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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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Friday, March 16, 2007

Know Thy Enemy: The 2007 Mets 

Remember the good old days when you could treat the Mets with contempt and derision? They’d spend millions upon millions of dollars on free agents and would spectacularly tank, their clubhouse would be full of angry in-fighting, and their management would stumble around in confusion? Ah, the good old days. Well, I hate the newly competent Mets. Where do these guys get off, winning their division for the first time since 1988? Spending money wisely and bringing on quality free agents like Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado … the nerve!

The 2007 New York Mets are going to be the Phillies chief competition for the N.L. East crown and they will put up a fight. The ’06 Mets basically ran away with the division, putting nine games between them and the second-place Phillies from June 7 to June 26, and basically holding off the field by ten or more games for the rest of the season. The mighty Mets wouldn’t get stopped until the playoffs, when they ran into a team with much better pitching than they had to offer, the Cardinals. But the ’07 Mets are back with (basically) the same nucleus and have the potential to repeat their 97-65 record from ’06.

I. The Offense. The ’06 Mets were potent, scoring 834 runs, third-best in the N.L., after the Phillies (865) and the Braves (849). The Mets did a lot of things well at the plate, hitting 200 home runs and stealing 146 bases in 2006. The Mets offense was a nice balance between power (their isolated power at the plate was second-best in the N.L.) and speed (they led the N.L. in steals by an impressive 18). I suspect that the Mets are going to be just as strong in 2007 as they were in 2006. They return their starting lineup with a few upgrades. Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and David Wright return, along with Jose Reyes. All four players had 100+ Runs Created in 2006.

Beltran is the key player for the Mets. Personally, I think that he will be the N.L. MVP for 2007 because he is going to have a great year and the New York Media is going to magnify that for all of the world to see. It is hard not to be impressed by Beltran. He hit 41 home runs and had 80 extra-base hits. He stole 18 of the 21 bases he tried. He had 125 Runs Created, with a GPA of .323 and an Isolated Power number of .319. For being a power hitter, Beltran draws a lot of walks and doesn’t strikeout much. He’s a great base-runner, rating a +21 from Bill James. And he’s a great defensive presence in the outfield, committing just two errors in 2006 against 13 assists. Ryan Howard might be the best pure hitter in baseball, but Carlos Beltran is the best all-around player, better even than Albert Pujols.

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.
On-Base Percentage (OBP): How often a player gets on base. (H + BB + HBP) / (Plate Appearances)
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: [(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.

New additions include Moises Alou and Shawn Green. Green joined the Mets late in the ’06 as part of a trade with the Diamondbacks and Alou fled the Giants after two seasons. Both will be productive hitters, no doubt, but you do have to wonder about their durability: Alou is 40 and Green in 34. Combined, Alou and Green and the rest of the Mets returning lineup gives the Mets major power:

RC27
Beltran: 8.91
Wright: 7.89
Reyes: 7.09
Delgado: 7.14
Alou: 6.72

After their murderers row, there is catcher Paul Lo Duca and second baseman Jose Valentin, two capable hitters. Lo Duca is a solid hitting catcher who tends to see his production fall off in the second halves of seasons due to the fact that he spends weeks squatting in the dirt in the hot sun at the start of the season. I’m not a big fan of Lo Duca’s personally: he swings at too many pitches.

II. Pitching. This is an area where the 2007 Mets will be very, very weak. Their best pitcher is Tom Glavine, who will be 41 on Opening Day and has hurled well over 4,000 innings in his career. The #2 starter is Orlando Hernandez, who people think is 37 (although his exact date of birth is a mystery as I recall). After that the Mets have John Maine, a pitcher who inspires fear in … well, nobody. Pedro Martinez, their big-time pitcher and one of their key acquisitions in 2004, probably won’t return to the mets in 2007 and may not ever return. By the way, Pedro is 35. This is a thin rotation and I anticipate seeing the Mets raid some downtrodden team during the season to pry loose a starter.

Bottom-line, the Mets starting rotation is a major flaw and will be their biggest obstacle to winning the N.L. East again. Hernandez and Glavine are old, Martinez might be gone forever, and Maine and the rest of their rotation can best be described as journeymen. Compared with the Phillies revamped rotation of Garcia, Hamels, Myers, Moyer and Eaton, the Mets don’t stand a chance.

Luckily for the Mets, they do have an outstanding bullpen. In fact, the Mets bullpen had the best ERA in the N.L. in 2006, led by former Phillie Billy Wagner, who saved 40 of 45 games for the Mets in ’06. Bolstered by talented set-up men like Corey Bradford, a major figure from Moneyball, the Mets boast a formidable bullpen that will give them chances to win games, should the Mets enter the late innings with a lead.

III. Defense. The ’06 Mets were outstanding defensively, ranking just behind the San Diego Padres in terms of Defense Efficiency Ratio* at .706. Reyes played good shortstop for the mets, but the key to the team was their outstanding center fielder, Carlos Beltran, who might be the most complete player in the majors. Beltran committed just two errors all season long (.995 fielding percentage) and had 13 assists to his credit. He has a fearsome arm and excellent skills. He ranked sixth in terms of Plus / Minus by John Dewan and was the top center fielder in The Fielding Bible awards for 2006. With Beltran, the Mets will always be a good team.

* 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.

IV. Outlook. Can the Mets repeat their 97-65 season this year? I am skeptical that a team can approach 100 wins again with such a weak starting rotation. The Mets offense might be more dangerous than the Phillies, but the Phillies have clearly gained the superior starting pitching and that gives them the edge they need. I think the Mets will do something like 90-92 wins in 2006 and finish a game or two (or three) behind the Phillies in the N.L. East race. Unless the Mets can dramatically shore up their rotation, I think the Phillies will have an edge.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Know Thy Enemy: The 2007 Marlins 

How green and raw were the 2006 Florida Marlins? The Average N.L. team had a roster that featured 2,152 total career Win Shares last season. The Florida Marlins featured a roster that had 533 career Win Shares. The next-closest team to the Marlins in inexperience was the Colorado Rockies with 1,284, more than twice as many! The only team that came close to the Marlins in the A.L. were their Florida mates, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, at 945 win shares.

After the team’s 2005 firesale, the Florida Marlins entered yet another period of rebuilding following a successful run. I’ve complained that the Marlins are a bad thing for baseball and their 1997 and 2003 World Series victories have been disasters for the sport, and their most recent history illustrates the Marlins problem: each and every time they attempt to build a team into a winner they tear it down utterly and completely when it becomes financially difficult to sustain. The constant state of building and unbuilding in South Florida kills the public’s ability to get behind the team and root for them. The Marlins have won two World Series in the last decade, but can anyone honestly call themselves a Marlins fan? Even in South Florida?

The current Marlins team is littered with rookies and players with little-to-no experience. Despite the lack of experience, the Marlins were able to post a respectable 78-84 record in 2006. Can they do it again in 2007?

