What to Expect in 2009 with the WFC’s

We’re slightly more than a month away from the regular season and a lot of us Phillies fans are excited at the prospect of enjoying an entire season where the Phils are referred to as “defending world champions.” Yes, expectations are high for the Phightin’s and with just cause — the team is virtually unchanged since Brad Lidge struck out Eric Hinske to clinch the World Series.

Realistically, though, the chances of a repeat World Series run are slim. The NL East is, believe it or not, stronger than it was last year. The playoffs are a crapshoot where the hottest team usually prevails as opposed to the best team.

What should we look for in the 2009 season? What should we least expect?

What to Expect

  1. A top-tier offense. The change from Pat Burrell to Raul Ibanez is a break-even exchange, although Ibanez does make the middle of the lineup lefty-heavy. Regardless, the Phils should once again score in the neighborhood of 800 runs and lead the league in home runs. Friend of the blog MattS from The Good Phight and Statistically Speaking projects the Phillies’ eight positional starters to put up a VORP of over 240, an average of 30 VORP per player. That is excellent.
  2. A rebound from Carlos Ruiz. He hasn’t had much to write home about in his first two full seasons in the Majors. Last year, he had an extremely low OPS at .620. Expect more than a 100-point increase in that OPS — the projections do. Why? We should expect a regression to the mean with his BABIP, which was a ridiculously low .237 last year. It should bump up into the high .270’s.
  3. A significantly worse defense. Oh, don’t worry — the Phillies’ defense will still be well above-average, but it won’t be nearly as good as it was last year, at +74 according to John Dewan’s Fielding Bible. The middle infield — Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins — made most of the contributions at +71; they were +25 in ’07. I’m going to call the ’08 defensive performances of Utley and Rollins a fluke, and expect the defense to regress from +74 down to the 30’s. That will still put the Phillies in the top-third of the Majors in defense.
  4. Phillies base runningSmart base running. The Phillies, collectively, were 136-for-161 (84.5%) stealing bases last season, and were 138-for-157 (87.9%) in ’07. What do those two years have in common? Davey Lopes was the base running instructor. But base-stealing success isn’t the only measure of such intellect. Baseball Prospectus has a metric called Equivalent Base Running Runs, or EQBRR. The Phillies had six players who added at least one run or more with their overall base running prowess.
  5. A better offensive season for Jimmy Rollins. After an MVP-caliber 2007 season with a 118 OPS+, Rollins regressed back to a 103 in ’08 — just about at his career average. Despite the lower numbers last year, there are two numbers that promote optimism: his lower strikeout rate and his higher walk rate. Before ’08, Rollins had never had a walk rate at 8%  or higher, and his strikeout rate had never been lower than 10.5%. Last year, those numbers were 9.4% and 9.9% respectively. His BB/K ratio went to 1.05, .27 higher than his previous career high. Rollins’ OBP was normal last season but he lost about 100 points in SLG — he hit 19 less home runs and 11 less triples. Expect Rollins’ power numbers to improve. Not to ’07 levels, mind you, but the projections see a SLG in the .460 area.

What Not to Expect

  1. A sub-130 OPS+ from Ryan Howard. For as pessimistic as I’ve been about Howard, there’s just no way — barring injury — that the big man will stay under 130 in the OPS+ department. He seems to have a natural BABIP in the mid-.300’s, so his .289 BABIP last year is lower than we would expect. Thus, we should expect a mean-regression in that department. Additionally, Howard faced a large number of left-handed pitchers last season. While a good portion of those were either unavoidable (i.e. left-handed starters) or intentional (LOOGYs), there is just no way 38% of Howard’s plate appearances will come against left-handers again, unless Charlie Manuel has a L-L-L in the middle of the batting order.
  2. Another perfect season from Brad Lidge. It’s hard to be perfect in save opportunities — that’s why it’s only been done twice in baseball history (Eric Gagne is the other). There was a whole lot of luck (and, yes, a whole lot of skill too) that went into Lidge’s perfect season, such as Shane Victorino’s amazing throw from center field to preserve a 4-3 victory. When Lidge does blow a save, he should and will be given a standing ovation.
  3. A solid 3-4-5 in the rotation. Despite the success that Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton enjoyed last season with the Phillies, don’t count on it happening again. I’m very pessimistic about Jamie Moyer and it goes hand-in-hand with my pessimism about the Phillies’ defense. Moyer, more than anyone else, relies on his defense to convert balls in play into outs, which it did excellently last season. If the defense is expected to significantly regress (I think it is), then Moyer should be expected to significantly regress as well. So, no 3.71 ERA for Moyer in ’09; I’d expect it to end up in the high 4’s. Both Blanton and J.A. Happ (who I expect to win the #5 spot) are projected to put up ERA’s in the low 4’s.
  4. Success from Chad Durbin. Before last season, Durbin had never experienced too much success at the Major League level in nearly 500 innings. But last season — more specifically, the first four months — Durbin was impeccable. He finished with a 152 ERA but tired as July turned into August. He induced a lot of weak contact (pop-ups in the infield) and had an abnormally low HR/FB rate at 5.9% (the average is around 10%). Of the Bill James, CHONE, and Marcel projections, only CHONE pegs him as putting up a sub-4 ERA.
  5. Action at the trading deadline. You might see the Phillies pick up a mediocre reliever or a 25th man for the bench, but I wouldn’t expect any significant roster shifts between the start of the season and August 31. No one that will be on the 25-man roster is both expendable and attractive to other teams besides Chris Coste. Additionally, the Phillies don’t have a pressing need to improve any one area. Expect the Phillies to be one of the quietest teams leading up to the July 31 deadline.