Michael/Male/26-30. Lives in United States/Pennsylvania/Wexford/Christopher Wren, speaks English. Spends 20% of daytime online. Uses a Fast (128k-512k) connection. And likes baseball /politics.
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United States, Pennsylvania, Wexford, Christopher Wren, English, Michael, Male, 26-30, baseball , politics.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Series Preview: Reds vs. Phillies 

Tonight the Phillies kick off a four game series in Cincinnati with the Reds. Last night's 8-7 come-from-behind victory over the Washington Nationals helped the Phillies escape the ignominy of starting the season by being swept at home.

Yes, the Phillies are off to a slow start but this is nothing new. They started 4-11 last year and still won 89 games and the N.L. East. In 2006 they started the month of April 9-14 before reeling off nine consecutive victories and managed to run their record to 22-15 before falling back again. The Phillies haven't had a winning record in April since 2003, and they've finished the regular season with a winning record each and every year. I suppose 1-2 is an improvement over last season, when they began by being swept by the Braves at home in three games. At least they enter this series with a winning record.

I even see some positive points. The much-maligned bullpen pitched well yesterday, allowing just a run in six and one-third of an inning of work, helping the Phillies to claw back from Jamie Moyer's rough start. Game Two, the Phillies 1-0 loss to the Nationals on Wednesday was a fluke: how often does anyone lose a game where your starter goes eight innings and surrenders just one run on five hits and two walks? Hamels Game Score was a robust 72. Clearly Hamels is going to pitch well this season. And Myers will bounce back. They'll be fine ...

The Phillies foe for the next four games are the 2-1 Cincinnati Reds. The 2008 Cincinnati Reds are coming off a 72-90 campaign that saw the Reds finish in fifth place in the six team N.L. Central, 13 games behind the Chicago Cubs. It was the seventh consecutive losing season for the Reds, who haven’t been above .500 since the team’s disappointing 85-77 finish in 2000, the first year of the ill-fated Ken Griffey, Jr. Era.

2007 Season Series: the Phillies won four of six games in the season series last year. The teams first met in late April, just a few days removed from the Reds sitting in first place at 8-6. The Reds won the first game on April 20th by a score of 2-1 in ten innings after being one-hit by Jon Lieber, Antonio Alfonseca and Brett Myers for eight innings. The loss, which dropped the Phillies to 4-11 and dead-last in the N.L. East was the low ebb of the season for the team. Holding a 1-0 lead in the ninth inning, Tom Gordon entered the game and promptly surrendered a solo home run to Scott Hatteburg with two outs. In the bottom of the tenth inning Gordon loaded the bases and surrendered a game-ending single to Brandon Phillips.

The next night, however, Cole Hamels dazzled the baseball world by easily beating former Phillie Eric Milton 4-1, striking out fifteen Reds on his way to a complete game that ranked as one of the best pitching performances of 2007 according to Bill James Game Score system. The sole run scored by the Reds was a fluke Jeff Conine homer. The game might have been the turning point in the Phillies season, because the next night Freddy Garcia won his sole start as a Phillie, besting the Reds 9-3 thanks to 12 Phillies hits and 3 Reds errors. Thereafter, the Phillies improved and clawed back into contention.

The two teams didn’t meet again until late June, this time at Citizens Bank Ballpark. The slumping Reds were 29-47 and sat in sixth place (having lost 39 of 59 games since they had last met), sixteen games out of first. They had just lost eight of their previous eleven games. The Phillies, in contrast, had won 35 of the 60 games they had played since April 20 and were sitting in second-place, just two games out of first. The Phillies won the first game 11-4 despite shaky pitching from Kyle Kendrick, largely thanks to three home runs and four doubles Phillies hitters clubbed. Carlos Ruiz had four RBI as the Phillies cruised to victory. The next night the Reds got the Phillies back 9-6 after trailing 3-0 for the first six innings when the Reds offense caught fire and scored nine runs to win. The next night the Phillies won 8-7 thanks in part to Chase Utley hitting a pair of home runs. The Phillies survived a five-run outing by Adam Eaton.

Reds Key Arrivals: Francisco Cordero, Edinson Volquez, Manager Dusty Baker
Reds Key Departures: Josh Hamilton, Eric Milton, Kirk Saarloos

The 2008 Reds are trying to get back to a point where they can be competitive again and Manager Dusty Baker is going to try and shake up a team that needs some energy. The ’07 team scored and gave up a lot of runs. The Reds 783 runs was seventh in the N.L., but their 853 runs allowed was second-worst after the Florida Marlins (891).

The biggest drain on the Reds is their star player, #3, Ken Griffey, Jr. Simply put: the team has been struggling along since he joined their lineup in 2000. While the Mariners went out and won 393 games between 2000 and 2003. Griffey isn’t really to blame: he missed 418 games between 2001 and 2006, nearly three whole seasons. But the effect of a hobbled Griffey on the Reds has been terrible. They have a slower slugger who does little but hit home runs and play shoddy defense now.

