Friday, April 27, 2007
Yeah, that’ll be tough …
The way that I see it, the N.L. East race is evolving into a race between two teams … the Braves and the Phillies. Forget about the Mets. The Mets are the beneficiaries of a lot of luck so far. At the moment they are allowing just 3.45 runs per game, best in the N.L. Don’t think this is the product of good pitching. The Mets Fielding Independent Pitching ERA is worse than the Phillies, and we are giving up nearly a run and a half more per game. The Mets, at the moment, are playing absurdly good defense. This is shielding people from realizing that their pitching staff is really struggling. The Mets will crash back down to earth in May and June and will be out of the playoff picture in July. The Marlins will likewise slump and falter. The race for the N.L. East title is a race between the Phillies and the Braves.
Alright, today’s edition of the Farm Report turns its eye towards the Jersey shore to look at how the Lakewood Blue Claws are doing. The Blue Claws, the Phillies Single-A minor league affiliate, are well into the 2007 season and hope to duplicate their 2006 South Atlantic League (SAL) Championship. The ’06 Blue Claws boasted one of the strongest pitching staffs in the minor leagues, featuring heralded pitching prospects Josh Outman, Carlos Carrasco and Matthew Maloney. Here is how they did in 2006:
Maloney: 16-9, 2.03 ERA
Carrasco: 12-6, 2.26 ERA
Outman: 14-6, 2.95 ERA
Largely thanks to the trio’s exceptional performance the Blue Claws easily took the SAL Championship three games to one. Maloney’s complete game shutout in the final game was the 20th shutout that the Blue Claws hurled in 2006. The trio have since moved on, Maloney to the Double-A Reading Phillies while Carrasco and Outman advanced to the Advanced Single-A Clearwater Threshers.
It will be interesting to see if the Blue Claws can come close to repeating their 2006 dominance on the mound. Key to this will be the development of the Phillies first pick in the 2006 draft, Kyle Drabek. Drabek, a nineteen-year old right-hander from Victoria, Texas, is coming off a rough start with the Phillies. After the 2006 Draft Drabek was assigned to the Phillies Gulf Coast League (GCL) affiliate to cut his key playing rookie ball. Drabek struggled in the GCL, going 1-3 with a 7.71 ERA in six starts. In twenty-three and one-third innings of work Drabek struck-out fourteen while walking eleven. The numbers were not an auspicious beginning to Drabek’s career with the Phillies.
Drabek was promoted to Lakewood this season and is off to a strong start. In three starts this season Drabek is 1-0 with a 3.50 ERA. Impressively, Drabek has transformed himself this season:
Lakewood / GCL
ERA: 3.50 / 7.71
HR/9: 1.50 / 0.77
BB/9: 1.50 / 4.24
K/9: 9.50 / 5.40
K/BB: 6.33 / 1.27
I’m a little surprised, though Drabek’s 2006 campaign was based on just 23 innings of work.* Now that he’s getting steady work, he’s responding quite well. After his rocky start in the GCL there were real concerns that he’d make it in the majors, but Drabek's start with the Blue Claws strongly suggests that he has a chance.
* In case you didn’t know how this worked: draft picks are sent to either Short-Season Single-A ball or to Rookie League ball depending usually on their experience. High Schoolers like Drabek go play Rookie League ball and college players go to Short-Season A. This season’s Blue Claws are almost exclusively drawn from the ranks of the GCL Phillies and the Batavia Muckdogs, the Phillies old Short Season Single-A affiliate in the New York – Penn League (NYPL). The Phillies new NYPL affiliate are the Williamsport Crosscutters.
Anyway … At the moment the Blue Claws … Who have one of the best logos in the minors, by the way, if I can make another brief digression … I never thought that a crab could be cute and cuddly, but it is… The Blue Claws are 8-8 (.500) and sit in third place in the SAL North, five and a half games behind the 14-3 (.824) West Virginia Power, the Milwaukee Brewers SAL affiliate. Interestingly the Blue Claws inflicted two of the Power’s three losses. The Blue Claws aren't hitting particularly well, but they are fifth of sixteen teams in the SAL in terms of ERA.
