Five Bold Predictions for 2011

Whether it’s sports betting, fantasy baseball, or just for fun, people love to predict the upcoming season. Some develop systems along the lines of PECOTA at Baseball Prospectus while others go with their gut. Whatever method is employed, you can find tons of prognostications with a simple Google search.

Las Vegas, by the way, thinks very highly of the Phillies.

At the Las Vegas Hilton’s Superbook, the odds on the Phillies – with a starting rotation of [Cliff] Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels – to win the World Series shrank from 6-1 to 9-5, making them the new World Series favorite. To win the NL pennant, the odds adjustment was even bigger: from 3-1 to a stunning minus-130. In other words, to wager on the Phillies to win the National League crown, a bettor has to risk $130 to win $100.

Crashburn Alley is not unlike those seers, professional and amateur alike. Here are five bold Phillies-related predictions for the 2011 baseball season.

1. Cole Hamels will have a better 2011 regular season than Cliff Lee.

I’m known as a bit of a Hamels fan for my rabid defense of the young lefty over the past couple years. I will try my best to take off the rose-colored glasses, but I would not be surprised if Hamels finished the season with better numbers than the team’s newest starting pitcher.

Hamels may not have the pristine control that Lee has, but he does miss bats at a significantly higher clip thanks to some added velocity on his four-seam fastball and a newly-created cut fastball. Hamels was very close to Lee in SIERA last year, his 3.19 just a bit behind Lee’s 3.03 and actually beat him in ERA, 3.06 to 3.18.

2. Chase Utley will post a .400 or higher on-base percentage.

Utley’s walk rate ballooned from the 8-9 percent range to 12-13 percent in the past two years. He works the strike zone at an elite level, and the guy can hit as well. Thanks to a thumb injury, 2010 was Utley’s worst offensive season of his career since he started playing regularly in ’05. Even when Utley returned from a 45-day on the disabled list, he couldn’t hit for power. Still, he finished with a .387 OBP.

Barring a nightmarish spring training, Utley will go into the regular season healthy and well-rested, poised to rebound. With that high walk rate and a higher percentage of well-struck baseballs, a .400 OBP is not out of the question for the best second baseman in baseball.

3. Jimmy Rollins will steal at least 10 bases without getting caught in April.

Rollins has had two consecutive sub-par offensive seasons (by his standards). His .296 and .320 on-base percentages and a calf injury limited his opportunities to steal. From 2001-08, Rollins averaged 44 stolen base attempts. He attempted only 39 and 18 stolen bases in ’09 and ’10, respectively. However, with plenty of time to recuperate after a draining season, Rollins is ready to reclaim his spot among the best base-stealers in baseball.

4. One of Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson will be traded by July 31.

Both Lidge and Madson can be free agents after the season. Lidge has a club option for 2012 worth $12.5 million that is very likely to be declined. Given his shaky ’09 season, high salary expectations, age, and recent injury history, Lidge is the likeliest to find a new home.

Madson will earn $4.5 million and is looking towards his first chance for a big payday. He avoided arbitration at this time in ’09, signing a relatively cheap three-year, $12 million deal. Madson has gained considerably more respect since then, however, and will be harder to sign to a team-friendly deal, especially since he is represented by super-agent Scott Boras.

The Phillies have, to this point, committed nearly $160 million to their 2011 roster and still have $113 already committed for ’12. Madson is much more likely to agree to a cheaper deal than Lidge, so Crashburn Alley is predicting that the Phillies will trade Lidge and sign Madson to an extension.

5. Raul Ibanez will hit for at least a .360 overall wOBA.

Ibanez will turn 39 years old on June 2. Many have already come to the conclusion that the left fielder is toast, that he will never again be a productive everyday player. This seems like a fool’s errand, especially having watched Jamie Moyer over the last ten years.

It is true that, in 2010 with a .341 wOBA, Ibanez posted his wost offensive season since earning regular playing time in ’02. However, that mark was not much lower than his career .351 average, and really only looked bad in comparison to his fluky .379 in ’09.

This prediction may not seem that outlandish, but if you listen to the majority of baseball fans and analysts, Ibanez is destined to fall into a bottomless pit offensively going forward. Ibanez may not be a finalist for the National League Most Valuable Player award, but should be productive enough with the bat.

Feel free to share your 2011 predictions in the comments.

The Insignificant Hall of Fame

At Baseball Daily Digest last year, I wrote an article by the same title in which I expressed the reasons why I no longer cared about the Hall of Fame. Last night, I was a guest on Steve Keane’s (of the Kranepool Society blog) podcast, and we discussed the Hall of Fame at the end. I expressed similar sentiment about my finding the Hall pretty much irrelevant.

Update: Craig Calcaterra, Jason Rosenberg, and Bill from The Platoon Advantage have tackled the issue as well. Click on over for some more anti-HOF sentiment.

