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Michael/Male/26-30. Lives in United States/Pennsylvania/Wexford/Christopher Wren, speaks English. Spends 20% of daytime online. Uses a Fast (128k-512k) connection. And likes baseball /politics.
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United States, Pennsylvania, Wexford, Christopher Wren, English, Michael, Male, 26-30, baseball , politics.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Okay ... A Few More .... 

So here's the deal. I began this blog a looooong time ago, back in March of 2004. I did it as a lark when I was in law school to burn off a little steam. Over time it built into a bit of an obsession for me, consuming hours and hours and hours of my time. On the face of it, it seems a little silly: at best the readership of this blog is 150-200 people a day. Why do I do it?

I love baseball and I love the Phillies and I want to share those twin passions with you, the fan. So I plugged along, writing and writing and ultimately posting 999 posts before I felt burned out last year and quit on July 7th, 2008, writing my second "this is my final post" post. (I had previously quit in August of '05 only to return to the job in February of '06.) Watching the Phillies as a fan was cathardic. It was fun. I was worried that my posts were getting boring, that I was getting to be a snore. My own sense of it was that I was turning out some turgid prose.

So here is what I am going to do. I'm coming back. I got bit by the bug watching the Phillies win the World Series and I was kicking myself a little as I watched Brad Lidge toss the final strikeout. Wouldn't it be fun to write again? I'm betting it will.

So I'm back. With a catch: I won't be posting anything until March 2, 2009. Why am I putting off my return to so far into the future? Because, my dear reader, I have decided to marshall all of my energy into writing for six months. I'll be slaving away on posts from now until then that won't even see the light of day until March because I want to write the definative account of the 2009 season, from beginning to end, which I will expand upon at the end of the season into my long-discussed, long-planned book, which I have tenatively entitled Still the Team to Beat: A Blogger's Story of the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies. My 2009 posts will be, effectively, the first draft of that book. That's the plan at any rate.

So that's it. I'll see you on March 2nd. 'Til then if you want to reach me, email me at citizensblog at gmail dot com. Enjoy!

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Nine Hundred and Ninety-Nine. 

This is my 999th post at a Citizen's Blog. It will also be my last.

I began this blog a loooong time ago, way back in March of 2004. Blogging was very new and interesting to me and was a terrific means of blowing off steam in a time of great stress: studying for the bar exam and helping my wife plan our wedding. Since then I've written 998 posts detailing very little thing I could think of about my favorite team. In the interim, I passed the bar exam, got married, bought a house, got my career started. But in the past few months I've been getting tired of the daily blogging grind. Recently I took on extra responsibilities at my office. More work, more time, more stress. No longer has blogging been a stress-reliever. Now I get done with a trial and I have to remind myself: it's been two days since you've posted. Better find something interesting to talk about. I've felt the quality of my work decline for some time. My prose has become more wooden and mechanical. My passion is clearly not present. Lots of people have hobbies and this was mine. Not any more.

These ought to be exciting days to be a Phillies blogger. This team is playoff-bound and could very well play in the World Series. This team could be a champion. These are the days to be a Phillies fan. And that's what I am going to go back to being. A fan. I just want to sit on my couch and watch and not think about something interesting to write about. I just want to be. When I saw the number count on my posts this morning, I knew it was the right move to make. 999 posts. Just one short of that golden 1,000. It's like being a Phillies fan. Just one thing, one win, one player, one moment, short of greatness, of happiness, of contentment.

That's what I plan to be from here on out. A fan. Not a blogger. Not a fan-journalist. Just a fan.

I plan to direct my energies elsewhere. I can't get the baseball bug out of my skin. I plan to write some longer articles on topics that interest me and try to get them published elsewhere. The idea of writing a book has always appealed to me and maybe now I'll have the energy to make that happen. Let's see. But in the here and now I'm content to leave A Citizen's Blog stand alone at 999. My body of work, my legacy.

Go Phillies.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Brotherly Love: Phillies vs. A's Preview 

Once upon a time, Philadelphia had two baseball teams. They played in different stadiums, in different leagues, and had different fans. If you came from the city’s blue-collar, predominately Italian neighborhoods and were a Democrat, you went to the Baker Bowl* to root for the Phillies. If you were Irish, middle-class and a Republican, you journeyed to Shibe Park and rooted for the Athletics. While Phillies fans sat through decades of defeats – between 1918 and 1948 the team had a losing record every season but one, a 78-76 campaign in 1932 – the Athletics had a few good teams.

* The Phillies and A’s shared Shibe Park starting in 1938.

Owned by the mild-mannered Connie Mack, the Philadelphia Athletics won the American League pennant in 1902, 1905, 1910, 1911, 1913 and 1914, winning the World Series in ’10, ’11 and ’13. Forced to disband his team, which featured the $100,000 Infield of Home Run Baker, Eddie Collins, Jack Barry and Stuffy McInnis, due to finances after losing the ’14 World Series to the Boston Braves, Mack returned the A’s to glory in the late 1920’s. The A’s finished second to the mighty New York Yankees in ’27 and ’28 before dethroning them in 1929, featuring a team that might be one of the finest in baseball history. (Click here for a terrific story that ran in Sports Illustrated a few years ago about the ’29 – ’31 Athletics and how their greatness has been lost to history.)

