Some Familiar NL East Faces

The Phillies’ closest competitors in the NL East — the Atlanta Braves and Florida Marlins — tried to enhance their chances to catch the Phillies for the division crown by making some trades today before the 4 PM deadline. The Braves re-acquired Adam LaRoche and the Marlins received Nick Johnson from the Washington Nationals.

Here’s a quick look to see if each team should expect improvements heading into the last two months of the regular season. The projection of choice is ZiPS, easily found at FanGraphs on the player pages, and the fielding metric is UZR/150 also found at FanGraphs.

I’ll list each player’s offensive projections for the rest of the season. That will be followed by their UZR/150 so far this season (defense is hard to project).

Atlanta Braves

  • Casey Kotchman: .357 OBP/.436 SLG; 5.8 UZR/150
  • Adam LaRoche: .349 OBP/.503 SLG; -3.4 UZR/150

Both Kotchman and LaRoche have been worth two wins above replacement (WAR) since the start of 2008. Kotchman doesn’t hit as well as LaRoche, but is a notably better fielder. Overall, the Braves didn’t upgrade their team by too much but their offense has been, literally, average (both their RPG average and the league average is 4.43). Adding some offense at the expense of defense is a good idea for a mediocre-hitting team.

Florida Marlins

  • Jorge Cantu: .330 OBP/.453 SLG; 0.6 UZR/150
  • Nick Johnson: .416 OBP/.450 SLG; -7.8 UZR/150

Like Kotchman and LaRoche, Jorge Cantu and Nick Johnson have been worth exactly the same in WAR this season at 1.2 apiece. Cantu plays about average defense while Johnson has been terrible, negating the huge gap in offense between the two.

The Marlins are a poor-fielding team with a -2.7 UZR/150, so adding a fielder as bad as Johnson isn’t going to help the already poor fielders around him. The Fish already had a slightly above-average offense, so this trade is break-even at the most optimistic.

Elsewhere, the Mets added no one besides Jeff Francoeur earlier in the month.

All told, none of the NL East teams made a significant improvement to their teams to make them more of a concern to the Phillies, who added last year’s AL Cy Young award winner Cliff Lee. If the Phillies can play .500 baseball the rest of the way, they will be in good shape to win their third straight division title.

Excuses, Excuses…

If there’s one thing the Atlanta Braves and their fans are good at, it’s whining. At Bleacher Report, a Braves fan posted a screed aimed at umpire Bill Hohn, citing several examples of poor umpiring and a supposed obsession with screwing over the Braves. I’m going to go through and refute these claims.

It started at Fenway back in June when Hohn called a ball on a 2-2 pitch that was right down the middle to J.D. Drew. The next pitch Drew hit an RBI double.

Here is J.D. Drew’s batting game log at Baseball Reference. In only one game did he have a double against the Braves, and he did not drive in a run. Drew has driven in one run in two games against the Braves this season, but in neither did he have any extra-base hits even.

Based on the context of the article, it appears the author is talking about this game.

A few innings later, when Braves reliever Eric O’Flaherty was squeezed on a similar pitch, Hohn tossed O’Flaherty, Bobby Cox, and Chipper Jones. Yes, on the same play.

The Braves lost the game as a direct result of the idiotic ball call.

I think it’s clear that this Braves fan is not recollecting the game accurately. Drew hit his RBI single off of Eric O’Flaherty, as it’s the only game in which Drew had an RBI against the Braves at Fenway.

Here’s the Pitch F/X visualization of the pitch sequence between Drew and O’Flaherty. Click to enhance and enlarge the image.

Yes, the author is correct: Hohn made a poor decision in calling the third pitch a ball. And yes, Drew did follow up with a hit. However, all umpires are not perfect.

Further, O’Flaherty didn’t have to throw a cookie to Drew. How do we know that Drew wasn’t going to hit O’Flaherty anyway? After all, Drew did have a triple and an RBI against him heading into that at-bat.

