Tuesday, April 22, 2008
We're roughly one-eighth of the way through the 2008 baseball season and I thought that I might comment on some things are surprising to me and perhaps to others as well. We'll start with ...
The Not-So-Improved Nats. The Nationals, supposedly new and improved with the acquisitions of Lasting Milledge, Paul Lo Duca, and Elijah Dukes and their new multi-million dollar digs in our Nation's Capitol were supposed to compete. Instead Dukes really hasn't played, Lo Duca stinks (.200 Batting Average), Milledge has been ok (.345 OBP) and superstar Ryan Zimmerman has struggled (2 home runs, 7 RBI, .244 OBP). Strike that. Struggled badly. Meanwhile Nats pitchers have been as bad as advertised, with a 4.73 ERA.
Thunder from the Desert. The 13-5 Diamondbacks are easily the best team in the National League right now and probably in baseball. Forget the Mets, the D-Backs might have bought themselves a pennant when they teamed Dan Haren (3-0, 1.80 ERA, 4 Quality Starts, 6.83 K/9) with Brandon Webb (4-0, 1.86 ERA, 4 Quality Starts, 6.84 ERA). Along with Micah Owings (3-0, 2.29 ERA, 3 Quality Starts, 8.69 K/9), the D-Backs are easily the most deadly team in the majors in pitching. Their offensive unit is playing well too: they've scored 116 runs, which puts them on pace to score 900 or so. Eric Byrnes (.908 OPS) is great, but Justin Upton (5 Home Runs, 13 RBI, 1.068 OPS) has been fantastic.
Injuries. At the moment the Phillies feature a lot of players sitting on the Disabled List. Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Chris Snelling are the notables. Snelling himself, ironically, had been recalled from Lehigh Valley to fill-in for Victorino.
Speed. Thus far in 2008, the Phillies have stolen eight of eleven bases in twenty games, a pretty lethargic total for a team that really cut-loose in 2007, stealing 138 bases in 157 attempts, a success rate of 87.9%. The 138 steals were second-best in the National League after the Mets 200. The Phillies also led the N.L. in triples with 41. Like many sabremetricians, I am distainful of the "small ball"-types that chirp about how teams have to manufacture runs with bunts and steals and the like to score runs. I am a big believer in the idea that the home run is the most efficient means of scoring runs and winning baseball games. However, I do credit the resurgence in interest in speed with playing a major factor in the Phillies 2007 campaign for the N.L. East crowd. Under the careful instruction of First Base Coach Davey Lopes, the Phillies were faster on the bases in 2007. Jimmy Rollins hit 20 triples and stole 41 bases. Victorino hit 3 triples and stole 37 bases in 41 tries. Michael Bourn hit 3 triples and stole 18 bases in 19 tries. That extra-dimension of speed played a major factor in helping the Phillies win the N.L. East.
Fast forward to 2008. In the off-season Davey Lopes was diagnosed with cancer and is currently undergoing treatment. Since undergoing surgery on March 17th he hasn't been with the team and isn't expected to return until May. The team dealt Michael Bourn to the Houston Astros as part of the Brad Lidge / Eric Bruntlett deal. As an Astro, Bourn has successfully stolen eleven of eleven bases, though his absurdly low batting average (.211) constrains his effectiveness. With Jimmy Rollins and Victorino out of the lineup with injuries, the Phillies are left without any major weapons on the bases. Thus far in 2008 they've stolen eight of eleven bases and have hit 2 triples in twenty games. At their current pace the Phillies will hit half as many triples as they hit last year and will steal just 65 bases, or roughly half what they did in 2007.
Power. Some idiot sniped at me when I did a talk-back for another blog about a prediction I had made that Chase Utley was capable of making a run at the triple crown. Apparently this guy thought I was an idiot for believing that Chase Utley could out-homer David Wright, Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder and the rest. Well ... I looked at the numbers this morning and Chase Utley leads the major leagues with nine home runs. He's also hitting .356 and has 18 RBI (the N.L. leader has 19) ... Pat Burrell has been great too, having hit seven home runs and nineteen RBI. Burrell's 15 walks also give him an astonishing .476 OBP to go along with all of that power ... Chris Coste has made the most of his playing time and owns the team's best OPS: 1.205. What really impresses me about Coste is that he's drawn four walks and has struckout just twice. He's really making a powerful argument that the Phillies ought to play him more and make him their #1 pinch-hitter ... The Phillies are really packing a punch this season. They've hit 33 home runs so far and their team isolated power at the plate is a robust .200 ... Isolated Power is where you eliminate singles from slugging percentage by subtracting batting average from slugging percentage ... I am only concerned that their power is going for naught as they have a pedestrian .337 OBP, which is just seventh in the N.L. As a consequence they've scored just 94 runs to the D-Backs 120.
Pitching. I'm not saying that the Phillies pitchers are as good as the D-Backs, but the team ERA os 3.61 is very, very respectable and suggests that the Phillies are making strides. The rotation is pretty predictable: Hamels (2-2, 1.86 ERA) and Myers (2-1, 3.96 ERA) are both terrific, while Kendrick (1-2, 5.59 ERA) is struggling and Adam Eaton (0-0, 4.74 ERA) and Jamie Moyer (1-1, 4.79 ERA) have both been solid. In Eaton's case, "solid" is a major improvement. What is really startling to me is how well the bullpen has done. Rudy Seanez, Brad Lidge and J.C. Romero all own ERAs of 0.00, and Chad Durbin's 0.64 ERA is right there with them. I'm pleasantly surprised.