Friday, June 20, 2008
East Coast vs. West Coast.
Urban vs. SoCal.
Today begins a three-game series at Citizens Bank Ballpark between the Phillies and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, as the team formerly known as the California Angels and Anaheim Angels prefers to be called these days. I've very intrigued by the differences and contrasts provided by today's series. In terms of geography and culture, Philadelphia and Metro L.A. couldn't be further apart, the former being a gritty East Coast city featuring a fierce, blue-collar work ethic and artery-clogging cheesesteaks vs. the latter, a West Coast city with pretty people who dine on healthy cuisine and only healthy cuisine. The contrast in styles on the baseball diamond is astonishing too: the Phillies are probably the closest thing that the National League has to a Moneyball team, a team that emphasizes walks and home runs over bunts and steals, while the Angels are the epitome of small ball, always fighting and clawing for runs in the dirt, a delicious contrast to SoCal's effete image.
Trace the Angels small ball attitude back to their manager, Mike Scioscia, the former Dodgers catcher and Upper Darby native who brought a classically National League perspective to managing the Angels. Since taking over the Angels in 2000, Scioscia has guided the team to a 745-621 record (.545), four playoff berths ('02, '04, '05, and '07), and a World Series title in 2002. Scioscia's weapons have been bunting and stealing bases.
The 2008 Angels are an interesting crew, clearly better than the rest of the A.L. West, but still just a few games ahead of the surprising Oakland A's, whom the Angels can be expected to out-spend nearly two and a half to one this season (Angels payroll: $118 million to the A's $47 million dollar payroll). The Angels are a good team, but they feel like one that is under-achieving. Offensively, the Angels rank ninth in the fourteen team A.L. in home runs and tenth in slugging percentage. That partly helps to explain why they rank eleventh in runs scored.
What really explains the Angels struggles is this: they are really struggling at small ball this year.
What is small ball? Generally, small ball tends to be three things: 1) Bunting, with an emphasis on sacrifice bunting to move runners over; 2) Base-stealing; and 3) Clutch hitting. The '02 Angels were masters of this approach: their .290 batting average with runners in scoring position was tied for best in the A.L.; they stole 117 bases, which was third-best in the A.L.; and they led the A.L. in sacrifice hits with 49. That's a team that successfully executes a small ball approach to baseball.
The '08 Angels? Not so much. While they rank third in the A.L. in steals again, their 55 steals are off-set by the fact that they have been caught 22 times, so their 71% success rate means they aren't getting much benefit from running on the bases. Oh, and the Boston Red Sox, that Moneyball team, has more stolen bases, with 64. Surprisingly, the Angels rank twelfth in sacrifice hits with just 11. Finally, the Angels are ninth in batting average with runners in scoring position (BA/RISP) at .268, which is just a little better than the A.L. average of .267. The Angels problem is that they aren't getting guys on base: the team OBP is an awful .318. Garrett Anderson's OBP is .287. Torii Hunter, the team's marque free agent signing during the off-season, has just nine home runs and 33 RBI. Vlad Guerrero, the team's usually reliable slugger, has really struggled in '08: ten home runs and 35 RBI. Assuming that Vlad plays in 90% of the Angels games and continues at his current pace, he ought to have 80-85 RBI this season, which is terrible production from your clean-up hitter.
The Phillies are quite the contrast: the Phillies Isolated Power at the plate (Slugging Percentage minus Batting Average, which is basically Slugging Percentage without singles) is .187, which is very, very high. The Angels ISO is an atrocious .128. The big difference to me between the two teams is how the Phillies work the count harder than the Angels: the Angels 3.63 pitches per plate appearance were the fewest in the A.L., while the Phillies 3.8 P/PA is the N.L. average (typically in years past the Phillies finished #1 or #2).
While the Phillies have a lot of power at the plate (103 home runs to the Angels 61 homers) they aren't entirely without speed: Jimmy Rollins is 14-for-14 in steals and Shane Victorino is 14 of 17. The Phillies are a nice blend of speed and power as compared to the Angels reliance on speed and clutch-hitting.
