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Friday, October 05, 2007

Rockies - Phillies: Game Two Review 

If you look at the world in a glass half-full manner, you could point out that Game Two of the NLDS represented a certain improvement for the Phillies: after going 4-for-29 (.138 BA) with two runs against the Rockies pitchers in Game One, the Phillies managed to score five runs and 9-for-35 (.257 BA). Ryan Howard hit a home run and Jimmy Rollins had a home run, a triple and four RBI … But the Phillies glass is not half-full. It’s nearly dry.

Even for an optimist like myself there really is no way to spin yesterday’s 10-5 loss to the Colorado Rockies as anything but a disaster. Losing the first two games in a best-of-five series at home? The Phillies have dug themselves a hole that they aren’t likely to climb out of.

The culprit last night was the Phillies Achilles Heel, their pitching. Kyle Kendrick got rocked, allowing five hits, two walks and five runs while getting a mere two strikeouts in just three and two-thirds of an inning of work. I had more confidence in Kendrick than was warranted by his pedestrian stats. While there is no disgrace in surrendering home runs to Matt Holliday and Troy Tulowitzki, Kendrick is also culpable for Kazuo Matsui’s devastating grand slam off Kyle Lohse in the fourth inning that might end up being the nail that sealed the Phillies fate. The massive blast from a player who hit four home runs all season shattered the Phillies for the rest of the game. Matsui’s triple in the sixth inning pretty much put the game out of reach for the Phillies.

The Rockies pitching, so good in Game One, was just good enough to win Game Two. They gave the Phillies chances to get back into the game – specifically I turn my eye to the Phillies bases-loaded situation in the bottom of the eighth inning when Carlos Ruiz grounded into an inning-ending 5-3 ground-out to leave the score at 10-5 – but they were better than the Phillies battered pitchers. Kendrick got rocked, Lohse surrendered the devastating grand slam, and Jose Mesa got hammered for another three runs. It was a horrifying game for the Phillies, who can ill-afford another performance like this from their hurlers.

So let’s look forward to Game Three on Saturday at 9:37 PM Eastern time in Denver, Colorado. Jamie Moyer vs. Ubaldo Jimenez.

The numbers are against the Phillies in Game Three. Jamie Moyer is 0-4 with a 5.54 ERA in his career against the Rockies. In his only start this season against the Rockies, in Colorado on July 7th, Moyer went five and one-third innings and gave up eight hits, three walks and five runs, while getting just two strikeouts on his way to losing 6-3 to the Rockies. Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself.

History isn’t entirely out of the Phillies reach. In the modern wildcard era four teams have rallied from 0-2 deficits to come back and win their series. It hasn’t happened, however, since 2003:

1995: Seattle Mariners dropped their first two games to the New York Yankees and rallied to win the series.

1999: The Cleveland Indians blew out the Boston Red Sox 11-1 in Game Two to take a 2-0 lead in the ALDS, then watched as the Red Sox won the next three games 9-3, 23-7 and 12-8 in an explosion of offense after scoring just three runs in the first two games.

2001: The Oakland A’s took the first two games of the ALDS in New York 5-3 and 2-0. This is the series that the Phillies must hope to emulate, because the Yankees went on to win games three and four 1-0 and 9-2 in Oakland, then they won the fifth game in New York 5-3.

2003: Once more, the A’s took a 2-0 lead in the ALDS, having won game one 5-4 in dramatic fashion when catcher Ramon Hernandez bunted to score Eric Chavez in the bottom of the twelfth inning. The Red Sox took the next two games in Fenway and then eked out a 4-3 win in Oakland to face the Yankees in the ALCS.

The ’01 A’s – Yankees series gives the Phillies the best hope to emulate. A team has lost both of the opening games at home and rallied to win the road games. The key is going to be a fast start for Game Three. The Phillies have to jump on Jimenez in the first inning and give Jamie Moyer a cushion.

Now the series is going to shift to Coors Field in Denver. Coors is unlike any other ballpark in baseball.

The idea that Coors Field is a haven for home run hitters is something of a misnomer that needs to be corrected. If you look at the 2006 Park Factor numbers for Coors Field, the park’s Home Run Factor was 114, in other words: a team / player was 14% more likely to hit a home run at Coors Field than in a neutral ballpark. That ranked Coors Field just seventh amongst sixteen National League ballparks. Not so bad. Once you look at batting average park factor numbers, the conclusions shift more dramatically: Coors rates a 111, which is tops in the National League. Run Factor was 115, also tops in the N.L.

When you looked at the numbers spread for 2004 – 2006, there was an event bigger change: Coors park factor was 115 for batting average, and 128 for runs scored, which was 10 and 18 points higher, respectively, than the other N.L. parks. Coors Home Run park factor was just 112, ranking them sixth of sixteen N.L. parks.

The thin air in Denver results in the ball carrying a great distance through the air, faster and longer than it would closer to sea level. As noted in Baseball Between the Numbers chapter on Coors Field (Chapter 8.2: “How Much Does Coors Field Really Matter?”), a ball hit in Denver will travel 300 feet about 0.3 seconds faster than it would in Boston, and thus cut down on the range of an outfielder by eight or nine feet. This won’t pose an issue for Shane Victorino or Aaron Rowand, but in the late innings of a game, if the Phillies are leading and don’t need Pat Burrell’s bat, Charlie Manuel should replace Burrell with a defensive replacement like Chris Roberson. To leave Burrell in the bottom of the ninth of a one-run Phillies lead would be criminal.

This also suggests that Jamie Moyer is probably the worst pitcher to have the ball for the Phillies for Game Three. Of the Phillies four starting pitchers he is the most fly-ball oriented:

G/F ratio:
Moyer: 1.08
Hamels: 1.13
Lohse: 1.27
Kendrick: 1.55

Don’t be surprised if Moyer doesn’t make it out of the first inning.

