Monday, April 23, 2007
The Phillies, by the way, will have to go 5-3 to finish the month to have a 11-14 record, which is basically what they've had the last two Aprils (10-14).
It was basically a good weekend for the Phillies, topped off by Cole Hamels stunning complete-game, 15-strikeout dominaton of the Reds on Saturday night. Aside from a fluke home run, Hamels utterly dominated the Reds lineup, mixing curveballs and changeups with his blazing hot fastball. It was one of the most dominating performances I've seen a pitcher hurl. The highlight of the game was the dramatic 5-4-3 triple play, the first one the Phillies have turned in eight years and the first in the majors in 2007. Finally some good glovework to go along with a nice pitching performance.
Back to Hamels. How good is he right now? For every walk he allows he's throwing five and a half strikeouts. 33 strikeouts and six walks. With Myers in the bullpen, Hamels is the Phillies best pitcher without a doubt. This is his opportunity to show the baseball world that he's a dominant hurler. Alright, let's get to today's topic ... I am watching Baseball Tonight the other day and I hear John Kruk complaining about the Phillies inability to drive in runners in scoring position. To hear Kruk tell it, the Phillies overriding Achilles heel, what is killing the team the most, is their inability to drive in runners from second and third.
There are a lot of reasons why the Phillies are struggling right now. Tomorrow we are going to talk about two that are pretty obvious: starting pitching (not as good as advertised, though getting better: see, Hamels, Cole) and the bullpen (as lousy as everyone feared: see, Gordon, Tom). These reasons, not the Phillies inability to drive in runners sitting on base, are the reasons why the Phillies enter the latter half of the month of April with a 6-11 record.
Long one of the cherished beliefs held by traditionalists, clutch hitting’s very existence is a cherished belief, an article of faith held by major leaguers. When the game is on the line, the stars shined. It made sense, until a researcher at SmithKline French named Dick Cramer used the company computers at night to prove that clutch hitting didn’t exist. (see, Moneyball, page 79) As Baseball Between the Numbers states: “Sabremetricians have conducted dozens, if not hundreds, of studies on clutch hitting, going back to Dick Cramer … All of them have come to the same conclusion: Clutch-hitting ability either doesn’t exist at all or is so rare that it is hardly worth talking about.” (see, page 15) I agree with that assessment and want to make a few observations about what these facts mean for the Phillies:
-Clutch-hitting is important for some teams, like the L.A. Dodgers or the Anaheim Angels or the Colorado Rockies. Teams built around base-stealing, bunting and all of that fun stuff. In 2006, for example, the Rockies hit 157 home runs, under the N.L. average of 178 (an amazing stat given how exceptionally friendly Coors Field is to home run hitters), but led the N.L. in sacrifice hits (a.k.a., bunts) with 119. The Dodgers had 153 homers, but stole a lot of bases – 128, 33 more than the N.L. average of 95. Both teams relied on their leadoff guys to get on base, then the Rockies bunted them over while the Dodgers had them steal second or third, and relied on the RBI guys to drive them in with timely hits. The Rockies did not particularly do this well – their .267 BA/RISP is just .003 better than the N.L. average, and partly accounts for why the Rockies scored just 813 runs, despite having 1,518 At-Bats with runners in scoring position, best in the N.L. The Dodgers excelled at this and were rewarded handsomely, hitting .286, which was by far the best in the N.L. (the Braves were second with .275) and accounts for why the small-balling Dodgers scored 820 runs in 2006.
(The Angels, by the way, looked like a clone of the Dodgers statistically…)
The Phillies followed the opposite tack offensively. They hit 216 home runs, second-best in the N.L., stole just 92 bases and sac bunted just 57 times. The Phillies, to put it bluntly, sucked at driving in runners in scoring position, hitting just .255, which was better than the Reds, Nats and Astros. Didn’t hurt them offensively though. They scored 865 runs in 2006, which was the best in the N.L.
Why? I’ve made this point before – so cover your ears if you’ve heard it – but small-ball teams need to build links in a chain to score runs. Gotta get on base, gotta steal second base, gotta get a good hit up the middle to round third and run for home … Lots of thing have to click to score one run. The Phillies? Let’s see … Jimmy Rollins strikes out, Shane Victorino flies out, Chase Utley walks and Ryan Howard hits a two-run home run. That’s two runs right there. The Dodgers have to have Furcal and Garciaparra and Kent all clicking together. I’m reminded of the scene in the movie Heat where Jon Voight warns Robert DeNiro that Al Pacino’s cop has lots of chances to catch DeNiro while DeNiro will lose if he slips up. “He can hit or miss,” Voight warns, “You can’t miss once.” The Phillies can hit or miss, they can take their shots at will and rely that sooner or later things will click. The Dodgers (and the Rockies and the Angels) can’t afford to miss. An out is poison, a base not taken is a disaster, an RBI lost is a fatal failure. The Dodgers are DeNiro's master thief, unable to make a mistake; while the Phillies are Al Pacino's cop, someone who can patiently bide their time, waiting for their opportunity to land the killer blow.
So the Phillies success in 2006 suggests that clutch-hitting is vastly, vastly over-rated. If it mattered then why did one of the worst clutch-hitting teams in the N.L. score the most runs? Why does it matter now?
Answer: It Doesn’t. As I write this the Phillies have scored 4.46 runs per game, which is pretty good. Better than the league average (4.22) and good enough for sixth in the N.L. And they are struggling in terms of clutch hitting, batting just .191 BA/RISP … .191 is bad too … The league average is .242 and just two teams trail the Phillies: the Pirates (.178) and the Nats (.168). Yet the Phillies have opportunities to score runs.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers keep relying on that clutch hitting. Their .264 BA/RISP is fourth-best in the N.L., and yet they are just a little above the league average for runs scored with 4.40. The real difference between the Dodgers and Phillies is that the Phillies have .139 Isolated Power at the plate, while the Dodgers are .124, behind the league average of .135. That’s the Phillies bread-and-butter and they aren’t doing particularly well at it. I blame the weather, which has thrown many of the Phillies off their home run stride. Wait a few weeks and watch the balls sail off the Phillies bats and see the Phillies close the offensive gap with the Mets, the N.L.’s powerhouse at 5.85 runs per game. So maybe the weather is the real issue here, and not the Phillies struggles.
As an aside, I’d like to note who is hitting well in the clutch: Shane Victorino is hitting .429 with runners on second and/or third. Well done. Pat Burrell, that target of ridicule and shame by many fans, is a .357 hitter in the clutch. Chase Utley? .077 … That is no misprint: .077 …
Oh., I use the terms “clutch-hitting” interchangeably with “batting average with runners in scoring position” for this article. This is a little inaccurate because clutch-hitting is really defined as hitting in later innings with runners on … I used the word “clutch” because many treat it as being interchangeable and … well, I’d have gotten carpal-tunnel syndrome if I bothered to computate the numbers otherwise.
Tomorrow, pitching. Probably talk about Cole Hamels again. I am eager to see what Adam Eaton will do against the Astros hitting tonight.