The Reds 2-4 hitters (Brandon Phillips, Griffey and Adam Dunn) are as strong a collection of hitters as you’ll find in baseball:

2007 Stats:
Phillips: 30 Home Runs / 94 RBI / 26 Doubles / .331 OBP
Griffey: 30 Home Runs / 93 RBI / 24 Doubles / .372 OBP
Dunn: 40 Home Runs / 106 RBI / 27 Doubles / .386 OBP

That’s 100 Home Runs, 293 RBI, 286 Runs Scored, 77 Doubles, and 219 Walks. That’s a good deal of the Reds offense right there.

With a lot of young talent in the Reds farm system, the team is moving beyond the Griffey Era and is moving towards contending again with a younger team.

Pitching Matchups: Friday Night the Phillies send Kyle Kendrick for his first start of the season to the mound against Josh Fogg, who briefly pitched for the Colorado Rockies last season. Given how much Kendrick appeared to struggle in the pre-season, it will be interesting to see if the Reds will be able to get to him early and drive him from the mound. Saturday afternoon Brett Myers tries to rebound from his struggles on Opening Day against Aaron Harang, the Reds best pitcher. This will be the best matchup of the weekend, pitting two very good pitchers against each other. Sunday afternoon features a mismatch between Cole Hamels (whose last start at Great American Ballpark was the 15-strikeout game) and Edinson Volquez, a relatively new hurler the Reds snared from the Rangers. Then on Monday Night (yes, it is a four-game series), the Phillies send Jamie Moyer against Bronson Arroyo. In his only game against the Reds last season he went six innings and struck out eight, a season-high for him. To my knowledge, this will be the first time that Moyer has ever pitched at Great American Ballpark.

Park Factor: Great American and Citizens Bank are arguably the two most home run-oriented ballparks in baseball, which might help explain why the Phillies and Reds typically rank in the top three in home runs in the National League.

So there you have it, Reds vs. Phillies in a nutshell. See you Monday.

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

Book Review: The 33-Year-Old Rookie 

The jock bio is one of those subgenres of sports books that I usually can’t stand reading. Let’s face it: the typical athlete has a limited vocabulary and doesn’t write with much complexity. The words are simple, the prose is pedestrian and the plot is predictable. We’ve read them all before: blah blah blah, the athlete is extremely talented, does great things, yada yada yada. The problem with a biography, Bill Clinton once said, is that they are boring and self-serving. I greeted The 33-Year Old Rookie, Chris Coste’s tale of his battles to survive Independent League baseball and hook up with the Phillies in 2006, finally achieving his goal of making the major leagues, with some amount of skepticism when I picked it up. Another dull jock bio?

I found The 33-Year Old Rookie to be a pleasant surprise. The book itself has a different tone than the Dictaphone style that most jock bios are typically written in. Coste’s bubbling enthusiasm and joy for playing baseball clearly shine through. Coste has a sunny disposition throughout the book and gives the reader a vivid picture of the path his life took.

Many Phillies fans are familiar with the story, but I’ll rehash it a little here. Coste, the only son of a single mother in North Dakota, played Independent League baseball in North Dakota after Junior College and swiftly managed to catch on with the minor league systems of the Cleveland Indians, the Boston Red Sox and the Pittsburgh Pirates before joining the Phillies. Each time Coste would join a farm system, have success, but find the path to advancement thwarted by the fact that he was an Independent Leaguer and his unorthodox hitting style scared teams away. As time wore on Coste felt his dream of playing in the major leagues slipping away and he contemplated giving up or going overseas to playing Japan or Korea.

Ultimately Coste is successful and joins the Phillies after injuries sideline Sal Fasano and Mike Lieberthal in the summer of 2006. The palatable joy that flows from Coste describing the trip to Philadelphia from Scranton, the sensations of being at the ballpark for the first time, the eye-opening moment he took the field for the first time are all vividly described by Coste. No wooden prose, no dull clichés, Coste really does a nice job describing what it is like to be baseball player to the reader. Coste’s writing style is pretty good: conversational and informative, he always engages the reader and never turns this into a clunky book.

The parallel between Crash Davis the fictional character played by Kevin Costner in Bull Durham and Coste is obvious, though the two men couldn’t be further apart: Coste is a family man whose passion for making the big leagues has never left him. Costner’s Crash is single and embittered over his failure to make it back to the big leagues.

