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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Lineup 

Arguing over what order to bat players is always a favored past-time of baseball fans. Recently there has been some work done on lineup construction: click here for an excellent article from The Hardball Times Dave Studeman discussing various analysis for how to determine what order you need to bat players.

In George Will’s Men At Work Tony La Russa stated that he liked to scatter hitters thru the lineup without constructing a sort of “murderers row”, which would leave the rest of his lineup in trouble. Regression analysis conducted by various baseball writers have a more sophisticated take on the subject. The Book, the new book from Tangotiger and MGL, states that the two best hitters should bat 1,2 in your lineup, etc. Essentially, you should bat them in order of quality, but flip the #3 and #4 guys.

The topic of where to bat Phillies was on the mind of Beerleaguer’s Jason Weitzel, whose comment that the Phils decision to bat Mike Lieberthal and David Bell back-to-back killed their chances of scoring runs in 1/3 of the Phillies innings because Bell & Lieberthal had become a black hole in the Phillies lineup. Jason’s analysis even got on Daily News Live.

Dave Pinto put a lineup utilization feature on his blog. I punched in the Phils stats and here is what I came up with:

GPA:
Abreu: .301
Utley: .304
Lieberthal: .256
Howard: .302
Burrell: .301
Rollins: .260
Rowland: .250
Pitcher: .116
Bell: .230

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.

Here are the results.

The Phillies, from what I understand, intend to have the batting order look like this is 2006:

GPA:
Rollins: .260
Rowland: .250
Utley: .304
Abreu: .301
Burrell: .301
Howard: .302
Bell: .230
Lieberthal: .256
Pitcher: .116

Jimmy Rollins leading off with Abreu batting cleanup. Jimmy Rollins won the leadoff slot after Marlon Byrd fell on hard times and got dealt to the Nats. Despite his 36-game hitting streak I'm not a huge fan of Jimmy leading off: his .338 OBP isn't high enough for my taste. I'd love to see Bobby leading off (.405 OBP, plus speed: 31 steals in 40 attempts, comparable to J.Roll's 41 in 47), but he's made it clear he hates that idea. That's a pity: Bobby has a lot of pop in his bat and might do more damage rattling pitchers with a lead-off double or home run. (62 extra-base hits in 2005.)

The sight of Bell and Lieberthal batting together above the pitcher is a horrible sight. Jason is right: the Phillies might as well kiss off 3 out of every 9 innings because there is no way Lieberthal and Bell are going to produce runs. The Phils might be better sending Bell up to the two slot (hear me out!), where he hit .400 (6 for 15) in 2004. Maybe David will see better pitches with the meat of the Phillies order sitting behind him. Either way, the Phils need to break these two apart.

I'd like to see Pat Burrell or Chase Utley hitting between them. I think Pat and Chase have established themselves as dangerous hitters and they could protect the lower half of the lineup. I'd keep Ryan Howard batting higher up, mix him in with the big bats to make sure he sees good pitches and keeps building his confidence from 2005.

Here is my ideal lineup:

GPA:
Abreu: .301
Rowland: .250
Howard: .302
Utley: .304
Burrell: .301
Bell: .230
Rollins: .260
Lieberthal: .256
Pitcher: .116

Bobby and Aaron can get on base, then Ryan and Chase and Pat have opportunities to bat them home. Slip J.Roll in at the bottom to give the lower part of the lineup some speed and give the Phillies some baserunners in the lower half of the order.

Thoughts?

Part II of my Season Preview series will be published Monday.

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Monday, March 13, 2006

Season Preview: Is Pitching Really the Phillies Achilles Heel? 

In a word: Yes.

Compared with the Marlins, Mets, Braves and even the Nats, most people have pegged the Phillies as having the weakest pitching corps in the NL East last year and this year. I personally never bought the idea that the Phillies were really pitching weak last year, and I believe that the Phillies ’05 pitching staff was badly under-rated. No longer: the pitching corps regressed for 2006 and we’ll be fortunate to see them perform as well as they did last season.