I. Offense. What other team in baseball has multiple Rookie of the Year candidates? The ’06 Marlins certainly did. The award went to Hanley Ramirez, the team’s talented shortstop. I actually think the award ought to have gone to Dan Uggla, the Marlins (also talented) second baseman. Ramirez is a good player already. He’s a speedster (51 steals) with some power (17 home runs). However, I like Uggla’s raw power at the plate: with 27 home runs and 90 RBIs, Uggla really made the Marlins offense run. He was a rookie in 2006, but despite that he’s the best second baseman in the N.L. already, after Chase Utley of course. Ramirez and Uggla, combined with Miguel Cabrera, the team’s old man at age 24, the Marlins turned out to be a respectable offensive force, scoring 758 runs, just a little under the league average in a park that maximizes defense and pitching. Much to my surprise, the Marlins ranked fifth in the N.L. in Isolated Power. Rounding out the Marlins order were fellow rookies First Baseman Mike Jacobs (20 Home Runs, 77 RBI), and Outfielder Josh Willingham (26 Home Runs, 74 RBI).

Will the 2007 Marlins perform as well as the 2006 team did? I am not entirely sure because I suspect that there will be a sophomore slump on the part of many of the rookies that made their way up to the majors in ’06. Four of their fifth best offensive players (Uggla, Willingham, Ramirez and Jacobs) were rookies last season, so we’ll have to see if they respond correctly for pitchers adjusting to them now that teams have an opportunity to evaluate their tendencies. I suspect that someone – my money is on Mike Jacobs – will struggle badly in 2007, but that the Marlins will generally improve on their strong showing at the plate this season.

II. Pitching. I bet the Marlins are pretty happy they elected to not deal Dontrelle Willis. During their rebuilding process, while allowing players like Carlos Delgado and Josh Beckett to leave, the Marlins held onto Willis, a dominating pitcher from their ’03 World Series team. Though Willis had a down year in 2006 at just 12-12 with a 3.87 ERA, he was an innings-eater for the Marlins (223, fifth in the N.L.), and he has pitched very, very well for them in the past. Specifically, I am referring to 2005, when he went 22-10 with a 2.63 ERA and hurled five – five! – shutouts. Willis will form the lynchpin of the Marlins 2007 team and he is the most important player on their roster because they need him to dominate the opposition and compensate for a weaker pitching staff. Willis’ fellow starters are young and inexperienced.

The bullpen is an area where the Marlins have to get better and in a hurry. The ’06 team ranked fourteenth in terms of ERA from their bullpen. Joe Borkowski did a nice job closing for them in 2006 (3-3, 36 of 43 saves, a 3.75 ERA), despite being a greybeard (36) on a team full of rookies. This is a real problem area and something that could cause problems for the Fishstripes in 2007.

III. Fielding. The 2006 Florida Marlins ranked 21st in the majors in Plus / Minus, just one spot ahead of the -33 Phillies, at -29. This is not a good defensive team like the ’03 Marlins. Their corner infield in particular was horrible, at -27. They ranked nineteenth in converting double plays, something Uggla and Ramirez will need to work on. Their infield played badly in the field and needs improvement. The outfield is much better, posting a +2 and respectfully holding runners to their bases, ranking just tenth in bases advanced. I am sure this young team will figure out how to play defense better, but in the here and now, they look pretty raw.

IV. Outlook. The 2006 Marlins ought to have won 65 games or so, and instead won a dozen more at 78. This team was way better than it had any right to be and I’d expect more of the same in 2007. With a healthy Dontrelle Willis leading their young hitters into battle, I’d say that the Marlins will go .500 at least and could approach 83 to 85 wins in 2007. Playoffs are out of reach for them, but third place and a few games over .500 is a definite possibility.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

2007 Phillies Season Preview 

Instead of doing usual, massive three-part season preview that rehashes things we already talked about in my season in review last year, I am going to write a single look ahead at the Phillies 2007 season and hopefully cover some new ground. We start with …

I. The Starting Rotation. Undoubtedly the new Phillies rotation is a good deal stronger than it was in 2006 or any season in recent memory. This is very good news because the 2007 Phillies are going to sink or swim based on how their rotation holds up. Gone (sort of) are disappointing veteran performers like Jon Lieber and Cory Lidle. Failed starter Ryan Madson is back in the bullpen where he belongs. Gone is ace-to-be Gavin Floyd, busy rehabbing his career in Chicago with the White Sox as part of the Freddy Garcia deal. In short, the Phillies starting rotation looks nothing like it did on Opening Day 2006. Aside from Brett Myers not one of the Phillies five front-line pitchers was in a Phillies uniform on Opening Day last year.
I am going to stop right here. Whenever I forget to define stats I post in this blog I get emails from people utterly baffled by what a mean when I note that a player's FIP was 3.91 in 2006, which was lower than his 3.74 FIP in 2005. To understand what I am talking about when it comes to pitching stats, here are definitions:
WHIP – Walks plus hits by innings pitched: (BB + H) / IP = WHIP
ERA – Earned Run Average: (Earned Runs * 9) / IP = ERA
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).
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.
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 upgrade from ’06 to ‘07 is tremendous. The Phillies are going into battle with a fearsome staff. The team’s ace is going to be young Cole Hamels, the aggressive 23-year old pitcher who was 9-8 with a 4.08 ERA in 2006. After a choppy start Hamels improved as the season wore on, developing pin-point control to go with his blazing-quick fastball. Impressively Hamels struck-out 26% of the batters he faced, 145 in 132 & 1/3 innings pitched. While struggling at times with allowing walks in the beginning of the season, Hamels quickly settled in and cut-down on the free passes he issued. Hamels strikeout/walk ratio went from 1.83 prior to the All-Star Break to 4.20 after.

Pre / Post All-Star Break
ERA: 5.44 / 3.39
HR/9: 1.01 / 1.44
BB/9: 4.84 / 2.46
K/9: 8.87 / 10.37

My belief is that Hamels will improve and quickly establish himself as the Phillies ace pitcher in 2007.

Complimenting Hamels is Brett Myers, who will hopefully avoid problems with the criminal justice system in 2007. Myers went 12-7 with a 3.91 ERA in 2006 and is poised to improve on that in 2007. Myers makes a great compliment to Hamels. In fact, Hamels and Myers posted remarkably similar stats in 2006:

Hamels / Myers
HR/9:
1.29 / 1.32
BB/9: 3.26 / 2.86
K/9: 9.86 / 8.59

What is exciting about Myers is watching him continue to refine his skill and become a better and better pitcher. After going 11-11 with a 5.52 ERA in 2004, Myers has settled down, lowered the number of home runs he surrendered, and become a much more effective pitcher. The last two seasons he’s been 25-15 with a 3.81 ERA. Myers gets three strikeouts for every walk, and can get even better.

