Phillies-Reds NLDS Preview: Starting Eight

It took all 162 games of the regular season, but the Phillies finally found their opponent for the National League Division Series: the Cincinnati Reds. They led the NL in offense, but finished last among the four playoff contestants in their runs-allowed average. Their pitching staff isn’t as deep as the Phillies’ but is nonetheless formidable, thanks in part to the third-best defense as rated by UZR. Still, the Reds are going to try to win the series by mashing the baseball. First baseman Joey Votto led the league in wOBA and Scott Rolen had the second-highest wOBA among third basemen.

How do the Reds compare to the Phillies? Let’s dig into the stats.

Catcher

Assuming Carlos Ruiz is healthy (he was hit by a pitch in yesterday afternoon’s regular season finale), he should catch every game of the playoffs. He had an exceptional offensive year, finishing with a near-.400 on-base percentage with decent power (.447 SLG). Ruiz is a very intelligent hitter, very aware of the ins and outs of hitting eighth in the batting order — he is content to take those unintentional-intentional walks. Aside from his great success at the plate in 2010, Ruiz is known for two other items: blocking pitches in the dirt and coming up huge in October (or, as it is more affectionately called in Philadelphia, Choochtober).

In mid-June, I analyzed Ruiz’s ability to prevent and punish his opponents’ running game, concluding that he is about average in that regard. However, Dan Turkenkopf of Beyond the Box Score found that Ruiz is among the best in the game at blocking pitches in the dirt. With pitchers like Jose Contreras (with the tumbling splitter) and Brad Lidge (slider), this is a critical skill necessary for survival late in games. Additionally, Ruiz is anecdotally highly regarded for his ability to call games and handle a pitching staff. Most pitchers who have passed through Philadelphia during Ruiz’s tenure have had nothing but great things to say about him.

The Reds have two catchers, Ramon Hernandez and Ryan Hanigan, that split time about 60/40 (as opposed to the 75/25 split between Ruiz and Brian Schneider). Hernandez and Hanigan are about equal with the bat, but Hanigan possesses much better plate discipline as he walks about five percent more often. Hanigan’s offensive capabilities are similar to Ruiz: high batting average, good on-base skills, occasional power. Hanigan’s platoon split is much wider than Hernandez’s: 182 points of OPS as opposed to 30 in favor of left-handed pitching.

As I don’t follow the Reds as closely as the Phillies, I can’t speak to any anecdotal evidence that Hernandez and Hanigan are comparable to Ruiz in terms of calling a game and handling a pitching staff. Hopefully some Reds fans and bloggers can stop by and provide some analysis there. But overall, I think the catchers are a push — neither side has a clear advantage here.

First Base

It’s the 2006 NL MVP against, possibly, the 2010 NL MVP.

Howard’s 2010 is a disappointment. Although he missed two weeks, his numbers would still be down nonetheless. His ISO declined 60 points from last season, a sign Phillies fans do not want to see. Late in games, opposing managers bring in left-handed relievers to throw him breaking pitches low and away and fastballs up. Howard has given in much more than he had in previous years — his swing rate at pitches outside the zone was six percent higher than his career average and his swing rate at pitches inside the zone was seven percent lower than his career average. Howard isn’t garbage against lefties but there is a definitive blueprint to neutralize him. Pitchers that adhere to that blueprint usually have success.

Joey Votto, meanwhile, appears to have no weakness. He hits left-handers and he hits right-handers. He hits four-seamers, sinkers, cutters, sliders, curves, change-ups, and splitters. He hits at home and he hits on the road. He hits early in games and he hits late in games.

He does appear to have one very minor flaw, though: he hits worse against ground ball pitchers. Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt both induce an above-average amount of ground balls: 51 and 49.5 percent, respectively. Additionally, Ryan Madson can be found at 50.5 percent and J.C. Romero — who should be called upon for this match-up several times — is over 60 percent.

Aside from having a lethal bat, Votto is an adequate fielder, receiving good marks from UZR. Howard, on the other hand, is graded as a sub-par fielder. However, the difference of about 7 UZR/150 between the two over their careers could be negligible given the uncertainty around the data.

The advantage here clearly goes to the Reds.

