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Thursday, December 27, 2007

On Hitting: The Season in Review, 2007 

You can’t win baseball games without scoring runs. That’s about as simple a statement about baseball that you will ever hear. And the truest. Great baseball teams need to be balanced at every phase of the game, from hitting to pitching to fielding. Teams that attempt to rely solely on their pitchers and defense will inevitably fail because you cannot hope to eke out 1-0 victories in the modern game of baseball.

The subject of hitting probably the most tilled field in the baseball world. Fielding is baseball’s newest frontier and pitching, thanks to people like Voros McCracken, has recently been the subject of much discussion and analysis. The offensive aspect of the game has long been discussed and analyzed, so we have many metrics and tools to utilize in this discussion. While sabremetrics began with Bill James questioning the error and fielding percentage, fielding stats, in his original Baseball Abstract, it is in the realm of hitting that he made his first real splash when he conceived of the statistic of Runs Created (RC) as a tool to measure individual performance.

Many of the readers of this blog are keenly aware of RC and know the history behind it, but I’ll give a little primer on some of the stats we’ll be talking about:

Runs Created was developed by James to combat the problem of evaluating players performance without relying on what their teammates do. Runs scored, for example, is flawed because it relies on the guy hitting behind you. He has to bat you in. Runs Batted In (RBI), which was championed by newspaperman Ernie Lanigan in the early 1900’s and only became an official stat of the N.L. and A.L. in 1920, relies on players getting on base ahead of you. Easy to rip 100 RBIs if the guys playing in front of you are named Derek Jeter Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield. The solution was to look at what you did to give your teammates chances to score by getting on base (A Factor) what you did to advance runners (B Factor), and how many chances you had (C Factor). Here is the modern formula:

A= (H + BB + HBP - CS - GIDP)
B= (S * 1.125) + (D * 1.69) + (T * 3.02) + (HR * 3.73) + (.29 * (BB + HBP – IBB)) + (.492 * (SB + SF + SH)) – (.04 * K)
C= (AB + BB + HBP + SH+ SF).

(A * B) / C

The original formula proposed by James in his third Baseball Abstract in 1979, looked like this: ((Hits + Walks) * (Total Bases)) / (At Bats + Walks)

James most recently created the modern formula in 2004 to account for the complexities in the modern game.

After Runs Created there are a passel of stats we’ll look at, ranging from Isolated Power (ISO): .SLG - .BA = .ISO., a stat which measures a player’s raw power by subtracting singles from their slugging percentage, to Slugging Percentage (SLG): Total Bases / At-Bats = Slugging Percentage, which measures overall power at the plate, to On-Base Percentage (OBP): How often a player gets on base. (H + BB + HBP) / (Plate Appearances), which is a stat that ousted Batting Average as a measure of a player’s ability thanks to the Oakland A’s realization during the 1980’s that since a walk was just as good, if not better, than a single, than any system that didn’t take the walk into account was flawed. I talked a little about this the other day in discussing fielding. Eric Walker’s The Sinister First Baseman, a collection of essays on baseball that Oakland A’s General Manager Sandy Alderson read in the early 1980’s and whose conclusions Alderson incorporated into the A’s baseball philosophy, is the key intellectual author of OBP. As Walker notes in his book, the most precious thing that a team has in baseball is it’s three outs each inning and their twenty-seven in a game. Once you waste those, they are gone forever, so Thou Shalt Not Waste Outs is the creed of the Moneyball movement.

Alright, with all of that theory behind us, let’s move on to the Phillies.

So how did the Phillies offense function? Very well. For the second consecutive season, the Phillies offense ranked first in the National League with runs scored, scoring 892, 32 more than the Colorado Rockies and 82 more than the Atlanta Braves. The Phillies 892 runs would have actually ranked them second in the American League, where scoring is always higher because of the designated hitter. The Yankees led the A.L. in runs scored with 968, but the Phillies hit more home runs than they did (213 vs. 201) and stole more bases (138 vs. 123). The Phillies 892 runs scored are the most in the N.L. since the Braves scored 907 runs in 2003.

The Phillies were the offensive juggernaut they were because they packed power at the plate, they got on base, and they were fast.

In addition to ranking first in runs scored, the Phillies ranked second in home runs with 213 (18 fewer than the Milwaukee Brewers), second in stolen bases with 138 (62 fewer than the N.Y. Mets – although it is worth pointing out that they did rank first in stolen base percentage at 88%, better than the Mets 81%), fourth in doubles with 326, first in slugging percentage (.458) and they tied for first in On-Base Percentage with the Rockies.