Freddy Garcia is the Phillies biggest off-season acquisition. What pitcher will show up in 2007? The Garcia who went 14-8 with a 3.87 ERA while helping the White Sox win their first World Series in … well, a loooong time, in 2005? Or the guy who went 17-9, but with a 4.53 ERA. Aside from issuing a few more home runs in 2006 than he did in the White Sox magical season in ’05, Garcia was pretty consistent last year. He numbers did not change much:

2005 / 2006
HR/9: 1.03 / 1.33
BB/9: 2.37 / 2.00
K/9: 5.76 / 5.62

What the Phillies are getting in Freddy Garcia – and they probably won’t have it in 2008 because Garcia will command on the open market more than the Phillies can hope to spend – is a pitcher who doesn’t give up many walks. Over the last several seasons Garcia has cut down on the free passes, from 2.74 in 2004, to 2.37 in 2005, to 2.00 last season. Not allowing home runs and walks is the hallmark of a good pitcher and Garcia has the tools to succeed at Citizens Bank Ballpark.

Adam Eaton, the number four starter, is an open question-mark. A former Phillies first-rounder, Eaton was signed in the off-season from the Texas Rangers. Eaton, who had been dealt by the team to the San Diego Padres back in 1999, has a checkered past history and could either make the Phillies a formidable staff or a strong staff with a hole in it:

To-wit, Eaton went just 7-6 with a 5.12 ERA in 2006. He struck out just 5.95 batters per nine innings and walked 3.32 per nine. The season before Eaton did a little better. Certainly his 11-5 record looked much better (as did his 4.27 ERA), and he struck out more batters (6.99 K/9), but he gave up a large number of walks (3.08 BB/9). The season previous to that, Eaton was 11-14 with a 4.61 ERA but he got strikeouts (6.92 K/9) and he cut-down on the walks (2.35 BB/9). He’s a talented player with great stuff in his arsenal of pitches, but I am not entirely sure that he’ll put things together and be a dominant pitcher. The other issue, of course, is durability. Eaton was injured in 2006, which is why he hurled just 65 innings in 2006. Can he be a durable pitcher for the Phillies? Or will their depth be challenged?

Finally we come to Jamie Moyer, the Phillies 44-year old fifth starting pitcher who was acquired late in the season and went 5-2 with a 4.03 ERA with the Phillies. I am sure one day that someone will write a biography of Moyer’s life or will make a movie or something because if nobody does, it will be a shame. At the age of 44 Moyer is starting over with the Phillies after being a Seattle Mariner for ten seasons. He’s had a remarkable career, particularly of late, getting his first twenty-game win season when he was 38, and getting his second at 40.

Never much of a strikeout artist (5.35 K/9 in his career), Moyer did it by keeping guys from getting walks, keeping them from hitting home runs, and letting his fielders do the work. Moyer’s arrival on the team coincided with a rise in the team DER for the month of September to .707, much better than what the team did in the regular season. The team’s DER behind Moyer was phenomenal – .735 – much better than what it was behind Cole Hamels (.700) or Brett Myers (.689). You have to give credit, at least a little, to Moyer for controlling the situation with his off-speed pitches and other junk. Moyer seems penciled in as the Phillies fifth starter and will get a work-out this season.

After Hamels, Myers, Moyer, Eaton and Garcia, there is Jon Lieber, who is in the walk year of his three-year, $21 mil deal with the Phillies. I’ve been greatly frustrated with Lieber, a pitcher whose signing I applauded in 2004. Alas, Lieber has gone just 26-24 with the Phillies, with a 4.51 ERA. I had expected him to be stingy with allowing walks (and to his credit he was – 1.51 BB/9) and with home runs (which he was not, allowing 1.39 HR/9 … sixty in two seasons). Lieber’s strategy of throwing lots of groundball outs really didn’t work too well when the Phillies defense decided to tank in 2006. Lieber’s struggles with the Phillies aren’t really his fault … well, not entirely, but he simply didn’t develop into the pitcher that me and many other assumed he’d be when the Phillies inked the deal back in ’04.

At the moment Lieber is occupying a netherworld, the sixth starter on a team that needs five. It seems likely that he’ll be relegated to the bullpen as a long-inning relief artist / emergency starter if Adam Eaton or Jamie Moyer go down. I tend to think that the Phillies will deal him … maybe even as I write this … to some pitching-desperate team in exchange for prospects or outfield help for the Phillies. We shall see …

Should the Phillies trade Jon Lieber, expect the Phillies to turn to their farm system and bring up Scott Mathieson, should there be a good for help in the rotation. Matheson is a talented 23-year old right-hander who went 1-4 with a 7.47 ERA with the Phillies in 2006. If Mathieson is pressed into duty thanks to an injury to Eaton or Moyer, I hope he will do better.

II. The Bullpen. The conventional wisdom on the ’06 Phillies was that their bullpen, expected to be a weakness, turned into an unexpected strength. Yes, I would agree that the Phillies did surprise people with having a good – but not great – bullpen last season. However, I also don’t believe that the Phillies ‘pen was that good. Yes, it ranked third in the N.L. in ERA amongst relief pitchers. However, I think that the bullpen was a beneficiary of good defense, or luck … or both. The Phillies ’07 bullpen has a lot of issues, beginning with closer Tom Gordon.

I had been skeptical of Gordon when he signed with the Phillies to replace Billy Wagner given that he was fairly old for a baseball player – he was entering his eighteenth MLB season – and had recently been a set-up man, not a closer, for the Yankees. He hadn’t been used exclusively as a closer since he played with the Cubs in 2001. Could he make the transition to relief artist? I was skeptical, but for half of the season Tom Gordon proved me wrong. Pre-All Star Break Gordon went 3-3 with 21 saves and a 2.17 ERA. He actually made the 2006 All-Star Game as one of the Phillies three representatives, and their sole pitcher. The second half of the season was a major disaster, however, as Gordon went 0-1 with just 13 saves and a 5.32 ERA.

Will Gordon return and duplicate his first-half performance or his second? My money is on his second-half performance and I fear that Gordon’s inability to close games could sabotage the Phillies right out of the gate. Simply put, for the Phillies to do something this season they need to get out of the gate quick and avoid some of the sluggish starts they’ve had in the past. Having Gordon struggle at the outset of the season would be a disaster.

After Gordon the Phillies have Ryan Madson, a player whom Phillies bloggers ("phloggers"?) have long been high on. Madson did two stints in the Phillies rotation as a starter, a job that he most definitely did not excel at, going 8-5, but with a 6.28 ERA. Ryan was moved back to the bullpen where he pitched better, but still probably suffered from the whole starting experience. The differences between Ryan Madson the reliever and Ryan Madson the starter in ’06 were stark:

Relief / Starter
HR/9:
1.02 / 1.49
BB/9: 2.66 / 3.69
K/9: 7.77 / 6.08
K/BB: 2.92 / 1.61
ERA: 4.50 / 6.28
WHIP: 1.48 / 1.78

Ryan will step into the role of being the Phillies set-up man, typically pitching the seventh or eighth innings to set Tom Gordon up to close out Phillies victories. I wonder, however, if Ryan can step into the role of closing games should Tom Gordon struggle.

