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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United States, Pennsylvania, Wexford, Christopher Wren, English, Michael, Male, 26-30, baseball , politics.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Speed Kills 

Before my vacation I wanted to write something about the Phillies that pin-pointed what the big story of the 2007 campaign was, the reason why the ’07 team has been in contention all of these months and why it is playing much better than the ’06 team ever did. Pitching? No, the Phillies pitching has been a mixed bag all year, full of problems (bullpen), and disappointments that have failed to live up to their billing (Adam Eaton & Freddy Garcia). Fielding? The ’07 team is as bad on defense as the ’06 team, which was horrible, awful and terrible compared with the teams that Phillies had earlier in the decade. Hitting? The ’07 team is hitting about the same as the ’06 squad, although it is relying a little less on Ryan Howard than last year. No, the big difference, the big thing that separates the 2007 Philadelphia Phillies from the year in 2006, in 2005 and in 2004, has been speed. The team with the cramped little ball park tailor-made for 450-ft home runs has learned how to be quick and fast on the base-paths and that has made all of the difference this season.

I’ve spent a good deal of the season mulling over the impact speed has had on the 2007 Phillies and on the game in general. I wary of sounding like a broken record, but I think it bears repeating that speed is the BIG THING this season. We’re going to discuss that a little here …

First, like many people influenced by Moneyball, I discounted the importance of speed. Base-stealing is an unnecessary risk teams take that end up costing them runs in the long … er, run. The Oakland A’s and their station-to-station, walk, walk, walk and wait for the three-run home run style was something that I eagerly embraced. The Phillies, playing in the cozy confines of Citizens bank Ballpark, were ideally tailored for such an approach. The ’06 team seemed to achieve perfection, hammering 216 home runs on their way to scoring 865 runs, best in the N.L. They worked counts, got on base and waited for Ryan Howard to blast them home.

How could anyone do any better?

I noticed, however, that the ’06 team was pretty inconsistent, scoring runs in droves and failing to drive them in at key moments. Not batting well with runners in scoring position will do that. They didn’t run much, despite having one of the best stolen-base threats in baseball, Jimmy Rollins, leading off, attempting just 117 steals, compared to the New York Mets 181. Running the bases was an issue as well. The ’07 Bill James Handbook contains some ground-breaking work on base-running (an area, along with fielding that Bill James has stated in the past he feels needs some work on) and comes to the conclusion that while the Phillies had excellent base-runners like Chase Utley (second in baseball at +27 bases), Rollins (+9), Aaron Rowand (+13), and Shane Victorino (+14) on the roster they also had some, plodding dinosaurs like Howard (-21), Pat Burrell (-20), Mike Lieberthal (-10) and Sal Fasano (-10). The Phillies were an American League-style team, the Oakland A’s East, a collection of slow, plodding DH-type hitters.

Another thing I noticed, in my reading over the last year, that Bill James doesn’t have much nice to say about the current trend in the game towards the power game. Looking back on James comments about baseball in the 1950’s, you can see why he doesn’t much care for power: James wrote of 1950s baseball in his Historical Baseball Abstract, “[t]he baseball of the 1950s was perhaps the most one-dimensional, uniform, predictable version of the game which has ever been offered to the public. By 1950, the stolen base was a rare play, a ‘surprise’ play.” Historical Abstract at 220. James approvingly notes that teams began to move away from power baseball to embrace speed. The changes that enveloped baseball in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s dramatically changed the game of baseball. Speed began to become a viable option for teams offensively. Once Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record in 1961, the powers that be elected to shrink the strike-zone. The next year Maury Wills stole 104 bases for the Dodgers and the balance of power in baseball shifted dramatically towards speed and base-stealing. Teams slowly began to respond by shifting to speed (moving out of their old cozy ballparks and into more spacious digs with artificial turf like Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium or the Vet helped too) to a point where every team had to have a speed threat. James approvingly writes of baseball in the 1970s: “It was a game that put the full athletic ability of the players on display in a way that was very satisfying, very exciting. Attendance boomed.”