In the end I thoroughly enjoyed The 33-Year Old Rookie. This is a book that any fan of the game of baseball can pick up and enjoy.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Phillies Preview 2008: Pitching 

Enough with the Phillies offense. Let’s move along to the Phillies pitchers. Before I start talking any jargon, here are the stats, defined: Earned Run Average (ERA): Earned Runs (ER) Allowed * 9 / Innings Pitched (IP) = What a pitcher would give up if they hurled a nine-inning game. Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP): (((13 * HR) + (3 * BB) – (2 * K)) / IP) + League Factor. Basically a measure of how a pitcher would have done if he had an average defense behind him. A stat related to this is DER, or Defense Efficiency Ratio. That’s basically how often fielders converted balls put into play by the pitcher into outs. I might also talk about Defense Independent Pitching Statistic (DIPS): The more sophisticated version of FIP developed by Voros McCracken that takes into account park factors and other considerations. DIPS is the stat that revolutionized our understanding of pitching when it came out less than a decade ago. Basically DIPS stands for the proposition that pitchers cannot control the outcomes of balls they allow to be put into play, and thus, ought to be judged in a neutral manner. Finally, Home Runs per 9 Innings (HR/9): (HR * 9) / IP; Walks per 9 Innings (BB/9): (BB * 9) / IP; and Strikeouts per 9 Innings (K/9): (K * 9) / IP … Enough numbers. Back to the Phillies … The Phillies didn’t exactly light the world on fire with their pitching in 2007. The team threw just five shutouts, tied with the Pirates for second-fewest in the N.L … The worst: the Marlins with four. The best: the Padres with a whopping 20 … As a team the Phillies had an ERA of 4.73, much worse than the 4.43 league average. The Phillies FIP was slightly worse than that: 4.76, which ranks fifteenth in the N.L., worse than everyone save the Washington Nationals. The Phillies struck out 16% of the batters they faced, a little off the N.L. average of 17%, and they allowed 10% of those hitters to walk, again, a little off the N.L. average of 9%. The .451 slugging percentage the Phillies pitchers allowed was also worse than the N.L. average of .424 … I suppose that I ought to drop a few words here about the effect Citizens Bank Ballpark has on the Phillies and their pitching. A few years ago, when Citizens Bank opened, I argued pretty vigorously that it wasn’t a hitters park. After four years of data to look at, I am prepared to pretty much drop that argument. Citizens Bank’s Park Factor … hold on, a definition is in order here: “Park Factor” means you take the difference between what a team and its opponents do at home and what they do on the road, divide it and arrive at a number. 100 is neutral. Over 100 favors hitters. Under 100 favors pitchers … for 2007 was 103 for runs scored (3% easier to score a run), 145 for Home Runs (45% easier to hit a home run), and 101 for Batting Average (1% easier to get a hit). Citizens seems to compress hitting doubles (93) and triples (88). Interestingly, it might actually help pitchers in terms of generating strikeouts – 103 Park Factor – and compressing walks – 94 Park Factor – both generally things that we examine when we look at the quality of pitching. Generally speaking, however, the consensus is that a pitcher is going to have a harder go of it at Citizens than at any other ballpark in the N.L., with the possible exceptions of Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, Coors Field in Denver, and Chase Field in Phoenix because of those home runs … And indeed, allowing those massive home runs has been a problem for the Phillies over the last several years. When the team brought groundball pitcher extraordinaire Jon Lieber to the team in ’05, I thought the move was a savvy one. And then Lieber gave up 33 home runs that first season with the Phillies. Last year the Phillies allowed 1.22 home runs per nine innings (HR/9). The N.L. Average was 1.04. Getting pitchers who can take care of business is a tricky business for the Phillies and something that the team is still trying to figure out. If the Rockies unlocked the mystery of Coors Field, however, than surely so can the Phillies.

So what is the Phillies pitching staff going to look like in 2008? Here are the probable starters and relievers:

Pitching Staff:
SP – Cole Hamels
SP – Brett Myers
SP – Jamie Moyer
SP – Kyle Kendrick
SP – Adam Eaton
RP – Chad Durbin
RP – Clay Condrey
RP – Ryan Madson
RP – J.C. Romero
RP – Tom Gordon
RP – Brad Lidge

Let’s begin with the guys that take the mound at the start of a game. The Phillies starters struggled in 2007, despite a revamped rotation that featured high-priced talent like former White Sox hurler Freddy Garcia and former Padre (and former Phillies draft pick) Adam Eaton. Injuries soon forced Brett Myers, the team’s Opening Day starter to the bullpen as the new closer, while Garcia struggled before going on the Disabled List. Suddenly the Phillies deep rotation looked thin as the team was forced to bring Double-A pitcher Kyle Kendrick to the show to fill the gap in the summer last year when Jon Lieber joined Garcia on the Disabled List. The team that began the season with six starters was suddenly down to three. The patchwork rotation did seem to work as the season progressed. Still, statistically, the Phillies starters posted some terrible numbers. As a team the Phillies tied for eleventh in the N.L. in Quality Starts in ’07 … a Quality Start is a start where the Phillies pitcher goes at least six innings and allow three or fewer runs … The Phillies had 74 of those in 2007. Just three teams had fewer: the Cardinals (70), the Nationals (60), and the Marlins (49). The Phillies starters rank twelfth in the N.L. in ERA and OBP-allowed and in terms of slugging percentage allowed, they ranked fifteenth. Phillies pitchers did rank first in the N.L. in run support at 6.05, which helps to explain why the team won games despite their pitchers struggling so much. Whereas the San Diego Padres were accustomed to winning 2-1 games, the Phillies were usually locked in 7-5 shoot-outs.

