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.

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41 comments

  1. Kyle

    December 27, 2010 12:25 PM

    I like how Ruiz is part of the core but Rollins, Vic, and Polanco are only supporting players.

  2. sean

    December 27, 2010 12:33 PM

    i like how posey, huff, and burrell(who they claimed mid year) are the core for the giants. and again why are we comparing the phillies to the giants. might as well have had cody ross as a core player

  3. Greenman!

    December 27, 2010 12:56 PM

    only 162-0 if we get rid of coal hammels

  4. Scott G

    December 27, 2010 01:03 PM

    Since I’m the grammar police lately, I must point something else out that bothers me A LOT. Mr. Mitchell says, “Phillie rotation”. Maybe he is just saying it because he thinks it’s easier, but it most definitely should be Phillies rotation.

    TV announcers say it all the time. “The Eagle-Cowboy game next week”. “The Giant miscue” (heard that a lot last week as well as in the WS). Yes, last week the Giants did have a giant miscue, but thats not what was meant.

    I hope I don’t need to explain why this is true because I’ve had this discussion before, and it went on for a very long time.

  5. Heyward's Better

    December 27, 2010 01:25 PM

    Yeah, that evil Tim Hudson guy. What a prick, accidentally hitting batters and such. Who does he think he is?

  6. Dan.k

    December 27, 2010 01:51 PM

    He compared the Phil’s to the Giants because they made that lineup swiss cheese in the NLDS so sit down get off your high horse and wait for opening day. The Giants are champs and the Phillies will fail mark my words. Also both of you argue on possibilities, maybe they will be too old or maybe they won’t get hurt. Guess what even if the Phillies are healthy all year…no pennant.

  7. Nik

    December 27, 2010 02:05 PM

    So since the Phils outscored the Giants in that series what does that make the Giants?

  8. KevL

    December 27, 2010 03:04 PM

    By Scott G on Dec 27, 2010

    Since I’m the grammar police lately, I must point something else out that bothers me A LOT. Mr. Mitchell says, “Phillie rotation”. Maybe he is just saying it because he thinks it’s easier, but it most definitely should be Phillies rotation.

    TV announcers say it all the time. “The Eagle-Cowboy game next week”. “The Giant miscue” (heard that a lot last week as well as in the WS). Yes, last week the Giants did have a giant miscue, but thats not what was meant.

    I hope I don’t need to explain why this is true because I’ve had this discussion before, and it went on for a very long time.
    —-
    Is it just me or do 9 out of 10 “grammar police” comments blow up in the commenter’s face.
    Where’s the apostrophe, ScottG? If you’re gonna lecture…do it right.

  9. Heather

    December 27, 2010 04:31 PM

    Well, Mr. Mitchell isn’t ENTIRELY wrong. His title is “Maybe the Phillies won’t win the pennant.”

    If the rest of his column read “BAD LUCK”, and “INJURIES”, I’d be forced to agree.

  10. Scott G

    December 27, 2010 04:56 PM

    KevL,

    Which apostrophe? The one that should not appear? It’s not a possessive it’s a proper collective noun that acts as a singular modifier.

  11. hk

    December 27, 2010 05:12 PM

    …it is often overlooked that Halladay and Oswalt all had better years in 2010 than any time between 2007 and 2009 …

    How can an author make this point without at least recognizing that Halladay was pitching in the AL East from 2007 through 2009?

  12. Scott G

    December 27, 2010 05:14 PM

    Actually, I believe both ways would be fine. Phillies rotation as an adjective modifier, or Phillies’ rotation since the Phillies technically possess or own the members of the rotation.

  13. jrf1009

    December 28, 2010 06:55 AM

    Great article Bill. I almost completely agree with your rebuke of Mr. Mitchell’s article. I’ll admit that the Phillies should easily contend for the pennant for the next 2 years but there is an ominous and glaring couple of sentences which you wrote that could nullify the rest of your argument. “But consider that the Phillies lost a lot of players to injury.” and “Yeah, yeah, the Phillies are old.” are directly related and should not be overlooked or discounted. If there is an Achilles heel to this team…
    Oh and I’m looking forward to my grade that the professors will be handing out for this comment.

