Friday, May 05, 2006
The San Francisco Giants come to town for a three game set. Welcome to the traveling freak show that has become Barry Bond’s pursuit of Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth.
I feel bad for Giants fans. I always liked the Giants in the past, and I rooted for them in the ’89 Series. It’s a team with a great past playing in a great city (my wife and I stayed there for two days after our wedding on our way to Hawaii and thought the city was beautiful). Sadly the Giants have had the toxic personality of Barry Bonds infecting the team since they signed him. Bonds ego-maniacal pursuit of Ruth and Aaron's records and his own self-gratification have sullied the game, and they have sullied the Giants. This team has disintegrated into Bonds ego. The Giants have become eight guys and a maniac playing in one of the most beautiful ballparks in the MLB.
At the moment the Giants are hanging around, playing .500 baseball in arguably the worst division in baseball. Heck, who can argue? It is the worst division in the MLB. The Giants seem to be playing without any heart or interest these days. The reason why is that the Giants are an old team: Omar Vizquel is 39. Moises Alou is 39 as well. Steve Finley is 41. Mike Matheny is 36. Bonds is going to be 42 in July … Ray Durham is comparatively young at age 34 … The age is showing. This team was put together to try and win the World Series back in 2003 and 2004. Those days are long gone. Alou, Vizquel, Finley, Matheny all know that their best days are behind them and that they are doing little more than punching the clock on their way to their retirements.
The Giants aren’t really doing anything particularly well these days. Despite having Bonds (.537 OBP) in the lineup they really aren’t getting on base with that much success: .338 OBP, compared with the NL average of .335 … Again, despite Bonds they aren’t slugging well: .596 slugging percentage and .327 ISO for Bonds, compared with the team averages of .399 and .137 …
Pitching-wise, the Giants look weak: Jamey Wright, Jason Schmitt and Matt Morris all have FIP ERAs well over 4.00 … In fact, the Giants have the worst ERA in the NL, almost a full run higher than the Rockies. Cough. Worse than the Rockies. Let that digest for a moment. Even the G-men’s FIP ERA doesn’t change the situation much: they are still one of the worst in the NL.
The Phillies, meanwhile look like they are starting to hit some sort of stride: sure, they are middling in terms of offensive production. But since when have the Phillies done better than the league average in FIP? (Phillies: 4.10 vs. League: 4.40) Sure, the Phillies have played lousy defense (last in DER), but we know they’ll get better. I think the Phillies are playing some hungry baseball and are poised for a breakout with this five game winning streak. The Giants look like a one-man show and even that is faltering.
In short, take Bonds out of the equation and the Giants look like a bunch of weaklings. Given that this will probably be Bonds last campaign, I shutter for Giants fans thinking ahead about 2007 and 2008. The cupboard is bare, fellas. This could be a sweep.
Thursday, May 04, 2006
Base-running is one of those fun things you work on in little league when home plate and first base look like they are miles and miles away. Your heart is racing as you run, desperately trying to outrun the throw, trying to get 90 feet closer to scoring.
The Bill James Handbook includes data this year on base-running. Principally, the Handbook looks to see how often a player scored, and how often they advanced to an extra base when they had the opportunity to do so (e.g., how often they went from first to third, scored from second, scored from first).
First, how often they scored:
This isn’t a really accurate stat in the sense that it almost entirely relies on the players behind you. I don’t think you can fault Ryan Howard to failing to score after he drew a walk if Mike Lieberthal, David Bell and the pitcher follow him up by striking out to end the inning. So with that in mind, I’d say that the data isn’t all that surprising: J.Roll hit first, so chances are he’d be the guy who got home the most with Abreu, Utley, Howard and Burrell behind him. The fact that Lieberthal and Bell were so much lower isn’t much of a surprise either: when you have the pitcher hitting behind you, you don’t get many chances to advance on the base-paths.
A mild surprise was Burrell, who hit fourth or fifth in the lineup the entire season. Maybe he’s a victim of having Bell and Lieberthal at the bottom end of the order, but that struck me as low. How could Bell have more success than Burrell when he has a pitcher batting behind him?
Here is how the new Phillies did with their old teams in 2005:
Consider opportunities to advance overall:
I’m not surprised that Jimmy Rollins and Bobby Abreu are the Phillies best base-runners, or that Ryan Howard and Mike Lieberthal are near the bottom.
I am surprised that Pat Burrell did as bad as he did. Pat advanced from first to third six times in fifteen chances (40%). In comparison, Bobby Abreu did so six times in twenty-two opportunities (27%). Pat struggled trying to make it home: he went from second to home six of sixteen times (38%), while Bobby went twenty-four of thirty-six times (67%). Pat also failed to score in eight opportunities from home, while Abreu did twice on eight opportunities.
