Ryan Howard’s Malaise

Since returning from the disabled list, Ryan Howard is batting .111 with a .246 OPS. He has no extra-base hits and no multi-hit games. Even worse, Howard struck out 16 times in 36 at-bats, a rate of nearly 45 percent — much higher than his career average 32 percent.

Howard missed about three weeks’ worth of time dealing with a left ankle sprain. Since coming back, he has been wearing a brace, something he admits limits his mobility and flexibility. That could explain his offensive woes. Howard’s power has been noticeably absent, as this spray chart displays, via Texas Leaguers:

Compare the batted ball data before and after Howard’s injury:

Pre-injury 125 41% 103 34% 8 3% 66 22% 302
Post-injury 7 37% 4 21% 3 16% 5 26% 19

Howard has seen a marked decrease in outfield fly balls and a subsequent marked increase in infield fly balls. This is a very small sample size — just 19 batted balls — but it confirms what we’ve been seeing so far since Howard was activated: he’s had no power whatsoever. Additionally, Howard has not been pulling the ball to the outfield. Compare the spray chart above (post-injury) to the one below (pre-injury):

Unfortunately, I don’t have a subscription to MLB.tv so I can’t check out his mechanics. However, I would wager that even a brief inspection would reveal a noticeable mechanical difference in the lower half of Howard’s body as he loads up to swing. Howard puts his weight on his left (back) ankle before the transfer and that just so happens to be the ankle he injured.

Howard was the Phillies’ second-most valuable hitter in terms of VORP. He is currently setting career lows in on-base percentage (tied with 2008 at .339), slugging percentage, ISO, and wOBA. Additionally, his pace for 1.6 WAR would be by far his lowest since becoming a regular in 2005. While you can’t pin all or even most of the team’s offensive woes on Howard, he is a big part of any success they have on that end. Getting him 100% healthy and mechanically sound is vital as they fight for a playoff berth. It may be necessary to put Howard back on the disabled list to give him more time to rest his ankle. If that’s the case, so be it. Mike Sweeney at 85% health can out-produce Howard at 60%.

Graph of the Intermittent Time Period

The Phillies responded to an embarrassing four-game sweep at the hands of the Houston Astros at home by flying out to San Diego and sweeping the Padres in three games. The offense didn’t exactly wake up, but the starting pitching was immaculate, and in the finale yesterday, the Phillies did manage to score more than three runs for just the second time since August 19.

Just how good has the pitching been?

Date Opp Result IP H R ER BB SO HR HBP SP GS Starter
8/13 @ NYM L,0-1 8 5 1 1 2 8 0 0 74 Hamels
8/14 @ NYM W,4-0 9 6 0 0 0 10 0 1 81 Halladay
8/15 @ NYM W,3-1 9 6 1 1 2 7 1 0 61 Kendrick
8/17 SFG W,9-3 9 7 3 3 0 10 2 0 60 Oswalt
8/18 SFG W,8-2 9 8 2 2 0 8 2 0 56 Blanton
8/19 SFG L,2-5 9 8 5 5 1 9 1 0 37 Hamels
8/20 WSN W,1-0 9 10 0 0 3 7 0 0 63 Halladay
8/21 WSN L,1-8 9 12 8 8 5 6 1 0 29 Kendrick
8/22 WSN W,6-0 9 5 0 0 1 11 0 0 74 Oswalt
8/23 HOU L,2-3 9 10 3 3 0 11 0 0 70 Blanton
8/24 HOU L,2-4 16 13 4 4 4 15 1 2 66 Hamels
8/25 HOU L,2-3 9 6 3 3 0 8 2 0 59 Halladay
8/26 HOU L,1-5 9 13 5 5 0 3 1 0 39 Kendrick
8/27 @ SDP W,3-2 12 7 2 2 1 10 1 1 74 Oswalt
8/28 @ SDP W,3-1 9 6 1 1 1 6 0 0 58 Blanton
8/29 @ SDP W, 5-0 9 5 0 0 0 6 0 0 80 Hamels
TOTAL 153 127 38 38 20 135 12 4
AVERAGE per 9 IP 7 2 2 1 8 1 0 61

A quality start corresponds to a game score of 50. Phillies starters have put up a game score of 50 or better in 13 out of the last 16 games. Roy Halladay (avg. 68), Roy Oswalt (69), and Joe Blanton (61) are 3-for-3 in quality starts in their last three starts, while Cole Hamels (64) is 3-1 and Kyle Kendrick is 1-2 (43).

