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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Season Preview: Can the Phillies score 1,000 Runs? 

Probably not: I can't see an NL team cracking the 1,000 runs barrier, but I do think that this team could put together 900 easily. This might be the best offense in the NL.

The Phillies are an offensive juggernaut. Not as much as in year past, but the Phils are a fearsome lineup for any team to face:

2005 Ranks
Runs Scored: 807 (2nd, 13 behind the Reds)
Home Runs: 166 (8th)
Doubles: 282 (12th)
OBP: .348 (1st,well ahead of Florida at .339)
SLG: .423 (4th)
ISO: .154 (7th)
BB/PA: .101 (1st)
XBH: 484 (7th)
Stolen Bases: 116 (2nd)

The power numbers are down, but the Phils are still tough outs: they draw walks, get on base and generally claw for runs. I suspect a big fact in the decline of the Phils power numbers was the fact that Jim Thome had 242 plate appearances for the Phils in which he had a .352 slugging percentage. David Bell's continued decline (.361 SLG) didn't help either. While Bell's absence for the start of the season may not be great news for the Phils defense, it is great news for the offense. I doubt anyone could do worse than Bell's .230 GPA.

Who were the Phillies strongest performers in 2005? I utilize Gross Productive Average, as well as Runs Created per 27 Outs, as my all-around stats:

Utley: .304
Howard: .302
Burrell: .301
Abreu: .301
Michaels: .283
Lofton: .281
Rollins: .260
Lieberthal: .256
Thome: .250
Pratt: .248
Bell: .230
Team: .262
League: .252

Alright. I'm going to stop right there. Confused about what I’m talking about? Here are the stats I refer to defined:

GPA (Gross Productive Average): (1.8 * .OBP + .SLG) / 4 = .GPA. Invented by The Hardball Times Aaron Gleeman, GPA measures a players production by weighing his ability to get on base and hit with power. This is my preferred all-around stat.
Runs Created: A stat originally created by Bill James to measure a player’s total contribution to his team’s lineup. Here is the formula ESPN (where I get it from) uses: [(H + BB + HBP - CS - GIDP) times (Total bases + .26[BB - IBB + HBP] + .52[SH + SF + SB])] divided by (AB + BB + HBP + SH+ SF)
RC/27: Runs Created per 27 outs, essentially what a team of 9 of this player would score in a hypothetical game.
ISO (Isolated Power): .SLG - .BA = .ISO. Measures a player’s raw power by subtracting singles from their slugging percentage.
OBP (On-Base Percentage): How often a player gets on base. (H + BB + HBP) / (Plate Appearances)
BB / PA (Walks per plate appearance): (BB / PA = .BB/PA Avg)
SLG (Slugging Percentage): Power at the plate. (Total Bases / At-Bats = Slugging Percentage)

There was a big gap between Burrell, Abreu, Utley and the 2005 NL Rookie of the Year, Ryan Howard and the rest of the team. The Big Four got on base, hit for power and created runs. The difference was in the power numbers. When you look at the Big Four, there is a big gap in terms of power numbers:

Howard: .279
Utley: .249
Burrell: .222
Abreu: .189
Lieberthal: .156
Thome: .145
Pratt: .143
Rollins: .142
Bell: .113
Michaels: .111
Polanco: .101
Lofton: .084
Team: .154
League: .152

The Big Four had 43% of the Phillies doubles, 63% of their home runs (48% of all extrabase hits), and 48% of their Runs Created, with just 37% of the team's total plate appearances.