Second Base

Chase Utley is clearly the best all-around second baseman in baseball. Over the last three years, he leads in both wOBA (.392, 19 points higher than the runner-up Dustin Pedroia) and UZR/150 (14.9, three points higher than runner-up Mark Ellis). In the same period of time, Brandon Phillips has a .333 wOBA and 8.8 UZR/150.

Utley is also a better base-stealer than Phillips. In 508 PA, Utley stole 13 bases in 15 attempts (87 percent). Phillips stole 16 in 28 attempts (57 percent). However, Phillips is better at advancing on the bases on balls put in play as shown by the metrics in the table below.

Base Advancement, via Baseball Prospectus
GAR SBR AAR HAR OAR BRR
Chase Utley -0.3 0.9 0.0 1.1 -0.5 1.2
Brandon Phillips 1.5 -2.2 1.3 1.8 0.4 2.8
  • GAR: Ground Advancement Runs
  • SBR: Stolen Base Runs
  • AAR: Air Advancement Runs
  • HAR: Hit Advancement Runs
  • OAR: Other Advancement Runs
  • BRR: Base Running Runs (e.g. total)

As with first base, there is no debate which team has the advantage here, only this time the Phillies have the upper hand.

Third Base

Ah, finally a position with a closer race. Unfortunately, Placido Polanco is dealing with an elbow that will require surgery once the season is complete. Although he finished the season hitting .316 in the last ten games, he had only hit .235 since August 18. At one point he was a legitimate contender for the NL batting title, but his slump — likely due to his elbow — put the kibosh on that. Overall, he hits around the league average without much power.

Once believed to be the biggest question mark for the Phillies going into 2010, Polanco’s defense has surprised many. Critics, including myself, were unsure if he possessed the arm strength to succeed at the hot corner. He quickly squelched any concern in that area as his 10.6 UZR/150 indicates. (Insert another caveat about UZR’s unreliability within just one season.) He did receive a poor grade in terms of range, which is not surprising.

Scott Rolen, like Polanco, has had to deal with some aches and pains throughout the year. More recently, it’s been an amalgamation of issues but he should be healthy enough to contribute during the post-season. Along with beating Polly’s UZR/150 score (with much better range), Rolen finished with the second-best wOBA (.369) among NL third basemen, more than 40 points higher than Polanco.

Neither are base-running threats although Polanco is a perfect 5-for-5 on the year while Rolen is 1-for-3. The Reds get the advantage here — Rolen is simply better on all counts.

Shortstop

Although Jimmy Rollins spent half the season dealing with two calf strains and a thigh strain, his numbers had been in decline anyway. From 2004-08, his wOBA fell between .341 and .378. The last two years, it’s been .316 and .318 respectively. His power is way down this year — his .133 ISO is his lowest since 2003. He still managed to be efficient on the bases, stealing 17 bases in 18 attempts (94 percent). In 21 games between July 17 and August 20, he stole 12 bases in as many attempts. Since then, he’s attempted only three steals in 25 games. Rollins still received a good grade from UZR on all counts except avoiding errors — in nearly half the innings, he matched his errors total from last year with six.

The Reds have Orlando Cabrera, who is a rich man’s Wilson Valdez. In fact, Valdez put up a slightly better OPS this season and defended just as well. Cabrera is the one weak spot in the Reds’ lineup among the eight position players.

A healthy Rollins gives the Phillies a legitimate advantage here. Rollins at around 75% gives them a slight advantage.

Left Field

Rumors of Raul Ibanez‘s demise may have been greatly exaggerated. Although he finished with his worst offensive showing since 2003, he wasn’t all that far away from his production in recent years. He lost a bit of power but has surged recently, hitting for a 1.051 OPS since September 6. With a platoon split of nearly 100 points of OPS in 2010, Dusty Baker may be more willing to leave Arthur Rhodes in to face Ibanez after dealing with Utley and Howard, meaning that Jayson Werth may get a few extra at-bats against southpaws. Defensively, Ibanez lacks range and has a mediocre arm, which comes as no surprise to Phillies fans.