Since August 13, the Phillies’ overall pitching (including the bullpen) has averaged a 2.24 ERA with 7.9 strikeouts and 1.2 walks per nine innings, a ratio of nearly seven-to-one. Halladay leads all of Major League Baseball (min. 100 IP) with a 2.87 SIERA and should now be the favorite to win the National League Cy Young award. Hamels went into yesterday’s start fifth in the NL with a 3.22 SIERA and Oswalt wasn’t far behind in seventh at 3.34.

As ill as fans felt after the Astros series, the Phillies are still winners of nine out of their last 15 games, good for a winning percentage of .600. As mentioned on Friday, the Phillies still have plenty of opportunities to gain significant ground in both playoff races. With a 1-2-3 punch of Halladay-Oswalt-Hamels that rivals that of any other in Major League Baseball, the Phillies will be ready to play some good baseball in the month of September. Should they be fortunate enough to reach the post-season for a fourth consecutive year, be it via the Wild Card or by winning the NL East, they will be the team the rest of the field least wants to meet.

Down but Certainly Not Out

Losing four in a row to a Houston Astros team that, entering, was 54-69 (.439) is not an achievement that sits well in the minds of Phillies fans. Scoring a total of seven runs in the series sits even worse.

The lack of offense caused the Phillies to go from having a 47% chance of making the playoffs to merely 26% currently, according to CoolStandings.com. Baseball Prospectus is a bit kinder, bumping their chances up to 29%.

Via CoolStandings.com:

DIV – chance of winning the Division
WC – chance of winning the Wild Card
POFF – chance of making the Playoffs

On the other hand, let’s not forget that the Phillies still have three games against the fading Los Angeles Dodgers and the non-contending Milwaukee Brewers, seven against the average Florida Marlins and six against the average New York Mets, and six against the cellar-dwelling Washington Nationals. Most importantly, though, the Phillies still have six games to play against the division-leading Atlanta Braves while only trailing by three games. If the Phillies pick up one game on the Braves in the non-head-to-head match-ups and take four of six from the Braves, they’ll end up in a tie for the division lead.

Seem unlikely? It doesn’t sound like it, especially with the Phillies, who overcame a seven-game deficit with 17 games left in the 2007 season. On September 11, 2008, the Phillies were three games behind with 19 games to play and ended up winning the division by three games — a total swing of six games. With 35 games left to play, the Phils have plenty of time to play catch-up.

Many are starting to count the Phillies out. It’s a bit premature to be doing that.

Umpires Are to be Seen and Not Heard

The old line “children are to be seen and not heard” tends to apply to umpires in Major League Baseball. If the broadcasters and fans haven’t noticed them, they’re probably doing a great job. We heard then first base umpire Greg Gibson’s name plenty yesterday, and a whole lot of Scott Barry in the bottom of the fourteenth inning tonight.

I’ll let the venerable Meech from The Fightins sum up the fiasco (click through to see moving pictures!):

Fast-forward to the bottom of the fourteenth, game still tied at 2, when Ryan Howard came up with runners at first and second and the game on the line. On an 0-1 pitch, Ryan Howard tried to check his swing on a pitch down and away, but third base umpire Scott Barry correctly called it a strike. Obviously mad at himself, Howard put his hands on his hips as if to say, “why the hell did I just swing at that?” and this Scott Barry prick puts his hands on his hips blatantly mocking Howard. Four pitches later, after Polanco and Utley moved up to 2nd & 3rd on a wild pitch, Howard once again attempted to check his swing and this minor league fill-in that substituted as the 3rd base ump tonight once again punched him out (figuratively). This time, though, Howard threw his helmet and bat, so Mr. Spotlight Scott Barry (did I mention he’s not even a real MLB ump?) tossed the big man from the game.

Most of the time, an umpire ejecting a player from a game is not a big deal, even if it was a knee-jerk decision. However, this game was very unique not only because it was the bottom of the fourteenth inning, but because the Phillies were out of regular players (including relievers as they had sent Kyle Kendrick to the bullpen as an emergency arm). Consider the context as well: the Phillies are right in the middle of a playoff race both for the division (two and a half games behind the Atlanta Braves entering tonight) and for the Wild Card (one game ahead of the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals).

