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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Big D: The Outfield 

I said at the beginning of the season that the Phillies defense would be the decisive advantage the Phillies would have to leverage in their push to the post-season and it looks like I was utterly wrong: the Phillies have played very poor outfield D this season and it looks like their push to the post-season is proceeding despite the defense and not because of it.

To give everyone a rough idea about how important defense was going to be to the Phillies in 2006, let me back up and discuss how well the ’05 team played D. The 2005 Phillies were second in the NL in Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER), meaning that they were second-best, to the Astros, at turning balls put into play into outs:

1. Houston: .706
2. Philadelphia: .705
3. St. Louis: .704
4. New York: .702
5. Chicago: .701
6. Los Angeles: .700
7. San Francisco: .700
8. Milwaukee: .698
9. Washington: .698
10. Pittsburgh: .695
11. Atlanta: .694
12. San Diego: .690
13. Arizona: .684
14. Cincinnati: .678
15. Florida: .678
16. Colorado: .671
League: .694

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.

The Phillies had ranked third in DER in 2004 and fourth in DER in 2003, so this team had been consistently one of the best at making outs in the field for the last several seasons. More impressively, the Phillies led, by a wide margin, the rest of the major league in Plus / Minus, a stat developed by The Fielding Bible’s John Dewan. Plus / Minus are plays that a team makes above (or below) average. The Phillies led the majors in + / - in 2005:

Plus / Minus:
1. Philadelphia: +108
2. Cleveland: +69
3. Anaheim* Angels: +57
4. Chicago (AL): +52
5. Houston: +50
6. Atlanta: +47
7. Oakland: +40
8. Los Angeles: +36
9. St. Louis: +34
10. Toronto: +31
10. Minnesota: +31

* Anaheim is not L.A.!

The breakdown of the Phillies defense contained some interesting information:

Corner Infield: +57
Middle Infield: +50
Outfield: +1
Total: +108

i.e., the Phillies had a strong infield defense alignment … and indeed, Plus / Minus rated David Bell as the best third baseman, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard as the second-best second and first basemen, respectively, and Jimmy Rollins as the fourth-best shortstop … but looked pretty average in the outfield. In fact, their +1 in the outfield ranked them seventeenth in the majors, while ranking first in both corner and middle defense.

The Phillies did not get good play from their starting outfield defensive alignment:

Jason Michaels: +4
Pat Burrell: +3
Kenny Lofton: +1
Bobby Abreu: -13

I welcomed the addition of Aaron Rowand, who led the MLB in Plus / Minus amongst centerfielders in 2005 at +30. The deal to bring Rowand to Philly would dramatically improve the Phillies D, I felt certain, by bolstering the weakest point of a strong unit, the outfield. We won’t know how the Phillies did as a team or individually in terms of Plus / Minus until the season ends and Baseball Information Solutions (publisher of The Fielding Bible) publishes their findings (although The Hardball Times keeps rough track of Plus / Minus and pegs the Phillies at -23, one of the worst teams in the majors). But we can look at the current team and make a few conclusions:

1. Aaron Rowand had a horrible year for the Phillies*.
2. The Phillies outfield is stronger with Bobby Abreu gone.
3. The Phillies outfield is probably stronger with Rowand gone as well.

* Save your comments, I am aware that this is a topic I’ve beaten to death.

Let’s start with a few numbers. First, how the Phillies are doing in terms of DER:

2006 DER:
1. San Diego: .712
2. New York: .708
3. San Francisco: .708
4. Chicago: .706
5. St. Louis: .704
6. Houston: .696
7. Colorado: .692
8. Washington: .692
9. Los Angeles: .690
10. Florida: .689
11. Atlanta: .689
12. Milwaukee: .684
13. Cincinnati: .681
14. Philadelphia: .679
15. Arizona: .676
16. Pittsburgh: .670
League: .692

That is a major drop in raw numbers and in ranking. The Phillies are doing 2.6% worse this season than last. That doesn’t sound like much, but it is a big deal, given that there is just a 4.2% difference between the Pirates and Padres, the worst and best teams in the NL.

Here is how the Phillies are doing defensively:

Left Field: Innings Played (%) / Zone Rating*
Pat Burrell: 775.1 (68%) / .862
David Dellucci: 230 (20%) / .897
Shane Victorino: 101 (9%) / .846

* Zone Rating (ZR): Is a stat which measures a player’s defensive ability by measuring plays they should have made. Admittedly, this is a stat left open to subjective opinions.

Center Field: Innings Played (%) / Zone Rating
Aaron Rowand: 901.2 (79%) / .857
Shane Victorino: 238.1 (21%) / .843

Right Field: Innings Played (%) / Zone Rating
Bobby Abreu: 846 (74%) / .873
Shane Victorino: 156 (14%) / .897
David Dellucci: 108 (9%) / .826

A few players have played scattered innings here and there in the outfield, principally Chris Roberson, who has logged 57 & 2/3 innings in right and left field, but I’m not including anyone who played less than 100 innings.

A few things jumped out at me:

1. The Phillies strongest defensive alignment would probably be Dellucci in left, Victorino in right and Rowand in center field. If the Phillies can deal Pat Burrell this off-season, expect that to be the Phillies 2007 defensive alignment.