Another key piece of the Phillies relief corps puzzle is Geoff Geary. Geary went 7-1 with a 2.96 ERA in 2006, setting up several saves for Tom Gordon. Geary is a groundball oriented pitcher who keeps the ball in the park, avoid allowing walks and gets his share of strikeouts. It is hard to not be impressed by what he did in 2006:

HR/9: 0.59
BB/9: 1.97
K/9: 5.91
K/BB: 3.00
WHIP: 1.35

Geary was durable too, appearing in 81 games for the Phillies and hurling 91 & 1/3 innings of work. More than Ryan Madson, perhaps more than Tom Gordon, Geoff Geary was the top Phillies reliever in 2006. Look who had the best Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) ERA amongst the relief artists in 2006:

FIP:
Geary: 3.48
Castro: 3.69
Gordon: 3.86
White: 4.40
Madson: 4.93

Oh, and by the way, Geary had 10 Win Shares to Gordon’s 8 in 2006.

Fabio Castro, acquired by the team midseason from the Texas Rangers, will play a big role for the team in 2007. A young player – just 22 – Castro is a good left arm to balance out Madson and Geary, a pair of righties. He certainly pitched well with the Phillies in ’06, appearing in 16 games with hurling an ERA of 1.54. Despite hurling a number of innings at Citizens Bank, Castro allowed just one home run and struck out 5.01 batters per nine innings and allowed 2.31 walks per nine.

It will be interesting to see what Castro can do in the future. 2006 was his rookie campaign, and he only pitched seventeen and one-third innings of Double-A or Triple-A ball. In 2005 he hurled 79 innings in Winston-Salem and struck out 75 batters, with a 5-5 record and a 2.28 ERA. He’s got skills and it will be interesting to see how he develops them. Fabio Castro might supplant Madson and – perhaps – Geary as the Phillies main set-up man.

Also rejoining the Phillies ‘pen after having been acquired in midseason from the Cincinnati Reds is Rick White, who 3-1 with a 4.34 ERA with the Phillies. White pitched okay with the Phillies, surrendering just 0.72 home runs per nine innings, however he also allowed 3.61 walks per nine innings. I’m not particularly high on White because he surrendered so many walks in 2006, a terrible trait in a pitcher and particularly one who is supposed to close games out.

That is the bullpen. I have confidence in Geary and Madson to set up the save for Gordon, but I have major problems believing that Gordon can get the job done in ‘07. I suppose we’ll see …

III. The Position Players. You have to give the Phillies offense a lot of credit in 2006. They led the N.L. in runs scored with 865, and it was a good thing too, because the Phillies pitchers gave up 812 runs. Their 865 runs were 94 runs better than the N.L. average of 771. Why were the Phillies so successful? To get a real good feel for how the Phillies offense functions take a quick gander at how many types of hits they had vs. the league averages:

National League / Phillies (Phillies +/-)
Singles: 954 / 967 (+13)
Doubles: 302 / 294 (-8)
Triples: 35 / 41 (+6)
Home Runs: 178 / 216 (+38)
Walks: 538 / 626 (+88)
Strikeouts: 1089 / 1203 (+114)
Sac. Hits: 74 / 57 (-17)
Stolen Bases Att.: 133 / 117 (-16)

Now I know that many people could make a compelling case for the Small Ball tactics practiced by the Anaheim Angels or the Los Angeles Dodgers (or the Colorado Rockies), but the Phillies “Big Ball” tactics seem to be successful. The Phillies milked counts and drew walks and waited for the 400-foot home run. The Phillies were third in the N.L. in pitches per plate appearance at 3.82, better than the league average of 3.76. In contrast to the Angels the Phillies don’t try to steal bases (despite having two great base-runners on the team in Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley), they don’t sacrifice bunt, and they don’t hit well in the clutch (.250 BA/RISP, thirteenth in the National League). Sure, playing 50% of their games at Citizens Bank Ballpark helps the Phillies power numbers, but the Phillies offensive model works well on the road as well and is a convincing blueprint for teams for how to win ball games.

When you can hit the ball 400-feet, who really cares about how you hit in the clutch? The links in the chain that the Angels must assemble to manufacture a run or two are irrelevant to the Phillies, who have a collection of guys capable of going yard at any time. This sort of modern power offense renders no lead truly safe and makes the game very, very exciting.

I know people wring their hands a lot about strikeouts, but the Phillies suggest that strikeouts aren’t that big of a deal. Note that three Phillies, Ryan Howard (181), Chase Utley (132), and Pat Burrell (131), ranked in the Top Ten in strikeouts in the N.L. in 2006. I think the real stat people ought to look at, to scrutinize, is pitches per plate appearance. The Phillies most successful hitters in 2006 were guys who milked counts and made pitchers work to get them out, guys like Pat Burrell (4.32), Ryan Howard (4.07 P/PA), Chase Utley (3.96) and David Dellucci (3.96).
Now, before I go any further, here are some offensive stats in need of definition:
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.
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: [(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.
Naturally, any discussion of the Phillies offense begins with Ryan Howard, who almost single-handedly carried the Phillies to the playoffs in 2006, shattering the club record for home runs with 58 on his way to also hitting 149 RBIs, scoring 104 runs, drawing 108 walks and taking 383 total bases. Howard’s 58 Home Runs and 149 RBIs led the N.L.

I suppose that you’d have to describe Ryan Howard’s rise to the top in the majors as “meteoric”. After playing a little in 2004, he jumped into the role of the Phillies first baseman following the injuries Jim Thome suffered in 2005. In just 88 games Howard had 22 Home Runs and 63 RBIs and was the 2005 N.L. Rookie of the Year.

This past season the Phillies cleared the way for Howard to become their first baseman by dealing Jim Thome to the White Sox in the off-season and then they made him into the team superstar by dealing Bobby Abreu to the Yankees. Howard responded by going on a tear, hitting 14 home runs and 41 RBIs in August alone. Teams wisely elected to pitch around Howard, who saw his walks spike from 22 in August to 35 in September. Ryan Howard’s walks went from 31 before the All-Star Break to 77 after.

Howard is now one of the two best pure hitters in the N.L., the other being Albert Pujols, an individual destined to become Howard’s arch-nemesis. They are different hitters in that Pujols is a little faster on the bases and isn’t as dependant on the home run as Howard – Pujols had 49 home runs in 83 extra-base hits, Howard had 58 home runs in his 84 extra-base hits – but they are more alike than not. Obviously Pujols, the runner-up for the MVP last season, is bitter about losing to Howard, so this rivalry is off to a hot start.

I expect Howard to respond by putting up great numbers once more in 2007. After his Rookie of the Year performance in '05, I had feared a sophomore slump and he ended up posting one of the greatest seasons in baseball history, shattering the Phillies former single-season mark for home runs set by Mike Schmidt, and winning yet another award. No slump here. The only question is whether teams will actually pitch to Ryan Howard in 2007. If Pat Burrell and Aaron Rowand make teams regret that decision by hitting home runs and getting RBIs, then Ryan Howard will get lots of opportunities, but I expect Howard to see his home run totals drop off to 40 or so and to see him draw 150-170 walks in 2007. Howard will post Barry Bonds-like .500 - .550 OBP numbers in 2007 because teams won’t want Howard to sting them for a big 450-foot home run.