It doesn’t matter what Howard says and does short of physical violence, he stays in the game. The umpire sucks it up and doesn’t put his ego ahead of the credibility of Major League Baseball games. Scott Barry didn’t do that. As Meech described, Barry had the gall to mock Howard before ejecting him with the shortest fuse known to man.

If it’s the second inning in a 0-0 game and Howard does that? Fine, eject him if you really need to. But in the fourteenth inning of a meaningful game? Never. And absolutely never should the umpire mock a player. It’s hypocritical, immature, and it makes Major League Baseball’s officiating look shoddy.

Now, let’s not forget that Barry isn’t the only one deserving of blame. The offense, for the fifth time in six games, failed to score more than two runs. Ryan Howard was 0-for-7 with five strikeouts. Charlie Manuel burned two position players for one at-bat in the seventh inning (Domonic Brown and Ben Francisco). The botched double-steal by Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco was ill advised, even if it had turned out positively. It seemed like for the last six innings, the Phillies were simply trying to hit home runs rather than settle for singles and doubles.

And let’s give credit where credit is due: Bud Norris pitched effectively, as did Cole Hamels. Both teams’ bullpens were near-immaculate. You can’t fault David Herndon for the way the top of the sixteenth went as none of the Astros’ hits left the infield. The Phillies’ #2, 3, 5 and 6 hitters combined for eight of the ten hits and drew five of the ten walks. Hunter Pence continues to kill the Phillies (1.081 OPS against entering tonight, highest against any team against which he’s logged 25 or more plate appearances).

For all of the great baseball moments the city of Philadelphia has seen over the past few years,  the Roy Oswalt catch in left field to start the fifteenth inning vaulted somewhere into the top-20. Ditto when he came up to bat, to chants of “Let’s go, Oswalt!”, with two outs and the game on the line in the bottom of the sixteenth. How cool was it seeing Chase Utley coaching first baseman Raul Ibanez when Michael Bourn entered the batter’s box? Unfortunately, those great moments evaporated with the realization that an umpire’s bruised ego cost them a very meaningful game in a playoff race.

Even worse is the realization that Barry will not be reprimanded for his actions. There is no oversight on umpires. While Howard will likely be fined and perhaps suspended for his tirade, Barry will go unpunished for being an instigator and for mocking one of baseball’s most iconic (and friendly, no less) sluggers. Matt Gelb tweeted a quote from Manuel on Howard’s tantrum, “I’ve never seen him upset like that.” Howard has been known to argue a call every now and then but always quietly and always respectfully as baseball players are taught.

Barry will take the field tomorrow. He will be given the same power he was given tonight and there will be no questioning on Major League Baseball’s behalf on a potential conflict of interest. When addressing problems, MLB moves at a glacier’s pace and progress is often 20 years behind, if not more. Players, coaches, broadcasters, analysts and fans alike have known for years and years that umpires have too much power and too little oversight. Last night’s Bourn incident as well as the infield single that cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game earlier in the year are perfect examples of why baseball needs to expand the use of instant replay as well as establish oversight for umpires.

Major League Baseball instead chooses to live in the past, adhering to Dark Ages logic and sticking their collective head in the sand. The 42 players who busted their ass for sixteen innings tonight deserved better. The managers and coaches who incessantly strategized for sixteen innings deserved better. The fans who stayed glued to their seats on a chilly late-August night deserved better. Patrons of Major League Baseball worldwide deserved better.

Addendum: For a better analysis of what went on in the fourteenth inning, listen to Larry Andersen, one of the Phillies’ radio broadcasters. He is a legend and belongs with the TV broadcast, but his outspokenness will keep him confined to the radio unfortunately. (Fist-bump to @Phylan for the audio.)

Was Michael Bourn Out?

If you missed last night’s game, the Phillies lost 3-2 to the Houston Astros in large part due to a controversial call made in the top of the eighth inning. With a 2-1 lead, Ryan Madson was on the mound. Jason Michaels led off with a single. Michael Bourn, as he so often does, put a bunt down the first base line. Ryan Howard fielded the ball and instead of flipping to Chase Utley for the force out, Howard chose to dive and tag Bourn, but he missed. In an effort to evade the tag, Bourn may have stepped out of the baseline. The umpire ruled that Howard didn’t tag Bourn and that Bourn hadn’t gone far enough out of the baseline, so the Astros had runners on first and second with no outs. Michaels and Bourn eventually scored the tying and go-ahead runs on a weakly-hit Carlos Lee single.