Today, after Roberto Alomar and Saberist-favorite Bert Blyleven were elected in the Class of 2011, Joe Posnanski wrote a column that includes some eye-opening quotes from Jeff Idelson, president of baseball’s Hall of Fame. Those are excerpted below:

“Baseball has historically been held to a very high standard, right or wrong,” he says. “There’s a certain integrity required when it comes to baseball’s highest honor, which is being inducted into the Hall of Fame. The character clause exists as it relates to the game on the field. The character clause isn’t there to evaluate and judge players socially. It’s there to relate to the game on the field. … The voters should have the freedom to measure that however they see fit.”

[…]

It seems clear to me from what he says here that the Hall of Fame has no problem with the exclusion of known steroid users or even strongly suspected steroid users.

“When you look at the Hall of Fame elections,” he said, “you see that those who are elected are representative of that era. The Hall of Fame election is a continuum. And the standards have upheld the test of time. We believe they work. We believe the voters have exercised a great understanding about the candidates in the Hall of Fame. I think when you look at who the writers have voted into the Hall of Fame, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t belong there.”

[…]

“You know this … as you walk through Cooperstown, you have the history museum where every facet of the game is represented,” he said. “That will not change. That’s the celebratory nature of the Cooperstown experience. But when it comes to players inducted, we feel strongly that the rules for election need to be where they are. … There’s no question that in many ways, this is an odd time. But at the end of the day, we want to maintain the high standards of the Hall.”

When baseball fans traverse to Cooperstown, New York, they are going to an institution called the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. What is the purpose of a museum, you ask? The International Council of Museums defines it as a:

permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment, for the purposes of education, study, and enjoyment.

A typical jaunt to a museum may include browsing the history of the universe, or taking a gander at dinosaur fossils. You don’t go to a museum to receive a biased point of view on history, whatever the subject may be; you go for a learning experience, to gather enough facts to make your own interpretations.

Museums have been that way for a long time. That is, until the Creation Museum. The Creation Museum takes the story of the Bible and forces it backwards into the history of our planet — in essence, the exact opposite of what a museum should do. PZ Myers of the science blog Pharyngula visited the Creation Museum in August 2009 and wrote a recap of the experience:

We were asked to sign a document before we entered that required us to be “respectful” of their facilities, which apparently meant more than simply appropriately regarding their building as private property. One of our atheists was in an entirely friendly conversation about evolution with a creationist visitor, when one of the guards came up and asked them to stop, saying that we had signed an agreement not to even discuss anything in the building where others could hear. (To his credit, the creationist said that he welcomed the discussion the guards wanted to silence, and they continued outside.) They knew we disagreed with them, and they were clearly on edge…and they knew that their beliefs could not stand up in the face of free speech.

[…]

They have a script you’re supposed to follow. There is a single route that snakes through the building with a series of exhibits with a linear agenda. You are supposed to get their Sunday School lesson plan of the 7 C’s (creation, corruption, catastrophe, confusion, Christ, cross, and consummation). Exploration is not an option. You will follow their track. There is no interactivity, either — it’s a chain of displays, dioramas, and little scenes, supplemented with frequent videos that tell you what to think.

I am deeply concerned that the baseball Hall of Fame is going down this sad path that the Creation Museum paved. Rather than simply providing information for passers-by, Idelson is fine with the Baseball Writers Association of America using incomplete — and often completely biased, hypocritical, or even nonexistent — information which is used to pass judgment on individual players, their teams, and the era in which they played.

In essence, Idelson doesn’t give baseball fans enough credit to make their own judgments about the so-called “steroids era”. Instead, he needs to fill in the gaps with what he believes are the correct answers. The problem is that he has no way of knowing, much less proving, that his point of view is correct and thus that it should be the official view of the time period heretofore.

So what should we do about this?

First and foremost, we need to be very vocal about how objectively wrong Idelson’s stance is, that it is unfair to use such questionable information to make firm judgments. The Internet does a great job of this, but we need more than snarky blog posts.

Secondly, stop giving the Hall of Fame your patronage. As much as it may sting to not take that annual trip to Cooperstown with your family, find another fun venue where your money will be put to better use.

Finally, we can ignore the Hall of Fame entirely. In reality, it doesn’t matter at all, even ignoring Idelson’s comments. You don’t need the Hall of Fame’s validation to recognize that a player was among the best of his time, or that a player was chronically overrated. The off-season is boring enough that the Hall debates are great time-fillers, but they are ultimately meaningless.

Baseball does not need a Hall of Fame. When the institution is run properly, it can be a great asset that people can use to better understand the various time periods and cultural mores. However, it is not a necessity. In fact, the Hall of Fame needs us a lot more than we need it.

