Chase Utley and Accountability

Chase Utley has been the subject of many discussions lately, including two posts here and a Marcus Hayes tangent in an online live chat for the Philadelphia Daily News. Among Hayes’ many criticisms of Utley, he called the second baseman “seldom accountable” and then “condescending and rarely accountable”, adding that he “hides from criticism”.

It wasn’t something that I felt worthy of even a snarky remark, as I felt it was simply an irate journalist trying to sully the good name of an athlete who wasn’t making his job easy. And that was probably the case and it is the case a lot of the time.

However, David Hale wrote a fair assessment of Utley’s accountability to the media and to the fans. I urge you to read it.

What stood out to me:

During my 14 weeks on the beat, I covered about 60 games. I would estimate that Utley made himself available to the media after about five of those games. When he does talk, he says nothing. He is vague and unresponsive to even direct, legitimate questions. He doesn’t necessarily lie, but he certainly glosses over significant parts of the truth at times.

[...]

We asked Charlie throughout the postseason about Utley’s health, and Manuel’s only response was, “He tells me he’s healthy.” Not that Utley would ever say anything different.

And this is where Utley’s lack of accountability with the fans hurts him. He came back from a serious injury to his hand, one that directly impacted his swing, two weeks early. He never quite looked right at the plate after that. But he also would never let on that his hand was still hurting or that he was having trouble recovering and getting his timing and strength back.

While none of the above should surprise you, it should help you understand the writers more when they bring this stuff up.

Still, is it relevant or newsworthy? It was Utley’s quiet demeanor and play-through-everything mindset that endeared him to fans and the writers in the first place. It seems awfully convenient that, following a disappointing showing in the post-season (and a disappointing regular season), that these qualities are now detriments. Why, when the Phillies won it all in 2008, did the writers never complain about Utley not talking? When Utley hit five home runs in last year’s World Series against the New York Yankees, how come no one questioned his accountability then? Even during his injury-riddled 2010 regular season, no one spoke ill of Utley.

But once the Phillies were out of the playoffs, Utley became a huge problem.

People need a scapegoat for losing. The writers went to Ryan Howard first, for having no post-season RBI and for taking that called strike three to end the NLCS, but stopped upon realizing he was one of the better performers in the post-season. Placido Polanco? The expectations aren’t high enough. Shane Victorino? Same thing. Carlos Ruiz? Fan favorite and he was never supposed to be relied on for offense anyway. And he called Roy Halladay‘s no-hitter. Raul Ibanez is old and overpaid and everybody realizes it. Jayson Werth was awesome. Bench guys were irrelevant.

By process of elimination, Utley was made the scapegoat. His lackluster post-season wasn’t enough to send him to the gallows, though, so that’s where all of these extraneous details come into play. Utley becomes the tragic hero so the Phillies’ 2010 eulogy has an interesting hook, and so that writers have intriguing stories to help sell newspapers, increase listener- and viewership, and attract page views. The flaying of Chase Utley has little to do with his individual performance and personality traits, and a lot to do with his team’s overall finish. Had the Phillies won it all, Utley’s muted personality would instead have been described as “quiet leadership” or that he was “leading by example”.

In science, it is considered bad form to make a conclusion, then go back and do research and run tests to bolster that conclusion. It should be considered — and I would argue is — considered bad form in writing to have two different storylines mapped out for the same result.

Shane Victorino’s Platoon Splits

In his five years as an everyday player for the Phillies, Shane Victorino has been an enigma. Despite some questionable plate discipline, he’s been a productive hitter. Despite some circuitous routes to fly balls, he’s played above-average defense in the outfield. Despite a career 45-point platoon split (in wOBA), he’s a switch-hitter. Despite being universally hated by fans of baseball’s other 29 teams, he is well-liked by Phillies fans.

Try and figure out Victorino and you’ll be left scratching your head.

There is, however, one group of people that have figured him out. As mentioned, Victorino has a drastic platoon split. Against right-handed pitching over the course of his career, he hit for a .323 wOBA, which is about average. Against left-handers, his career wOBA jumps to .367. By comparison, Ryan Howard finished the 2010 season with a .367 wOBA while Placido Polanco sat at .323. Against LH, Victorino hits like Howard; against RH, he is as impotent as Polanco.

A graphical look at Victorino’s performance by year:

Using the Baseball Analytics database, I found out why there is such a large gap in performance. The heat maps tell the story.

