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.

Ryan Madson’s Dominance

Over at the Baseball Analytics blog, I took a look at potential 2012 free agent Ryan Madson. If you frequent Crashburn Alley, you’ve probably heard me make some of the same points before, but the pretty charts should make it worth the read anyway.

Madson will enter the final year of a three-year contract in 2011. Although the Phillies have a lot of money coming off of the books, including Brad Lidge potentially, Madson — represented by super-agent Scott Boras — should garner a lot of attention from the other 29 teams in the Majors. He is a guy with dominant stuff that can close on just about any team.

Chase Utley’s Power Outage

One thing that has been on my mind for a while is Chase Utley‘s power hitting against right-handed pitching before and after his thumb injury. As you may recall, Utley tore a ligament in his thumb that caused him to miss nearly two months of the regular season. Overall, Utley’s season was still productive but still below what we’ve come to expect from him. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it an “average to poor” season, as a Beerleaguer reader dared, but he was certainly not the same guy even after he was taken off of the disabled list.

Utley had a staggeringly amazing .434 wOBA against left-handed pitching this season, but only .337 against right-handers. It is quite odd that a left-handed hitter would have such a drastic platoon split in favor of same-handed pitching, but this is the case with Utley.

Here’s a look at Utley’s isolated power (ISO) against RHP before and after his thumb injury:

Before the injury, Utley essentially had tremendous power in the lower left quadrant of the strike zone, and even a little below. After the injury, if you split the strike zone into nine areas, Utley has lower-left and upper-middle for the most part.

The biggest change has occurred in his ability to handle breaking pitches. Here are the same two images as above, except we are only looking at “soft” stuff now:

The sample size for the top graph is 428 pitches; 257 for the bottom.

My theory is that Utley’s thumb is still a problem, sapping his power. Left-handed pitchers pitch Utley low and outside. Right-handers do as well, but pitch inside on a more frequent basis. Hitting inside pitches puts more pressure on the wrist and thumb given the direction in which the bat makes contact with the ball. Additionally, hitting softer pitches requires good bat control which is related to hand strength and dexterity. A thumb injury such as Utley’s will sap both attributes, which is why he has seen such a precipitous decline in his power hitting.

Data courtesy Baseball Analytics.