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Michael/Male/26-30. Lives in United States/Pennsylvania/Wexford/Christopher Wren, speaks English. Spends 20% of daytime online. Uses a Fast (128k-512k) connection. And likes baseball /politics.
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United States, Pennsylvania, Wexford, Christopher Wren, English, Michael, Male, 26-30, baseball , politics.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Victory @ Long Last... 

With their 4-0 victory over the Orioles, the Phillies are finally moving in the right direction after losing seven in a row and fifteen of their last eighteen games. As a nice bonus, the Phillies gained ground on the Mets, closing the gap to eleven games … Okay, that is probably irrelevant, but still…

A masterful pitching performance was turned in by young Ryan Madson. Eight and two-thirds of an inning and he K’d seven Orioles, walked just one and scattered five hits. This was easily Ryan’s finest performance of the year and maybe his best pitched game of his career. If Ryan can build on this and turn his season around, he’ll be fine.

Meanwhile, over at The Hardball Times John Brattain wrote an article entitled “Phlop” that lays out the Phillies struggles (primarily starting pitching, a conclusion that I mostly agree with, though I’d fault the poor performance of supporting players like Jimmy Rollins and David Bell as well) and suggests that the team will have a unique opportunity to “make a killing” in the trade market because so many teams are in contention and need help. Obviously the team needs pitching and to restock the farm system, so dealing players like David Dellucci and Arthur Rhodes are no-brainers. I wouldn’t part with Shane Victorino or Aaron Rowand the way Brattain wants to, however.

I hope the Phillies are active in the trading market because it is clear that the team does have leverage: there are expendable players on the team, but there are a few that are untouchable. Brattain ID’s Hamels and Howard, but I’d extend that to Utley, Victorino and Rowand as well.

Have a good weekend. I anticipate an abbreviated week thanks to the Fourth ‘o July, but still look for some good material soon. Be on the lookout for my State of the Phillies address soon…

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Thursday, June 29, 2006

Rock-Bottom 

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

-Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, 1776

I couldn’t help but think of Paine’s words, written in the wake of the Colonial Army’s disasterous campaign in New York and retreat across New Jersey, right when the British victory over the rebellion seemed assured, when thinking of the Phillies plight.

Things are bad. With their twin losses in the doubleheader with the Orioles, the Phillies have dropped fifteen of their last eighteen games and seven in a row. As near as I can tell this is also the first time the Phillies have dropped both ends of a doubleheader since they lost to the Florida Marlins 6-4 and 2-1 on September 9, 2002.

2003: Three double-headers; split vs. San Diego Padres, swept the Oakland A’s and Montreal Expos
2004: Three double-headers; split vs. Detroit Tigers; swept the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates
2005: Two double-headers; split vs. Washington Nats; swept the Arizona D-Backs

I’d love to know if anyone had bothered to figure out how often teams split double-headers and how often do teams win them outright?

Anyway, the losses mean that the Phillies are twelve games back of the Mets and are holding off the Braves, Nats and Marlins by a thread. There is a very real possibility that the Phillies could fall to dead-last by the end of the weekend.

Now, as I said previously, I think that the Phillies would probably have to win ninety games in order to make the playoffs. Today their record stands at 35-42 with 85 games left. To win an additional 55 games, the Phillies are going to have to go 55-30 (.647) the rest of the season. At this point last year the Phillies were 39-38, four games better than this. The only team that had a winning percentage of .647 or greater in 2005 for the last 85 games was the New York Yankees at .659 … Add into the mix other distractions, like Brett Myers (alleged) battery of his wife and the persistent trade rumors swirling around Bobby Abreu and others, and the Phillies look like an organization in crisis.