The strength of the Angels is their pitching staff. The Angels have a pretty formidable rotation, although their pitching staff has been pretty average. The Angels 3.99 ERA is partly the product of really good defense. The Angels tend to pitch to contact: their 2.9 walks per game rate is one of the lowest in the American League, but their 6.0 strikeouts per game is also below the A.L. average as well.
Tonight the Angels send Ervin Santana to the mound against Adam Eaton, which is a major mismatch. Santana has been very good this season: 8-3, 3.40 ERA. His fielding independent pitching (FIP) ERA is terrific: 3.35. Santana has a nearly 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.9-to-1). He's tough to homer off of too: 0.89 HR/9. Looks like the Mets traded for the wrong Santana.
Joe Saunders goes Saturday night for the Angels against Brett Myers. Saunders record is 10-3 with a 3.06 ERA, which obscures the fact that he's not pitching particularly well. The Angels have been converting 75.6% of the balls Saunders allows to be put into play into outs, a major reason why his FIP ERA is over a run higher (4.36) than his "real" ERA. Saunders K/BB ratio is just a pedestrian 2-to-1 and he gets 4.7 strikeouts per nine innings. He also allows many more home runs (1.12 HR/9) than his compatriots.
Finally, Jered Weaver, the Angels ace hurler, takes the mound Sunday to finish the series against Cole Hamels. Weaver, who went 13-7 with a 3.91 ERA last season, is just 6-7 with a 4.73 ERA this season. Weaver is a nice illustration of the fact that won-loss records and ERAs are bad tools to measure pitchers performances upon. Weaver's numbers are virtually identical this year when compared to last year:
2007 / 2008
FIP: 4.14 / 4.13
HR/9: 0.9 / 1.2
BB/9: 2.5 / 2.4
K/9: 6.4 / 6.5
And yet the casual observer would wonder why Weaver is struggling this season after being so good last year ...
The battle between Weaver and Hamels on Sunday is going to be worth the price of admission. Young, talented pitchers, the top aces for playoff-caliber teams ...
Defensively the Angels are good, but not great. They've allowed just 16 unearned runs. Their defensive outfield is surprisingly below-average: Torii Hunter ranks 11th of 12 A.L. Centerfielders in Relative Zone Rating (RZR). Garrett Anderson and Vlad Guerrero likewise rank near the bottom in RZR in leftfield and rightfield. I expected such talented players to have much better skills. The Angels infield collectively ranks third of fourteen teams in RZR.
This will be an interesting series. Is it a World Series preview? Maybe. It wouldn't surprise me in the least to see these two teams playing in October. Cheesesteaks vs. Fish Tacos.
I like the Phillies to take two of three from the Angels.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Right now I am working on a book about the Wiz Kids, that lovable collection of young Phillies players who captured the 1950 pennant then settled into baseball obscurity after the team’s chronic refusal to sign African-American ballplayers caused the team to remain an also-ran. I ran a big series on the Wiz Kids back in ’06 and I immediately thought about relief pitcher extraordinaire Jim Konstanty, who won the 1950 N.L. MVP award on the strength of his amazing relief performances for the team that season.
For those not familiar with the tale of the Wiz Kids, Konstanty went 16-7 with a 2.66 ERA (that’s an ERA+ of 152) and 22 saves that season. Konstanty’s 22 saves were 14 more than the Pirates Bill Werle. Konstanty also pitched in 74 of the Phillies 152 games (that’s 48% of them) and finished 62 (41%). In an era where the starting pitcher went the distance in two of every five starts (there were 498 complete games in 1236 games that season), Konstanty was the major reason why the Phillies went 30-16 in one-run games and bested the Dodgers for the pennant, the sole pennant (or division title) the team won between ’15 and ’76.
