Friday, June 22, 2007
The next few weeks will present the Phillies with some opportunities: the Cardinals and Reds, their next foes, both look terrible this season. The 32-37 Cardinals are struggling through a hard-luck season which has seen manager Tony LaRussa pick up a DUI in Spring Training, then pitcher Josh Hancock died in a car accident, all the while the team has played sub-.500 baseball. Even with Albert Pujols being his usual terrific self, the 2007 Cardinals are a shell of the team … which wasn’t even that good anyway … that won the N.L. Central and the World Series in 2006.
The Cardinals are doing nothing well, from hitting (their .130 ISO is one of the worst in the N.L., and they aren’t doing a good job about getting on base either) to pitching (their 4.60 Fielding Independent Pitching ERA is fifteenth in the N.L., better than just the Washington Nationals at 4.70) to fielding (.690 DER, .007 below the league average). The Cardinals are allowing 5.42 runs per game, worst in the National League. This team is terrible and seems like it needs an injection of youth or LaRussa and the rest of the Cardinals high command risk seeing their 2006 championship become a fluke, an afterthought the same way the Florida Marlins ’97 title was.
The Reds are even riper fruit for the Phillies to pick. The 28-45 Reds are the worst team in the National League and don’t seem to have a prayer. Despite having a ton of talent – namely two terrific pitchers in Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo – the Reds are a total disaster. As usual, the Reds are able to hammer the ball (.180 ISO), but unlike in years past the Reds aren’t putting hitters on base (.321 OBP) and are hitting awfully with runners in scoring position (.230 BA/RISP). The Reds fielders are atrocious. Their surprisingly good pitching staff is being utterly undone by their terrible fielding (.677 DER). Expect the Reds to move Adam Dunn to a contender by the trading deadline, Reds fans. Also, expect the team to be unable to unload Ken Griffey, Jr., whose porous defense, declining hitting and shaky health have basically killed the Reds as a franchise since he arrived in 1999.
The week ahead is a golden opportunity to pick up four, five or even six easy wins and catch up to the Mets and Braves. The slumping Mets will likely roll into the Phillies series broken and weary. While the Phillies get the Cardinals this weekend, the Mets get the Oakland A’s. The Mets also have to play seven days in a row heading into next Friday night’s doubleheader with the Phillies. The Mets ought to be exhausted by the time they wrap up the series with the Phillies on Sunday afternoon.
Then the road doesn't get any easier. The Mets will ultimately play eighteen games in seventeen days before the All-Star Break rolls around. The Mets are 4-14 this month and seem to be collapsing. Their massive lead over the Phillies and Braves has dwindled to nothing. When these two teams play each other next Friday, expect to see the Mets with a worse record than the Phillies.
Thursday, June 21, 2007
Thank goodness inter-league play is finished. While the Phillies did reasonably well against some tough A.L. Central competition … 6-6, largely thanks to a three game sweep of the Chicago White Sox … and thankfully not having to face Johan Santana and the Minnesota Twins … the Phillies are better off getting to feast on mediocre N.L. teams.
Here is the Phillies inter-league record from the last several seasons.
This is the first time since 2003, when the Phillies likewise posted a 8-7 record, that the Phillies have had a winning record in inter-league play. Something to cheer about.
Another thing to cheer about - despite all of the Phillies struggles, they are still above .500 and are still two games out of first place. The Mets, and this is something I'll expand a little on tomorrow, are poised for a fall.
Today the Phillies get a well-deserved break before squaring off with the St. Louis Cardinals. Jamie Moyer, Adam Eaton and finally Cole Hamels go for the Phillies against the Cardinals depleted pitching staff.
Tomorrow: the imminent collapse of the New York Mets, the Phillies road ahead, and predictions about the future.
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Steals per Game (SB/G):
In 1977, in contrast, there were 1.23 steals per game. However, with the renewed focus on steroids, which have put the sluggers under the microscope, I expect to see a decline in home runs. Teams, once they absorb these trends, will respond by emphasizing small-ball tactics like bunt, hit-and-runs, and base-stealing more and more. (And hey, success breeds imitators. If a small-ball team like the Anaheim Angels wins the World Series, then expect teams to move in that direction, just as teams did with OBP in the early part of the decade with the Oakland A’s and Moneyball.) During the late 1950’s, with the power game in decline, teams moved towards base-stealing as a means of seeking an advantage. The Go-Go Sox of 1959 and Maury Wills of the Dodgers helped convince teams to emphasize speed, which came to dominate baseball during the 1960’s and 1970’s. It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that teams began to rely on the power game to engineer runs.
Home Runs today do seem to be in a decline:
2007: 0.9477 HR/G
2006: 1.0965 HR/G
2005: 0.9946 HR/G
2004: 1.0988 HR/G
2003: 1.0455 HR/G
Perhaps the preliminarily low numbers of home runs are partly attributable to the lousy weather in the Northeast in April, but it seems possible/probable that the new focus on steroids is a factor here. Time will tell. Expect teams to adjust to the changes with an emphasis on speed. I hardly think that we are entering a new dead-ball era, but it seems likely that teams are going to take another look at speed.