Also joining the Blue Claws from the GCL is Adrian Cardenas, the absurdly talented shortstop who hit very well in the GCL, with a .384 OBP (.318 batting average with 17 walks) and displayed a lot of speed (four triples and thirteen of sixteen steals). Cardenas is a rising star in the Phillies system and reminds me a lot of Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, middle infielders with a nice combination of speed and power. Like Drabek, Cardenas was a first-round pick of the Phillies, and like Drabek, Cardenas was a very heralded high school player. Baseball America named Cardenas their 2006 High School Player of the Year.
Cardenas has so far struggled in the SAL, hitting just .258 with a .288 OBP (just three walks). Despite getting on base nineteen times (three walks, thirteen singles and three doubles), Cardenas has just one steal in two tries and hasn’t hit a triple yet. Very disappointing.I have confidence, however, that Cardenas will improve dramatically.
Other players of note ...
Jason Donald, another 2006 Phillies draft pick, is also on the Blue Claws roster. Donald, a shortstop out of the University of Arizona who hit .263 with a .347 OBP in Batavia last season, is hitting .299 with a .365 OBP. I’m not inclined to give Donald’s performance a clean bill of health, however, because Donald has hit just one triple this season and has been caught all five times he’s attempted to steal a base. Last season he hit two triples and swiped twelve of the thirteen bases he tried to take. Still, I think Donald has a future with the Phillies because he seems like a player with a good batting eye.
Quintin Berry, the Blue Claws centerfielder, is a player to watch as well. A 2006 draft pick out of San Diego State University, the left-handed Berry has seven steals in nine tries, something in line with his nineteen steals in twenty-three attempts with the Batavia Muckdogs in 2006. I am somewhat skeptical about his major league chances given that his OBP is just .315.
Finally, Edgar Garcia, a free agent the Phillies picked up. Garcia pitched well in Batavia, with a 2.98 ERA and 46 strikeouts compared with ten walks. I don’t think many realized how good Garcia was because his record was a paltry 3-5. So far this season Garcia is off to a hot start, at 1-0 with a 2.95 ERA. His opening start of the year was a masterful seven-inning victory that saw him surrendering just one run on four hits, while not walking anyone and getting five strikeouts. Along with Drabek, the Blue Claws have a potent 1-2 combination in the rotation that will make them one of the most formidable pitching staffs in the SAL.
There you go, the 2007 Lakewood Blue Claws. We’ll check back with them later in the year and see how they are doing.
Have a nice weekend. Here is the tentative schedule of posts for next week:
Monday: The Month of April, a recap
Tuesday: Farm Report, Reading
Wednesday: Charlie Manuel vs. Bobby Cox
Thursday: What’s Wrong With __________? (player to be named later)
Thursday, April 26, 2007
-Ryan Howard hit his third home run of the season and Jimmy Rollins hit his eighth.
-Some speed being displayed: Michael Bourn hit a pinch-hit triple and Jimmy Rollins stole his third base of the season.
-Chase Utley exploded, hitting a pair of doubles in the game, going five-for-five with a run scored and three RBIs. The middle of the Phillies order (Utley, Howard and Burrell) went seven-for-ten, with four walks and scored three runs with five RBIs. The big guys produced like they should and the Phillies cashed in.
-Jon Lieber pitched the sort of outing that you’d hope he would: six solid innings of work and he surrendered just two runs on five hits, didn’t give up a walk, and got five strikeouts. 64 of Lieber’s 86 pitches were for strikes.
-The bullpen (Matt Smith, Geoff Geary, Brett Myers and Francisco Rosario) surrendered just a single run in three innings of mop-up duty. Not too shabby.
Today at three the Phillies go for six in a row against the Nats. Shawn Hill v. Cole Hamels. I guess it is too much to expect Hamels to K another 15 guys, but it would be nice. Hill, meanwhile, is actually having a very nice season, so this won’t be a walk in the park like many think it will. I am predicting a 4-1 Phillies victory.
Short post today. See everyone tomorrow!
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
As I noted a few months ago, the Ottawa Lynx are the Phillies new Triple-A affiliate, replacing the Scranton Red Barons in the International League (IL), the fourteen team Triple-A league that services MLB teams like the Yankees (now the Red Barons parent team), and other teams like the Pawtucket Red Sox, the Richmond Braves, and the Toledo Mud Hens (the Detroit Tigers Triple-A team). The Phillies presence in Canada is temporary, as the Lynx are slated to move south of the border to Allentown and become the Allentown Iron Pigs in 2008.