Against left-handers, Victorino has no problem hitting hard and soft stuff alike.

vs. LHP, hard stuff

vs. LHP, soft stuff

When Victorino faces right-handers, however, his performance drops significantly when facing softer stuff.

vs. RHP, hard stuff

vs. RHP, soft stuff

Victorino’s wOBA against soft stuff drops from the 90th percentile against left-handers to the sixth percentile against right-handers. While a lot of it is likely due to his left-handed hitting simply being weaker, right-handed pitchers also did a better job of keeping the ball low and away — a weak spot for almost all hitters.

vs. LHP, soft pitch frequency

vs. RHP, soft pitch frequency

This trend will not cease in 2011. The amount of fastballs Victorino saw dropped each season since 2007, from 67 percent to 64, 62, and finally 57 percent this past season. It would behoove Charlie Manuel to consider batting Victorino lower in the batting order against right-handed starting pitching, and perhaps bat him lead-off against left-handed starters. Victorino’s 45-point wOBA platoon split is significant, and over the course of nearly 3,000 plate appearances, it is certainly reliable information. This is information opposing teams have used and will continue to use. Barring Victorino magically learning how to hit a right-handed breaking ball, Manuel should adjust accordingly.

Phillies 2011 Job Openings

With nearly $144 million already on the books for the 2011 season, the Phillies’ off-season figures to be boring. 17 players are under contract with two others headed to their first years in arbitration (Kyle Kendrick and Ben Francisco).

A look at the “definites” currently on the 2011 roster:

Starters (8):

C: Carlos Ruiz
1B: Ryan Howard
2B: Chase Utley
3B: Placido Polanco
SS: Jimmy Rollins
LF: Raul Ibanez
CF: Shane Victorino
RF: Domonic Brown

Bench (3):

C: Brian Schneider
1B/OF: Ross Gload
OF: Ben Francisco

Starting Rotation (4):

SP: Roy Halladay
SP: Roy Oswalt
SP: Cole Hamels
SP: Joe Blanton

Bullpen (4):

CL: Brad Lidge
SU: Ryan Madson
RP: Antonio Bastardo
RP: Danys Baez

The Phillies need a bench player capable of playing the middle infield. With Greg Dobbs headed to free agency, the Phillies will also need someone who can handle third base. The fifth spot in the starting rotation is open for competition. Meanwhile, the Phillies figure to have heavy turnover in the bullpen.

Who are the likely candidates to fill the open slots?

Wilson Valdez seems like an obvious candidate to be brought back since he displayed maturity and understanding of his role on the team. It certainly helps his case that the fans grew to like him as well. Of the free agents who could fill the back-up middle infielder role, Willie Bloomquist, Adam Kennedy, and Akinori Iwamura seem like the only ones that would be willing to accept a paltry 150 AB’s. Cristian Guzman is also available but his precipitous decline since 2007 is concerning.

Among free agent third basemen who could accept a bench role with the Phillies, Melvin Mora is an intriguing option. He has been linked to the Phillies in the past in both trade and free agency rumors. His right-handedness is an appealing option since the Phillies are extremely lefty-heavy in the absence of Jayson Werth and Mike Sweeney. Garrett Atkins is a buy-low candidate but his rapidly vanishing offense is a strong deterrent along with his below-average defense at the hot corner. Atkins, though, is another name whose name has floated around in Phillies-related rumors through the years. Overall, though, the market for third baseman is thin with Adrian Beltre being the only impact player out there.

The Phillies are likely to fill their fifth spot in the rotation internally with Kyle Kendrick or Vance Worley. The organization showed depleted patience with Kendrick when he was sent down to Triple-A Lehigh Valley earlier in the season. Begrudgingly, he was quickly recalled in a hectic week that included Andrew Carpenter‘s ineffectiveness and the arrival of Roy Oswalt to Philadelphia. It is possible that the Phillies fill the #5 spot with a cheap free agent, but unlikely.

Likewise, the Phillies are probably going to round out most of the remaining bullpen spots with internal options. The team would like to have two left-handed relievers going into the season, which opens up a big opportunity for Mike Zagurski. However, there will be quite a few left-handed relief options available via free agency. Scott Downs seems to always be linked to the Phillies, but his Type A status is a huge deterrent as it means the Phillies would have to relinquish a draft pick to the Toronto Blue Jays. GM Ruben Amaro will probably sign at least one veteran left-handed arm to a Minor League contract with an invitation to spring training, simply as depth in case Zagurski has a disappointing showing in March.