2. Victorino has a nice arm. In just 156 innings of work in right he had three assists, while Bobby Abreu had just four in 690 more innings of work. Victorino also had four assists in center to Rowand’s six while logging 663 fewer innings, and two assists in left to Burrell’s five with nearly one-eighth the innings. He should take over in right field, where his arm is an asset when it comes to throwing out runners advancing to second and third. Based on the numbers, his ZR also looks best for right field as well.

3. With Rowand gone for the season, Dellucci ought to play in centerfield, not Victorino. Dellucci’s arm isn’t quite as good as Victorino, but I think he covers more territory and Victorino’s arm is better served playing in right.

As I said earlier, Rowand was having a bad season in center field. Rowand ranked ninth of thirteen regular centerfielders in Zone Rating:

Center Field:
1. Beltran (Mets): .914
2. Pierre (Cubs): .909
3. Byrnes (Dbacks): .906
4. Cameron (Pads): .895
5. Taveras (Astros): .893
6. Edmonds (Cards): .892
7. Finley (Giants): .888
8. Sullivan (Rockies): .864
9. Rowand (Phillies): .857
10. Lofton (Dodgers): .856
11. Jones (Braves): .853
12. Clark (Brewers): .852
13. Griffey (Reds): .817

If he had enough innings to qualify, Victorino would rank just ahead of Griffey, but I suspect this might be more a factor of Victorino not playing much and perhaps playing away from his more natural position: right field.

Burrell’s injuries and reputation as a sub-standard outfielder continue to dog him. He’s played just 68% of the Phillies innings in left, despite not really being injured all season long. He’s been removed for Victorino and Roberson as defensive replacements more times than I can count (of the 44 games Victorino has played in left, he’s started just three and Roberson hasn’t started in any of the fourteen games he’s played in left for), despite being a pretty decent fielder. Burrell’s 2005 Plus / Minus was respectable (and good for tenth of thirty-plus left fielders), and he’s got a good arm, but the Phillies either don’t jav confidence in his abilities, or they are trying to alienate him and compel him to waive his no-trade clause this off-season. (Which would leave him bound for Baltimore, Boston or the White Sox.) Here is how Burrell stacks up:

Left Field:
1. Ethier (Dodgers): .887
2. Murton (Cubs): .882
3. Bonds (Giants): .875*
4. Holliday (Rockies): .871
5. Soriano (Nats): .867
6. Burrell (Phils): .862
7. Gonzalez (Dbacks): .847
8. Lee (Brewers): .842
9. Bay (Pirates): .829
10. Dunn (Reds): .813
11. Willingham (Marlins): .782
12. Wilson (Astros/Cards): .740

* a note about ZR: it is not a perfect system but I use it because it is widely available and generally accurate. Oftentimes I do scratch my head and treat the numbers with a healthy amount of skepticism. E.g., ZR’s numbers for Barry Bonds conflict with what my eyes tell me: Bonds is a terrible outfielder. He just doesn’t care anymore about defense and plays awful out there.

I’d say that Burrell isn’t as awful as he’s cracked up to be. I’d also note that, going strictly by ZR, if Dellucci played in left (and had the innings), he’s be the top-rated left fielder in the national league.

The position the Phillies find themselves in without Bobby Abreu continues to evolve. Since the team dealt him, they’ve been on a tear through the N.L., jumping right back into the wildcard race. I can’t help but think of the irony if the Phillies go on to make the playoffs and make a run on the World Series: here the Phillies deal their most valuable player and become a contender. When Phillies GM Pat Gillick ran the Mariners he let Ken Griffey Jr., go to the Reds and saw his team improve by a dozen or so games from the previous season. Then Gillick let Alex Rodriguez leave for Texas and saw the M’s improve by two dozen games, winning 116. Wouldn’t it be a shocker if the Phillies did the same?

Nobody is going to miss Bobby’s glove. Despite his winning the 2005 Gold Glove, nobody takes his fielding abilities seriously. Bobby is a born batter and defense has always been an after-thought at best. Anyone who has ever watched him track a flyball knows that is true. His -13 Plus / Minus rated him one of the worst right fielders in baseball in 2005 and the only truly weak player on the Phillies defense. ZR confirms that nobody will miss Bobby’s glove:

Right field:
1. Encarnacion (Cards): .911
2. Giles (Padres): .899
3. Drew (Dodgers): .888
4. Jones (Cubs): .888
5. Kearns (Reds / Nats): .883
6. Abreu (Phillies): .873
7. Francoeur (Braves): .864
8. Jenkins (Brewers): .864
9. Hawpe (Rockies): .861
10. Green (Mets / Dbacks): .841

And I think that ZR over-estimates Bobby’s abilities with the glove. There is little question in my mind that Dellucci and Victorino are both upgrades for the Phillies defense and that the team might just be better off without Bobby’s bat too.

In the final analysis, the Phillies are probably playing much better defense with Bobby Abreu gone and Aaron Rowand on the DL. The Burrell-Victorino-Dellucci alignment in the outfield will serve the Phillies well and might hopefully improve the team’s terrible DER rating. Maybe the improved defense play will be the decisive factor helping the Phillies catch up with the Padres and leapfrog into the playoffs. We’ll see.

Wildcard Watch! A nice 5-1 victory last night for the Phillies: Cole Hamels was his usual unhittable self, allowing just four hits in eight innings. Ryan Howard got his 127th RBI as well. Ryan probably won’t challenge the Phillies single-season record for RBI, which is 170 by Chuck Klein in 1930, but he’s probably going to finish with 150 RBI at this pace.