There’s a lot of pathos and drama surrounding the minors, which makes for interesting subject matter. Bull Durham, one of the best movies about baseball ever made, deals with players trying to make their way out of the Carolina League and into the big time. A lot of players make their way to Triple-A and flame out, never to achieve their golden dream of becoming a major league baseball player. Others get their taste of glory and fall back to earth, desperately trying to claw their way back into the majors. Triple-A is a pretty tough place to be. Close, but not yet.
A word about stats … It is difficult to evaluate stats from the minor leagues and especially with the low-level minor leaguers. For players in Rookie League or Short Season Single-A ball, power is difficult to show at that level. A “power hitter” of the future might have three or four home runs over the course of a season. Chase Utley, for example, hit two home runs in forty games in Single-A Batavia in 2000. Triple-A stats approximate major league stats a little better, but they are still a little off.
Many of the names on the Lynx roster are familiar to Phillies fans … Chris Roberson, Danny Sandoval, Chris Coste, Zach Segovia, Fabo Castro, Eude Brito, etc. In the case of players like Sandoval, Coste and Roberson, you worry that they fall into the category of players who got to the majors and never returned. In Coste’s case, this is particularly tragic given that Coste has been fighting and clawing his way towards the majors for years and years.
As I write this, the Lynx have been on a roll, having won seven of their last eight games. After defeating Syracuse 4-3 on April 14th, the Lynx were snowed out of their game on April 15th, and then took three games against Charlotte before falling to Gavin Floyd – remember him? – on April 20th by a score of 3-1. The Lynx responded by shelling the Red Barons 17-4 the next day, an impressive rout that saw the Lynx rally from a 3-0 first inning deficit by scoring six runs in the bottom of the first. The Lynx went on to outscore the Red Barons 17-1 after they got their three runs to start the game. The Lynx have two more games against the Red Barons, tonight and tomorrow at 7PM.
At the moment the Lynx are 8-6 and sit in third place in the IL’s Northern Division, just two games behind the Rochester Red Wings, the Baltimore Orioles affiliate. The Red Barons, by the way, are 7-10 and sit four and a half games out of first place.
Let’s discuss a few players of note …
Chris Coste. Coste became a favorite of bloggers and myself with his exceptional story in 2006. The thirty-three year-old Coste, a native of Fargo, North Dakota, had spent years and years in the minors attempting to claw his way into the show. He finally got his chance in 2006 when the Phillies dealt the light-hitting Sal Fasano to the Yankees and watched Mike Lieberthal spend much of the season on the D.L. Carlos Ruiz and Coste were brought in to split the catching duties and both turned in spectacular performances. As a Phillie, Coste hit .328 (.376 OBP), with seven home runs and 32 RBIs in just 65 games. What made this performance all the more impressive was the fact that Coste had hit .177 in Scranton before coming up to the majors, including two home runs and fourteen RBIs in 39 games played. Not too shabby.
The Phillies decision to bring in Rod Barajas and award Ruiz the backup job meant that Coste was the odd man out. The 34-year old from the plains of middle America was sent back up to the frigid north to play with the Lynx. At the moment Coste is playing alright primarily as the Lynx DH and occasional catcher. He’s hitting .225 (.340 OBP), with zero home runs and three doubles.
Chris Roberson. I’ll state that I am stunned so see Roberson in a Lynx uniform in 2007. After journeying up to the majors to play with the Phillies last season, I was certain that the Phillies would award the fifth outfielder job to Roberson, who pinch-hit and, more importantly, pinch-run numerous times in 2006 for the Phillies. The Phillies decision to make Michael Bourn the #5 outfielder was a shock to me. Expect to see Bourn get a lot of time substituting for Pat Burrell in left field and occasionally hitting for the Phillies.
Roberson, meanwhile, is back to the minors. He’s not exactly proving the Phillies were wrong keeping him in the minors either. He’s hitting .207 (.262 OBP) with two doubles and a triple. His .537 OPS is worst on the team.
The Pitchers … Brian Mazone (2-1, 1.90 ERA) and J.A. Happ (1-0, 1.08 ERA) are both off to great starts this season with the Lynx. Zach Segovia (0-2, 4.85 ERA) appears to be a little rattled after his disastrous start against the Florida Marlins where he surrendered five runs in five innings of work. The Phillies might want to keep some of their pitchers in the minors and not expose them to being shelled in MLB games until a later date.
