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Monday, May 01, 2006

Goodbye, April: Reflections on the first twenty-four games.... 

Thank goodness April is over. Alright poll voters, you were wrong: the Phillies did not leave the month with a .500 record. As usual the Phillies departed the month with a losing record. Take heart though, Phillies, fans, because March / April is usually the month(s) that the team play(s) the worst in:

Month-by-Month (2003-2005)
March / April: 36-37 (.493)
May: 45-37 (.549)
June: 44-35 (.557)
July: 43-40 (.518)
August: 41-43 (.488)
September: 51-34 (.600)
Totals: 260-226 (.535)

Last year the Phillies wrapped up a rough April with a 10-14 record as well. The more things change .... So as usual, this is the time of the year for everyone to hyperventilate and scream about why the Phillies are doomed for the season. Yes, the Phillies are struggling. Why? Well, cue up the record-player, it is time to blame the Phillies pitching staff. Friday Inquirer columnist Bob Ford faulted the Phillies pitching in his column. You can click here, but I've reprinted it below because it sums up the conventional wisdom that the Phillies problems lay with their pitching staff:

Pitching is taking the Phillies nowhere fast
By Bob Ford
The Phillies completed their best homestand of the season yesterday afternoon on a beautiful day for baseball and in front of a crowd that had plenty of room to stretch out.
What could be better?
Well, the Phillies could be much better, particularly that portion of the roster that attempts to throw baseballs past the other guys. More than anything, this is why the best homestand of the season finished with four wins and five losses, including yesterday's 6-3 fan-farewell loss to the Colorado Rockies. It is also why the team finished the other homestand of the season with a 1-5 record.
Baseball is a difficult game to play, and a challenging game to win. It becomes impossible for any team that seemingly has to win every game by a score of 6-5. That is the task the Phillies have most days. Their starting pitching has been atrocious, and on the too-rare occasions when it is competent - Jon Lieber's outing yesterday, three earned runs in seven innings, is an example - then the bullpen might not keep things close.
For Lieber, whose first four starts were losses, no-decision is good decision. For reliever Ryan Franklin, who tried to sneak a fastball past Colorado's Garrett Atkins with a quick step to the plate, it was merely his turn to give up the crucial hit.
During the homestand against Washington, Florida and Colorado, the Phillies allowed a total of 55 runs. In the four games against the Rockies, they allowed 23. The surprise isn't that the team ended the homestand with a losing record, or that it split the games with Colorado. The surprise is that the Phillies did that well.
And if either the pitching or the pitchers do not improve rapidly, they won't continue to blunder around with a near-.500 record. They will fall off the ragged edge of contention.
Manager Charlie Manuel said he has no choice but to believe in his staff, but he did point out that a team with a 5.41 earned run
average won't have forever to figure out things. "I think you've got to give guys chances, build their confidence, but there comes a time when you have to go over the team and where it's at," Manuel said. "Is the time coming close? If we keep losing, of course it's coming close."
It isn't as if the Phils have Walter Johnson stashed in Scranton, however. Cole Hamels had a nice outing yesterday in his first triple-A start, but the current status of Gavin Floyd and Ryan Madson should send a cautionary note about dropping real prospects too quickly into boiling oil.
Eude Brito is the answer for the rotation? Franklin? Remember that the Phillies' starting rotation stinks and neither of those guys was good enough to crack it. The ugly truth is that, barring a trade by Patient Pat Gillick, the Phils have to simply hope that their pitchers are better than the numbers indicate.
"From the manager's standpoint, I have to play who I've got and give them a chance," Manuel said. What is really worrisome is where the Phillies will be if their offense isn't able to keep pace. Jimmy Rollins has lost more than 100 points from his on-base percentage in the last two weeks. The bench, such as it is, can't come up with a hit when called on. And everyone's favorite personal catcher, Sal Fasano, is on his way to 250 at-bats (too many) and a .225 average (too low).
The Phillies backed themselves into a corner by allowing Floyd, along with Lieber, to request Fasano behind the plate. They prefer him to Mike Lieberthal, who doesn't come out to the mound to pat them on the back enough, or doesn't fluff the pillows enough or something.
Lieberthal, the designated local whipping boy when David Bell isn't handy, is still hitting better than .300, and is still a better catcher than Fasano. Lieberthal's right knee probably benefits from more rest, but handing over 40 percent of the games to Fasano is just silly. It is also apparently not that effective. Lieber and Floyd are 1-6 with a combined 7.58 ERA. How much worse would they be if they didn't have their favorite catcher?
The Phils probably will continue to let Lieber have his druthers, but Floyd should prepare to be more flexible. The team returns next week in time to greet the Atlanta Braves and then host "Barry Bonds Cranium Growth Chart Night." It should be another memorable homestand in a season that is beginning to look forgettable.
Pitching, pitching, pitching is the problem. Everything else is
just useless distraction.

Being a natural-born contrarian, I disagree. What is the Phillies real problem? Defense. As I said at the beginning of the season, the key to the year is going to be fielding and the Phillies aren’t fielding well. In fact, they have the worst Defense Efficiency Ration (DER) in the MLB. Dead-last.

