The Dog Days of August

If you’ve stopped by ESPN.com recently, you may have seen their “The Dog Days of August” feature, including the two blurbs I contributed on Raul Ibanez and Jimmy Rollins. More importantly, though, SportsNation has some poll questions and they’re looking for your votes. Like any true patriot American, I cast my ballot and I’ll explain the reasoning behind my votes below.

How will the regular season end for the Phillies?

Baseball Prospectus currently gives the Atlanta Braves a 79% chance at making the playoffs, including 69% to win the NL East and 10% to win the Wild Card. The Phillies are at 47% (29%, 18% respectively). Still, I voted that the Phillies would win the NL East.

Why? Well, I’m biased of course. But the Phillies also have a rather easy remaining schedule, as Tommy Bennett pointed out:

The Phillies’ schedule also provides relief. The team will play a majority (57 percent) of its remaining games at home, where it is 36-19 (compared to 26-30 on the road). The Phillies’ remaining opponents collectively play slightly below average offense for the league (by True Average); their opponents also have a slightly below average pitchers’ strikeout rate and a worse than average unintentional walk rate. That doesn’t mean the schedule is a cakewalk — the Phillies play 24 games in 23 days in one stretch — but it gives them a good chance at hunting the Braves and Giants (they have three left versus the Giants and six left versus the Braves, with those six being split — three home and three away; the season ends with three games between the Braves and Phillies).

How will Raul Ibanez perform for the rest of the season?

The obvious answer here is “somewhere in the middle” of “similar to his first half (.243 AVG, sub-.400 SLG)” and “similar to his last 22 days (1.064 OPS)”. Joe Pawlikowski went over Raul’s time in Philly in a recent post at FanGraphs, including a quote from myself back on June 7:

The 2010 season has been a real struggle for Raul Ibanez and the Philadelphia Phillies, but it is not unique. The Atlanta Braves are wondering if they are ever going to get anything out of Nate McLouth; the New York Yankees have been waiting for Curtis Granderson to find his power; the Houston Astros are trying to find out who took away Carlos Lee‘s offense. Over the next four months those three hitters will, most likely, improve offensively not because someone found a mechanical flaw or they fixed their timing (although that could certainly happen), but because they are simply regressing to their mean. I can flip a coin ten times and get eight tails. If I continue to flip a coin 100 more times, I should expect that coin to come up tails not 80% of the time, but 50% — its true probability. The same holds true for Raul and many other struggling baseball players.

Raul could continue to hit well and he could also go back into an offensive slump. But the most likely scenario is that he hits somewhere around his career .351 wOBA between now and the end of the season.

Is Jimmy Rollins still an elite player?

Rollins’ .331 wOBA ranks seventh among all shortstops with at least 230 plate appearances. His 11.9 UZR/150 over the past three years is the best among all shortstops. He’s been worth 1.8 WAR in an injury-plagued season in which he has played only 52 games.

Many fans point to Rollins’ declining bat. It is definitely true that Rollins has not been anywhere near as productive offensively in 2009-10 as he was in prior years. It has a lot to do with his approach at the plate. The past two years, his BABIP has been .251 and .257 — very low totals. Unlike pitchers, hitters do have a large say in BABIP results. Rollins’ is low because he has been trying to hit more fly balls. In ’08, 45% of his batted balls were ground balls and 31% were fly balls. The past two years, those rates have dropped to 40% and 42% respectively. Fly balls result in a lower BABIP than ground balls, hence why Rollins hasn’t been as offensively potent.

If Rollins goes back to a ground ball approach, he can hit well enough to keep himself among baseball’s elite shortstops. However, if he’s simply average offensively, he can still find himself ranked among baseball’s second tier of shortstops (i.e. anyone not named Hanley Ramirez, Derek Jeter, or Troy Tulowitzki).

Whose return is more key to the Phillies’ success going forward? (Chase Utley or Ryan Howard)

This is total Crashburn bait. Currently, the poll results have Utley narrowly edging out Howard 53% to 47%. Obviously, that makes me want to rip my face off. Over the past three years, Utley has been twice as valuable as Howard in terms of Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Utley plays a premium position, is better offensively (.395 to .383 wOBA over the past three years), and plays immaculate defense (16.1 to Howard’s -2.4 UZR/150 over the past three years).

Many people think I hate Howard and the response to this question isn’t going to help resolve that image, but the Utley-Howard debate is a joke. Utley is far and away baseball’s best second baseman while Howard isn’t among baseball’s top-five best first basemen.

What is a bigger factor for the Phillies going forward? (Strength of the rotation or weakness of the bullpen)

As shown in the recent post on kwERA, the important guys in the ‘pen all grade out nicely in terms of strike zone dominance. Their SIERA aren’t too different either. Really, the bullpen will be just fine if we can somehow convince Charlie Manuel to only — and I mean only — use J.C. Romero against left-handed batters and drop Danys Baez off at the curb. Otherwise, Manuel has done a decent job of giving higher-leverage innings to his better relievers.

The National League average bullpen ERA this year is 4.14. The Phillies’ is 4.06. Meanwhile, the NL average starters’ ERA is 4.10 while the Phillies’ is 3.89 and that’s barely including the presence of Roy Oswalt. The trio of Roy Halladay, Oswalt, and Cole Hamels is arguably baseball’s best 1-2-3 while Joe Blanton and Kyle Kendrick are right where they belong, in the #4 and 5 spots respectively. The Phillies clearly separate themselves from the pack with their starting pitching and it will play a huge role in their success or failure in attaining another playoff berth.

In the comments below, share how you voted and the thought processes you used to reach your conclusions. Also feel free to express your disagreement with my conclusions.