The ’29 A’s repeated as champs in ’30 and won the A.L. pennant again in ’31 before returning to mediocrity. As the cross-town Phillies rose in the late ‘40s, the A’s plodded along before they joined baseball’s westward movement and left Philadelphia after the ’54 season for Kansas City, where they became the western-most franchise in baseball before the Dodgers and Giants moved to the West Coast in 1958. The A’s would sit in Kansas City for another decade, existing as a virtual farm team of the New York Yankees, selling them stars like Roger Maris and Clete Boyer, before leaving for the San Francisco Bay Area in 1967, whereupon they became the Oakland Athletics.

Today, many Philadelphia sports fans don’t know about the A’s and their history in Philadelphia, which is too bad. Even before I read Moneyball and came to admire Billy Beane, the A’s were my second-favorite team in baseball. How could you not love Philadelphia’s other baseball team, those long-lost sons living on the West Coast? The A’s turbulent history, their decades of terrible baseball interwoven with two great dynasties (’10 – ’14 and ’29 – ’31), symbolizes how fleeting triumph and success were to Philadelphia in the early-1900s. As much as the Phillies struggles with racial issues in the latter half of the century mirror society’s own struggles with race, the Athletics symbolize how the city of Philadelphia struggled along to find success but was so frequently over-shadowed by that behemoth to the north of us: New York City.



Before I dive too much into tonight's Phillies - A's preview, I want to include a link to the Philadelphia A's Historical Society website. I love the work that they've done. I haven't had a chance to visit their Museum, which is located in Hatboro, but I plan to one of these days. Their web site is phenomenal and is a terrific resource of information. These guys are an under-appreciated treasure.

So the Phillies swing out to the West Coast to do battle with the Oakland A's before heading to Dallas, Texas, to take on the Rangers. The A's - Phillies matchup ought to be a good one, only the third time in history that these two teams have met. The A's, of course, are well-known throughout baseball for their pioneering Moneyball-approach to the game, which has enabled them to remain competitive despite having a fraction of the payroll of the rest of baseball. These days the A's are a different team from the walks-and-homers squad that Miguel Tejada and Jason Giambi led to division titles between 2000 and 2003. Peter Gammons forecasted this back in '04 when he noted that the market at the time was under-valuing fielding and that teams like the A's were moving to emphasize the fielding component of the game.

Sure enough, fielding, not walks-and-homers, is the A's forte these days. At +28 Fielding Plays, the A's are the top defensive team in the A.L., a fact that helps keep the A's team ERA at 3.41, lowest in the A.L. after the White Sox. The A's ought to send their best pitcher to the mound tonight, Joe Blanton. This will be an interesting game partly because Blanton has been on the radar of a number of MLB teams as a trading prospect. I believe that the Reds were connected to Blanton at one time or another. Don't be surprised if the Phillies swing a trade for the enormously talented Blanton later this season. He would be a terrific fit for the Phillies: in 2007 he allowed just 40 walks and 16 home runs in 230 innings of work (1.6 BB/9, 0.65 HR/9).

Offensively the A's aren't what they were in the early part of the decade. Their .330 OBP is below league average and their .378 slugging percentage is one of the worst in the A.L. This is a team that is still maturing. I'm not sure that Jack Cust (11 Home Runs, 34 RBI, .416 OBP) is the answer, but they need more bats to protect him.

I'll comment again tomorrow, but that is all for today.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

'77 vs '08: Which is better? 

Well, the Phillies pretty much got their asses kicked by the Angels and their pitching staff. This weekend's sweep at the hands of the Angels caps a five-game losing streak. The Phillies have lost seven of their last eight games since they clocked the Cardinals 20-2 on Friday the 13th of June. They need to righten ship and it will be interesting to see what they do against the A's in Oakland starting tomorrow night, which starts a six-game road trip to the Bay Area and deep into the heart of Texas for the Phillies. More on that tomorrow. Today's topic:

The Daily News Bill Conlin just published a pretty good piece comparing the '77 Phillies offense to the '08 Phillies. I thought it was worth following up with my own thoughts on the subject.

A little bit of history: the '77 team was a monster, the second consecutive Phillies team to win 101 games and was generally regarded as being better than its '76 predecessor, which got swept by the Big Red Machine in the '76 NLCS. The '77 team, which was managed by Danny Ozark, seemed fated to face-off with the Yankees in a rematch of the 1950 World Series, but the '77 team fell to the L.A. Dodgers 3-1 in the NLCS. The '78 team won 90 games and returned to the NLCS but were once more unceremoniously beaten by the Dodgers 3-to-1. Danny Ozark was dumped by the Phillies in '79 after failing to win the N.L. East and the team marched on to its climactic date with history in '80.

