GM Amaro Considered Blowing Up 2010 Squad

Not even a full day removed from clinching the NL East for the fourth straight season, Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. joined Sirius XM hosts Jim Memolo and Rob Dibble on the MLB Network Radio channel on Tuesday. I received the transcription from one of the MLB Network representatives. What you are about to read may surprise you.

Host, Jim Memolo: “We talked to you earlier in the year, hard to believe that this team actually got shut out five times in an eight game stretch at some point this year. But since we talked to you last you got Roy Oswalt, Jayson Werth has turned it around hitting-wise, which I think is a major part of what has happened with your team. Has your vision of this team for next year, and what you’re going to do with this team, changed from earlier in the season to now?”

Ruben Amaro Jr.: “Oh, I think it has. We actually had thoughts in the middle of the season, when we were playing right around .500 baseball, of breaking it up. (laughs) There was some concern that maybe guys were getting older, less productive. If you look up and down our lineup, I don’t know if there is any guy, other than maybe Carlos Ruiz, who is having a career year. We talked about this internally and yet we still are creeping up on 95 wins, which is amazing to me. I would have been the first to be able to tell you that I didn’t think we were going to get to 90 wins when we were right around the middle of July. So for us to kind of turn on the way we’ve turned it on, is even surprising to me. What’s great about this is that, one, we really haven’t had the kind of production that we typically would have from even the guys in the middle. Chase Utley hasn’t had his typical year. Ryan Howard hasn’t had his typical year. Jimmy Rollins obviously hasn’t had a great year, he’s had injury issues and such. We’ve got a lot of down production from a lot of guys and hopefully they can turn it on and come up with some offensive production as we get into the postseason.”

While the sentiment of blowing up the team may surprise you, it wasn’t that unreasonable. The Phillies had to go on a ridiculous run to get to where they are now. On July 21, they were 48-46, in third place, and seven games back of the Atlanta Braves. Since then, the Phils have gone 47-18, which is a winning percentage of .723. Using the PythagenPat method with runs scored and runs allowed (312-217), we come up with a .660 winning percenage. That’s still great but it is a difference of nine games between expected W-L and actual W-L, which is enough to jettison themselves out of first place. Going 16-6 (.727)  in one-run games helped.

The big component of the Phillies’ second-half success is pitching. Since July 22, here’s how the Phillies’ starters have fared:

  • Roy Halladay: 96.2 IP, 2.51 ERA, 88 K, 11 BB, .287 BABIP
  • Roy Oswalt (since July 30): 81.2 IP, 1.65 ERA, 72 K, 21 BB, .221 BABIP
  • Cole Hamels: 87.2 IP, 2.36 ERA, 86 K, 19 BB, .279 BABIP
  • Joe Blanton: 80.2 IP, 3.24 ERA, 72 K, 20 BB, .328 BABIP
  • Kyle Kendrick: 67.1 IP, 4.68 ERA, 31 K, 16 BB, .317 BABIP

With the exception of Blanton and Kendrick, Phillie starters — Oswalt in particular — have benefited from below-average BABIP. While the K/BB rates are awesome for everyone not named Kendrick, it is easy to see that the starting rotation has collectively pitched over its head. Were it to play out over a full season, the team’s 3.3 runs allowed average since July 22 would be by far the best in baseball, beating out San Diego’s 3.6 by a long shot.

Attribute their success to whomever or whatever you’d like, but it took a statistically improbable run to get them to where they are now. Not to take anything away from what they have accomplished, but going into the post-season, the Phillies are neither as good as they showed in their final 65 nor as bad as they appeared in mid-July. Getting most of the core healthy was key. Given the late-season injuries teams like the Braves, Twins, and Rangers are dealing with, the Phillies are almost back to 100 percent. That should help offset some of the regression.

“First Pitch,” with Jim Memolo and Rob Dibble, airs weekdays (7-10 am ET) on MLB Network Radio, XM channel 175 and SIRIUS channel 210 for subscribers with the “Best of XM.”

Should Doc Get MVP Consideration?

The National League Cy Young race has come down to two candidates: Roy Halladay and Adam Wainwright. Most people — in both the mainstream and Sabermetric parties — tend to side with Halladay, and for good reason. Heading into yesterday’s start against the Washington Nationals, he led the league in SIERA at 2.95, twelve points ahead of the closest competitor in Josh Johnson. Wainwright sat at 3.13. Including yesterday’s start, the right-hander has 21 wins, a 2.44 ERA, and leads the league in complete games (9), shut-outs (4), innings pitched (250.2), and walk rate (1.1 per nine innings). He trails Tim Lincecum for the league lead in strikeouts, 220 to 219.

More interesting, though, is the debate around Halladay’s MVP candidacy. Although rare, a pitcher winning the award is not unheard of: Dennis Eckersley was the last pitcher to receive the honor, in 1992 with the Oakland Athletics. As a closer, he finished with a 1.91 ERA and 51 saves in 60 innings of work. The last starting pitcher to win the award was Roger Clemens in 1986 with the Boston Red Sox. That year, Clemens went 24-4 with a 2.48 ERA in 254 innings with ten complete games and one shut-out.

