Friday, September 28, 2007
This is shaping up to be a historic season. After Jimmy Rollins boasted that the Phillies were the team to beat in the preseason, many dismissively wrote the Phillies off with their struggles out of the gate. Just a few weeks ago the Phillies were mostly given an outside chance to make the playoffs. Trailing in the wildcard race, well behind the Mets in the N.L. East race, the Phillies were a long-shot to make it. Just two weeks ago the Mets held a seven game lead on the Phillies. The Mets collapse these last two weeks is hardly as dramatic as 1964, but it is stunning. How could a team boasting such experience as the Mets, with so much talent, fall apart like this? The spirit and energy of Phillies fans was contagious, as they cheered wildly and waved towels. The Phillies fed off that energy and seemed to be playing with passion we’ve never seen before. Certainly, I’ve never seen the Phillies play like this since 1993. In the past we’ve seen the Phillies playing tentatively down the stretch, cautiously, fearful they’d come up short, reluctant to believe in themselves.
Not this year. Watching Brett Myers pump his fist as he strode off the mound with his 21st save of the year, you could see the passion and enthusiasm in the players and the fans. This team believes in itself. This team knows it can win. I haven’t seen a Phillies team with this much passion and heart since 1993.
The Mets, in contrast, look like the Phillies. Manager Willie Randolph looks like he’s been beaten. Watching him on ESPN last night he seemed tired and drained, too numb to rally the troops. His efforts to fire up his players during the game was almost pathetic, pounding the fists of players who looked too pessimistic and too nervous to think about victory, only the avoidance of defeat. Nobody wanted to look him in the eye. This is a beaten team.
According to Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds, the Phillies hold a slight edge over the Mets for the N.L. East right now: 50.3% to 49.7%. Overall, the Phillies playoff chances are slightly better than the Mets: 59.1% to 58.5%.
Tonight, Saturday and Sunday: Phillies vs. Nationals. The Phillies are 10-5 against the Nationals this season and this seems to favor the Phillies. The last series they played the Phillies took three of four. Oh, and ace Cole Hamels goes for the Phillies tonight. The Mets, meanwhile, greet the Marlins at Shea Stadium, where the Fishstripes are aiming to be spoilers. This will be interesting.
It’s not in the bag by any means. The Phillies still have to win, and as a Phillies fan you have to remember the tragic history this team has. Decades of losing, a dynasty that failed to materialize in the 1950’s, the collapse of 1964, the teams of 1976-1978 that lost the NLCS three times, the decline of the championship team in the mid-to-late 1980’s, the ’93 team that lost on Joe Carter’s home run, the team’s recent failures. I hesitate to point out that history is against the Phillies.
But who cares about that? Live in the moment. October baseball beckons. My prediction: the Mets rally and win two of three, the Phillies also take two of three, and the Phillies and Mets duel in the 163rd game of the season Monday night, a one-game playoff to decide the N.L. East title. Enjoy!
Thursday, September 27, 2007
The game showcased how differently the Phillies and Braves are now, compared to just recently. Gaffes like Chipper Jones’ failure to tag Chase Utley and then his wide throw to first on Aaron Rowand, which allowed Utley to score and set up Ryan Howard and Rowand scoring when Greg Dobbs singled them in later, were mistakes that you’d see the Phillies make. Mental, bone-headed lapses in judgment that would break a game wide-open.
Kyle Lohse also out-pitched Tim Hudson, who actually pitched quite well himself. Lohse handicapped Braves hitters all night long, striking out five and not allowing a walk. Aside from the home run he allowed off the bat of Mark Teixeira, it was a near-perfect performance. Hudson pitched well too, but was utterly done in by Jones error.
Also, the Phillies bullpen entered the game and nailed the Braves coffin shut with three strikeouts. The Braves bullpen, in contrast, allowed the Phillies to tack on an insurance run when Shane Victorino hammered an insurance home run to make the game 5-2 in the seventh inning. The tough pitching, the good fielding, the mistake-free baseball, it is like the Braves have regressed to become the Phillies of old. This year feels different.
I think Phillies phandom knows that too. Watching the game on TV last night, I loved seeing the intensity in the crowd. Citizens Bank Ballpark was rocking. If the Phillies make the playoffs, Citizens Bank is going to be a difficult place for the Cubs or Diamondbacks or Padres to come and win a game or two.