In Major League Baseball’s official rules, rule 7.08 states:

7.08 Any runner is out when—

(a) (1) He runs more than three feet away from his baseline to avoid being tagged unless his action is to avoid interference with a fielder fielding a batted ball. A runner’s baseline is established when the tag attempt occurs and is a straight line from the runner to the base he is attempting to reach safely.

Here’s a .gif of the play:

And here’s a few still shots (click to enlarge):

If my understanding of MLB’s definition of a baseline is correct, I don’t think Bourn stepped out of the baseline. However, considering where he started (just to the right of the chalk) and where he ended up (on the grass), it’s certainly a debatable point as it seems like Bourn went excessively out of his way to avoid the tag. Perhaps in the off-season, MLB can provide better clarity on this rule. Establishing the baseline “when the tag attempt occurs” could mean the baseline is from the front of the dugout to first base. The simple way to do it is to define the baseline as a straight line from one base to the next, and the runner gets three feet of wiggle room. I think that’s the way most people interpret the rule anyway.

What do you think? Was Bourn out or safe?

UPDATE: As mentioned in the comments and in Matt Gelb’s article, Greg Gibson was the first base umpire in both last night’s game and on June 24 when the Phillies played the Cleveland Indians. During that game, Shane Victorino was called out for running outside of the baseline on a similar play.

Gelb wrote, “Gibson told [Victorino] Carmona had established the tag attempt and Victorino was more than three feet away from it.”

I’m not sure I buy that.

Astros Series Preview: Astros County

Believe your eyes — it’s a series preview. We haven’t had one of these since June 25 when the Blue Jays were “in town”. I caught up with James from Astros County to find out what to expect out of this four-game series against a bunch of former Phillies. I’ve also answered some questions, the answers to which you can find over on Houston’s side by clicking here.

. . .

1. The Astros have a plethora of former Phillies on the roster: Pedro Feliz, Michael Bourn, Jason Michaels, Brett Myers, J.A. Happ, and Nelson Figueroa. Is this just a coincidence or does Ed Wade (a former Phillies employee himself) fetishize those red pinstripes? When Pat Gillick was GM here in Philly, it seemed like he dealt with the Seattle Mariners often as it was one of his former teams.

It certainly seems like it happens so often that it’s not exactly a coincidence, doesn’t it? I think there’s a familiarity with the Phillies’ system that Wade values (and Gillick, from what it sounds like – I had never noticed that) – right or wrong. The thing about Wade is that he gets lambasted from pretty much every corner, and I don’t know where the disconnect is, but a large majority, and we’re talking 80-90%, of Astros County readers approve of the job Ed Wade is doing. It could be that the previous GM was so awful that anything is an upgrade, but if you look at the players you mentioned, with the exception of Pedro Feliz, they’ve paid off in the roles given them. Michaels is an effective bat off the bench, Happ has done well in five starts, Figueroa is alright. We’re still trying to figure out which Bourn is for real, but he plays great defense and can steal bases. Feliz was a nightmare, but four out of five (too early on Figueroa) have worked out. If he had signed Mickey Morandini and Von Hayes, we might sing a different tune.

2. How’s life without Roy Oswalt? (You will not see him in this series, unfortunately.)

It’s alright. From the point in May where he hinted that he wanted to be traded to the the week leading up to the Philly deal, he burned a lot of bridges with Astros fans. In retrospect, it seems like his agent (Bob Garber) was pulling a lot of those strings and making the demands about the 2012 option. For a long time, Roy was my favorite Astro – just kept his head down, pitched with intensity, didn’t make a whole lot of noise, and was one of the best pitchers in the NL. How he – or his agent – handled that trade pissed a lot of us off, and it got to the point where it was necessary to trade him. I take a small amount of childish satisfaction in that he didn’t set the franchise record for wins. Happ has done a good job – throwing quality starts in four of his five starts – and Myers is basically our ace now. Oswalt’s departure, along with Berkman’s, signified the end of an era for the Astros, but both parties had to move on.

3. Brett Myers was recently signed to a two-year, $23 million contract extension with a $10 million club option for 2013. Do you think this was a good move for the Astros?