Baseball Reference’s version of WAR (which is better than FanGraphs’ version as it pertains to pitchers) puts Halladay right next to Albert Pujols in a tie for the National League lead. He has put together the best season of his career in his first season with a new team, with high expectations in the thick of a heated pennant race.

Why shouldn’t Halladay win the award, or at least draw substantial consideration? It seems that, since pitchers have their own end-of-season award in the Cy Young, the MVP award has become a hitters-only award, although that is never explicitly said anywhere. Most likely, the NL MVP race will come down to five hitters: Joey Votto, Carlos Gonzalez, Albert Pujols, Troy Tulowitzki, and Adrian Gonzalez.

Others will argue that, since other pitchers failed to win the award with better performances (such as Pedro Martinez circa 1997-2003), Halladay should not be rewarded either. And you can certainly understand the sentiment: Halladay’s stats don’t begin to compare with Pedro Martinez in 1999 when he finished with a 2.07 ERA and 23-4 record in the steroid era. His ERA merited a 243 ERA+ whereas Halladay’s 2.44 yields a 167 ERA+. The past, however, should have no impact on the results of this year’s awards. In 2007, Chipper Jones finished sixth in MVP voting despite a league-leading 1.029 OPS. Jimmy Rollins won it that year despite not even being the most valuable player on his own team. If anything, that’s another reason to take the voting away from the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Based on the fact that the MVP award is still pitcher-eligible, Halladay deserves to be a top-tier candidate along with the likes of Votto and Car-Go. Based on past trends, though, don’t expect the BBWAA to consider Doc. The Cy Young will probably go to Halladay, but the MVP award will not.

For Fourth Consecutive Year, Phillies Are Playoff-Bound

Phillies fans — and the players themselves — are quickly becoming spoiled. The Fightins clinched the division for the fourth consecutive year, this time on the road in front of a mostly-Phillies-friendly, rain-drenched crowd in the nation’s capitol.

The celebrations have become more and more subdued. This team, now veteran-laden, has — for the most part — been there and done that.  They know how to quickly uncork the champagne bottles. Ryan Howard brought his own special pair of goggles to protect his eyes in the mayhem. They know to meet up with the media to relate the experience to their legions of fans.

Business as usual for the Phillies. The team, once given odds lower than 30 percent to make the playoffs earlier this season, is now the heavyweight in the National League. Opposing teams will have to run the gauntlet of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt if they want any shot at advancing. Their pitchers must pass through Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Jayson Werth.

Other contenders have blatant flaws. For the Giants and Padres, it’s offense; the Reds, starting pitching; the Braves — well, the Braves have a bunch of issues. The Rays and Yankees have starting pitching issues after their aces (David Price and C.C. Sabathia, respectively). The Twins and Rangers have huge injury issues (namely Justin Morneau and Josh Hamilton, respectively).

The Phillies, for all of the problems they dealt with for much of the regular season, do not have obvious flaws in their armor. Their roster will include two former National League MVP award winners (Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins), a former World Series MVP (Cole Hamels), a former and future Cy Young award winner (Roy Halladay), and a closer who once was perfect for the duration of an entire year (Brad Lidge). Add in the best second baseman in baseball (Chase Utley), the best right fielder in baseball (Jayson Werth, if you label Jose Bautista‘s season a fluke), one of the best relievers in baseball (Ryan Madson) and a host of complimentary parts and you have an extremely potent team stampeding into October baseball.

And that’s why it’s hard to temper the expectations. Anything less than a World Series victory is a disappointment. We heard that line for years from the Steinbrenner administration in New York and scoffed at the arrogance. The Braves had an historic run of success from 1991 through 2005, but only won the World Series once in those 14 seasons (they reached the Fall Classic on five occasions).

In 2007, simply reaching the post-season at all was an accomplishment for the Phils. In 2008, fans felt blessed to see their team in the World Series. Now, as the Phillies try to become the first National League team to reach three consecutive World Series since the 1942-44 St. Louis Cardinals, it’s all or nothing.

We are enjoying the golden age of Phillies baseball. With great teams come great expectations. Still, take the time to step back, take this all in and appreciate it.

Graph of the Intermittent Time Period

I look forward to Mondays, when ESPN updates their power rankings. I and other members of Rob Neyer’s Sweetspot blog network submit a blurb about our teams, which then get posted on the power rankings page. It’s a project I think has worked out very well. Speaking of working out very well — Tom McCarthy transition! — the Phillies are back in first place in the power rankings for the first time since the second week of the season, when they started off 5-1 against the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros (they wound up going to 7-1 before losing again).

Looking at the week-to-week progress (or sometimes lack thereof) of the Phillies throughout the season is pretty mind-boggling. I made a line graph for both the Phillies and the New York Yankees, showing each team’s ranking on a week-by-week basis.

Obviously, as the line goes towards the top of the graph, the worse the team is ranked. Week 10 to about Week 22 were trying. Although the power rankings don’t show it until week 26, the Yankees have had a tough time in September, winning only 11 of 24 games (.458), including only 7 of 20 (.350) since September 5.

Would the Phillies be considered favorites in a World Series rematch with the Yankees?

Time to Worry About Polly?