The '77 team was probably the best team in Phillies history after the '80 (and possibly '81) team(s), so it is worth looking at the '08 team and wondering if we are looking at a team that will occupy the pantheon of legendary Phillies teams. Here is Conlin's article:




Bill Conlin: Phillies' 2008 offense might be better than 1977 powerhouse



Daily News Sports ColumnistTODAY'S EXERCISE: Match up the best offensive Phillies team you've seen in days of yore with a 2008 offense that might be the best in franchise history. But first, some observations:

Psychological trauma, sports- team-collapse variety, often leaves reality gaps in our memories.

Black Friday of 1977 - Game 3 of the NLCS against the Dodgers - is known as "The 10-Minute Collapse." But the actual moment of truth, Manny Mota's two-out fly to the warning track in left that Greg Luzinski failed to catch, was more like 10 seconds, counting the wild relay throw that set up the rest of the inning.

A black hole of denial surrounds that loss. The Phillies had two more possible home games to atone for the baseball crimes committed while squandering that 5-3 lead. And Steve Carlton vs. Tommy John in Game 4 seemed to flip the odds back in the Phils' favor. But the veteran lefthander outpitched Lefty in a swirling mist of rain. Thirty-one years later, The 10-Minute Collapse is all that remains.

In Game 6 of 1993, what if Joe Carter had popped up? Was there a guarantee that Curt Schilling would have beaten the talented Blue Jays in a Game 7?

But this is about offense, the run-scoring kind, not the kind of offense that scars our souls.

It comes down to either a '77 team that won 101 games or the '93 upstarts who won 97 on the way to an easy NL East title. One will face off with a 21st century attack that appears headed for special status.

Each was prolific. But their approaches to offense could not have been more different. The scalawags and rascals of '93 took a grinding, relentless approach to the business of scoring 877 runs. One number tells most of it: an on base-percentage of .351, commendable for an individual, but insane for an entire team.

Unlike the 2008 mashers, who specialize in late-inning lightning, the 1977 team ended a lot of games early. After the Phils sent a pitcher to an early shower one night, a scout cracked, "The least this team could do is wait until the fans got to their seats." And the '77 team could longball an opponent from any spot in the lineup - even No. 9. Carlton batted .268 with three homers and 15 RBI. Larry Christenson also hit three with 13 RBI.

The 77ers hit .279 as a team, pounded 186 homers and finished with a .346 OBP and .448 slugging average.

But they accomplished those numbers playing in Veterans Stadium, a so-called "neutral" ballpark. The Pirates, Cardinals and Reds played in similar all-purpose yards. There was no interleague play, no Rockies or D-backs, no spate of new retro-parks, most with hitter-friendly dimensions. Suffice it to say, these Phillies would not be on the scoring and homer pace they are on playing by '77 parameters. And Mike Schmidt's Phillies might have put up epic numbers playing in Citizens Bank Park.

But the structures of both teams are similar enough for side-by-side comparisons regardless of ballpark and era gaps. In fact, some key 2008 stats are on track to wind up eerily similar. This team projects to hit a club- record 235 homers. That team hit 186, led by Greg Luzinski's 39 and Mike Schmidt's 38, and a total of seven players homered in double figures. Chase Utley, Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard are already in double figures with 97 games remaining. Pedro Feliz, Jason Werth, Geoff Jenkins and Chris Coste are on track for double-digit dongs and could make seven, as well.

Those Phillies scored 847 runs. These Phillies are on an 857 pace. That's close. As for the dreaded strikeouts, the '77 gang whiffed an economical 806 times. Charlie Manuel's Big Wind Machine is headed for 1,054. But . . . An amazing seven National League teams have struck out more this season than the Phils' to-date total of 423. Take away Howard's obscene 87 and you're looking at Club Contact.

In their 65th game of the 1977 season, the Phils engaged basically the same Big Red Machine that swept them in the '76 LCS (Hello, Rockies). It was 9-9 after six. Christenson gave up seven and Ron Reed gave up a pair. But the Phils scored six unanswered runs while Tug McGraw was finishing with three scoreless innings.

PITA (Pitchers In Traction Again) would be aghast at such abuse.

But Tugger was not the headline. My piece saluted "The Mouse That Roared." In the seventh inning, shortstop Larry Bowa pounced on a fastball from former teammate Joe Hoerner and ripped it to left-center for the only grand slam of his career. It was a grab-a-towel-and-fan-your-fainted-teammate moment.

Another thing stands out from that Game 65: The victory left the second-place Phils with an underwhelming 36-29 record. They trailed the Cubs by an alarming 6 1/2 games.

General manager Paul Owens had been unhappy with the production at the top of Danny Ozark's lineup. Second baseman Ted Sizemore had been a great No. 2 hitter behind Lou Brock in St. Louis, but the slap hitter didn't have a great basestealer to protect here.