The pressure is going to be on Charlie Manuel to win the next three games. I thought it might be interesting to compare and contrast Manuel and Clint Hurdle, the Rockies skipper. The two have contrasting styles, though their philosophies are evolving: Hurdle has embraced the small-ball approach to baseball, while Manuel, an American League manager, is moving from “Moneyball” to a hybrid approach. Here are some differences between the two taken from last season's Bill James Baseball Handbook:

Manuel / Hurdle (2006)
SBA: 117 / 135
SacA: 79 / 155
DS: 49 / 22
PR: 42 / 17
RM: 69 / 109

SBA: Stolen Bases Attempted; SacA: Sacrifice Bunts Attempted; DS: Defensive Substitutions; PR: Pinch-Runners; RM: Runners Moving.

A few definite traits emerge in each manager: Hurdle’s Rockies led the N.L. in sacrifice bunts attempted. This is a weapon Hurdle likes to employ more and more as a manager: he attempted 44 in 2002, when he managed 140 games as the Rockies skipper, then he tried 82 in 2003, 126 in 2004, 114 in 2005 and 155 last season. For a team that plays in a home run hitters haven, these are a lot of attempts to play small ball.

Employing speed seems to be the trend in Hurdle’s managing style: in 2006 he had runners moving 109 times, and in 2005 he did the same 119 times. The previous two seasons he had the runners moving 26 and 52 times. The Phillies tend to stay put with Charlie Manuel: 69 runners moving in 2006, 76 in 2005. I suspect that is changing a little though: the Phillies ran more in 2007 and actually finished second in the N.L. in stolen bases thanks to the presence of guys like Michael Bourn and Shane Victorino in the lineup to supplement Jimmy Rollins.

Hurdle also tends to stick with his starting pitchers longer. Hurdle’s 52 “slow hooks” of his starting pitchers ranked him first in the N.L., alhtough he made a wise decision by yanking the struggling Franklin Morales from the game yesterday. Charlie Manuel’s 43 slow hooks was pretty average.

Hurdle’s 22 defensive substitutions ranked him next-to-last in the N.L., while Manuel’s 49 ranked in the middle. I think this suggests that Manuel won't leave Burrell in the game if he can at all help it.

Prediction: the Phillies 2007 campaign comes to an end with a 7-3 loss to the Rockies. I hate to say it, but the history is pretty much against us.

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Rockies - Phillies: Game One Review 

Yesterday’s 4-2 loss to the Colorado Rockies was a major blow to the phillies playoff chances, but I’d caution the fans out there from thinking that it is necessarily fatal. Remember, the Phillies were going up against the Rockies best pitcher, whose stuff was pretty darn good. The rest of the Rockies rotation isn’t as good. Don’t worry, the Phillies will get another crack at Francis in game five.

You aren’t going to win any ball games when Ryan Howard and Chase Utley go 0-for-8 with seven strikeouts. Seven strikeouts. Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino didn’t exactly set the table for them either, going 0-for-7 with a walk and two strikeouts. The Phillies 1-4 hitters were an astonishing 0-for-15 with nine strikeouts. In sixteen plate appearances, the best the four could do was a Jimmy Rollins walk.

With nobody on base, nobody could steal or try and put some pressure on Francis. He was free to blow pitches by the Phillies hitters and leave after the sixth inning with a 3-2 lead. The Rockies bullpen took care of the rest.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the job that the Rockies pitchers did in the game and have frustration with the Phillies. The best offense in the National League hit .137 against the Rockies pitchers. They will have to do better in game two.

The flip side is that the Phillies pitchers didn’t do a bad job either. The Rockies were just 6-for-32, or .188, with four walks. The Phillies pitchers struck-out twelve Rockies. Hamels was very good in his playoff debut, getting seven strikeouts in six and two-thirds of an inning. Aside from Tom Gordon allowing a home run to Matt Holliday to double the Rockies lead, the bullpen didn’t pitch badly either. The Phillies pitching was good, but the Rockies was great yesterday.

The Rockies and Phillies will both be sending rookies to the mound today. The Rockies elected to go with Franklin Morales (3-2, 3.43 ERA) instead of Redman, while the Phillies send Kyle Kendrick. Morales first major league start was August 18th. Kendrick’s was June 13th.

I like Kendrick in this match-up because he’s had a lot of success this season despite seemingly posting some pedestrian numbers. His 3.64 K/9 ratio is pretty mediocre, but he only allowed 25 walks in 121 innings pitched: 1.86 BB/9. The Phillies play pretty good defense behind Kendrick too: .719 DER. Is that because of Kendrick or despite him? I am not sure.

Confused about what I’m talking about? Here are the stats I refer to defined:
ERA – Earned Run Average: (Earned Runs * 9) / IP = ERA
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
BB/9 – Walks per nine innings: (BB * 9) / IP
K/9 – Strikeouts per nine innings: (K * 9) / IP

Prediction for today’s game: the Phillies get unwound early and drive Morales off the mound by the fourth inning on their way to a 6-2 victory. Ryan Howard hits a home run and Jimmy Rollins get two or three hits. And the Phillies steal three bases.

I had forgotten to mention this yesterday: the Rockies caught 21% of the base-stealers who ran against them in 2007. I don’t think they’ve had to play a team with as much speed on the roster as the Phillies – J.Roll, Utley, Victorino, Chris Roberson – so base-stealing might be the Phillies hidden edge.

On to what the pundits are saying …

Josh Kalk has a break-down of Francis performance against the Phillies yesterday over at The Hardball Times. Basically, Kalk analyzed Francis pitches and determined that he mixed in more curveballs than he usually did and threw changeups on counts where he usually went with his fastball.