Elsewhere, Scott Mathieson — who has successfully battled back from two Tommy John surgeries — finally has a legitimate shot at sticking around in the bullpen. Other candidates for bullpen jobs include David Herndon and the loser of the Kendrick/Worley battle in the starting rotation. Among the relievers from the 2010 team heading into free agency, Chad Durbin seems to be the only one with a decent chance of hanging around. However, this figures to be his last opportunity for a substantial contract, one which will not come from the Phillies.

This off-season will take the cake for the most boring in a long time. Do not expect the Phillies to make any big waves whether it’s with a signing or a trade. If placing bets, take the field for Jayson Werth and Cliff Lee. Going into spring training, the Phillies will be taking a long, hard look at their talent at the Double-A and Triple-A levels. As a result, 2011 figures to be a big year for the lower levels of the organization’s Minor League system as well, with plenty of opportunity for advancement.

One More Note on Chase Utley

So, this happened earlier today. It’s a live chat with Marcus Hayes of the Philadelphia Daily News. As I’m not a regular consumer of PDN material, I had forgotten that Hayes existed, but he put himself back on the map — not for the right reasons. Let’s highlight a few of his greatest hits from the chat:

[Comment From PhilliesPhan] Even though it will not happen phillies should consider trading Utley as he is a liability in the field and in the next 2 years he will need a new position such as first base because in the long run he will not be a second baseman. This money could be used as money to sign Werth, and maybe even trade victorino and move Werth to center and Brown to RF. [Hayes] Yes. But Utley has a [limited] no-trade [clause].

I would have gone with “No, Utley is awesome. Why would you trade him?” personally. I would have also dropped the banhammer, but that’s just me.

[Comment From Greg] What do you think about moving Utley to Left field after the ibanez deal is done? I’m worried about his Knoblauch yips. [Hayes] They tried him in the OF. He’s worse there. He’s a good first baseman, and that’s it.

I heard he’s also an elite second baseman.

[Comment From PhilliesPhan] It is funny that over the years Rollins and Howard get crucified in this city but Big Baby Utley gets nothing…… [Hayes] Yes. It is interesting. Except Utley is white. And he likes to curse in public. Imagine if Jimmy had done that?

*cough* Jayson Werth *cough* link

[Comment From Guest] the arrogance of jimmy and howard contribute to people being critical of them. they are the first to accept praise. chase does not look for attention so he does not get a lot of bad attention [Hayes] Chase hides from criticism. He hides from everything. Some leader.
[Comment From Guest] I love when journalists make claims with no proof. Offer any evidence? [Hayes] Are you blind, pal? You have two MVPs in town who get nothing but ripped. Rollins is worth more to this team hitting .250 than Utley hitting .300 with 30 dongs, simply because he can catch. And what have Howard or Rollins done that was remotely as vulgar and offensive as what Utley did after the parade? Evidence? World Bleeping Champions? Come on.

It goes on. For about five more comments or so, but I’d recommend stopping here since you’re probably hemorrhaging brain cells. Although you would miss some pretty entertaining race-baiting. Entertaining theater, for sure!

If you missed it, I wrote a lengthy defense of Utley earlier today. I thought I hit most of the important bases in terms of stats, but when I was farting around Baseball Reference’s Play Index, I came across this jaw-dropper: Since 2000, 13 Phillies have finished a season with five or more Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Chase Utley is responsible for five of them, including four of the top-five seasons.

Rk Player WAR/pos Year Age BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Chase Utley 7.7 2009 30 .282 .397 .508 .905
2 Bobby Abreu 7.1 2003 29 .300 .409 .468 .877
3 Chase Utley 6.6 2008 29 .292 .380 .535 .915
4 Chase Utley 6.6 2007 28 .332 .410 .566 .976
5 Chase Utley 6.2 2005 26 .291 .376 .540 .915
6 Jimmy Rollins 6.1 2007 28 .296 .344 .531 .875
7 Jim Thome 5.9 2003 32 .266 .385 .573 .958
8 Ryan Howard 5.8 2006 26 .313 .425 .659 1.084
9 Scott Rolen 5.8 2001 26 .289 .378 .498 .876
10 Bobby Abreu 5.8 2000 26 .316 .416 .554 .970
11 Chase Utley 5.7 2006 27 .309 .379 .527 .906
12 Jayson Werth 5.2 2010 31 .296 .388 .532 .921
13 Bobby Abreu 5.2 2002 28 .308 .413 .521 .934
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 10/26/2010.

Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard‘s MVP seasons made the list, but both finished ahead of only one of Utley’s seasons (2006).

In my article earlier today, I wrote:

I’m overreacting to one madman, but I’ve seen the way irrational sentiment can sweep through Philadelphia and it is not pretty.

I may have underestimated the power of ignorance in the mainstream media. After all, Christine O’Donnell is a legitimate candidate to hold office.

Utley is really freaking good at baseball. To say otherwise is to deny a basic truth, like saying that grass is not green and that the sky is not blue.

Chase Utley: Public Enemy Number One

For a long time, Chase Utley has been beloved in Philadelphia. Although he’s not much of a talker, he’s had quite a few iconic moments as a Phillie for what he’s said and done, baseball talent aside. Remember the 2008 All-Star Game where he was booed by New York fans? Or his great speech in Citizens Bank Park during the team’s victory parade? Utley may have been Harry Kalas’ favorite player this side of Michael Jack Schmidt, once exclaimingChase Utley, you are the man!” when he scored on an infield single. How about Utley’s historically great defensive play to nail Jason Bartlett at home plate in Game 5 of the ’08 World Series? Or his flipping the ball back with understated attitude, causing the benches to clear, after Jonathan Sanchez hit him with a pitch in Game Six of the NLCS?

Let Mac from the TV show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia sum up the love for Utley:

Unfortunately, the Phillies lost the NLCS to the Giants in six games, thanks in part to Utley’s .182/.333/.227 triple-slash line and multiple defensive miscues. Combine that with a career-low offensive output in the regular season which included a thumb injury that caused him to spend 49 days on the disabled list, the love for Utley is starting to dissipate.

The recency effect and Utley’s understated personality are causing people to forget about his elite production both offensively and defensively. Earlier this year, I made the case that Utley is, by far, the best defensive second baseman in baseball. Even factoring in his poor defensive showing in the post-season, I stand by that.

The various Sabermetric defensive stats tend to disagree with each other much more frequently than their offensive counterparts, but the one thing they do agree on is that Utley is an elite defender. Over the last three seasons, no one has a higher UZR/150 than Utley. He is second to Mark Ellis in Revised Zone Rating (RZR) .862 to .842, has made the most Out Of Zone plays (OOZ) with 137, and racked up the most Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), nearly doubling the second-highest total of Ellis, 60 to 33.

Offensively, over the past three seasons, Utley has the highest wOBA at .391, 18 points ahead of runner-up Dustin Pedroia. He has the third-highest speed score at 6.0, trailing Ian Kinsler and Brian Roberts.

Despite Utley’s place atop baseball as the best second baseman and arguably the second-most valuable player at any position, he is being bandied about in trade rumors. His down year in 2010 is being used as evidence of decline, the small sample of at-bats and defensive opportunities in the post-season as reason for the Phillies to shake things up, change the culture, and get back to the organization’s winning ways.

Leading the charge is radio host Mike Missanelli of 97.5 The Fanatic. You may remember Missanelli from his shouting match with Keith Law when the two were debating the merits of the large Ryan Howard contract extension. While I’m confident that he was trying to drive up the station’s listenership based on his previous actions and his reputation, his words do have a ripple effect in the baseball community. Some people actually view him as an authority in baseball analysis and will take his thoughts seriously.

I want to stifle the “trade Utley” crowd before it ever becomes a crowd. I’m overreacting to one madman, but I’ve seen the way irrational sentiment can sweep through Philadelphia and it is not pretty. It is ludicrous to consider trading Utley for a multitude of reasons, just as it was ludicrous to hand Howard a $125 million contract extension. As mentioned above, Utley is a rare breed of player, arguably the second-most valuable player in baseball. If Utley’s gone, who replaces him? Do you move Placido Polanco to second and sign a free agent third baseman like Adrian Beltre?

The Phillies have Utley under contract for three more years at $15 million apiece, decidedly below market value. Polanco will be in town for two more seasons and possibly a third if the Phillies are content with his level of production at the time. How much would it take to sign Beltre? Multiple years, and considering the type of season he had with the Boston Red Sox in 2010, the Phillies should probably expect to shell out upwards of $30 million. And that’s assuming that the Phillies can sign Beltre — they’ll have competition for the third baseman’s services, of course.

