Could the Phillies Falter in 2011?

It’s nearly January. Most of the excitement of baseball’s off-season has passed and fans are counting down to pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training in mid-February. For journalists and bloggers, there isn’t much to write about — there are only so many ways you can say, “Cliff Lee is pretty good,” after all.

In an effort to fill some space, some decide to play devil’s advocate. Maybe Albert Pujols won’t be so awesome in 2011, you know? Or, as Lincoln Mitchell theorizes, maybe the Phillies won’t be the class of the National League. Based on the way he wrote and argued his points, it doesn’t seem like Mitchell actually believes this; he simply wrote the article to fill some space as we all do at times. Mitchell’s arguments have been made plenty of times by others already, though, so I’d like to take this opportunity to simply squelch some of those oft-used claims.

His words in bold; my thoughts follow in normal typeface. If you are unfamiliar with the acronyms of the statistics that will be mentioned, click the “stats” link at the top of the page.

In the rush to celebrate how good the Phillie rotation now is, it is often overlooked that  Halladay and Oswalt all had better years in 2010 than any time between 2007 and 2009 and that Hamels had a far better year in 2010 than in 2009.

As was written about extensively here and elsewhere, both of Hamels’ prior two seasons were fluky based on BABIP. In 2008, his .270 BABIP helped lower his ERA to 3.09 which stood in contrast to his 3.52 SIERA. In ’09, his .325 BABIP flung his ERA in the opposite direction to 4.32, far away from his 3.55 SIERA.

You may notice that his ’08 and ’09 SIERA are nearly identical. That is because his performance in ’08 and ’09 was nearly identical.

In 2010, Hamels changed for the better. His K/9 rose from 7.8 to 9.1 and he induced five percent more ground balls. His BABIP normalized to .296, which is very close to the average around which most pitchers’ BABIP lies. Hamels’ ERA finished at a career-low 3.06. Unlike in previous years, SIERA mostly agreed, placing him at 3.19, good for 11th-best in the Majors.

As for Halladay, he was a bit fortunate in terms of stranding runners, but that is about it. His 2.93 SIERA was about a half run higher than his actual 2.44 ERA, good for first in the Majors. Halladay finished 2010 with the highest K/BB ratio of his career at 7.3. Among seasons in which he made at least 20 starts, he set a career-best in K/9 (7.9) and tied a career-best in BB/9 (1.1). His BABIP (.298) and HR/FB (11.3 percent) were normal.

Yes, Halladay probably strands fewer than 83 percent in 2011. That is pretty much the only noticeable regression to the mean that we should expect from him.

Oswalt, on the other hand, did have a bit of a lucky 2010 season. His 2.76 ERA was separated from his 3.33 SIERA because of a .261 BABIP and a 78 percent strand rate. Over his career (spanning over 2,000 innings), however, he has shown some legitimate ability to strand runners as his career average lies at 76 percent. Halladay, by comparison, has a 73 percent strand rate — much closer to the league average which tends to reside in the 70-72 percent range.

Oswalt has also dealt with chronic back issues which, at the age of 33, aren’t going to magically go away. He has made 30-plus starts in every season going back to 2004, though, which is a good sign. He didn’t miss any time in 2010 due to his back problems, so until it becomes a legitimate issue, there is no cause to simply dock him “points” just because it’s bothered him before and because he’s in his mid-30’s. Let’s not forget that Oswalt’s SIERA ranked 14th in the Majors, slightly behind Hamels in eleventh place.

Mitchell argues that those three pitchers are not flawless, which is true, but it is also true that the Phillies — with Lee — have one-fourth of the best pitchers in baseball. Not even mean-regression can make that seem like a bad thing going into the 2011 season.

While these three pitchers are among the best in baseball, it is likely that collectively they will not be as good in 2011 as they were in 2010, particularly because Lee, Oswalt and Halladay will soon enter the decline phase of their careers.

Just because a player is in his 30’s doesn’t mean he will automatically decline. You have to actually see reason for decline first.

“Yeah, Oswalt is really good… but how old is he?”

“33.”

“Oh, he’s totally going to have a bad season, then.”