Bob Ford at the Inquirer has a pretty pessimistic take on yesterday’s game. The Inquirer’s Jim Salisbury says that the Rockies intentionally worked the counts against Hamels and were aided by the unusually warm October day, which wore Hamels down. Let’s hope for a cold front for game five.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Sports Illustrated 

Jimmy Rollins is on the cover of Sports Illustrated:

And thanks to the Inquirer's Todd Zolecki for the shout-out on his blog, the excellent The Zo Zone.

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What The Enemy Is Saying... 

I quickly perused the Rockies blogosphere – such as it is – to see what fans up in the Mile High City are saying and thinking about this series. I found myself pleasantly surprised at the quality of discourse. No snide remarks about the city of Philadelphia or the Phillies players like you might see from … I dunno, Mets fans … Nothing defensive or angry or boastful. Good analysis, enthusiasm for their team … It’s hard not to like Rockies fans, if their bloggers are representative of their fans. If the Rockies do upset the Phillies I’ll be pulling for them all of the way. Check out:

Purple Row: a nice blog written by “Rox girl”. Her post today is a good, well-written analysis of today’s game. I’d just like to point out to her, however, that the Rockies made the playoffs in 1995.

Rockies Locker: A Blog written by “chinmusic” that contains a pretty thoughtful analysis of this series. Impressively, he weighs the stats and makes a reluctant conclusion that the Phillies will win. You have to be impressed by someone willing to go with an honest assessment of their team over a hopeful one.

Up in the Rockies gives the Rockies a 3-1 series victory. I disagree, but their analysis is thorough and well-reasoned.

Worth reading.

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ALDS Predictions: Angels vs. Red Sox / Yankees vs. Indians 

We’ll continue with our tour of the playoffs with some brief comments on the American League Divisional Series:

ALDS #1: Anaheim Angels vs. Boston Red Sox … This will probably we the toughest and hardest fought series of the post-season. The Angels and Red Sox are probably the best teams in the American League actually, so the winner of this series is going to beat the winner of ALDS #2 pretty handily in my opinion.

I love the Red Sox and want them to take the series. How tantalizing does a Cubs – Red Sox World Series sound? Or Phillies – Red Sox series? They are the best team, on paper in the A.L. They outscored their opposition by 210 runs in 2007, which would have given them a 102-60 Pythagorean Win-Loss record, had it not been for their 35-38 record in games decided by one or two runs. The Red Sox are strong everywhere: pitching, fielding and at the plate.

Offensively the Red Sox ranked second in the American League in OBP (.362), just .004 behind the Yankees. They were third in the A.L. in runs scored. What was interesting to me was that they hit just 166 home runs in 2007, just eighth in the AL, and far fewer than the 192 they hit in 2006. They’ve got power and they work counts and they score runs. Even with J.D. Drew struggling as he has (hey J.D., the Red Sox aren’t paying you $14 million bucks to hit eleven home runs and 64 RBI), and with Manny riding the pine, the Red Sox are a power thanks to Big Papi himself, David Ortiz: 35 Home Runs, 117 RBI, 116 Runs Scored, .445 OBP, 111 walks, 52 doubles. Ortiz 138 Runs Created ranked him third in the American League. He’s carrying the Red Sox offense along with Mike Lowell (21 Home Runs, 120 RBI). This is a very different team from the 2004 World Series champs, who were deep 1 thru 9 and could hurt you anywhere. The 2007 Red Sox are the Big Papi show. They need him to come up big to win against the Angels.

The Red Sox have a solid pitching staff: Daisuke Matsuzaka (15-12, 4.40 ERA), Tim Wakefield (17-12, 4.76 ERA) and Curt Schilling (9-8, 3.87 ERA) have all been solid, but Josh Beckett (20-7, 3.27 ERA), has been the team’s ace this season. Beckett’s strikeout-to-walk ratio is nearly five-to-one (194 to 40, 4.85 K/BB). Beckett has really done a nice job this season, lowering his home runs allowed from 36 to 17 (or 1.60 HR/9 vs. 0.80 HR/9 in 2007), and upping his strikeout rate from 158 to 194 (or 7.0 K/9 vs. 9.1 K/9 in 2007).

The Red Sox bullpen is a bit of a mess: Eric Gagne won’t be allowed on the mound to pitch unless he’s moping up with a massive lead after all of the struggles he’s had in 2007. Jonathan Papelbon has been great (37 of 40 in saves), but the rest of the Red Sox bullpen feels leaky. Terry Francona will put his career in jeopardy if he puts Eric Gagne on the mound.

I have to admire the Angels. I shouldn’t – they are a team committed to small-ball baseball – but I do. I love their aggressiveness on the field. I love how well they run the bases. The Angels are a template for the future of baseball: teams committed to speed and timely hitting as opposed to power-hitting Moneyball. With the decline in power-hitting as an offensive strategy and the focus on steroids, the Angels are the team of the future.

The Angels are aggressive running the bases: their 139 steals are second in the AL, five behind the Orioles. They have four people with 18 or more steals in their lineup. They are quick and tough to catch. But the key for the Angels is, and will always be, Valdimir Guerrero. Vlad had 25 home runs and 125 RBIs and is the vital cog in the Angels lineup. His 126 Runs Created are 31 more than Orlando Cabrera. Without Vald, the Angels offense would probably grind to a halt. If Beckett, Wakefield and K-Dice can shut Vlad down, the Red Sox will win.

The Angels pitching staff is deep and tough. John Lackey (19-9, 3.01 ERA), Kelvin Escobar (18-7, 3.40 ERA) and Jered Weaver (13-7, 3.91 ERA) are all young, tough starters who are more than a match for the Red Sox hurlers. The Angels bullpen, led by Francisco Rodriguez, is tough.

Defensively the Angels aren’t so good: their .681 Defense Efficiency Ratio and -49 Plus / Minus rating are both well below the league average. While Vlad is a terror in right field – you don’t want to run on him – the rest of the Angels defensive alignment is surprisingly weak. The Red Sox are much better defensively: their +32 was second in the AL to the Oakland A’s at +35, and they allowed the fewest unearned runs in the major leagues: 39.