So what went wrong in the off-season? The departure of Billy Wagner? No. The trade of Vicente Padilla? Not really. GM Pat Gillick’s decision to sign Ryan Franklin to the team and hand him the No. 4 slot in the rotation. It was a bad decision. Very bad. But I'm getting to that.

Let’s back up for a moment. What happened in 2005? A look at the numbers:

NL East – ERA
Mets: 3.76
Nats: 3.87
Braves: 3.99
Marlins: 4.16
Phillies: 4.21
NL average: 4.22

Interestingly, all five NL East teams out-performed the league ERA.

Confused about what I’m talking about? Here are the stats I refer to in this section 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.G/F – Groundball-to-Flyball ratio.
Hr/9 – Home Runs allowed per nine innings.
K/9 – Strikeouts per nine innings.
BB/9 – Walks per nine innings.
WHIP – Walks plus hits by innings pitched: (BB + H) / IP = WHIP

Got it? Now look at the NL East FIP ERA:

NL East – FIP ERA
Marlins: 3.77
Mets: 3.94
Nats: 4.12
Braves: 4.15
Phillies: 4.25
NL average: 4.22

Aside from the Marlins, no NL East team out-pitched its team ERA. Essentially this means that the Nats, Phillies, Mets and Braves pitched worse than their ERAs actually were and posted good numbers because they had good defenses behind them. Indeed, the Phillies had the second-best team defense in the entire NL, with a .705 DER. (See, my next season preview segment.)

NL East DER:
Phillies: .705

Mets: .702
Nats: .698
Braves: .694
Marlins: .678
Nl average: .694

What did the Phillies do right in '05?:

Phillies / League Average
K/9: 7.3 / 6.5
BB/9: 3.1 / 3.3
HR/9: 1.2 / 1.0
SLG.: .426 / .418
G/F: 1.34 / 1.31

The Phillies struck out more batters on average and allowed fewer walks than average. I’ve said in the past that for the Phillies to be successful they have to keep “cheap” runners off the base-paths (i.e., no walks) and take care of business (i.e., strike guys out or get them to ground out). I think, despite the popular perception to the contrary, they did that in ’05.

The Phillies problem still remains their lethal inability to get guys to hit the ball on the ground with greater consistency. Their 1.34 groundball-flyball ratio is very good (better than the league average and a huge improvement over their 1.09 in 2004), but they can and should do better. Note that the Phillies decision to shift the rotation to groundball pitchers (Lieber, Lidle) as opposed to flyballers (Eric Milton) has borne fruit: the team ERA declined from 4.45 (13th) to 4.21 (10th) between 2004 & 2005. If the Phillies continue to emphasize groundball pitchers (which it doesn't seem like Pat Gillick will: See, my forthcoming rant on Ryan Franklin) I think the team will turn the corner and become a good pitching team.

Naturally, the long-ball continues to plauge the Phillies. The fact that 14% of flyballs allowed by the team turned into home runs is troubling stuff. Notice that the Phillies slugging percentage allowed is far too high: the Phillies were 12th in the NL and worst in the division:

NL East:
Mets: .387
Nats: .396
Marlins: .402
Braves: .406
Phillies: .426
NL average: .418


So will the Phillies improve on those numbers in 2006? I doubt it. I’m not typically a pessimist, but I see a lot of room to be pessimistic about the Phillies pitching staff. It has definitely declined in quality from the last few years. Pat Gillick has said that the team needs to upgrade its pitching (a comment that really got under Brett Myers skin, I noticed), but he really hasn’t done much to do so. In fact, under Gillick, the team’s pitching has gotten worse. Vicente Padilla didn’t pitch well in ’05, but he’s a much better pitcher than Ryan Franklin, his replacement in the starting rotation.

The Phillies will soon regret their decision to sign Ryan Franklin to a contract more than any other decision they’ve made in this off-season or any other off-season in recent memory. If there was a moment where Phillies fans can point at Gillick and exclaim: “You sabotaged the team!”, it is that one.

