Comparing the 1976-78 Phillies to 2007-09

With the Fightins on their way to a third straight division title, it is an appropriate time to compare the 2007-09 teams to the last trio of division champs, the 1976-78 Phillies.

Here’s a quick look at who manned each position (i.e. had the most plate appearances at the position) for those teams:

  • Position: 1976, 1977, 1978; 2007, 2008, 2009
  • C: Boone, Boone, Boone; Ruiz, Ruiz, Ruiz
  • 1B: Allen, Hebner, Hebner; Howard, Howard, Howard
  • 2B: Cash, Sizemore, Sizemore; Utley, Utley, Utley
  • SS: Bowa, Bowa, Bowa; Rollins, Rollins, Rollins
  • 3B: Schmidt, Schmidt, Schmidt; Nunez, Feliz, Feliz
  • LF: Luzinski, Luzinski, Luzinski; Burrell, Burrell, Ibanez
  • CF: Maddox, Maddox, Maddox; Rowand, Victorino, Victorino
  • RF: Johnstone, Johnstone, McBride; Victorino, Werth, Werth

Offensively, the current three-peaters are better than the the ’76-78 teams at first base (slight), second base (huge), and shortstop (huge); the ’76-78 teams had the advantage at catcher (huge), third base (huge), and left field (slight); and the teams had virtually identical production from their center and right fielders.

The following are the offenses’ league ranks in runs scored per game and total HR:

  • 1976: 2nd of 12 in RPG (4.75); 2nd in HR (110)
  • 1977: 1st of 12 in RPG (5.22); 2nd in HR (186)
  • 1978: 3rd of 12 in RPG (4.37); 3rd in HR (133)
  • 2007: 1st of 16 in RPG (5.51); 2nd in HR (213)
  • 2008: 2nd of 16 in RPG (4.93); 1st in HR (214)
  • 2009: 1st of 16 in RPG (5.05); 1st in HR (210*)

* Incomplete season, of course. Prorated total over 162 games is 231 home runs.

Unfortunately, the wealth of defensive statistics we have now aren’t available as far back as 1976, so we can’t compare the teams defensively. We’ll just have to leave that to speculation and debate.

The following chart plots the teams’ starting and relief pitching by ERA minus FIP. A negative number shows that the pitchers were worse than their ERA indicated and a positive number means they were better than their ERA indicated. It’s a very rough measure of luck.

Phillies pitchers of late seem to have been very, very lucky, especially relievers. Considering Brad Lidge’s perfect 2008 season, that may not be a surprise.

Here are the actual numbers, using ERA:

I was going to use ERA+ but it’s not as ubiquitous as OPS+ as it is a poor metric with which to evaluate relievers.

Simply put, the Phillies teams of the late 1970’s were better on the mound than the new kids.  Each of the 1976-78 reliever corps was better than the best 2007-09 corps from 2008. The same rule applies for starters as well. However, the gap between the two eras of pitchers would be closed with an adjustment for the respective leagues.

Lastly, we’ll look at each squad’s performance compared to its simple Pythagorean expectation.

  • 1976: 101 wins (Pythag: 104)
  • 1977: 101 wins (Pythag: 98)
  • 1978: 90 wins (Pythag: 95)
  • 2007: 89 wins (Pythag: 87)
  • 2008: 92 wins (Pythag: 93)
  • 2009: 86 wins (Pythag: 84)*

* Again, incomplete season. Prorates to 95 wins with a Pythag of 93.

The 1976-78 squads aggregately under-performed their Pythag by five games or an average of under two games per season, which is well within the standard error. The 2007-09 squads under-performed by three games, an average of one game per season. None of the teams resembled the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks, who out-performed their Pythag by 11 games.

All told, there are actually a lot of similiarities between the teams. They hit first and pitched second, in order of importance. Actually, if we had reliable defensive metrics, we would conclude that they hit first, fielded second, and pitched third.

The contemporary Phillies are strong defensively up the middle with Ruiz, Utley, Rollins, and Victorino. So, too, were the late-’70’s Phillies with Boone, Bowa, and Maddox, the Secretary of Defense.