Jonny Gomes is similar to Ibanez in a lot of ways. He is not as good in terms of plate discipline, but has a similar offensive output from the right side. Like Ibanez, he has a deep platoon split (nearly 140 points of OPS) with a disadvantage against right-handers. With only two left-handed hitters in the starting lineup, the Reds will likely have Rolen and Gomes hitting back-to-back. This becomes a very important part of the batting order for Jose Contreras and Ryan Madson.

Gomes is also terrible in the field, even worse than Ibanez. His career UZR/150 at any outfield position is -18. Slight advantage to the Phillies, more if they pepper left field with batted balls.

Center Field

Shane Victorino and Drew Stubbs is about as close a battle between two players that you can get. They are separated by just one one-thousandth of a point in wOBA with nearly equivalent OBP and SLG. Victorino stole 34 bases in 39 attempts (87 percent) while Stubbs stole 29 in 35 attempts (83 percent). Even defensively, they are very similar.

Push.

Right Field

Jayson Werth, a soon-to-be free agent, has been the Phillies’ most potent offensive weapon throughout the 2010 season. He finished with the sixth-best wOBA in the National League, trailing fifth-place Matt Holliday .398 to .396. Werth has exceptional plate discipline, consistently working deep counts. In each of the past two seasons, he led the NL in pitches per plate appearance with 4.5 in ’09 and 4.3 in ’10.

Throughout the season, though, Werth was dogged by criticism of his failure with runners in scoring position — particularly with two outs. Although he had better production in recent weeks in those situations, he still finished the season with lackluster numbers. Fortunately though, those numbers come in small sample sizes and are not indicative of his skill.

Surprisingly, Werth has a reverse platoon split —  he hit better against right-handers than left-handers in 2010: .932 to .878 in terms of OPS. He’s also a base running threat, stealing 53 bases in 60 attempts (88 percent) since the start of the 2008 season.

Defensively, Werth hasn’t graded as well as he did last year but he still has one of the best outfield arms in baseball. While that may not make up for his odd routes to fly balls, it is definitely a factor that will stick in the mind of the Reds’ coaching staff and the base runners.

On the other side, the Reds have their own offensive threat in right field in Jay Bruce. He is no Werth but his .360 wOBA is certainly respectable. Like Werth, Bruce has a reverse platoon split of about 80 points in OPS. It’s a drastic improvement from 2009 when he had a .180 OPS platoon split favoring right-handers. Defensively, Bruce is regarded highly with an 11.4 UZR/150 in nearly 2,600 career defensive innings in right field.

Slight edge goes to the Phillies in right field.

Summary

  • Catcher: Push
  • First base: Reds
  • Second base: Phillies
  • Third base: Reds
  • Shortstop: Phillies
  • Left field: Phillies
  • Center field: Push
  • Right field: Phillies

Stay tuned for more insight into the series as I’ll discuss the teams’ pitching. On Wednesday, I’ll be swapping Q&A with fellow ESPN SweetSpot blogger Chad Dotson of Red Leg Nation.

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73 comments

  1. Bill Baer

    October 05, 2010 09:32 PM

    Chris,

    I’m sure you’ve noticed the plethora of Sabermetric stats used on this blog. You’re probably not going to win any new hearts and minds by citing AVG/HR/RBI as they are not very descriptive metrics of offensive talent. Also, since they’re raw totals, Utley will be undervalued since he missed a lot of time due to his thumb injury.

    wOBA is much better and Utley demolishes Phillips. In fact, Phillips is barely above league-average while Utley is in the top-ten in the league.

    Gold Glove awards are meaningless as well — just check out the one Rafael Palmeiro won in 1999 as a DH.

    Check out this article:

    crashburnalley.com/2010/06/28/give-utley-his-gold-glove/

  2. Ally

    October 05, 2010 10:06 PM

    Phillips better then Utley this has to be a joke…

  3. Chris

    October 05, 2010 10:19 PM

    No joke, though I appreciate the metrics and such. Not trying to win hearts or even minds, just think that it’s certainly reasonable to call it a push. Quoting the Redlegs article actually supports my claim. They build up BP as his best season offensively and defensively until he got injured late August. They simply list Utley’s basic stats and give position to Phillies. Just not seeing it. Perhaps you’re all thinking of past Utley seasons.

    I agree that raw data can be skewed due to playing time, but the more games for BP combined with 10 less errors is a stat none of you can ignore easily.