  14. James

    December 28, 2010 09:18 AM

    Don’t forget that in addition to those offensive players on the DL, the Phils also lost Moyer, Blanton, and Happ to significant time on the DL.

  15. c1ue

    December 28, 2010 09:47 AM

    No question the Phillies have the best rotation…looking backwards.

    And equally it is clear the Giants have the best rotation…looking forward.

    But Werth is a major loss. His presence is not going to be replicated by Domonic, and his right handed bat complemented Howard and Utley well.

    Certainly the Phillies should expect fewer injuries in 2011 vs. 2010, but then again those injured were relatively unimportant.

    A somewhat long duration injury to one of the big 4 pitchers costs Philly 4 or 5 wins.

    Sure, this is true for any team but I don’t think there is any question that 3 of the 4 Phillies pitchers have a history of injuries.

    I’d also point out that in 2011 Philly has to contend with a significantly stronger division than 2010. Both Florida and the Nationals have upgraded significantly, more than enough to offset an overperforming Atlanta.

    Lastly the Philly setup situation is not ideal either. Lidge was pretty good, but it is the middle relief which makes great teams.

    San Francisco allowed the 2nd fewest runs in the NL – and has Colorado in their division.

    Absolutely agreed though that the Phillies have gone all in – either they win the World Series in the next 2 years, or they go into a decade’s worth of oblivion.

  16. Scott G

    December 28, 2010 10:35 AM

    3 of the 4 pitchers have injury history?

    Oswalt has pitched in 30+ games each season since 2004.

    Halladay was injured in ’04 and ’05, but from 2002-2010 those were his only 2 seasons under 30+ G. I wouldn’t really call that injury prone.

    Hamels appeared in 28, 33, 32, and 33 games the last 4 years (07-10). Didn’t come up until May in 2006.

    Lee has never been injured(?), but was sent to the minors in 2007.

    Middle relief makes great teams? If a team has good starters, middle relief is almost irrelevant. Certainly not as important as on teams with bad rotations.

  17. KH

    December 28, 2010 10:44 AM

    Thats not true at all about a decade’s worth of oblivion imo. I’ve seen quotes from baseball talent people saying the Phillies have the most talent at Single A of any team in baseball and there is no debating the Phillies are one of the biggest money makers in baseball. So there is a good chance that as the Phillies get older and start declining there is always the possibilty the organization has the money to bring in a couple of good players every off-season to keep them right in the hunt over the next few years as the young talent develops and helps on the field as well. This will help offset the decline of the current stars and keep the Phillies very competitive for who knows how long. To quote Scott Boras the Phillies are a Goliath. To think the Phillies will not be a force in the National League after the next two seasons sounds like the wishful thinking of NL Rival fans to me.

  18. KH

    December 28, 2010 10:51 AM

    I don’t want to sound like I am predicting a Braves like run of divisional titles either because I am not going quite that far. What I am seeing though is maybe an era where the Phillies are better then a .500 team for an extremely extended period time. With the wild card that means they will be contenders.

  19. sean

    December 28, 2010 11:02 AM

    dan.k i’ll point you to www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/2009-is-not-a-constant/ and www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/2010-is-not-a-constant-either-2/ if you are going to refer to what the giants did to the phillies this year, let alone to use any players as a “core” after only 1 year of data and for others when talking about losing werth and adding Lee instead.

    c1ue to say that those injured were relatively unimportant is a gross understatement, and to your point of the marlins and nationals “improving” i’d contest that the braves are the only team that has significantly improved more so then either the marlins or nationals. the marlins just traded uggla for infante(downgrade) and the nationals have not added any impact starting pitching last i checked. middle relief is very volatile from year to year, so to expect the same or similar results in 2011 is not a good idea. lastyl i agree with your last point and might even suggest the window to be shorter, since oswalt’s option is most likely NOT going to get picked up for 2012(could be wrong), unless some youth(cheap labor) from the farm develops(which it’s bound to), it will be a short window

  20. sean

    December 28, 2010 11:10 AM

    KH i understand what you said for the single A talent thing, but lets put this in prespective. the royals have the best farm system bar none this year and look to have the talent start reaching the majors this year and next. most of that talent is in AA and AAA now, and the chance that the talent actually realizes like it’s thought to is really low. Now you’re talking about players from single A. that’s a long ways away from realizing their potential.