Confused about what I’m talking about? Here are the stats I refer to defined:
ERA – Earned Run Average: (Earned Runs * 9) / IP = ERA
FIP – Fielding Independent Pitching: (13*HR+3*BB-2*K / IP) + League Factor Evaluates a pitching by how he would have done with an average defense behind him by keeping track of things that a pitcher can control (walks, strikeouts, home runs allowed) as opposed to things he cannot (hits allowed, runs allowed).
DER – Defense Efficiency Ratio: (Batters Faced – (Hits + Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) / (Batters Faced – (Home Runs, Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) How often fielders convert balls put into play into outs.

Alright, but to the discussion ... As I write this the Phillies have a .644 team DER, which can only be described as absolutely atrocious. The NL average is .699, and the next-worst team in the NL are the Pirates at .665 … The nearest team to the Phillies were the Minnesota Twins at .663 … If you want to know why the Phillies are struggling, that’s the reason. I’d note that otherwise they are doing o.k. on the mound:

What is the usual knock on the Phillies? That they surrender too many home runs. Well, right now they’ve given up an average of 1.1 a game, which is slightly under the league average (1.15). Walks? They’ve given up 3.2 a game, which is better than the league average (3.6). Strikeouts? They’ve given up 6.4 a game, which is just under the league average (6.5). For all of those reasons the Phillies have a good pitching staff if you look at Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP).

Take a minute and let that soak in. Forget all of the hand-wringing about Jon Lieber being 0-4, and Gavin Floyd’s ERA being 8.50*, and ignore all of the conventional wisdom about the Phillies sucking right now. According to the raw numbers, the Phillies FIP is 4.36, 0.01 better than the vaunted Braves, and lower than the league average of 4.53 …

* all stats done prior to Sunday's game.

Oh, and if you prefer DIPS (Defense Independent Pitching Statistic) to FIP because it is a more sophisticated formula: the Phillies are fourth in DIPS ERA at 4.25, just behind the D-backs (3.99), the Mets (3.99), and the Dodgers (4.23). The Braves follow the Phillies at 4.46.

Sure Gavin Floyd hasn’t pitched well, but his 8.50 ERA isn’t even remotely close to indicating how poorly he’s pitched. The Phillies DER behind him is .621, which is absolutely horrible. Floyd is actually out-pitching his ERA by 2.69. His FIP is still terrible – 5.81 – but it isn’t as bad as it appears.

Floyd isn’t the only Phillies pitcher victimized by the Phillies bad defense: the much-maligned Jon Lieber may be 0-4, but he’s pitched a good deal better than he appears to have: sure his “real” ERA is 7.04, but his FIP is just 3.33, a whopping 3.71 lower. Simply put the Phillies have provided him with abysmal defense: .639 DER when he pitches (compared with .723 in 2005). Lieber is actually doing better this year than last in many respects: he gave up 1.39 home runs a game in ’05, and just 0.8 this year. He’s cut his walks in half from 2005 when he gave up 38 in 211 & 1/3 innings. This year? Three in thirty and 2/3, 0.9 per nine innings. He’s a little behind in strikeouts (5.7 compared to 6.1), but he’s been pretty good. When the Phillies defense catches up to their pitching, Lieber will go on a tear.

Mark my words: Jon Lieber will win 17-20 games this season.

Cory Lidle is a good deal better than his record indicates: Lidle’s ERA is 5.11, but he’s 2.13 under with his FIP: 2.98. The Phillies have been terrible defensively behind him: .606 DER (compared with .684 in 2005). Lidle has dramatically improved his skills in strikeouts and walks: he’s getting 9.9 K’s a game compared to 5.9 in 2005, and he’s giving up just 1.1 walks compared to 1.9 … Home runs are up slightly, but not by much.

Same story with Ryan Madson: his 8.05 ERA looks terrible, but that is largely a product of the Phillies .620 DER (they had a .701 DER in 2005). Madson is struggling this year, but that ERA is higher than his 5.61 FIP. He’ll get better when the Phillies defenders do.

Bottom-line: aside from Brett Myers and Ryan Franklin, there isn’t a single pitcher on the Phillies not getting the kind of defense from the Phillies they deserve. Don’t blame the pitching staff for the Phillies struggles. The Phillies vaunted offense isn’t protecting the pitchers any better: they rank twelfth in run support with 4.64 …

Let’s talk about the Phillies struggles with their defense: Jimmy Rollins is twelfth of fourteen NL shortstops in Zone Rating … Aaron Rowand is eighth of nine NL centerfielders in ZR … Pat Burrell is twelfth of fourteen NL leftfielders … Even a reliable glove like David Bell is just sixth of fifteen in ZR. The Phillies aren’t producing offensively as well as they could and are struggling with team defense. I expect that to improve and when it does the team will get better in a hurry.

So calm down, take a deep breath and relax. This month the Phillies get six games against the Mets, which means they get an opportunity to make up some ground on their division rivals, and they get some games against the Cincinnati Reds, the San Francisco Giants, and the Brewers. Add in some games against division rivals like the Nats, Braves and Fishstripes, and the Phillies have a great opportunity to put a rough month behind them and make up some ground. I expect the Nats and Marlins to fall by the wayside this month and make the NL East a three-team race as opposed to last year’s five-way logjam. I expect, with the weather improving, that the Phillies will pull their act together in the field and start playing good defense along with improved production at the plate. Relax worry-warts. We’ll be fine.

"Bottom-line: aside from Brett Myers and Ryan Franklin, there isn’t a single pitcher on the Phillies not getting the kind of defense from the Phillies they deserve."

Wait, is that second "not" supposed to be there?
Yep, that's a typo. Thanks for catching it.
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