Going into yesterday’s series finale against the New York Mets, Placido Polanco had a minuscule .553 OPS in his last 168 plate appearances dating back to August 18. As Todd Zolecki reported, he has a problematic bone spur in his elbow that will result in off-season surgery. Most likely, Tim Hudson is to blame as he hit Polanco in the elbow with a pitch back on April 21. Polanco initially stayed in the lineup, getting a day off here and there, but eventually had to spend three weeks on the disabled list starting at the end of June.

When the elbow has been bothering him — in June and in the past two months — his ability to generate power tanked. His ISO in June was a paltry .051, and in August and September just .035 and .062 respectively. He hasn’t hit more than four doubles in a month since May. Clearly, something is wrong and I’m betting it’s the elbow.

It’s easy to say, in hindsight, that Polanco should have been benched but the Phillies were also dealing with the nagging hamstring injury of Jimmy Rollins. As they learned earlier in the season, going without half of your regular infield is a tough business. Wilson Valdez and Brian Bocock are certainly no Rollins and Polanco.

Jimmy is expected to be ready as the Phillies travel to Washington. He had a pinch-hit appearance against the Mets but saw only one pitch and weakly grounded out, but by all indications he should be in the starting lineup. That gives the Phillies an opportunity to rest Polly, hopefully for the remainder of the regular season. Valdez can start in his place.

UPDATE: David Murphy tweets:

Jimmy Rollins said yesterday he’d be playing today, but he is not in the line up.

If Charlie Manuel insists on keeping Polanco in the lineup, he should at least bat him lower. Since August 18, his .219 average and .281 on-base percentage primarily out of the #2 spot in the lineup have not been helpful to the Phillies’ on-again, off-again offense. Manuel said that Rollins won’t lead off when he is reintroduced to regular playing time, so a reasonable new lineup could look like: Victorino-Ruiz-Utley-Howard-Werth-Ibanez-Rollins-Valdez-Pitcher.

Polanco’s .722 OPS — not counting his 1-for-4 performance yesterday — would be the lowest of the entire decade for the veteran infielder. Although the Phillies haven’t officially reached their goal of winning the division and clinching home-field advantage, the odds are heavily in their favor. They can afford to give Polanco a much-needed and well-earned respite for the final week of the regular season.

Jack McCaffery Wears Bad Idea Jeans

Long-time Daily Times columnist Jack McCaffery had a doozy published today. He has a suggestion for the Phillies and it’s wearing Bad Idea Jeans. Let’s jump into it FJM-style, in honor of their reunion on Deadspin yesterday.

The title of his column is “Valdez might make Rollins expendable”. If not for the “might” qualifier, I’d have had McCaffery committed.

One year, Aaron Rowand is winning hearts for displaying his, the next year his Phillies uniform is a throwback. Pat Burrell rode into the ballpark on the front championship-parade float, then was told to leave the joint with everyone else. Cliff Lee won two World Series games, and soon after was traded for three wobbly promises.

One of these things is not like the other. Aaron Rowand and Pat Burrell were two aging, injury-prone outfielders (which are easier to replace than their shortstop counterparts) and Lee was a highly valuable commodity with one year left on a very affordable contract.

McCaffery ultimately brings the trio up to compare them to Jimmy Rollins. But consider that Rowand was replaced by Shane Victorino, Burrell by Raul Ibanez, and Lee by Roy Halladay. The Phillies either broke even or made a significant upgrade, and in the case of Halladay, they were able to sign him to a below-market three-year contract extension. If we assume for argument’s sake that Halladay and Lee pitch at equivalent levels, would you rather have Lee for one more year or Halladay for four?

The question that no one wants to ask: Does it have to be Jayson Werth who leaves, and not Jimmy Rollins?

Yes. Werth’s heir is apparent: Domonic Brown. Jimmy Rollins‘ heir would be Wilson Valdez. The Phillies traded away one of their better shortstop prospects in the Roy Oswalt deal, and otherwise have no one ready to step up and provide Major League-level production. The Phillies also exercised their club option on Rollins for 2011, and Werth is expected to command as much as $100 million on the free agent market (although I think he will eventually have to settle for something in the $70 million range).

It’s becoming a nightly ritual, as predictable as the mascot mounting the dugout roof. Charlie Manuel meets the press a few hours before the game, shrugs, and says he doesn’t know exactly when Rollins again will be his shortstop.

I think this is because they don’t want to place Rollins on the 15-day disabled list, even if they place him there retroactive to September 9.

If Jimmy Rollins wasn’t close to returning, he’d have been placed on the disabled list. While he has been sitting on the bench, the Phillies were fortunate enough to play exceptional baseball, winning their last ten games and increasing their lead in the division to six games over the Atlanta Braves. There is no rush to get him back.

And, yes, Wilson Valdez has been productive recently. That is likely why the Phillies have been extra cautious with Rollins. But in no way, shape, or form do the Phillies think Valdez is an equivalent player to Rollins, and neither should anybody else.

Then, he plugs in Wilson Valdez and sees remarkable major-league defense and enough offensive punch to know that the reserve infielder’s .260-ish batting average is no false dawn.

Wilson Valdez: career .268 wOBA.

Jimmy Rollins: career .337 wOBA.