While I think the differences between the Red Sox and Angels are relatively even at the plate and the Red Sox are the better fielders, I think the Angels younger pitching staff gives them the edge. How well can each side’s pitching staff handle the other side’s key player? If Vlad hits well, the Angels will win. If Big Papi hits well, the Red Sox will win. I’m betting on Vlad.

Prediction: Angels in five.

ALDS #2: New York Yankees vs. Cleveland Indians … The Yankees were the talk of baseball for the second half of the season thanks to their exceptional surge after their 21-29 start, going 73-39 the rest of the way. The Yankees are an interesting team and I wonder how this will all shake out. They scored 968 runs this season, nearly six per game. This is a team that can score runs and has done surprisingly well on the mound.

Offensively the Yankees led the AL in pretty much everything: runs scored, On-Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage, and Home Runs. They also stole a lot of bases (123) and hit well with runners in scoring position (.293 BA/RISP, second in the AL). This is a fearsome lineup: they have six players with 90+ Runs Created. Six! A-Rod in particular has been amazing this season with 54 Home Runs and 156 RBI. Clearly A-Rod is the 2007 A.L. MVP. No player has been dynamic or has paced his team's attack more. Top-to-bottom, there isn’t a weak-link in the Yankees lineup.

The Yankees pitching is a patch-work of new faces and old ones. Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, Mariano Rivera. Chien-Ming Wang and Joba Chamberlain. Don't ask me how Joe Torre did it, but he put together a pitching staff that survived a hellish regular season and made it to the playoffs.

I look at the Cleveland Indians and I see a team that looks a lot like the Detroit Tigers team that upset the Yankees in last season's ALDS 3-1. The 2007 Indians led the American League in FIP ERA at 4.12, much better than the Yankees 4.59. C.C. Sabathia is one of the best pitchers in baseball and is clearly better than anything that the Yankees have to throw up there. The Indians are deep at the plate too with Travis Hafner (24 Home Runs, 100 RBI) and the rest of the Tribe's offense. While the Indians aren't anywhere near as explosive at the plate as the Yankees, they are better on the mound and that is going to be decisive factor.

Prediction: Indians in four.

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Rockies - Phillies Preview 

And so it comes to this … the first time that the Phillies have played a post-season game since Joe Carter launched a Mitch Williams fastball on October 23, 1993, to close out Game Six of the 1993 World Series with a 8-6 Blue Jays victory and a World Series title. Once more, the Phillies return to post-season play, this time against the Colorado Rockies, a team that was in its inaugural season in 1993 and has only made the playoff once before in its history, when it took the wildcard in 1995 and lost to the Atlanta Braves three games to one in the 1995 NLDS.

I wanted the Padres to take the one-game playoff yesterday and become the Phillies foe for this series, but the streaking Rockies dashed those hopes. Aside from a close 4-2 loss to the Diamondbacks on September 28, the Rockies haven’t lost a game since September 14, when they got clobbered by the Florida Marlins 10-2. The next day the Rockies dispatched the Fishstripes 13-0 and went on to win fourteen of their next fifteen games to go from 76-72 to 90-73. You hate to go into a series with a team that is playing so well, but Phillies fans can take heart: on paper, the Phillies have the edge, though the Rockies are the trendy choice to win amongst pundits.

Confused about what I’m talking about? Here are the stats I refer to 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)
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).
Zone Rating (ZR): Is a stat which measures a player’s defensive ability by measuring plays they should have made. Admittedly, this is a stat left open to subjective opinions.
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.
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).
HR/9 – Home Runs allowed per nine innings: (HR * 9) / IP
BB/9 – Walks per nine innings: (BB * 9) / IP
K/9 – Strikeouts per nine innings: (K * 9) / IP

The Phillies Offense vs. the Rockies Pitching … The Phillies boasted a fearsome order in 2007, featuring Jimmy Rollins (30 Home Runs, 20 Triples, 38 Doubles, 139 Runs Scored, 94 RBI, 41 steals in 47 attempts), Ryan Howard (47 Home Runs, 136 RBI, .392 OBP), Pat Burrell (30 Home Runs, 97 RBI, .400 OBP), Chase Utley (22 Home Runs, 103 RBI, 48 Doubles, .410 OBP), etc. From top to bottom the Phillies feature power at the plate, speed, and the ability to get on base. The Phillies lineup has no weaknesses. They led the league in runs scored and most other categories.

Do you want speed? Jimmy Rollins took 41 of 47 steals, Shane Victorino took 37 of 41, Michael Bourn took 18 of 19 and Chase Utley took 9 of 10. Jimmy Rollins hit twenty triples, best in the N.L. Overall the Phillies ranked second in the National League in stolen bases, first in triples and ranked dead-last in runners caught stealing.

Do you want power? The Phillies were second in the N.L. in Home Runs with 213. Five Phillies hit twenty or more home runs.

The ability to get on base? The Phillies led the N.L. in OBP at .354 and the Phillies had two players with OBPs of .400 or better: specifically Burrell (.400) and Utley (.410). Burrell and Ryan Howard drew over 100 walks.

Aside from weak play at third base from Abraham Nunez and Wes Helms – here’s hoping Greg Dobbs gets the start – the Phillies have a tough lineup to get through. Waiting on the bench are deadly pinch-hitters like Chris Coste and speedsters like Chris Roberson. I believe that Michael Bourn will not be playing …

The Phillies are much deeper and more diverse at the plate than they have been in years past. No longer a collection of slow-footed sluggers, the Phillies can run, steal and hammer the ball. Watch for Jimmy Rollins to have a big series. In seven games against the Rockies in 2007 he hit two home runs, a double and stole four bases in five tries. The Rockies pitchers seemed to have a lot of difficulty with him.