The 2008 Phillies starting rotation is set with Cole Hamels and Myers occupying the #1 and #2 slots, followed closely by Jamie Moyer, Kendrick and Eaton at # 3, 4 & 5 respectively. Let’s start with Hamels … The Phillies are fortunate to have Cole Hamels, their star, their ace pitcher, who takes the mound tonight against the Nationals. Since he joined the Phillies staff in May of 2006, after a whirlwind sprint through the Phillies minor league system, Hamels has been a critical part of the team’s success. After going 9-8 with a 4.08 ERA that year, Hamels put everything together in his sophomore season and went 15-5 with a 3.39 ERA in 2007. Had Hamels not been injured and missed five or six starts, he might have figured more prominently in the Cy Young Award voting (though Jake Peavy and Brandon Webb were the clear #1 and #2 for the award last season). Hamels steadying pitching meant everything to the Phillies last season. His fifteen strikeout performance against the Reds on April 21 was not only tied for the second-best pitching performance in the N.L. in 2007 – utilizing Bill James Game Score pitching stat, which awards and detracts points for certain events – but it was a vital game in that it helped snap the Phillies out of their 4-11 start and help get them started on making up ground on the Mets. Overall, Hamels struck-out 23.8% of the batter he faced and finished third in the N.L. in terms of strikeouts per nine innings with 8.69. Not impressed yet? Don’t think Hamels will factor in the N.L. Cy Young award voting now that the mighty Johan Santana is here to grapple with defending champ Jake Peavy? Check this out: Hamels 4.12 strikeout-to-walk (K/BB) ration was better than Cy Young award winner Peavy’s 3.53 … And contrary to the image of Hamels as a fire-baller who just goes to the mound hurling 95 mph heat, Hamels threw the second-highest percentage of sliders in the N.L. last season: 34.5% … Batters hit just .200 with runners in scoring position against Hamels, second-best in the N.L. after the Braves John Smoltz. Hamels is dominating and will be an integral part of the Phillies rotation until at least 2010, or longer if the Phillies can sign him to a long-term deal … You have to admire the work Brett Myers did last season with the Phillies. The team’s Opening Day starter last season and this season, Myers said nary a peep when he was yanked from the rotation and sent to the bullpen to bolster the team’s closer situation when Tom Gordon faltered. Myers put up good numbers in the bullpen, saving 21 of 24 games for the Phillies and striking out 83 batters in just 68 and two-thirds innings of work … I thought it was kind of interesting to compare the performance Myers did with the Phillies last year with what Smoltz did with the Atlanta Braves from ’01 – ’04, when he moved from the Braves rotation to become their lights out closer (saving 154 of 168 games for the Braves). No longer having to pace himself, Smoltz fired the fastballs by hitters in the eighth and ninth innings during those years. Similarly, Myers turned up the strikeout quotient from 8.69 K/9 in ’05 to 8.59 K/9 in ’06 to 10.88 last season … Myers was an excellent starter for the Phillies in’05 (13-8, 3.72 ERA) and ’06 (12-7, 3.91 ERA), and he should return to that form in 2008. As you can see, his strikeout rates were consistently high both of those seasons, and his walk rate was a modest 2.84 and 2.86 in ’05 and ’06. The only flaw Myers has as a pitcher is the surprisingly high number of home runs he surrendered in those two seasons: 60. This is surprising to me because Myers tends to get many, many more groundballs than flyballs when balls are put into play. Amongst the Phillies pitchers he was very prone towards grounders:

2007 G/F ratio:
Geoff Geary: 1.57
Kyle Kendrick: 1.55
Jon Lieber: 1.52
Brett Myers: 1.32
Cole Hamels: 1.13
Jamie Moyer: 1.08
Adam Eaton: 1.06
Kyle Lohse: 0.95

I tend to think pitchers like Myers or ex-Phillie Jon Lieber possess the tools to be a successful pitcher for the team because groundball pitchers don’t allow home runs and give their defenses the ability to make outs. At Citizens Bank Ballpark these skills are musts … There is a lot of diversity in the baseball world, however, and I admit that the numbers don’t sway you one way or the other. Brandon Webb, who pitches in the offense-friendly confines of Chase Field (111 Home Run and Run Factor in 2007), had a groundball/flyball ratio of 3.34 in 2007, which was basically the largest ratio of any pitcher in baseball. Webb is a pretty good pitcher: second in the Cy Young Voting and a previous winner of the award. Jake Peavy has a G/F ratio of just 1.24. Then there is this really good pitcher named Johan Santana. Last season Johan Santana’s G/F was 0.92. So there is a lot of diversity in the pitching world and there is no one way to be effective … Back to Myers. I really think that Myers will pull out all of the stops and will turn in a stunning performance this season, rivaling that of Hamels. The two are a terrific one-two punch. If I had to guess what each will do this season …