I also saw that the Colorado Rockies have won ten games in a row and would probably be the most unlikely playoff team in decades if they close the gap and take the wildcard. Their last nine wins have been against the Padres and Dodgers too: very good teams they are competing with for the playoffs. These Rockies have been amazing over the last week. Overall, they are 17-7 in September. The Rockies September surge augers well for their chances to compete in 2008.
The Mets, in contrast, have really opened the door for the Phillies with their 4-9 swoon since September 14th. What’s wrong with the Mets? Their pitching has really been shelled of late. They allowed 32 runs to the Nationals in this series. 32 runs!!!! Tonight the Mets have Pedro on the mound. If he collapses, I think the Mets could be ruined mentally.
We shall see.
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
The loss dropped the Phillies wildcard chances to 26%, while improving the Padres to 38%. Overall, the loss dropped the Phillies playoff chances to 34%, while the Padres saw theirs rise to 48%. Ouch. Worse still, the Padres send ace Jake Peavy to the mound tonight. I did the math and realized that this means Peavy would be the Padres pitcher for a one-game playoff on Monday, October 1, in the event that the Phillies and Padres tie.
Tonight, the Phillies need Kyle Lohse to get the better of Tim Hudson. This is a critical game.
Ruminations on the Phillies pitching … I was looking at the Phillies pitching stats and I noticed a couple of things of note … First off, Cole Hamels is third on the Phillies in Quality Starts Pct. with 15 in 27 starts, which is 55% … A Quality Start is a start where the pitcher surrenders three or fewer runs in six innings of work. Anyway, Jamie Moyer leads the team with 18 QS in 31 starts. Moyer’s QS Pct. is 58%. However, neither Moyer nor Hamels has the best percentage on the team. That honor belongs to Kyle Kendrick, who has turned in 12 in 19 starts, 63%. The worst, by far, incidentally, was Adam Eaton: 8 for 29 … 28% … That’s pretty bad … Overall, the Phillies rank twelfth in Quality Starts with 71 this season. The San Diego Padres, perhaps unsurprisingly, were first with 88. What did surprise me was that the Mets were second with 84, despite the absence of Pedro Martinez this season.
The best pitched N.L. game this season, incidentally, remains Jon Lieber’s June 9th, complete game, shutout, eleven strikeout gem against the Kansas City Royals. ESPN gives it a 92 game score.
Cole Hamels has dropped off the radar of ESPN’s Cy Young predictor. The Padres Peavy sits as the front-runner with the Diamondbacks Brandon Webb right behind.
Oh, and I see that Pat Gillick is making 2008 his last as the Phillies GM. No surprise. He's got to be exhausted and wanting to return to the West Coast. The team that he will leave for his successor is going to be loaded with talent. This will be interesting ...
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
As a result, the math has dramatically improved for the Phillies playoff chances. The Phillies now hold a 47-27% edge over the Padres, nearly two-to-one, in the wildcard race. Overall, the Phillies are 56% to make the playoffs. This is astonishing luck for the Phillies to see two teams, the Padres and Mets, falter so dramatically down the stretch. This is the anti-1964.
Well, after such a productive off-day, now the Phillies have to take to the field tonight against the Atlanta Braves.
Readers of this blog know it is no secret that I loathe and despise the Braves. Their bland domination of the N.L. East over the last decade has killed interest in baseball in the National League, in my opinion, and has been a real detriment to baseball. Their General Manager, John Schuerholz, poured fuel on the fire with his smug, self-congratulatory book Built To Win, a ego-stroking tome that contains patently dishonest baseball arguments (e.g., the Red Sox World Series title “proves” Moneyball doesn’t work). It is ironic to me that Joe Morgan blasted Billy Beane for “writing” Moneyball and dishonestly casting himself the hero, when Schuerholz wrote a book and dishonestly cast himself as a genius.
I can’t really complain I dislike Braves fans the way I loathe Mets fans: they are generally polite and nice, well-spoken. The stereotypical Southerner, warm and friendly. And the Braves strategy has been successful. Their starting pitching – Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz – has been some of the best in history. Bill James has written that the Braves rotation of the mid-1990’s was probably the best in recent history, or all-time. I find that difficult to argue with. I wish the Phillies were about assemble a collection of arms like the Braves have.