Even this year, a season during which Rollins has been placed on the disabled list twice and once more missed significant playing time, Rollins is way out-producing Valdez offensively: .319 to .288 in wOBA (.324 is average). With similar plate appearance totals, Rollins has stolen 17 bases in 18 attempts; Valdez has stolen five in five attempts.

Over the last three seasons, Rollins has way out-performed Valdez defensively, ~11 to ~5 in terms of UZR/150. However, Rollins has had the luxury of nearly six times the amount of defensive innings as Valdez. Even considering Rollins’ recent injuries, one would be very generous to even call the two equivalent defenders.

Valdez has been a nice stopgap for the Phillies given all of their injuries. He has made a positive impact on the team, for sure. But to use 342 plate appearances and 421 defensive innings as the basis for replacing the franchise shortstop? That is wearing Bad Idea Jeans.

“You know something?” Manuel said. “I don’t know if he can hit .260 playing every day in the big leagues, but he can definitely help you defensively. He’ll save you some runs. He’s hit .300 in the minor leagues for his career. And there’s not too many of those guys left down there either. He definitely held his own this year. He has about 300 at-bats (314 heading into play Wednesday). And 300 is kind of a ‘chance’ in the major leagues. Domonic Brown has 100 at bats. That’s not a good chance. But 300 is a chance.”

Chris Shelton, 2005 in 388 at-bats: 18 HR, .870 OPS. He didn’t play in the Majors in 2007 or ’10, and in limited opportunities in ’08 and ’09 he struggled mightily. 300 at-bats is not a sufficient sample size. It takes 500 plate appearances for OBP, SLG, OPS, singles rate, and pop-up rate to stabilize, and 550 for ISO. In 300 at-bats, you may get an idea of the player’s plate discipline or propensity for hitting ground and fly balls, but that’s about it.

Valdez might not hit .260 in the bigs, but he can hit .245, which Rollins is hitting this year, or .250, which Rollins hit last year.

What Rollins does, that Valdez does not, is hit for power. He gets on base more as well, but in recent years that hasn’t been his calling card. Rollins also steals bases more often and more efficiently. Although Valdez is 5-for-5 this year, he came into this season with a 4-for-9 track record.

It goes without saying, but batting average is not a metric worth using to evaluate the abilities of baseball players.

And if he can, then why spend close to $9 million on a 32-year-old, injury-battling Rollins next season if that same money could be invested in Werth?

Werth won’t cost $9 million. At the very least, expect the average annual value of Werth’s free agent contract to be at least $15 million. Don’t be surprised if it’s $20 million.

As mentioned above, the Phillies have a replacement for Werth and he happens to cost only $400,000. Rollins + Brown, for $9.4 million, will out-produce Werth + Valdez for $15.5 million.

This is without mentioning that Rollins is a fan and media favorite, unlike Werth. The Phillies risk alienating a part of their fan base, however small, by abandoning Rollins. It’s not good business.

Not that the Phillies can’t afford Werth, Rollins, Shane Victorino, Cliff Lee and the hidden baggage fees for airlines. They can.

If the Phillies’ owners wanted to, they could out-spend the Yankees I’d imagine. But is it smart, and would they make money by doing so? Probably not. As much as we loathe the hidden owners, whom we picture as silhouettes laughing evilly in their dimly-lit offices counting stacks of $100 bills, it is in our best interest for them to continue to make money. Spending an extra $25 million “just because we can” isn’t smart; it’s risky, and oftentimes dumb. How many championships did the Yankees win after relaxing the collective grip on the wallet going into the 2002 season? With a homegrown group, they won four World Series and lost another. From 2002-08, they reached the playoffs in six straight seasons and made the World Series just once and they lost.

Spending money does not always equal success.

And if they allow Werth to leave at season’s end and blame it on the cost of doing Scott Boras business, they should be ridiculed by the close to 4,000,000 people who will have just completed a full season of sellouts.

Even casual readers of this blog — and most of the Philadelphia sports media — know how big a fan of Jayson Werth I am. I have put in a lot of effort trying to educate the fan base so that they can understand and appreciate his skill. But even I can admit that it may not be in the team’s interest to engage in a bidding war for Werth’s services. That is especially true if it comes at the cost of replacing Rollins for Valdez.

There is no reason the Phillies cannot afford to keep their own players, financially or otherwise. They have the cash.

This logic needs to go another step: is spending the cash sensible?

Bill Gates has a ton of money. He has the cash to throw a fistful of $100 bills into a paper shredder. Should he do it?

But if they won’t, and that’s where it is headed, then why not look at what is, not what used to be, and realize that Werth is peaking and Rollins isn’t?

This may very well be the case, but one needs to look at who would be replacing each player. As mentioned above, Rollins + Brown will outproduce Werth + Valdez.

Additionally, if it is so obvious that Rollins is becoming such an unproductive player — one such that Valdez is deemed a reasonable replacement — then what team would take on his $9 million salary? Or would the Phillies eat the $9 million to get prospects?

Why not consider moving Rollins for value — for a back-end-of-the-rotation starting pitcher and the salary relief — and use his money to fund a Werth re-signing?