Hamels: 17-9, 3.75 ERA
Myers: 16-8, 3.85 ERA

But the Phillies rotation consists of more than Hamels, Myers and hoping for an off-day. Right after them is this guy named Moyer … It’s hard not to love what Jamie Moyer does. This will be his twenty-second season in the major leagues in a career that began with the Chicago Cubs in 1986 (I was nine years old and still in elementary school) and has seen him face 15,102 batters, win 230 games, and strikeout 2,125 hitters. At age 45 Moyer is beginning what might actually be his final season in the big leagues (it is the final season in a two-year deal he signed with the Phillies after he was dealt to the team from the Seattle Mariners in 2006) as he searches for that elusive World Series ring. Moyer has lasted so long in the majors because of his pitching style: he is a soft-tossing lefty like the Boston / Milwaukee Braves Warren Spahn, or the Atlanta Braves Tom Glavine. I think a few numbers will nicely illustrate what kind of a pitcher Moyer is: last season his fastball averaged 81.1 miles per hour, which made his the slowest in the National League. Moyer threw his fastball just 37.1% of the time, the lowest percentage of fastballs of any N.L. pitcher. Moyer’s favored pitch was the changeup, which he threw 28.2% of the time, the third-highest percentage of any N.L. pitcher. Crafty 'ol Jamie Moyer … Overall, Moyer’s results weren’t great in 2007. He posted a winning record at 14-12, but his ERA was 5.01. He allowed 30 home runs, or 1.35 HR/9, and the slugging percentage against him was a whopping .483 … Moyer increased his strikeout rate last season to 133 in 199 and one-thirds innings (6.0 K/9), which was a substantial jump over what he did in his final full season with the Seattle Mariners in 2005 (4.59 K/9). Moyer’s near 2-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio (2.01 K/BB in 2007) is a consistent trend of his throughout his career (1.86 in ’06 with the Mariners, and 1.96 in ’05) … Consistency is a nice theme when writing about Moyer. His 18 Quality Starts lead the Phillies and was roughly the same percentage of Quality Starts per start as Cole Hamels: 55% to 57% … The Bill James Handbook projects Moyer to go 11-10 with a 4.31 ERA in 2008. I think that’s about right. The Phillies have Moyer on the roster to provide veteran leadership and playoff experience (Moyer pitched well in the Phillies Game 3 loss to the Rockies in the NLDS last season), and to eat up 180-200 innings … Kyle Kendrick, victim of Brett Myers hilarious practical joke in the preseason, is set as the Phillies #4 starter, quite a jump for a guy who was in Double-A this time last season and probably didn’t expect to make it to Philadelphia until 2009. Kendrick’s career began a little early when injuries in the rotation forced him to Philly. Once here Kendrick made the most of his opportunity, going 10-4 with a 3.87 ERA. With 13 Quality Starts in 20 Starts, his 65% QS percentage was substantially better than Cole Hamels or Jamie Moyer last season. Bravo … But beneath the exterior or Kendrick’s success are some problems. Kendrick allowed a lot of balls to be put into play in 2007. Of the 499 batters he faced last year, he allowed 409 to put the ball into play. Kendrick struck-out an absurdly low percentage of batters: 49 in 121 innings, or 3.64 K/9. To his credit he didn’t walk many either: 1.85 BB/9. The key to Kendrick’s success was that Phillies fielders did a nice job converting those balls put into play into outs: they posted a .719 DER behind Kendrick, a groundball oriented pitcher. Thankfully for Kyle, he’s got a Gold Glove winner at shortstop and a future Gold Glove winner over at second base. What if the Phillies fielders don’t do that for Kendrick next season? Pitchers who rely on fielders rather than getting strike-outs tend to be very inconsistent and often get hammered. Their numbers yo-yo from season to season because the fluctuations in the quality of their defense, not their own abilities, decide the numbers. In Kendrick’s case he was also the product of excellent run support: a whopping 7.74 per nine innings pitched. That support helped Kendrick to tie for fourth in the National League in “Cheap Wins” (Bill James stat) with four. While Kendrick’s ERA was a solid 3.87, his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) ERA was a more robust – and Adam Eaton-like – 4.90. DIPS, a stat I trust a little more because it takes into account Park Factors, pegged Kendrick’s “real” ERA at 4.85, which was worse than what Jamie Moyer did (4.73) and much worse than Cole Hamels (3.63). My sense is that Kendrick will pitch nowhere near as well as he did last season and his ERA will hover in the 4.50 – 4.70 range. Kendrick has already struggled in the preseason, allowing 14 runs in seven and two-thirds of an inning of work (16.43 ERA). The Bill James Handbook declined to issue predictions for Kendrick based on one season of data, but I’ll make my own: 8-10, with a 4.65 ERA in 2008 … How bad was Adam Eaton in 2007? I think the raw stats alone tell the story: 10-10, 6.29 ERA, .520 slugging percentage against, 71 walks and 30 home runs allowed in 161 and two-third innings pitched (3.95 BB/9, 1.67 HR/9). His 10-10 record, which looks pretty decent - and, incidentally, Bill James credits Eaton with five of those ten wins as “Cheap Wins” - is a nice illustration why wins and losses are largely irrelevant when judging a pitcher’s abilities. Eaton got a lot of run support – 5.62 runs per nine innings pitched – and he survived that way. Eaton did pitch roughly as badly as his ERA indicates. His FIP ERA was 5.93 and his DIPS ERA was 5.69. Eaton’s problem was not like Kendrick’s in that he relies too much on his fielders – the team’s .691 DER was pretty average – but that he allowed far too many home runs and walks last year. Given that he only threw 65 innings with the Texas Rangers in 2006, I wonder if the Phillies knew what they were getting when they acquired Eaton in 2007. I think the team focused too much on Eaton’s strong 11-5, 4.27 ERA performance as a member of the San Diego Padres in ’05, failing to take into account the “Petco Park” factor … The Bill James Handbook pegs Eaton’s performance at 8-10 with a 4.89 ERA in 2008, which I think is a reasonable projection … In the event that Eaton or Kendrick struggle and the Phillies find a need to fill the gap, they will most likely turn their attention towards Chad Durbin, the former Detroit Tigers player, who is slated to begin the season in the bullpen, but seems likely to join the rotation at some juncture of the season. Durbin pitched in 36 games for the Tigers last season, starting 19 of them. Durbin’s record was a so-so 8-7 with a 4.72 ERA. Durbin failed to pry away the #5 starting job from Adam Eaton in spring training – partly because the Phillies have $21 million dollars invested in Eaton over the 2007-2009 seasons – but the job might still be his. Durbin threw 127 innings with the Tigers in 2007 and will need to improve on some areas of his game to be a viable starter in the National League. Durbin’s K/BB ratio was a less than stellar 1.35. He allowed far too many walks – 3.45 BB/9 – to be a successful pitcher. Durbin also allowed a fair number of home runs (1.48 HR/9) at Comerica Park (which had a Home Run Factor of 114 in 2007), which makes me wonder how many dingers Durbin will give up in 2008 … Durbin’s high 4.72 ERA masks a worse FIP ERA of 5.73 and a DIPS ERA of 5.48. The reason why Durbin’s ERA was “just” 4.72 last season was because the White Sox played terrific defense behind him, converting .731 of the balls he allowed to be put into play to become outs. The Bill James Handbook gives a pessimistic 4-6, 5.00 ERA assessment of Durbin might be right on the money … Moving deeper into the bullpen … I feel like I ought to cover the bullpen as a separate topic from the starting pitching because the two have very different roles. The starter typically needs to get those 6 or 7 innings in, keep the Phillies in the lead, then turn over the game in the eighth inning to the bullpen so they can clamp down on the opposition for the final two innings. That concentration on preserving leads and focusing narrowly on just an inning or two is very, very different from the mentality of the starter, who needs to pace himself and survive more challenges. The Phillies bullpen, I might add, was a major reason why the Phillies made the playoffs in 2007 … Check out the relief corps ERA and Innings Pitching in September of last year:

Innings Pitched / ERA
Romero: 15.2 / 0.00
Geary: 17.0 / 2.65
Myers: 18 / 3.00
Condrey: 12.1 / 3.65
Gordon: 16 / 3.94

Yes, you read that correctly. In fifteen and two-thirds of an innings pitched, J.C. Romero didn’t allow a single run. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Romero, Geary, Myers, Condrey and Gordon threw a combined 78 innings, or 30% of the Phillies September innings. While Jimmy Rollins was winning the MVP award, the bullpen was quietly winning the Phillies their first playoff berth in fourteen years … The Phillies primary set up options are going to be Condrey, Romero, Ryan Madson and Tom Gordon. Let’s talk about them next … Ryan Madson has been with the Phillies since he caught the eye of Phillies bloggers with his exceptional performance out of the bullpen in 2004: 9-3, 2.34 ERA. The nine Win Shares he had during his rookie season remains a career high. After that season Madson has had a somewhat uneven career with the Phillies. He struggled a little more in 2005, as his ERA rose to 4.14, as did the number of home runs allowed (0.70 in ’04 to 1.14 in ’05). However he was still a solid pitcher and his strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB) went from 2.89 in ’04 to 3.16 in ’05. The Phillies elected to give Madson a chance to become a starter in 2006, but he flopped in the role. He started 17 games and finished the season with an ERA of 5.69. His home runs spiked (1.34 HR/9), the slugging percentage allowed jumped nearly ninety points to .516, and his K/BB ration dropped below 2.00 to just 1.98. Back in the bullpen, Madson was largely back to his ’04 form, going 2-2 with a 3.05 ERA. His Home Runs allowed went from 1.34 to 0.80. Madson’s K/BB ration dropped (1.87), but he still clearly pitched better in his role in the bullpen … J.C. Romero, a cast-off from the Red Sox last season, was a startlingly welcome addition to the Phillies bullpen down the stretch. In 51 games with the Phillies Romero went 1-2 with a 1.24 ERA. But just those numbers don’t even come close to giving you the full story about Romero’s extraordinary season with the Phillies in 2007. Romero faced 143 batters in a Phillies uniform and threw 597 pitches. In that time he allowed just one home run (0.25 HR/9) and a .191 slugging percentage against. Romero is one of those pitchers who throws a lot of pitches because he doesn’t want to give a batter a chance to hit anything at all. Consider this: Romero threw 4.17 pitches per batter. How does that compare with some of the rest of the Phillies?:

Pitches / Batters Faced:
Romero: 4.2
Myers: 4.1
Hamels: 3.8
Gordon: 3.8
Madson: 3.7
Eaton: 3.7
Moyer: 3.6
Kendrick: 3.5

The consequence is that of the 143 batters Romero faced, he walked 25 (19%) and struck-out 31 (22%). To give you comparison, remember that 9% of batters in the N.L. walked and 17% struck-out last season. Romero is an opposite extreme to Kendrick. Just 61% of the batters he faced put the ball into play. That is pretty remarkable. Here is another remarkable fact: of the 87 batters who put balls into play against Romero, 64% of those were groundballs. The N.L. average for groundballs is 43% … Do I expect Romero to repeat a lot of those stats again in 2007? His 0.00 September ERA is an impossibility. While he did generally pitch well in 2007, Romero’s FIP ERA was 3.98, nearly three runs (specifically, 2.75 more) than his “real” ERA. A stunning 83.3% of the balls put into play behind Romero were turned into outs. Simply put, that will not happen again. A 3.00 ERA for Romero is far more likely this season … I wonder how many other baseball teams boast two pitchers over the age of 40 on their rosters. The Phillies do with 45-year old Jamie Moyer and with 40-year old reliever Tom Gordon on the roster. Gordon, whose career began so long ago in 1988 with the Kansas City Royals, arrived in Philadelphia in 2006 to replace Billy Wagner as the team’s closer. Gordon, who had been setting up Mariano Rivera’s saves for the Yankees for the past several seasons, was a worrisome choice to replace the fire-balling Wagner. Was he up to the task? Well, Gordon actually did well in the first half of 2006, and was one of the Phillies three representatives in the All-Star Game in Pittsburgh. He saved 34 of 39 games for the Phillies with a 3-4 record and a 3.34 ERA. Gordon may not be firing 100 mph fastballs at hitters, but he was effective: 10.3 K/9, 3.09 K/BB ratio, just the sort of numbers you want from your setup man … Gordon struggled a little in 2007, seeing his ERA balloon to 4.72 and blowing five of eleven save opportunities. The closer job he lost to Brett Myers and the team brought in Brad Lidge this season to occupy the role. Gordon still will function as the Phillies set-up man, however, a nice counterpoint to the left-handed Romero. I like Gordon a lot and I think he’ll be effective, although I wonder if he might cede the set-up man role to Ryan Madson as the season wears on if he struggles. Gordon’s FIP ERA, which was 2.37 in ’04 and 3.55 in ’05 with the Yankees, remained at 3.86 in 2006, but spiked to 5.07. Fluke? Or age finally catching up to Gordon. Gordon many fewer strikeouts in 2007, but then he faced many fewer batters in ’07 than he had the year before and was battling injuries. The fifty point spike in his slugging percentage allowed might be a fluke or it might portend struggles to come. We shall see. I will go out on a limb and give a pessimistic assessment, and say that Ryan Madson will likely step into Gordon’s role as eighth inning setup guy for Brad Lidge by the time we get to the end of the season. Certainly Gordon’s performance in the ninth inning of Opening Day against the Nationals has done little to persuade me otherwise … Clay Condrey went 5-0 in 2007 with the Phillies, an excellent illustration of the reason why sabremetricians tend to ignore won-lost records in evaluating pitchers. Condrey did so with an ERA of 5.04 and a FIP of 4.31. Condrey’s 1.68 K/BB ratio was pretty uninspiring. He surrendered more walks than the N.L. average and got fewer strikeouts. I don’t expect to see too much from Condrey except in mop-up duty here and there … Finally we wrap up with Brad Lidge. Lidge was the Phillies biggest off-season acquisition, secured at the cost of a viable prospect (Mike Costanzo), one of the Phillies best base-stealers (Michael Bourn) and a reliable relief pitcher (Geoff Geary). The acquisition of Lidge is a major risk for the Phillies. They surrendered good talent to secure him as the team’s closer, a role Lidge occupied for the Astros from 2004 – 2007. In his first two years on the job Lidge was 71 of 79 saves with a 2.06 ERA. Then Lidge surrendered a post-season home run and hasn’t been the same. His ERA spiked to 5.28 in 2006 and he blew 6 of 38 save opportunities. Last year his ERA lowered to 3.36, but he blew 8 of 27 save opportunities. Can Lidge recapture that ’04 – ’05 magic? I think he can and the trick will be to lower those walk rates. For a closer Lidge allows a decent number of walks: 30 in 2007 (4.03 BB/9), 36 in 2006 (4.32 BB/9). He needs to lower that so that his phenomenal strikeout rate ca catch up. Check out Lidge’s strikeout rate between ’04 – ’07:

2004: 14.93
2005: 13.12
2006: 12.48
2007: 11.82

Those are staggering numbers, not even ones that Billy Wagner, Lidge’s predecessor at both the Astros and Phillies closer could accomplish … Lidge begins the season on the D.L. and ought to return back shortly. His presence in the Phillies bullpen is essential to the Phillies long-term prospects because a bullpen-by-committee approach won’t work and Gordon probably can’t shoulder the load. If you are looking for a reason why the Phillies might miss the playoffs, look no further than Lidge’s balky knee … So there you are. That is the Phillies pitching preview. I’m sorry that it took me as long as it did, but it is done. Now, on to the fielders.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Thoughts on Opening Day & Tom Gordon's ERA 

Opening Day ends in bitter defeat once more for the Phillies, who drop a 11-6 decision to the Washington Nationals after Tom Gordon surrenders five runs in the top of the ninth to get the loss (fun Opening Day factoid: Tom Gordon allowed five earned runs in one-third of an inning of work, leaving his ERA at 135.0) after the Phillies managed to tie the game thanks to a two-run home run by Jimmy Rollins in the seventh inning.

Before anyone goes leaping off bridges and ceding the N.L. East and control of the known universe to the Mets, remember that Opening Day is ONE game. There are another 161 games left to play. The Phillies won the N.L. East last season despite losing 5-3 on Opening Day and opening the 2007 season with a 4-11 record. The Phillies and Nats cross swords Wednesday and Thursday, plenty of time for the Phillies to emerge from the series 2-1.

The game does serve notice that the old punchless Nationals are long gone. The lineup that faced the Phillies yesterday was strong: it pounded out seven extra-base hits, including a sixth inning home run from the bat of Lastings Milledge. Maybe the Nationals will factor in the playoff race beyond being the doormats the Phillies and Mets are crushing in September.

Meanwhile we got a good look at the Phillies new alignment and new players. Pedro Feliz was 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. Jayson Werth got the start in rightfield and doubled in three at-bats, scoring a run. Chad Durbin tossed a shutout inning.

The returning stars were a mixed bag: Jimmy Rollins was 2-for-4 with two runs scored and two RBI largely thanks to a seventh inning home run the 2007 MVP hit. Unfortunately Rollins also committed a costly error which allowed a Nationals run to score in the fifth inning. Chase Utley was 2-for-3 with two runs and RBIs likewise, but Shane Victorino was 0-for-3 and Ryan Howard was 1-for-4. Brett Myers struggled and Tom Gordon's role as setup man might go to Ryan Madson sooner rather than later.

So calm down Phillies fans. Take a deep breath! Got a long ways to go ...

On a personal note: I just completed my trial yesterday and I am busy catching up on lost blogging time. Expect my notes on Phillies pitching tomorrow or Thursday at the latest.

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Monday, March 31, 2008

Opening Day: Phillies vs. Nationals 

Opening Day is finally here. I'm stunned. This spring has seemingly flown by and we are already into the 2008 Baseball season. At the moment I am furiously finishing my Season Preview series, of which I have yet to post about the Phillies pitching and fielding. I've been consumed at work in an exceptionally long trial that has left me physically exhausted. I hope to complete it today and post tomorrow or Wednesday.

Let's talk a little about Opening Day. Nationals vs. Phillies at 3:05 PM in Citizens Bank Ballpark. Somehow the timing doesn't feel right for me. Whenever I think of Opening Day I think of soft, warm breezes in the air, blooming flowers and a warm sun. It has been so cold this winter that it still feels like it is winter-time. Baseball somehow feels unnatural. I wonder if we'll have a repeat of last year, when cold weather in the Northeast United States resulted in havoc. (e.g., Snow in Cleveland.)

Well, if it feels like Opening Day or not, Brett Myers makes the start for the second consecutive Opening Day for the Phillies. I'm looking forward to seeing what Cole Hamels and Myers do together. They haven't played together since 2006 and in the only season where both started, Hamels was still a rookie. Teamed together, they both could win 20 games. They have that kind of talent.

Today we get our first look at the new-and-improved Washington Nationals. General Manager Jim Bowden has put together a team that reminds me a lot of his Cincinnati Reds teams: offensively inclined featuring great outfields. Well, the 2008 Nationals feature an outfield of Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes and Austin Kearns, three formitable players. Add them with Nick Johnson and Ryan Zimmerman, and the fact that the Nats are moving from RFK to a more hitter friendly park, and perhaps the Nats will actually score a few runs.

They'll need to because their pitching staff is awful. The Nats were one of the worst teams in baseball last year on the mound and that was with RFK turning 375 foot home runs into outs. Let's see how they do in cozier confines.

I think the Phillies start the season in an excellent state of mind: confident, calm, poised. My prediction: the Phillies take it 6-4, Brett Myers getting the win and Ryan Howard smashes a three-run bomb. Spring is finally here.

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