After Paine wrote those words, which were published in Philadelphia, by the way, the Colonial Army launched a counter-attack at Trenton which surprised the Hessian Army and gave George Washington a much-needed victory. Everyone in the Delaware Valley is familiar with Washington’s bold crossing of the Delaware River in the snow and ice. It was the low ebb of the revolution and the victory at Trenton prevented the revolt from collapsing. Despite losing battles at Brandywine and Germantown and then the City of Philadelphia in 1777, the revolution continued and culminated in freedom for America.

I think the Phillies need to do something bold and dramatic to recapture the hearts of the fans and improve this team before the rest of the season goes south. Is it already too late to salvage this season? That is impossible to say. Sure, the Phillies could go 55-30 and win 90 games and make the playoffs. It is possible. Unlikely, but possible. But this team could also finish fifth at this rate. Deal Bobby Abreu, deal Pat Burrell, deal Brett Myers (please!) … but I think the fans need to see the team shake off this malaise that is hanging in the air. Washington’s decision to attack Trenton was risky – terrible weather, a river cutting off your line of retreat – but it was the right decision because it saved the rebellion from collapsing. Be bold, Pat Gillick, or watch this team wither away.

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Book Review: The Mind of Bill James 

My wife recently ran out of books to read and asked me to take a quick trip up to the local library with her. I went up and began to page through the new releases, hoping to see something to catch my interest. A new book on the American Revolution? (A recent interest of mine.) A book on Ancient Greece? (classical history is another area of interest for me.) I got there and, while my wife broke off for the romantic section, I spied The Mind of Bill James by Scott Gray. Startled to see it in my library – which doesn’t carry any of James books, I’m sorry to say – I immediately snatched it up and took it with me.

People who have read Moneyball are familiar with the rough contours of James life, but The Mind of Bill James fills in the gaps quite nicely. Simply put, James grew up with a very analytical mind and spent many of his early days analyzing why the Kansas City A’s were amongst the worst teams in baseball. Later James turned to the overall game of baseball and published the Baseball Abstract, his ground-breaking work on the baseball. Since then, much to his annoyance, Bill James has become synonymous with statistics. Reading the book it becomes apparent why: James doesn’t simply write about numbers. He uses his information as tools to make larger points about the game. James has an acid tongue that suffers no fools. The idea that he’s a “numbers guy” as opposed to a writer / critic must gall him.

I like the way Gray writes this book. The late Stephen Ambrose wrote in Citizen Soldiers than he was always taught, as a historian, to quote his sources whenever possible because they were the participants. They were there. They knew what happened. Gray takes the same overall philosophy with The Mind of Bill James: much of the book is simply quotes from James where he speaks at length about his thoughts or feelings on a particular subject and then Gray moves the narrative along. Gray lets James words do the talking. Consider this quote: “…[B]aseball is an insular world in which there is a great deal of thinly veiled anti-intellectualism … An assortment of half-wits, nincompoops, and Neanderthals … are not only allowed to pontificate on whatever strikes them, but are actually solicited and employed to do this …” (Page 120.) I particularly liked James thoughts on sabremetrics critic Joe Morgan: “This is not to deny that you were a brilliant player, Joe, but you are becoming a self-important little prig.” (Page 123.)

After about a week of reading, I put down The Mind of Bill James and was struck by how revolutionary James thoughts have been. I’ve compared James to Martin Luther, but I’m not so sure that the analogy is apt. I’d compare James more to Charles Darwin, a man whose unique understanding of science and information translated into ideas that transformed the way that we think about the game. In a sea of announcers and pundits who offer little more than to tell us that the secret to baseball is to score more runs than the opposition, James shines like a beacon of light. This is a terrific book.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Know Thy Enemy: The Orioles 