Additionally, the Phillies would be buying high on Beltre and selling low on Utley, two things that should be avoided in any walk of life. It would make more sense to trade Utley after, say, his 2008 season when he had a .915 OPS and had won a World Series. While Utley’s actual value may not have been drastically different, the perception of his value would have been. How much value would the Phillies be able to get out of Utley following a career-worst offensive season in which he was injured and ineffective in the post-season? And from whom could they get that value? While any team should jump at the chance to acquire Utley, the remaining $45 million on his contract is a burden on some teams, thus reducing his trade value even further. Other teams already have second basemen, and other teams consider themselves too out-of-the-picture to jump in the conversation.

Are the Phillies going to trade Utley? No. Absolutely not. But this wasn’t a response to the possibility of the trade, but to the environment that allows these ridiculous rumors to propagate. Philadelphia has run some athletes out of town and scared off potential free agent signings (Yankees fans may prevent a Cliff Lee signing, by the way). During the depression circa 1995-2002, that was somewhat understandable. On the heels of four consecutive NL East titles and one world championship, there is no need to be so irrational and reactionary.

The Phillies, and Chase, are fine.

The Resurgence of Pat Burrell

At the Baseball Analytics blog, I looked at the resurgence of former Phillie Pat Burrell. The results may surprise you.

It appears to be that, in 2009, he was simply unable to hit soft pitches. As a Phillie, he had always been known for his ability to turn on an inside fastball. On the other hand, he was known for a “butt jut” on inside breaking balls. When he read the spin of an inside breaking ball, his feet would remain planted, but he would arch his back so that he almost looked like a backwards C at home plate.

In 2010, he regained his ability — or timing, most likely — to hit the soft stuff.

Pretty heat maps follow.

David Beats Goliath, Phillies Out of Playoffs

The called strike three to Ryan Howard that clinched the National League Championship Series for the Giants was, among other things, emblematic of the Phillies’ offensive ineptitude throughout the NLCS. Despite banging out eight hits and drawing five walks, the Phillies were only able to push across two runs against Jonathan Sanchez and the Giants’ bullpen. Once again, they were disappointing when runners were in scoring position, notching hits in two of a whopping eleven opportunities. Overall, they were 8-for-45 in the series — a measly .178 average with RISP.

The Phillies also played poorly defensively, continuing a surprising trend in the 2010 playoffs. Shane Victorino misplayed a fly ball in center field, Chase Utley misplayed another grounder, and Placido Polanco made a throwing error. Defensive failures helped the Giants score two runs in the third inning, marring what was an otherwise impressive outing by Roy Oswalt. Chase Utley, baseball’s best defensive second baseman, was the biggest goat of the goat defenders in the NLCS — a shocking revelation to say the least.

In the end, the Phillies came two playoff wins away from becoming immortalized in baseball history, perhaps as a dynasty. They would have been the first National League team since the 1942-44 St. Louis Cardinals to reach three consecutive World Series. Though that was not realized, what the Phillies have accomplished is impressive nonetheless.

Consider that, when the Phillies clinched the division on the last day of the regular season in 2007, we Phillies fans were simply thrilled that a 13-year playoff drought had ended. The Colorado Rockies promptly swept the Phillies out of the NLDS. And that was all right.

Now, on the heels of a championship in 2008 and a near-repeat in ’09, the Phillies’ exit from the NLCS in Game Six is considered premature. The disappointment from Phillies fans in the restaurant I was in at the time of Howard’s called strike three was palpable. Sports talk radio callers — and the hosts — blasted Howard and his sizable contract awarded to him earlier in the season, wondering how someone with zero NLCS RBI could be worth such a large sum of money. Utley was denigrated for, apparently, typically shoddy defense. Charlie Manuel’s decision-making, for the first time since the Phillies have enjoyed playoff berths, was second-guessed.

Amid the disappointment, it is important to step back and appreciate what we have witnessed out of the Phillies. Yes, the dismissal from the 2010 playoff stings, but the team gave us a lot to be proud of in this season alone. For instance, coming back from a plethora of injuries and seven games out of first place in the division, was an incredible feat. There was also:

Roy Halladay‘s perfect game against the Florida Marlins, and his no-hitter in the NLDS against the Cincinnati Reds.

Roy Oswalt playing left field — and recording a put out — in the 14th inning was great theater.

Jayson Werth put up one of the best offensive seasons by any Phillies outfielder ever.