The Big Four: presumptively, the Phillies intend to bat Chase Utley third, Bobby Abreu fourth, Pat Burrell fifth, and Ryan Howard sixth. These guys are a murderers row, probably the most dangerous foursome in baseball. Scope out their stats from last year:

Runs Created per 27 Outs
Abreu: 7.4
Utley: 7.38
Burrell: 7.08
Howard: 7.03
Lofton: 6.85
Michaels: 6.48
Polanco: 6.01
Rollins: 5.63
Lieberthal: 5.14
Pratt: 4.65
Thome: 4.61
Bell: 3.44
Team: 5.32

Michaels, Polanco and Lofton are long-gone, so as you can see there is a big gap between the Big Four of Howard, Burrell, Abreu and Utley and the other part of the lineup: Rowand, Rollins, Lieberthal and Bell. Aaron Rowand, by the way, would rank just ahead of David Bell at 4.54 RC27 for 2005. So there is a big split here between the middle and the rest of the Phils lineup. The Phils score runs here or they don't score runs at all. I think it is dangerous to cluster so many bats together in the lineup, so I'd like to see the Phils stretch the lineup up a little, e.g., batting Bobby Abreu in the leadoff and pushing Pat Burrell further down to protect Bell and Lieberthal.

I don't expect that to happen however. Here are my individual thoughts on the Big Four:

Pat Burrell. When nobody else did, I defended Pat Burrell. The team's golden boy after the 2002 season, when he clubbed 37 home runs, 116 RBIs, and hit .376 OBP, Burrell fell apart in 2003, seeing his OBP decline 67 points, his slugging percentage drop 140, and his RBIs go from 116 to 64. Critics assailed Pat, fearing that his promise was gone and that he'd be a massive liability to the team in the future. I argued he'd improve and take a year to return to his '02 form. His '04 campaign was a quiet resurrection: his OBP climbed back to .365, while his slugging percentage nudged up slightly by 51 points. Last year he was the Pat of old, clubbing 32 home runs with 117 RBIs with an impressive .389 OBP (110.4 Runs Created). Pat the Bat is once again a dangerous presence in the Phillies lineup. His return to grace is best illustrated by his slugging percentage:

Slugging Percentage:
2001: .469
2002: .544
2003: .404
2004: .455
2005: .504
Career: .476

I will note, in the interest of full disclosure that there is a slight park factor with Pat:

Home: .326
Road: .273

Still, his 2005 campaign was a triumphant return to old and I expect Pat to have another great season. His numbers actually improved after the 2005 All-Star break: .373 OBP / .498 SLG Pre-All Star; .406 OBP, .509 SLG Post. I think he'll have another great season, somewhere in the 105-115 Runs Created range with 30+ home runs and 30+ doubles.

Bobby Abreu. Bobby is the Phils best hitter. He's insanely consistent, always making contact, drawing walks and getting on-base. And he shows no sign of slowing down. His .405 OBP in 2005 was just .006 off his career average, and was the seventh of the last eight years he's been .400 or better (his career low was .393 in 2001). Bobby is, simply, an offensive machine. Last year he led the Phils with 122 runs created. (His eighth consecutive season with 100+ Runs Created.)

The secret of Bobby success is his keen eye:

2005 Walks per plate appearance (BB/PA):
Thome: .186
Abreu: .163
Burrell: .148
Michaels: .128
Utley: .110
Pratt: .097
Howard: .095
Lofton: .079
Lieberthal: .079
Bell: .076
Polanco: .069
Rollins: .064
Team: .101

2005 was Bobby's seventh consecutive year with 100+ walks as well. Bobby's ability to back-off from bad pitches and work the count is the secret of his success. That said, I wish that the Phils would be able to convince Bobby that he'd be a more dangerous threat batting first or second in the lineup, as opposed to third or fourth. Bobby doesn't have great power: he trades power for contact, slugging percentage for OBP. With his speed (successful on 31 of 40 attempted steals in 2005), he'd be better batting first or second in the lineup and setting the table for Chase, Pat and Ryan. That isn't, unfortunately, a possibility. Bobby likes hitting in the middle of the order and only batted lead-off in 2003 when the team was struggling to score runs.

I basically expect Bobby to have another season in 2006 like 2005. He seems immune to slumps or a bad eye, the model of consistency.