Let’s look at Franklin’s 2005 stats:

ERA: 5.10
FIP: 5.08
K/9: 4.3
BB/9: 2.8
HR/9: 1.29
G/F: 1.01

These are stats that should make every Phillies fan cringe and wonder what Gillick is thinking: why would this team bring a struggling flyball pitcher into a park with a lethal reputation (though not entirely deserved) of being a home-run hitters park? If Ryan Franklin struggled in Safeco Field, one of the friendliest parks to pitchers in the major leagues, then how is he going to do in a park pundits think is Coors Field East?

I’ve said in the past (ad nauseam, I suspect) that for the Phillies to be successful pitching at Citizens, they need to develop and retain pitchers that don’t surrender walks and keep the ball down. Their decision to sign Jon Lieber was one I applauded: Lieber had a tremendous groundball-flyball ratio, and almost never surrendered walks. Even last year, a down year for him, he still surrendered just 41 walks in 218 innings pitched (he gave up just 18 in 176 innings as a Yankee in 2004).

I’m baffled by their decision to bring on Franklin. He’s essentially a flyball pitcher who allows too many walks and doesn’t strike enough people out. If he was giving up 1.29 home runs a game in Seattle, he’ll threaten to surrender 2 every nine innings in Philly. This guy has Eric Milton II written all over him.

Franklin will join a rotation that I otherwise think is pretty decent: Jon Lieber, Cory Lidle and Brett Myers. Randy Wolf will probably be back late in the season: Ryan Madson will move from the bullpen to the rotation until that happens.

What do I like about Lidle, Myers and Lieber? These are three guys who throw balls down and force batters to hit into a lot of 6-3, 4-3 and 5-3 groundouts. Here are Lieber, Lidle, Myers & Wolf in a nutshell:

Jon Lieber. I was very high on Jon Lieber when the Phillies signed him in the fall of 2004. Here, I exaulted, was a great move. Lieber was stingy with walks (gave up 18 in 176 innings, 0.91 per 9 innings. He actually gave up fewer walks with the Yankees than he did home runs - 20), and his FIP ERA was significantly better than his "real" ERA (3.94 vs. 4.33). Here, I thought, was a pitcher who could keep the ball down and benefit from having a strong fielding team behind him. I'm mildly disappointed by Lieber's 2005 campaign, but I think he essentially pitched well and he'll do very well in 2006.

His 2005 stats:

ERA: 4.20
FIP: 4.23 (+0.03)
K/9: 6.3
BB/9: 1.7
HR/9: 1.36
DER: .722
G/F: 1.40

Compared with his '04 stats:

ERA: 4.33
FIP: 3.94 (-0.39)
K/9: 5.2
BB/9: 0.9
HR/9: 1.0
DER: .677
G/F: 1.43

The Phillies got pretty much what they expected with Lieber: his groundball-flyball ratio is essentially unchanged (1.43 vs. 1.40). He actually struck out a few more people than in '04, but surrendered more home runs and walks. I'd expect the same walk rate in 2006, but I expect Lieber will lower the number of home runs in '06: he gave up 33 home runs in 218 innings, compared to 20 in 176 innings in 2004. I think the adjustment to a new park caught Lieber by surprise. Before the All-Star Break Lieber gave up 23 home runs in 111 innings of work (1.86 per 9 innings). Post All-Star Break: 10 home runs in 107 innings: 0.84. Lieber pitched like a new man after the All-Star Break: 9-5 (8-8 before), with a 3.28 ERA, compared to 5.09 prior. Lieber finally turned the corner and pitched just like the Phillies figured he would. I expect to see Lieber's numbers closer to his '04 totals in 2006. He'll be a tough pitcher for Phillies foes to try and get around: I think his ERA will go below 4.00 and he'll win 17-20 games. If Jon Lieber can go back to surrendering less than one home run per 9 innings, which I think he can, the Phillies will be estatic.

This guy is the Phillies ace pitcher.

Cory Lidle. Sure, Brett Myers pitched a good season in 2005: 13-8, 3.72 ERA. But Cory Lidle was probably the Phillies best pitcher in 2005 (Lieber's horrific pre All-Star performance killed his chances). The proof is in the numbers:

ERA: 4.53
FIP: 3.71 (-0.83)
K/9: 5.9
BB/9: 1.9
HR/9: 0.87
DER: .684
G/F: 1.95

The number that is eye-popping to me is Lidle's home runs: 0.87 per 9. Even more eye-popping is the fact that Lidle gave up just 6 home runs in 77 2/3 innings of work at home. That's just 0.69 per 9 innings as Citizen's!