    Oh well, let’s get the game on and see the outcome. Good luck all. It’s fun to be baseball watching in October again!

  4. Jason

    October 05, 2010 11:53 PM

    I don’t know if its reasonable, but its not a joke and it’s certainly not crazy to call Phillips equal to Utley. I don’t agree that it is a push, or that Phillips edges, but sabermetrics do not completely revoke the primary stats. Phillips wins defensively IMO, statistically and otherwise. He is less dazzling but extremely versatile with the bat, batting all over the order, with a lot of very unselfish AB’s. That helps the whole team, especially in this developemental phase, with youthful players. 2B is an essential part of the Cincinnati Reds, offensively, defensively, in the dugout, in the clubhouse and everywhere else. He’s not the ideal leader, but we already have ideal leaders this year. Big BIG part of this team.

    Thing is though, Utley is proven in this situation and Phillips is not a question mark. Although we’ve never seen him at this level, his career is pretty consistent. I’m not expecting Brandon to blow his baseball card away in his first post-season, especially “coming off of” his trash talking/hand injury slump. For Phillips to edge at 2B over the Phillies he would have to prove something THIS WEEK. Since the future is not quantifiable or known, and the prospects for Phillips right now are unspectacular, I’d rather have Chase Utley play 2B on my arbitrarily defined baseball team. But I would DEFINITELY rather have Brandon Phillips play 2B for my Cincinnati Reds. It’s hard to build a team in Cincinnati and BP is just what we need, somebody who prefers to play for this particular team.

  5. Scott G

    October 06, 2010 05:29 AM

    Jason,

    “IMO”? That’s you’re argument why Phillips is better? Phillips bats all over the order? Isn’t that the managers decision? Joey Votto doesn’t really move in the order. Joey Votto is a machine offensively. To me, this means that better players don’t really get thrown around. Manuel doesn’t really ever change anything especially with regard to Chase, so no he doesn’t move around.

    Can you try to please bring something concrete to this discussion? We get it, you watch the Reds. Brandon Phillips plays for the Reds. You like him. He’s not THAT great.

    Why would someone prefer to play for the Reds and be nearly anonymous for the last 5 seasons. I knew who he was, but I bet you a great deal of people didn’t know who the hell he was.

  6. Hi

    October 06, 2010 08:05 AM

    Most of the country doesn’t know who Votto is, either. You folks wouldn’t understand, being part of the East Coast machine. Phillips is not better than Utley, but he’s better than everyone else. Defensively, he IS better than Utley.

  7. Mike P

    October 06, 2010 08:40 AM

    “The East Coast Machine.” LOL. I wonder if Reds fans felt that the Phils were part of some sort of vast geographic conspiracy when Danny Tartabull was our big FA signing and the club’s ownership was complaining that the Phils were a “small-market team”?

    The claim that “most of the country doesn’t know Votto” might have been true in early July, but at this point, the initial all-star snub, the premature “Triple Crown race” coverage that ESPN put together in late August (for the record, focusing on 3 non-East Coasters), and the Reds’ playoff run mean that anyone who pays any attention to baseball has been clued into Votto’s excellent season.

    Don’t mistake picking the Phils to dominate the Reds as a sign of East Coast bias, of a lack of knowledge of the Reds’ existence. The Phils get the nod for a myriad of reasons, including the Reds’ awful record against teams over .500, their unimpressive road splits in a series that features 3 of 5 games in Philly, the general weakness of the NL Central, and the overwhelming strength of the Phils’ starting pitching. Utley is treated as a better defender because, if you look at the charts that Bill referenced earlier, using the same methods that any other sabermetric analyst would use, he’s better, statistically, than Phillips. It’s no disrespect, as you can see on the charts that Phillips is still rated as one of the top 3 or 4 defensive 2nd basemen. He’s just not as good as Utley, and for that matter, nobody else is, either.

  8. Dave

    October 06, 2010 10:18 AM

    The Phils ARE better than the Reds and Utley is better than Phillips, but Bill Baer, it’s a total joke to say the gap between Phillips and Utley is larger than Howard and Votto. We’re talking about the 2010 NL MVP in hitting, fielding, and plate patience who isn’t even in his prime yet vs. a solid designated hitter. Votto makes $525,000, Howard makes $19,000,000!!!