Undoubtedly Phillies critics will point to the cozy confines of Citizens Bank Ballpark and argue that the Phillies offense only performs well at home. Not true. The 2007 Phillies ranked first in runs scored in away games in the N.L. with 442. The Phillies .442 away slugging percentage was second in the N.L., and their 97 road home runs were third. No Coors Field effect for the Phillies, in contrast to the Colorado Rockies, who scored just 382 runs on the road (good for fifth in the N.L.) and who rank tenth in away OPS with .730 to the Phillies .793 away OPS … Although to be fair, the Rockies played three times as many games at Petco Park in 2007 as the Phillies did, so that might have had an effect. Curse baseball’s unbalanced schedule!

We are going to break up the discussions of the individual Phillies into particular areas of the game.

The star of our 2007 Season In Review is the 2007 National League MVP, Jimmy Rollins. I won’t repeat my earlier post about the evolution of J.Roll’s game from free-swinging lead-off hitter who never got on base to the weapon he is today, but it does bear some repeating: basically, for Jimmy Rollins first three years in the big leagues he was a free-swinger who racked up 100+ strikeouts a season. After undergoing some tutelage from contact-hitter extraordinaire Tony Gwynn, J.Roll cut down on the strikeouts and became a much more complete player.

His last four seasons he’s posted 100+ Runs Created. A uniquely dangerous hitter with his speed and power, starting in the second-half of the 2006 season J.Roll became much more dangerous threat by beginning to club home runs with regularity. J.Roll hit 25 home runs in 2006 after hitting a total of 26 in 2004 and 2005 combined. The trend towards power in his stroke is pretty clear when you look at J.Roll’s Isolated Power numbers:

2004: .166
2005: .141
2006: .201
2007: .235

The N.L. average for Isolated Power was .157 in 2007, so J.Roll has elevated himself from lead-off guy with average power to a real slugger. Rollins .531 Slugging Percentage ranked third on the Phillies roster in 2007, bested by just Ryan Howard (.584) and Chase Utley (.566). This season he hit 30 home runs and added an astonishing 20 triples, leading the N.L. by eight (the Mets Jose Reyes was second with a distant 12). Empowered to run more, J.Roll took 41 of 47 bases in the field, good enough for fifth in the N.L. J.Roll’s terrific season helped elevate the Phillies offense and enable the Phillies to lead the N.L. in triples and finish second in stolen bases, the two major ‘speed’ categories.

We’ll start with speed … Remember what I noted earlier about the lessons of The Sinister First Baseman and the Oakland A’s Thou Shalt Not Waste Outs. This is a central tenant of sabremetrics and becomes one of the biggest bones of contention with the old school of baseball when discussed with the subject of the stolen base.

The old school of thought on the steal might be accurately summed up as follows: in order to win baseball games, teams must be aggressive, and being aggressive means doing things like sacrifice bunts and stealing bases. Just imagine that image of the grizzled veteran sliding hard into second base, squaring around to bunt his teammate from second base to third. The slide, the dirty uniform, the grit, the sweat, the determination.

That was the popular image of baseball, something of a hold-over from the Dead Ball era when teams did a lot of that – bunting, base-stealing, stretching doubles into triples, etc. – and the old schoolers incorporate that popular image into what they want to see in modern baseball. The philosophy even has a name: Small Ball.

Sabremetricians, in contrast, long-ago came to the conclusion that the Small Ball strategy was a loser. The benefits of the stolen base – an extra base advanced – rarely exceed the risk of losing a baserunner and losing an out. The home run, the Sabremetricians argued, was the most effective way of clearing the bases and scoring runs. Bill James, when discussing Rickey Henderson’s epic 1982 season, which saw Henderson set a major-league record with 130 stolen bases, noted that Henderson had also been caught stealing 42 times. Said James in his 1983 Baseball Abstract: “That’s 42 outs he took away from some Oakland batter … The actual increase in runs scored resulting from Henderson’s base running: 4 1/2 runs. Four and a half goddamn runs, and they want to give him an MVP award for it.”

Baseball Between the Numbers, the book written in 2006 by the staff of Baseballprospectus.com, tagged Rickey Henderson’s running in 1982 as gaining the A’s 22.2 runs, while the times he was caught stealing cost the A’s 20.6 runs, thus netting the A’s an extra 1.6 runs for the season. The “break-even” rate, the rate by which you must be successful for this to be a winning strategy is roughly 73-78%. The value of a stolen base is .1593 runs, the cost of an out trying to steal is .3687 runs.

The old school belief in Small Ball is summed up by Joe Morgan, the Hall of Fame second baseman whose scattershot ramblings drive sabremetricians batty, when he stated about an Oakland A’s playoff defeat: “The A’s lose because they are two-dimensional. They have good pitching and they try to hit home runs. They don’t use speed and don’t try to manufacture runs. They wait for the home run. They are still waiting.” That’s the basic divide between the sabremetrics crowd and the small ballers.