I was thinking about Konstanty when I sat down and looked over the stats from the Phillies bullpen this season. I haven’t been watching Baseball Tonight of late, but I hope that the Baseball Tonight team has commented on the Phillies astonishing bullpen strength this season. People looking for a reason why the Phillies went 13-4 down the stretch last season and best the Mets for the 2007 N.L. East title can look at the bullpen. People looking for a reason why the Phillies are 42-31 and sit three games ahead of the Marlins (and six and a half ahead of the Braves and Mets) in the N.L. East race can look at the bullpen once more. People looking for a reason why the Phillies will win the N.L. East again in 2008 can look at the bullpen.
How good is the Phillies bullpen? Well, they have an ERA of 2.58, the best in the National League (that’s an ERA+ of 147), to go with 20 saves in 26 opportunities (fourth in the N.L., with a 77% save percentage, which is best in the N.L.) and a sterling 17-9 record. The Phillies relief corps has the lowest OPS in the N.L. at .633.
Want to compare that to last season? Last year the Phillies ‘pen had an ERA of 4.41 (that’s an ERA+ of 92) and an OPS of .764. The Phillies leaky bullpen blew one in every three save opportunities.
So how are they doing it? Interestingly, the Phillies bullpen ranks below the N.L. averages in strikeouts per nine innings (7.28 K/9 vs. 7.44 K/9) and in strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.84 vs. 1.94). Initially I was tempted to dismiss the bullpen’s success on the Phillies offense: the Phillies propensity towards late-game comebacks is a big reason why the Phillies bullpen ranks second in the N.L. in run support at 4.61 (just 0.05 under than the Cubs), but that doesn’t explain why the Phillies aren’t allowing many walks or home runs. Is it good pitching? Or is it good defense?
As Bill James noted in his final Baseball Abstract in 1988, much of what we think of as good pitching is, in reality, good defense. To be sure, the performance the Phillies relief corps is putting in right now is partly thanks to good defense. But most of it is because the Phillies pitchers aren’t giving guys anything to hit. Interesting thing I observed, when looking at the Phillies stats, is how the Phillies relief guys seemed to go deeper into the counts than the starters do. (I’m cautious reading too much into this because that might just be the nature of the beast: you’ve got to be careful when you inherit runners on base. More on this later.)
Of the twelve guys who have taken the mound for the Phillies in 2008, the five starters rank second (Kyle Kendrick), third (Jamie Moyer), fourth (Brett Myers), fifth (Cole Hamels) and seventh (Adam Eaton) in fewest pitches per plate appearance. Rudy Seanez ranks sixth, Chad Durbin ranks eighth, J.C. Romero ranks ninth, Ryan Madson ranks tenth, Tom Gordon ranks eleventh, and Brad Lidge ranks twelfth in pitches per plate appearance. Here are the numbers and their rank amongst the ninety relief pitchers who have tossed 20+ innings:
Lidge: 4.00 (21st)
Gordon: 3.95 (28th)
Madson: 3.94 (30th)
Romero: 3.94 (31st)
Durbin: 3.81 (56th)
Seanez: 3.79 (61st)
Confused about what I’m talking about? Here are the stats I refer to defined with respect to pitching stats:
Earned Run Average (ERA): Runs Allowed * 9 / Innings Pitched = What a pitcher would give up if they hurled a nine-inning game.
Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER): Balls Put Into Play that are converted into outs.
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.
Home Runs per 9 Innings (HR/9): (HR * 9) / IP
Walks per 9 Innings (BB/9): (BB * 9) / IP
Strikeouts per 9 Innings (K/9): (K * 9) / IP
Looking at Romero, who threw a lot of pitches per batter when he joined the Phillies last season (4.2 P/PA), I was struck about Bill James efforts to classify pitchers by types and his assessment of the Nolan Ryan-type of pitcher: the guy who never gave you anything to hit and so had a lot of walks, a lot of strikeouts, never gave up home runs and threw a lot of pitches over the course of a start. The relief corps largely seems to follow this pattern: while the average N.L. bullpen gives up 0.91 home runs per nine innings, the Phillies gave up 11 in 209 innings – or 0.47 HR/9. While the average N.L. bullpen gives up 3.89 walks per nine innings, the Phillies gave up 92 walks in those 209 innings – or 3.96 BB/9. That careful nipping at the plate is the reason why the Phillies have had a lot of success coming from their ‘pen.