With a 2011 rotation that includes Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels, why would the Phillies focus on the back of the starting rotation? With Joe Blanton as a #4, the Phillies have a lot of candidates that could take the last spot, including Kyle Kendrick (again), Vance Worley, and others. It would make sense to trade Rollins to fill an obvious pressing need, but not to fill a #5 spot in the starting rotation.

Why not trust Valdez at shortstop, which is what they have done often enough this year to draw the honest conclusion that, yes, he can play regularly for a contender?

Because Rollins is still much more productive than Valdez? With similar PA totals, Rollins has 2.1 WAR compared to Valdez’s 0.5. Only 0.6 of Rollins’ WAR advantage comes from the not-yet-reliable defensive metrics.

Could the Phillies drag Jonathan Sanchez out of San Fran for Rollins, who probably could be nudged to approve a trade to the Bay Area?

Mental exercise: assuming they were not teammates, would you trade Rollins straight up for Joe Blanton?

  • Sanchez: 4.22 career xFIP
  • Blanton: 4.37 career xFIP

At the time, giving up Adrian Cardenas, Josh Outman, and Matt Spencer for Blanton was considered too much.

Additionally, why would the Giants trade Sanchez — one of their best pitchers this season — for an aging, injury-prone, declining shortstop especially considering their home ballpark?

And if so, would they ever lose with a Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt, Sanchez, Joe Blanton rotation? And with that arsenal, wouldn’t a splendid defensive shortstop — Valdez, for instance — be enough?

Again, this isn’t the appropriate question. It should be: would the Phillies win more with Rollins, Brown, and their home-grown #5 starter than with Valdez + Sanchez + Werth?

Rollins has been a special Phillie, the 2007 MVP, a leader-type. But he cannot continue to be top-of-the-order energy drain.

So move him down in the lineup.

Shane Victorino is better suited for the job.

So move him up in the lineup. This is irrelevant to justifying crowning Valdez the heir apparent to Rollins.

Rollins, no longer close to a 30-homer threat, is better toward the middle of the order — but that middle of the order would be flat without Werth.

While “flat” may be exaggeration, I agree that the Phillies become too prone to LOOGY’s in swapping Werth for Brown. But again, this is irrelevant to McCaffery’s main argument.

The Phillies are going to have to long-range budget for another Hamels raise. That will impact the Werth decision.

Not really. If anything, the contract extension awarded to Ryan Howard severely impacted the likelihood of re-signing Werth. $125 million contract extensions can have that effect.

But were they to plop Rollins’ $9 million atop the $7 million they are already spending for their leading right-handed power hitter, the Phillies could satisfy any Boras demand for Werth.

Yes, Werth for $16 million. Sounds reasonable. Oh, Werth wants guaranteed money over a period longer than one year? Zounds!

No, it would not be a popular move. The Burrell, Lee and Rowand moves weren’t popular either.

They also fall under categorically different circumstances.

Winning sure seems to have a certain appeal, though. Check the turnstiles. Monitor the ratings.

In all likelihood, they would win less with this proposal. Even if they broke even, they would be spending a lot more money to do so.

And if it comes down to one or the other, the Phillies would win more in 2011 with Jayson Werth than with Jimmy Rollins.

Luckily it doesn’t come down to one or the other. Rollins has nothing to do with Werth’s chances of staying or going.

Discussion: The Genius of Charlie Manuel

Last December, Chris Jaffe contacted me wondering if I could help him promote his book Evaluating Baseball’s Managers. It was the first time I had seen anybody truly try to quantify the effect a manager has on a ballclub. I had read articles here and there but nothing as substantial as Jaffe’s methodology.

I caused a bit of a stir on the Internets with my recent post that criticized Charlie Manuel’s in-game strategy. I pointed out that Manuel’s use of the bullpen was less than optimal, he used his worst pinch-hitters at inopportune times, and he often fails to realize when his starters are getting gassed. It is true that these examples may be extreme outliers and not representative of the whole. Maybe I’m unfairly cherry-picking these examples.

However, despite that my criticism of Manuel did not sit well with most people, I never heard any legitimate reason why Manuel is a great manager other than ends-mean reasoning such as “the Phillies have had great records and done well in the post-season” and vague generalizations like “he’s great at managing personalities in the clubhouse” (which I have admitted is likely his best attribute). I am truly interested in learning why Manuel is heralded despite what I and many other Sabermetrically-oriented fans deem as sub-optimal managing in terms of tactics. I think I really know why people were offended but I still want to hear some legitimate defenses. Many people reacted as though Manuel’s genius is a blatantly obvious thing, like the grass being green.

In the comments below (or in your own blog entry, or Twitter/Facebook, etc.), make as objective and logical a case for Manuel as you can. Be as specific and scientific as possible. Don’t just say “he’s great with the clubhouse”. Specify how many wins (like WAR) you think that quality adds to the team and which measures you use to justify your claim. What are Manuel’s strengths and weaknesses? Where does he rank among MLB managers, currently and historically? Where would the Phillies be without him?

Unrelated note: Some people have been complaining that their comments are being repeatedly held for moderation. I don’t know for sure, but I think it is due to posting too many comments in too short a period of time, thus causing my spam filter to assume that you are a spam bot. So if you are going to be a frequent participant in the discussion (which I wholeheartedly encourage), my suggestion would be to condense your posts, i.e. respond to everyone you’d like, but do so in one comment. Note that you can use HTML tags if you’d like to quote somebody else and differentiate it from your post as well.