The Rockies pitchers didn't scare me at first glance, but I thought it was interesting to see how their numbers defied my expectations. The Rockies FIP ERA is 4.43, exactly the N.L. average and eighth overall. This is a major departure from years past when the Rockies pitchers posted the worst ERA in the majors routinely. Coors Field has had an effect on their stats, but the Rockies decision to employ a humidor has helped their pitchers. Also, the Rockies have done a better job recently of developing young arms and giving them support.

The Rockies best pitcher is Jeff Francis, who will be going tonight against Cole Hamels. On paper this is a mismatch, Hamels being far superior statistically, but Francis is actually a pretty good pitcher. He was 17-9 with a 4.22 ERA in 2007. His FIP ERA was a very respectable 4.12. Francis struck-out 7.0 K/9 and surrendered just 63 walks and 25 home runs in 215 & 1/3 innings of work. It is hard not to be impressed by Francis ability to keep the ball down.

In games two and three the Rockies send Mark Redman and Josh Fogg to the mound. Redman, the journeyman former Oakland A, Pittsburgh Pirate, Kansas City Royal and Atlanta Brave, has hurled just forty-one and a third innings this season. Fogg has thrown 165 & 2/3 innings this season – hey, another Pirates cast-off – and went 10-9 with a 4.94 ERA. Fogg’s stats aren’t really that good: he struck-out just 4.9 K/9 and gave up 59 walks and 23 home runs. Fogg’s FIP ERA is a hefty 5.12. He could really get shelled in game three. Should there be a game four Ubaldo Jimenez, 4-4 4.28 ERA, takes the mound. Francis is back for game five.

What bothers me, if I were the Rockies, is how many walks their four starters surrender:

Francis: 2.7
Redman: 2.8
Fogg: 3.1
Jimenez: 4.1

The Rockies pitching might have improved in recent history, but they sending some weak pitchers to the mound in games 2-4 against a Phillies lineup that likes to work the count and get on base. The Rockies and Phillies hitters tied for the N.L. led in pitches per place appearance with 3.88. If the Rockies pitchers fall behind of the Phillies, they will be in trouble.

The Rockies Offense vs. the Phillies Pitching … The Rockies are pretty good at the plate, pretty much the only team in the N.L. that came come close to the Phillies. The Rockies were second in the N.L. in runs scored, after the Phillies, and led the N.L. in On-Base Percentage at .354, just like the Phillies. Both teams have incorporated an element of small-ball into their respective games. While the Phillies like to run, the Rockies like to bunt. For the second year in a row, the Rockies led the N.L. in sacrifice hits, a clear indication that the Rockies aren’t just about swinging for the fences.

The Rockies run a little too – their 100 stolen bases in 131 tries is pretty good and ranks them seventh in the N.L. – but they like to employ the sac bunt a lot.

They’ve got some big bats: Matt Holliday (36 Home Runs, 137 RBI, 129 Runs Created), Garrett Atkins (25 Home Runs, 111 RBI, 101 Runs Created), Brad Hawqe (29 Home Runs, 116 RBI, 99 Runs Created) and Todd Helton (17 Home Runs, 91 RBI, 110 Runs Created), form a pretty tough middle order to get through. Kaz Matsui and Willy Taveras are the Rockies speed guys, with 32 steals in 36 attempts and 33 in 41 attempts respectively.

Let’s turn out eye to the Phillies pitching. The Phillies send Cole Hamels to the mound to battle Francis tonight. Clearly Hamels is the best the Phillies have: 15-5, 3.39 ERA. Had he not been injured late in the year he would have factored in the Cy Young race. His numbers are impressive: 9.3 K/9, 2.3 BB/9. His 3.80 FIP ERA is easily the best on the Phillies roster. Aside from giving up a fair number of home runs, Hamels is virtually unhittable. He got four times as many strikeouts as walks. He’s going to be tough for the Rockies to hit.

After that, the Phillies send Kyle Kendrick and Jamie Moyer to the mound in games two and three. I see the Phillies as having a major edge over the Rockies in these matchups. Kendrick has surprised me: 10-4, 3.87 ERA. He doesn’t get many strikeouts – 3.8 K/9 – but he’s also very good about not allowing walks – 2.0 BB/9 – and he allows fewer home runs than any other Phillies starter. Sure his FIP is nearly a run higher than his “real” ERA, but Kendrick seems to be having success letting his fielders get to the ball. I actually think he’ll do quite well.

Crafty old Jamie Moyer is the perfect pitcher to throw game three: 14-12, 5.01 ERA, he’s actually pitching much, much better than his ERA indicates. If the Phillies could play better defense behind him, I think Moyer could really obliterate the Rockies hitters. He’s got a frustratingly slow fastball and a nice changeup that could really throw the Rockies hitters off-balance.

As for the Phillies much maligned bullpen, they’ve been pitching very well down the stretch and looked pretty good these last few weeks. Brett Myers has been virtually unhittable as the Phillies closer – 21 of 24 saves – and J.C. Romero has been pitching well too. I actually think that the Phillies bullpen could really work some magic in the NLDS and might turn out to be the Phillies savior.

Fielding … Here’s a surprise: the Colorado Rockies are a pretty good defensive team. The proof is in the numbers. The Rockies surrendered 52 unearned runs in 2007, tied for the fifth-fewest in the N.L. They ranked first in Plus / Minus rating, at +58, the best in the N.L. They also ranked third in relative zone rating at .835. Their .702 Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER) ranked second in the N.L. This is really impressive given that they play in a park that is so unfriendly to fielders with its wide power alleys and the thin air where the ball carries.

The Phillies, in contrast, aren’t as good. They gave up 54 unearned runs, eighth in the N.L., but place much lower than the Rocks everywhere else. Their +24 Plus / Minus rating was eighth in the N.L., their .808 RZR was twelfth, and their .687 DER was ninth in the N.L. After ranking near the bottom in these stats all year, to see the Phillies near the middle means that they’ve been improving. I suspect that they are coming into the playoffs playing very well defensively, but I cannot confirm that with numbers. Time shall tell.