    Also i get the 3/4 injury thing but really it has not real backing. Lee has back/ab injuries last year, oswalt has back problems(but hasn’t missed time), hamels had elbow soreness in 2009 and i think in 2008 too. halladay is the only one without arm/elbow/back injuries as his “injuries” have been freak incidents like ball breaking his leg in 2005. they have possible injuries but no more so then any other rotation

  21. KH

    December 28, 2010 11:10 AM

    Sean I really think you are under-estimating what the Phillies have become if you think the window is one year. I think for the forseeable future a bad year for the Phillies is going to be like 85 wins and missing the play-offs by a couple of games. We are one of the elites in baseball now and Philly fans need to get used to it lol. We are one of the have nots for too long!

  22. hk

    December 28, 2010 11:11 AM

    c1ue:

    I can’t tell if you’re serious or if you’re FanSince09-ing. On the chance that you’re serious…

    When you talk about looking forward, are you talking about 2011 or 2012 and beyond? If you’re talking about 2011, I disagree (as do every front office executive recently polled by Buster Olney) as to which rotation is superior. In 2011, I would be more concerned about SF’s young P’s. Lincecum threw 10% more IP than his previous career high while Cain threw 15% more and Sanchez threw 213 vs. a previous career high of 163. Add in that they also all experienced the post-season – and the accompanying shorter off-season and recovery time – for the first time and I would not be surprised to see any or all of them suffer injury-related or fatigue-related down seasons.

    Losing Werth will surely hurt. However, the Phils should be able to somewhat offset his loss via health. As I’ve noted before, the Phillies should expect close to the same 2011 WAR from 2B, SS and RF that they got in 2010 on the assupmption that Utley and Rollins are healthier next year. The Phils were 2nd in the NL in runs scored last year, so they should be a top 4 scoring team in the NL even if they score one less run per week.

    The Nationals lost Dunn and Willingham and won’t get 12 starts from Strasburg in 2011. As good as Werth is, I don’t see how the Nats have upgraded significantly, if at all. The Marlins traded Uggla for a utility player and a LOOGY and signed two question marks in Buck and Vazquez. The Braves most likely improved by adding Uggla and losing Infante, Dunn, Saito and Wagner and the Mets moved sideways.

    What’s wrong with LOOGY’s, Contreras and Madson as set-up men?

    It’s very disingenous to mention that SF allowed the 2nd fewest runs in the NL and mention that they have Colorado in their division without mentioning that SF plays 81 home games in a better pitcher’s park than Philly and/or that SF has SD and PETCO in their division.

    Finally, why would anyone assume that the Phillies have gone all in for just the next 2 years. Clearly, the Lee signing shows they have the capability to spend more than most people thought and, with Oswalt, Lidge and Ibanez coming off the books in the next year or two and a system filled with top prospects in the lower levels, why should we not expect them to spend money – Greinke becomes a free agent right when Oswalt’s deal expires – and/or trade prospects to maintain their place among the NL’s elite?

  23. hk

    December 28, 2010 11:17 AM

    sean,

    Unlike a rebuilding team like KC, the Phillies won’t necessarily be the team waiting to see if the prospects realize their full potential. What’s more likely is that they will use most of those prospects in trades to replenish the major league roster like the did with Cardenas, Carrasco, Knapp, Drabek, Taylor, D’Arnaud, Gose and others. Therefore, what’s more important for the Phillies is that those prospects have good years a high A and AA so that they remain valuable bargaining chips.