Lidge, who has converted all eighteen of his saves after blowing eight in twenty-seven tries last season, has been fantastic this season. In 29 innings of work Lidge has yet to surrender a home run and has fanned 37 hitters, or 11.48 K/9. His 0.93 ERA is absurdly low and compares well to his predecessor as the Astros and Phillies closer, Billy Wagner (2.17 ERA, five blown saves in twenty tries).
The biggest surprise, to me, has been Chad Durbin, the former Detroit Tiger who challenged Adam Eaton for the #5 slot in the rotation before moving to the bullpen and becoming the Phillies bullpen workhorse. Durbin has surrendered just one home run in the forty and two-thirds of an inning he has worked this season. He’s pitching nowhere near as well as his 1.55 ERA indicates (his Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP, ERA is 3.20, which is actually second-best on the team after Lidge at 1.75), but he’s pitching very well. Despite pitching in a ballpark that makes pitchers very vulnerable to home runs, Durbin has found success with a modest 1.11 groundball-to-flyball ratio (G/F), especially compared with the more groundball-oriented pitchers on the staff like Seanez (2.64 G/F), Romero (2.10 G/F), Lidge (1.38 G/F), and Madson (1.29 G/F).
I’m sure that there are pundits and bloggers out there who dismiss the Phillies success and believe that it can’t last, but I’m reminded of how unlikely Konstanty’s success was in 1950. He had pitched just 128 innings in the majors before joining the Phillies in 1947 and had meager success. When the sportswriters compiled their list of MVP candidates in the preseason, it is safe to assume he appeared on nobody’s list, and yet there he was helping the under-manned Phillies steal the pennant with timely pitching. Konstanty was the consensus pick as the MVP by the sportswriters.
Nobody respects the Phillies ‘pen, especially when compared with the Braves or Mets, but Chad Durbin, Ryan Madson and J.C. Romero are going to be the ones popping the champagne come October, not Billy Wagner.
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Maybe Randolph isn't the best coach in baseball, and maybe he had lost control of the Mets, that highly paid, looks-so-good-on-paper juggernaut that collapsed at the end of the '07 season and struggled to a meager 34-35 start this season. But did he deserve to be fired after a win? While the team is stuck on the West Coast? By email?
Let me also take this opportunity to chortle, probably for the 1,531st time this season, over the Mets struggles. Click here for all of the comments from Mets fans calling me an idiot for not awarding the N.L East to the Mets at the start of the season. I'm amazed that they can spell.
-Nice to see the Phillies bats come alive in last night's 8-2 crushing of the Boston Red Sox. Don't get too confident, Phillies fans, about tonight's game. The Phillies won Game One of the 1915 World Series, then didn't win another playoff game until 1977.
Monday, June 16, 2008
The ’15 World Series was played in the deadball era prior to the Roaring ‘20s. Boston won the Series four games to one, but out-scored the Phillies 12-10. The series featured terrific pitching from Alexander, who won Game One for the Phillies, but the Phillies were out-matched. In Game Two, with President Woodrow Wilson watching (the first U.S. President to watch a World Series game), the Red Sox won 2-1, and went on to win the final three games of the Series as well. The Phillies defeat in Game Two marked the beginning of an eleven-game post-season losing streak for the Phillies, who would also lose four consecutive games in the ’50 World Series and three consecutive games in the ’76 NLCS to the Reds before beating the Dodgers in Game One of the ’77 NLCS 7-5.
Could the ’08 World Series feature the Red Sox and Phillies once more? The way both teams are playing, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least. After obliterating the St. Louis Cardinals 20-2 on Friday night the Phillies enter this series having dropped two straight to the surprising Cardinals, but still hold a three-game lead over the Florida Marlins in the N.L. East and are playing terrific baseball. The Red Sox, meanwhile, sit two and a half games ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays in the A.L. East. Two division leaders going head-to-head.