That’s the big question, isn’t it? It’s too soon to tell, really. He’s set a franchise record for most consecutive starts of 18+ outs, but this is the type of performance that I’m guessing Amaro wasn’t counting on in the offseason. All of his peripherals are, or are close to, career-bests. So if this is the real Brett Myers, yeah, it was a good move. We’re all just kind of waiting to see if Ed Wade fell into the Contract Year trap.

4. For a while, the Astro offense was dreadful. Since July 19, however, they’ve averaged 5.4 runs per game (140 R in 26 G). What is the biggest reason for the turnaround?

The easy, and most obvious answer is that this is the period Jeff Bagwell took over as hitting coach. It’s always hard to tell the impact a hitting coach has, but if you’re Hunter Pence or Michael Bourn (or Jason Castro, Brett Wallace, Chris Johnson, etc), and Jeff Bagwell comes over and talks about your mechanics, you’re probably going to be more likely to pay attention. Nothing against Sean Berry, but I imagine Bagwell carries more weight in the clubhouse. The other answer is that the Astros actually do have players with a track record of success. Carlos Lee, before this season, was a .290-.300 hitter who could provide 25HR and 100RBI. Hunter Pence is a solid player in his 4th season, and it looks like Chris Johnson could be an impact bat at third base. It’s hard to keep up the Astros’ level of futility for an entire season, so it could just be an aggression to the mean (and only an Astros fan thinks about playing up to replacement level.) Or Oswalt and Berkman were a negative presence in the clubhouse, and once they were gone, younger players who were actually happy to play for Houston provided a spark.

5. Similarly, Wandy Rodriguez pitched horribly through his first 14 starts (6.09 ERA). In his last ten starts, he has looked markedly better (1.74 ERA). Was his problem mechanical/mental/pitch selection, or was it just a case of regression to the mean?

It’s a combination of things. In his first 14 starts, he was throwing strikes 60% of the time, with a .359 BABIP. In his last ten starts, however, his BABIP has dropped to .260, and he’s throwing 65% of his pitches for strikes. So I think he was pretty unlucky in the first half of the season, and he’s coming back to where he normally sits – as a solid #2/#3 pitcher. However, at the beginning of the season, heading into Opening Day, he did have a little crisis in confidence, where he actually said that he didn’t feel ready for the season to start. I don’t know if it just took him that long to get comfortable, or if he just remembered how to pitch. Those first 14 starts, though, were brutal.

6. Strife in the ‘stros’ ‘pen: Is Lindstrom’s demotion and Lyon’s promotion temporary?

Lindstrom was just put on the DL with a bad back, so it’s temporarily permanent. Given the way that Lindstrom was losing games and blowing saves (as hair-pulling as it can possibly be for a closer to blow a save for a team 15 games under .500), the job is probably Lyon’s for a while, even after Lindstrom comes off the DL. Lindstrom was doing so well (11ER in 40 games) that he was able to stave off the Starting Quarterback Syndrome, in which the highest-paid QB starts, but we pretty much knew that, at the first run of rough games, Lyon and his $4.5m salary would take over.

BONUS: Play the role of Nostradamus and tell us how you see this series playing out. The pitching match-ups are: Myers-Blanton, Norris-Hamels, Happ-Halladay, and Rodriguez-Kendrick.

Seeing as how this is something of a lost/rebuilding season, I generally haven’t given much thought to the opposing starting pitcher since about the middle of April, but it’s possible for the Astros to split this series. Myers will get his chance to stick it to the Phillies, which he’s been foaming like a Sam Adams to do since he was left off the playoff roster last year. Norris is a complete enigma, though he has been much better lately. Since the All-Star Break, Norris has a 4.15 ERA and a 43K:14BB (of course, 14 of those strikeouts came at the hands of the Pirates two starts ago), but his OPS-against is 50 points higher on the road than at home. Playing against Halladay is like trying to beat the computer in chess, but it will be interesting to see how Happ does against his former team, and I think Wandy Rodriguez could get it done against Kendrick. A split would be a win for us, but if I’m Pete Rose, I’m betting the Phillies take three games, given how miserable the Astros are on the road.

. . .

