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Monday, August 21, 2006

Spotlight on Pitching 

The subtitle for this article is: “Why the Phillies pitching is better than you think.”

Everyone hates the Phillies pitching. Pat Gillick busted on the Phillies pitching at the start of the season, and every pundit loves to assail the Phillies pitchers. This is a team that is built for offense and plays in a park that optimizes offense, everyone assumes. Since the Phillies moved from the Vet to Citizens Bank Ballpark they’ve been one of the worst pitching teams in the majors. Despite having real talent in the rotation over the last few campaigns, with players like Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla, the Phillies have been abysmal on the mound.

I think the problem in perception began when the Phillies brought Eric Milton on board as their ace for the 2004 season. Milton got off to a great start on paper, going 11-2 prior to the All-Star break and garnering indignant outrage when the Marlins Jack McKeon (correctly) elected to keep him off the All-Star team.

Milton was a nightmare. Milton was the winner of far too many 8-6 slugfests where the Phillies triumphed despite him, not because of him. Milton surrendered 1.83 home runs every nine innings before the break and 2.02 every nine innings after. His ERA at the break was a catastrophic 4.72. Milton’s problem was that he was a flyball pitcher who would have survived well at Yankees Stadium or Turner Field, but was poison at Citizens. (Although, I should note that Milton surrendered more home runs on the road than at home.) Milton was run out of town at the end of the season, as the Phillies tried to adapt to Citizens by switching to a staff manned with groundball pitchers. But the perception that Citizens was a pitcher-killer the same way Coors Field in Denver is has persisted. Call it The Curse of Eric Milton.

So the conventional wisdom is that the Phillies have a lousy pitching staff. True? Yes and no. Certainly the 2006 campaign has been rough on the Phillies. They’ve been inconsistent for the year:

ERA / WHIP
April: 5.03 / 1.56
May: 3.85 / 1.34
June: 5.80 / 1.64
July: 5.00 / 1.43
August: 3.71 / 1.18
Season: 4.74

They actually did halfway well for May and August and were atrocious in April, June and July:

By Month: ERA rank / Team Winning PercentageApril: 14th / (.417)
May: 5th / (.607)
June: 14th / (.333)
July: 10th / (.520)
August: 6th / (.625)
Season: 13th (.492)

Confused about what I’m talking about? Here are the stats I refer to defined:
WHIP – Walks plus hits by innings pitched: (BB + H) / IP = WHIP
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.
Hr/9 – Home Runs allowed per nine innings: (HR * 9) / IP
K/9 – Strikeouts per nine innings: (K * 9) / IP
BB/9 – Walks per nine innings: (BB * 9) / IP

The month of August, thus far, suggests that the Phillies pitching staff is on an upswing. I have a couple of reasons why:

1. The addition of Cole Hamels.
2. The subtraction of Gavin Floyd and Ryan Madson from the rotation.
3. The return of Randy Wolf
4. Brett Myers and Jon Lieber’s second wind.

I’ve resisted the temptation of engaging in Cole Hamels hype for a long time, but now I feel tempted to begin every column with “Isn’t Cole Hamels awesome? …”

Cole Hamels is a revelation and if he isn’t in the running for NL Rookie of the Year at the end of the season, I will formally demand a recount. Cole has done a great job thus far this season. Scope out some of the numbers:

FIP ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Hamels: 3.86 10.5 3.5 1.2
Phillies: 4.63 6.8 3.3 1.3
National League: 4.51 6.6 3.4 1.1

Cole has been phenomenal with keeping the ball in the park, striking the opposition out and limiting their ability to put the ball into play. I feel like a prattal enough about Hamels, so I’ll move on after I note the improvement in Hamel’s ERA of late:

May: 3.18*
June: 6.49
July: 6.04
August: 0.86

* in just two starts.

All of that suggests to me that Hamels is really starting to come into his own and be the terrific pitcher that most suspected he would be all along.

The subtraction of Gavin Floyd and Ryan Madson from the Phillies pitching staff (or in the case of Madson, his relegation to the bullpen) has been a major boon. Simply put, Gavin Floyd was unprepared mentally to pitch for the Phillies in 2006 and they ought to have known. He did terrible, hurling a 7.29 ERA (6.95 FIP ERA), allowing an Eric Milton-like two home runs every nine innings, and generally killing the Phillies every time he pitched. Ryan Madson did no better: 5.64 ERA (5.12 FIP), 1.4 Home Runs per nine innings. To be fair, Madson seems to be the victim of sloppy defense (.653 DER behind him), although part of that might be his fault (he’s allowing 22.2% of the balls put in play against him to be line-drives).

Gavin Floyd hasn’t pitched for the Phillies since June, and Ryan Madson was permanently moved into the bullpen in August after two efforts to make him a starter failed. Madson pitched well in August, entering seven games in relief, throwing 11& 1/3 innings, allowing just a 2.45 ERA, and two walks while striking out thirteen batters. I think this is a role he is ideally suited for and has had success at. If he accepts the move to the ‘pen, then I think he’ll find success. He needs to think of himself as a latter-day Jim Konstanty, the Phillies pitcher who won the 1950 NL MVP awards largely due to his clutch pitching, where he went 16-7 in a relief role, finishing over sixty games for the Phillies, often preserving fragile leads during the Phillies run to the pennant in 1950.