I think this tells me that Pat Burrell is a timid base-runner. Interestingly, Burrell was thrown out five times in 2005, compared to two for Abreu. Perhaps his timidity is a product of being thrown-out and losing his confidence in his speed. I don’t know. But Pat Burrell does seem to be the Phillies weakest base-runner.
How did the new Phillies do?:
Aaron Rowand is a demon on the base-paths and it shows: ten for twenty-seven going from first to third (38%), twelve of nineteen going from second to home (63%), and four of six going to home from first (67%). And he was thrown out once. I’d characterize Rowand as an aggressive runner who has shown himself to be very effective. He took about thirty extra bases in 2005, which probably contributed an extra seven or eight runs to the White Sox offense last year.
So those are the numbers on the Phillies base-running. I’ll revisit this topic in the coming days because I think it is so interesting.
Don't Look Now ... but the Phillies have won four in a row and have moved into second place. Sure, a one-game lead over the Braves in May is little to cheer about, but it looks like the Phils are breaking out of their April doldrums and are moving ahead to play some good baseball. Up next: the traveling carnival that is the San Francisco Giants and Barry Bonds.
Wednesday, May 03, 2006
I sat down to read More Than Beards, Bellies and Biceps with high expectations. I was just sixteen years old when the Phillies made their miraculous run to the World Series and I remember just how exciting it all was. I was six when the Sixers won the NBA title in ’83, and I was three when the Phillies won it all in ’80, so those experiences meant little to me at the time. The idea that the Phillies, the team I had been going to go see get pounded at the Vet year-in and year-out, would be contending for the World Series blew my mind. I had never seen such electricity in the air, such a buzz.
The ’93 team caught the city’s imagination like no other. The unglamorous lot played well together and made an amazing run: I knew that the Phils had gotten into the mind of the public when I watched Saturday Night Live’s Opening sketch to their show on the night of Game Six, which featured Chris Farley and others dressed up like John Kruk and the Phillies spitting tobacco juice so vigorously during the national anthem that it came out of their mouths in a stream of brown liquid.
Sadly, the team got injured in 1994 and fall apart thereafter. Their spirit lives on.
I loved reading More Than Beards, Bellies and Biceps because it captures the spirit and substance of the season exceptionally well. The book is organized well, each chapter dealing with the progression of the season with little sidebars (most called “Phanatic Philes”) sprinkled throughout. I particularly like how the authors use narratives from the players themselves to talk about the team. Stephen Ambrose wrote in Citizen Soldiers that you should always quote your sources because they were the ones who lived the experience and knew what happened the best. The players knew what happened better than anyone else, so it is really their story and it is best told by them.
If one story sums up the ’93 team, then read the sidebar “One Mormon and 24 Morons” on pages 48-49, dealing with how well devout Mormon Dale Murphy fit in with the loud and vulgar Dykstra and Kruk: Dykstra and Kruk would swear, then apologize to Murphy, then swear and apologize two minutes later. Murphy would simply smile. That was a harmonious clubhouse.
Bottom-line: this is a fun, fun book and one of the best I've read in quite a long time. I absolutely recommend More Than Beards, Bellies and Biceps, espcially with the summer reading season fast approaching. You won't want to put it down!
Tuesday, May 02, 2006
Who is a better manager, Larry Bowa or Charlie Manuel? Depending on who you ask you can very different answers. To some the Phillies made a mistake when they fired the firey former shortstop Bowa after the ’04 campaign: Bowa’s temper and energy resonated with a lot of fans. Others, and I would include myself here to a certain extent (more on that later), think the Phillies made the right call when they elevated the calm, mellow Manuel to manager for the ’05 campaign.
Naturally, when it comes to winning and losing, it seems like the Manuel supporters have a somewhat stronger argument: in his last two seasons as manager Larry Bowa went 86-76 and failed to make the playoffs. In his first season as manager, Charlie Manuel got the Phillies two more wins (88-74), but fell short in the end, missing out on a playoff berth on the final day of the season.
The conventional wisdom is that Bowa was a micromanager, while Manuel is a hands-off, laid-back manager. Is that actually true? I looked and compared Manuel and Bowa’s “Managers Stats” in the ’05 and ’06 Bill James Handbooks.
Let’s start with lineups used:
2003 (Bowa): 119
2004 (Bowa): 107
2005 (Manuel): 80
The image of Bowa as micro-manager and Manuel as the laid-back boss gets a boost here, although the ’03 number is probably a little high because Placido Polanco and David Bell were in and out of the lineup so much.