Thanks to James from Astros County for providing some insight into the upcoming series. I’m surprised that Oswalt left Houston with acrimony but it does make sense — it reminds me a bit of the end to the Scott Rolen era here in Philly. Also, if you had said to me that Brett Myers would be considered the Astros’ ace in August, I’d have laughed at you. Finally, I’m flabbergasted that Ed Wade earned positive regards from Astros County readers. As I mention in my answers over there, Wade was at the helm when a bulk of the Phillies’ present core was drafted but it’s hard to tell how much of it was his doing. I tend to credit Mike Arbuckle more than anyone else. I also wrote, after the Oswalt trade, that Wade was swindled having only received Happ, Anthony Gose, and Jonathan Villar in return. Most Phillies fans were nervous about giving up Jonthan Singleton and/or someone like Trevor May.

Since most of my readers are Phillies fans, let’s make this a discussion topic: What grade does Ed Wade get for his time in Philadelphia? How much credit does he get for Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, et. al.?

Wilson Valdez: In play, outs

A common sighting during games in which Wilson Valdez plays:

That was Valdez’s 16th ground ball double play this season in 277 at-bats, a rate of about six percent. From May 6-10, Valdez grounded into a double play in five straight games. To his credit, though, he hadn’t grounded into one in his last 75 plate appearances. From May 6 to July 22, Valdez’s GIDP rate was at eight percent.

Just how high is that rate? Using Baseball Reference’s Play Index, I searched every player-season since 1996 where a player accrued at least 275 PA and grounded into at least 16 double plays, then figured the rate for each of them. 33 players finished with a GIDP rate at 4.5 percent or higher and only six at 5.5 percent. Valdez’s 5.8 percent is the fourth-highest rate in this span of time.

Player GIDP PA GIDP/PA Year Team
Ivan Rodriguez 21 330 6.4% 2010 WSN
Brad Ausmus 30 496 6.0% 2002 HOU
Ron Coomer 23 386 6.0% 2001 CHC
Wilson Valdez 16 277 5.8% 2010 PHI
Kevin Frandsen 17 296 5.7% 2007 SFG
Paul Konerko 28 495 5.7% 2003 CHW

Overall, though, Valdez has been as advertised. He has a career .260 wOBA and sat at .275 for the season entering today’s series finale against the Washington Nationals. Defensively, UZR/150 graded him as significantly above-average at second base, third base, and shortstop. Given injuries to Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Placido Polanco, Valdez has had to fill in at all three positions. In extremely small samples — 292 innings at second, 24 at third, and 303 at shortstop — his defense has lived up to expectations with respective UZR/150 marks of 2.5, 9.2, and 2.9.

He’s no Omar Infante but he’s been worth the Minor League contract to which the Phillies signed him during the off-season. His ubiquitous replacement-level production may earn him a one-year Major League contract for 2011.

Werth Gets A Hit with 2 Out & RISP, Pigs Fly

Last night, Jayson Werth broke an 0-for-35 skid with two outs and runners in scoring position. Raul Ibanez hit an RBI triple in the bottom of the seventh inning and Werth drove him in with a double to right field.

Werth’s “clutchitude” has been a point of contention for much of the past three months ever since the media and fan base decided they no longer enjoyed his presence. And it’s true that this year, his offense has typically come when the team least needs it. The usefulness of those numbers is the crux of the debate.

He’s logged only 76 plate appearances with two outs and runners in scoring position, certainly not a good sample size. Werth averages 4.2 PA per game, so that is the equivalent of roughly 18 games. Drawing conclusions from less than three weeks’ worth of data is certainly not recommended. And, as we learn here, the only stats that become reliable between 50 and 100 PA are swing rate and contact rate.

Furthermore, if you go back to one year ago, we find that Werth was pretty clutch, hitting for a .985 OPS with 2 outs/RISP and 1.006 when the game was “late & close”. In 2008, there was almost no difference in his performance in high and low leverage situations. Most reasonable people currently calling Werth a “choker” or “unclutch” would look at his ’09 stats and say he was clutch.

So, did Werth somehow lose his ability to be clutch between 2009 and ’10? Did he forget how to be clutch? Probably not. All it really amounts to is a favorable distribution of offense in one season and an unfavorable distribution in another year. While being clutch may indeed be a skill, study after study after study shows that clutch stats aren’t meaningful or persistent.

That is not to say that “the human element” has absolutely no effect on Werth’s failure in clutch situations this year. Given Werth’s impending free agency, the heavy dose of criticism he has received recently, and the team’s overall offensive struggles, it is a real possibility that he was trying to do too much and pressed when in those situations. His K/PA is much higher in high-leverage situations than in medium- and low-leverage situations, according to Baseball Reference: .31 to .18 and .22 respectively. His ISO is also significantly lower: .168 to .222 and .259 respectively.