The AL playoff race has really become a snoozer: the A’s and Yankees are seven and a half and eight games up on the Angels and Red Sox respectively, while the Tigers hold a four and a half game edge over the White Sox and Twins. Essentially, the Twins and White Sox battle for the wildcard in the sole playoff race still being seriously contested in the AL. None of the other races have much fizz to them. The A’s are streaking, the Tigers have been playing great baseball all season long and the Yankees are running away with the AL East largely because the Red Sox have collapsed.

Meanwhile, here in the NL things are seriously muddled. There are ten teams within five games of the wildcard, and the divisional races (aside from the NL East) are far from decided. Who would have expected the St. Louis Cards to be fighting for their playoff lives? Or that the Dodgers would be back in first after collapsing after the All-Star Break? Teams like the Reds and Padres are in dual playoff races: they still have a shot at their division and they are in the thick of the wildcard. This year has been odd because there are so many variables in play and so many teams that have a chance. Oh well. Here are the standings …

Wildcard Standings:
1. San Diego: 68-65
2. Philadelphia: 67-65 (0.5)
3. Cincinnati: 67-67 (1.5)
4. Florida: 65-67 (2.5)
5. San Francisco: 65-68 (3.0)
6. Houston: 65-68 (3.0)
7. Arizona: 64-69 (4.0)
8. Atlanta: 63-68 (4.0)
9. Milwaukee: 62-71 (6.0)
10. Colorado: 61-71 (6.5)

This will be the final post from me for the next week or so. Tomorrow morning my wife and I are (probably) leaving for Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, for a much-needed break, so A Citizens Blog will be going on hiatus for a few days. The wife and I are off for a fun-filled week of lounging in the sun, provided that Hurricane John moves away from the Mexican coast and our hotel is still standing. The trip is costing us a pretty penny, so I intend to enjoy myself and not think about the Phillies, baseball or Cole Hamels amazing arm for an entire week. I will be doing nothing more than lying on a beach, listening to the waves and smearing suntan lotion onto my wife’s back. I shall return on September 11th.

(8) comments

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

NFL Preview 2006 

I’ve decided to do a brief NFL preview which I will post jointly on A Citizens Blog and The Bird Blog, my old quasi-defunct Eagles blog. I don’t blog the Eagles because I don’t have enough time and working with the baseball stats is so much fun: stats aren’t nearly as important in football, where so much is done that cannot be measured and is left up to opinion (e.g., blocking, coverage techniques, etc). I will chime in from time-to-time this season on how I think things are going.

Last year was a terrible year for the Eagles and I hope that they’ll improve. What I saw from Donovan in the preseason suggests that they’ll bounce back quite nicely: Donovan looked crisp and sharp, moving around with authority in the pocket and really zipping the ball. I think he’ll do well.

Overall, I’d say that there is a lot of parity in the NFL this season. The Steelers aren’t clear favorites to repeat, and the talent gap between the NFC and AFC is much narrower. Things are wide-open this season. Here are my predictions, starting in the AFC:

AFC East: (Playoff Seeding)
1. New England Patriots (2)
2. Miami Dolphins
3. Buffalo Bills
4. New York Jets

AFC East: The Dolphins have made some moves, but it is hard not to be impressed by the continued resiliency of the New England Patriots. Other teams add flashy players and make noise, but the Pats win by consistency and toughness. Tom Brady is a winner too. As long as they have a ground game, the Pats are the class of the division. Are the Dolphins really improved? Everyone assumes to now that they’ve got Dante Culpepper, but I am not sure Culpepper is an improvement. He’s a flashy QB and he’s got talent, but he’s also too error-prone to be an effective field general like Brady. The Dolphins will be solid on defense, but Culpepper makes too many mistakes. The Bills are busy rebuilding and won’t challenge the Pats and Dolphins. This is a franchise stuck in neutral. As for the Jets, the less said the better. I feel a lot of pity for these guys. I think the careers of Curtis Martin and Chad Pennington’s are at an end and that their defense is broken down. This is the start of a rebuilding campaign in New York.

AFC North
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (3)
2. Cincinnati Bengals (5)
3. Baltimore Ravens
4. Cleveland Browns

AFC North: The North was once the weakest division in the NFL, but it has gotten much stronger of late. I like the Steelers to win the division again. They’ve got a pretty good defensive unit and even without Jerome Bettis they’ll run the ball quite effectively. My only question I have about the Stillers is Roethlisberger: he looked rusty in the Steelers-Eagles preseason game and I have to wonder if the accident is messing with his head. The Steelers apparently want to throw the ball more this season, which I think is a major mistake: Roethlisberger is the ball-control QB. He’s not a gun-slinger. The Bengals have a major question mark: Carson Palmer. Is Carson Palmer 100%? I’m not so sure. He had a great season in 2005 and seemed poised for greatness. Will his injury destroy that promise? It is a major if. Otherwise I think the Bengals are actually more talented than the Steelers: they have a lot of weapons on offense and seemed to get better as the season wore on. They had the fourth-highest scoring offense in the NFL last season. Their defense is good but not great. If Carson Palmer is 100% this will be a good duel between the Bengals and Steelers for the AFC North, otherwise the Steelers can weather the QB storm better than the Bengals can because they can rely on their defense. (I think the Bengals would have won last year's wildcard game if the Steelers hadn't broken Palmer's leg.) As for the Ravens, they’ll be better than last year because they have a major upgrade at QB with Steve McNair. But is McNair the difference-maker? I doubt it. The Ravens feel like they’ve worn down, all those seasons of the defense having to pitch shutouts in order for the Kyle Boller-led offense to win. What they really need is for Jamal Lewis to return to his pre-prison form and become their star running back again. The Ravens will be good, but they won’t do much better than 9-7 or 10-6 at best. If McNair had joined the Ravens 2-3 years ago, this would be a huge shift in fortunes for the Ravens, but not anymore. The Cleveland Browns are hopeless. They really are. This team has no QB and their star player is Kellen Winslow, who acts like he has an IQ of 6. This team looks like 3-13 and a high draft pick.