After Ryan Howard we turn our attention to J.Roll … 2006 was an exceptional year for Jimmy Rollins. His assault on Joe DiMaggio's consecutive game hitting streak came to an end at the beginning of the season and he suffered through his usual slump at the start of the season, but he became an exceptional player in the second-half of the season. His 25 home runs were a personal best, eleven better than his previous career-high of 14 in 2001 and 2004. His 45 doubles were also a career-high. Jimmy Rollins went from being a merely a fast player with some pop to being probably the best lead-off hitter in the N.L., with a unique combination of speed and power at the plate. The big difference in J.Roll’s career is the fact that he worked with Tony Gwynn to improve his batting eye and decrease the number of strikeouts he had. The work with Gwynn was a major success, as J.Roll’s strikeout rate dipped from 108, 103 and 113 to 73, 71 and 80 the last three seasons. Check out the differences. First look at J.Roll’s three seasons with 100+ strikeouts:

GPA / ISO / Runs Created:
2001: .250 / .145 / 96
2002: .233 / .135 / 72
2003: .241 / .124 / 78

Then see what he’s been able to do since Gwynn worked with him:

GPA / ISO / Runs Created:
2004: .270 / .166 / 108
2005: .260 / .141 / 100
2006: .270 / .201 / 114

Tremendous. J.Roll went from 20, 17 & 19 Win Shares to 24, 21 & 25.

Jimmy Rollins has speed to burn: he led the N.L. in steals once and in triples three times. With Davey Lopes manning first base, expect the Phillies to use Rollins more aggressively on the base paths. The problem is that the Phillies have talked about using J.Roll as the team’s fifth hitter behind Ryan Howard to provide Howard some protection in the lineup. I think that would be a major mistake. J.Roll is a unique weapon that the Phillies have: a dangerous lead-off hitter would can steal a base or take you deep. Leave J.Roll at lead-off.

Next is Shane Victorino. Shane is probably the Phillies best defensive outfielder (more on that later), but only a so-so hitter. There are a lot of things I don’t like about the way that Victorino hits. To start, he drew just 24 walks in 462 plate appearances, or .052 BB/PA. That’s pretty lousy. When he did put the ball into play, he didn’t do much with it either, hitting just six home runs. Check out some of his stats … GPA: .259; ISO: .127; Runs Created: 58 / RC27: 5.15. Victorino’s .414 slugging percentage was the worst of any Phillie 2006 except for light-hitting third basemen David Bell and Abraham Nunez.

The only plus Victorino has going for him at the plate is that he is fast, which is why the team intends to bat him first or second in 2007. Victorino didn’t try many steals (seven attempts, four successful), but he hit eight triples, and was +14 in base-running (see, The 2007 Bill James Handbook), meaning that he took 14 extra bases over the average base runner.

The Phillies believe that Victorino’s speed and defensive skills out-weigh his slugging hitting. I tend to agree. Victorino is a great player and might improve greatly at the plate. 2006 was, after all, his first real year in the majors. He had played in just a handful of games prior to ’06. Additionally, I’d note that 41 of Victorino’s appearances were as a pinch-hitter, which is a tough job to do, coming into a game cold. I am willing to assume that Victorino is going to be a much, much better player in 2007.

After Victorino comes Chase Utley, probably the Phillies best overall player. Yes, Ryan Howard is the Phillies best hitter, but Chase Utley is every bit as valuable as he is, but Chase plays a difficult defensive position and plays it well, and Chase has speed on the base-paths, something Ryan Howard does not.

How great was Chase Utley’s 2006 season? Well, he hit 32 home runs, 40 doubles, 102 RBIs, scored 131 runs (best in the N.L.), and stole 15 bases in 19 attempts. Utley’s GPA was a robust .302 and his Isolated Power was .218. He had 122 Runs Created, or 7.03 per 27 Outs. Not impressed? Well, Chase also was the second-best base-runner in the majors in 2006, according to Bill James, rating a +27 on the bases.

This is a player who did everything well. Yes, the Phillies would struggle with Ryan Howard down, but Chase Utley is the real key player for the Phillies. Without him the Phillies would lose their second most-lethal offensive threat, their best base-runner, and a key defensive player. The Phillies are very, very lucky to have Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, two talented middle infielders who field well, and have speed and power at the plate.

Right behind Chase Utley and Ryan Howard is Pat Burrell, the Phillies former superstar and MVP-of-the-future. People are very critical of Pat Burrell and the team seemed to give up hope in him at points in the ’06 campaign. To be sure, Pat Burrell has had a rocky history with the Phillies, but a lot of the criticism of him is utterly unwarranted. He’s a talented player and a deadly bat to have in the lineup, but the Phillies treat him as if he’s a problem case, benching him for no reason and trying like mad to trade him to the San Francisco Giants and/or Baltimore Orioles.

Let’s start at the beginning. Pat Burrell played in 144 games for the Phillies in 2006, hitting 29 home runs and 95 RBIs. This was coming off a year in which he quietly hit 32 home runs and had 117 RBIs, which nearly led the league. And yet the Phillies benched him several times in favor of David Dellucci and Jeff Conine, believing they would help protect Ryan Howard in the lineup better.

The idea that Burrell slumped in 2006 is ludicrous. He posted nearly as many home runs (29) as in 2006 (32), and nearly as many doubles (24) as he had in ’06 (29). And he did it in 100 fewer At-Bats in 2006 compared with 2005. The Phillies shot themselves in the foot in September by sitting Burrell in favor of Conine and Dellucci (especially with respect to Conine), because Burrell is one of the best hitters on the team after Ryan Howard. Only Ryan Howard had a higher isolated power at the plate. Nobody on the team worked counts as aggressively as Pat Burrell did. His 4.32 pitches per plate appearance led the Phillies and the National League. This is a player that made pitchers fight aggressively for every out and stung them when they made a mistake. So why the hostility?

There is a progression to Burrell’s career that is sad to see: the path from golden boy whose promise was boundless (2000-2002), to the dreadful slump (2003), then his recovery (2004) and return to grace (2005), followed by the uncertainty of whether or not the Phillies still believe in him. I think these numbers illustrate that:

Win Shares / ISO
2000: 12 / .203
2001: 17 / .211
2002: 25 / .262
2003: 9 / .195
2004: 14 / .198
2005: 24 / .223
2006: 15 / .244
Career: 116 / .221

Burrell is a great player and I think that the numbers back me up on this. If Burrell can continue to play and contribute there is no reason why he can’t continue to be a 30 Home Run / 100+ RBI guy well into the future. Certainly, I think it would be a big, big mistake to replace him.