It seems like, for all of the struggles of the Phillies MLB staff, there are a lot of talented arms in the Phillies system. Happ, Mazone and Segovia in Ottawa, Matthew Maloney with the Reading Phillies, Josh Outman, Andrew Carpenter and Carlos Carrasco in Clearwater, and Kyle Drabek in Lakewood with the Blue Claws. It will be interesting to see if those guys will transform the Phillies into a pitching powerhouse in 2009, 2010 and beyond.
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Stop. We are about to talk about a lot of numbers and before I let you go and get confused about what I’m talking about, here are the stats I refer to defined:
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 real issue, I say, is the terrible job the Phillies pitching is doing. At the moment the Phillies Fielding Independent Pitching is 4.51, which is awful. Second-worst in the N.L. after the Mets … okay, I need to explore one topic before we go back to the Phillies. As I write this the Phillies and Mets appear to be two-vastly different teams on the mound. The Mets team ERA is just 2.50, best in the N.L. by far. The Phillies 5.35 is the worst, also by far. The Phillies FIP, however, is actually better than the Mets. While the Mets are #1 in ERA, they are also #16 in FIP. Why the disparity? The Mets have been stunningly good in the field, converting .777 of the balls their pitchers put into play into outs. The league average is .702. Last year the N.L.’s best team at DER was the Padres at .714. The Phillies are the worst at .673. I’d like to blame the Phillies foibles here on the weather – the Mets adjusted to it well and the Phillies have not, thus producing the disparate results – but I have no proof to back that up. The bottom-line is that the Phillies have been unlucky and the Mets have been stunningly lucky. Mark my words: the Mets are going to start giving up a LOT of runs and they are going to start struggling to keep their leads. That six game lead over the Phillies is going to melt away … As I said, the Phillies are the victims of some terrible, terrible pitching. The Phillies hurlers have given up 1.3 home runs per game, nearly twice the league average of 0.78. Their .472 slugging percentage against is basically an obscene total.
These facts explain why the Phillies are two games behind their Pythagorean Win-Loss total (i.e., if you go by the runs scored and runs allowed, they’d be expected to do two games better than their current record), and why they are 1-6 … yes, one win in seven tries … in “close” games, i.e., games decided by one or two runs.
The Rotation: at the moment the Phillies starting rotation ranks thirteenth in terms of ERA at 4.76. The issue is their propensity for surrendering home runs and walks. The Phillies starters rank twelfth in terms of slugging percentage allowed. The starters are also getting quality run support as they rank fifth in the N.L. in run support. Interestingly the Phillies starters lead the N.L. in strikeouts: 8.42 K/9.
So who is pitching well? Cole Hamels (2-0, 2.57 ERA), as is Jamie Moyer (2-1, 3.05). Jon Lieber looked good in his first start of the season (five & 2/3 inning, no runs, one hit, one walk and five strikeouts). Meanwhile, Adam Eaton has been a disappointment (2-1, but with a 6.46 ERA), as has Freddy Garcia (1-1, 4.66 ERA). Brett Myers got shelled in two of his three starts and is now in the bullpen. Hopefully a solid performance from Lieber will continue and Garcia will find his stride. Then the Phillies rotation will look good.
The Bullpen: Technically the Phillies bullpen doesn’t have bad stats when you first look. Their 3.65 ERA is actually pretty respectable. However, the Phillies bullpen ranks twelfth in strikeouts (6.19 K/9) and fifteenth of sixteen teams in slugging percentage allowed (.439, compared with .443 the Giants relievers have allowed). The Phillies have also only converted on three of six save opportunities, tied with the Cubs and Astros for second-worst in the N.L. (The worst, the Nats, with two saves in five tries.)
It doesn’t take a genius to realize that Tom Gordon (5.68 ERA) is struggling as the Phillies closer and the Phillies efforts to groom Brett Myers to be the closer will start bearing fruit soon. Ryan Madson also struggled badly (4.63 ERA). The rare ray of sunshine for the Phillies has been Alfonso Alfonseca (ten and 2/3 innings, one run allowed, 0.84 ERA). Expect to see Alfonseca start functioning as the primary set-up man with Geoff Geary (2.70 ERA), setting up Brett Myers for the save. Tom Gordon’s days as a Phillie are numbered.
Tomorrow, we’ll talk a little about the Ottawa Lynx.
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.