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.

Leave a Reply

*

24 comments

  1. MplsPhilsFan

    August 10, 2010 01:59 PM

    Bill,

    Excellent article. I did some rough projections over the course of the season and have the Phils and Atlanta neck and neck down the stretch, with minimal separation between the two teams. My guess right now is that the final 3 games of the season in Atlanta will determine who will win the NL East.

    I qualify this as saying right now because injuries, or return from injuries as the case may be, will be a primary determining factor. Will Prado be able to come back from his busted finger? Will Jason Hayward start hitting the wall as rookies often do late in the year? Will Utley/Howard/Victorino be able to be effective after their injuries?

    I do think the Phils will be able to pull this out and win the division, but I do worry about their chances in the playoffs if they have to use Halladay a ton down the stretch to enter the playoffs

  2. Scott G

    August 10, 2010 03:52 PM

    Don’t give Manuel the credit for using the right pitchers in high-leverage sitations; it’s done by accident. He clearly thinks Lidge is his best reliever because he’s the closer.

  3. Sophist

    August 10, 2010 04:50 PM

    Some degree of Rollins’ down BAbip over the last two years is probably due to his raising FB%. But it’s also true that he was a victim of some bad luck last year.

    career BAbip on LD: .725
    2009 BAbip on LD: .635

    His BAbip on GB is also down to .149 this year from .222 for his career — probably due to some combination of age but mostly injury.

    If he can stay healthy, 2008 is about where I’d peg his talent now.

  4. John

    August 10, 2010 06:36 PM

    Utley is far and away baseball’s best second baseman while Howard isn’t among baseball’s top-five best first basemen.

    I don’t disagree with the idea that Utley’s return is more important, but I don’t really see how this is a relevant point either.

    Comparing Utley and Howard to Robinson Cano and Albert Pujols doesn’t really make much sense to me. We should be looking at how much of an improvement over Valdez Utley is, and how much of an improvement over Sweeney and Gload that Howard is. Utley seems like a bigger improvement offensively, but that has nothing to do with whether or not Howard is better than Joey Votto.

    Beyond that, Utley’s defense is “immaculate”? Seriously? Have you watched him play this year? He’s had some brutal errors. And Wilson Valdez has been excellent in the field. Utley’s return probably means a slight defensive downgrade, if anything. On the other hand, Mike Sweeney is a very dubious defensive proposition, and Russ Gload at first base not too much better. Howard may not be a particularly good defensive first baseman, but he’s probably at least slightly better than those guys.

    And, beyond that, Howard’s generally much-better-than-Utley performance late in the season should at least be taken into account.

    In general, though, the real issue is that we won’t know what we’re going to get out of either of them until they return. It’s not outrageous to think that Howard will be more valuable.

  5. Bill Baer

    August 10, 2010 09:33 PM

    John,

    Fair point about using the difference between Utley and Valdez, Howard and Sweeney.

    As for Utley’s defense, there is no way you can argue that it is sub-par. The various defensive metrics disagree with each other in a lot of ways, but they all agree that Utley plays Brooks Robinson-esque defense at second base.

    Defense isn’t simply corralling baseballs. Utley makes a few more errors because he gets to a lot more batted balls than most other second basemen. A second baseman with no range will not touch a lot of batted balls, so by nature he will have a much easier distribution of batted balls to field and thus he will have a better fielding percentage (which is why using the traditional array of fielding statistics is not a good idea).

    Additionally, errors are doled out at the discretion of the scorer. See the ground ball that Aaron Hill failed to field in the ninth inning of Brandon Morrow’s near no-hitter a few days ago as an example of how this could skew the stats a bit.

    Here are some explanations of UZR, in case you’re not familiar with it. It’s not great in limited samples, as it takes about two and a half years to become reliable.

    www.baseballthinkfactory.org/files/primate_studies/discussion/lichtman_2003-03-14_0/

    www.baseballthinkfactory.org/files/primate_studies/discussion/lichtman_2003-03-21_0/

  6. John K

    August 11, 2010 09:03 AM

    it’s not at all useful to compare utley and howard with second/first baseman from other teams. when talking about which we can least do without it’s only appropriate to compare players to their replacement. while it’s easy to talk about who is better in an absolute sense, the relative side can offset that difference.

  7. John K

    August 11, 2010 09:03 AM

    ooo i can’t edit/delete my post – i see that point has already been raised

  8. John

    August 11, 2010 11:57 AM

    Bill – I don’t think Utley’s defense is subpar, but I think describing it as “immaculate” seems wrong. He probably does get to more balls. But he’s also had some truly awful throwing errors. I agree that traditional fielding stats are problematic, but I’m not particularly convinced that UZR is very useful either. Fielding is mostly just immune to stats, or, at least, very difficult to quantify.