I’ll check back later this afternoon and may potentially use the discussion as a jumping-off point for another article.

Braves-Phillies Series Preview with Peter Hjort

It looked like the Phillies were going to welcome in the Atlanta Braves with just a two-game lead in the NL East, but thanks to some late-game heroics by Jayson Werth, that is not the case. Werth hit a walk-off two-run home run yesterday to keep the Braves at bay by three games, requiring them to sweep out the Phillies if they want to catch up any time soon. Even if they win the series two-to-one, they will still be behind two games. The Phillies, on a seven-game winning streak, have been taking care of business but so too have the Braves, winners of six of their last nine games.

I caught up with fellow ESPN Sweet Spotter Peter Hjort of the Braves-oriented Capitol Avenue Club to get some insight on the Braves. Note that, unlike Chipper Jones, Peter did not cast blame on others for the Braves’ current second place standing. He’s a keeper!

My questions in bold; his responses in normal typeface.

. . .

1. Chipper Jones injured his knee on August 10. How badly have the Braves missed his presence in the lineup?

Very badly. Chipper Jones is the type of hitter you just can’t replace, especially in August. A true-switch hitter who plays a premium position, hits .300, and posts a .400 on base average nearly every year. There’s no question losing Chipper was a huge blow to the offense.

2. The Braves’ outfield has been horrendous offensively. Obviously, it’s a bit too late to fix that now, but is there anything the team plans on changing after the season?

They’re going to have to. I see them sticking with Heyward in right and McLouth in center, while fishing for a left fielder on the trade or free agent market.

3. The mid-season acquisitions didn’t seem to pan out as expected. Alex Gonzalez, Rick Ankiel, and Derrek Lee have put up an OPS of .731 or lower in Braves uniforms. Do you think Frank Wren should have seen this coming?

Yes. Alex Gonzalez has a career .295 on base average. Rick Ankiel swings at everything. Derrek Lee was suffering from a bulging disk in his back at the time of the trade and was having a very poor season. To be fair, Alex Gonzalez and Yunel Escobar have been roughly as valuable since the trade, Rick Ankiel has provided some value even though he’s basically been reduced to a defensive replacement, and Derrek Lee has hit better as of late.

4. On a related note, why did the Braves give up so quickly on Yunel Escobar?

I wouldn’t say they gave up on him quickly at all. He’s been in their system since 2005.

The reason the Braves gave up on him, though, is because he’s an asshole. This isn’t a new development, either, in 2006 he basically ran Jeff Blauser–the then coach of the AA Mississippi Braves–out of the organization. The Braves’ philosophy suggests there’s no place in the organization for a player like that. They’ve tried to correct his behavior problems for 5 years. I guess they realized people don’t change.

5. Let’s say the Braves make the post-season. In the effort to keep the jinxes at bay, I won’t describe how, just that they did. How do you feel the Braves’ starting pitching matches up with the competition? What would the post-season rotation look like in a 5- and 7-game series?

I would’ve been able to give you a better answer two weeks ago, but the starters that have been good all year have sucked as of late, and Derek Lowe has turned in two straight excellent starts, including an 8-inning masterpiece with 0 walks and 12 strikeouts in his most recent one.

I’d probably go Hudson/Hanson/Lowe in a 5-game series and use Jurrjens as the 4th starter if needed.

6. Mike Minor doesn’t have a sparkling ERA, but has some impressive strikeout and walk numbers in his brief time in the Majors. Is he a shoo-in for a rotation spot next year? Do you think his struggles so far have reduced his value?

He’s probably more or less guaranteed a spot in the rotation next year because he costs $400,000. He needs to get better to be an asset, though. I don’t think his struggles have reduced his value any. It’s his first full pro season and he’s probably pretty tired right now. He’s shown some good things, and I think any evaluator will tell you his first stint in the majors has been a lot more encouraging than discouraging.

7. Of the five relievers who have tossed 40 or more innings this year, only one has an ERA above 3.00: Peter Moylan, at 3.14. Do you think the Braves have the best bullpen of any playoff contender, in either league?

No, the Padres have a better bullpen, but the Braves have the second best.

8. The Phillies lined up their rotation for this three-game set while the Braves chose not to. The match-ups are: Jurrjens/Hamels, Minor/Halladay, and Hanson/Oswalt. Do you think the Braves should have tried to get Tim Hudson into the mix?

Not with the way he’s been pitching.

BONUS: Tell us how you see this series playing out.

Jair Jurrjens makes me cry, Melky Cabrera makes me scream, Roy Halladay makes me drink.

. . .

Thanks to Peter for sharing his thoughts on the all-important upcoming series. Make sure you add Capitol Avenue Club to your bookmarks to keep tabs on the opposition as the regular season winds down.

May the best team win. (Hint: it’s the Phillies.)

What I Learned from Today’s Game

Today was a good sports day in Philadelphia with the Eagles winning by a slim margin over the Detroit Lions and the Phillies needing all nine innings to overcome the Washington Nationals thanks to a Jayson Werth walk-off home run. Aside from it being an exciting way to finish out a series sweep before welcoming the division rival Atlanta Braves, it was also a learning experience. Well, maybe not learning so much as reinforcement, but still — here’s what I noticed.

