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Monday, January 29, 2007

How Good is the Phillies Outfield? 

I was participating on Philly Sports Talk with Rich and Jim Dogg recently when I was asked what I felt the Phillies biggest flaw was going to be in 2007. I mulled the question over and chose to give a response that probably surprised a lot of people: the outfield. Most people might guess the bullpen or the starting rotation, but the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if the outfield might be the weakest link in the Phillies chain in 2007.

In the past the Phillies have always been pretty strong in their outfield, boasting formidable offensive forces like Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell, along with strong role players like Jason Michaels and Kenny Lofton. In 2006 the Phillies shifted their offensive alignment, first bringing in Aaron Rowand to play centerfield and then sending Abreu to the Yankees. The Phillies also sat Pat Burrell often and actively sought to deal him to the Baltimore Orioles and to the San Francisco Giants. Unless something earth-shaking occurs, the Phillies seem set to go with Rowand, Burrell and Shane Victorino in 2007 as their offensive alignment.

What’s wrong with these three guys? Well, simply put, each one of them has a flaw. Pat Burrell can’t play defense and can’t run. Rowand and Victorino can’t hit.

Defensively, I am working with a lot of conjecture and speculation, but I think we can safely make three points:

1. Pat Burrell is rapidly becoming a lousy left fielder.
2. Aaron Rowand had an average season in 2006, which was terrible because the Phillies aren’t paying him to be an average center fielder.
3. Shane Victorino was probably the Phillies strongest defensive outfielder in 2006. He might have had one of the strongest arms in baseball.

Offensively, Victorino hit just six home runs in 2006 and had a slugging percentage of .414. He’s a fairly light-hitting (.127 ISO) outfielder playing on a team that is basically built around the long-ball. He doesn’t hit the ball very far, and he isn’t that great about getting on base: .346, which is largely a product of a .287 batting average. Aside from his good batting average, Victorino does a bad job getting on base. He drew just 24 walks in 462 plate appearances in 2006.

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.
Walks per plate appearance (BB/PA): BB / PA = .BB/PA Avg
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: [(H + BB + HBP - CS - GIDP) times ((S * 1.125) + (D * 1.69) + (T * 3.02) + (HR * 3.73) + (.29 * (BB + HBP – IBB)) + (.492 * (SB + SF + SH)) – (.04 * K))] divided by (AB + BB + HBP + SH+ SF). If you use ESPN’s version be advised that it is pitifully is out-of-date, however. 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.

As Victorino is basically Abreu’s replacement, I’d note the massive difference between the two at the plate in 2006:

Runs Created per 27 Outs:
Abreu: 8.36
Victorino: 5.15

The reason why is fairly simple: Bobby Abreu forced the opposing pitcher to make 4.47 pitches every time he went to the plate. Shane Victorino forced the pitcher to make just 3.42 pitches per plate appearance.

Rowand was worse: 4.02 RC/27. While he displayed more power at the plate than Victorino (.163 ISO), Rowand was a free-swinger who was even less choosey than Victorino (3.40 P/PA). Rowand grounded into nearly three times the double plays as Victorino (13 to 5) in 17 fewer plate appearances. Rowand was also, not surprisingly, worse at drawing walks:
Victorino: .052
Rowand: .040

Pat Burrell is an offensive force: 6.18 RC/27, .244 ISO … I am a big fan of Burrell’s because I love how he’s combined patience at the plate with power. He hit 29 home runs and 24 doubles in 2006, and still managed to draw a walk every sixth plate appearance (.172 BB/PA). He may be sliding defensively, but he’s still a great offensive player. Here is how the Bill James Handbook thinks these three will do in 2007:

Victorino: 67 Runs Created / .244 GPA / .135 ISO
Rowand: 71 Runs Created / .258 GPA / .160 ISO
Burrell: 87 Runs Created / .290 GPA / .230 ISO

Given that outfield is typically a position you trade defense for offense, I’m not sure the Phillies can get away with having two defensive-oriented outfielders on the same team. I’m also not sure that the Phillies have a particularly strong unit assembled here. The New York Mets are blessed with a strong defensive center fielder named Carlos Beltran. But unlike Rowand, Beltran is an offensive monster at the plate, with a 9.05 RC/27. Certainly compared with the Mets, the Phillies have a weak outfield, but generally I worry about the level of production that the Phillies will get from Victorino, Rowand and Burrell in 2007. This could be the factor that keeps the Phillies from challenging the Mets next season.

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With such a strong IF these 3 do not affect the lineup very negatively. Burrell should be the big RH bat for the lineup, if he faulters then they have a problem. Rowand had an off year due to injury, he should be more like his 2005 totals. Victorino does need to improve his OB% then he would be an ideal #2 hitter. The wild cards will be Werth, Garcia, and Bourn. Werth could reestablish himself as a top notch hitter and starter.
One thing I see in the lineup is many that can hit #2,or 6. That would be Rowand, Victorino, Helms, catchers, and even Rollins who is more like a #2 than a leadoff guy. Its not all bad that way, it does make the 7and 8th hitters better than league average but most of these guys will average 280/10-15/70. We just need to sit back and wait for spring training and any trade that may come along. We may see some very pleasant surprises from a few guys this year.
I also agree that the bullpen is not as bad as most think. There are a few who may surprise us alot.
To begin, how do you compare Victorino to Abreu? Victorino has one full season in the big leagues while Abreu has been in the league 10 + seasons. I'll take a guy, who at the age of 26 and in his first full season, hit .290 with 46 RBIS and 70 RUNS. Also you can't compare numbers with a number 2 hitter and a power hitter who bats somewhere in the middle of the lineup. The rbis will not match up. Overall Victorino is not a bad player. He's got a riffle, with near .300 numbers and a lot of speed. I would take him any day over a lazy fielder who loses games with his glove late in games. I like the new look of the Phillies. They're putting a bunch of hustling 20-somethings (Utley, Howard, Rollins, Victorino, etc) on the field who have a ton of heart and dedication to the game mixed in with a handfull of seasoned vets that have the playoff experience and who can guide the young guys (Garcia, Rowand, Eaton, Gordon, etc). The roster of the past five years hasn't worked and it is time for a change. I applaud Gillick for what he has done and for the approach he has taken. The 2007 season will be an exciting one and the first time since Thome's first year with the Phils that I'm actual thinking about October baseball. So before you knock Victorino or the rest of the Phillies outfield, remeber that what we had before was not a winning formula and did not get us to our goal of making the playoffs. Give these young guys a chance hopefully Burrell gets back to where he was, Victorino continues to grow, and Rowand continues to leave it all out on the field.
The key to the OF is health. Burrell and Rowand could have very productive year if healthy. Werth if healthy can be a starter on most teams. Garcia has put up good numbers in Japan that translate to a good 4th OF and he is penciled in right now as the 5th OF. Bourn may pop in at some point during the year and he has the tools to be a starter. I would not really count on alot from him just yet but by September he could be contributing.
I think Victorino is better than you think, and Burrell is worse than you think. As the previous commenter suggested, Victorino is still young and cannot be compared to Abreu. That being said, while you think Burrell is a "force", keep in mind a lot of his production comes in non-clutch situations. Blowouts, one run homers, etc. Whenever he's at the plate with the game on the line, he chokes.
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