Thursday, May 20, 2004
Depressingly, yes. The Fish are going to be a threat. Here's why.
Using stats accurate up until May 15, the team comparison graph page yielded some interesting information:
In terms of fielding / pitching, the Phils look to be stronger in terms of their pitching than their fielding. I suspect this is mostly due to David Bell's defensive miscues so far this year (9 E's in 35 games, a .913 fielding average). The Marlins, I note are playing equally good in their pitching and their fielding is considered to be better than the Phils. What I derive from that, as statisically small as the variations appear to be, is that the Marlins are playing defense a bit more consistently than the Phils. It is a truism of sports that it is better to play defense well because those sorts of things are constants that you can count on come crunch time. Offense is inconsistent. Defense is a constant. The Fish are going to be playing irritatingly constant baseball, just like last year when they held together in the clutch and the Phils imploded.
The Bell problem is that while he's hitting better in 2004, his glove looks like a real liability at the hot corner. I wonder about Mr. Utley's glovework (any stats on that out there?) and whether the Phils would be better off installing him as their third baseman sooner, rather than later. (i.e., before Polanco comes off the DL.)
Meanwhile, on the offensive side of the ledger, the Phils are hitting well. Their ISO (isolated power: SLG - BA = ISO, which indicates how many extra-base hits the team gets) is lower than just four NL teams (Arizona, Colorado, Chicago and St. Louis), which means that they are really getting the big hits. I know that there is a lot of hand-wringing (by me too) about their inability to play "small ball", but I guess that can be compensated by some success at getting on base. That is this team's achillies heel: they score runs by the bushel, but they need their leadoff and No. 2 guys to get on. I'm comforted by the fact that Abreu, Thome and Burrell are off to a strong start: 32 home runs in 38 games. (In many respects it has been a remarkable six weeks for Thome and Burrell: no April slump for Thome and a return to 2002 form for Burrell.) With that kind of production in the middle of the order the Phils are going to be deadly if/when Byrd starts hitting with some consistency.
A word on "small ball": I'm torn on the whole small ball approach. I know that sabremetics people have laid out an imposing case for the proposition that base-stealing is vastly over-rated, but I've always thought that teams with speed triumph: The Marlins last year stole 150 bases to the Phils 72. Remember the 80's Cardinals? They went to the World Series three times. (Those Cardinals teams had mind-blowing stats. Consider: 1982: 200 steals; 1985: 314 steals; 1987: 248 steals.) Speed is vital.
Or is it? The A's have little-to-no speed and they've gone to the playoffs four straight years. The Red Sox don't have much speed and they are scoring runs by the bushel. I understand the argument that base-stealing is counterproductive: you could get caught, you take up time in trying to move the runner, etc. It takes a lot of work to advance the extra 90 feet, and even then you are only half-way. Better to wait for the 400 foot blast to get you those 270 feet you need.
I'll say that I'm an agnostic on the subject of small ball. Until someone shows me a little proof.