This is a slight edge to the Rockies.

Intangibles … This is a battle between the two teams of destiny. The Rockies have won 14 of 15 games coming in to tonight. The Phillies have taken 13 of 17. The Rockies came from nowhere to win the wildcard. The Phillies came from nowhere to win the N.L. East. Momentum sits with both teams. I give a slight edge to the Phillies, who have been so close so often, here because I think the hardened Phillies are more determined. Teams that have “nothing to lose” typically flame-out and I think the Rockies will here. Oh yeah, and the Rockies have to play Wednesday and Thursday at Citizens Bank Ballpark, with the thousands of screaming fans waving towels and shouting. Homefield could be the edge here.

Prediction: Phillies in four.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

One-Game Review & Cubs - Diamondbacks Playoff Preview 

Yeah, I know my post is absurdly late in the day for me, but there is too much to write about and too little time ... The Rockies comeback victory last night over the San Diego Padres in the one-game playoff ought to rank as one of the best games in baseball history. Certainly the Rockies ability to come back in the thirteenth inning and rally from an 8-6 deficit was impressive. I do question whether Matt Holliday actually touched home plate, but I think you need to give the benefit of the doubt to Holliday and assume that he did. The thirteenth was a heck of an inning, though I am not surprised that Trevor Hoffman melted down like he did: he looked terrible blowing Saturday’s game to the Brewers.

This is what October baseball is all about: close games, stunning finishes, teams of destiny. The Rockies – Phillies series in the NLDS matches the two teams of destiny against each other. The Rockies are now the trendy choice amongst pundits since they won 14 of their last 15 games, including the playoff. Yeah, they are coming in with momentum, but sometimes momentum is over-rated. The Detroit Tigers blew a massive lead in the A.L. Central last season and saw the Minnesota Twins lap them for the division crown. That didn’t bother Jim Leyland & Co., who proceeded to dispatch the opposition and go to the World Series. The St. Louis Cardinals were worse, nearly blowing the N.L. Central with an epic September swoon that would have ranked as the worst collapse in baseball history, but then rightened ship and won the World Series over the Tigers.

I’ll preview the Rockies and Phillies (NLDS #1) tomorrow. Today, we’ll talk about the rest of the playoff picture.

NLDS #2: Chicago Cubs vs. Arizona Diamondbacks. Another playoff and the Cubs meet another expansion team. The ’03 Florida Marlins stunned the Cubs on their way to their second World Series title, so can the ‘07 D-Backs do the same? If they do, it will be a major kick in the teeth of Cubs fans: you wait 99 years since a World Series crown and two expansion teams come along and win twice in the last decade.

The 2007 Cubs are a good but not great team. Despite having heavy hitters like Derek Lee (22 Home Runs, 82 RBI), Alfonso Soriano (33 Home Runs, 70 RBI) and Aramis Ramirez (26 Home Runs, 101 RBI) in the lineup, the Cubs were a surprisingly average team offensively. In the past the Cubs were a lineup littered with sluggers lacking any table-setters. The 2007 Cubs had neither. This is a team that is neither powerful, fast or good at getting on base. They ranked eighth in slugging percentage and ninth in On-Base-Percentage. They had just 86 stolen bases this season, which ranks them eighth in the N.L. and was 114 fewer than the Mets. Very boring, very middle of the pack.

The fact that Soriano had just 70 RBI is stunning to me. Sure, he's a lead-off hitter, but anyone who has 30+ home runs ought to have 80-90 RBI. The Cubs problem is that after Soriano, Lee and Ramirez, the production in the Cubs lineup drops way off. Shortstop Ryan Theriot, for example, had a .326 OBP and hit just three home runs. Second baseman Mark DeRosa had a .371 OBP, but hit just ten home runs. This is too potent a group to average below the N.L. average for runs per game: 4.64 to 4.70.

The Cubs strength lays in their pitching and defense, which makes for a tough combination in this post-season. Their starting rotation is formidable: Carlos Zambrano (18-13, 3.95 ERA), and Ted Lilly (15-8, 3.83 ERA), the starters for games one and two, are both tough hurlers. After Zambrano and Lilly comes Rich Hill (11-8, 3.92 ERA) and Jason Marquis (12-9, 4.60 ERA). The strength of their rotation helps make the Cubs one of the best teams in the N.L. on the mound. The Cubs led the N.L. in strikeouts per nine innings: 7.6, about a strikeout better than the league average of 6.7 … Interestingly, the Cubs also had one of the worst walk rates, allowing 3.6 per nine innings, one of the worst in the N.L.

Generally, speaking I think the Cubs are pretty tough on the mound: these are power pitchers who work deep into counts to get strikeouts or walks. Despite playing a park that is friendly to power-hitters like Wrigley, and despite playing the same division as the Reds, as Albert Pujols, as Prince Fielder, still had the second-lowest slugging percentage allowed. Bottom-line, this is a good pitching staff.

Defensively the Cubs are pretty good too: they were +52 in the field in Plus / Minus in 2007, fourth-best in the National League after the Rockies (+59), the Braves (+58) and the Padres (+53). Their team Zone Rating was .838, the best in the National League. This is a strong fielding team: they allowed just 40 unearned runs in 2007, the lowest in the N.L. Soriano continues to be one of the best left fielders in baseball: he threw out 19 base-runners this season, a year after throwing out 22 with the Rangers. Run on him at your peril.