The Phillies look like they are moving to embrace the running game. Consider this: right now the average N.L. baseball teams has attempted 51.5 steals in their first 68-70 games. Those teams have been successful 73% of the time. The Phillies have run 65 times in 69 games, or nearly one per game, which is slightly more than the league average. The Phillies have been successful 85% of the time this season. It looks like the speed game has been successful and I predict the Phillies will employ it more in the future.
With all of that in mind we turn to our (very brief) look at Michael Bourn’s season thus far with the Phillies. Bourn beat out fellow minor league prospect Chris Roberson to win the role of the Phillies fifth outfielder / pinch-runner in Spring Training and has electrified the Phillies with his speed on the base-paths. Thus far this season Bourn has attempted ten steals and has successfully taken the base on all ten tries. I doubt there is any other player in baseball this season who has relied more exclusively on his feet to get around the base-paths:
Bourn’s Bases Gained:
By Stolen-Base: 10
By Base on Balls: 6
By Batted Ball: 11
Total Bases: 27
Stolen Bases are 37% of Bourn’s bases gained. I can’t calculate what Bourn does simply running the bases when the ball is put into play.
Bourn ranks sixteenth in the National League in stolen-bases, which isn’t too shabby when you consider that he has just forty-four plate appearances, far fewer than most of his fellow speedsters. The only player in the N.L. with a comparable rate of success to Bourn is the Mets David Wright (sixteen-for-sixteen). Bourn, who is really a part-time player because he’s the fifth of five outfielders on the Phillies roster, would probably get 70-80 steals in a season if the Phillies turned him loose and allowed him to play full time.
Advocates of speed argue that it transforms the game. Although there is precious little evidence that an effective base-stealer significantly rattles a pitcher on the mound, you can see some definable instances where a player like Bourn changes the complexion of a game. Bourn’s performance in the seventh inning of the Phillies – Giants game on May 6th is a terrific example of that: after Charlie Manuel lifted Pat Burrell for Bourn when Burrell drew his fourth walk of the game in the seventh, Bourn proceeded to steal second and third bases, then take home on a fielders choice with Wes Helms. Helms weak grounder ought to have held Bourn at third base, but his impressive speed allowed him to easily beat the throw home.
As electrifying as Bourn has been on the bases, don’t forget Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino either. Rollins is tied for eighth in the N.L. in steals with thirteen (in sixteen chances). Victorino is third in the N.L. with twenty-one. What makes Victorino’s base-stealing really impressive is the fact that he’s been unsuccessful just twice. That is a 91% success rate.
Watch the Phillies and see how much their approach to the game changes as the season continues on.
The Phillies won last night to stay within two games of the Mets and a half game from the Braves for second-place. Things will get interesting starting this weekend, and I'll explain why on Friday.
Tomorrow: Ruiz vs. Barajas.
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Well, I don’t doubt that God exists, but I am on-board with the sabremetrics crowd that clutch hitting doesn’t exist, and I further believe that if it does, then it doesn’t matter. Teams, in this modern era of the three-run home run, can score runs from anywhere on the diamond. How else do you explain why the Phillies had the most dangerous offense in the N.L. in 2006, and yet they couldn’t hit with runners in scoring position? They were terrible. They hit .255, fourteenth best in the National League.
This year the Phillies are hitting better in the clutch and they remain the best offense in the N.L. The power game, their old bread-and-butter, isn’t as strong as it was in 2006, a fact that I suspect was almost exclusively a product of Ryan Howard’s injuries and struggles at the start of the season. So who is hitting well in the clutch this season? … incidentally, I consider clutch hitting to be batting average with runners in scoring position … Well, let’s start with Aaron Rowand.
At the moment Rowand is hitting .362 BA/RISP, the best such percentage on the Phillies roster. Rowand’s sudden turn to clutch hitting is something of a fluke: he’s doing extremely well with putting the ball into play (.347 BA/BIP), so his success with runners in scoring position is partly due to that. Still, Rowand is a major, major reason why the Phillies offense is clicking on all cylinders. Rowand is actually second on the Phillies in Runs Created per 27 Outs at 7.3, just 0.1 behind Ryan Howard. He’s a more potent offensive force than such notables as Jimmy Rollins (5.7), Pat Burrell (6.3) and Chase Utley (7.1). If the Phillies do ultimately package Rowand in a deal to obtain another starting pitcher to replace Freddy Garcia in the rotation, they are making a wise decision to deal him at the top of his game.
Here are the Phillies top clutch hitters …
1. Rowand: .362
2. Dobbs: .353
3. Nunez: .314
4. Ruiz: .289
5. Burrell: .271
Burrell is sort of an interesting player to note. The knock against Burrell is that he doesn’t hit well in the clutch. Burrell’s BA/RISP has been a real yo-yo the last several years:
BA/RISP: Pat Burrell
Burrell is a good player, a real talent who has never gotten the respect he deserves because the expectations on him – nothing short of being the next Mike Schmidt would do for Phillies fans – have been so high. Okay, he’s not going to be the superstar Albert Pujols is. Lay off. He’s still a talented hitter. He is, in many respects, the perfect #5 hitter … he’s solid, generally consistent, has power to his swing, gets on base. If you put Ryan Howard and Chase Utley on, he’ll sting you.