Lidle keeps the ball down. That's his secret. He strikes some guys out, he keeps them off the basepaths (few walks) and he keeps the ball out of the bleachers. Mostly Lidle has guys hitting the ball into the ground for Utley, Rollins and the rest of the Phillies defense to deal with. As you can see, they didn't do a great job backing Lidle up: his DER was .021 behind the team average. Improved defense will probably dramatically lower Lidle's ERA.

Simply put, Lidle is a great third starter. I think he'll improve on his '05 performance and get his ERA down to around 4.20 or 4.10.

Brett Myers. Ok, Brett Myers had a nice season in 2005. I doubt it will be repeated though. Here are the numbers:

ERA: 3.72
FIP: 4.04 (+0.32)
K/9: 8.8
BB/9: 2.9
HR/9: 1.31
DER: .724
G/F: 1.51

What is interesting about Myers '05 season is to compare it to his horrendous '04 campaign: 5.52 ERA, 1.6 HR/9; 5.9 K/9, 3.2 BB/9. I held out the hope that Myers would improve and he did, in spades. He gave up 31 home runs both years, but he pitched 41 more innings in 2005. Myers seemed to gain significant velocity on his pitches and became a strikeout artist: he K'd nearly 3 extra batters per 9 innings, a 50% increase.

I don't see Brett duplicating his 2005 performance. I note, disturbingly, that Brett gave up 17 home runs in 100 Post All-Star innings: 1.53 per 9, virtually the same rate (1.59) that he surrendered homers in 2004. I suspect that Myers' blistering hot start was largely a fluke: hitters having difficulty adjusting to his improved stuff. I worry that Brett still surrenders too many home runs (particularly for a groundball pitcher) and that he'll get batted around in '05. Personally, I suspect his ERA will climb into the 4.15-4.25 range for '06.

Brett's a good pitcher, but he's not the Phillies ace: Lieber is.

Randy Wolf. I suspect that Randy will no longer be with the Phils after his return to the team later in the season. Randy has been with the team for a while and I think Pat Gillick will be interested in using him as trade bait once he shows his arm is healed. Here are Randy's '05 numbers:

ERA: 4.39
FIP: 4.95 (+0.57)
K/9: 6.8
BB/9: 2.9
HR/9: 1.55
DER: .695
G/F: 0.83

Interestingly, despite being a flyball pitcher, Randy did pretty darn well at home:

Home / Road
ERA: 3.43 / 5.60
HR/9: 1.20 / 2.05
BB/9: 2.80 / 3.08
K/9: 7.00 / 6.69

I would have assumed those numbers would have been reversed. In '04 Wolf got hit up at home: 4.95 home ERA compared to a supurb 3.43 road ERA. Randy pitched well at home, though I caution that those numbers are based on just forty-four and 2/3 innings of work.

Ultimately, I suspect that Randy is trade bait, especially if Ryan Madson or Gavin Floyd pitch well in his absence (I understand that Ryan is slated to pitch in Randy's slot because the Phillies are trying to rehab Gavin from getting shelled last year). Randy

On to the Bullpen … Generally speaking, the Phillies bullpen out-pitched the Phillies starting rotation in 2004. Last year the shoe was on the other foot. While the numbers were generally even, notice that the starters did have a slight advantage:

2005: Starters / Relievers
BB/9: 2.84 / 3.46
K/9: 6.87 / 8.06
HR/9: 1.19 / 1.17
ERA: 4.20 / 4.24
WHIP: 1.31 / 1.28

Many fewer walks allowed, which translated to fewer runs allowed when teams hit home runs, which gives the starters a slight edge in ERA. Notice that the home runs allowed were very even. The only place where the relief corps bested the starters was in strikeouts, not a big surprise given that pitchers like Lidle and Lieber rely on grounders rather than K’s.