While the Braves will finish the season with a winning record, unlike last year’s 79-83 campaign, they will once again fail to win the N.L. East and will almost certainly finish in third place for the second consecutive season. The Braves won eleven consecutive N.L. East titles between 1995 and 2005 … and fourteen division titles if you throw out the strike-shortened season in 1994 when they trailed the Montreal Expos and include their 1991, 1992 and 1993 N.L. West division titles under the old two division format.
Such a run of dominance hasn’t been seen in baseball since some guys named Babe Ruth, Lou Gerhig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle put together some good seasons from 1921 to 1964, winning 28 American League pennants and 20 World Series titles with a team in the Bronx that used to be called the Highlanders.
But those days are over. These Braves are on the decline, but they pose a major threat to the Phillies as they begin their series together today at Citizens Bank Ballpark. Reduced to playing the role of spoiler, I think there is some chance the Braves will spoil the Phillies race for the playoffs.
So what is wrong with the Braves this season? Simply put, their once-vaunted pitching staff looks like a shell of its old self. While Smoltz and Tim Hudson are a formidable one-two paring (14-7, 2.97 ERA and 16-8, 3.33 ERA respectively), the rest of the Braves pitching is a shambles. Chuck James, 11-10, 4.10 ERA, has been atrocious. His FIP ERA is a whopping 5.26, over a run more than his “real” ERA. Buddy Carlyle, 8-6, 5.16 ERA, has been equally bad, as is Kyle Davies, 4-9, 5.76 ERA. Both Carlyle and Davies have absurdly high FIPs: 5.16 and 5.76. When three of your top five starters have 5.00+ FIPs, you have a flawed pitching staff. The three have been shelled for sixty home runs in 346 innings, or 1.56 HR/9. Smoltz and Hudson, in contrast, have given up just 24 home runs in 404 innings of work, or 0.54 HR/9.
The Braves have had other issues in the bullpen. Mike Gonzalez, whom they acquired from the Pirates in exchange for Adam LaRoche, hurled just seventeen innings out of the bullpen. Bob Wickman, their closer, was a horror show, blowing six of twenty-six tries. Rafael Soriano has been a little better – eight of eleven – but he’s also given up twelve home runs. Lacking a go-to closer, the Braves have squandered leads and blown games late.
The shame of it is that their offense is quite good and the team added a lot of firepower with Mark Teixeira, although they may pay a price when they dealt Jarrod Saltalamacchia to the Rangers as part of the deal. Teixeria has hit 13 home runs and has 45 RBIs as a Brave in just 46 games. His OPS is a whopping 1.016 and he is leading the Braves in Runs Created per 27 Outs at 11.8. He has made the Braves offense very dangerous and has helped to deal with the impact the struggling Andruw Jones – .221 batting average, 26 home runs and 92 RBIs – is having on the Braves offense.
Examining the runs scored – runs allowed differential, I noticed something funny. The Braves, not the Phillies and Mets, have the best run differential in the N.L. East. In fact, if you went by Pythagorean win-loss records, the Braves would hold a two game edge in the N.L. East race:
Braves: +77, 86-70
Mets: +67, 84-72
Phillies: +61, 84-72
Marlins: -105, 68-88
Nationals: -114, 66-90
This is a product of the Mets being 21-14 in one-run games, while the Phillies are 14-23 and the Braves are 17-24.
Tonight, Jamie Moyer vs. Chuck James. Moyer, the cagey veteran seems to have a clear edge here over James. Tomorrow, Kyle Lohse vs. Tim Hudson and Thursday, it is Adam Eaton vs. John Smoltz.
Let's see what happens ...
Monday, September 24, 2007
We’ll get to the Phillies left fielder and his performance this season, but first let’s sum up the Phillies current playoff chances:
Sunday’s loss to the Nationals left the Phillies record at 85-71, a half game behind the 85-70 San Diego Padres. The bad news is that the Phillies fell to 2.5 games behind the Mets in the N.L. East race, which narrows the Phillies chances of taking the division. Even if the Phillies go 6-0 against the Braves and Marlins, they need for the Mets to lose three of their last seven games that remain, a thoroughly tall order. That would give the Phillies and Mets a tie at 91 wins and force a one-game playoff. Simply put, the chances of the Phillies catching the Mets is remote. According to Baseball Prospectus, the chances of the Phillies winning the division is about 5%.
However, the Phillies overall playoff chances are pretty good. According to BP, the Phillies actually hold a slight edge over the Padres in terms of playoff chances: 48% to 44%. The interesting thing is that the Phillies play their last six games at home, while the Padres play theirs on the road. Could that be the Phillies edge?