So who excels in the clutch? I was wondering if anyone raised their game with the heat on. Here is what the numbers say for this season:
BA/RISP BA Plus/Minus
Dobbs: .353 / .285 / +.068
Burrell: .271 / .211 / +.060
Nunez: .314 / .270 / +.044
Rowand: .362 / .325 / +.037
Werth: .263 / .239 / +.024
Ruiz: .289 / .272 / +.015
Burrell is hitting sixty points better with runners in scoring position. Generally speaking, Burrell is someone who raises their game with the runners on:
Plus / Minus: Pat Burrell
Rowand is somewhat less consistent …
Plus / Minus: Aaron Rowand
2004: -.020 (Chicago White Sox)
2005: +.020 (Chicago White Sox)
Now let’s move on to those who sucking things up in the clutch …
BA/RISP BA Plus/Minus
Bourn: .250 / .263 / -.013
Howard: .250 / .232 / -.018
Rollins: .242 / .278 / -.036
Helms: .208 / .248 / -.040
Victorino: .233 / .278 / -.045
Utley: .262 / .320 / -.058
Barajas: .136 / .205 / -.069
Michael Bourn ought to be stricken because he hits so rarely with players in scoring position. He’s a speed demon, a subject I’ll expand upon a little later in the week. You’ll notice the Phillies three big bats here: Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, as well as Victorino. I’ll focus a little on Ryan Howard here:
BA/RISP BA Plus/Minus
2007: .242 / .232 / +.010
2006: .256 / .313 / -.057
2005: .242 / .289 / -.048
In 2005 he was the Rookie of the Year and in 2006 he was the N.L. MVP. And yet he was horrifically terrible hitting in the clutch in years where he was recognized for his brilliance at the plate. Just goes to show you how irrelevant clutch hitting is when you have the capacity to slam the ball 450 feet with a single swing of the bat. Since Ryan Howard joined the Phillies late in 2005 he’s gotten 222 Runs Created. That’s the product of hitting 94 Home Runs in that time period.
It’s sort of interesting how successful Howard has been despite hitting so badly with runners on. Albert Pujols, Howard’s arch nemesis, is a monster with runners on:
Chase Utley is struggling quite a bit in the clutch this season – his .259 is terrible in context of the .308 and .309 he hit with runners on second and third in 2005 and 2006 – which is a surprise given how successful he’s been this season. Perhaps Ryan Howard’s struggles at the start of the season are to blame here: without Ryan Howard lurking on-deck, pitchers threw around Chase Utley with impunity.
Quickly I’ll turn my attention to the Phillies pinch-hitters. Hitting well with runners in scoring position is – or ought to be – a prerequisite to being an effective pinch-hitter. Thus far this season the Phillies are utilizing Greg Dobbs as their primary pinch-hitter, and Dobbs has had some success: going 7-for-27 (.259) with three doubles and a home run along with nine RBIs as a pinch-hitter. As you can see above, Dobbs is doing pretty well with runners in scoring position, hitting .353, second-best on the team after Rowand.
Following Dobbs is Jayson Werth, the team’s fourth outfielder, who has gone 5-for-16 (.313) as a pinch-hitter with a home run and two RBIs. Werth, like Dobbs, is hitting well with runners on (.263 BA/RISP). Wes Helms, who seems to have abdicated his spot as the Phillies primary bat off the bench is just 2-for-11 as a pinch-hitter (.182) with a pair of RBI. Helms .208 BA/RISP is second-worst on the team after Rod Barajas. The less said, the better.
Dobbs is a major improvement over the Phillies primary pinch-hitter in 2006, David Dellucci, who hit well as a pinch-hitter (16-for-60, .267), but hit badly with runners in scoring position: .182. It is a remarkable, and underappreciated, aspect of Pat Gillick’s management that he’s found terrific role-players to join the Phillies roster and give them a slight edge here and there. Dobbs certainly qualifies, as does Werth.
Monday, June 18, 2007
Obviously the Phillies pitching could have done a better job, but it wasn’t much of a defeat for the Phillies hurlers. They were stacked up against a terrific lineup that averaged six runs a game, playing in a park designed for offense, and they came away with about that same number. Jamie Moyer hurled a nice game on Saturday night too. Thanks to the Mets two defeats in three games to the Yankees, the Phillies didn’t lose any ground on the Boys from Queens, although they did relinquish second place to the Braves. Now there are three teams grouped at the top of the N.L. East, just two games apart. With the Marlins just five and a half back of the Mets and the Nats eight back, the N.L. East might be the best division in baseball. Unlike the N.L. Central, you will find three strong contenders and two capable teams bringing up the rear, unlike the messes that currently exist in Cincinnati and St. Louis. Add in the flop that the Cubs have become, and you’ve got the sorriest division in baseball.
Tonight, the Phillies kick-off a nice series in Cleveland with the Indians. The Phillies send Cole Hamels against Indians starter Cliff Lee. Give the Phillies the edge. Tomorrow they send Kyle Kendrick to the mound. Let’s hope the rookie can follow up the first start with another.