The trade deadline in 1977 was June 15. The Phils were in Cincinnati and the press box emptied when the Reds announced they had just traded for Mets ace Tom Seaver. Owens and Minister of Trade Hugh Alexander quietly returned to the hotel the homeward-bound Phils already had checked out of and completed a far more significant deal. The Pope sent some top prospects to the Cardinals for rightfielder Bake McBride.

McBride - "Shake and Bake" - was soon leading off for a lineup that finally was stabilized. Garry Maddox, never comfortable leading off, batted No. 2. Sizemore's weak bat was moved to the back of the order.

McBride and Maddox put up numbers similar to those Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino have been putting up this season. You'll agree Mike Schmidt and Chase Utley are a fine match in the No. 3 hole. Ditto Luzinski and Howard batting cleanup. The Bull hit .309 and drove in a career-high 130 runs. Despite his troubles, Howard is on pace for 122.

Like Charlie Manuel, Ozark was blessed with a versatile bench and his reserve outfield and pinch-hitting options included Jay Johnstone, Jerry Martin and Ollie Brown. His infield reserves included unselfish Terry Harmon and walking-baseball encyclopedia Davey Johnson, a pennant-winning manager in waiting. Tim McCarver caught Lefty. Bob Boone caught everybody else.

The Phillies made up for a quiet 1977 hurricane season. After the All-Star Game, they were a Category 5 baseball storm. They had cut the Cubs' lead to 2 1/2 games by taking three of four going into the break. But by July 29 they had sagged to third place, three out of the lead and had been downgraded to a Tropical Fraud.

But on Aug. 23, they led the Pirates by 7 1/2 games. They had cracked the race open with the hottest stretch in franchise history, going 21-2 with a 13-game winning streak between losses to go 33 games over .500. In one stretch, they scored 10 runs in four straight games.

The Phillies' current 12-2 run and weekend sweep of the Braves is starting to look eerily similar to the '77 drive from chaser to chasee.

Both teams had extreme longball power. But a complementary ability to extend innings and add on runs when the longball is lacking is a shared characteristic.

The game has changed immeasurably since 1977, making comparisons almost pointless. But good hitters are good hitters in any era. Mike Schmidt never had the kind of so-hot-it's-silly roll Chase Utley has been on so far this year. But how many of those frequent warning-track flies No. 20 hit in the Vet and similar cookie-cutter stadiums would be into the flowers and beyond in the Money Pit?

If I had to pick the one Phillies lineup I would least like to face, it would be . . .

The 1977 Phillies playing in Citizens Bank Park. But that's a fantasy reach, isn't it?

Charlie Manuel's team playing in the Vet, the Money Pit or even in Yellowstone Park represents a dry-mouth game for any pitching staff.

You are watching the most potent Phils lineup of my time. And yours.



It's a nice article and I agree with a lot, but with a few comments. I'll start with a broad overview of the Phillies lineups in '77 and in '08 and what numbers they produced. First, here is the '77 lineup:

RF - Bake McBride (11 Home Runs, 55 Runs Scored, 149 OPS+, 27 steals in 31 tries)
SS- Larry Bowa (.313 OBP, 32 steals in 35 tries)
3B- Mike Schmidt (38 Home Runs, 101 RBI, 151 OPS+)
LF- Greg Luzinski (39 Home Runs, 130 RBI, 156 OPS+)
1B- Rich Hebner (18 Home Runs, 62 RBI, 126 OPS+)
CF- Garry Maddox (14 Home Runs, 74 RBI, 22 steals in 28 tries)
C- Bob Boone (11 Home Runs, 66 RBI)
2B- Ted Sizemore (.345 OBP, 25 Grounded Into Double Play)
Pitcher

And here is the '08 Phillies:
SS- Jimmy Rollins (6 Home Runs, 33 Runs Scored, 14 steals in 14 tries, 110 OPS+)
CF- Shane Victorino (.347 OBP, 14 steals in 17 tries)
2B- Chase Utley (22 Home Runs, 62 RBI, 152 OPS+)
1B- Ryan Howard (19 Home Runs, 63 RBI, 105 OPS+)
LF- Pat Burrell (18 Home Runs, 47 RBI, 159 OPS+)
RF - Geoff Jenkins (
3B- Pedro Feliz (.316 OBP, 10 GIDP, 8 Home Runs, 33 RBI)
C- Carlos Ruiz (.311 OBP, 8 GIDP, 2 Home Runs, 20 RBI)
Pitcher

The '77 Phillies hit 186 Home Runs, 56 Triples, 286 Doubles, 135 steals in 203 tries (66.5% success rate), and scored 847 runs (5.23 runs per game).

The '08 Phillies are on a pace to hit 225 Home Runs, 26 Triples, 315 Doubles, 112 steals in 127 tries (88.1% success rate), and score 860 runs (5.31 runs per game).