There is no doubt that the Phillies ran more in 2007 then they had in recent memory. In 2007 they attempted 157 steals, 138 of which were successful. (Incidentially, applying the numbers mentioned above to the Phillies, that means that the Phillies added 14.97 runs to their total by running in 2007: (.1593 * 138) + (-.3687 * 19). The Mets, who attempted 246 steals and were successful 200 times, added 14.89 runs to their total by base-stealing.) This was a significant jump over 2006, when they ran just 117 times, 92 of them successful. (Added runs: 5.43.) The influence here comes from new Phillies First Base coach Davey Lopes, a talented base-runner in his own day, who joined the Phillies for the 2007 season and heartily encouraged the Phillies players to run more and show better discipline on the base-paths.

As I noted, J.Roll led the Phillies with 41 stolen bases in 47 attempts. But he wasn’t the Phillies only base-stealing threat. Shane Victorino, the Phillies new centerfielder, took an astonishing 37 of 41 stolen bases. Victorino’s success rate was actually higher than J.Roll’s (90% to 87%). Aaron Rowand stole six of nine bases. Tadahito Iguchi, Chase Utley’s replacement at second base when he was injured, took six of seven bases in limited action. Jayson Werth, the Phillies new full-time rightfielder, took seven of eight in similarly limited action. Chase Utley took nine of ten. Even Carlos Ruiz, the Phillies catcher, took six of seven!

But no discussion of speed and base-stealing would be complete without mentioning the fact that Michael Bourn stole 18 of 19 bases in 2007. I know that I raved about this ad naseum this year, but the performance Bourn put in earlier in the season in San Francisco where he entered the game as a pinch-runner, stolen second, then stole third and scored on a weak grounder by Wes Helms because of his blazing speed, was one of the most astonishing performances I’ve seen recently. The run was a pure manufactured run, made possible only by Bourn’s speed around the bases.

In you are counting, by the way, those numbers mean J.Roll added 4.319 runs to the Phillies offense stealing bases, Victorino added 4.419 runs, and Bourn added 2.498.

Also, for the second consecutive season, the Phillies hit 41 triples. The decline of the triple is an interesting subject in baseball – partly a product of conservative-minded baserunners or the proliferation of slow-footed DH-type sluggers, partly due to the trend towards natural grass and smaller parks – but the Phillies managed to lead the N.L. in them in 2007. Credit here goes almost solely to J.Roll, who hit nearly half of them (20). Utley hit five, Victorino hit another three, Bourn hit three, and Werth hit three. Surprisingly, Greg Dobbs, the Phillies backup infielder / outfielder, hit four. Even more surprisingly, Carlos Ruiz had two triples in 2007. While the Phillies didn’t even come close to leading the majors in triples in 2006 (the Dodgers did with 58), their 41 that season was impressive.

Let me stop and talk a little about Victorino here. What a terrific season he had in 2007: in addition to his 37 steals, Victorino also hit 12 home runs, 23 doubles, 47 RBI and scored 78 runs. Victorino’s .347 OBP was actually a shade better than J.Roll’s .345 … As I noted in my Season in Review series, you have to read Victorino’s accomplishments at the plate in conjunction with what he does in the field, because he might have been one of the best rightfielders in baseball in 2007, throwing out eight runners attempting to advance. The Flyin’ Hawaiian has a nice balance of speed (he hit eight triples in 2006), power at the plate (a respectable .142 ISO), and defense. I’m glad that he’ll be manning centerfield in 2008.

Michael Bourn, who left the Phillies in the Brad Lidge deal, became a favorite of Phillies fans as the season wore on, and many wanted to see Bourn move over into centerfield and succeed J.Roll as the Phillies lead-off hitter. Yes, Michael Bourn was a terrific – bit – player for the Phillies in 2007, but there were a lot of flaws to his game. Defensively, Bourn played 302 innings for the Phillies and never collected an assist, which I find odd. Bourn had little real power at the plate that he did not manufacture with his legs. His isolated power at the plate was a sub-par .101 … Bourn himself had 33 hits in 2007, 26 of which were singles. I’m not sure he’d duplicate his success in 2008, and in any case, his defensive contributions wouldn’t be greater than Victorino’s.

At any rate, here is what Rollins, Bourn and Victorino all contributed to the Phillies lineup in 2007, according to Runs Created per 27 Outs:

J.Roll: 6.25
Bourn: 5.76
Victorino: 4.87

I don’t have the Phillies base-running data yet (Bill James Handbook 2008 is on my bookshelf and I intend to open it up after January 1), but I suspect that the Phillies will have better base-running numbers then they did in 2006, when Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell ranked as two of the worst base-runners in the major leagues. I suspect all of this, the better base-running, the increase in steals, the high success rate in stolen bases, etc., is the product of Lopes counsel and advice to his hitters.