Following Burrell is probably going to be Aaron Rowand, the Phillies centerfielder, in the sixth slot. Rowand turned out to be a major disappointment to the Phillies in 2006. His fielding wasn’t up to par (see Part V, below), and he turned in a terrible performance at the plate.

How weak a hitter was Rowand? Well, let’s see … He was the least choosey hitter on the team (after Mike Lieberthal), averaging just 3.4 pitches per plate appearance. In 445 trips to the plate he drew just 18 walks! His .040 BB/PA is comically low compared to the rest of the Phillies regulars (players with 200 or more plate appearances in 2006):

BB/PA:
Abreu: .208
Burrell: .172
Howard: .153
Nunez: .111
Dellucci: .093
Bell: .088
Utley: .085
Rollins: .075
Victorino: .052
Coste: .047
Rowand: .040
Lieberthal: .035

Rowand relied on getting on base the old-fashioned way, with getting hits. He didn’t do too great of a job at that either, hitting just .262. His total On-Base Percentage was just .321. The only regulars with worse OBPs were Lieberthal and Nunez.

Did Rowand make up for his inability to draw walks and get on base with a lot of power at the plate? Not really. He hit just 12 home runs and 24 doubles in 2006. His Isolated Power at the plate was .163, not a terrible number (hey, Abraham Nunez’s was .062), but not great either. I think that the Phillies assumed that Rowand was going to be a bigger bat than he really is. In 2004 Rowand hit .310 with 24 home runs and 38 doubles for the White Sox, on his way to scoring 94 runs for the team. That season, in which his ISO was .234, was largely a fluke. Rowand’s ISO dropped to .137 in 2005, a season where he hit just 13 home runs and 30 doubles despite playing 17 more games than in 2004.

Rowand isn’t a particularly fast player either, stealing just ten bases in fourteen tries and hitting only three triples. Perhaps his lack of stolen bases is an outgrowth of his inability to draw walks. You can’t steal first base after all. In ’04 & ’05 he stole 33 bases in 43 tries, seasons where he had many, many more hits and actually got to spend some time on the base-paths. To his credit, Rowand is a very good base-runner, posting a +13 in 2006, despite not really having much of an opportunity to be on base.

After Rowand is the Phillies new third baseman, Wes Helms. Mike Schmidt and Scott Rolen, Wes Helms is not. A quiet player who turned in some solid years in Atlanta, Milwaukee and Florida, Helms turned in … well, quietly … a solid year with the Marlins in 2006, hitting ten home runs and forty-seven RBIs in just 278 plate appearances. Helms appeared in 140 games, but was a pinch-hitter in 52 and a pinch-runner in 3 more. His playing time was pretty limited, but he made the most of it when he had it. Helms Isolated Power was .246, slightly better than Burrell’s .244. Helms Runs Created per 27 Outs was much better than Burrell’s too: 7.06 to 6.18

Extrapolated to a full season, Helms might have hit 25 home runs and 30 or so doubles in 2006. If the Phillies can get that – 25 home runs, 30 doubles, 80-90 Runs Created – from Helms, they’ll get a bargain, a big-time hitter in the seventh hole, extending the reach of the Phillies murderers row deep into the bottom of the lineup and preventing opposing pitchers from having a respite from the onslaught of hitters patiently working the count and hitting home runs. If Helms can do the 25 / 30 / 80-90 thing, the Phillies will score 900+ runs in 2007.

Finally, hitting eighth – just above the pitchers – is Phillies catcher Rod Barajas. I posted in the past that I am not really a fan of the Phillies signing Barajas when they have two perfectly talented catchers sitting on the bench who could do the job as good – or better – for far less cash. But I am not Pat Gillick. He sees value in Barajas and who am I to argue?

Barajas is a 31-year old catcher entering his eighth MLB season. He hit .256 with the Texas Rangers in 2006, along with 11 home runs and 41 RBIs. For whatever reason, Barajas showed an absolute phobia of drawing a walk in ’06. His BB/PA was an Aaron Rowand-like .046. The result was a stunningly low .298 OBP. Power, not average, is where Barajas makes his living at the plate. In addition to the 11 home runs, he also hit 20 doubles in 2006. Here are Barajas power numbers from his three seasons as a Texas Ranger:

ISO
2004: .204
2005: .212
2006: .154

I am assuming that those numbers are partly a product of playing in a hitter environment like the Ballpark at Arlington. His ISO for his three previous seasons as an Arizona Diamondback were much less impressive:

2001: .114
2002: .123
2003: .109

The other thing that bothers me from looking at his power numbers was that he had dropped nearly sixty points from ’05 to ’06. Does this portend a dramatic decline in Barajas skills?

I suppose that it is a good thing to have your catcher be a slugger rather than a singles-hitting OBP machine like the A’s Jason Kendall when you have him hitting in the 8-slot, just ahead of the pitcher. Imagine the scenario: Aaron Rowand strikes out to start the inning, Wes Helms singles to center, bringing up the catcher. In the old days, it would have been Sal Fasano striding to the plate. Fasano would have grounded into a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning and put the pitcher as the lead-off hitter in the next inning. Instead, the Phillies will have Barajas, who might hit a home run or a double and possibly score Helms. According to the data from The 2007 Hardball Times Baseball Annual, just 31% of the balls Barajas put into play were grounders, well off of the 44% the average player hit. Barajas put 51% of the balls put into play into the outfield as fly-balls.

Barajas is designed to avoid the 6-4-3 double play and allow the Phillies to have the pitcher bat and minimize the damage he does to the team. Provided that he matches his totals from 2004 & 2005 (15 home runs, 26 doubles, 58 RBI & 21 home runs, 24 doubles, 60 RBI), Barajas is going to be a solid addition to the Phillies lineup.
Expect the Phillies to approach their 865 runs scored in 2006 and possibly exceed it in 2007. 900 runs? A possibility.

IV. The Bench. In recent history the Phillies have had a pretty good bench. Placido Polanco was backed up by Chase Utley at second base in 2003 and 2004. Jason Michaels was the Phillies fourth outfielder for a while and he is now a very good starter for the Indians. Ryan Howard backed up Jim Thome for the first half of 2005. Just this past year the Phillies surprised me and showed a lot of bench strength, sending in Chris Coste, Carlos Ruiz, David Dellucci and others to deliver timely hits. Their bench was very, very strong. Dellucci spelled Pat Burrell in left field often and hit 13 home runs in just 301 plate appearances. Ruiz and Coste combined to hit ten home runs and have 46 Runs Created to go with Dellucci’s 43. This was a hidden strength for the 2006 Phillies.

This season will most likely see some of those characters back: Ruiz is slated to be the backup catcher and Coste, if he makes the team (and he should), will be the designated pinch hitter and third-string catcher. And there are some new faces.