    My basic issue is that I’m not clear on why I should think that Utley would be a vast defensive improvement over Valdez. It just doesn’t seem like it should even be part of the argument over who is more missed. Utley is a good fielder, but so is Valdez. Howard is a subpar fielder, but so are Gload and Sweeney. On the whole, fielding seems like a wash.

    As to offense, yeah, not having to start Wilson Valdez or Greg Dobbs every day is a bigger improvement, probably, than getting Howard back will be; Gload, in particular, has been everything that could be hoped for in a Howard replacement.

  9. Bill Baer

    August 11, 2010 12:04 PM

    UZR at FanGraphs is compiled by Baseball Info Solutions, which has real people log every batted ball. It isn’t just some computer algorithm compiling all these numbers, like Pitch F/X.

    sports.yahoo.com/mlb/blog/big_league_stew/post/Everything-you-always-wanted-to-know-about-UZR?urn=mlb-212311

    UZR is by no means perfect. It ain’t even close. But UZR is in agreement with Every. Other. Defensive. Metric. when it comes to Chase Utley in that he is a super duper elite defender. All of the defensive metrics rarely agree. When they do agree on something, I’m going to side with them 100% of the time over principled skepticism (which I wholeheartedly support the other 99% of the time).

    There’s a plethora of evidence in favor of Utley’s skill as a defender, and not much in support of the opposition.

  10. bill

    August 11, 2010 01:21 PM

    Wasn’t there a chapter in a Bill James book a year or two back detailing why Utley is such a good defender (specifically about positioning, I believe)?

  11. Bill Baer

    August 11, 2010 01:24 PM

    I think you may be referencing this, by John Dewan:

    www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/what-makes-chase-utley-so-good/

    So what makes Utley so good? Simple answer: Positioning. And more specifically, positioning against left-handed batters.

    Now keep in mind that not all left-handed batters are created equal. If you look at Defensive Positioning System in the Fielding Bible, you’ll see that. Utley has to vary his positioning by batter, even against different lefties, to maximize his performance. But, in general, the key appears to be that he is moving closer to first base against lefties than virtually any other second baseman in baseball. BIS Video Scouts, who watch every game and chart nearly everything you can imagine, have said the same thing. Utley has a strong tendency to position himself towards hitters’ pull side.

  12. Richard

    August 11, 2010 01:59 PM

    Thanks for posting these articles, Bill, but especially the last one. People have a hard time understanding that Utley is such a good defender. They see the errors and little else. So you’ll see nonsense about Valdez (a good defensive infielder) being better defensively than Utley. Frustrating.

  13. Phylan

    August 11, 2010 02:54 PM

    The throwing errors that Utley have made have been in high profile situations, John, that’s why they stick in your head. You’re forgetting the accurate spinning throws, awesome glove flips, and lasers that he throws the other 98% of the time.

  14. John Fisher

    August 11, 2010 10:47 PM

    Bill -

    Great nuggets in the ESPN article. My votes:

    1. The Phils will overtake the Braves and be in the playoffs. Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt will start 60% of their games and the way Hamels is throwing, especially his fastball velocity, is great.

    2. “Hitting is contagious” and I expect Ibanez to perform somewhere in the middle, but closer to his recent performance.

    3. Rollins right now is a bad hitter, and the FB numbers validate what you see him doing at the plate.

    4. Bigger return is Utley, considering how much better he is than his replacement(s).

    5. It’s gotta be the ‘pen, especially because the Phils lead the majors in starters’ IP, and their rested bullpen is performing terribly. Doc is a horse, but I’ve never seen Charlie let all of his starters go this deep into games.

  15. phatti

    August 12, 2010 06:58 AM

    @scott g

    check the date on the article.

  16. JB Allen

    August 12, 2010 08:09 AM

    Dewan’s comment about positioning from Utley makes sense. I vaguely recall George Will making the same point way back when about Cal Ripken – Cal made up for being big and slow by knowing hitter tendencies and positioning himself accordingly. Don’t know if that actually worked, but that’s what Ripken was trying for, anyway.

    This makes me wonder: isn’t Derek Jeter notorious for poor range to his left? If that’s the case, would Jeter have worse fielding numbers against lefties or guys whose hits go up the middle? Are there any fielding split statistics?

  17. Bill Baer

    August 12, 2010 09:20 AM

    Are there any fielding split statistics?

    Not that I know of, but it’d be interesting to see BIS’ breakdown.

  18. MoonDog

    August 13, 2010 03:09 PM

    If you look at his career stats, Ibanez has generally been consistent, although the drop off this season would be somewhat unusual while taking his career as a whole into account. The guy is 38-years-old – not exactly a spring chicken any more. Earlier injuries to Rollins and Utley – now Howard – has left him with fewer RBI chances. But he does seem to be off balance at the plate this season. It’s either him or Francisco in LF so the Phils don’t have many options, unless they reacquire Pat Burrell!

Next ArticleManuel, Romero Make Romero Look Bad