Pinch Hitters Used:
2003 (Bowa): 244
2004 (Bowa): 258
2005 (Manuel): 265
This is a wash. I really don’t see a big variance here. Compared with a “strategist” manager like Tony LaRussa, it should be noted that Manuel actually made use of just five fewer pinch hitters in ’05. The Pirates Lloyd McClendon used just 218. Jim Tracy, formerly of the Dodgers and now the Pirates manager, used 303 with the Dodgers in ’05. Manuel seems pretty middle-of-the-pack and so does Bowa.
2003 (Bowa): 26
2004 (Bowa): 36
2005 (Manuel): 19
I think Manuel clearly lives up to his rep here. Tracy used 37 in L.A., the Mets Willie Randolph used 51, the Brewers Ned Yost used 35, LaRussa used 48 … you get the idea. The only NL manager I found that matched Manuel was McClendon at 19. Manuel left the Phillies defensive alignment intact as often as he could … although I’ve noticed this season that he’s removed Pat Burrell from the game in favor of Shane Victorino several times. This assessment may change … But for now there doesn’t seem to be a lot of micromanagement there. Bowa, on the other hand, looks pretty middle of the road. It doesn’t seem like his reputation as a micromanager is justified here.
Stolen Bases Attempted:
2003 (Bowa): 101
2004 (Bowa): 127
2005 (Manuel): 143
This was a major surprise to me. I simply assumed that Bowa was a go-go-steal-steal kind of manager. Maybe not like Whitey Hertzog, but he struck me as a “you have to create runs by stealing bases…” sort of manager. I don’t see that at all here. I don’t think it is much of a personnel issue either, because Jimmy Rollins and Bobby Abreu, the Phillies prime base-stealing weapons, have been available to Bowa and Manuel for the duration of their seasons. Simply put, Charlie Manuel is a little more willing to give his guys the green light. This is a piece of evidence that runs against the conventional wisdom.
Sacrifice Bunts Attempted:
2003 (Bowa): 69
2004 (Bowa): 74
2005 (Manuel): 86
I’m going to note that Bowa seemed to move away from sac bunts as he continued to coach the Phillies: in ’01 he had 87 attempts and in ’02 he had 97. Again, this is a piece of evidence that seems to contradict the conventional wisdom on Bowa and Manuel.
2003 (Bowa): 31
2004 (Bowa): 23
2005 (Manuel): 11
Here is some evidence to support the conventional wisdom again. From ’01 to ’04, Bowa called an average of 27 pitchouts. Manuel called 11, though he called more when he was the Indians manager (30 in 2000, 43 in 2001).
Who is the better manager? I still think the money here has to be placed on Manuel: the Phillies have had more success with him and the helm and the Indians did well under his leadership. In terms of personality, I think Manuel’s is better suited to manager and I admit that is a bit of a personal preference on my part. I’m a pretty laid back, mellow guy generally and I prefer to interact with calmer people. If I were a player, I wouldn’t have interacted with Larry Bowa well, and I suspect the majority of players are the same way. I think Manuel has coaxed better performances from nearly the same supporting cast than Bowa did. As for the popular image of Bowa as the control freak and Manuel as the mellow manager, there is a lot of evidence going both ways on it. Pitch Outs and Defensive Substitutions support the conventional wisdom, but stolen bases and sac bunts don’t. I’m eager to see what a full year of Manuel’s coaching will tell us about him (I’m wary of reading too much into his numbers as the Indians manager because the DH skews numbers a little), but it seems like the truth is much more complicated than it initially appears.
But that isn't to say that I'm thrilled with Manuel, who employs some questionable strategy sometimes: Friday Night, the Phillies are behind to the Pirates 1-0, runners at first and second. Manuel orders Bell to sac bunt. Okay, maybe Bell isn’t a great bet to drive Howard and Rowand home, but the game was just 1-0, and it seemed like Manuel was playing just to tie it at 1-1. With runners at first and second with no outs, a team should score 1.52 runs in the inning. Bell’s sac bunt dropped the Phillies to 1.41 … then Lieberthal drove in Howard with a fielder’s choice dropping the Phillies down to 0.36. The decision to bunt limited the Phillies to one run in the inning. I further question the wisdom of leaving in Brett Myers to hit when the go-ahead run was just 90 feet away. Poor guy has thrown six innings already. Maybe a little trust in the bullpen is warranted.
Fast forward to the eighth: Phillies down 3-1, Jimmy Rollins singles on. 0.92 run expectancy. After Chase strikes out, Manuel orders J.Roll to steal second with Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard due up. Huh?
Bottom-line: I like Manuel better than Bowa. I think the team plays better under him than the volatile Bowa. But that doesn't mean that he makes decisions I agree with 100% of the time. Tomorrow I review More Than Beards, Bellies and Biceps.
Oh, and nice game lat night with the Marlins too, though I don't think that the Phillies can always count on the Marlins blowing a 5-1 lead. Be sure to vote in today's new poll.
Monday, May 01, 2006
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.