as a closer and I think he can be again in the playoffs. In the American League, I’ve been believing in the Yankees for the last month. But you have to wonder about their starting pitching. Sabathia will get the job done, but you have to wonder about Burnett. Pettitte has the shoulder problems and Joba is a star in the Yankees’ minds and no where else. But I guess all the good teams have some weaknesses. Philly doesn’t have a closer. Anaheim is just now getting their pitching in order, but you have to wonder about their power. Boston, their starting pitching, Lester and then Beckett, but he’s been struggling until recently.

Astute baseball fans will quickly notice Morgan’s incorrect assessment of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim’s perceived deficiency – lack of power. The Angels rank fifth in baseball in slugging percentage, 11th in home runs, 12th in triples, and 14th in doubles. Morgan’s argument for the St. Louis Cardinals is peculiar in two ways: (1) the Cardinals rank 12th in slugging, 15th in home runs, 19th in triples, and 11th in doubles and (2) his argument consists entirely of touting their pitching. I’m not sure the answer to Matt’s question is the Angels. But if Morgan is going to pass over the Angels because of their weak hitting, he can’t go for the Cardinals either.

The more interesting aspect of Morgan’s response is its relationship to the rest of the mainstream sports media. Traditionally, the sports media is slow to pick up on changes in a team’s style of play. I’ve written about this phenomenon before, in which people base their analysis on their perception of a team’s style (usually rooted in history) rather than what the data tells them. Good examples of this include last year’s persistent declaration that the Pittsburgh Steelers are a running team, even though they finished the season ranked 23rd in rushing. Or that the Minnesota Twins are built on defense and unselfish play (read: bunting), when in reality they rank 21st and 25th in those categories. It’s a pretty common practice.

Joe Morgan has consistently demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to evaluate each edition of each baseball team on its own terms. That much is unsurprising. What’s quite surprising – and more than a little disconcerting – is how he’s been left in the dust by even the most obtuse of his peers. I will refrain from naming names, because I still haven’t given up hope that a major sports media network will offer to buy this blog from me for millions of dollars (note: kidding), but I’ve consistently heard these members of the mainstream sports media admire the Angels’ sudden shift from a punchless team to a slugging one. I never thought I’d see the day when the talking heads aren’t praising the Angels for their headiness, grit, guts, baserunning, and timely hitting, but that day has come. The word is out, and everyone knows it: for the first time in years, the Angels can really, really hit. Everyone but Joe Morgan, professional baseball analyst, that is.

… And there goes my multimillion-dollar absorption.

David Cross Should Stick To Comedy

September 7, 2009

This afternoon, I returned to Manhattan from Connecticut on a very crowded train. I turned to my iPod for entertainment, but quickly realized that I have added little new music in recent months (suggestions are welcome), and that I am bored with my current selection. There was a cute and especially bug-eyed pug across the aisle, but with me being neither its owner nor adjacent, its fun factor was limited. The same went for another charming dog in the alcove ahead of me. I was a man with few options.

Consequently, I found myself reading my girlfriend’s copies of New York magazine (which included a heartening article by Jay Jaffe) and Time Out New York. The latter contained a barely noticeable excerpt from an exchange with comedian David Cross, who offered his opinions on the New York Mets:

“Oh, man. If you want to talk baseball, I’ll do that all day. I can’t believe they didn’t even make a play for [Victor] Martinez.”

“I feel bad for Mets fans. Now, I don’t really give a [damn] about the Mets – or Mets fans, really – but when you pay that much money for tickets, and then a little over halfway through the season you just say, ‘Nah, we give up. [Screw] it…’ I can’t imagine Minaya being there next year. Just some bad, bad moves. They go in and sign the best pitcher in the majors, and then there is no backup for him? John Maine?”

The most important bit of information here is the Mets’ record at the trading deadline and at the time of the interview. At the trading deadline, the Mets were 49-53 – ten and a half games behind the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East and 6.5 games back in the wild card. In late August, approximately when Cross was questioned (I’m assuming), the Mets were 17.5 games back in their division and 13 games behind the wild card leader. Also, from the trading deadline through late August, the Mets were without the services of Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes, J.J. Putz, John Maine, Carlos Beltran, Fernando Martinez, Jonathon Niese, David Wright, and Johan Santana for long stretches. And owner Fred Wilpon has lost millions in the Bernard Madoff scandal. What, exactly, would Cross have the Mets to do combat this litany of problems?

So – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – I think we can all forgive the Mets for not being totally equipped to handle this ludicrous streak of horrible luck. The Mets didn’t make a play for Victor Martinez because they (a) had no money and (b) were 6.5 games out of the division with most of their best players on the disabled list for the foreseeable future. The Mets did not say “[screw] it.” They said “we’re broke, we’re not looking good for the playoffs, and everyone is hurt – we probably shouldn’t trade prospects to take on more money for a lost cause.” Finally, is Cross really criticizing the Mets for not having a comparable replacement for Johan Santana? There isn’t a team in baseball that can replace 200 innings of 3.00 ERA pitching from within the organization.

Look, Mets’ general manager Omar Minaya has made some questionable moves and even more questionable public relations decisions. But everyone – sportswriters, fans, comedians – can feel free to stop piling on the Mets for a legitimately promising season that was derailed by a freakish, unforeseen, and unprecedented rash of injuries.

I know Cross is just a comedian, but give me (and if not me, the Mets) a break.