Obviously the '77 and '08 teams have to be viewed through the prism of their respective times. Baseball in the 1970's was a game that balanced speed with power. The '77 Pirates, for example, stole 260 bases and hit 133 Home Runs. Baseball in 2008 is gradually moving towards a greater embrace of speed (home runs are down, stolen bases ought to be more frequent soon as teams shift tactics), but right now power is still where it is at. The OPS of the N.L. in '77 was .724. The OPS of the N.L. this season is .741.

That makes a good point of departure: how well did the '77 and '08 teams do compared with the rest of the league? How much did they exceed the league average? Well, the '08 Phillies have an adjusted OPS (team OPS / lg OPS = OPS+) of 108, which is second in the league after the Cubs (110 OPS+). The '77 Phillies have an OPS+ of 114, which tied them with the Cincinnati Reds. Advantage: '77 Phillies. The exceeded the league standard by a wider margin. Yes, the '08 Phillies have some nice power, but they are doing that in an era where power rules.

Okay, let's compare various aspects of each team. Speed? Well, the obvious temptation there is to award it to the '77 team. They stole 135 bases and ran 203 times during the season and hit twice as many triples as what the '08 team is projected to hit. Obviously they were faster, right? Not so fast. First off, obviously the '07 team was a little faster than '08: Victorino and Rollins are doing a nice job this year but they lack Michael Bourn and his exceptional 18 of 19 steals. The '77 team ranked fourth of twelve teams in successful steals. The '08 team ranks sixth of sixteen teams. That's pretty comparable. What pops out is the relative success rate: 88% success rate of the '08 team. The '08 team has been caught just 7 times and are on pace to be caught just 15 times this season. The '77 team was caught 68 times, which was fifth in the N.L. Sure, Bake McBride (27 for 31) and Larry Bowa (32 for 35) were great, but the rest of the team was just 76 for 137 (55%). Ted Sizemore, who hit in the #2 slot for much of the early part of the season, was caught on 11 of his 19 steal attempts.

The '08 team, even excluding Rollins and Victorino, has an impressive steal rate: 23 in 27 tries. Chase Utley is six-for-six. Eric Bruntlett, who filled in during J.Roll's stint on the DL, was six-for-seven. Jayson Werth? He's seven-for-eight. As for triples, both Victorino and J.Roll have missed time. I think that the speed numbers of the '08 are going to climb as the season progresses and you'll see the '08 team finish in the top three in the N.L. in triples and steals. Advantage: actually I'm giving it to the '08 team, narrowly.

The Vet vs. Citizens Bank: there is a big difference in terms of the stadiums the two teams play in. First, there is The Vet, the massive concrete bowl that the Phillies played three and a half decades in. The general consensus of thought is that The Vet was a park that suppressed offense and made things easier for pitchers. Citizens Bank, with its short fences, is seen as a hitters park, so the '08 team gets an artificial bump here. So you'd expect the numbers to reflect that, right? Except ...


The '77 Phillies scored 5.59 runs per game at home. They are very difficult to beat at The Vet, winning 60 of 81 games there. They averaged just 4.86 runs on the road.

So what do you think of the '08 team? Probably out-score themselves pretty heavily at Citizens Bank, right? The '08 Phillies average 5.13 runs per game at home. They average 5.59 runs on the road. Surprised? I was.

In the final analysis, it is a little too early to see how the '08 and '77 Phillies stack up to each other. It is just the middle of June and it is worth remembering that Bake McBride, who helped spark the Phillies to the '77 pennant, wasn't acquired until June 15th of '77. Will the Phillies swing a deal and bring in another bat? Will they be forced to deal someone to get pitching help? We'll have to see. My take on the '77 and '08 teams is that they defy easy explanations. The '08 team is a lot quicker and more balanced than they are given credit for, but the '77 Phillies were a more powerful group than they've been recognized for being. It is a close call but in the end ... I agree with Conlin and give it to the '08 Phillies. Let's see if they hold onto their title ...

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Small Ball vs. Big Ball: Angels vs. Phillies Preview 

Big Ball vs. Small Ball.

East Coast vs. West Coast.

Urban vs. SoCal.

Today begins a three-game series at Citizens Bank Ballpark between the Phillies and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, as the team formerly known as the California Angels and Anaheim Angels prefers to be called these days. I've very intrigued by the differences and contrasts provided by today's series. In terms of geography and culture, Philadelphia and Metro L.A. couldn't be further apart, the former being a gritty East Coast city featuring a fierce, blue-collar work ethic and artery-clogging cheesesteaks vs. the latter, a West Coast city with pretty people who dine on healthy cuisine and only healthy cuisine. The contrast in styles on the baseball diamond is astonishing too: the Phillies are probably the closest thing that the National League has to a Moneyball team, a team that emphasizes walks and home runs over bunts and steals, while the Angels are the epitome of small ball, always fighting and clawing for runs in the dirt, a delicious contrast to SoCal's effete image.