We don’t know for sure if this is truly the reason why Werth has struggled in clutch spots but it is not indicative of any legitimate flaw, especially considering just how good he has been offensively overall. There is no reason to think that Werth will continue to perform as badly in these situations going forward — after all, his BABIP with two outs/RISP is a paltry .107.

Graph of the Intermittent Time Period

Rumors of the offense’s demise may be greatly exaggerated. Although they have been shut out on ten different occasions (four of them at the hands of New York Met pitchers), the Phillies are slowly climbing back up the offensive leaderboards. Their average 4.75 runs per game is second-best in the National League behind the Cincinnati Reds.

As the following chart will show, the Phillies actually have quite a crew of above-average hitters:

(If you’re not familiar with wOBA, stop by the new stats page.)

Jayson Werth leads the pack with a .397 wOBA that is ninth-best in all of baseball. He is currently tied with Adrian Beltre and just ahead of Robinson Cano. Contrary to popular opinion, Werth is enjoying the best offensive season of his career.

No surprise that Ryan Howard and Chase Utley come in at two and three, respectively. Utley could be as high as Werth given his career .388 wOBA, but he was slumping for a while before his injury. From May 16 to June 28, Utley compiled a triple-slash line of .239/.331/.336 (.667 OPS). He went 0-for-5 last night in his first game since June 28.

Ross Gload should surprise you. During the first half, he wasn’t getting much playing time — maybe two or three starts per month. Once Howard injured his ankle, Charlie Manuel gave Gload more at-bats and it paid off. In the ten games in which he has played while Howard has been out, Gload has a triple-slash line of .320/.433/.600 (1.033 OPS).

Carlos Ruiz is another surprise. He is routinely lauded for his defensive contributions as well as his ability to work with the pitchers; he was never expected to do much with the bat, especially after his disappointing .279 wOBA in 2008. This year, though, Ruiz has become one of the better offensive catchers in baseball. Among catchers with at least 200 plate appearances this season, Ruiz has the seventh-best wOBA, just ahead of John Jaso and Miguel Olivo and slightly behind Jorge Posada and Miguel Montero. He’s also been on a three-week tear: since July 27, Ruiz’s triple-slash line is impressive: .361/.378/.597. Best of all, a healthy portion of those hits have come in higher-leverage situations. Although they may not be predictive of anything, the stats show that his timing is indeed impeccable.

Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins have the most room for improvement. Victorino hasn’t been hitting as many line drives, having hit more fly balls instead. Sadly, his BABIP on fly balls is a staggeringly low .042, much lower than the National League average .136. This may be because Victorino has adopted a more power-oriented approach — his HR/FB went from 5.5% last year to 10.6%  this year, causing his ISO to go up by 35 points.

Rollins’ trend is the opposite of Victorino’s. He’s drawn more walks, struck out less and hit for very little power (.114 ISO). The calf injury likely deserves a lot of blame but there are signs that Rollins is feeling healthier. In the first 21 games after his injury, he attempted only one steal. Since July 17 (26 games), he’s stolen nine bases in nine attempts. Hopefully the power is the next thing to come back to him.

As frustrating as this offense has been this year, the Phillies are finally getting closer to full health and should be back to scoring runs in bunches. Just in time for another late-season playoff push.

Ryan Madson ABC: Always Be Closing

Ryan Madson is the third in a trinity of Phillies players on the receiving end of unjustified criticism in the greater Philadelphia area over the past two years. The other two, as you may have gathered if you read this blog with any regularity, are Cole Hamels and Jayson Werth. The pattern seems to be that the player has a breakout year and fails to live up to it in subsequent seasons. It wasn’t that long ago when Werth was contemplating the end of his career after a wrist injury, Hamels had an ERA approaching 6 at the end of July, and Madson could barely hang in the back of the starting rotation. Note that the low bar for all three was set in ’06 and the high bar was set in ’08.

Following their ’06 struggles, Werth became one of the rare five-tool players in the game, Hamels found his niche at the top of the Phillies’ starting rotation, and Madson developed into one of the most devastating relief pitchers around. If you’re patient with talent, eventually you will be rewarded.