If Idelson’s comments struck you as intellectually dishonest and offensive, make yourself heard. As Myers suggests regarding Ken Ham’s Creation Museum:

Don’t give it [respect] to him. All his carnival act deserves is profound disrespect and ridicule. Go to his “museum” as you would to a cheap freak show, and laugh, laugh, laugh…and go home to publicly mock and heap scorn upon it.

Irreverence is our answer, not dumb humble deference.

Phillies 2011 New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s Day tends to bring about two things for most Americans: bad hangovers, and the realization that baseball is on the horizon. We have just over a month left to wait until pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Clearwater, Florida. Shortly thereafter, competitive yet meaningless baseball games will be played, and before you know it, the regular season is ready to begin.

For now, though, we’ll put up with the other half of winter and dream of a Phillies World Series championship in 2011. For that to happen, the Phillies’ players need to make some resolutions and stick to ‘em. What are those resolutions, you ask?

(Note: Ryan Lawrence posted some Phillies-themed resolutions as well for the Delco Times. Check them out for some alternate versions.)

Carlos RuizIgnore expectations.

As unlucky as Jimmy Rollins was with BABIP last year, Ruiz was similarly as fortunate. His .335 BABIP — 55 points above his career average — skyrocketed his wOBA to .366, which placed him with the best offensive catchers in baseball like Brian McCann. Unfortunately, Ruiz just isn’t that good with the bat and he will likely have a worse showing in 2011. Some people will be shocked and others upset, but all Ruiz needs to do is ignore them and focus on being the pitching staff’s favorite target and playing good defense.

Ryan HowardCrush right-handed pitching.

For the last three years, left-handed pitchers have been known as the bane of Howard’s existence. However, in 2010, it was actually right-handed pitching that caused Howard a lot of grief. His .372 wOBA against them seems good at first glance, but when you compare it to his .424 career average, you realize that something went wrong.

Since 2008, the percentage of “soft” stuff (i.e. breaking balls) that Howard has seen from right-handers has risen eight percent. Howard’s ISO against those pitches dropped from .297 last year to .238. The heat maps below, via Baseball Analytics, show Howard’s declining production.

(Click to enlarge)

Chase UtleyTake some days off.

The second baseman’s production declines late in the season most likely because he’s been going full throttle for 120 games. As much as Utley may hate it, a day off every now and then will be very beneficial.

Jimmy RollinsKeep hitting ground balls.

Nearly 46 percent of Rollins’ batted balls were on the ground last year, which is a good thing when he’s healthy and able to use his speed to its full potential. Although Rollins appears to be in decline, he was mostly BABIP-unlucky on ground balls in 2010. Rollins’ BABIP on 147 total ground balls was .137, much lower than the league average .236. Had Rollins benefited from a .236 BABIP instead, he’d have had 15 more hits to his name and his batting average would have risen to .286 from .243.

Placido PolancoHit for a little more power.

Polanco’s .088 ISO in 2010 was his lowest in four years and third-lowest of his career since he started playing every day in 2001. While he’s never been known as a power hitter, he does have occasional pop, which is a nice asset for a #2 hitter. Aside from his grand slam on Opening Day in Washington, Polanco was rather impotent, relying mostly on singles to get the job done.

Raul IbanezAvoid Father Time for one more year.

Ibanez’s 2010 was his worst offensively since he became a regular player in ’02. His .341 wOBA was nearly 40 points lower than in the previous year, which doesn’t portend well for the left fielder, who will turn 39 in June. The Phillies don’t know what they’re going to get out of whatever concoction they come up with in right field. The team will be happy as long as Ibanez is able to be somewhat productive without succumbing to injury.

Shane VictorinoMake a case for leading off.

Despite possessing better on-base skills than Jimmy Rollins, Victorino has only led off on a few occasions, usually when Rollins is on the mend or struggling with the bat. Rollins has done some campaigning on his own behalf, at times stating that he views himself as a lead-off hitter and nothing else. However, the loss of Jayson Werth leaves the Phillies without a right-handed hitter that can reliably hit in the middle of the order. Rollins doesn’t have much of a platoon split overall, but has hit better as a right-hander in recent years. Additionally, hitting in the #5 spot will make aggressive base running less of a need for Rollins, who has had three different stints on the disabled list with leg-related issues in the last three years.

The swap of Victorino to lead-off and Rollins to the #5 spot may only net the Phillies a few extra runs overall, but with a starting rotation expected to make runs a scarce commodity, every little edge helps.

Domonic BrownBe selective.

Brown struck out in nearly 40 percent of his 70 plate appearances last year, which worried many Phillies fans who had been waiting for the phenom prospect’s arrival to the Majors. Young players don’t always hit right out of the gate when they get promoted — don’t forget that Mike Stanton‘s triple-slash line was .225/.266/.402 in his first 109 Major League plate appearances. His strikeout rate was over 41 percent. For the rest of the season, Stanton’s triple-slash line was .271/.347/.547 and his strikeout rate dropped to 32 percent. While still high, it was an improvement that led to more frequent success at the plate. As long as Brown isn’t taking low-percentage swings, the rest will follow.

Ben FranciscoCrush left-handed pitching.

Francisco will have one major responsibility in 2011, and that will be to be productive against lefty starters. He will likely platoon with Brown in the rookie’s first full season. Francisco has a career .352 wOBA against southpaws, which isn’t too impressive. If Francisco can improve on that, the Phillies will have very little to worry about.

Roy HalladayDon’t get hurt.

Phillies fans are very familiar with the injury bug and how it has the potential to derail a season. It almost did last year before a mid-season acquisition of Roy Oswalt jolted the team back into contention. Fans’ worst fear going into 2011 is the injury bug coming back and this time gnawing at the starters’ arms. Halladay is as automatic as you get, so his job is to simply sidestep bad rolls of the dice.

Cliff LeeForget about struggling in Texas.

Lee was off to a great start with the Seattle Mariners after missing the first two months with an abdomen strain. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was approaching 15 and he appeared to be everything Jack Zduriencik had hoped for when he agreed to the trade with Ruben Amaro. When Lee was traded to Texas, two things happened: he walked batters slightly more often (0.5 per nine innings with the Mariners; 1.0 per nine with the Rangers) and he allowed twice as many home runs (four percent HR/FB with the Mariners; nine percent with the Rangers). Neither of those jumps are very significant as his xFIP was only 0.08 higher in Texas (3.27 to 3.19).

Lee’s struggles were simply a matter of looking bad in contrast to unsustainable success in Seattle. As long as he doesn’t change anything significantly, he should be just fine.

Roy OswaltBe vocal about back pain.

As mentioned here, Oswalt has dealt with back issues in the past. He has what is known as degenerative disc disease, which doesn’t magically go away as his success last year may lead you to believe. If Oswalt’s back problems flare up again in 2011, he needs to be open and honest with the Phillies’ medical staff about it, rather than gutting it out and pitching in pain.

Cole HamelsKeep improving the cut fastball.

At first, Hamels’ new cut fastball appeared to be just another junk pitch like his curve ball, but as he kept throwing it, it got better. In the first half, hitters crushed it for a .345 wOBA. In the second half, he held hitters to a mere .265 wOBA.

(heat maps via Baseball Analytics)

(Click to enlarge)

Joe BlantonPitch well into July, then prepare for a change of address.

As Dave Cameron illustrated at FanGraphs, Joe Blanton is an underrated pitcher. This is mostly because he spent time on the disabled list last year and didn’t impress upon return. The Phillies, with a stacked rotation, will be trying to unload Blanton whenever an opportunity arises. The best case scenario leaves Blanton with the Phillies through the first half, pitching well and boosting his trade value. Come the end of July, a team in the playoff hunt will be willing to pay the remainder of Blanton’s $8.5 million salary in 2011-12 and the Phillies get either a useful bench player or a fringe prospect to stow in the Minors.

Right now, Blanton’s trade value is low not only because of his horrid 2010, but because the Phillies have very little leverage in trade negotiations. Teams know Blanton is an afterthought in a rotation that includes Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, and Hamels and that the Phillies are in need of salary relief. However, with a big first half, Blanton can help both his cause and that of the Phillies.

Ryan MadsonAvoid metal folding chairs.

Madson drew the ire of many Phillies fans last year when he blew a save in San Francisco last year, then kicked a metal folding chair in frustration and broke his toe. The injury kept him out for two months. Brad Lidge also fell victim to the injury bug, which meant the Phillies actually relied on Jose Contreras to close out games.

Despite the chair incident, 2010 was actually a great year for Madson. His strikeout-to-walk ratio approached 5.0, among the best ever by a Phillies reliever. His strikeout rate continued to skyrocket as his change-up was established as one of the best out pitches in the game. Madson’s contract expires after the season. A good showing will encourage the Phillies to keep him around and usurp the closer’s role from Brad Lidge, whose contract also expires at season’s end (assuming the Phillies deny his $12.5 million club option).

Brad LidgeReduce the free passes.

Lidge has never been known as a pitcher with great control. His career BB/9 is over 4.1, but in 2009 and ’10, his walk rates have been 5.2 and 4.7 respectively — far too high for a reliever with most of the highest-leverage innings.

If the bullpen as a whole performs well, the Phillies could potentially use Lidge as trade bait. Madson is clearly good enough to close, and Contreras showed promise as a reliever in 2010. Unless he has an amazing ’11 season, Lidge will likely only qualify as a Type B free agent, so any chance the Phillies get to reclaim some value from him is one they should take. Improved control would make him a more attractive trade option for teams in need of a closer.

Charlie ManuelUse J.C. Romero strictly against left-handed batters.

Look at this, Charlie. Adjust accordingly.