AFC South
1. Indianapolis Colts (4)
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
3. Tennessee Titans
4. Houston Texans

AFC South: I actually think there will be a close race for the division title between the Jags and Colts. I like the Colts, though they will be nothing even remotely as good as last year’s squad. I like Peyton Manning a lot, but this team won’t be as good as last year. Their spectacular implosion after starting the season 13-0 was impressive. This team has no mental toughness and I doubt that it will be able to return to the playoffs and make the push to the Super Bowl. Peyton Manning will continue to throw for 4,000 yards a season and throw 35-40 TD passes a season, but the Colts D isn’t tough enough (yes, they ranked second in the NFL in points allowed, but that was a function of their offense holding onto the ball) and their running game won’t be that good in 2006. Look for teams to put more pressure on Manning and clamp down on his wideouts more. I like the Jaguars and I think that Byron Leftwich will make strides as the Jags QB, but this team needs to improve its defense in 2006. They gave up too many rushing yards to the opposition and didn’t move the ball consistently enough. They are a year away. I look at the Titans and I wonder if they didn’t make a major mistake with Vince Young. Yes, he looked spectacular in college. Clearly, the Titans are hoping Young has Michael Vick-like talent. The problem is that Vick himself hasn’t realized his own talent: he is a maddeningly inconsistent QB. One minute he looks like a genius, the next he’s throwing picks and making bad choices. I suspect Young will be more streaky than Vick. In the here and now, I expect Young to take over as the Titans QB later in the season and he’s going to struggle. There isn’t much talent left back there. This team needs to forget about those glory days when they were trying to win the Super Bowl and concentrate on rebuilding. As for the Texans … this team passed on Young and Reggie Bush and selected a D-lineman. They need help at nearly every position on offense and show no signs of making a run at a 8-8 record, let alone a 11-5 one. This is a franchise that has “also-ran” stamped on it.

AFC West
1. San Diego Chargers (1)
2. Kansas City Chiefs (6)
3. Denver Broncos
4. Oakland Raiders

AFC West: I really like the Chargers. I like the Chargers as a 13-3 team with definite Super Bowl aspirations. Here are some of the reasons why I like the Chargers: 1) They were the NFL’s top defense against the run in 2005, allowing just 84 yards a game. 2) They were the NFL’s fifth-highest scoring offense. 3) They were the NFL’s fifth-best team at converting on third down. 4) They were the NFL’s fifth-best team at getting to the quarterback. This team has a lot of weapons. LaDamien Tomlinson is probably the best running back in the league and Phillip Rivers is going to step into the breach and play much better than Drew Brees. Bottom-line: this is the AFC’s best team. The Chiefs are a great team and I’d like to pick them to win the division, but I don’t think the Chiefs are tight enough on defense to make it happen. They will score points in droves. And Larry Johnson, despite being a Penn State alum, is a good running back. But this team needs an overhaul on defense. I was not surprised at all when the Denver Broncos lost the AFC title game to the Steelers: I suspected Jake Plummer was going to collapse under the pressure and sure enough he did. I like Mike Shanahan, but he needs to drop Jake Plummer like a hot potato and move on to Jay Cutler. This is a talented team, but their QB is holding them back. Meanwhile, in Oakland, the Randy Moss show enters season two. The Raiders used to be a great franchise but have been shells of themselves since Jon Gruden left to go to Tampa. They need a toughness and aggressiveness that I don’t think Art Shell is going to provide. Their biggest problem is that they don’t have a QB: Aaron Brooks never played well enough to justify his inconsistency. Their lack of a QB is going to drive Randy Moss nuts. He’s going to catch 50-60 passes and be lucky to hit 1,000 yards, and that is going to cause Randy Moss’ head to explore in fury. As long as this team has a pain in the ass distraction like Moss on the roster they will struggle to rebuild. My advice to Art Shell: cut Moss, start rebuilding. This team is a flop.


The AFC playoffs kick off with the Steelers defeating the pesky Chiefs in a tight game that sees a bit of a role reversal: the Steelers throwing the ball while the Chiefs pound it on the ground. Home field gives the Stillers their edge as they win. Meanwhile the Bengals and Colts have a high-scoring track meet in the Dome that the Bengals win due to their toughness. In the divisional round the Bengals are routed by the Chargers, who thwart the Bengals at every turn with a high-scoring offense and a tough D. Carson Palmer is hurried all game long. Meanwhile, the Patriots continue their domination of the Steelers, winning on a late field goal in Foxboro. The Chargers and Pats square off the next week but the warm weather helps the Chargers to emerge victorious.