During the second half of ’08, Madson added some zip to his fastball. The four-seam fastball crossed 95 MPH on 83 different occasions, all of them occurring in July or later. From April through June, his fastball averaged 91.4 MPH; from July through September, his fastball averaged 93.2 MPH. Madson also harnessed his control as his BB/9 went from 2.7 in the first half to 2.2 in the second half. Overall, he went from a pitcher with a 4.23 SIERA in ’07 to 3.62 in ’08. His ERA was 3.05 in both seasons, garnering him wide mainstream praise.

Madson’s improvement earned him a reward in January ’09 — a three-year, $12 million contract extension. There were no expectations for him to usurp Brad Lidge‘s throne as the closer, especially since Lidge was coming off of a dominant perfect season in terms of saves and the Phillies had just won a World Series. He was simply expected to pitch in the eighth inning as the “bridge to Lidge”.

Madson continued to excel, finishing ’09 with a 3.18 SIERA and 3.26 ERA. His strikeout rate continued to climb (7.3 to 9.1 K/9) and his walk rate was well below-average (2.6 BB/9). The fastball averaged 95 MPH and hit 97 or higher on 32 different occasions. The average velocity gap between his fastball and change-up was 12 MPH, causing hitters to swing and miss at the change 30% of the time.

While ’09 was a prosperous time for Madson, it was quite the opposite for Lidge. His strikeout rate dropped to a career low and his walk rate increased to a career high, causing him to blow an inordinate amount of save opportunities. Lidge finished the year with a 7.21 ERA and admitted after the season that he pitched while injured. He missed time between June 7-25 and Madson was asked to fill in as the closer. In those nine innings, Madson allowed five runs total (all in three consecutive appearances) while blowing two saves and earning two losses.

Despite the small sample size, Madson was deemed as mentally incapable of closing games. This reputation prevented Charlie Manuel from officially demoting Lidge, and it cost the Phillies several games down the stretch as well as Game 4 of the ’09 World Series — the only World Series game in which Lidge appeared. Madson, meanwhile, compiled a 3.48 ERA in 10 and one-third post-season innings despite a ridiculous .467 BABIP.

Lidge had surgery in the off-season and missed the first month of the ’10 season. Madson, of course, was asked to fill in again, and again he struggled. In nine innings of work, Madson blew two saves and allowed seven runs. This was yet more evidence that Madson didn’t have a “closer’s mentality” although the reason for his struggles was more likely due to a .407 BABIP.

Madson bathed himself in gasoline and tossed himself into his own fire when he broke his toe kicking a folding chair in frustration after another poor outing in San Francisco. He missed six weeks and was fortunate that Jose Contreras filled in admirably. It was the cherry on top of what seemed to be an ice cream mountain of evidence for Phillies fans that Madson was mentally weak and incapable of handling any kind of pressure.

Since coming off of the DL on July 8, Madson has a 27-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 1.93 ERA in 18 and two-thirds innings. His SIERA is ninth-best in baseball at 2.19.  Although Lidge has been better lately, he is simply not reliable. If and when Lidge falters, Manuel needs to be quick in assigning Lidge’s higher-leverage innings to Madson. Unlike last year, the Phillies don’t have a division lead cushion on which to sit. They are currently two games behind the Atlanta Braves for the NL East lead and tied with the San Francisco Giants for the Wild Card lead. At the same point last year, the Phillies were up 4.5 games in the division.

Madson strikes out as many batters as Lidge; Lidge walks batters at nearly two and a half times the rate of Madson.

Madson still has a fastball that hits the high-90’s; Lidge didn’t hit 90 once in his appearance last night against the New York Mets.

Madson’s bread-and-butter pitch (change-up) induces swings-and-misses a whopping 42% of the time; Lidge’s (slider) only 17%. Overall, Madson induces 6.5% more whiffs.

Madson is a ground ball machine (50%); Lidge is not (37%).

There is no reason not to make a change, even now. Lidge has an average leverage index of 2.3 on the season while Madson owns a 1.7 mark. Those higher leverage innings should belong to Madson. The Phillies know from experience how close the playoff races get, having won the division on the last day in ’07 and on the last weekend in ’08. Making a change now can pay off exponentially later.

We saw Lidge’s performance in Game 4 of the World Series coming way back in June last year. Yet Manuel allowed it to happen anyway.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana