Tuesday, September 25, 2007
As a result, the math has dramatically improved for the Phillies playoff chances. The Phillies now hold a 47-27% edge over the Padres, nearly two-to-one, in the wildcard race. Overall, the Phillies are 56% to make the playoffs. This is astonishing luck for the Phillies to see two teams, the Padres and Mets, falter so dramatically down the stretch. This is the anti-1964.
Well, after such a productive off-day, now the Phillies have to take to the field tonight against the Atlanta Braves.
Readers of this blog know it is no secret that I loathe and despise the Braves. Their bland domination of the N.L. East over the last decade has killed interest in baseball in the National League, in my opinion, and has been a real detriment to baseball. Their General Manager, John Schuerholz, poured fuel on the fire with his smug, self-congratulatory book Built To Win, a ego-stroking tome that contains patently dishonest baseball arguments (e.g., the Red Sox World Series title “proves” Moneyball doesn’t work). It is ironic to me that Joe Morgan blasted Billy Beane for “writing” Moneyball and dishonestly casting himself the hero, when Schuerholz wrote a book and dishonestly cast himself as a genius.
I can’t really complain I dislike Braves fans the way I loathe Mets fans: they are generally polite and nice, well-spoken. The stereotypical Southerner, warm and friendly. And the Braves strategy has been successful. Their starting pitching – Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz – has been some of the best in history. Bill James has written that the Braves rotation of the mid-1990’s was probably the best in recent history, or all-time. I find that difficult to argue with. I wish the Phillies were about assemble a collection of arms like the Braves have.
While the Braves will finish the season with a winning record, unlike last year’s 79-83 campaign, they will once again fail to win the N.L. East and will almost certainly finish in third place for the second consecutive season. The Braves won eleven consecutive N.L. East titles between 1995 and 2005 … and fourteen division titles if you throw out the strike-shortened season in 1994 when they trailed the Montreal Expos and include their 1991, 1992 and 1993 N.L. West division titles under the old two division format.
Such a run of dominance hasn’t been seen in baseball since some guys named Babe Ruth, Lou Gerhig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle put together some good seasons from 1921 to 1964, winning 28 American League pennants and 20 World Series titles with a team in the Bronx that used to be called the Highlanders.
But those days are over. These Braves are on the decline, but they pose a major threat to the Phillies as they begin their series together today at Citizens Bank Ballpark. Reduced to playing the role of spoiler, I think there is some chance the Braves will spoil the Phillies race for the playoffs.
So what is wrong with the Braves this season? Simply put, their once-vaunted pitching staff looks like a shell of its old self. While Smoltz and Tim Hudson are a formidable one-two paring (14-7, 2.97 ERA and 16-8, 3.33 ERA respectively), the rest of the Braves pitching is a shambles. Chuck James, 11-10, 4.10 ERA, has been atrocious. His FIP ERA is a whopping 5.26, over a run more than his “real” ERA. Buddy Carlyle, 8-6, 5.16 ERA, has been equally bad, as is Kyle Davies, 4-9, 5.76 ERA. Both Carlyle and Davies have absurdly high FIPs: 5.16 and 5.76. When three of your top five starters have 5.00+ FIPs, you have a flawed pitching staff. The three have been shelled for sixty home runs in 346 innings, or 1.56 HR/9. Smoltz and Hudson, in contrast, have given up just 24 home runs in 404 innings of work, or 0.54 HR/9.
The Braves have had other issues in the bullpen. Mike Gonzalez, whom they acquired from the Pirates in exchange for Adam LaRoche, hurled just seventeen innings out of the bullpen. Bob Wickman, their closer, was a horror show, blowing six of twenty-six tries. Rafael Soriano has been a little better – eight of eleven – but he’s also given up twelve home runs. Lacking a go-to closer, the Braves have squandered leads and blown games late.
The shame of it is that their offense is quite good and the team added a lot of firepower with Mark Teixeira, although they may pay a price when they dealt Jarrod Saltalamacchia to the Rangers as part of the deal. Teixeria has hit 13 home runs and has 45 RBIs as a Brave in just 46 games. His OPS is a whopping 1.016 and he is leading the Braves in Runs Created per 27 Outs at 11.8. He has made the Braves offense very dangerous and has helped to deal with the impact the struggling Andruw Jones – .221 batting average, 26 home runs and 92 RBIs – is having on the Braves offense.
Examining the runs scored – runs allowed differential, I noticed something funny. The Braves, not the Phillies and Mets, have the best run differential in the N.L. East. In fact, if you went by Pythagorean win-loss records, the Braves would hold a two game edge in the N.L. East race:
Braves: +77, 86-70
Mets: +67, 84-72
Phillies: +61, 84-72
Marlins: -105, 68-88
Nationals: -114, 66-90
This is a product of the Mets being 21-14 in one-run games, while the Phillies are 14-23 and the Braves are 17-24.
Tonight, Jamie Moyer vs. Chuck James. Moyer, the cagey veteran seems to have a clear edge here over James. Tomorrow, Kyle Lohse vs. Tim Hudson and Thursday, it is Adam Eaton vs. John Smoltz.
Let's see what happens ...