I think the Phillies decision to utilize the stolen base and to be more aggressive on the bases was a good thing. The hatred the sabremetrics community has for the stolen base isn’t unanimity – Bill James, I’ve noticed from reading his Historical Baseball Abstract, has some nice things to say about the stolen base. Check out James comments for 1960’s baseball:

As the [1960’s] commenced, baseball showed promise of opening up into a new generation of exciting, multi-faceted offense. The use of speed as an offensive weapon, which had atrophied for forty years, began to re-emerge late in the fifties …

Many sabremetricians think the stolen base is exciting and want to see more speed in the game, which is running the risk of becoming a game of nine sluggers at the plate smashing 450-foot solo home runs. In the Lords of the Game I think I see an emerging trend away from the power game and back to a more balanced offense that people used to see in the 1970’s. I’m not saying that every team is going to look like the 1980’s St. Louis Cardinals, but I think teams are going to run more because the focus on steroids is going to impact sluggers, and the backlash against Moneyball is going to encourage teams to utilize speed more and more. It looks like the Phillies, with Victorino and J.Roll, are going to be on the cusp of these changes, with two speedy players who like to steal bases and leg doubles into triples. In fact, all throughout the Phillies roster they have a lot of surprisingly fast players, from Jayson Werth to Chase Utley, even to catcher Carlos Ruiz. This is a fast team, and I expect to see the total of 138 stolen bases exceeded in 2008.

The Phillies don’t really practice a lot of small ball, although that changed a little in 2007. The bunt, the sacrifice, is also a component of small ball and the Phillies didn’t do a lot of that in 2007, 65 sacrifice hits – eighth in the N.L. and exactly the league average. The Mets, who led the N.L. in steals, also ranked second in sacrifice hits. The Phillies actually ranked sixteenth in sac hits in 2006, so you are seeing an evolution of the Phillies offense away from the pure home run to a bit more of a mix, but the Phillies have kept their feet in the long-ball camp more.

Let’s move along to clutch hitting … Another of the shibboleths of sabremetrics is that clutch hitting doesn’t exist. Naturally, this is a topic of much consternation amongst baseball people because the idea that some players elevate their game in ‘clutch’ situations is center to their view of the baseball universe. Dick Cramer, a researcher for a pharmaceutical company, utilized his company’s computers to test whether or not clutch hitting was real and came to the conclusion, right around the time that Bill James was publishing his Abstracts, that it did not. This observation is met with much disagreement with the old school baseball people who fervently believe that clutch hitting is a talent, not random luck, and that it is essential to a team’s success.

I think the Phillies refute that conventional wisdom quite nicely:

1. Atlanta: .291
2. Chicago: .278
3. Los Angeles: .278
4. NY Mets: .277
5. Colorado: .276
6. St. Louis: .274
7. Pittsburgh: .272
8. San Diego: .271
9. Florida: .268
10. Houston: .267
11. San Francisco: .264
12. Cincinnati: .263
13. Milwaukee: .261
14. Washington: .261
15. Philadelphia: .259
16. Arizona: .249
N.L. Average: .269

I think the Phillies performance is a testament to the essential truth that clutch hitting is over-rated. They were the second-worst clutch-hitting team and yet they managed to led the N.L. in runs scored. The two worst clutch-hitting teams in the National League were two of the league’s four playoff teams. Although, interestingly, I found that the Phillies were the third-best in BA/RISP with 2 outs, hitting .261, where the N.L. average was .249 …

The Phillies success at the plate and lack of ability to drive in clutch runs is hardly new – in 2006 they ranked thirteenth in BA/RISP in the N.L. despite leading the league in runs scored.

Conclusions: hitting well with runners in scoring position is not important!

But let’s see how each of the individual Phillies did here …

Werth: .379
Utley: .304
Rowand: .287
Howard: .282
Ruiz: .280
Rollins: .272
Iguchi: .267
Burrell: .258
Dobbs: .245
Victorino: .236
Nunez: .217
Helms: .198

Hitting well with runners in scoring position is something that fluctuates from year-ti-year. E.g., Pat Burrell, who hit .263 BA/RISP in 2004, then hit .313 in 2005, dipped to .222 in 2006, and leveled off to .258 in 2007. It is really something where there is little-to-no consistency from year-in and year-out.

Let’s talk about Chase Utley for a moment … Jimmy Rollins won the 2007 N.L. MVP award because of his terrific hitting, his speed, his power and his defense. He was the key figure in the Phillies playoff push. However, Chase Utley was well on his way to being the 2007 N.L. MVP before his injury mid-summer, which caused him to miss a month of the season. I think Utley will emerge as the favorite to win the award in 2008 because he is so consistently one of the best hitters in baseball. While we are talking about hitting in the clutch, here are Utley’s 2004-2007 BA/RISP stats:

2004: .275
2005: .309
2006: .308
2007: .304

Mind you that Utley didn’t take over as the Phillies regular second baseman until the one-third point of the 2005 season, splitting time with Placido Polanco. Since Utley got the job, he’s been terrific. In 2007, he hit 48 doubles – which tied him for third in the N.L. and was just two behind Matt Holiday, all while missing a month of the season – and 22 Home Runs, 103 RBI, 5 triples, scored 104 runs, had a batting average of .322 and an On-Base Percentage of .410, grounded into just seven double plays all season long (even a great player like Albert Pujols hit into 27 of them in 2007), stole nine of ten bases and posted his third consecutive season with 100+ Runs Created.

Utley is a hitter with innumerable dimensions at the plate. Want power? Check out his Isolated Power stats:

2004: .202
2005: .249
2006: .218
2007: .234

What speed? He’s stolen 74 bases in 83 attempts, an 89% success rate, and he’s hit 17 triples in his brief career.

Toughness? He was hit by pitches a whopping 25 times in 2007, more than any other player in the N.L. (second – teammate Aaron Rowand).

Utley is the Phillies most dangerous and effective hitter in 2007, better than J.Roll or Ryan Howard. Check out Runs Created per 27 Outs:

RC/27 (400+ Plate Appearances):
Utley: 7.88
Howard: 7.76
Burrell: 7.02
J.Roll: 6.25
Rowand: 5.88
Victorino: 4.87
Ruiz: 4.27

That’s phenomenal. Add in the fact that Utley is one of the best defensive second basemen in baseball, and you have a really complete player. Despite missing as much time as he did, Utley still managed to tie with J.Roll and Prince Fielder for sixth in Win Shares amongst N.L. players with 28. Utley’s 17 Wins Shares Above Bench player ranked him fifth amongst N.L. players, again without the benefit of a month of the 2007 season. Look how consistently good Utley has been seen through the eyes of Win Shares:

Win Shares / WSAB
2004: 8 / 2
2005: 27 / 15
2006: 28 / 14
2007: 28 / 17

If Chase Utley wins the 2008 MVP award he’ll be the third Phillie in three years to win it, a feat unmatched in the N.L. since Mort Cooper, Stan Musial and Marty Marion did it for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1942-1944. (Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and Elston Howard did it between 1961-1963 in the American League.) Wouldn’t that be something?

I talked a little about Jayson Werth the other day, so I won’t dwell on his 2007 season too much. For a guy who played only part-time, he did a nice job, with 55 Runs Created in only 304 plate appearances. That’s actually a better Runs Created per 27 Outs number than Utley: 8.11 to 7.88 … I think he’ll do well as the Phillies new rightfielder in 2008.

Moving along … Wes Helms. If anyone deserves the dubious distinction of being the most disappointing Phillie in 2007, Wes Helms might narrowly get the nod over Adam Eaton. Boy did Helms stink in 2007. After rolling up some interesting numbers playing part-time with the Florida Marlins in 2006 (.390 OBP, .246 ISO, 281 BA/RISP), Helms seemed like a good bet to solidify the gaping hole the Phillies have had at third base ever since Scott Rolen left in 2002. Instead, Helms was a major disaster at the plate. How bad was he?

Well, his .198 BA/RISP was the worst on the Phillies roster .... Sort of. His Isolated Power at the plate plunged from .246 to a paltry .122. He walked just 19 times, seeing his OBP plunge 100 points to .297, the worst on the Phillies roster. He grounded into ten double plays despite playing in less than half of the Phillies games. Never a strong defensive player, Helms was an anchor on the Phillies offense. His 2.73 Runs Created per 27 Outs is the worst on the Phillies roster, narrowly out-doing utility infielder Abraham Nunez (2.74 RC/27). Expect to see the Phillies give Helms another chance, but deal for someone come mid-April if he struggles.

Carlos Ruiz. Many Phillies bloggers have long been fans of Ruiz, even while the media fawned over Chris Coste in 2006, Ruiz quietly took over the catching duties that season and established himself as the Phillies catcher of the future. It’s not hard to see why the Phillies have confidence in Ruiz: he’s a steady player (.308 BA/RISP in 2006, .280 in 2007), who has a good eye (just 49 strikeouts to 42 walks in 2006), and delivers some good hits. True, he grounded into a whopping 17 double plays in 2007, but his 4.27 RC/27 is pretty good for a player who has to concentrate on defense. I also think Ruiz has surprising speed: six steals in seven tries and two triples. His six steals ties him for second amongst N.L. catchers.

Power-Hitting … The Gospel of the Three-Run Home Run is something that most sabremetricians preach. The value of the home run is pretty obvious: in one blow you clear the bases and score a lot of runs. I was reading the new book from Baseball Prospectus about pennant races and I came across the section talking about ’51 Giants Manager Leo Durocher and his preference for dynamic, small ball-ish teams over the long-ball oriented Giants that he took over. Clay Davenport writes:

Managers have often preferred the active teams, the dynamic ones, parly because these teams let the manager do something. The only real exception might be Earl Weaver, who preached the doctrine of the three-run homer. The trouble is that you can’t get a really good offense without home runs … [I]t takes a lot of singles, doubles and walks in sequence for a team to score three runs, whereas it takes just two baserunners and a long fly to score three on a home run.

It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over, Pages 267-268. Davenport goes on to note that an analysis of baseball history bears this out: the top 100 dynamic / small ball teams in baseball history scored an average of 711 runs, while the top 100 static / home run-oriented teams in baseball history scored an average of 763 runs. It is easier, more efficient and more successful for teams to rely on the home run rather than the stolen base.

Thank goodness for the Phillies, they’ve got the firepower at the plate to do that. Check out the Phillies adjusted OPS (On-base Percentage Plus Slugging Percentage) (OPS / Lg OPS = Adj. OPS, 100 is average, 100+ is better than average, lower than 100 is worse):

1. Philadelphia: 108
2. Colorado: 104
3. Milwaukee: 103
4. Florida: 103
5. N.Y. Mets: 102
6. Atlanta: 102
7. Cincinnati: 102
8. Chicago Cubs: 99
9. St. Louis: 98
10. L.A. Dodgers: 98
11. Houston: 98
12. Arizona: 97
13. Pittsburgh: 97
14. San Diego: 97
15. Washington: 95
16. San Francisco: 94

The Phillies had a pretty powerful offense. A good deal of that was concentrated in their raw power at the plate:

1. Milwaukee: .194
2. Philadelphia: .184
3. Florida: .181
4. Cincinnati: .169
5. Arizona: .163
6. Atlanta: .160
7. San Diego: .160
8. Colorado: .157
9. N.Y. Mets: .157
10. Houston: 152
11. Chicago Cubs: .151
12. Pittsburgh: .148
13. Washington: .134
14. San Francisco: .133
15. L.A. Dodgers: .131
16. St. Louis: .131

Who were the Phillies big poppers? Well…

Howard: .316
Burrell: .246
Rollins: .235
Utley: .234
Rowand: .206
Dobbs: .179
Barajas: .164
Werth: .161
Victorino: .143
Coste: .140
Iguchi: .138
Ruiz: .138
Helms: .121
Bourn: .101
Nunez: .048

I think it is fairly astonishing that the Phillies lineup features five players with an ISO of .200 or better, including the team’s lead-off hitter. With the exception of Victorino, every one of the Phillies 1-6 hitters was a major threat to go yard. In fact, if you look at the N.L. stats for 2007, the Phillies hitters rank 2nd (Howard), 9th (Burrell), 14th (Rollins), 16th (Utley) and 25th (Rowand) in the entire N.L. in ISO. That means that five of the twenty-five most powerful bats were found in red pinstripes in 2007 … By the way, these five players were also all in the top 22 in terms of Runs Created per 27 Outs as well: Utley (2nd), Howard (10th), Burrell (13th), J.Roll (19th) and Rowand (22nd) … Look at the home runs totals: Howard: 47, Rollins & Burrell: 30, Rowand: 27, Utley: 22. The five combined for 156 home runs, 519 RBI, 519 Runs Scored, 183 Doubles, 840 Hits, 367 Walks, and 541 Runs Created. Let’s talk about the focal point of the Phillies offense: Ryan Howard.

Ryan Howard had a career season in 2006, winning the MVP award on his way to clubbing 58 Home Runs, 149 RBI, drawing 108 walks (37 intentional), and having 138 Runs Created. Howard literally powered the Phillies into contention before the strain of being pitched around nearly every game caught up to Howard and the Phillies fell by the wayside. Howard continued to get Barry Bonds treatment in 2007, being intentionally walked 35 times. Still, despite missing several games, Howard managed to hit 47 Home Runs, 136 RBI and have 117 Runs Created. Howard’s .316 ISO was second to just Prince Fielder (.330).

Howard’s bat is powerful. Check out his 2005-2007 ISO totals:

2005: .278
2006: .346
2007: .316
’05 – ’07: .320

Ryan Howard is tailor-made for the Phillies power offense. He’s not a fast guy: one stolen base in his career, which must have been an accident, and three triples. In 2006-2007 he hit 105 Home Runs, but only hit 52 doubles or triples. Howard sits at the plate, milks the count, and makes the pitcher pay when he makes a mistake. His 72 IBB in 1,352 plate appearances in 2006-2007 means that 5% of the time, the opposition intentionally walks Ryan Howard rather than take a chance on pitching to him. That’s astonishing. Chase Utley, as good as he is, has only been intentionally walked eight times in his career.

Howard is a testament to the wisdom of the three-home run strategy. He’s one of the best RBI guys in the league while hitting o.k. with runners in scoring position:

2005: .241
2006: .256
2007: .282

It’s the long ball and drawing walks. Even without the free passes, Howard is very good at drawing walks. His walks per plate appearance are very good:

2005: .094
2006: .153
2007: .165

Howard’s .165 BB/PA ranks him third in the N.L. in 2007. If you throw out the IBB’s …

2005: .073
2006: .106
2007: .117

That’s still phenomenal. In sum, Howard is a major force in the Phillies offense and one of the finest hitters in baseball. In the N.L., his status as the premiere cleanup hitter is only equaled by Albert Pujols and, perhaps, Prince Fielder. Nobody is more the focal point of a team’s offense than Howard and he carries the load quite well.

Right behind Howard, posting some surprising numbers, is Pat Burrell. I’ve long been a fan of Burrell’s work and a defender of him. Perhaps no member of the Phillies roster gets ripped on more or is the subject of more trade talk and speculation.

Burrell’s sin, quite simply, is that he failed to become the next Mike Schmidt. Since Schmidt retired the Phillies have been eagerly looking for a successor to his mantle of team leader and face of the franchise. Scott Rolen failed to live up to expectations and he was dealt in 2002. Burrell stepped into the breach that season and played phenomenal baseball, hitting 37 home runs, 39 doubles, 116 RBI while hitting .282. Burrell finished the 2002 season with a .262 ISO and when teamed with Jim Thome in 2003 Spring Training people, including Schmidt, speculated that the pair would combine to hit 100 home runs that season. The Phillies inked Burrell to a massive six-year deal that season. 2002, as it turned out, was a season that created unrealistic expectations amongst fans.

Instead, Burrell crashed to earth in 2003, hitting .209, seeing his home run totals crash to just 21, and his RBI’s drop to 64. It was a disaster of a season that haunted Burrell’s career. He struggled to get back into form in 2004, hitting 24 home runs and 84 RBI, but he hadn’t recovered his power stroke. After a .195 ISO in 2003, Burrell climbed back to .199 in 2004.

In 2005, Burrell made his comeback, hitting 32 home runs, 27 doubles and 117 RBI. His ISO climbed back to .223, below his exceptional 2002 season, but an improvement over ’03 – ’04. Burrell hit another 29 home runs and 95 RBI in 2006, but he was emerging as a changed hitter. Injuries depleted his speed. After posting 29 doubles in 2001 – his first full season – and 39 in 2002, he hit another 31 while struggling in 2003, before hitting a paltry 17 in 2004. For the first time, Burrell hit more home runs than doubles. In 2005 he hit just 27 doubles and just 24 in 2006. Removed for defensive replacements often, Burrell was actually benched several times in 2006.

Burrell was evolving, seeing injuries take his speed and defensive abilities away. Burrell became a walks-and-home runs hitter, skilled at getting on base. Burrell drew 99 walks in 2005 and 98 in 2006. In 2007 Burrell out-did himself, drawing a whopping 114 walks. For the first time in his career he nearly achieved a 1:1 walk/strikeout ratio. Pat Burrell’s .191 BB/PA ranks him first amongst N.L. hitters.

Once more Burrell had more home runs than doubles – 30 vs. 26 – and once more he hit 90+ RBI with 97. Despite the limited playing time he posted 96 Runs Created. He may not be the player that the fans thought he would be in 2002, but Burrell has evolved into a brutally tough out. The last four seasons Burrell has seen milking counts for bases on balls. After ranking sixth in the N.L. in pitches per plate appearance in 2004, Burrell has ranked second, first and second in the last three seasons.

That choosey, grinding style helps Burrell pluck out the best pitches to clobber. Look at how his isolated power has rebounded.

2002: .262
2003: .195
2004: .199
2005: .223
2006: .244
2007: .246

Burrell is consistently one of the best hitters in baseball. Yes, he might be a liability in the running game and defensively, but Pat Burrell is a major weapon in the Phillies offense and they would be hard-pressed to replace him if he is traded. I expect Burrell to play out this, the last year of his six-year deal that will pay him close to $14 million in 2008, and then leave the Phillies and the N.L. to be a DH in the American League in 2009.

Aaron Rowand is no longer a Phillie but he gave the team a good year in his walk year. As much as Burrell is a hard-nosed guy willing to work the count, Rowand is a free swinger who made a lot of nice choices in 2007. His 27 home runs and 89 RBI, along with a .374 OBP and .206 ISO were major improvements over his atrocious .321 OBP and .163 ISO in 2006.

I’m not sorry to see Rowand go because his defensive reputation is over-stated and he’s too free with his hacks at the plate. I think the San Francisco Giants are going to be bitterly disappointed with the player they are getting. Rowand is too inconsistent a player. He relies on getting hits and not drawing walks to get on base. He runs hot-and-cold in the power game:

2004: .234 (as White Sox)
2005: .137 (as White Sox)
2006: .163
2007: .206

He’s a free swinger who will struggle to produce runs in a park not nearly as friendly to hitters as Citizens Bank Ballpark. Good luck, Aaron. You’re going to need it.