Randy is back. After injuring his arm in 2005, I never expected to see Randy Wolf back with the Phillies. I figured that the team would cut him loose, but I am happy to see that didn’t happen. Wolf has been hurling alright. His ERA is a decent 4.35, but that masks a much higher 5.84 FIP ERA. What gives me confidence that Wolf will pitch well is that he seems determined to show that he’s capable of contributing to the Phillies and his arm is fresh and ready to go. Another promising sign of the season is that Wolf is allowing just 16.1% of the balls put into play against him to be line-drives, a pretty low percent that is probably a factor in the Phillies impressive .746 DER behind him.

I don’t really care for Brett Myers the person, given what I read about the incident where he beat his wife in the street in Boston (particularly damaging to me was the quote from the 911 call where Kim Myers allegedly wailed that she wouldn’t allow him to beat her anymore, suggesting that this wasn’t a one-time incident and that Brett has serious anger management issues). Brett Myers the baseball player might be ready to make a big impact for the Phillies down the stretch, although his horrible August suggests otherwise. He is a terrific pitcher, the Phillies 2005 ace, and he could really help the team down the stretch if his mind is right. He's had a decent season thus far, given all that has transpired:

Myers: 4.21 FIP ERA, 17.7% Line-Drives, 8.3 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 1.4 HR/9

I can’t say that I’m rooting for him (not being a big fan of big guys who pummel their little wives and all), but I hope that he contributes to the team.

I’ve long defended Jon Lieber and, to a lesser extent, the now departed Cory Lidle, as being pitchers who don’t get their due. Solid, unspectacular sinkerball pitchers, they get the job done without the flashy strikeouts. So I’m ready to make a bold prediction: Jon Lieber is going to have a phenomenal August and September for the Phillies.

I was very disappointed to watch Jon Lieber struggle when he joined the Phillies for the 2005 season. Prior to the All-Star break Lieber seemed to get pummeled, surrendering far too many home runs, allowing far too many walks and generally allowing the opposition to do what he was hired not to do: give up home runs and walks. When the Phillies signed Lieber in ’05, I was excited to see Lieber pitch because of what he did with the Yankees in 2004: 18 walks allowed and 20 home runs allowed in 176 & 2/3 innings pitched. The Home Runs allowed isn’t bad, that is basically a home run allowed every nine innings (1.02 HR/9). In terms of walks, that is astonishing. He allowed just 0.92 walks per nine innings. Lieber could go two or three starts without allowing a walk. Lieber would do well, I was certain, because of that ability to keep the ball in the park and keep runners off the base-paths. It didn’t work out that way in 2005. Lieber’s walks spiked to 1.69 BB/9, and his home runs went to 1.36 HR/9. But if you looked closely, you could see that this was only half of the story:

Pre-All-Star: 1.86 HR/9; 2.10 BB/9; 5.57 K/9
Post-All-Star: 0.84 HR/9; 1.26 BB/9; 6.27 K/9

I looked back at Lieber’s 2004 campaign with the Yankees and saw that this was basically the same story: while Lieber’s walks and home runs allowed went up slightly, Lieber lowered his ERA from 4.77 to 3.94 and increased his strikeouts from 4.12 to 6.15 per nine innings.

I think this August and September you’ll see the same sort of improvement. Lieber has struggled at points this season. His FIP ERA is better than his regular ERA (4.43, compared to 5.10), but he’s struggled for big spots in the year. His April ERA, for example, was 7.04. Ouch. His August has been impressive, however, allowing just two home runs and walks in just twenty-four innings of work, with a 1.13 ERA and 17 K’s.
So there you go. The Phillies have a much better staff than you think and it seems to me that the Phillies pitchers could play a major – positive – role in the Phillies run to the playoffs. With Hamels and Lieber the Phillies have an impressive one-two punch that is very different: Hamels blazing fastballs and Lieber’s maddeningly slow sinkers. If the Phillies pitch Hamels and Lieber back-to-back, they could really throw a lot of teams out of whack. Add in Randy Wolf, the cagey veteran and Brett Myers, and the Phillies could have the makings of a powerful rotation. And if Ryan Madson settles down as the Phillies fireman of the ‘pen, the Phillies could have a difficult bullpen for a team to wade through: Tom Gordon, Madson, Geoff Geary, Arthur Rhodes. I’m optimistic.

A little aside … I was working on The Hardball Times site and I noticed that the Mets are running ahead of their Pythagorean win-loss record by four games, while the Phillies lag by two. If you look at the Pythagorean win-loss records, the race in the NL East is much closer than you think:

Pythagorean Win-Loss:
New York: 70-52
Philadelphia: 62-60 (8)
Atlanta: 62-60 (8)
Florida: 59-63 (11)
Washington: 54-69(15.5)

The thing is that the Phillies are 26-33 in games decided by two or fewer runs, while the Mets are 35-21. The Mets, in other words, have been a little lucky in 2006 and they’ve probably won’t keep it up. To be sure, the Mets have the better record even if you go by the Pythagorean records, but the gap between they and the Phillies is really smaller than you think: the Mets have a +91 in runs scored / runs allowed, while the Phillies are +16. What is significant is that the Phillies have scored more runs than they’ve allowed and they have a losing record: the Phillies have been unlucky this season. And beware of the Braves down the stretch. Their run differential is +14 and they have lost far more games than the Phils. While the Phillies are running two games behind their record, the Braves are four behind, suggesting to me that the Braves are poised to break out of their bad luck cycle and make a run. Stay Tuned.

Up this week for the Phils: On the road in Chicago to play the Cubbies. Four game set, followed by a return to New York to play the Mets.

Comments:
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