There’s a lot of assumptions made in blaming the umpire for not only missing the call, but essentially giving Drew an RBI base hit. It was a 1-2 count after what should have been strike three; the count still favored O’Flaherty in a lefty-on-lefty match-up.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to justify the umps’ mistakes, it’s just that they should only be blamed for what they can control. Bill Hohn did not throw the pitch that J.D. Drew hit for an RBI single.

The Braves lost the game for a number of reasons: a poor start from Jair Jurrjens, a poor approach to the at-bat against Drew by O’Flaherty, and a Braves offense that hit only .250 with runners in scoring position that game.

Last night the Braves met up with Hohn’s crew again. This time the home plate umpire was Jerry Meals. Hohn was at first.

Meals would cost the Braves the game in the bottom of the ninth by not calling pitches that were right down the middle for strikes.

This time, the author is stretching — the pitches were not “right down the middle”.

The pitches were on the edges, and Meals even called what was a ball a strike. We can say that his strike zone was inconsistent, but we can’t say that it was biased towards the Marlins. And we certainly can’t say that Meals’ umpiring caused Soriano to serve up a cookie to Ross Gload. When Ross Gload hits a game-winning home run off of you, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Then came tonight. Hohn was in rare form yet again, calling strikes against the Braves that were literally a foot off the plate.

Yet when the Marlins were at bat, no such luck for Atlanta pitchers.

How often were the Marlins and Braves pitching outside? Looking at Brooks Baseball’s normalized strike zone maps, it looks like the Marlins’ pitchers were working outside a lot more frequently than Braves pitchers, so of course they’re going to get calls on the outside corner.

Every umpire has some variation on the standard strike zone. Some call the high strike more often; some have a postage stamp-sized strike zone. As a pitcher and as a hitter, you are supposed to pick up on that during the game, if not know it beforehand. When the umpire is giving Jamie Moyer a little extra on the outside corner, the catcher’s glove is going to stay on the outside corner nearly all night.

Apparently, Marlins pitchers realized this and Braves pitchers did not.

On Wednesday night Hohn called a strike on Brian McCann that was literally in the right-handed batter’s box.

When McCann said something, Hohn took off his mask to try to pick a fight…

Yes, the author is right: the umpire did make a poor call. But again, umpires are fallible. I’m sure a Marlins fan could make similar arguments about poor ball-strike calling.

The author is also right that Hohn shouldn’t be acting aggressively towards the players. “Trying to pick a fight” might be taking it a bit far, but Hohn has acted similarly in Phillies games he’s umpired. He’s certainly not a great umpire. They say that the great umpires are the ones you hardly notice during the course of a game, and you tend to notice Hohn quite frequently.

Hohn called timeout and walked over to the Braves dugout. He then called Cox to him. They argued a little. Bobby was clearly seen asking Hohn to “just call the game.”

Hohn stood there and then inexplicably took out his lineup card and started fiddling with it to incite Bobby’s wrath.

He got his wish. Bobby said the magic word, and Hohn tossed him after clearly baiting him.

I can definitely see how Hohn played a part in escalating the incident, but it’s not like Bobby Cox never does anything to deserve an ejection. There’s the reason he holds the all-time record in ejections. Cox getting ejected is indicative of nothing.

In perhaps the most maddening moment of the game tonight, rogue umpire Bill Hohn fist-bumped the Marlins catcher after the game was over.

I empathize with Braves fans who are upset about this. If it happened in a game in which the Phillies lost, I’d probably be just as irate. Here’s the fist-bump, with a hat tip to Baseball Think Factory:

However, I’d like to quote a salient post by someone at BBTF that puts this in perspective.

This seems like an overreaction. When I umpired I’d sometimes get a “good game” from players at the end of a game, and it could come from either side, winners or losers. If the catcher turns and extends a handshake (or fist-bump), yeah, the absolutely correct thing to do is not take it, for appearance’s sake. But I could easily see myself reflexively reaching out my hand if the [catcher] extended his. It doesn’t look great, and he should probably train himself to resist it, but in itself I don’t think it means he was playing favorites. I’ve seen plenty of pitchers, including [Curt] Schilling, give a nod or a touch of the cap to the plate ump as they’re being removed or at the end of a game. I’ve always interpreted it as more of a professional courtesy thing than anything.