    Utley is a great player, and Phillips is pretty far behind. Both bat .275, Phillips has much better range. Utley has had 80 errors since becoming a starter in 2005, Phillips has had 45 in that span. Phillips was also a cheap “scrap-heap” pickup and is 2 years younger. Obviously, though, OBP, power, steals, etc. Utley wins.

    Not to downplay Utley. The gap between him and Phillips IS large, much to the chagrin of Reds fans. But the gap between Howard and Votto is even larger, sorry Phillies fans.

  9. Bill Baer

    October 06, 2010 10:23 AM

    Batting average and errors… again, not going to change any minds here using those stats.

    Utley is far better than Phillips defensively according to UZR over almost any time period.
    Phillips is a league-average hitter. Utley is among the upper ten percent.

    It’s not close. Sorry, guys.

  10. Dave

    October 06, 2010 10:29 AM

    Bill,

    I just said Phillips has a large gap between him and Utley.

    No mention of Howard and Votto? The most ridiculous thing between them statistically is performance vs. salary.

  11. Bill Baer

    October 06, 2010 10:37 AM

    I don’t feel like doing the math to prove this inane point, but if we were to put them in percentiles relative to their positions, it would look something like this:

    Votto: 95th percentile
    Howard: 75th percentile

    Utley: 100th percentile
    Phillips: 50th percentile

  12. Richard

    October 06, 2010 10:44 AM

    Utley is arguably the best defensive infielder in the game, never mind second baseman. Does he make some errors? Yeah, he does. So did Mike Schmidt. Not terribly relevant to the discussion.

  13. Scott G

    October 06, 2010 02:53 PM

    Utley probably has better range than Phillips. You know, these stats being presented here show that. The reason for more errors is because he gets to more balls. You can’t get an error for a ball you didn’t get to (See Bobby Abreu and Derek Jeter). This thread is unreal.

    I am starting a petition for Bill not to link this site to the Braves/Giants site should the Phillies advance. I’m afraid people will say that Jonathan Sanchez is better than Cole Hamels or Jason Heyward is better than Jayson Werth, or other things like that.

    Sorry to be harsh, but at least look stuff up (meaningful stats) before you provoke us. If you comment absurdly, we will respond.

  14. Chris

    October 06, 2010 02:53 PM

    So no minds will be changed by Batting Averages and Errors? Got it. Looks like you’ve completely taken away the very statistics that would not prove your point. Yes, I know there are advanced sabermetrics, but to be honest – no one really cares. Those are actually quite arbitrary as well – with fallible folks deciding a players “range” and such. Look, if you cannot judge a players defense on PERCENTAGE of ERRORS than you are definitely a Phillie homer. To say no one has heard of BP recently, I say…you have to be kidding. You cannot seriously believe that. He’s a gold glove winner (oh right, you don’t like that stat either so you removed it), he’s an all-star this year (oops, not a fan of those picks…let’s remove that). Same BA as Utley (oh ya..i forgot, who cares about how often a guy gets a hit per AB’s). So basically, Utley is just better THIS year because. Well stated Phillie fans.

  15. Dave

    October 06, 2010 02:58 PM

    Re: Bill

    Almost dead on with Votto and Howard, Votto being 2nd to Pujols and then Howard being about 70th percentile behind AGonzalez and Fielder.

    Utley is dead on, but it’d be Uggla, Prado, Kelly Johnson, then Phillips. That’s about 70th percentile for Phillips.

    How would Phillips be 50th percentile especially considering he has a Gold Glove? Phillips was an All-Star this year so I doubt the NL has 8 All-Star caliber 2nd basemen.

  16. Jason

    October 06, 2010 03:05 PM

    Utley is a better player. But Phillips belongs in a Reds uniform. It IS concrete to say he moves around in the order. Whether you agree with his status or not, he IS a franchise player here and it is rare for an AllStar to be asked to move around like that in the order and for him to do it with poise. That’s not abstract. That helps the manager and the team make changes and produce a versatile line up day to day. His defensive advantages are not limited to the error stats. Phillips routinely gets to balls that other 2B do not get to. His range is better than Utley’s. By “wanting to play for this team” I refer to statements he has made throughout his time here. It was his boyhood dream to “play for the team that Barry Larkin played for” (he used to be a SS). That is something he said when he came here and that is something he said again in an interview 2 weeks ago. We don’t have the money build a machine in Cincinnati, and we rely on motives like these as well as developing our own from scratch.