Once upon a time the Baltimore Orioles were pretty good. After moving from St. Louis, where they were the hapless Browns from 1902-1953 (and the original Milwaukee Brewers in 1901), the Orioles returned to Babe Ruth’s hometown and enjoyed tremendous success. From 1964 to 1985, the Orioles had a winning record every season (aside from 1967), and played in six World Series, winning three (1966, 1970, and in 1983 over the Phillies). Since those heady days, the Orioles have mired in mediocrity. The 1988 team got off to a 0-21 start – on their way to a 54-107 record. The Orioles haven’t had a winning season in eight years, since they went 98-64 in 1997. Opening Camden Yards in 1992 was a masterstroke, filling the team’s coffers with cash that they used to build a winner in the mid-1990s: making the playoffs in 1996 and 1997 with players like Mike Mussina, Cal Ripken Jr., Roberto Alomar and Rafael Palmero on the roster. Since ’98, the team has been mismanaged and struggles along, bloated with a massive payroll but no results to justify it*. Since they played in the ALCS in 1997, the Orioles have finished in fourth place seven of the last eight years (managing just a third place finish in 2004).

* in all fairness to the Orioles, their payroll for 2005 is actually fifteenth in the majors at $71 million, which isn't so bad. The Phillies are twelfth at $87 mil.

Another year has rolled around and the Orioles look destined to finish in … well, fourth place again. As I write this the Orioles are twelve games out of first, just two games ahead of the hapless Tampa Bay Devil Rays for dead-last.

What is wrong with the Orioles? Too much deadwood in their lineup. Aside from Miguel Tejada, who are they spending this $71 million on?

Their best pitcher is Kris Benson, the former Pirate who never lived up to his potential in Pittsburgh or New York (and whose publicity-hungry wife ditched him after he was dealt from the Mets to the Orioles). Aside from the Royals, no team has a worse FIP ERA. Aside from the Royals and Twins, no team has a worse Slugging Percentage allowed. There simply isn’t much talent there, and it shows.

Defensively, the Orioles are average at best. Offensively, their biggest offensive threat is Tejada, who might just be one of the ten best players in baseball (.303 GPA, .213 ISO). Aside from Tejada there just isn’t a whole lot there. E.g., the team has Jeff Conine (.233 GPA, .150 ISO) playing first base, a position you’d expect to have someone with power at the plate play. The Orioles are below the AL averages in nearly every category, from OBP (.333 to .342) to Slugging Percentage (.423 to .435) to pitches-per-plate appearance (3.68 to 3.77). Not surprisingly, the Orioles are eighth in terms of runs scored in the AL.

I like to think that the Phillies will match-up well with the Orioles. Camden Yards is a neutral park, so there aren’t any major park factors at work here. Even with their struggles, the Phillies have a much better pitching staff. I’d take Ryan Madson any day over Kris Benson. Offensively, the Phillies are more balanced and potent. The Orioles are basically a one-man show on offense: Tejada, Tejada, Tejada. The Phillies have issues, but they are generally a balanced outfit.

I figured that the Phillies would win their series with the Devil Rays, so I might be utterly off-base here. Plus, the Phillies are coming off a humiliating sweep which runs their record in their last sixteen games to 3-13. However, I figure the Phillies will have some success here: the Orioles are pretty hapless and the Phillies should be able to take advantage of some weak pitching and run up the score a little. Still, it is hard to be optimistic about a team that has virtually collapsed and played its way out of the NL East race.

The Phillies are five and a half games out of the wildcard race, and they are in eighth place. Somewhat dispiriting that we have to start keeping track of that, but let's face it: the Mets lead is probably insurmountable. They would have to collapse mentally or have Carlos Beltran shatter his leg to let the Phillies back into the NL East race.

Congrats to Chris Coste for his best day as a pro yet: three-for-six, a double and an RBI. Well done! The sole ray of sunshine for this team right now.

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Monday, June 26, 2006

Spotlight on: Pat Burrell 

With the Phillies poised to drop their thirteenth loss in sixteen games tonight against the Red Sox (I'm not optimistic), I began to look for things that were going wrong this season for the Phillies. Noting a week or so ago that many of the Phillies were struggling with their batting averages with runners in scoring position, I pointed out that Pat Burrell was hitting just .215 RISP. I began to mull it over: was Pat Burrell an anchor on the Phillies?