The Red Sox are a formidable team but are lacking their big gun, DH David Ortiz (a.k.a., Big Papi), as well as pitchers Daisuke Matsuzaka and Curt Schilling. Despite the absence of so many important players, the Red Sox muscle on and currently have the second-best offense in the American League (371 runs scored, 5.15 runs per game, an American League-leading .356 OBP). Losing Big Papi's bat hurts (13 home runs, 43 RBI, .234 Isolated Power - ISO* - at the plate), but the Red Sox have a diverse offense. Jacob Ellsbury, the team's lead-off hitter, does a terrific job getting on base (.373 OBP), but has a lot of speed (33 of 36 steals attempted). Kevin Youkilis, the Greek God of Walks, plays great defense at first base and sets the table very well (.376 OBP). Right now Manny Ramirez is picking up the slack: 15 home runs, 49 RBI, .248 ISO. Mike Lowell (10 home runs, 36 RBI, .224 ISO) and J.D. Drew (11 home runs, 38 RBI, .256 ISO) are playing well too. It's a powerful, deep lineup.
*ISO: .SLG - .BA = .ISO. Measures a player’s raw power by subtracting singles from their slugging percentage.
The Moneyball-era Red Sox aren't the Red Sox of old, stacked with bats and lacking in pitching and defense. The Red Sox play defense very well (.703 Defense Efficiency Ratio, or DER, Balls Put Into Play that are converted into outs) and they have a nasty pitching staff: 3.83 ERA (fourth-best in the A.L.). The injuries to Schilling and Matsuzaka however have stretched the Red Sox staff. This weekend they send to the mound Bartolo Colon (4-1, 3.41 ERA), rookie Justin Masterson (3-1, 2.90 ERA, 31 career innings pitched) and Jon Lester. Josh Beckett, the Red Sox best pitcher, isn't slated to take the mound in this series.
It is a testament to the Red Sox eye for talent that they've cobbled together a staff that is really pitching nicely. Colon, seemingly washed up at the start of the season, has pitched well in his starts with the Red Sox, allowing just 7 walks in 29 innings of work. Lester, slated to pitch Tuesday night against Jamie Moyer, is just a month removed from tossing a beautiful nine-inning, two walk no-hitter against the Royals that saw him strikeout nine. Once the game gets to the bullpen, Jonathan Papelbon (2.08 ERA, 19 saves) and Hideki Okajima (3.24 ERA) are a nearly unstoppable duo.
The Phillies, meanwhile, send Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick to the mound in this series. Hamels is one of the best pitchers in the N.L. (6-4, 3.27 ERA), hurling 86 strikeouts in 99 innings (7.82 K/9). It will be interesting to see how Hamels handles the Red Sox in his first start against them.
After Hamels, Moyer takes the mound against Lester tomorrow night, then Kyle Kendrick on Wednesday. Moyer and Kendrick might not strike observers as being pitchers who might have success against the Red Sox, but I like them in these games because both Kendrick and Moyer pitch to contact. The Red Sox love to work the count against pitchers, so guys like Moyer and Kendrick might have success coming in to them aggressively. Just a hunch, but Moyer and Kendrick might actually have more success against the Red Sox hitters than people think.
On the Phillies side, Chase Utley (22 home runs, 61 RBI, .401 OBP) and Pat Burrell (18 home runs, 47 RBI, .425 OBP) are tearing things up. Overall, the Phillies have the second-best offense in the N.L. (381 runs scored, 5.37 per game) and do a great job mashing the ball (.188 ISO). Like the Red Sox, the Phillies have a deep roster with lots of power. Ryan Howard, meanwhile, continues to be mired in his struggles and is a notable exception. So far in June Howard's OBP is .313 with just two home runs and 16 RBI in 14 games.
Keep your eye on Jimmy Rollins: he's had success in the past against the Red Sox (career .915 OPS against the Sox) and he's off to a nice start since returning from the D.L. So far J.Roll is 13/13 stealing bases.
More tomorrow ...