First and foremost is Jayson Werth. The talented outfielder missed the entire 2006 campaign with injuries and played sparingly with the Dodgers before that. Werth is versatile, having played 64 games in left field, 43 in right and 30 in center field in 2005. He seems fated to follow in the role that Jason Michaels occupied for the Phillies, that of the multi-position fourth outfielder. Werth is capable of playing all three positions, something the Phillies need if Pat Burrell or Aaron Rowand go down with injuries in 2007, a virtually certainty.

As a hitter Werth is solid, although I am unsure how the layoff in 2006 will affect his game. It is difficult to get a read on Werth’s hitting: his OBP was a constant .338 in 2004 and 2005, but his slugging percentage went from .486 to .374. He hit 16 home runs in 2004 and just 7 in 2005. I doubt this was a product of a decline in his game and rather a product of the Dodgers moving the fences back at Dodgers Stadium. (He hit 11 home runs at home in 2004 and just one in 2005.) I think he’ll thrive and show a lot of power at Citizens when he gets to play, and I predict that Werth will get to make appearances in maybe as many as 50% of the Phillies games.

The catching situation will be interesting. The Phillies primary catcher is going to be Barajas, the former Texas Ranger, with Carlos Ruiz backing up him and Chris Coste available to step in as a super-utility man, capable of playing the infield and at catcher. Essentially the Phillies are going to have three catchers.

Coste, a long-time minor leaguer who didn’t make his major league debut until he was 33-years old, in particular surprised people in 2006, hitting seven home runs with 32 RBIs. Coste’s stats are a little weaker when you consider how lucky he was: despite drawing just ten walks in his 213 plate appearances, he had an OBP of .376, which means that a lot of his batted balls landed for hits when they probably wouldn’t have. Consider that 29% of Coste’s batted balls were Line-Drives, and that is significant because three-quarters of Line-Drives usually fall in for hits. The typical major-leaguer gets about 20% of his hits as Line-Drives. I wouldn’t expect the same level of production from Coste in 2007 that the Phillies got in ’06. He’s a solid player and makes a great bat off the bench, but he needs to work on drawing more walks, or he won’t enjoy the same success he had in 2006.

Ruiz has a lot of Phillies fans intrigued. He played sparingly in ’06 but hit well (three home runs and ten RBIs in just 78 plate appearances). Ruiz played very well at Triple-A Scranton before getting the call to Philadelphia, hitting 16 home runs with 69 RBI in 100 games with the Red Barons. He hit for power (.198 ISO), and for average (.301 GPA). I think he’ll make a great #2 option for the Phillies at catcher and will actually be a more reliable hitter than Coste.

After Ruiz, Coste and Werth is going to be Chris Roberson or Michael Bourn. The Phillies will probably play Roberson as their fifth outfielder instead of Bourn, though Bourn is very talented and appears to be the Phillies centerfielder of the future. Roberson is a talented player who appeared in 57 games with the Phillies, fifteen as a pinch-hitter and sixteen as a pinch-runner. He’s got speed – stealing all three of the bases he tried to take as a Phillie and taking another 25 of 34 as a member of the Phillies Scranton Triple-A affiliate – but he has little power and had an OBP of just .214 with the Phillies. If the Phillies want, they might go instead with Bourn (see my recent post on the Bourn v. Roberson issue), a blazing fast player who successfully stole forty-five of the fifty steals he attempted in the minors in 2006. Bourn might be a riskier move, but a better one in the long-term.

Finally, rounding out the Phillies bench, are Danny Sandoval and Abraham Nunez. Nunez isn’t much of a hitter: his OBP was a terrible .303 and his slugging percentage was a beyond-terrible .273 in 2006. There seems little doubt that the Phillies want to expose Nunez to as few opportunities to gum-up their offense as they can, so Helms will be the starter at third base. Don’t expect Nunez to play much and even when he does, don’t expect him to contribute anything at all. Nunez career GPA is just .220.

I am frankly surprised that Danny Sandoval has finally battled his way to the majors and is poised to be the Phillies backup middle infielder. At the age of 28, he’s played in a handful of major league games and has been in the minors since 1998. He’s not a great power hitter (single-season high of eight home runs). Sandoval also never really became a speedster on the base-paths. In 2005 he was caught in half of the twenty-two steals he attempted in Scranton, a factor that probably explains why he attempted just two steals in 2006 as a Red Baron. Tellingly, the Phillies never used him as a pinch-runner in 2006. I wouldn’t expect to see Danny Sandoval play much at all in 2007.

That’s the Phillies bench, a mixed bag of solid hitters with pop like Ruiz, Coste and Werth, speedsters like Bourn and Roberson, and light-hitting defensive utility infielders like Nunez and Sandoval. It is probably the equal of last year’s bench, which contributed mightily to the Phillies success. I expect them to do the same again.

V. Fielding. I wasn’t surprised at all when John Dewan, author of The Fielding Bible, published his 2006 team Plus / Minus stats in The 2007 Hardball Times Baseball Annual and I saw that the Phillies finished thirteenth in the National League and twenty-second overall in team Plus / Minus. I had known, throughout the season, that the Phillies were a bad fielding team and wouldn’t rank well. That was probably news to the average fan who saw things like Aaron Rowand running into a wall to make a catch and assumed that the Phillies were a defensive powerhouse thanks to Aaron Rowand’s addition to the team. To the contrary, the Phillies went from being the best Plus / Minus team in all of baseball in 2005 to being one of the worst. After going +108 in 2005 – which led the second-best N.L. team, the Houston Astros, by a whopping 58 plays – the Phillies dropped to -33 in 2006. That’s a swing of 141 plays. Basically, the team was a play worse in every game they played from 2006.
Defensive stats defined:
Range Factor (RF): (Putouts + Assists) * 9 / IP. Essentially measures how much a player is involved in defensive plays.
Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER): (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 ’06 Phillies were much worse than the league average in Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER) at .683 (.010 behind the league average). They threw out 27% of base-stealers, a little worse than the league average of 28%. They were about average in terms of errors and double plays.

Why the drop-off? I tend to think that a number of the Phillies played over their heads defensively in 2005, so the resulting fall-off last season took them by surprise. The Phillies do have a number of excellent defenders on the roster. Chief amongst them were the Phillies double-play duo of Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. Chase Utley continued to solidify his credentials for being the best second baseman in the majors with his +19, third amongst second basemen, in 2006. J.Roll tied for seventh in the majors amongst shortstops at +12. The two helped the Phillies convert 42% of their double play opportunities. The Phillies might be blessed with the strongest middle infield in baseball. Both of these guys are Gold Glove candidates.

Over in right field the Phillies have Shane Victorino, their talented outfielder with a cannon for an arm. Filling in for Aaron Rowand in center field in 2006, Victorino had as many assists as Rowand – six – in 343 fewer innings of play. In just 156 innings in right field Victorino had three assists, just two fewer than Bobby Abreu had in 690 more innings of work. Victorino’s Range Factor was better than Rowand in centerfield (2.70 vs. 2.57), better than Pat Burrell in leftfield (2.14 vs. 1.93), and better than Bobby Abreu in rightfield (2.37 vs. 1.95). He played 814 & 2/3 innings in the outfield in 2006 and didn’t commit a single throwing or fielding error. It would not surprise me if Shane Victorino won the Gold Glove for right field in 2007. In fact, I expect it.