Carlos Ruiz‘s emergence as a legit offensive threat.

Cole Hamels‘ bounce-back season after a disappointing 2009. Brad Lidge, too.

Ryan Madson‘s continued dominance as the set-up guy for Lidge.

Ruben Amaro’s ability to fill in around the edges, with Wilson Valdez, Mike Sweeney, and Ross Gload playing big roles outside of being reliable bench players.

Remember, three years ago, that Kyle Kendrick started Game Two of the NLDS and Jamie Moyer started Game Three. The Phillies have come a long way. They should not be ashamed of what they didn’t accomplish this season.

While the Phillies will likely part ways with Jayson Werth, the core group is still intact and primed for another deep post-season run with a trio of ace starting pitchers and a solid but aging offense.

In closing, if I can ask one thing of the Phillies fan base in the aftermath of the NLCS — don’t harp on players for what they didn’t do in the post-season. There aren’t enough innings and plate appearances from which to draw conclusions confidently. That Ryan Howard didn’t have an RBI isn’t indicative of decline, or mental shortcomings, or what have you. If you replay Howard’s 22 at-bats again in the same situations, he will likely come away with at least one RBI. Likewise, Utley’s defensive miscues are not representative of his true ability as a second baseman; they were just a few ugly plays in a very small sample of opportunities.

Rolls of the die can be cruel. The Phillies happened to roll snake eyes  several times in the NLCS. Them’s the breaks. The Phillies have been on the other end as well. Just ask the Los Angeles Dodgers about Matt Stairs, or the Tampa Bay Rays about Joe Blanton and Geoff Jenkins.

Ask Brock Lesnar about Cain Velasquez.

No Easy Answer to Jayson Werth

At the Baseball Analytics blog, I look at just how much of a challenge Jayson Werth is to opposing pitchers and managers.

He hits hard stuff (93rd percentile in wOBA, 2010) and soft stuff (95th percentile) alike. He even hits well with two strikes (97th). If there is an easy way to handle Jayson Werth, it’s not obvious. Among the 14 pitchers he has faced 20 or more times, only Tim Redding, Jair Jurrjens, Javier Vazquez, and Chris Volstad have had impressive results. Aside from mediocrity, there is nothing the four pitchers have in common.

When Werth hits free agency after the post-season, teams will be bidding for the services of what appears to be an as-yet unsolved riddle — a very productive, multi-talented unsolved riddle.

NLCS Headed Back to Philly

Looking down the barrel of a loaded gun, the Phillies staved off elimination for at least one more day with a 4-2 victory over the San Francisco Giants in Game Five of the NLCS. The Phillies capitalized on some poor umpiring and some poor Giants defense, scoring three runs in the second. Roy Halladay, running on fumes, held the Giants to two runs through six innings of work while the Phillies’ bullpen was dominant.

Starting what appeared to be “one of those days”, the Giants jumped out to an early lead in the first inning thanks to some uncharacteristically poor control from Halladay and and yet another fielding error by Chase Utley. With runners on first and third and one out, Buster Posey hit what appeared to be a tailor-made double play, but Utley was too anxious to complete the play and booted the ball, only recording the out at second. Already leaving much to be desired at the plate, Utley has not looked like the deserving Gold Glover that  he is.

Tim Lincecum was dominant until he hit the third inning. Raul Ibanez blooped a hit to right-center, and Carlos Ruiz put runners on first and second after being hit in the right forearm by a Lincecum change-up. Halladay attempted to sacrifice bunt the runners to second and third, and successfully did so on a very controversial play. The ball hit home plate and bounced back towards the catcher, in foul territory. The umpires, however, ruled it fair. Posey threw to third but Ibanez slid in safely just ahead of the throw. Halladay did not run to first in the confusion of the event, and was easily retired for the first out.

The craziness did not stop there. Shane Victorino hit a sharp grounder to first base that ricocheted off of Aubrey Huff‘s knee, caroming into center field, allowing both Ibanez and Ruiz to score. Placido Polanco followed up with a crisp single to left field, scoring Victorino. Just like that, the Phillies were up 3-1.

Given the poor umpiring, the rabbits’ foot that seemed to be in sole possession of the Giants, and the general malaise of the Phillies, two runs seemed hardly enough of a cushion. Halladay was clearly gassed as his fastball topped 90 MPH only once after his 70th pitch. Aside from two doubles by Pat Burrell and Cody Ross that brought the Giants to within 3-2, Halladay pitched just well enough to escape relatively unharmed. As I noted on Twitter, he seemed to be struggling with his release point. Why? He was dealing with a pulled groin, as Matt Gelb reported on Twitter. That’ll do it.