Wildcard round
(3) Pittsburgh Steelers over (6) Kansas City Chiefs, 16-13
(5) Cincinnati Bengals over (4) Indianapolis Colts, 38-31

Divisional Round
(2) New England Patriots over (3) Pittsburgh Steelers, 21-20
(1) San Diego Chargers over (5) Cincinnati Bengals, 38-15

AFC Championship Game:
(1) San Diego Chargers over (2) New England Patriots, 24-21

On to the NFC ...

NFC East
1. Philadelphia Eagles (1)
2. New York Giants
3. Washington Redskins
4. Dallas Cowboys

NFC East: Everyone keeps talking about how improved the Giants, Redskins and Cowboys are. The most improved team in the division has to be the Eagles. 1) They get Donovan McNabb back. 2) They have depth again in the D-line with Darren Howard and Jevon Kearse being 100%. 3) They got rid of T.O. 4) Correll Buckhalter is going to have a monster season. I’m impressed from what I saw in the preseason. The Birds look to be united, McNabb looks focused and determined and the defense looks rested and ready. The Eagles are a veteran team loaded with a nice mix of younger and veteran players. In the four seasons before T.O. came to Philly the Eagles went 11-5, 11-5, 12-4, and 12-4 and made the playoffs each year. This team looks like those pre-T.O. teams. As long as the Eagles establish a running game with Buckhalter and Westbrook, they will once more put points on the board. Look for L.J. Smith to be the breakout player, catching lots on red zone TDs. I like the Giants for second, although this team will struggle. Adding Lavar Arrington leaves me profoundly unimpressed. He’s a college superstar who can’t live up to the hype. Same with Eli Manning. Same with Jeremy Shockey. There are a lot of players on the Giants who look good on paper but games aren’t played on paper. As for Tom Coughlin, he is a terrible coach for a team of veterans like this. Coughlin was just what the Jaguars needed circa 1995 and 1996, a tough disciplinarian who whipped them into shape. Naturally, after that the Jaguars broke down and never got to the top because Coughlin was too narrow-minded and too rigid to adjust his approach to the game. These Giants will chafe under Coughlin’s demands and I expect this season to be very rocky. Same old Redskins. They added a few players and Antwaan Ranel-El will play well occasionally for the ‘Skins, but this team needs a new QB. Mark Brunell isn’t cutting it. It is pretty much the same old story for the Redskins: they add people via free agency, spend a lot and don’t get much of a return. I expect a tough year for Joe Gibbs. This team will go 7-9. I look at the mess in Dallas and can’t help but want to point at Cowboys fans and laugh. Suckers. He’s YOUR problem now. Same old T.O. Just by bitching about his hamstring and stating that he doesn’t need to practice he’s gotten under Bill Parcells skin and given the ‘Boys a major distraction. This guy is a cancer. Add in he problem that the ‘Boys need a new QB – Drew Bledsoe is past his prime and too immobile to be an effective QB anymore – and you can see the makings of a loooong year in Big D. Honestly, I expect this season to be so miserable for Parcells, I’d expect him to leave town at the end.

NFC North
1. Chicago Bears (3)
2. Minnesota Vikings
3. Green Bay Packers
4. Detroit Lions

NFC North: The Bears will win this division by default. They have a weak offense and one of the best defenses in the NFL. Playing six of their games against the Lions, Vikes and Pack, they are going to win the division. This is the only team in the NFL that can consistently win 9-7 games. Will they be better at QB with Rex Grossman? I doubt it. They don’t have much talent on offense, but with their D, they’ll still win the weakest division in football. I think the Vikes are a year away. They’ve got some talent, but Brad Childress needs some time to install his system and get things going. They might be a nice dark horse at the end of the year, but not now. This will be Brett Favre’s last harrah in Green Bay, but it won’t be a good one. Favre is starting to really struggle these days and should have retired last season. There is talent on the Packers, but they really need to sit down and rebuild and prepare for life after Favre. The less said about the Lions the better. All of those years picking wideouts who never do anything. Joey Harrington. Matt Millen is the worst GM in the game and needs to leave ASAP. This team needs to tear down and rebuild from the bottom up.

NFC South
1. Carolina Panthers (2)
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5)
3. Atlanta Falcons (6)
4. New Orleans Saints

AFC South: Is this the best division in the NFL? Maybe. I think the Carolina Panthers are a great team. They have a nasty defense that takes the ball away from the opposition, they have an explosive offense that can move the ball and control it on the ground. They also have a cagey QB in Jake Delhomme. The Panthers are a great team. I am not a big fan of the Buccaneers, specifically Chris Simms. I think the Bucs got lucky in ’05 and played over their heads. That said, this is still a good team. They will run the ball well with Williams and they will corral Michael Vick twice a year. That ought to be good enough for 10-6 and a wildcard. With the Falcons and Michael Vick I keep waiting to be impressed. There is a ton on talent on this team and their QB is sanctified by the rest of the NFL as being the “Michael Jordan on the NFL”, and yet they only ranked fourteenth in the NFL in points scored. Huh? They were eighteenth in points allowed. There is something wrong with these guys and the way they play football. If Vick could ever convert his talent into results, he’d live up to his hype, but now I’d say the Falcons will fight to go 9-7 and make the playoffs. With Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush in the backfield, the Saints could have one of the most lethal offenses in the NFL. I like what I see from Reggie Bush: he’s got moves and he looks difficult to bring down. I think the Saints might surprise a lot of people and be halfway decent in 2006. Maybe even be in the playoff mix. They have a lot of promise for 2007.