Check out the differences in ’03 & ’04:

2004: Starters / Relievers
BB/9: 3.13 / 3.02
K/9: 6.41 / 6.88
HR/9: 1.47 / 1.05
ERA: 4.91 / 3.68
WHIP: 1.40 / 1.29

The Relief Corps definitely outdid the starters, though those numbers are Eric Milton inflated. What is interesting to me is how the relievers succeeded in keeping the ball down in ’04: that is a massive variance between the numbers of home runs allowed.

2003: Starters / Relievers
BB/9: 3.17 / 3.86
K/9: 6.75 / 6.31
HR/9: 0.97 / 0.72
ERA: 4.20 / 3.72
WHIP: 1.32 / 1.35

The starters were probably just as good as the relievers in ’03, despite the ERA differential.

How will the ’06 bullpen be? That’s a good question. Almost certainly, not as good. Let’s start with two players the Phillies won’t have back in ’06: Billy Wagner & Ugueth Urbina:

The Phillies are going to miss Billy Wagner. Scope out his stats:

Billy Wagner:
BB/9: 2.6
K/9: 11.2
HR/9: 0.77
ERA: 1.51
FIP: 2.66 (+1.15)
G/F: 1.29

Wagner was remarkably consistent with the Phillies. He struck out 11 batters per 9 innings in 2004 as well. For being a flyball pitcher, he didn’t give up many home runs at Citizens:

2005: 0.75 per 9 innings at home
2004: 0.67 per 9 innings at home

He was a “lights out” closer, a la Mariano Rivera. His two years in Philly were anything but fun for him, so he decided to head up 95 to Queens and pitch for the Mets. I’m sorry to see him go, but he turns 34 this year and might be on the downslope of his career. One thing about closers is that when they lose their stuff they collapse in a hurry. The key to Billy Wagner has always been his 100 mph fastball that few players can hit. I wouldn’t want Wagner closing games with a reduction in his speed.

That said, the Phillies have definitely downgraded their closer, going with ex-Yankee Tom Gordon. Gordon’s 38 and isn’t coming off the hottest season:

K/9: 8.2
BB/9: 3.40
HR/9: 0.94
ERA: 2.57
FIP: 3.72 (+1.15)
G/F: 1.51

While I like the fact that he kept the ball down (that 1.51 g/f ratio), he allowed far too many walks: 3.4 per 9 innings. Allowing that many “cheap” base-runners won’t cut it. Add in the fact that he’s 38 and his best seasons are behind him … Let’s face it, Tom Gordon is a poor replacement for a closer of Billy Wagner’s abilities. We’re going to miss Billy this season.

One player the Phillies shouldn’t miss is Ugueth Urbina, the Phillies reliever who will not be playing in 2006 for what I would called euphemistically “personal reasons” (i.e., his pending attempted murder charge in Venezuela). Check out Urbina’s stats:

Ugueth Urbina:
BB/9: 4.5
K/9: 11.8
HR/9: 1.43
ERA: 4.13
FIP: 3.90 (-0.23)
G/F: 0.52

His acquisition was not one of Ed Wade’s finer moments. What possessed the team to add a flyball pitcher to the bullpen is beyond me.

Ryan Madson is probably the team’s best bullpen pitcher, so it is a shame that he might not even spend any time in the bullpen this season: Ryan is supposedly slated to start the season as the Phillies #5 starter until Randy Wolf returns. I suspect that Ryan won’t be going back to ‘pen because he’ll turn in an excellent performance and probably give the Phils the ability to deal Randy. Why are Phillies bloggers so high on Ryan? Check out the numbers:

Ryan Madson:
BB/9: 2.6
K/9: 8.3
HR/9: 1.16
ERA: 4.14
FIP: 3.90 (-0.24)
G/F: 1.78

Ryan does a decent job keeping the opposition off the base-paths and keeping the ball down. Notice that, despite being a groundball pitcher, Ryan gets the job done: he gets nearly a K an inning. Look at those numbers also with the knowledge that Ryan pitched substantially better in 2004:

BB/9: 2.13*
K/9: 6.51*
HR/9: 0.36*
ERA: 2.34
FIP: 3.59
G/F: 1.89

* considering only Madson’s relief appearances, subtracting his disastrous start against the White Sox.