Trace the Angels small ball attitude back to their manager, Mike Scioscia, the former Dodgers catcher and Upper Darby native who brought a classically National League perspective to managing the Angels. Since taking over the Angels in 2000, Scioscia has guided the team to a 745-621 record (.545), four playoff berths ('02, '04, '05, and '07), and a World Series title in 2002. Scioscia's weapons have been bunting and stealing bases.

The 2008 Angels are an interesting crew, clearly better than the rest of the A.L. West, but still just a few games ahead of the surprising Oakland A's, whom the Angels can be expected to out-spend nearly two and a half to one this season (Angels payroll: $118 million to the A's $47 million dollar payroll). The Angels are a good team, but they feel like one that is under-achieving. Offensively, the Angels rank ninth in the fourteen team A.L. in home runs and tenth in slugging percentage. That partly helps to explain why they rank eleventh in runs scored.

What really explains the Angels struggles is this: they are really struggling at small ball this year.

What is small ball? Generally, small ball tends to be three things: 1) Bunting, with an emphasis on sacrifice bunting to move runners over; 2) Base-stealing; and 3) Clutch hitting. The '02 Angels were masters of this approach: their .290 batting average with runners in scoring position was tied for best in the A.L.; they stole 117 bases, which was third-best in the A.L.; and they led the A.L. in sacrifice hits with 49. That's a team that successfully executes a small ball approach to baseball.

The '08 Angels? Not so much. While they rank third in the A.L. in steals again, their 55 steals are off-set by the fact that they have been caught 22 times, so their 71% success rate means they aren't getting much benefit from running on the bases. Oh, and the Boston Red Sox, that Moneyball team, has more stolen bases, with 64. Surprisingly, the Angels rank twelfth in sacrifice hits with just 11. Finally, the Angels are ninth in batting average with runners in scoring position (BA/RISP) at .268, which is just a little better than the A.L. average of .267. The Angels problem is that they aren't getting guys on base: the team OBP is an awful .318. Garrett Anderson's OBP is .287. Torii Hunter, the team's marque free agent signing during the off-season, has just nine home runs and 33 RBI. Vlad Guerrero, the team's usually reliable slugger, has really struggled in '08: ten home runs and 35 RBI. Assuming that Vlad plays in 90% of the Angels games and continues at his current pace, he ought to have 80-85 RBI this season, which is terrible production from your clean-up hitter.

The Phillies are quite the contrast: the Phillies Isolated Power at the plate (Slugging Percentage minus Batting Average, which is basically Slugging Percentage without singles) is .187, which is very, very high. The Angels ISO is an atrocious .128. The big difference to me between the two teams is how the Phillies work the count harder than the Angels: the Angels 3.63 pitches per plate appearance were the fewest in the A.L., while the Phillies 3.8 P/PA is the N.L. average (typically in years past the Phillies finished #1 or #2).

While the Phillies have a lot of power at the plate (103 home runs to the Angels 61 homers) they aren't entirely without speed: Jimmy Rollins is 14-for-14 in steals and Shane Victorino is 14 of 17. The Phillies are a nice blend of speed and power as compared to the Angels reliance on speed and clutch-hitting.

The strength of the Angels is their pitching staff. The Angels have a pretty formidable rotation, although their pitching staff has been pretty average. The Angels 3.99 ERA is partly the product of really good defense. The Angels tend to pitch to contact: their 2.9 walks per game rate is one of the lowest in the American League, but their 6.0 strikeouts per game is also below the A.L. average as well.

Tonight the Angels send Ervin Santana to the mound against Adam Eaton, which is a major mismatch. Santana has been very good this season: 8-3, 3.40 ERA. His fielding independent pitching (FIP) ERA is terrific: 3.35. Santana has a nearly 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.9-to-1). He's tough to homer off of too: 0.89 HR/9. Looks like the Mets traded for the wrong Santana.

Joe Saunders goes Saturday night for the Angels against Brett Myers. Saunders record is 10-3 with a 3.06 ERA, which obscures the fact that he's not pitching particularly well. The Angels have been converting 75.6% of the balls Saunders allows to be put into play into outs, a major reason why his FIP ERA is over a run higher (4.36) than his "real" ERA. Saunders K/BB ratio is just a pedestrian 2-to-1 and he gets 4.7 strikeouts per nine innings. He also allows many more home runs (1.12 HR/9) than his compatriots.

Finally, Jered Weaver, the Angels ace hurler, takes the mound Sunday to finish the series against Cole Hamels. Weaver, who went 13-7 with a 3.91 ERA last season, is just 6-7 with a 4.73 ERA this season. Weaver is a nice illustration of the fact that won-loss records and ERAs are bad tools to measure pitchers performances upon. Weaver's numbers are virtually identical this year when compared to last year:

2007 / 2008
FIP: 4.14 / 4.13
HR/9: 0.9 / 1.2
BB/9: 2.5 / 2.4
K/9: 6.4 / 6.5

And yet the casual observer would wonder why Weaver is struggling this season after being so good last year ...