About the modern game, James writes: “I think a consensus has been developed among baseball people that [the home run era] is beginning to grow tiresome, and that something will soon need to be done to make baseball look more like baseball … I would be in favor of deadening the baseball a little bit.” Historical Abstract at 324-325. I think that teams are turning away from the power game and are moving to embrace speed. Why? Well, in another column I credited things like the scrutiny about steroids and the me-too aspects of sports – by me-too I mean the habit teams have of embracing ideas that work for other teams. The proliferation of the West Coast offense in the NFL in the 1990’s is an excellent example of this. The embrace of Moneyball tactics after the book was published in 2003 will be something that will be more apparent as time goes by and we get a little historical perspective on baseball in the twenty-first century. Now I think the tide is turning and I credit the simple fact of success – the Anaheim Angels are poised to win the World Series this season and emerge as a dominant teams for years and years in advance thanks to their young rotation and their owner’s deep pockets. The Angels pitching, defense and small-ball tactics are going to emerge as the new template for building a winner in the coming years.

So too, I expect to see the Phillies change directions and move towards a running game. I credit the hiring of Davy Lopes, the former L.A. Dodger, as the Phillies first base coach.

-Lopes influence: Lopes has improved the team’s base-running and has made them much, much more aggressive on the base-paths. Already we can see the results of Lopes work: last season the Phillies were seventh in triples with 41. This season they are tied for first with 32 already. Last season? Eighth in stolen bases with 92. This season? Second with 114. Think about that. It took the Phillies 162 games to steal 92 bases in 2006. They have stolen 114 in just 136 games in 2007.

Sadly, we won’t have base-running data until the end of the season when Bill James publishes it, but I already suspect that the Phillies are going to have a lot of terrific base-runners thanks to Lopes. Guys like Rowand, Rollins, Utley and Victorino are also going to have guys like Bourn and Roberson on there too and I bet that they all will have lots of plus numbers for how many bases they took in 2007. Aside from slow players like Burrell, Howard and Helms, the Phillies don’t have many weak base-runners.

The embrace of speed has made the Phillies a more consistent and thrilling team to watch. Just look at the Phillies 11-10 win over the Mets last week and see. Trailing 10-9 in the bottom of the ninth, Jayson Werth proceeds to steal second and third, thus allowing Iguchi to single him home easily to tie the game. Then Iguchi steals second, forcing the Mets to walk J.Roll and set up a force play at second and third. Chase Utley’s single wins the game when Iguchi rolls in from second base. That victory was the product of speed and intensity that the 2006 team never had.

Other major factors in the Phillies embrace of speed:

-Turning Shane Victorino loose … The biggest surprise for me this season has been Victorino. He got caught three of the seven times he tried to steal in 2006, so I didn’t expect much. His terrific +14 on the bases … one of the best in baseball, despite not playing much … should have clued me in that Victorino was going to fly on the bases. Thus far this season he’s 34 for 37 in steals, a phenomenal percentage that really blows your mind. Factor in that Victorino has lost nearly a month to injury and you get an idea about what he can do … Despite losing all of that time, Victorino ranks fifth in the N.L. in steals! …

-The emergence of Michael Bourn … I don’t mean to beat a dead-horse here, but Bourn’s stolen-base-a-thon against the Giants in May was a sight to behold. Entering the game for Pat Burrell as a pinch-runner, Bourn proceeds to steal second and third, then beats the throw home when Wes Helms taps a weak grounder to short. Helms may have gotten an RBI, but he plainly didn’t deserve it. Bourn scored that run all by himself.

Thus far, Bourn is 18 of 19 in terms of steals. He’s done a nice job and will be a terrific centerfielder for the Phillies next season when Aaron Rowand leaves.

-Consistently solid play from Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley … You’d probably forget Utley here, but he’s been very good this season. He doesn’t steal much – seven of eight tries – but he’s a solid base-runner who doesn’t make mistakes and takes the extra base when he can. According to Bill James Utley was the second-best base-runner in baseball in 2006. I believe it, and I expect to see him up there in 2007 as well … Jimmy Rollins skills aren’t just base-stealing. Almost single-handedly J.Roll is reviving the lost art of the triple. In addition to swiping 28 of 34 tries, J.Roll has stretched 16 doubles into triples. At the moment J.Roll is leading the N.L. in triples with 16, five more than the Mets Jose Reyes, who gets a lot of ink because he plays in New York City.

Alright, that’s it for today’s post. I’ll be back next Monday. I’m spending the week in Western New York on vacation.

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