That said, the Phillies have a number of players who struggled in the field. Ryan Howard is one. Ryan stunned people in 2005 when he went +16 after taking over the first base job from Jim Thome and becoming Rookie of the Year. This past season Howard went -8, a massive swing of 24 plays against. Naturally, his performance at the plate more than overshadowed his struggles at first, but you still want to be as complete a player as you can be. Ryan Howard was probably never going to win the Gold Glove, but the decline is a problematic. It also strengthens the arguments – that I don’t agree with – made by Albert Pujols supporters for why their man (who led all MLB first basemen in Plus / Minus at +19) ought to have won the MVP last season.

Over in left field, the Phillies have Pat Burrell, once a solid left fielder with a great arm, but now a poor defender. Over in center field the Phillies have Aaron Rowand, perhaps the best defensive outfielder in baseball in 2005, but someone who struggled last season, plunging from +30 in '06 to -4 in '07 in Plus / Minus. In contrast to the smooth-fielding Victorino, Rowand made five errors in 2006 (two throwing, three fielding). While everyone applauded Rowand’s grit and gasped in amazement at his catch and throw against the Braves earlier in the season, the day-to-day performance Rowand turned in left something to be desired. The Phillies are going to need Rowand to regain his 2005 form to become an elite defensive team once more.

The biggest wildcard the Phillies defense has is over at third base, where Wes Helms and Abraham Nunez will be the Phillies corner defenders. Previously the Phillies were blessed and cursed with David Bell, a weak hitter but strong fielder who provided the Phillies with stellar play at third base. In fact, Bell tied for third in Plus / Minus from 2004-2006 at +54, just a few behind Adrian Beltre (+64) and Scott Rolen (+61), for all third basemen. Now the Phillies enter a new era without Bell’s quick feet and strong arm. Helms seems destined to be the starter over Nunez, which has definite advantages for the Phillies offensively, but is a major unknown to the Phillies defense because he played the position so little in 2006.

Nunez played third for the Phillies late in the 2006 season and we have no Plus / Minus data to look at, I’d note that Nunez Range Factor (2.66) was a little worse than Bell’s (2.78). I have a sneaking suspicion that Nunez’s defensive stats from late in 2006 were very poor, but I have nothing to back that up.

Finally, at catcher the Phillies are going to have three on the roster. Gone are Sal Fasano and long-time Phillie Mike Lieberthal. In their place are Barajas, Ruiz and possibly Coste.

As I noted above, the Phillies aren’t exactly getting Barajas to be a real offensive threat in their lineup. They are getting him to settle down the Phillies pitchers and keep guys like Carlos Beltran from stealing second base. Barajas did a nice job in 2006, throwing out 28% of the runners who tried to steal on him. Teams only tried 0.58 steals a game on Barajas. Teams tried to steal on Coste and Ruiz 0.64 and 0.66 times a game, better than the team average of 1.01, which suggests to me that either Coste and Ruiz caught a lot of games against the Atlanta Braves – who almost never stole bases in 2006 – or they had arms that opposing teams respected. Mike Lieberthal threw out 33% of the guys who tried to steal on him, but teams ran on him much more. Coste and Ruiz 19% and 15% rates of throwing out would-be base-stealers isn’t as interesting as the fact that teams ran on Lieberthal more. Take what you want from that. Overall, I’d say that Barajas, Ruiz and Coste are going to do a nice job holding runners to first base.

And that’s what a good catcher does.

VI. The Outlook Ahead. People are always pessimistic when it comes to the Phillies and I understand why. This is a franchise that always disappoints its fans.
Fans in the 1950s thought that the Wiz Kids were harbingers of future success. They weren’t.
Fans in the 1960s watched the ’64 squad blow a massive lead with just days left in the season.
Fans in the 1970s watched the team struggle to reach the World Series and lose the NLCS three consecutive seasons.
Fans in the 1980s watched the team win their sole World Series and then collapse back into obscurity.
Fans in the 1990s watched the team enjoy a brief, fleeting moment of success in ’93, then watch the team spiral into irrelevance.
Now, in this decade, we’ve watched the Phillies botch their move into their new ballpark with disappointing runs towards the playoffs that came up short.

This team has a bad habit of disappointing the good fans of Philadelphia, who have suffered through decades of bitter disappointment and have a fool me once / fool me twice mentality towards this team.

Maybe this will be different. I am cautiously optimistic about the 2007 Philadelphia Phillies. This team has the best rotation in the N.L. East and maybe even the entire NL – although the Dodgers would give them a run for their money on that score. Armed with the big guns of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Pat Burrell and Jimmy Rollins, there isn’t a reason in the world for the 2007 Phillies not to have the best offense in the N.L. once more. Aside from a weak bullpen (specifically, a weak closer), this team is stacked.

So why can’t the Phillies win World Series? This is a stunning thought for people to contemplate, but I don’t see why not. I think the ’06 Cardinals were an absurdly weak team that peaked at exactly the right time. The Phillies were a game and a half better than the Redbirds in the regular season. A stronger finish and the Phillies might have made the playoffs and blitzed to the World Series. Hey, their 45-30 Post All-Star record was the best in the N.L.

So what can stop the Phillies? Pessimism. The natural malaise that fans who have been fooled too many times feel when they see this team promise their fans, as so many unfaithful spouses do, that this time will be different. The jilted fans reply, like the long-suffering victims naturally do, with: “Show me.”

Well, I think this season will be different. I’m sure I predicted this in the past, but it feels like there is a real chance now. The pitching is there, the hitting is there and the fielding in there. This is the best team in the N.L. East and I don’t see why they couldn’t best the field in the N.L. and make it into the 2007 World Series. This team is different, this year feels different. I hope I am not disappointed.

Projected Opening Day Roster:

Lineup:
SS – Jimmy Rollins
RF – Shane Victorino
2B – Chase Utley
1B – Ryan Howard
LF – Pat Burrell
CF – Aaron Rowand
3B – Wes Helms
C – Rod Barajas
P – Pitcher

Bench:
OF – Jayson Werth
OF – Chris Roberson
IF – Danny Sandoval
IF – Abraham Nunez
C – Carlos Ruiz
IF / C – Chris Coste

Pitching Staff:
SP – Cole Hamels
SP – Brett Myers
SP – Jamie Moyer
SP – Freddy Garcia
SP – Adam Eaton
RP – Ryan Madson
RP – Fabio Castro
RP – Rick White
RP – Geoff Geary
RP – Jon Lieber / Alfonso Alfonseca
RP – Tom Gordon

(I am assuming that the Phillies carry 14 position players and 11 pitchers. They will likely carry 13 position players and 12 pitchers, in which case I’d designate Sandoval for the minors and ensure Alfonseca of a spot in the ‘pen.)

PLAY BALL!

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