The battle between Weaver and Hamels on Sunday is going to be worth the price of admission. Young, talented pitchers, the top aces for playoff-caliber teams ...

Defensively the Angels are good, but not great. They've allowed just 16 unearned runs. Their defensive outfield is surprisingly below-average: Torii Hunter ranks 11th of 12 A.L. Centerfielders in Relative Zone Rating (RZR). Garrett Anderson and Vlad Guerrero likewise rank near the bottom in RZR in leftfield and rightfield. I expected such talented players to have much better skills. The Angels infield collectively ranks third of fourteen teams in RZR.

This will be an interesting series. Is it a World Series preview? Maybe. It wouldn't surprise me in the least to see these two teams playing in October. Cheesesteaks vs. Fish Tacos.

I like the Phillies to take two of three from the Angels.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

How do you spell relief? 

Everyone's throats sore from booing J.D. Drew last night? I remember booing Drew back in '99 at the Vet when he hit that home run. Good times. Alas, last night's 7-4 loss to the Red Sox drops the Phillies a little back in the division race. This weekend: the Angels of Los Angeles or Anaheim or California home to town, followed by a trip to the West Coast to play the A's. I'll preview both series.

Right now I am working on a book about the Wiz Kids, that lovable collection of young Phillies players who captured the 1950 pennant then settled into baseball obscurity after the team’s chronic refusal to sign African-American ballplayers caused the team to remain an also-ran. I ran a big series on the Wiz Kids back in ’06 and I immediately thought about relief pitcher extraordinaire Jim Konstanty, who won the 1950 N.L. MVP award on the strength of his amazing relief performances for the team that season.

For those not familiar with the tale of the Wiz Kids, Konstanty went 16-7 with a 2.66 ERA (that’s an ERA+ of 152) and 22 saves that season. Konstanty’s 22 saves were 14 more than the Pirates Bill Werle. Konstanty also pitched in 74 of the Phillies 152 games (that’s 48% of them) and finished 62 (41%). In an era where the starting pitcher went the distance in two of every five starts (there were 498 complete games in 1236 games that season), Konstanty was the major reason why the Phillies went 30-16 in one-run games and bested the Dodgers for the pennant, the sole pennant (or division title) the team won between ’15 and ’76.

I was thinking about Konstanty when I sat down and looked over the stats from the Phillies bullpen this season. I haven’t been watching Baseball Tonight of late, but I hope that the Baseball Tonight team has commented on the Phillies astonishing bullpen strength this season. People looking for a reason why the Phillies went 13-4 down the stretch last season and best the Mets for the 2007 N.L. East title can look at the bullpen. People looking for a reason why the Phillies are 42-31 and sit three games ahead of the Marlins (and six and a half ahead of the Braves and Mets) in the N.L. East race can look at the bullpen once more. People looking for a reason why the Phillies will win the N.L. East again in 2008 can look at the bullpen.

How good is the Phillies bullpen? Well, they have an ERA of 2.58, the best in the National League (that’s an ERA+ of 147), to go with 20 saves in 26 opportunities (fourth in the N.L., with a 77% save percentage, which is best in the N.L.) and a sterling 17-9 record. The Phillies relief corps has the lowest OPS in the N.L. at .633.

Want to compare that to last season? Last year the Phillies ‘pen had an ERA of 4.41 (that’s an ERA+ of 92) and an OPS of .764. The Phillies leaky bullpen blew one in every three save opportunities.

So how are they doing it? Interestingly, the Phillies bullpen ranks below the N.L. averages in strikeouts per nine innings (7.28 K/9 vs. 7.44 K/9) and in strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.84 vs. 1.94). Initially I was tempted to dismiss the bullpen’s success on the Phillies offense: the Phillies propensity towards late-game comebacks is a big reason why the Phillies bullpen ranks second in the N.L. in run support at 4.61 (just 0.05 under than the Cubs), but that doesn’t explain why the Phillies aren’t allowing many walks or home runs. Is it good pitching? Or is it good defense?

As Bill James noted in his final Baseball Abstract in 1988, much of what we think of as good pitching is, in reality, good defense. To be sure, the performance the Phillies relief corps is putting in right now is partly thanks to good defense. But most of it is because the Phillies pitchers aren’t giving guys anything to hit. Interesting thing I observed, when looking at the Phillies stats, is how the Phillies relief guys seemed to go deeper into the counts than the starters do. (I’m cautious reading too much into this because that might just be the nature of the beast: you’ve got to be careful when you inherit runners on base. More on this later.)