This isn't the first time I've written about Pat's position with the team and speculated about his positive / negative impact. After his horrible 2003 campaign and inconsistent '04 campaign, I was positive Pat was poised for a terrific season once more in 2005. As it turns out, I was mostly right. Pat had a great season in 2005, accumulating career-highs in RBIs (117, tied with Albert Pujols for second in the NL), Runs Created (109), walks (99) and OBP (.389). Pat was virtually a non-factor in the MVP race because he did his work so quietly. I also suspect that there is a lingering stigma from the 2003 campaign at work: is Pat Burrell really the player he was back in ’02, or is this comeback a fluke?

The question here is simply this: is Pat Burrell worth the approximately $10 million the Phillies are paying him? My answer is … Well, let's start with a little analysis.

A few weeks ago I began my analysis of Chase Utley by examining Utley’s “tools”, those five magical talents that baseball scouts look to see if a player possesses: the ability to run, to throw, to field, to hit and to hit with power. It was an excellent starting point for our discussion of Utley and I’ll begin there …

1. Can Pat Run? A new feature in the Bill James Handbook is Baserunning stats. How often did a player advance when he could and how often did he make an out on the basepaths? The numbers for Pat aren’t real good:

Times Advancing from First to Third: 6-of-15 (40%)
Times Advancing from Second to Home: 6-of-16 (38%)
Times Advancing from First to Home: 0-of-8 (0%)
Overall Times Advancing: 31%
Times Thrown Out: 5

How did other Phillies do? Bobby Abreu advanced 48% of the time and went from second to home 67% of the time (24-of-36) … though, oddly, Abreu advanced from first to third 27% of the time (6-of-22). Utley? 44% advancement, went from second to home 67% of the time (14-of-21) … though, again, Utley had problems going from first to third: 29% (6-of-21). Ryan Howard was even better than Pat: 34% advancement, second-to-home 55% of the time (6-of-11) … and again a caveat: went from first to third just 14% of the time (2-for-14) … Bobby Abreu was thrown out just twice, while Ryan Howard and Chase Utley weren’t thrown out at all. Pat was thrown out five times … Aside from that ability to go from first to third (perhaps a function of the fact that he plays leftfield and knows how to stretch the defense on that side of the field), I’d have to say that Pat is probably below-average here.

Answer: No.

2. Can Pat Throw? Well, in 2005 baserunners advanced on Pat Burrell in 52 of 147 opportunities, a .354 percentage. Pat threw out nine baserunners. Pat’s kills are pretty good, but his overall percentage ranks him in the middle of the pack, thirteenth of twenty-five.

However, if you adjust things and look at Pat’s performance over the last three years, he’s had remarkable success: a .338 percentage, which is good for fifth. His twenty kills rank him tied for second, three behind Cliff Floyd. I think this is an aspect of Pat’s game that is very strong.

Answer: Yes.

3. Can Pat Field? Well, the answer is sort-of. Yes, Pat Burrell ranked fourth of 31 left-fielders in Plus / Minus from 2003-2005 at +12. However, John Dewan hinted in The Fielding Bible that he suspects that Burrell gets a park factor boost in terms of his defensive numbers. And Pat does play what is arguably the easiest defensive position in baseball.

Note: I am not discussing this year’s Zone Rating numbers vis-à-vis Plus / Minus or prior ZR ratings. Let’s just say that this year’s ZR numbers indicate that Pat is average-to-below-average.

Answer: Sort-of.

4. Can Pat hit? Ah, and now we get into the meat of our discussion … I think Pat has remarkable skill, but he is maddeningly inconsistent. What do I like about Pat? He is patient. In 2005 he was second to Bobby Abreu in pitches per plate appearance. He seems to have kept the trait: he’s averaging 4.3 pitcher-per-plate-appearance again in 2006.