  17. Scott G

    October 06, 2010 03:29 PM

    He’s a franchise player on a team making the playoffs for the first time in a very long time. 15 years? GGs are voted on by fools. They give Derek Jeter GGs, and Bobby Abreu also has one.

    Chris,

    Errors are bad stats because people like Derek Jeter and Bobby Abreu, who do not have good range, will not get to as many balls. As a result, they will not get to hard to reach balls (the ones that professionals will botch the most often). Utley also positions himself better to be able to get to more balls.

    Correlation- the degree to which two or more attributes or measurements on the same group of elements show a tendency to vary together.

    Statistical analysis has been done (by non-Phillies fans) to find the most important “basic” offensive stat relating to runs scored. OBP has the highest positive correlation with runs scored. SLG has second. The results show that OBP and SLG are much more important than AVG. STOP USING AVG.

  18. Richard

    October 06, 2010 03:32 PM

    The point is Phillips’ range is NOT better than Utley’s. No one’s trying to take anything away from Phillips or the Reds by saying that Utley’s the superior defender. But it does not help your case to simply cite errors, on the one hand, and assert better range on the other. You can talk about UZR being sketchy all you want, fine. But all available defensive metrics point to Utley. He gets to more balls than anyone else. How? Positioning. Look it up.

  19. Chris

    October 06, 2010 03:59 PM

    For the record, I appreciate all the feedback and stats. The Phillies boards are SUPERIOR to the Cardinals. Go figure. Aren’t you the city that booed Santa Claus? Anyway, we’re moments away from Game 1. Friendly shake and hope it’s a good game! Good luck!

    Reds 4 Phillies 2

  20. Scott G

    October 06, 2010 05:10 PM

    If by that you meant that the Reds would give up 4 runs (Reds 4) by the Phillies’ half of the 2nd (Phillies 2), then you’re one hell of a prophet.

  21. Scott G

    October 06, 2010 08:23 PM

    I get that the Reds have the 3rd highest team wOBA for the Regular season, but I just don’t see it. I don’t watch them a lot so I’m trying not to be biased. However, besides Votto, Rolen, and the more than occasional outburst by Jay Bruce, I don’t see the Reds having that good of a lineup.

    I’m not trying to start another argument, I’m trying to get an in-depth statistical point of view to tell me why Phillips, Cabrera, Jonny Gomes (brother of Wayne?!), and Drew Stubbs should scare me. I just don’t see it. Honestly, I can’t see how they finished with a very high wOBA when only two (maybe 3?) players had OBPs higher than .335.

  22. Jason

    October 07, 2010 04:52 AM

    Scott G, Reds offensive production this year was a suprise to most people. I have never learned about sabermetrics or wOBA etc. and I can’t give the in-depth stats you want. But as far as the Reds lineup being scary goes, well, it shouldn’t scare you very much. It is managed somewhat stubbornly by Dusty Baker, (for example Johnny Gomes probably shouldn’t even be in it anymore). Just like the team W/L record, the offensive numbers are probably a little inflated by the Reds beating up on struggling teams. The team decisively lacks a leadoff hitter, and at least 4 different players have been in that role this year. The only hitter in the lineup who is really native to his position in the order is Votto (and the pitcher). HR’s might inflate the team wOBA a little, some players who have pretty average AVG’s and OBP’s have had some very timely HR’s. (Cincinnati has a HR park). The team also ranks near the top in scoring with 2 outs. That could scare you a little bit if it was the regular season and you were putting your 5th pitcher out there, or if the Reds were somehow getting to your bullpen, or if somehow your insane fans failed to show up for a postseason game. Stubbs and the catching tandem could scare you a little bit because they perform well at the end of the order. Stubbs had a horrible first half, so you can figure that into his scariness when you look at his almost respectable net numbers. Many many different players have contributed offensively, and everyone but Votto has numbers that reflect brief extremely productive periods .

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