Bottom-line, the 2007 Chicago Cubs are a good, solid pitching and defensive-oriented team. They are up against, coincidentally, another pitching and defense team in the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Diamondbacks are an offensively challenged team. This is a pretty punch-less lineup that scores fewer runs per game than the Cubs: 4.40. As a point of comparison, here is how the D-Backs and Cubs stack up:

Cubs / D-Backs / NL Avg
OBP: .333 / .321 / .334
SLG: .422 / .413 / .423
BA/RISP: .279 / .249 / .269

This has been commented upon ad naseum, but it is worth noting again that the D-Backs, despite posting 90 wins, a game better than the Phillies and Rockies, finished the regular season having been out-scored 712 to 732. If you go by Pythagorean Win-Loss records, the D-Backs ought to have finished 79-83, not 90-72.

This team doesn’t have much power (ninth in slugging percentage) and it doesn’t set the table at all (16th of 16 teams in OBP). Initially I wondered if small ball tactics might explain the D-Backs low numbers, but they actually were tied for fourteenth in sacrifice hits, which tells me that the D-Backs are just weak at the plate. The Cubs, by the way, rank dead-last in sac hits in 2007, so small ball didn’t suppress their meager output.

The sole strength is team speed and here we are just talking about two players: Eric Byrnes (50 steals in 57 tries) and Chris Young (27 steals in 33 tries). Byrnes fifty steals ranked him fourth overall in the N.L. It is interesting how Byrnes talent for base-stealing has come out in the Arizona desert: in 2004 and 2005 he stole 24 bases in 27 tries. In 2006 and 2007 he stole 75 in 85 tries. Byrnes also has power at the plate: 26 home runs last season and 21 this season. Not too shabby. Byrnes speed is the reason why the D-Backs rank fifth in steals, really the only part of the offensive game they are any good at.

Defense and pitching? That’s a different story. Brandon Webb was probably the best pitcher in the N.L. this season after Jake Peavy, who is a near-lock to win the NL Cy Young despite his struggles late in the season. Webb was very good last season when he won the Cy Young with a 16-8, 3.10 ERA. He was even better in 2007, going 18-10 with a 3.01 ERA. He improved in terms of strikeouts: 7.7 K/9 in 2007 vs. 7.3 in 2006 and allowed just twelve home runs in 236 innings (0.48 HR/9). He’s one of the best pitchers in the N.L. If the Diamondbacks are going to have any chance, they need Webb to take down Zambrano in Game One.

After Webb the quality of the D-Backs pitching staff drops off dramatically. It is worth noting that despite having Webb in the rotation gobbling up 236 innings, the D-Backs pitching staff had an Fielding Independent ERA of 4.47, 0.04 worse than the league average.

I looked at the D-Backs fielding stats and was particularly unimpressed. The D-Backs had a good +39 in the field, but they allowed 70 unearned runs and their Zone Rating was .814, worse than the league average. While the Cubs .707 Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER) was the best in the N.L., the D-Backs .694 was just .003 better than the league average.

Bottom-line: if Brandon Webb can dominate the Cubs in game one and game four or five, the D-Backs have a chance if they can sneak a win in one of the other games. I don't see it. I like the D-Backs in game one, but the rest of the series belongs to the Cubs.

Prediction: Cubs in four.

Tune in later today for a preview of the ALDS games. Tomorrow, Phillies - Rockies preview.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

The Afternoon After... 

Now it is the day after the Phillies phantasic comeback and everyone is waking up and coming to grips with what happened. There were some nice pieces in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

I like David Aldridge's piece about Charlie Manuel. I've always been a big fan of his and believed that the Phillies were better off with the reins in Manuel's hands than anyone else's. Manuel's calm, steady approach and Moneyball-esque strategy on the field are important reasons why the Phillies have had win totals in the upper-80s and were playoff contenders these last three seasons. I believe completely that Pat Gillick intended to fire him at the end of the season and replace him with Davey Lopes for 2008 until the Phillies surged. Now Charlie will get another season, or more.

Phil Sheridan looks at the losers up I-95 in Shea Stadium. I had forgotten that Billy Wagner was a Met and beating his team makes this all the sweeter until I read Sheridan's article. Sounds like the Mets are going to be a mess this off-season.

Todd Zolecki talks a little bit about Jimmy Rollins, who certainly has the momentum to be the 2007 NL MVP. I'm rather skeptical J.Roll was the NL MVP based on the numbers - he did lead the NL in outs with 527, he finished well behind Matt Holliday in Runs Created, 149 to 135, and he wasn't the best defensive shortstop in the league - but J.Roll was the critical cog in the Phillies machine down the stretch, a key bat and the team's emotional leader. J.Roll was been amazing at the plate: thirty home runs, twenty triples, thirty-eight doubles, forty-one steals in forty-seven tries, 139 runs scored, 94 RBI, there is probably nobody in baseball with his unique blend of speed and power at the plate. This season was J.Roll's best in the bigs and I'd have no problem with giving him the nod over Holliday based on emotion alone. Oh, and while J.Roll isn't the best NL shortstop, he plays a much tougher position than Holliday. That has to count for something.

I bet that J.Roll will come out ahead of Holliday and will take the NL MVP, although I wonder if Chase Utley and Ryan Howard might split the Phillies vote. J.Roll has some big advantages here: he plays in a major, East Coast market close to New York and he was a hero in a close, well-televised playoff race. Momentum is there, as opposed to Holliday and the Rockies, who largely flew under the radar of the national media in their race for the playoffs.

By the way, give the Rockies credit for quite a run for the playoffs: they've won 13 of 14 games. Aside from a 4-2 loss to the Diamondbacks on Sept. 28, the Rockies haven't lost in nearly two weeks. Part of me wants to see the Rockies win because they look like a weaker team on paper than the pitching-heavy Padres, but then I think you also have to worry about how strong the Rockies are finishing.

Here is what the Mets fans are saying. First The Eddie Kranepool Society talks about the Mets collapse. The anger is obvious, though restrained. The Musings and Prophecies of Metstradamus was pretty petulant and juvenile about the Mets loss. A lot of pathetic, sour-loser whining about the Phillies. Don't whine or make snide comments about the team that beat your team, big guy. It just makes the Phillies triumph all the sweeter.