The patience at the plate helps him get on-base: as I write he has an OBP of .395, which would be a new career high. Pat’s secret is that he’s become a walking machine. Scope out his walks-per-plate appearance for the last three years:

BB / PA:
2004: .146
2005: .148
2006: .173

BB / PA (Walks per plate appearance): (BB / PA = .BB/PA Avg)
OBP (On-Base Percentage): How often a player gets on base. (H + BB + HBP) / (Plate Appearances)

I think that is a remarkable stat: every sixth time Pat Burrell goes to the plate he draws a walk. Pat is bleeding pitchers and he’s getting on with great frequency.

The flip side is that Pat’s pure hitting has taken a turn for the worse: in 2004, a season where he struggled to return to his old form, 19.8% of the balls he put into play were line-drives. In 2005, 24.1% were. Thus far in 2006 just 16.5% of the balls Pat put into play were line-drives. In turn the batting average for the balls Pat has put into play has declined from 2005 to 2006 from .341 to .283. Consequently, Pat’s batting average has declined from .281 to .266 … also disturbingly has been the decline in Pat’s batting average with runners in scoring position (BA / RISP):

2004: .263
2005: .313
2006: .215

Notice that while Pat saw his average increase in ’04 & ’05 by six and thirty-two points, he has seen his batting average decline fifty-one points this year when runners were in scoring position. This year has nearly been as bad as 2003, when Pat had a .200 BA / RISP during a season in which he hit .209 …

The ability to can on base is there, but it is inconsistent. We’ll give Pat a qualified yes.

Answer: Basically Yes.

5. Can Pat for Power? Let’s look at the numbers:

ISO:
2000: .203
2001: .211
2002: .262
2003: .195
2004: .198
2005: .223
2006: .288
Career: .218

ISO (Isolated Power): .SLG - .BA = .ISO. Measures a player’s raw power by subtracting singles from their slugging percentage.

I think that anything over .200 is power-hitting (the league averages are typically .150 or so), so as you can see, aside from that 2003-2004 period, Pat has been a power-hitter. Since 2003 he has improved each year and gotten more dangerous at the plate. Look at the frequency he hits home runs:

HR-per-AB:
2003: 24.9
2004: 22.3
2005: 17.6
2006: 12.3

He’s back in line with what he did in 2002, when he hit a home run once per every 15.84 AB’s.

So yes, I think we can say that Pat is a power hitter.

Answer: Yes.

So is Pat a critical cog in the Phillies machine? I’m reminded of the following exchange from an episode of The Simpsons:

Ned Flanders: "But Reverend, I need to know, is God punishing me?"
Lovejoy: "Shooh, short answer: 'Yes' with an 'If,' long answer: 'No' - with a 'But.'"

Is Pat important to the Phillies long-term success? He’s 29 and entering his prime as a baseball-player. He’s recovered from his ’03 slump and looks like the player he was in 2002. So the short answer is yes, if he continues to produce. However, Pat plays the weakest defensive position on the baseball field (though he is good-to-very good at it) and he is inconsistent with his hitting in some respects. If he isn’t getting a home run or a walk, he’s an average contributor to the Phillies offense. So the long answer is no, but if he starts hitting some more line-drives to get that batting average up, he’ll be the complete player and worth every dime of the nearly $10 million that the Phillies are paying him.

There you go. Comments? ... One thing I won't comment on is the Phillies performance this weekend against the Red Sox. Horrible, made all the worse by the behavior of Brett Myers, who is apparently more upset that he hit his wife in public than the fact that he hit his wife period. Meanwhile, the team continues to slide out of playoff contention. Usually the Phillies improve in the summer months, so this collapse after a stronger than usual spring is depressing to watch. Typically I am the voice calling for patience, arguing that the Phillies look stronger than they really are, etc., but I don't think I can make that argument anymore. The best thing for this team might be a total shakeup.

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