  24. KH

    December 28, 2010 11:28 AM

    I definitely agree nothing is guaranteed Sean about those prospects. Some will pan out. Some will not. Im not sure where the parrallel with Kansas City comes into play though. Kansas City has a dreadful team at the major league level and is in a totally different league then the Phillies when it comes it budgets. My belief in the Phillies ability to flypaper over some mistakes with fee agent signings and that Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are going to run into pumpkins overnight is just as important to my belief that the Phillies will be good for the forseeable future as the prospects. Maybe Im wrong but Im going to be positive for once. I just think things have aligned for the Phillies for a good 10 year run(count the start as 2007) very close to the top of the league much more often then not.

  25. sean

    December 28, 2010 11:48 AM

    in all honestly i think the run is at least 2-3 years of this team being together before new pieces have to replenish, all i was saying is having the 4 pitchers is not a given for more then 1 year.

    i agree with hk’s assessment of giants pitching. the giants are a much higher risk then the phillies.

    as for the braves it’s a similar boat in terms of the bullpen. they are young and that’s not always a good thing. i like venters and kimbrel but 2010 /= 2011 for them

  26. FanSince09

    December 28, 2010 12:06 PM

    Hammels was lucky in 2010. 2009 is more of a reflection of how he is as a pitcher. I think the Phillies will regret losing Jason the same way they regretted losing Cliff Lee, they’ve got a glaring problem with no right handed power bat, and Dominc Brown either isn’t ready for the majors or is just not that good.

  27. sean

    December 28, 2010 12:16 PM

    god i love FS’09. it’s bill’s alter ego almost

  28. Gaël

    December 28, 2010 12:53 PM

    “Dominc Brown”

    Someone give this guy a blog already.

  29. sean

    December 28, 2010 01:15 PM

    well he’s got nothing on @the701level

  30. LearnTheNames

    December 28, 2010 01:25 PM

    Hey fansince09,

    “Hamels” and “Dominic”. That is all.

    But c1ue: rollins, utley, howard, polanco, victorino, and ruiz? 6 full time starters are relatively important when they each missed at least 15 days/games? the opening day lineup played together something like 8-12 times all season before the playoffs. NOT A SINGLE other team in the league could have made it to the playoffs after suffering those injuries to their lineup, not even counting pitcher injuries. And that was without Lee and with Oswalt for half of the season. Not the yankees, giants, red sox, anyone.

    Obviously not 162-0, but there should be serious talk about breaking the wins in a season record. Those four pitchers routinely give you 7 innings for most of their outings and Halladay is a CG machine. Probably not even human. That is all.

  31. Scott G

    December 28, 2010 02:09 PM

    LearnTheNames,

    Domonic, not Dominic. Nice try though. Btw, he’s just being funny. He’s been doing it for about a week now.

  32. bill

    December 28, 2010 02:31 PM

    Hamels was a little lucky in ’10 with his strand rate, but he was also a little unlucky with his HR rate. More importantly though, he was clearly *not* the same pitcher. He averaged higher velocities across the board then he ever did before, and we saw him touch 95 on the gun which I can’t recall Hamels ever doing before. When your fastball is about 2 mph faster, it’s not “luck” that you’re a better pitcher.

  33. PJ

    December 30, 2010 04:31 PM

    for the record, the Giants park is almost neutral in terms of effecting runs. Between that and playing a lot of games at Coors mostly balances out the extra games at PETCO and LA.

    What’s more interesting is groundball vs. flyball tendency, given Philly’s bandbox…

  34. johnny rose

    December 31, 2010 08:26 AM

    to think that the phillies r on the decline is obsurd yes they r getting older but chemistry and the fact that their preperation is to me the true factor word is they r already makn their way to florida losin jayson hurts maaaybe he played in a great lineup they hav to solve their hittn woes evryone slows down wit age but u can buy the will to win leeeeets go phils

  35. MARIE

    December 31, 2010 12:05 PM

    although jason werth was good, he was a streak hitter. when he hit he was great but when he didn’t, he went hitless a long time, nd it was ugly!

  36. Scott G

    January 02, 2011 03:36 PM

    Marie,

    you should look up his monthly stats from last year. Pretty consistent.

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