Let’s move on to Pat Burrell. I’ve often felt bad for Burrell. Immensely talented, he never quite was able to become the Mike Schmidt / Mickey Mantle type of franchise player that the Phillies hoped he’d be when they drafted him as the first player overall in the 1998 draft. After his break-out season in 2002 – 37 home runs, 116 RBI, 121 Runs Created – Burrell was poised to become the Phillies super-duper star, replacing the departed Scott Rolen as the new heir to Mike Schmidt’s legacy. That didn’t happen. His horrible 2003 campaign – 21 home runs, 64 RBI – tarnished his reputation beyond repair. He struggled to regain form in 2004 and turned in a terrific season in 2005, not that anyone has noticed. The focus of Phillies fandom has switched to Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.
The Phillies much-maligned left fielder is on Pat Gillick’s chopping block for 2008, after innumerable efforts to deal him in 2007. Owed $13+ million in 2008, the final year of the six-year, $50 million dollar deal he signed in 2003, Burrell is border-line untradeable. Declining defensive skills and a perception that he has a fatal ankle injury that might go at any time have destroyed his value in the trade market. Burrell has never been able to replicate the splash that he made in 2002.
Confused about what stats I’m talking about? Here are the stats I refer to below defined:
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).
RC/27: Runs Created per 27 outs, essentially what a team of 9 of this player would score in a hypothetical game.
Let's start with Burrell’s season so far. Burrell has hit 29 home runs with 94 RBI thus far this season. Impressively, he has 110 walks vs. 114 strikeouts. He has moved from being a free-swinging slugger to a confident, choosey hitter. Compared with 2002, when he struck-out 22% of the time, Burrell has seen his strikeouts decline slightly to 19% in 2007. His 110 walks this season are a career-high, eleven better than 2005. Look at how often Burrell walks now, compared with 2002-2006:
I think Burrell has really changed his approach at the plate. Look at how his OBP has shifted:
Part of the story here is his shift from free-swinging slugger to cautious slugger ... What is interesting to me is that for all of the criticism of Burrell, he is just as explosive at the plate as he has ever been. This is the remarkable consistency I spoke of. Look at his slugging percentage ...
His performance from 2005 to this season has been astonishing. A +.500 slugging percentage for a player whose career is supposedly in decline. His raw power at the plate is even more impressive:
In 2005 Burrell got some notice by the writers for his terrific comeback by placing seventh in the MVP voting, well behind Albert Pujols. His raw power at the plate has actually been increasing slightly. In fact, his isolated power has been increasing since 2003, when it bottomed out at .195. I find the criticism leveled at Burrell that he's not consistent, that he's a shell of the player he used to be, that he provides Ryan Howard with no protection in the lineup, to be ironic. He looks like as tough and formitable a hitter now as he ever was.
This year will be a career-high in terms of Runs Created per 27 Outs for Burrell:
Declining hitter? I think he's been remarkably consistent and will likely continue to do so in 2008.
Now to my exception - there is little doubt that Burrell, once a talented defensive outfielder, is today simply awful. As I write this he ranks dead-last in N.L. left fielders in terms of Relative Zone Rating, the percentage of times he makes a play on balls hit into his defensive zone. In fact, his .794 RZR is substantially worse than such defensive horror-shows as Carlos Lee and Adam Dunn. Burrell has made 19 plays on balls hit outside of his zone, a terrible number. Burrell's fielding percentage is an absurd .944. He's made nine errors this season in the field.
For this reason Pat Burrell needs to play for an American League team, but his massive $13.5 million dollar salary makes that a nullity, unless the Baltimore Orioles or some other team takes Burrell off the Phillies hands. The thing is that for all of the heat Burrell takes, he's actually pretty good. Not $13.5 million dollars good, but the criticism leveled at him is unfair. He's assailed by the writers and pundits and fans because he never became the player that they expected him to be. But the player that he is ... well, I think he's a terrific weapon in the Phillies arsenal, a cagey slugger capable of working the count and burning you with a home run. This has gone virtually unnoticed, but he's been just as consistently good now as he has ever been.
Maybe Pat Burrell was never Mike Schmidt, maybe he never seized the opportunity the departure Scott Rolen presented to him, but he is a tremendous player. Recognize that, Phillies fans.