Chase Utley. I am a huge fan of Chase Utley. He is the Phillies best player, and he is almost certainly the best second-baseman in the NL and possibly the entire MLB. Chase is a great defender and a dangerous bat. He's solid, dependable, tough ... he's the perfect second-baseman. Scope out his three-year numbers:

2003 / 2004 / 2005
OBP: .322 / .308 / .376
SLG: .373 / .468 / .540
Games: 43 / 94 / 147

Chase's career has been a swift and impressive rise to the top. He led the team in doubles and extra-base hits in 2005, was second in Isolated Power, Runs Created, RBIs and Home Runs, and displayed a little speed, being successful in 16 of 19 steal attempts.

The thing that impresses me about Chase is that he's the sole member of the Big Four who doesn't seem to derive any obvious statistical benefit from playing 81 games a year at Citizen's Bank Ballpark:

Slugging Percentage (Home Advantage)
Abreu: +.118
Burrell: +.110
Howard: +.037
Rollins: +.019
Michaels: +.009
Utley: -.009
Bell: -.011
Lieberthal: -.014
Lofton: -.035

"Home Advantage" means how much better a player does at home than on the road. Chase actually did .009 better on the road. Check out Isolated Power:

ISO (Home Advantage)
Burrell: +.087
Abreu: +082
Howard: +.041
Lofton: +.015
Rollins: +.010
Bell: -.007
Lieberthal: -.018
Utley: -.025
Michaels: -.035

Again, a dramatic difference. Chase is .025 better on the road, Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu and, to a lesser extent, Ryan Howard, boost their numbers by playing at home. Chase Utley seems to thrive being on the road. e.g., he had two home runs and three doubles in nine games at RFK last year, along with four home runs and a double at Shea Stadium in nine games.

Coupled with his impressive defense, Chase is the Phils best player. He hits for power, gets on base, hits well on the road and plays great defense. Simply put, he is the total package. He's the Phils best player.

Ryan Howard. Here is the biggest wildcard of the bunch. Ryan's performance in 2005 was based on 348 plate appearances in 88 games. He played, in short, just over 50% of a season, yet his performance was so strong he was named the 2005 National League Rookie of the Year. Will he continue in 2006? I think so. I note that the 2005 Bill James Handbook projected Ryan to have roughly the same season that he ended up having:

Proj. / Actual
OBP: .335 / .356
SLG: .561 / .567
HR/AB: 13.0 / 14.2
XBH/AB: 7.2 / 7.6

An impressive prediction. I expect Ryan to continue with his impressive 2005 campaign with another solid year with a .500+ SLG, .350+ OBP, 35-40 home runs, 30-35 doubles, etc. He seems to have a good eye (.095 BB/PA), and doesn't need to sacrifice power for contact.

One thing that surprised me about Ryan Howard was that he accomplished what he did despite not hitting well with runners in scoring position:

Polanco: .378
Lofton: .330
Rollins: .325
Burrell: .313
Utley: .309
Abreu: .303
Michaels: .295
Pratt: .277
Lieberthal: .247
Bell: .242
Howard: .241
Thome: .211
Team: .278
League: .261

I think the Phils got, in retrospect, lucky with Jim Thome's injury. The team was locked into a long-term deal with Thome and his injury gave them the opportunity to allow Ryan to develop into the talent that he is now. If Thome had been healthy in 2005, Ryan would probably have been dealt somewhere along the line to secure better pitching. I'm thankful he wasn't, because now the Phillies are younger (by 9 years) and cheaper at first base. Now the Phils got a quality CF and aren't losing anything at first base.

The Rest: after the Big Four the Phils lineup gets a little ... thinner in terms of talent. Here it is:

David Bell. I feel bad for David Bell. If they could have a designated fielder, I think he'd be golden. He is, defensively, a great player. According to John Dewan's The Fielding Bible, he led MLB third basemen with a +24 plus / minus rating. (It would be fair to say that Bell's defense probably saved the Phils ten or eleven runs in 2005.)