Of the twelve guys who have taken the mound for the Phillies in 2008, the five starters rank second (Kyle Kendrick), third (Jamie Moyer), fourth (Brett Myers), fifth (Cole Hamels) and seventh (Adam Eaton) in fewest pitches per plate appearance. Rudy Seanez ranks sixth, Chad Durbin ranks eighth, J.C. Romero ranks ninth, Ryan Madson ranks tenth, Tom Gordon ranks eleventh, and Brad Lidge ranks twelfth in pitches per plate appearance. Here are the numbers and their rank amongst the ninety relief pitchers who have tossed 20+ innings:

P/PA:
Lidge: 4.00 (21st)
Gordon: 3.95 (28th)
Madson: 3.94 (30th)
Romero: 3.94 (31st)
Durbin: 3.81 (56th)
Seanez: 3.79 (61st)

Confused about what I’m talking about? Here are the stats I refer to defined with respect to pitching stats:
Earned Run Average (ERA): Runs Allowed * 9 / Innings Pitched = What a pitcher would give up if they hurled a nine-inning game.
Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER): Balls Put Into Play that are converted into outs.
Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP): (((13 * HR) + (3 * BB) – (2 * K)) / IP) + League Factor. Basically a measure of how a pitcher would have done if he had an average defense behind him.
Home Runs per 9 Innings (HR/9): (HR * 9) / IP
Walks per 9 Innings (BB/9): (BB * 9) / IP
Strikeouts per 9 Innings (K/9): (K * 9) / IP

Looking at Romero, who threw a lot of pitches per batter when he joined the Phillies last season (4.2 P/PA), I was struck about Bill James efforts to classify pitchers by types and his assessment of the Nolan Ryan-type of pitcher: the guy who never gave you anything to hit and so had a lot of walks, a lot of strikeouts, never gave up home runs and threw a lot of pitches over the course of a start. The relief corps largely seems to follow this pattern: while the average N.L. bullpen gives up 0.91 home runs per nine innings, the Phillies gave up 11 in 209 innings – or 0.47 HR/9. While the average N.L. bullpen gives up 3.89 walks per nine innings, the Phillies gave up 92 walks in those 209 innings – or 3.96 BB/9. That careful nipping at the plate is the reason why the Phillies have had a lot of success coming from their ‘pen.

Lidge, who has converted all eighteen of his saves after blowing eight in twenty-seven tries last season, has been fantastic this season. In 29 innings of work Lidge has yet to surrender a home run and has fanned 37 hitters, or 11.48 K/9. His 0.93 ERA is absurdly low and compares well to his predecessor as the Astros and Phillies closer, Billy Wagner (2.17 ERA, five blown saves in twenty tries).

The biggest surprise, to me, has been Chad Durbin, the former Detroit Tiger who challenged Adam Eaton for the #5 slot in the rotation before moving to the bullpen and becoming the Phillies bullpen workhorse. Durbin has surrendered just one home run in the forty and two-thirds of an inning he has worked this season. He’s pitching nowhere near as well as his 1.55 ERA indicates (his Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP, ERA is 3.20, which is actually second-best on the team after Lidge at 1.75), but he’s pitching very well. Despite pitching in a ballpark that makes pitchers very vulnerable to home runs, Durbin has found success with a modest 1.11 groundball-to-flyball ratio (G/F), especially compared with the more groundball-oriented pitchers on the staff like Seanez (2.64 G/F), Romero (2.10 G/F), Lidge (1.38 G/F), and Madson (1.29 G/F).

I’m sure that there are pundits and bloggers out there who dismiss the Phillies success and believe that it can’t last, but I’m reminded of how unlikely Konstanty’s success was in 1950. He had pitched just 128 innings in the majors before joining the Phillies in 1947 and had meager success. When the sportswriters compiled their list of MVP candidates in the preseason, it is safe to assume he appeared on nobody’s list, and yet there he was helping the under-manned Phillies steal the pennant with timely pitching. Konstanty was the consensus pick as the MVP by the sportswriters.

Nobody respects the Phillies ‘pen, especially when compared with the Braves or Mets, but Chad Durbin, Ryan Madson and J.C. Romero are going to be the ones popping the champagne come October, not Billy Wagner.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Amazin' Mess and Other Observations 

Shame on the Mets for their cowardly firing of coach Willie Randolph. Yes, the Mets are underachieving and yes, someone needs to be held accountable, but to fire Randolph in an email quietly at 3:00 AM? It is a cowardly move and speaks volumes about what a disorganized mess the Mets are.

Maybe Randolph isn't the best coach in baseball, and maybe he had lost control of the Mets, that highly paid, looks-so-good-on-paper juggernaut that collapsed at the end of the '07 season and struggled to a meager 34-35 start this season. But did he deserve to be fired after a win? While the team is stuck on the West Coast? By email?

Let me also take this opportunity to chortle, probably for the 1,531st time this season, over the Mets struggles. Click here for all of the comments from Mets fans calling me an idiot for not awarding the N.L East to the Mets at the start of the season. I'm amazed that they can spell.

-Nice to see the Phillies bats come alive in last night's 8-2 crushing of the Boston Red Sox. Don't get too confident, Phillies fans, about tonight's game. The Phillies won Game One of the 1915 World Series, then didn't win another playoff game until 1977.

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