In contrast to baseball, football, and basketball officials, who leave the field/court immediately when the game ends, soccer refs and linesmen stand together at midfield and accept handshakes from players on both sides after the game. Nobody thinks anything of it, it’s just part of the culture in that sport.

Should Hohn have fist-bumped the Marlins’ catcher? Absolutely not, especially not in a game as controversial as that one. But, as with most of the other examples of “evidence” in this article, you really have to stretch and make a lot of assumptions to assume that Hohn had it in for the Braves and/or had a thing for the Marlins.

No, he’s not a good umpire, but he is not solely responsible for the Braves’ woes.

If you can blame one person or one event for your troubles, it’s a sign that the team could have played better.

UPDATE: Chipper Jones chimes in.

“Shocking,” Jones said of the Hohn-Baker fist bump after Nate McLouth struck out to end the game. “But it kind of makes sense, [considering] how the ebb and flow of the game went, the way the game was called.”

[…]

Jones was asked if he thought Hohn had it in for the Braves.

“Oh, I don’t think there’s any doubt,” replied the veteran third baseman, who said the Braves were also upset by Jerry Meals’ strike zone in Tuesday’s 4-3 loss. “The last two games’ performance by the officials is something that makes you sit back and wonder. And as a player, it makes you not want to play when that stuff happens. Because you don’t have a chance.”

Jones’ comments are not exactly sugar-coated. If this story picks up steam in the next day or two, Major League Baseball will likely have to address this publicly in some way, and would not be surprised to see Hohn suspended or, yes, fired.

Who’s the Leaker?

At The Hardball Times, Shysterball’s Craig Calcaterra asks a very important question: Who’s the leaker?

The 2003 drug tests administered in Major League Baseball were supposed to be anonymous, so why are names being leaked? It’s wrong, if not illegal. Calcaterra, a lawyer, has some hopes.

I wanna know who’s doing it. Specifically, I want the judge to get good and angry and sic the feds on the matter to suss out who’s doing it. Short of that, I want someone in the investigatory side of the media to take it upon themselves to find out who’s leaking.

While everyone focuses on the steroids bogeyman, the real issue is the wrongful leaking of players who tested positive in 2003. This is bigger than baseball.

Talkin’ Giants with Bay City Ball

On the heels of the Cliff Lee trade, the Phillies head to San Francisco on a rush. They’ve won 15 of their last 18 games. They haven’t lost back-to-back games since that sweep in Atlanta to start the month of July. Baseball’s hottest team just added last year’s AL Cy Young award winner — what are the Giants thinking? Are they scared?

I talked with Chris Quick of the Saber-friendly Giants blog Bay City Ball to get some insight on the upcoming series. And some Aaron Rowand gossip. Chris was kind enough to share his time with Crashburn Alley, let’s jump right into the questioning.

1. How unwatchable would the Giants’ infield be without Pablo Sandoval? Your first and second basemen and shortstop have an OPS+ of 90, 49, and 66 respectively.
It would have been very, very, very unwatchable. The Giants infield (specifically SS and 2B) have been major problems for this year’s team. Ishikawa has been up-and-down as a hitter, but he plays top notch defense at first, so he’s not the worst offender of this sad group.

Pablo’s season has been fantastic for Giants fans. He’s really built upon his successful, but brief, 2008 season in which he hit .345/.357/.490. Not only has he kept on hitting, but he’s walking more (almost league average — for a contact-oriented hacker that’s not terrible) and hitting for more power. The Giants haven’t produced a quality position player since the Carter administration and Pablo is not only giving fans a great performance, but some hope as well that things could be changing.

2. What has Aaron Rowand crashed into lately?

You name it: walls, small children, vendors in the stands, elephants. As a card carrying member of the GAMER Union, Rowand is contractually obligated to run into things. He’s currently nursing a nasty arm bruise that he got as a result of getting plunked a few games ago.

Giants fans have been a little slow to warm up to Rowand (his ’08 season was pretty meh-worthy) but he’s having a nice year so far.

3. Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain: best one-two in baseball? If not, who ranks higher in your opinion? Are you worried that both pitchers’ great campaigns are going to hurt their NL Cy Young chances?