ESPN's Page 2 has a nice litany of reasons why the Mets blew their lead.

Baseball Prospectus' Nate Silver has a nice article at SI.com about the biggest chokes in baseball history. He ranks the '64 Phillies at #13, and puts the Mets collapse at #5. Silver notes that the Mets had a 99.8% probability of winning the N.L. East on Sept. 12, when they held their 7-game lead. The '51 Dodgers - Giants pennant race ranks #1, which I can see. The '95 Mariners - Angels race, has been pretty underrated by writers and historians, ranks #4. Maybe because the Angels won the '02 World Series and erased some of the stain. According to BP, the odds against the Angels losing in '95 were 8,332-to-1, far bigger than the Mets 500-to-1 choke in '07 or the Dodgers 382-to-1 choke in '51. By the way, the Phillies were 25-to-1 to blow it in 1964, which is pretty minor comparatively.

Tomorrow: NLDS preview.

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It’s Christmas In October … 

1964 … 1980 … 10,000 … 7 … I work with a lot of numbers on my blog. I’m not a flowery or witty writer, or at least I don’t have the time to be. I work quickly and I work with information and I utilize numbers to tell you the unknown story that is behind the headlines. E.g., the Phillies are winning because … they are leading the N.L. in stolen base percentage … they are leading the N.L. in triples hit in the last three innings of a game … You get the idea.

I look at a lot of numbers on A Citizen’s Blog and I wonder if they mean anything to people. They mean something to me. I was the kid in High School Algebra doodling baseball statistics when my teacher was explaining what in the heck (X-2) (X – 1X – 4) meant. The numbers tell the whole story of a game. You can look back and extrapolate from box scores about hits and runs and what happened in a game. You can look at stats and extrapolate how a team works (or doesn’t) and how it wins (or doesn’t). Who is contributing and who isn’t.

I work with a lot of numbers and they just don’t seem to be adequate to sum up or even really explain the Phillies stunning late September surge from 7 games back just two and a half weeks ago to where they are now: first place in the N.L. East and a berth in the playoffs. The Phillies 125-years of futility, their 10,000 losses, none of it really matters right now, because the Phillies won the division and sit in the playoff jumble, one of four teams with a chance to go to the playoffs and one of eight who will win it. This team had heart, it believed and it played better than anyone thought it could. The passion of the Phillies fans as they waved towels and wildly cheered the team as it made its run to the playoffs, the passion of the individual Phillies themselves, it simply cannot be replicated and cannot be explained by numbers. This is really stunning stuff, and I am happy that I was here to talk about it.

In the end, the Phillies won their 89th game of the year, which gave them one more than the Mets or anyone else in the N.L. East. Their 89-73 record means that this is the Phillies seventh consecutive season with 80 or more wins. This is also the first time under manager Charlie Manuel that the team has made the playoffs after several near-misses. The ’05 team was eliminated on the final day of the season and the ’06 team was eliminated on the second-to-last day of the season.

The Phillies were as much fighting history as they were fighting the Mets. This season they became the first professional sports franchise to lose 10,000 games, an event that the media made far too big a deal over. The team has just one championship, in 1980. They’ve come close and blown it many times: in 1950 they nearly blew a massive lead in the N.L. pennant race to the Dodgers, then got swept in the World Series. 1964? Well, until the ’07 Mets came along, the ’64 Phillies had the biggest choke job in MLB history, blowing a 6-game lead with just twelve to go. The great Phillies teams of the 1970’s lost three consecutive NLCS. The magical ’93 team lost the World Series on a walk-off home run. History was a real obstacle here, more than people realize. This is new ground that the Phillies are exploring: success.

Poor Charlie Manuel, much maligned for not being fiery enough, has his playoff berth. Perhaps now people will stop complaining about him and arguing to replace him with a much more aggressive manager. This is a veteran team that knows what needs to be done, Manuel was the right man to manage it, without screaming and yelling and acting like a crazy man. If the ’07 Phillies had been led by Larry Bowa, I shudder to think how this season would have ended.

Now let us turn our attention to the rest of the MLB playoffs. Here in the N.L., the Phillies are joined by the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs, as well as the winner of tonight’s Rockies – Padres playoff game. The Padres have a big edge in terms of pitching, but the Rockies are the better team on offense, they are playing with momentum and they are at home. I don’t see Jake Peavy as the silver bullet that the Padres are hoping and praying that he will be. I say that tonight’s game will be a 5-2 Rockies victory.

Alright, tomorrow I will preview the Phillies – Rockies / Padres series and give an overview on the 2007 playoffs. Stay right here for all of your Phillies baseball needs!

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Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Golden September 

What a weekend to be a Phillies fan as the crazy, see-saw battle for the N.L. East came to a peaceful end with the Phillies 6-1 victory over the Washington Nationals and the Mets 8-1 loss to the Florida Marlins. The victory, which gave possession of the N.L. East to the Phillies with an 89-73 record, means that the Phillies will play in the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

This has to be one of the most memorable seasons in Phillies history, ranking right up there with 1950, 1980 and 1993. The Phillies dramatic come-from-behind victory in the race for the division ought to erase memories of 1964. For once, the Phillies pulled off the dramatic, the astonishing, they delivered the fantastic comeback. The Mets 7-game collapse is just as dramatic as the Phillies in 1964. While the Mets incompetence played a part, we also have to give the lion’s share of the credit to the Phillies: terrific clutch play of Jimmy Rollins, the powerful lineup that features three potential MVP candidates in Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, the patched together rotation that includes just two of the Phillies five expected rotation starters, the leaky bullpen, the speed from Rollins, Bourn and Victorino. This was a team effort and the Phillies should be credited with tough play and mental grit. They won the N.L. East.

Tomorrow I’ll have some more thoughts on the 2007 playoff race, but I wanted to give everyone a snapshot of what I was thinking. Celebrate Phillies fans!

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