Charlie Manuel’s in-game strategy is awful.

Back on September 15, the Phillies led by a score of 9-4 entering the eighth inning against the Florida Marlins. FanGraphs had the Phillies as 97 percent favorites. At that point, it may be wise to use some of the less-popular relievers like Danys Baez. Who does Manuel call upon? Ryan Madson. Of course, Madson did as he was told and got three outs rather quickly and the Phillies became 99 percent favorites.

Sure, Madson may be fresher than he normally would be at this time of the year given his two-month vacation after he broke his toe, but if you get a chance to rest your best arms, you do it.

Fast forward to today. Seventh inning, Phillies trailing by one run, still with a 31 percent chance to win. Who does Manuel call upon? Danys Baez. And, of course, Baez did what he does best: he gave up a home run, putting the Phillies behind 5-3. When the inning was over, the Phillies were given a 22 percent chance to win.

It got worse. In the eighth inning, Manuel called on J.C. Romero, who has arguably pitched as badly as Baez. After a double, a walk, and a single, the Phillies were down 6-3 and only nine percent to win.

To recap:

  • Ryan Madson, 2.42 SIERA, used with 0.11 leverage index.
  • Danys Baez, 4.78 SIERA, used with 1.02 leverage index.
  • J.C. Romero, 4.82 SIERA, used with 0.53 leverage index (became as high as 1.01 by his own doing).

It wasn’t the first time Manuel unnecessarily used Madson. On August 29, he came in with another 5-0 lead in the ninth inning against the San Diego Padres. On August 22, he pitched the eighth inning against the Nationals with a six-run lead. That’s just going back one month. Overall, he’s come into the game:

  • With tie game: 8 times (16%)
  • With team ahead by one to three runs: 23 times (47%)
  • With team ahead by four runs or more: 10 times (20%)
  • With team trailing by one to three runs: 5 times (10%)
  • With team trailing by four runs or more: 3 times (6%)

So, in 26.5 percent of Madson’s appearances, the team has either been ahead or behind by four or more runs. That is poor leveraging of arguably the most important reliever (and unarguably the best) in the bullpen.

Blanton, by inning
Inning Opp. OPS
1 0.895
2 0.691
3 0.605
4 0.436
5 0.852
6 1.007
7 1.302

Additionally, Manuel chose to use Greg Dobbs as a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning with the Phillies trailing 4-3. They were only 2-to-1 underdogs at the time and the leverage index was 1.16. Dobbs had an awful .260 wOBA going into today’s game. Manuel chose to use him instead of Ross Gload and his .359 wOBA on the season. Manuel eventually did use Gload but it was in the eighth when the Phillies trailed 6-3 and the leverage index was just 0.79. Although Domonic Brown is still nursing an injury, he was available in “emergency” situations. Call me crazy, but I’ll take Brown at 40 percent health over Dobbs at 100 percent any day, especially if all I’m looking for is a home run.

Finally, Charlie Manuel yet again left Joe Blanton in too long. It has been a feature all year long: Blanton tires around the sixth inning. Some examples of Manuel not realizing this:

  • May 3 (first start since being activated from disabled list): Allowed one run through six innings; allowed three in the seventh. To be fair, two of the runners were inherited by Nelson Figueroa and were allowed to score.
  • May 8: Allowed no runs through five innings; allowed three in the sixth.
  • May 15: Allowed two runs through six innings; allowed three in the seventh.
  • May 20: Allowed one run through six innings; allowed six in the seventh.
  • May 26: Allowed one run through five innings; allowed three in the sixth.
  • July 4: Allowed two runs through six innings; allowed three in the seventh.
  • July 16: Allowed one run through five innings; allowed two in the sixth and was brought back out for the seventh.
  • July 21: Allowed one run through six innings; allowed one run in the seventh.
  • July 31: Allowed three runs through five innings; allowed one run in the sixth.
  • August 18: Allowed one run through five innings; allowed one run in the sixth and was brought back out for the seventh.
  • September 2: Allowed four runs through four innings; allowed two runs in the fifth.
  • September 7: Allowed three runs through six innings; allowed one run in the seventh.
  • September 13: Allowed no runs through five innings; allowed one run in the sixth.
  • September 19: Allowed one run through five innings; allowed three runs in the sixth.

Blanton appears to simply not be conditioned to pitch deep into games this year. The oblique injury that caused him to miss the first month of the season likely has a lot to do with that. That this hasn’t occurred to Manuel or anyone else involved with the Phillies after five months of watching Blanton pitch is baffling.

The other thing I learned today:

The batting average with runners in scoring position stat is the new batting average.

It’s the latest craze that statistically-oriented people are going to have to swat down. All season long, fans and media types alike have been pointing out that Werth’s production with runners in scoring position has been lackluster. And it has — his triple-slash line was .172/.339/.281 coming into today’s game.

However, rather than use it as intended — as a descriptive statistic — people have been using it to cast aspersions on Werth, portraying him as an “unclutch” player or saying that he is pressing because of his looming venture into free agency. The problem with that is RISP varies wildly from season-to-season so you can’t make any strong inferences about a player’s ability from it. Last year, Werth’s triple-slash line with RISP was .279/.407/.510.