I’m going to be biased and say that it’s tough to get better than Lincecum and Cain at the top of your rotation. I think you could make the argument that they are the best 1-2 in baseball. I think a healthy Brandon Webb and Dan Haren could give them a run for their money. Jon Lester and Josh Beckett are near the top for any 1-2 pairing in the game.

RE: Their Cy Young chances — I’m not overly worried. I think Lincecum could repeat his CYA season this year, he’s definitely pitched well enough. Matt Cain is still viewed as an oddity by a lot of the press. He’s essentially the same pitcher he’s always been but without the soul-crushing poor run support this year.

4. The Giants are the NL’s best defensive team according to UZR at 7.3. They were at 2.1 last season. Who or what deserves credit for the defensive improvement?

Travis Ishikawa has been huge in the infield — he’s ranking as something like a +20 run defender at 1B over 150 games by UZR. I doubt he’s truly a +20 run defender, but +10 runs isn’t out of the question. The OF is very good starting with a Rowand bounce-back defensively (he posted a -6.5 run season in CF last season vs. a +4.5 run season this year).

Randy Winn has always been a great defender and the Giants have filled the corners with plus-defenders like Fred Lewis, Nate Schierholtz, and Andres Torres. There really isnt’ a bad defender in our OF.

Maybe most shocking is that Sandoval — he of girth — has played an average defensive 3B. I was definitely worried about how he would handle the position defensively but Sandoval has shown that he has enough at the moment to play 3B full-time.

In short: Amazing OF with some highlights in the INF = pretty darned good defensive team.

5. Are you worried about the Rockies impeding the Giants’ path to the playoffs?

A little. The Rockies are legit. Bizzaro Jason Marquis has somehow thrived in Coors Field this year and I’ve always been a fan of Ubaldo Jimenez. The Rockies can flat out hit the baseball and they’ve been on a tear lately.

I’m not a true beliver (yet) that the Giants are a playoff team, but they’ve exceeded most fan’s expectations.

BONUS: Crystal ball time. We have Rodrigo Lopez/Jonathan Sanchez, Joe Blanton/Ryan Sadowski, Jamie Moyer/Tim Lincecum, and Cole Hamels/Barry Zito. How do you see the series panning out? The teams split the season series last year 3-3 with each winning its home series 2-1.

[NOTE: As you can tell, these questions were asked and answered prior to the Cliff Lee trade, so adjust accordingly]

I’ll take Sanchez over Rodrigo Lopez (whom I had no idea was still pitching), Blanton over Sadowski, Lincecum over Moyer, and Hamels over Zito. I’ll be boring and call it a 2-2 split. I think, from a Giants angle, the wild card is Sanchez. He’s got great potential, but unravels sometimes.

I’ll state right now that I can’t stand watching Moyer pitch to teams like the Giants. We hack, don’t walk, and Moyer usually will take full advantage of these types of teams. But, I can’t bet against Lincecum.

. . .

Thanks to Chris for his time and insight.

The Giants’ lineup is still pretty weak, even with the addition of Freddy Sanchez. Pablo Sandoval is far and away the biggest threat in the lineup. I think it would behoove the Phillies not to touch him with a ten-foot pole when first base is open. Give him the Albert Pujols treatment. Sandoval has a 141 OPS+ while Sanchez has the next-highest at 109. Huge drop-off.

Now that the Phillies have Cliff Lee, he and Cole Hamels have to vault near the top of the list in baseball’s best 1-2 punches in starting pitching. I’d still take Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, despite Cain’s 3.74 FIP compared to his 2.12 ERA this season.

As for Lee, no one’s sure yet when he’s going to start but it will either be tomorrow in place of Joe Blanton against Ryan Sadowski or Saturday in place of Jamie Moyer against Tim Lincecum.

Make sure to keep up with the quality analysis at Bay City Ball. One of my favorite posts is the analysis of Jonathan Sanchez’s no-hitter.

[In the voice of the blind kid from Dumb and Dumber]

Pretty graphs. Yes, can you say pretty graphs? Pretty graphs, yeah, pretty graphs… Polly want a cracker?

Sleight of Hand: Phils Acquire Cliff Lee

Sabermetrician Eric Seidman of, well, just about everywhere, made a prescient comment to me in a short e-mail conversation we were having about the Roy Halladay trade rumors and the Phillies’ prospects.

 As [an] occasional magician, the only way to trick people is to misdirect.

Eric really is an occasional magician, in case you thought he was being facetious.

Keeping tabs on the Phillies this year as the July 31 trading deadline approached has been a real treat, believe it or not. Much as he did in the off-season and in spring training, GM Ruben Amaro has impressed with his cunning strategy in improving the team. We fans all have opinions on what should be done and a lot of it includes taking the quick-and-painless route — just get it done. Drabek and whatever else for Halladay, just do it.

Not Ruben.

Instead of simply taking Halladay when he first had the chance — and getting a couple extra starts out of him — Amaro waited, patiently, for a better opportunity. He knew that J.P. Ricciardi had no leverage, so he shouldn’t have to give up Kyle Drabek and Dominic Brown or Michael Taylor. He was right — and it was Indians’ GM Mark Shapiro who wasn’t getting the Phillies’ real top prospects.

From Todd Zolecki’s Twitter:

Source: Phillies have reached agreement with Indians, pending medical reviews. Lee and Francisco for Knapp, Carrasco, Donald and Marson.

In case you’re wondering about first names, they are Cliff, Ben, Jason, Carlos, Jason, and Lou respectively.

Jason Knapp is a great under-the-radar pitching prospect. I was telling Seidman that I think Knapp is a better prospect than Drabek. But he’s also more of an unknown, with only one and a half years of professional experience under his belt. Still, he has a K/9 rate over 11. Other than Knapp the Phillies didn’t give up much.

In Marson the Phillies gave up their second-best catching prospect, with the best being Travis D’Arnaud. Carrasco might not even make the Phillies’ top-three list for prospect pitchers, even if you exclude J.A. Happ. Jason Donald simply was not going to contribute at the Major League level for the Phillies. Overall, the Phillies gave up very little, relatively speaking. They keep the pitching prospect they covet in Drabek, they keep the starting pitcher who kept the Phillies afloat when the rest of the rotation was faltering in Happ, and they keep their two impressive outfield prospects in Brown and Taylor.

The Phillies get the reigning AL Cy Young award winner in Lee and the right-handed bench bat they’ve needed for two years in Franscisco.

This is, far and away, an exceptional win for the Phillies. Easily the best trade they’ve made in a long, long time.

What are the Phillies getting in Cliff Lee? He strikes out around 6-7 batters per nine innings, walks very few (under two per nine innings), and is very efficient, averaging around 15 pitches per inning. They now have two ace left-handers atop the rotation with Lee and Cole Hamels, and can mix and match with the hot hands during the playoffs.

If you thought before that the Phillies might struggle in the playoffs against teams with great starting pitching (like the Giants), think again!

BDD: Ricciardi Has No Leverage

At Baseball Daily Digest, I use some logic to deduce the Phillies as the only logical landing spot for Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay.

Comparatively, the Jays turned down the Phillies’ counter-offer of Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, Michael Taylor, and J.A. Happ, the #2, 4, 6, and 9 prospects according to BA. That offer was fair and extremely unlikely to be matched by anyone for whom Halladay would be willing to waive his no-trade clause. Ricciardi shot it down with flair.

Meet the Mess

The New York Mets are a steaming pile right now; a team in total disarray. It’s to the point where, as a Phillies fan, I no longer enjoy the schadenfreude. I now pity the New York Mets and their fan base. It is a pathetically-run organization.

This video displays unequivocally the most embarrassing two minutes of Omar Minaya’s embarrassing tenure as GM of the New York Mets.

Appropriate reactions to Minaya’s press conference regarding Tony Bernazard’s firing:

Phillies/D-Backs Series Preview

For the second time this season, the Phillies travel to the West coast. The first trip was a success: they outscored the Padres 20-9 in a series sweep, and split a four-game series with the Dodgers — which should have been a sweep had Brad Lidge not blown back-to-back save opportunities. Overall, the Phillies will gladly take a 5-2 road trip.

This time, the Phillies are up against the Arizona Diamondbacks for three games then move to San Francisco for a four-game set with the Giants, who are six games over .500 and only two games back in the NL Wild Card.

Against the D-Backs, the Phillies will throw out three left-handed starting pitchers in Jamie Moyer, Cole Hamels, and NL Rookie of the Year candidate J.A. Happ. Arizona is 9-18 against left-handed starters despite hitting for a higher OPS against them.

They have a slightly above-average offense overall, but have the NL’s third-worst pitching staff. As you may expect with a staff that features Dan Haren, the bullpen has a lot more to do with the staff’s overall poor performance. Their relievers have a 4.81 ERA while starters sport a 4.13 ERA.

With Mark Reynolds and Justin Upton, the D-Backs can not only go yard, but they can swipe some bags as well. Three True Outcomes man Reynolds is tied for second in the National League with 26 home runs but has also stolen 18 bases. Upton has hit 18 homers and swiped 13. As a team, Arizona is third in the league in stolen bases and fourth in slugging percentage; the Phillies are sixth and first, respectively.

The big test in the series will come against Dan Haren. He’s second in the Majors in ERA, although FIP puts him closer to a 3.00 level of production. Only three Phillies have had double-digit plate appearances against him and only Raul Ibanez has had any success against him. The Phillies hit Jon Garland and Yusmeiro Petit in the limited opportunities they’ve had, so even if they get shut down by Haren, they should win the series anyway.

Small sample size alert with the data. Click the table to improve the quality.

Hitting

Pitching

The Phillies should be 58-41 when they go to San Francisco. Jon Garland is garbage. So is Yusmeiro Petit.

I Do Not Like Julio Lugo

Julio LugoJulio Lugo had a .726 career OPS heading into tonight’s game against the Phillies. He’s never finished a season with a slugging percentage higher than .431 and only once has he had an above-average OPS+ (2005 with Tampa Bay). Calling Lugo with his career .391 SLG light-hitting is an insult to light-hitting hitters everywhere.

But don’t let Lugo hear this when he’s playing the Phillies. The Phillies are to Lugo as steroids allegedly were to Barry Bonds; as mushrooms are to Mario; as prescription drugs are to Rush Limbaugh. When Julio is facing the Phillies, he goes from a David Eckstein impersonator to Frank Robinson.

Against starter Rodrigo Lopez and the Phillies’ bullpen yesterday afternoon, Lugo went 4-for-5 with a double and a triple, an RBI, and a stolen base. That brought Lugo’s OPS against the Phillies in nearly 100 plate appearances to 1.225. Teammate Albert Pujols had a 1.155 OPS on the season heading into the game. That’s how good Lugo is, apparently. Check out the chart (click to enlarge, enhance quality).

Julio Lugo OPS

Despite that only 2% of Lugo’s career PA have come against the Phillies, he’s had:

  • 3% of his runs;
  • 3% of his hits;
  • 4% of his doubles;
  • 7% of his triples;
  • 4% of his home runs;
  • 3% of his RBI;
  • 4% of his walks; and
  • 2% of his stolen bases

…against the Phillies. This is a guy who only saw the Phillies in interleague play, really, since he was essentially an AL East player with the Rays and Red Sox.

During the off-season, the New York Mets signed starter Tim Redding essentially because he had a track record of Cy Young-caliber performances against the Phillies. Well, New York, you should be taking a good, long look at Julio Lugo.

Jayson Werth Has Some Good Ideas

Per Jayson Stark, ESPN:

“I don’t know what those guys get if they win [the Home Run Derby],” Werth told Rumblings. “But I think they should get a bag of cash.”

Wait. A bag of cash? Like what, a shopping bag? Full of $20 bills?

“No, of hundreds,” Werth said. “I’m talking about a sack full. Maybe a little leprechaun could carry it out there and throw it at your feet if you win. Then you’d hop in the back of a big Brinks truck and ride away. That would be awesome.”

Check out The Phightins to see what it would have looked like if Werth’s idea had been implemented when Ryan Howard won the Derby in 2006.