Ryan is a fantastic pitcher and I’m very unhappy about his move to the rotation: simply put, this team needs some depth in the bullpen and Ryan is the best relief pitcher we have now. I’d honestly prefer to see him move into the role of closer. Nobody quite keeps the ball down as well as Ryan does or takes care of business the way Ryan does. After Jon Lieber, he’s probably the Phillies best pitcher.

After Ryan there is a big drop off: Aaron Fultz, Rheal Cormier and Geoff Geary are all back.. All three are serviceable pitchers, though I am disappointed by how many cheap home runs Cormier allowed, considering his absurdly good 2.03 g/f ratio:

Aaron Fultz:
BB/9: 3.1
K/9: 7.2
HR/9: 0.80
ERA: 2.24
FIP: 3.75 (+1.51)
G/F: 1.03

Rheal Cormier:
BB/9: 2.9
K/9: 6.2
HR/9: 1.64
ERA: 5.89
FIP: 5.18
G/F: 2.03

Geoff Geary:
BB/9: 3.3
K/9: 6.5
HR/9: 0.78
ERA: 3.72
FIP: 3.81 (+0.09)
G/F: 1.36

The other big addition to the Phillies bullpen is Arthur Rhodes, part of the team’s deal with the Cleveland Indians for Jason Michaels. I always liked Michaels: he was a terrific fourth outfielder, always able to join in and play good D in center and get on-base. Rhodes has a good arm and could replace Tom Gordon as the Phillies closer if things go badly, but I don’t think it was an even exchange. Here are Rhodes stats:

BB/9: 2.51
K/9: 9.0
HR/9: 0.41
ERA: 2.08
FIP: 2.58 (+0.50)
G/F: 1.14

Aside from his g/f ratio, I’m fairly impressed. He surrendered just 2 home runs in 43 innings of work, which is pretty good. I actually think he’d be a better closer than Gordon because he seems to keep the ball down and get K’s. I’m mostly wary of the fact that he’s 36, which puts the combined age of the Phillies top two relievers at 74.

Ryan is 25.

What about Robinson Tejeda? I have to admit being rather surprised at his success in 2005. Consider:

G/F: 0.82
ERA: 3.57
FIP: 4.15 (+0.57)

Okay. But look at some of Robinson’s other stats:

BB/9: 5.40
K/9: 7.62
HR/9: 0.53 (0.59 at home)

Huh? 5 home runs in 85 and 2/3 innings when he was giving up more flyballs than grounders? Nearly 5 walks per 9 innings?

None of these stats make any sense whatsoever. A flyball pitcher cannot get away with just five home runs in 46 innings at Citizens. Can’t be done. A pitcher cannot survive surrendering five and a half walks every 9 innings either.

This guy is all wrong for the Phillies and he got very lucky last year. If the Phillies think that he’ll give them something similar in ’06, they are hopelessly naïve. Any flyball pitcher who walks guys by the bushel will get shelled at Citizens. Simple as that.

Conclusions. Look for …

… Jon Lieber to have a great season …
… Ryan Madson to pitch well as the Phils extra starter and join the rotation …
… Cory Lidle to have a good season …
… Brett Myers to fall-off and surrender a lot of home runs …
… Tom Gordon to get shelled and blow a few games …
… Arthur Rhodes to take over the reliever role …
… or see the Phils deal Randy Wolf for one …

… And finally, look for Ryan Franklin to get clobbered. Badly.

The bottom-line is that the pitching staff has regressed a lot. I don’t think it is as strong as it was in 2005, and it will continue to get no respect from observers. Sure, I think Lidle, Lieber, Myers and Madson will give the Phils great innings. Sure, I think there is some talent in the ‘pen. And maybe I’m 100% off-base about Tejada.

But I don’t think so. I’d look for the Phillies to rank in the bottom-half of the league in terms of ERA. The Phils tremendous fielding and their ability to put runs on the board will help a lot, but this is the Phillies Achilles Hell.

Thank you for reading Part I of my season preview. I'll be publishing Part II, Fielding, next Monday.

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