NFC West
1. Seattle Seahawks (4)
2. Arizona Cardinals
3. San Francisco 49ers
4. St. Louis Rams

NFC West. I was surprised that the Super Bowl between the Seahawks and Steelers was so close. The Seahawks were a paper tiger, blitzing through a weak schedule (never beating a team with a winning record, aside from the Giants), catching the offensively-challenged Redskins and the running-game-less-Panthers in the playoffs before inevitably losing to the Stillers. Even so, it was a surprise to me that the Seahawks nearly won, despite the referees bias for the Black and Gold. That said, the Seahawks are back and are the class of a weak division. I see this as a re-play of 2005, although the Seahawks will finish 10-6 instead of 13-3. They have a good collection of talent, but aren’t particularly strong. I think the Cardinals might surprise some people. They’ve got weapons with Edgerin James and Larry Fitzgerald, and when Matt Leinart takes over for Kurt Warner, they are going to put some points on the board. If any team can beat the Seahawks, it is them. The 49ers are making strides. Alex Smith looks like he’s going to have a good season as the Niners QB. The problem is that the rest of the team needs to keep upgrading. The Niners have to hope for an 8-8 record at best. As for the Rams, at least St. Louis fans have fond memories of those two Super Bowls when it looked like the Rams were dynasty in the making. Those days are gone. This team has no talent and no shot at making a run.

NFC Playoffs

The class of the NFC are the Eagles and Panthers, who will have to wait to rematch the 2003 NFC Title game once more. In the wildcard round the Bears will corral Michael Vick in the cold of Chicago, while the Bucs manhandle the less-physical Seahawks. In the divisional round the Bears inability to run or pass leaves them at the mercy of the Panthers, who win easily. The Eagles, meanwhile, avenge the 2002 NFC Title game as well, defeating the Bucs easily. The 2006 NFC title game is a close contest, but the Eagles prevail thanks to an improved running game and an improved run defense. On to Super Bowl XLI.

Wildcard Round
(3) Chicago Bears over (6) Atlanta Falcons, 10-7
(5) Tampa Bay Bucs over (4) Seattle Seahawks, 17-7

Divisional Round
(1) Philadelphia Eagles over (5) Tampa Bay Bucs, 31-21
(2) Carolina Panthers over (3) Chicago Bears, 28-20

NFC Championship
(1) Philadelphia Eagles over (2) Carolina Panthers, 27-24

Super Bowl XLI will be between the Chargers and the Eagles. Sadly for those fond of history it won’t be a rematch of a previous Super Bowl or a grudge match between two coaches who don’t like each other. Marty Schottenheimer will be the sentimental favorite, coaching in his first Super Bowl after all of those years with the Browns, Chiefs, Redskins and Chargers. It will be a battle between two high-octane offenses, as Phillip Rivers and Donovan McNabb move the ball up and down the field at will. In the end, the Eagles newfound ability to stop the run will be the decisive factor. Call it, Philadelphia Eagles 31, San Diego Chargers 24.

Back to baseball...

Wildcard Watch! Ryan Howard tied Mike Schmidt for the single season Phillies record for home runs hit with 48. I think Ryan can easily hit another dozen, so sixty is very much in the offing … The better news was that the Phillies won 10-6 over the Nats and made up a little ground in the wildcard race. The Phillies are now much a ½ game back of the Padres in the wildcard. The Reds have fallen into a tie with the Phillies with their second consecutive loss to the Dodgers. Much to my surprise the Florida Marlins are fighting to stay in the picture. It is like 2003 all over again…

Wildcard Standings:
1. San Diego: 67-65
2. Cincinnati: 67-66 (0.5)
3. Philadelphia: 66-65 (0.5)
5. Florida: 65-66 (1.5)
4. San Francisco: 65-67 (2.0)
6. Arizona: 64-68 (3.0)
7. Houston: 64-68 (3.0)
8. Atlanta: 62-68 (4.0)
9. Milwaukee: 62-70 (5.0)
10. Colorado: 61-70 (5.5)

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Know Thy Wildcard Rival: the Cincinnati Reds 

As I was watching the playoff hunt continue to unfold on my television last night, it occurred to me that the Reds and Phillies are remarkably similar teams. Both are high-scoring teams that have solid-but-suspect pitching and haven’t played good defense. Both teams play in parks well known for being hitters havens. Both teams have/had Eric Milton on their pitching staffs.

Let’s look at a few of the numbers:

Runs Scored / GPA / ISO / Home Runs
Cincinnati: 643 / .268 / .188 / 169
Philadelphia: 673 / .266 / .180 / 188

Confused about what I’m talking about? Here are the stats I refer to defined:
Gross Productive Average (GPA): (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.
Isolated Power (ISO): .SLG - .BA = .ISO. Measures a player’s raw power by subtracting singles from their slugging percentage.