RISP will end up hovering around a player’s overall production. Derek Jeter, known worldwide as “Captain Clutch” and “Mr. November”, has a career triple-slash line of .314/.384/.453. With RISP, it’s .303/.398/.428. In terms of OPS, that’s a difference of 11 points, a negligible difference.

Even Ryan Howard, widely regarded as a “run producer”, hits exactly the same over his career (.279 AVG, .575 SLG) as he does with RISP.

Those are my thoughts from Sunday’s action. Looking forward to an important three-game series against the Atlanta Braves. Check back tomorrow for a series preview with Peter Hjort of Capitol Avenue Club.

Chipper Jones Whines About Injuries

Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports interviewed Chipper Jones, asking him his thoughts on several topics, including the Braves’ fall from first place in the NL East. Jones took the opportunity to blame it on injuries, failing to realize that the first-place Phillies have had to overcome a multitude of injuries themselves.

Q: But what happens if you fail to make the playoffs? How disappointing will it be fall short in Cox’s final chance?

A: You’ve got to keep it all in perspective. If Medlen and I were healthy and we didn’t make it, that would be extremely disappointing, but it’s hard to overcome losing your No. 3 hitter and third baseman and one of your pitchers in the rotation, replace them with people in your organization and not have a little bit of a dip, not let it affect you.

Either way, it obviously would be disappointing. We’re a good enough team to represent our division and the National League in the playoffs, but you have that check in the back of your mind that says, “What would happen if I didn’t go down? If Medlen didn’t go down?”

It’s been a while since we last looked at how the injuries have been piling up for the Phillies, so let’s take a look.

The timeline (click to view a much larger version):

Player Absent Injury $/Gm $ to Date Injury Cost
Chase Utley 47 R Thumb Sprain $92,593 $13.70 M $4.35 M
Jimmy Rollins 66 R Calf Strain $46,296 $6.85 M $3.06 M
Brad Lidge 42 R Elbow Surgery/
Inflammation
$70,988 $10.51 M $2.98 M
Jamie Moyer 56 L Elbow UCL $40,123 $5.94 M $2.25 M
Ryan Howard 16 L Ankle $117,284 $17.36 M $1.88 M
Ryan Madson 63 R Big Toe Fracture $27,778 $4.11 M $1.75 M
Placido Polanco 19 L Elbow Bruise $30,864 $4.57 M $0.59 M
J.C. Romero 22 L Elbow Surgery $24,691 $3.65 M $0.54 M
Shane Victorino 13 R Abdominal Strain $30,864 $4.57 M $0.40 M
J.A. Happ 88 L Forearm Strain $2,901 $0.43 M $0.26 M
Chad Durbin 18 R Hamstring Strain $13,117 $1.94 M $0.24 M
Carlos Ruiz 20 Concussion $11,728 $1.74 M $0.23 M
Danys Baez 15 Back Spasms $15,432 $2.28 M $0.23 M
Joe Blanton 24 L Oblique Strain $6,173 $0.91 M $0.15 M
Ross Gload 17 Groin $6,173 $0.91 M $0.10 M
Brian Schneider 13 L Achilles Strain $6,173 $0.91 M $0.08 M
Antonio Bastardo 26 L Elbow Ulnar Neuritis $2,500 $0.37 M $0.07 M
Scott Mathieson 12 R Strained Lat Muscle $2,469 $0.37 M $0.03 M
Juan Castro 5 L Hamstring Strain $4,321 $0.64 M $0.02 M
TOTAL 582 $81.77 M $19.20 M

The above data in graph form (click to view a much larger version):

The Phillies have lost about $20 million in injuries, not even counting the non-DL days players took off (like Lidge Sept. 7-13 or Brown Sept. 7-17). Overall, 19 players have landed on the disabled list for a total of 582 days. Ten of the 19 have missed 20 games or more; six have missed at least 40 games. Six players’ injuries have cost the Phillies at least $1.75 million; three have cost the team $3 million or more.

Of the nearly $82 million the Phillies will have paid the 19 injured players, over $19 million has been lost to injury (23.5 percent). They opened the season with a $138 million payroll; the injuries represent about 14 percent of that.

Despite the host of injuries — including the simultaneous absence of the right side of the infield and #3-4 hitters — the Phillies sit in first place, 26 games above .500. They won 31 of 44 (.705) in August and September and finished out the month of July with six straight wins as well. The Braves have gone in the opposite direction.

While it’s certainly true that the Phillies have been playing over their heads and the Braves under theirs, the Braves have only themselves to blame for their struggles. Swapping Yunel Escobar for Alex Gonzalez was a loss in terms of production and expecting the oft-injured Derrek Lee and Rick Ankiel to provide an offensive boost was a fool’s errand. Phillies GM Ruben Amaro has outclassed Braves GM Frank Wren in terms of surrounding the core group of players with productive complimentary players. Having an extra $50 million will do that. But when payroll is that much smaller, player evaluation has to be that much better and for the Braves, it simply hasn’t been there.

Jones is wrong when he blames the Braves’ woes on injuries. If he would look up at the team in first place, he would realize that.