The Bench … The bench turned in a nice performance in 2007. I’m going to incorporate my discussions of Jayson Werth and Michael Bourn here because they weren’t starters, but they turned in a darn nice jobs and was the Phillies best clutch hitter and base-stealer respectively.

The acquisition of Tadahito Iguchi was an important moment for the Phillies in 2007. When Utley went down a major cog in the Phillies offense was on the DL, but Pat Gillick did a nice job raiding a team that was clearly a seller at the trading deadline and prying away a good player for virtually nothing. Iguchi turned in a nice performance for the Phillies, stealing six of seven bases, hitting ten doubles, posting a .361 OBP and playing some good second base (a 1.000 Fielding Percentage in 265 innings of work!). This was one of Gillick’s best moves.

The Phillies cut ties with Abraham Nunez this off-season and I’m certainly not sorry to see Nunez go. In 2007 his isolated power at the plate (.048) was worse than Adam Eaton’s (.065), Freddy Garcia’s (.059), and J.D. Durbin’s (.053). You can be a light-hitter, but not that light! Additionally, Nunez was terrible with runners in scoring position (.217 BA/RISP in 2007). Offensively, he really wasn’t much of an upgrade from having a pitcher at the plate. His Wins Shares Above Bench have been -4 each of the last two seasons. Offensively, he has a 0.6 Batting Win Share for 2006 & 2007 combined.

Also gone is Rod Barajas, the Phillies catcher who went from being the starter to the backup as Carlos Ruiz proved that he could handle the Phillies pitchers like a veteran. Like Nunez, I never much cared for Barajas. He hit .129 with runners in scoring position, which was actually lower than Wes Helms. (Helms had many more at-bats, so he wins the award for worse clutch hitter.) Barajas had some pop in his bat (.163 ISO) and he got on base (.352 OBP, 21 walks against just 24 strikeouts), but he was a drag on the Phillies offense and his defensive abilities don’t overshadow his offensive limitations.

Finally, we come to Greg Dobbs. Anyone notice what a good job Dobbs did in 2007? He had just 358 plate appearances, but he clubbed ten home runs, twenty doubles and four triples. His .179 ISO was good and he got on base a decent amount (.330 OBP). He was 0 WSAB, but he showed real versatility, playing 418 innings at third base, 97 at first base, 82 in left field, 10 in right field, and 7 at second base. I hope Dobbs gets a chance with the Phillies in 2008, but I suspect he’ll be done.

Alright, that’s the individual players … In the end I think 2007 was a spectacularly successful season for the Phillies, their most successful campaign since 1993 and easily their second-best of the last quarter century. The Phillies erased one of the largest leads in baseball history that late in the season and came out of nowhere to upend the heavily favored Mets. They shook off a terrible start and managed to win their first division title and playoff slot in 14 years. Any way that you slice it, 2007 was a big moment for the Phillies.

Is the fact that they got swept by the Rockies cause for concern? Not at all. Making the playoffs was a victory and there is no disgrace in losing to such a formidable team. The Rockies 2007 might just be the most impressive sustained drive of success in baseball history. The Phillies were a team of destiny whose wave crested too soon. I think we’ll look back in 2007 as being a pivotal moment for the Phillies, a moment where they turned a corner, got a taste for success and decided they liked it.

If you look down the phillies roster you see a bunch of young guys – Carlos Ruiz, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins are 28. Ryan Howard is 27. Ryan Madson, Brett Myers and Shane Victorino are 26. Cole Hamels is 23. The team greybeard is Pat Burrell at 30.

This is an absurdly young team that is also a veteran team. They’ve been in pennant races in 2005, 2006 and 2007 and they know what it takes to win and make the post-season. With Myers and Hamels teamed in the rotation and Brad Lidge closing, I think the Phillies pitching will be better in 2008. Remember that the strength of the team going into those final weeks was actually their bullpen, not their offense, which ranked seventh in OPS in September, just .010 off the N.L. average for the month. With Myers, Madson, Romero, Gordon and Geary closing down the opposition, the Phillies would have failed to make the playoffs.

Simply put, this is going to be a team that is going to contend in 2008, in 2009 and 2010. I’m not saying that this is the new golden age for the Phillies, but we might be entering a Silver Age for the team of sustained success, playoff berths and possibly championships. The 2008 N.L. will be wide-open. Remember that the best record in the N.L. in 2007 was just 90-72. The 2008 Phillies can do better than that and their adversaries haven’t made appreciable strides to match the Phillies. The Marlins are a wreck with Willis and Cabrera gone, and the Nationals will remain a substandard team for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile the Braves and Mets have talent and firepower, but they aren’t as deeply talented as the Phillies.

In case you couldn’t tell, this whole series was probably a month or so late. I’ve been busy and probably bit off more than I could chew in writing this. I’m taking a sabbatical until January, then I’ll be back rating the new Phillies (including Geoff Jenkins) and talking a little about 2008. Happy New Year!!!

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