Answering Murphy’s Question

David Murphy, pretty much the only Philadelphia Daily News journalist that is even tolerable (Murphy is great), wrote a blog today asking the question, “How much does Rollins mean to this team?

Before I get into that, let me do my usual thing of linking you to my latest work at Baseball Digest Daily:

Shameless self-promotion aside, let’s get to the question. I’ll go through what he said in his blog and write my response to it.

[…] I’m convinced that Jimmy Rollins is one of those rare athletes whose presence really can invigorate a team. It’s why I disagree with those who say he shouldn’t have been MVP last year.

Well, unless Rollins’ intangibles can essentially add 30 OPS+ points either to himself or to his team (or both) and turn his defense from mediocre to above-average, there’s no justification for Rollins getting the MVP award last season. It was really between David Wright, Chipper Jones, and Chase Utley.

As to his “presence,” I don’t think there’s any question that he has a positive effect on his team, but that effect is minuscule as we are talking about professional Major League Baseball players — the highest caliber in the world. If they need to be in Rollins’ presence to feel excited about playing, or to be energized in the 7th inning in a getaway game, then it’s likely we’re not talking about MLB players.

But beyond that, I’m convinced his presence made his teammates better. Not in a concious [sic] way. Jayson Werth and Greg Dobbs didn’t walk up to the plate thinking, “I’m going to single now because Jimmy Rollins is here.”

The only other way this works is subconsciously then, and there’s really little difference between the two as both are unprovable.

There’s no question the Phillies are a better team with Jimmy Rollins at shortstop instead of Eric Bruntlett, and they’re better with Rollins leading off so Shane Victorino can hit second, Geoff Jenkins or Werth can hit sixth, Pedro Feliz seventh, and Carlos Ruiz eighth (Murphy explains this later).

That much is tangible, though. Rollins is light years ahead of Bruntlett offensively. The lower in the order Feliz hits, the less outs he makes (he is an outs machine). Bruntlett was hitting second and has an OBP of .308. While Shane Victorino hasn’t been any better (.305 OBP) he has a much higher ceiling and the more you pair him with Rollins at the top of the batting order, the less outs there will be when Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Pat Burrell come to the plate, which creates a lot of opportunities to score runs.

But there’s just something about this offense, this team, when Rollins is in the line-up. Everything clicks. Shane Victorino gets to hit second instead of first. That’s where he belongs. Werth gets to hit sixth and bring some speed to the middle of the order. Pedro Feliz gets to hit seventh. Carlos Ruiz gets to hit eighth.

The “Everything clicks” Murphy cites is tangible, as explained above. If he’s going for the intangible — that, in a vacuum, everyone in the lineup is better when Rollins is in there than when he is not — then it’s simply a “God of the gaps” argument, which is basically saying “If we don’t know, then [preconceived notion — in this case, intangibles] is the answer.”

How many times over the past month has the leadoff spot come up with two out in an inning? When Rollins is that leadoff guy, there’s a real potential for something big to happen. In fact, it’s expected.

“He always tells me just to get on,” pitcher Cole Hamels said.

Hamels got on the eight with two out, and Rollins hit a huge home run.

This is a cherry-pick. Why is Rollins somehow a better candidate when there are two outs? Granted, he has a 1.067 OPS with two outs, but that’s in a small sample size: 10 plate appearances. Last season, Rollins’ OPS dropped with every out recorded: 0 outs, .945; 1 out, .867; 2 outs, .768. And given his mediocre OBP (.331 career; .344 last season), I have more confidence in Jayson Werth (.351 career OBP; .404 last season) to extend an inning with two outs. In fact, Werth’s OPS with two outs was better than Rollins’ at .797.

I asked Hamels if we make too much of the impact Rollins brings to the entire team.

“Absolutely not,” he said.

What do you expect him to say? He’s not about to trash his own teammate.

Here’s another thing I think. And again, it’s just me thinking. But me thinking thinks that Rollins returning will help Ryan Howard too. I don’t think the first baseman would ever admit it, but there was more pressure on him with Rollins out. And that may have affected him. Last year he hit .223 when Chase Utley was down. He put some good swings on the ball tonight. Scored a run.

There are a lot of hasty generalizations here. Tangibly, Rollins will help Howard because it’s more likely Rollins will be on base than his replacement (Bruntlett) would have, so when Howard bats, there will be less outs and runners on base, which means Howard will see more predictable fastballs.

Secondly, Ryan Howard did not hit well when Chase Utley was injured because the Phillies played a lot of teams with good pitching:

  • July 30-August 2: Chicago Cubs, 2nd-best pitching in NL
  • August 3-5: Milwaukee Brewers, 9th-best pitching in NL
  • August 10-12: Atlanta Braves, 3rd-best pitching in NL
  • August 14-16: Washington Nationals, 10th-best pitching in NL
  • August 21-23: Los Angeles Dodgers, 6th-best pitching in NL
  • August 24-26: San Diego Padres, best pitching in NL

Understandably, the Phillies went 9-10 against those teams, and 6-3 against teams with bad pitching staves (4-2 vs. Pittsburgh Pirates’ 3rd-worst pitching, 2-1 vs. Florida Marlins’ worst pitching).

Ryan Howard was helped by Jimmy Rollins because he had some good swings and scored a run? Howard scored 8 runs in 18 games (1 R every 2.25 G) without Rollins and 10 runs in 19 games (1 R every 1.9 G) with Rollins — very little difference.

Howard has had some good swings lately, he’s just been a little unlucky (.211 BABiP). His two good swings last night came in his third at-bat against starter Pat Misch with just over 57 total innings of Major League experience, and in his one at-bat against reliever Tyler Walker who is league-average (102 ERA+ this season, 97 career ERA+).

Rollins’ return to the Phillies makes his team better because he’s better than his replacement Eric Bruntlett, not because he’s energetic or motivational or clutch.

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