It doesn’t work that way. Greg Maddux was 35 in 2001. He finished with a 3.05 ERA. Using the statistics that we know directly correlate to pitcher success — strikeout and walk rates, and batted ball splits (which aren’t available prior to 2002) — we had no reason to think that Maddux, at age 30 to 34, would start to decline. However, Maddux did start to decline starting in ’03 and roughly 32 percent of it can be explained by a decline in strikeout rate (for illustrative purposes):

In 2010, all three of Hamels, Halladay, and Oswalt set or came close to setting career-highs in K/9. There were slight rises in BB/9 for Hamels and Oswalt, but nothing large enough to cause concern.

I’m not arguing that age is irrelevant, but a pitcher moving from 32 to 33 years old isn’t a good enough reason — especially by itself — to expect poor performance, particularly from elite pitchers such as the aforementioned.

[Jayson] Werth will be badly missed in Philadelphia as the Phillies offense without him, while still strong, will be considerably weaker.

There is no question that losing Werth — a 5-win player on average — is a big blow to the offense. But consider that the Phillies lost a lot of players to injury. In terms of days missed, per BaseballInjuryTool.com:

In particular, Utley missed considerable time but was also not the same upon return, either. The injury bug hit the Phillies pretty hard last year and yet they still finished second in the National League in average runs scored per game at 4.77. Imagine what the offense would have looked like with everyone healthy, if Wilson Valdez didn’t accrue 363 plate appearances, and if Greg Dobbs and Juan Castro never existed.

It’s fair to say that the Phillies can make up a good portion of Werth’s lost production simply with everyone being healthy. Even if they do decline offensively, are they going to fall to the bottom of the pack with the Pittsburgh Pirates? At the very least, they will be average offensively, scoring between 4.3 and 4.4 runs per game. A full season of Oswalt (as compared to a half-season in 2010) and a full season of Lee can offset that.

The Phillies are an old team whose entire starting lineup, other than Dominic Brown, will be 30 or over in 2011.

Yeah, yeah, the Phillies are old. That’s an issue for 2013 perhaps, but not necessarily 2011.

The offensive core of Carlos Ruiz, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard is good, but it is not clearly better than the Giants core of Buster Posey, Aubrey Huff and Pat Burrell.

I wouldn’t exactly call Ruiz part of an offensive core. And what intrinsic purpose does a “core” serve anyway, other than as a rhetorical device?

Regardless, Utley finished 2010 with a .373 wOBA — a career-worst. Posey finished at .368. Howard was at .367 despite injury and facing a ton of off-speed stuff from left-handed pitchers — his Kryptonite. Huff put up a .388 wOBA, nearly 40 points higher than his career average, in what was a career year. Burrell was at .351.

Humoring the use of an “offensive core”, it’s still quite generous to compare the Giants’ core to the Phillies’.

Overall, the Phillies’ regular lineup is considerably better than the Giants’ at present.

Why are we comparing the Phillies to the Giants, though?

The supporting offensive players like Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco and Shane Victorino are all useful players, but unlikely to be impact players in 2011.

What is the definition of an “impact player”? And why does a team need to have five or six of them to have a good offense? This is just another rhetorical device — I wish people would stop using them!

Still, I would argue that Rollins and Victorino are “impact players” on defense and on the bases. They’re around average offensively — and average isn’t valueless, mind you — but they don’t need to have a bat in their hands to do damage. Even if Rollins’ past two seasons are indicative of future offensive production, he still remains one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball and still runs the bases well (2.7 EQBRR). Victorino is slightly above-average defensively and runs the bases extremely well (5.8 EQBRR).

And, as mentioned above, both Rollins and Polanco missed considerable time due to injury. Polanco in particular played much of the season hurt thanks to Tim Hudson.

There are reasons to expect the Phillies to have some struggles in 2012 and beyond. They may not be able to retain Cole Hamels or Jimmy Rollins; Domonic Brown may not pan out; any of their top four starting pitchers could suffer a tragic injury; Player X’s production could fall off a cliff; et cetera.

But 2011? There are few rational reasons to expect the Phillies to struggle based on presently-available information. Sure, there could be injuries and down years. Those happen, but one cannot expect them unless the information points in that direction. I could win the lottery, but it doesn’t mean I should spend every last penny in anticipation of my winning numbers getting called.