After Halladay left, the quartet of Jose Contreras, J.C. Romero, Ryan Madson, and Brad Lidge combined for four shut-out innings. Collectively, they struck out five — Madson struck out the side in the eighth — and allowed only one base runner on a hit off of Contreras. Before Lidge was put into the game, though, Jayson Werth tacked on an insurance run, smoking a home run down the right field line, over the 24-foot high wall. As FOX broadcasters Tim McCarver and Mitch Williams  noted, the insurance run made Lidge feel a lot better coming into the inning. Of course, Lidge’s slider looked as sharp as ever in his quick dismissal of the Giants’ 7-8-9 hitters.

It wasn’t a pretty win by any means. The Phillies continue to look lackluster defensively, and they had just one hit with runners in scoring position again. But the Phillies — and their fans — have to feel much, much better about their chance to advance to the World Series with two more games to win with Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels toeing the slab in Games Six and Seven respectively.

Rolls of the Die

I’ve been reading a lot of reactions and analysis of Game Four of the NLCS. The Phillies, of course, lost on a sacrifice fly by Juan Uribe in the bottom of the ninth — a crushing blow to the team’s chances of advancing to the World Series. Many are second-guessing Charlie Manuel, wondering why he chose to go with Joe Blanton rather than Roy Halladay on short rest. Others are blaming Chad Durbin, or third base coach Sam Perlozzo for sending Carlos Ruiz on a suicide mission to home plate following a Shane Victorino single to center.

Me? I’m with Rob Neyer — I don’t think you can focus on any one particular aspect explaining why the Phillies lost. Would the Phillies have been better off if Durbin didn’t walk two and give up two runs? Sure. But relievers give up runs. Would it have been better to hold Ruiz at third with one out? Absolutely. Should Victorino have taken second on Aaron Rowand‘s throw that nailed Ruiz? Definitely.

That analysis relies on hindsight, which we all know gives us 20/20 vision. Chaos theory and all that, we don’t know that if Ruiz is held at third base, that Polanco drives in Victorino and Chase Utley on a double to left-center. Maybe if Antonio Bastardo was brought in instead of Durbin, he ends up giving up three or four runs. You just don’t know, since the playoffs are such small samples of data, prone to the whims of any roll of the die.

Last night’s loss was frustrating. The Giants seem to have a 1.000 BABIP and Cody Ross has a .747 ISO. But there were some good things that happened last night. Every regular got a hit. The injured and struggling Polanco was 2-for-3 with that key two-run double. Ryan Howard smoked a double to left-center off of a left-handed reliever (Javier Lopez) that was owning him every night prior. The team hit .333 with runners in scoring position. They knocked the Giants’ well-respected #4 starter out of the game before he could complete five innings. They handled the Giants’ relievers — outside of Brian Wilson — very well.

As @PhillyFriar said on Twitter:

“Small sample size variance” seems like a shitty consolation at a time like this, but damn if it ain’t the truth.

A couple of bounces the other way… ahh well. We’ll just have to count on the best pitcher in baseball to get the series back to Philly.

Jayson Stark tweeted:

72 teams before this year trailed 3 games to 1 in best-of-7 postseason series. Only 11 came back to win the series.

15.3% seems like a thin number compared to the percentages thrown out before the start of the NLCS, when the Phillies were up into the 60′s. The playoffs are a crapshoot. 60 percenters can turn into 15 percenters in the blink of an eye, and that’s exactly what happened to the Phillies.

The Giants haven’t played much better than the Phillies. Heres’ a quick comparison of the teams so far:

Offense

  • OBP: Phillies .317; Giants .287
  • SLG: Giants .338; Phillies .328
  • RBI: Giants 14; Phillies 13
  • SB: Phillies 4-for-5; Giants 1-for-2

Pitching

  • ERA: Giants 3.34; Phillies 3.63
  • K/9: Giants 10.3; Phillies 9.4
  • BB/9: Phillies 2.6; Giants 3.6
  • K/BB ratio: Phillies 3.6; Giants 2.9

The teams are pretty even statistically, but small sample variance is the reason why the Phillies are down 3-1 instead of tied 2-2 or up 3-1.