That said, he's an absolute train-wreck at the plate. How bad of a season did he have?

Bell / Team
OBP: .310 / .348
SLG: .361 / .423
ISO: .113 / .154
RC/27: 3.44 / 5.32
BB/PA: .076 / .101

It took Bell 55.7 AB's to club every one of his home runs. Ouch. The only thing I can say in his defense is that he played just as badly at home as he did on the road:

Home: .223
Road: .236

He also didn't show any sort of improvement after the All-Star break as opposed to before: .226 GPA Pre; .234 GPA Post.

Bell had a horrible year at the plate ... Now let me warm up to my sermon ... the Phillies made a horrible decision when they inked a four-year deal with him prior to the 2003 season. David's career GPA is .230 ... yes, exactly how he did in 2005. He was a weak-hitting, oft-injured third baseman. Sure he has a great glove and plays great defense, but his offensive contributions are awful. His 2004 season (.278 GPA) was a major abberation, so the team shouldn't be that surprised that he failed as badly as he did in 2005. Thankfully 2006 is his final year under contract. Unless he goes back as a defensive backup, I hope the team isn't foolish enough to keep him.

Mike Lieberthal. I don't have much else nice to say about Mike Lieberthal, aside from noting that it shouldn't be surprising that he struggled in 2005: he turned 33 in 2005 and he is a catcher, a position where he has to spend 50% of the game squatting. He shouldn't be expected to be a big cog in the Phils lineup, but his pairing at the bottom of the Phillies order with David Bell gives the team a "black hole", (thanks to my friend Jason Weitzel) that makes producing runs for 1/3 of the game nearly impossible.

Mike's .336 OBP is fairly in-line with his career numbers (.339), though I note that his .418 slugging percentage was a big decline off 2004 (.447) and his career number (.449). I'd merely say that Mike wasn't patient enough at the plate (3.42 pitches per plate appearance, off the team average of 3.84), and that he seems to be on a downward slope to his career. But as I said, he's a catcher, so it shouldn't be surprising that he's struggling.

Jimmy Rollins. Everyone wants to talk about Jimmy Rollins 36-game hitting streak. Okay, it is impressive and I think that Jimmy stands a great chance of making a run at Joe DiMaggio. The streak was a big boost to what was a mediocre year for J.Roll:

Batting Average / Slugging Percentage
Before Streak: .262 / .378
During Streak: .379 / .503

The streak helped elevate J.Roll's OBP .034 by year's end and his slugging percentage .053. Before he went 1-for-5 against San Francisco Giants on August 23rd, however, J.Roll was having a pretty mediocre season. Phillies lead-off hitters ranked 11th in the NL in OBP, a ridiculously low number. J.Roll is a dangerous bat, a great glove, and he may make baseball history by breaking Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak, but he's a mediocre lead-off man and the Phillies strategy of batting him first is terrible and costs the team runs. The bottom-line is that J.Roll doesn't walk enough and as a result his production at the plate varies: when he gets hits, he gets them in bushels, and when he goes cold, the Phils offense suffers. Note that Phillies lead-off hitters ranked 12th in walks-per-plate appearance and dead-last (16 of 16 NL teams) in pitches per plate apperance. There is little consistency to J.Roll. He's a free-swinger, and a lousy choice to lead-off the game for the Phils.

Aaron Rowand. When the Phils dealt Jim Thome for Aaron Rowand, the team did not acquire him for his bat: .264 career GPA, .137 career ISO. He's a solid player at the plate, but spectacular in the field. His +30 in center probably saved the White Sox 12-14 runs in 2005. The Phillies are simply asking him to produce near what he did in 2005 and let his defense do the talking.