These two teams are virtually carbon-copies of each other. Both get on base, both hit lots of home runs, both score lots of runs. The Phillies are first in the NL in runs scored and the Reds are fourth. The Reds and Phillies are 1-2 respectively in terms of home runs hit as well. Both teams rely on home runs to produce their runs because both are hitting so badly in “clutch” situations:

BA / RISP (NL rank)
Cincinnati: .259 (12th)
Philadelphia: .253 (15th)
League: .266

What is remarkable about the Reds to me is that Adam Dunn is leading the team in home runs with 38 but he has just 87 RBIs. Just 49 of his RBIs aren’t of himself, i.e., runners on base or situations where he got an RBI without hitting a home run. Ryan Howard has 45 home runs, but he also has 117 RBIs, thirty more than Dunn.

Things start getting really fun when you start looking at the pitching and defense stats. Check them out:

FIP ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9 Slugging Percentage Allowed
Cincinnati: 4.68 / 6.5 / 2.8 / 1.3 / .463
Philadelphia: 4.65 / 6.9 / 3.2 / 1.3 / .465

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).
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 Phillies and the Reds are the twelfth and thirteenth best pitching staffs in the NL. The surrender a lot of home runs and they don’t do particularly good jobs of keeping the opposition off the base-paths. Both teams have vastly under-rated pitching staffs, I’d argue however: the Reds Bronson Arroyo has been good but has over-shadowed a solid performance this season from Aaron Harang. Even Eric Milton, my old whipping boy, has improved (although that isn’t saying much: he’s cut his home runs allowed per nine innings from 1.93 in 2004 & 2005 to 1.58 this season. Better, but it still sucks). The Phillies, meanwhile, have pitched better since Cole Hamels took over as the staff ace and Jon Lieber returned. Both pitching staffs are solid and don’t garner enough respect from the critics, although I think the Phillies and Reds are both better than they look.

Things get even more interesting when you look at the DER stats:

DER: (NL rank)
Cincinnati: .681 (13th)
Philadelphia: .679 (14th)
League: .692

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.

Again, these are amongst the two worst teams in the NL at fielding. The Reds have historically treated fielding as an after-thought, but the Phillies defensive collapse of recent memory has been a major surprise to me.

Finally we come to the ballparks. Both Great American and Citizens Bank have reputations for being home run hitters havens. After much thought, I realize that both reputation are vastly deserved. Check out the numbers:
Great American / Citizens Bank
Home Run: 121 / 119
Runs: 111 / 111
Bat Avg: 105 / 109

(Park Factors basically even out how teams and their foes perform in a stadium and then how they perform on the road. The number 100 is neutral, so above 100 is hitter-friendly and below 100 is pitcher-friendly.)
Both parks are absurdly easy to get home runs, score runs and get hits. In fact, Great American was No. 2 in terms of home runs and runs scored, while Citizens was No. 3.

The bottom-line is that the Reds and Phillies are virtual doppelgangers of one another. It will be interesting to see which team wins the wildcard. I think the Phillies have better balance on offense than the Reds, but I’d also give a slight edge to the Reds pitching. A really interesting idea is the possibility that the Reds could edge past the Cardinals for the NL Central crown and the Phillies could capture the wildcard, setting the stage for two remarkably similar teams to fight for the opportunity to play in the World Series.

Wildcard Watch! The Phillies again lost an opportunity to move up on the Cincinnati Reds with their 8-3 loss to the Mets. Jamie Moyer got shelled pretty badly in the loss. The acquisitions of Moyer and Jeff Conine for the Phillies stretch run have been good ones. Moyer is a nice pitcher to have on the staff: a cagey veteran whose off-speed pitches will drive the opposition nuts. Conine is a good guy to have off the bench, though his best days are clearly behind him. Neither Moyer nor Conine are what you’d call “difference-makers” but they are both solid acquisitions for this team to make.

Wildcard Standings:
1. Cincinnati: 67-65
2. San Diego: 66-65 (0.5)
3. Philadelphia: 65-65 (1.0)
4. San Francisco: 65-66 (2.0)
5. Florida: 64-66 (2.5)
6. Arizona: 64-67 (2.5)
7. Houston: 63-68 (3.5)
8. Atlanta: 61-68 (4.5)
9. Milwaukee: 62-69 (4.5)
10. Colorado: 61-69 (5.0)

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Monday, August 28, 2006

Ryan Howard for MVP? 

What does the MVP award really measure? If someone is the most valuable player in the league? How do you measure value? Shouldn’t the award be called: Most Outstanding Player? Or does the MVP award measure who is most valuable to his team?

Jim Konstanty won the 1950 MVP award because he saved 22 games for the Phillies and won another 16, finishing a total of sixty-two games that season which saw the Phillies win the National League pennant over the Brooklyn Dodgers largely on the strength of the Phillies 30-16 record in one-run ballgames. Konstanty was the most valuable player to his team: without Konstanty preserving those tight games, the Phillies would probably have faltered and fallen short that season. But Konstanty probably wasn’t the real MVP that season. It was probably either Stan Musial or Ralph Kiner, two players who had phenomenal seasons but played on teams that were not involved in the pennant chase.

As I look at Ryan Howard I am struck by two thing:

1. Ryan Howard is easily the Most Outstanding Player in the National League right now. The only player who comes close is the Cards Albert Pujols.
2. Ryan Howard is also the most important player on the Phillies as well.

Since Bobby Abreu left the Phillies haven’t missed a beat on offense, scoring an NL-leading 147 runs in August, 25 better than the Cincinnati Reds. The Phillies have also led the NL in On-Base-Percentage and Slugging Percentage. There are a few reasons for why the Phillies have played so well this month, two of them being that Jimmy Rollins and David Dellucci are both having terrific months, but the major reason why the Phillies have led the NL in runs scored since they dealt Bobby Abreu and why they’ve had the NL’s best offense all season is Ryan Howard. No player means more to their team than Ryan Howard.

Consider: Ryan Howard has hit 46home runs (best in the NL), roughly one-quarter of the Phillies total home runs, and has 121 RBIs, or roughly one-fifth of the team’s RBIs. As I write this Ryan Howard has 105 Runs Created (second-best in the NL to Soriano’s 111), roughly 16% of the team’s runs created. Few players ever account for such a high percentage of their team’s offense.

Consider the effect on the Phillies offense if Ryan Howard is removed from the equation: in the month of August the Phillies had a .471 slugging percentage. Subtracting Howard’s Total Bases and At-Bats lowers the Phillies slugging percentage for the month to just .450. Subtracting Howard’s total bases and At-Bats from the Phillies season total lowers the team’s slugging percentage from .446 to .427 … Simply put, the Phillies impressive power hitting is almost solely a product of Ryan Howard’s quickness and skill with the bat.

When the Phillies dealt Jim Thome to the White Sox I worried that Howard would see a sophomore slump after winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2005. Quite to the contrary, Howard has been better than ever:

GPA / ISO / Runs Created per 27 Outs
2005: .302 / .278 / 6.1
2006: .325 / .322 / 7.5

Confused about what I’m talking about? Here are the stats I refer to defined:
Gross Productive Average (GPA): (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.
On-Base Percentage (OBP): How often a player gets on base. (H + BB + HBP) / (Plate Appearances)
Walks per plate appearance (BB/PA): BB / PA = .BB/PA Avg
Slugging Percentage (SLG): Total Bases / At-Bats = Slugging Percentage. Power at the plate.
Runs Created (RC): A stat originally created by Bill James to measure a player’s total contribution to his team’s lineup. Here is the formula ESPN (where I get it from) uses: [(H + BB + HBP - CS - GIDP) times (Total bases + .26[BB - IBB + HBP] + .52[SH + SF + SB])] divided by (AB + BB + HBP + SH+ SF). ESPN’s version is out-of-date, however, I’d note. James adjusted RC after the 2004 season ended.
RC/27: Runs Created per 27 outs, essentially what a team of 9 of this player would score in a hypothetical game.

Impressively, Howard already has a league-leading 121 RBIs, meaning that he more than eclipsed Pat Burrell’s team and league-leading 117 from last year with an entire month left to the season. I suspect that Howard will end up with 140 RBIs when the season finishes up. I never expected Howard to do so well that he’d essentially become the focal point of the Phillies offense, but here he is.

Another thing that impresses me is how choosy Ryan is at the plate. Bobby Abreu was a picky hitter and he seemed to sacrifice a lot of the power in his swing for being such a discriminating hitter. Ryan is picky as well – averaging 4.02 pitches per plate appearance, up from 3.94 last season – but he isn’t sacrificing any power. He’s drawn an impressive 66 walks in 540 plate appearances, meaning that when he isn’t hitting home runs he’s still contributing to the team by milking plate appearances and getting on base. In contrast, Ryan Howard didn’t walk much in 2005. This year he rounded out those skills and made himself a much more complete player.

Ryan’s power at the plate is impressive: if he keeps up the pace he ought to finish with nearly sixty home runs, which would shatter the Phillies old record of 48 set my Mike Schmidt in 1980. Back in ’80 Schmidt carried the Phillies to their sole World Series victory with his bat, hitting 41% of the team’s home runs and 18% of their RBIs. Ryan Howard is basically doing the same thing today for the Phillies with his bat.

Howard’s sole competition for the MVP rests with the Cardinals Albert Pujols. While Pujols has a better slugging percentage and would probably be even with Ryan had he not been injured earlier this season, Ryan is clearly more important to his team. With Bobby gone, the Phillies have heavily relied on Ryan’s bat to generate runs. Albert Pujols has Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen backing him up. Chase Utley is doing a great job getting on base and hitting doubles, but he is no power hitter like Ryan. Howard is the Phillies offense. I submit that however you define MVP, as Most Outstanding Player or as Most Valuable to his team, Ryan Howard is your man. Say it with me Phillies fans:


Wildcard Watch! The wildcard race tightened up a little this weekend. Too bad the Phillies couldn’t have played last night and closed to within a half game of the Reds. I’m sure the Phillies would have preferred to have had today off rather than taking a rain-out yesterday, remaining in New York, and having to play and then travel home to start their series with the Nats Tuesday night. Still, things are going well for the Phillies. Let’s see what happens tonight.

Wildcard Standings:
1. Cincinnati: 67-64
2. San Diego: 66-62 (0.5)
3. Philadelphia: 65-64 (1.0)
4. San Francisco: 65-66 (2.0)
5. Florida: 63-66 (3.0)
6. Arizona: 63-67 (3.5)
7. Houston: 63-68 (4.0)
8. Milwaukee: 62-68 (4.5)
9. Atlanta: 61-68 (5.0)
10. Colorado: 61-69 (5.5)

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