The Phils won't have much (if any) of an offensive downgrade at first base with Ryan Howard taking over for Thome, but there will be a little of a downgrade from the Phils Kenny Lofton - Jason Michaels platoon in CF:

GPA / RC27:
Lofton: .281 / 6.85
Michaels: .283 / 6.48
Rowand: .250 / 4.54

Sure, his BB/PA is abysmal: .050. And he's far too quick at the plate: 3.59 pitches per plate appearance. But I don't think the offensive downgrade will effect the team, if at all. Rowand is that good in the field, plus his tough, blue-collar mentality is just what the Phils need these days.

The Bench: The Phils have had a pretty good bench the last few years, usually able to grab Jason Michaels, Placido Polanco and Tomas Perez to pinch hit whenever needed. That's changed, with Polanco in Detroit and Michaels in Cleveland and Perez likely to depart. The Phils bench is going to consistent mostly of Shane Victorino, Abraham Nunez, and Alex Rodriguez. Can't say I'm impressed. Gonzalez has a career GPA of .235 and seems to be the very definition of "light-hitting utlity infielder". Nunez, the Phils likely Opening Day third-baseman, hit .245 GPA with the Cards last year. He too has a light bat (.223 career GPA), and won't add much to the Phils bench.

Victorino is another story. He is an unknown quantity, as he has had just 90 career MLB At-Bat's, but he has a lot of promise and will probably make a solid #4 outfielder, just as Jason Michasels did.

Bottom-line is that the Phillies bench is seriously depleted. This is an area where they could use some serious help.

Conclusions. I expect to see the Phillies return to the top-quarter of the offensive stats again in 2006, thanks to Ryan Howard playing a full season with the Phils. I expect to see the Phils score a lot of runs and hopefully work out some problems, like their inability to get any offensive production out of David Bell or Jimmy Rollins inability to set the Phillies table for the middle of the order. The Phils really are a great team, loaded with potential All-Stars, like Chase Utley, Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu and Howard. But the team needs to get more consistent and better at setting the table for the middle of the order. 900 runs? They can do it. Mark my words.

Thoughts About the Season. I for one emphatically reject the idea that the Phillies were fortunate to come within a game of the wildcard in 2005. The Phillies were a very good team in 2005. If you don’t believe me, then scope out the NL East’s Pythagorean win-loss records:

NL East finals standings:
Braves: 92-70
Phillies: 88-74 (-2)
Mets: 83-79 (-9)
Marlins: 83-79 (-9)
Nats: 81-81 (-11)

Now the Pythagorean win-loss records:
Braves: 91-71
Phillies: 89-73
Mets: 89-73
Marlins: 79-83
Nats: 77-85

So what does a Pythagorean win-loss record measure? By taking into account how many runs were scored and allowed, you can extrapolate what their winning percentage should have been. Typically, teams that out-perform their Pythagorean win-loss record benefit from luck, whereas teams that under-perform are unlucky.

The Marlins and Nats out-performed their Pythagorean win-loss records by four games, a decently large variance. The Braves and Phillies under-performed by a game, and the Mets under-performed their actual record by a whopping six games. The Marlins and Nats weren’t nearly as good as they looked, and the Mets were much better. The Braves and Phillies basically did as they were expected to. Neither team was lucky to get their record.

I expect the Phils to get to that 88-90 win mark again in 2006. As everyone saw in my predictions, I like the Mets to win the NL East. That said, I think the Phillies are a dangerous team. There probably isn't a bigger wildcard in the NL. Who would have predicted the White Sox would have won the World Series in spring training? Sports Illustrated put the White Sox third in the AL Central and 17th overall. Guess where they pick the Phillies to finish in 2006? 17th and 3rd. If the White Sox could do it ... Why not the Phillies?

Enjoy the Season! I'll be back on Monday with thoughts on Opening Day. Tuesday I am reviewing The Last Nine Innings by Charles Euchner, and then I plan to talk defense again for Wednesday and Thursday before starting to discuss what we've seen from the Phillies for their first few games on Friday. And participate in my new poll. I'll post the results in a week.

Mike, if the Phils score 1,000 runs, they'll win over 105 games. 900 Runs will probably get them over 95 wins.
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